Easter and Passover – Similarities and Differences
(Originally published in the Classical Astronomy Update in 2008)
As we saw in the last Update, the Christian observance of Easter was originally based on the Jewish Passover, and developed its own cultural distinctives over the centuries. This current month provides evidence of this divergence. April, 2008 roughly corresponds with the month of Nisan, 5768 in the Jewish calendar. Being a lunar calendar, the month Nisan begins at the first sighting of the waxing crescent Moon after its invisible conjunction with the Sun. Passover (Pesach) lands on 14 Nisan, which is the Full Moon of this month, 14 days afterwards.
However, as we saw in the last Update, Easter (a.k.a. Pascha) landed on a very early date in late March. Someone asked me recently which is the “right” time to celebrate Pesach/Pascha. Unfortunately, the LORD does not give clear astronomical guidelines in Scripture, and if He did, it would settle the differences of opinion on the matter. Here is what the Torah has to say:
Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread: (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou camest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty:) – Exodus 23:15
The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt. – Exodus 34:18
Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God: for in the month of Abib the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night. – Deuteronomy 16:1
My concordance identifies the month of Abib with “the first month of the year,” indicating springtime since the word means “sprouting” or “budding.” If only Scripture would nail down exactly how that should be determined! The passage of the seasons is linked to the annual cycle of the Sun. However, the Hebrew feasts are reckoned by the monthly cycles of the Moon.
The timing of Easter is related to the Full Moon and also the Sun’s vernal equinox. Meanwhile, the modern Hebrew calendar is based on the 19 year cycle of the Sun and Moon, which keeps the lunar months on track with the seasons. This means that every so often, you need to throw in an extra month. This happened here in 2008, when Easter landed in the Jewish month of “second Adar,” which only happens every few years.
Arguably, Easter, 2008 was closer to the “first month” than Passover, 5768. However, the Hebrew calendar, even with its extra intercalary months, is necessary to make tables and to keep long term lunar timekeeping in step with the seasons. In comparison, a strict twelve-month lunar calendar is maintained in Islam. But since it is only 354 days long, the Islamic calendar drifts along through the seasons over a span of decades. Perhaps this isn’t an issue in the arid lands of Arabia, but it would be a big matter for Pesach/Pascha, which must fall within the time of “sprouting” or “budding.”
In my opinion, if the LORD intended there to be a “right” time for finding the time of Passover, He would either have given Moses more explicit instructions, or else he would have made the Sun and Moon to agree more closely. In any case, the LORD has made provision in these astronomical discrepancies, as they have given astronomers an opportunity to study the sky in detail, and a great many useful things have been learned in the process.
The Church Calendar and the Jewish Calendar
As we’ve seen in other Updates, the traditional Christian ecclessiastical calendar does include a cycle of “moveable feasts” that correspond to certain Hebrew feasts. But rather than commemorate events in the history of Israel, the church calendar remembers events in the New Testament.
Easter is preceded by Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and repentance beginning on Ash Wednesday, and corresponds with Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, as recorded in Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, and Luke 4:2. But Easter itself is not simply a one-day feast. Easter Sunday is traditionally the beginning of a 40-day period of “Eastertide,” which commemorates the 40 days that Jesus appeared to His disciples after the Resurrection, as recorded in Acts 1:3:
To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
Eastertide ends on Ascension Thursday, 40 days after Easter Sunday, which commemorates when the LORD ascended into heaven. The Easter cycle finally ends on Pentecost, which is 50 days after Easter Sunday. Pentecost is remembered as the “birthday of the church,” when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles and moved Peter to preach, leading 3000 souls to Christ, as we read in Acts 2. In this way, the traditional church calendar devotes nearly three months to the passion and glorification of Christ.
The feast of Pentecost corresponds to the Hebrew Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, as instructed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD. – Leviticus 23, 15-16
Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee: begin to number the seven weeks from such time as thou beginnest to put the sickle to the corn. And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God with a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand, which thou shalt give unto the LORD thy God, according as the LORD thy God hath blessed thee: – Deuteronomy 16:9-10
Shavuot commemorates the day when Moses brought the Torah down to Israel from Mount Sinai, representing the Old Covenant. The Christian feast of Pentecost remembers the day the Holy Spirit was poured out, signifying the New Covenant. Israel became a nation 50 days after the Passover lamb was killed, and the church was established 50 days after the paschal sacrifice of Jesus.
Ascension Thursday is on May 1, 2008. Pentecost (or Whit Sunday) is on May 11 this year. Though most evangelicals do not follow the ecclesiastical calendar, it’s nevertheless interesting to understand what it is meant to represent.