What Is the Historical Context of Easter?

Easter is the most significant celebration in the Christian calendar. It commemorates the resurrection of Jesus at the heart of the Christian faith.

Mar 29, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

easter historical context


Christians celebrate Easter in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the early Church, there were different dates for the Easter celebration. Many people are also unaware of the connection between Easter and the connection to the Jewish feasts. The Feast of First Fruits is relevant to our understanding of the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Drawing from the New Testament, we will discover how Paul made the connection. It is, however, not only the Jews that influenced how we celebrate Easter today.


The Paschal Controversy

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1463, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Setting a date for Easter became quite a controversy in the Early Church. In Asia Minor, churches determined when to celebrate the resurrection of Christ according to the Jewish Pesach feast. This feast is set on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar. The first new moon of Spring began this first month, called Nissan (or Nisan). Like a birthday, the 14th day of Nissan falls on a different weekday every year.


Western churches began celebrating Easter according to the day of the week rather than the date of the month. According to their reckoning, by prioritizing the days they could then have Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday every year.


Eventually, the Council of Nicea took up the issue. Proponents of each view could make their case. In the end, a majority voted to prioritize the day rather than the date of the Jewish feast. The Quartodecimans (“14th-day” proponents) had to abandon their observance of the Pesach feast day as the basis for setting a date for Easter. Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22nd and April 25th. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Spring Equinox. This Vernal Equinox falls on March 21st.

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Icon of the Anastasis, Christ stands over the gates of hell, Source: Wikiwand


The Eastern Orthodox Easter date is slightly different from that of the Roman Catholic or Protestant reckoning. They follow the Julian, rather than the Gregorian calendar. Because of this, Easter tends to be later in their system since the Julian Calendar is thirteen days later than in the Gregorian version. They also have a rule that Easter may not be set before or coincide with the Passover.


Connection With the Old Testament Feasts

The Resurrection of Christ, by Dieric Bouts, circa 1455, Source: Norton Simon Museum


Even with the prioritization of the days, rather than the date, Easter still has some connection with the first three Old Testament feasts. Good Friday has its roots in the Passover, the Sabbath Jesus spent in the grave aligns with the first day of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of First Fruits prefigured Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Let’s take a closer look at these feasts.


Passover commemorates the salvation of Israel from Egypt. According to Leviticus 23:5, the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish year was the date for the Pesach feast. The next day, 15 Nisan, the week-long feast called the Feast of the Unleavened Bread began. The day after the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was the Feast of First Fruits. On this day, the Israelites had to take the first fruits of the harvest to the Tabernacle and later the Temple. It follows that this feast would fall on the 16th of Nisan. If Passover fell on a Friday, then the first three feasts of the Jewish calendar would follow a Friday-Saturday-Sunday sequence.


The Resurrection of Christ, by an unknown Bulgarian artist, between 1675 and 1700, Source: Web Gallery of Art


The third feast, which the Israelites had to institute when they left Egypt, was strange. The feast was associated with the agricultural cycle and a successful harvest is essential to fulfilling the given instructions. Yet when God gave the instructions about this feast, the Israelites did not possess any land. They still had some way to go through a desert in order to conquer the land the Lord promised them. It turned out to be a 40-year journey.


During this time, the Israelites could not meet the requirements for observing the Feast of First Fruits. But what did this feast point to? In retrospect, for Christians, the Passover pointed to the crucifixion of Jesus. It is believed that the symbol of the unblemished lamb, the blood on the doorposts, and unleavened bread all pointed to Christ. It would, therefore, make sense that the Feast of First Fruits would also point to Christ in some way.


The Concept of First Fruits and the Feast of First Fruits

Resurrection Fresco at Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, Castell’Arquato, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The principle of “first fruits” is a concept found in the Old Testament. It involves dedicating the first portion of agricultural produce to God as an expression of gratitude and acknowledgment of his provision. The idea behind offering first fruits is to recognize God’s sovereignty over the harvest and to demonstrate trust in his ongoing provision.


According to Exodus 23:19, the first fruits the Israelites had to present must be the best of the crop. It was, therefore, not only the first in sequence of the harvested crop but also the first in quality.


From the New Testament perspective, we find that Paul, educated among the elite in the intricacies of the Jewish faith, made the connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the concept of first fruits. Paul wrote the following about the first fruits in the context of the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23:


“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” 


The Feast of First Fruits pointed to the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Sunday after Passover. Jesus makes the resurrection of all believers to eternal life possible and serves as the first fruits, the best of the harvest.


Jesus fulfills the first fruit principle because he did not deserve to die, was without sin, and exemplified the love of God by sacrificing himself on behalf of others. He was the first to overcome death, not in sequence, but in rank.


Celebrating the Resurrection in Early Christianity

The Resurrection, by Andrea Mantegna, between 1457 and 1459, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the past, the different Christian communities had different ways of celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Some observed it as a solemn occasion, while others celebrated it as a joyful feast.


During the rule of Constantine, when the Council of Nicea set the date for the commemoration of Easter, Christianity incorporated many pagan customs and symbols into their practices, and it was no different with the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Since some pagan feasts align with the general time associated with the celebration of the resurrection—names, traditions, and symbols common to other religions soon became part of the Christian practice as well.


The name “Easter” comes from the pagan goddess of Spring and is associated with fertility. Easter is an example of a Christianized practice. The hare, often depicted alongside the Goddess Eostre, became the Easter Bunny, and eggs—a sign of fertility—also entered the Christian tradition.


The Historical Context of Easter: Conclusion

The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1495-8, Source: Web Gallery of Art


There were some contentious issues surrounding Easter in early Christian history. These were settled at the Council of Nicaea when churchmen established the method for setting the date for Easter.


The early Church decided to prioritize Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday over the connection to Passover when calculating the date for Easter. There is, however, significant symbolism in the concept of the first fruits that points to Jesus as the pre-eminent One that rose from the dead. Later, when the Western Church adopted the Gregorian calendar in the Middle Ages, the dates for Easter in the Eastern and Western Churches no longer aligned.


Paganism also influenced Easter as we know it today. Some of the imagery and practices related to Easter come from the Eostre cult. The name “Easter” comes from Eostre, and the Easter Bunny and eggs have similar ties.

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By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.