Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

24.6 Easter – The Moveable Feast

Easter may be less garish in modern Western societies than Christmas but it too seems to have lost much of its original significance for many. It may not have the excess of the Christmas Turkey (never mind the Santa myth) but there is still the Easter Dinner of ham, or lamb, to distract. And don’t get me started on the Easter Bunny thing. Christmas is fixed in our minds because it is fixed in the modern calendar – December 25, but with Easter, we have to look it up. The date is slippery, it falls somewhere in late March, more often in early to mid-April, but we never know for sure – we have to google it. Easter Dinner is a moveable feast.

Rather than focus on the dinner table, however, this post is about the actual event, the sacred and the profane. When did it actually take place?

Calvary and the sacred tomb

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute, shall we? Nobody knows exactly when Jesus of Nazareth died. For that matter, nobody knows for sure when he was born. Celebrating Christmas on December 25 seems highly suspicious. More likely some clever early proselytizers decided that it would be advantageous to have this famous birthday close to the winter solstice, already a venerated day in early pagan and competing religions.

But Easter is more certain, even though it varies from year to year; that, thanks to the meticulous calculation of Jewish scholars and math magicians constructing the luni-solar Hebrew Calendar over the millennia. Maybe. (Wait, it’s complicated.)

Jesus was a Jew and, as is written in the Gospels, the beginning of the end for him was the Judaic holy week of Passover when he came to Jerusalem to up-turn the money tables and the priestly power structure. The Judah priesthood wouldn’t have it and so appealed to the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate to rid them of this radical. 

Thus was Jesus’ roller coaster week of events: Palm Sunday, Spy Wednesday (et tu, Judas?), Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper – it being Passover seder, likely matzo balls)), Good Friday (the trial, the march to Calvary, the Crucifixion), and three days later, Easter Sunday (the resurrection of Christ).

(Now, that last part (the three days – the anastasis is beyond understanding) always confused me: Jesus died on Friday and three days later he escaped his tomb. Shouldn’t that have made it Easter Monday? Saturday, Sunday and Monday makes three days? But in those times the tradition was that you counted the day of the beginning event; hence, good Friday, Saturday, and Sunday makes three. I only learned this recently when I was researching the Ides of March (see blog post here).) 

The Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John are pretty clear about this sequence of events, and I have no reason to doubt them, despite my usual skeptical mind, except that the Gospels were actually written about 50+ years after the event and long after M, M, L & J themselves had passed on. 

Passover, one of three major holy days in the Hebrew Calendar, is determined as the date of the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. Usually. 

The Hebrews have been celebrating Passover since the time of the mythical Moses marking their liberation from ancient Egypt, perhaps 3500 years ago. The Hebrew Calendar itself goes back now 5784 years (to the beginning of Creation). It is a luni-solar calculus comprising 12 29-day lunar months but with periodic corrections to synchronize with the observed solar phenomena (solstices and equinoxes). Hebrew scholars have determined the calendar follow a 19-year cycle including three leap years in which a 13th lunar month is added. It is remarkably accurate, excepting of course for when year zero actually occurred. So if the Israeli Jews in Roman times had kept a record (or for that matter, Pilate himself), of the crucifixion of the false Messiah, we would have a more precise point at which to mark time, so to speak.

There is very little in the historical record of the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth except for Tacitus’ footnote in his Annals, c 112 A.D., but there is strong consensus that such a person was crucified under Pontius Pilate. We may be fairly confident that Jesus died in the week of Passover, but in what year, exactly? Unfortunately, Tacitus doesn’t give an exact date. And even if he knew it, it wouldn’t have been anachronistic A.D. 30 (or A.D. 33) as is hypothesized by modern Christian Scholars. And that was because in ancient times, except for the Jews, there was no singular beginning in marking the years. Prior to Constantine, the years were characterized by the year of reign of the current Caesar of the Roman Empire, or Proconsul during the Roman Republic. If anyone had recorded Jesus of Nazareth’s death it would have been, perhaps, the 16th year of Caesar Tiberius. 

What is even less certain is the actual age of this man when he died: was he age 30, or 33? It is also thought he might have been age 36. There is no record of Jesus of Nazareth’s date of birth. And with the uncertainty of his year of death, and of how old he was, his year of birth becomes even more of a challenge to determine: was it Year 27 of Octavian Caesar Augustus’ reign? (or maybe Year 24, or even Year 21). If Jesus was thirty-six when he died in A.D. 30 it means the Common Era began six years late. A.D. 0 appears to be an arbitrary date and probably only established with Constantine in A.D. 325. Those assembled Christian Bishops at Nicaea must have had major headaches wrestling these critical liturgical facts to ground. 

But those hair-pulling Bishops had another problem. The Julian Calendar (later the Gregorian Calendar – see Heliocentric Revolution) and the Hebrew Calendar didn’t jive. Every few years in the Hebrew Calendar is added a leap month, and when this happens Passover becomes the second full moon after the Spring Equinox. This presented the Nicaean Bishops with a dilemma: the Gospels said Jesus entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover but the Bishops were sensitive to the Julian version of the lunisolar calendar and preferred that Easter be celebrated closer to the spring Equinox. They opted for the Julian Calendar for determining Easter, with the result that Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter) didn’t always coincide with Passover. (2024 is a good example of this: Passover will begin on April 22 and end on April 30; Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) was March 24 to March 31. In 2023 Passover was April 5 to April 13, and Holy Week was April 9 to 16. See?!)

I wonder what date (on the Julian Calendar) Passover/Palm Sunday fell in A.D. 33? (Or, Hebrew Year 3797?) I’m sure some rabbinical scholar could tell us.

[Curiously, in 2024 CE, Easter Sunday falls on March 31, and the next day is April 1[*].}

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[*] Hmmm, April Fool’s Day. And what is the origination of this curious day? Nobody knows for sure when or where or why, but seems to have no theological connection. 

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