Conflict between identities and ideologies shows up in many places—some of them unexpected. Have you noticed that this week Judaism is celebrating Passover, in contrast to Christianity’s Easter memorial about a month ago? That’s to say, at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the site that many view as the burial place of Jesus), the commemoration of His death and resurrection has already taken place, but a month out of sync with the Hebrew calendar. Why the difference?
The New Testament account of Jesus’ crucifixion clearly shows that it happened as the priests were killing the Passover lambs. The night before His death, at the beginning of Nisan 14, Jesus ate a commanded meal with His disciples. He had instructed some of them earlier that day to “go and prepare the Passover for us” (Luke 22:8), in accord with the Hebrew Scriptures governing the commemoration of ancient Israel’s deliverance from the 10th plague on Egypt (Exodus 12:1–13).
Yet traditional Christianity observes a different festival, named after the Assyrian-Babylonian goddess Ishtar (Easter). It was not always so. The early New Testament church observed the memorial of Jesus’ death on Nisan 14, as He had commanded them on His last Passover with them: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19–20). But within the church a movement arose to demand celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, something He Himself never endorsed. That celebration was tied to a Sunday sunrise (though He was already alive again by early Saturday evening). A long-lasting debate over this became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy from the Latin word for “14th” (of the month Nisan). Eventually the emperor Constantine ruled that Jesus’ resurrection would be celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon that falls on or right after the vernal equinox, inveighing against the “Jewishness” of observing the Passover death of Jesus.
The reason that Judaism and Christianity today do not usually coincide in their respective celebrations has to do in part with the basis of their calendrical systems. The Jews calculate their years on a lunar calendar, based on the monthly cycle of the moon. Passover generally falls on the first full moon after the March equinox—that’s to say, on the 14th day of the month, as months of the Hebrew calendar always begin with a new moon. Every few years an adjustment is needed, however, to bring the Hebrew calendar into line with the annual revolution of the earth around the sun, and an extra month is added to the year (2016 is such a year). Christianity has followed a solar calendar and dates Easter based solely on the March equinox. Easter was therefore one month earlier than Passover this year.
In all of this, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that to be in line with Jesus’ command and with the original Passover dating, His followers will want to recall His death according to His practice on Nisan 14 and avoid resurrection celebrations on a day and at a time (sunrise) He never sanctioned.
On which day of the week was Nisan 14 in the year of Jesus’ death? Both the Bible and a number of scholars point to Tuesday/Wednesday 31 CE. There’s much to say about that, of course, but in a subsequent post.