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During recent teachings on Yeshua’s Ascension and Shavuot, some folks noticed that Christian churches didn’t celebrate these significant events until a week later. Of course, both events connect to Passover (40 and 50 days removed, respectively). The simple fact is, that Christians celebrate the Ascension and Pentecost a week later than Messianic believers because Easter weekend and Passover occurred a week apart from each other (this year).
Let’s start by considering the broader calendar issue, summed up in the fact that while our culture marks this current year as 2021, Jewish people identify it as 5781. As you probably know, the letters “A.D.”—as in, Anno Domini (“in the year of our Lord” in Latin)—formally precede the year number. Western civilization marks time in reference to Yeshua’s life, a detail that many have understandably viewed positively. Yet, there are underlying historical issues that complicate what appears to be the rightful honoring of our Lord.
[Please note: the purpose of this article is to explain historical details related to what 4th-century Christians did—create a calendar that was separate from the Hebrew calendar—but the issue of why they did so deserves its own article. There is a dark, tragic history of anti-Semitism in the Church which was explicitly displayed as leaders discussed the creation of a distinct calendar.]
Calendars serve more than obvious practical needs. They provide a sense of group identity because our stories take place in time. An essential component of any story is not only what happened but when it happened. The Children of Israel have had their calendar for millennia. The Exodus story gives us a glimpse into that calendar, specifically at the institution of the Passover, which God told the Israelites to observe during “the first month in the evening of the fourteenth day of the month” (Ex 12:18). Was that month “April”? That would be impossible since the term “April” is probably derived from the Latin word aperire (“to open”), a possible reference to plant buds opening at this time of year in Rome.
Jewish people celebrate Passover during the month of Nisan, the first month of the ecclesiastical* year. Nisan is not between March and April—it’s part of an entirely different way of marking time, the Hebrew calendar. As stated above, calendars provide a sense of group identity, something vital to the Jewish people’s lives. While the “Christian” calendar is centered on Yeshua’s birth some 2,000 years ago, the Jewish calendar originates with the creation of the world, hence, 5781 years since Adam.
Before we go further, we must recognize that this topic is a big one. We’re not going to do in-depth historical or cultural analysis. The goal right now is to create some awareness and provoke a desire to heal the division between Christians and Jews.
First of all, let’s quickly look into the history of this issue. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was a gathering of Church leaders in modern-day Turkey in A.D. 325. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great convened this Council to solve the problems raised by Arianism (a heresy denying Yeshua’s divinity). Still, it also decided several other issues, including the determination of the Easter date celebration.
Apparently, the churches were celebrating the Lord’s resurrection at different times. Based on our theory that calendars create a sense of group identity (by unifying their story), this sort of discrepancy would be understandably troublesome to Church leaders. Unifying them could have been as simple as calling the churches to align with the Jewish observance of Passover, but sadly, that was not what they decided. To do so would’ve been to identify the Church with the Jewish people, creating and fortifying “group identity.” In sharp contrast, the Council of Nicaea decided to set a unifying day (i.e., Sunday rather than a date) to celebrate Easter. While Passover celebrations are on the fifteenth day of Nisan (which will be a different day of the week each year), the Council decreed that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon in Spring or after the Spring Equinox.
On the surface, these details seem harmless enough. Church leaders were bringing a unified expression to their celebration of Yeshua’s resurrection that would take place on Sundays—the day of the week on which Yeshua arose. But this move toward apparent unity created separation from God’s chosen people, the children of Abraham. One scholar suggests that “The temporal segregation of Easter from its Jewish precursor was part of a general effort to emancipate the [Christian Church’s] calendar from the Jewish calendar and, thus, actually to promote the social segregation of Christians from Jews.” This also included a separation from Messianic Jews in the land of Israel who followed Yeshua and who kept the Jewish calendar according to the practice of the Apostles.
Friends, Yeshua’s final prayer was “that they all may be one. Just as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You, so also may they be one in Us, so the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21). He was the faithful Israelite into whom the Gentile believers are grafted (see Rom 11:16-21 and John 15:5-6). The Apostle Paul wrote that “Within His flesh [Yeshua] made powerless the hostility— the law code of mitzvot contained in regulations. He did this in order to create within Himself one new man from the two groups, making shalom, and to reconcile both to God in one body through the cross—by which He put the hostility to death” (Eph 2:14b-16 emphasis added).
The 4th-century decision may have brought unified practice to Gentile communities of believers but did so at the expense of the Kingdom unity for which Yeshua prayed. The discrepancy of dates belies a division of communities (Jewish and Christian) that we must work to overcome; as Yeshua prayed,
“so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them as You loved Me” (John 17:23).
*term referring to religious practice—Rosh Hashanah is in the month of Tishrei and marks the beginning of the civil year.
1Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “April.” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 18, 2008. https://www.britannica.com/topic/April.
2Panos Antsaklis, On the Julian, Gregorian and Lunar Calendars, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the Vernal Equinox and the Paschal Full Moon. https://www3.nd.edu/~pantsakl/Archive/dateofeaster.pdf (University of Notre Dame, Indiana).
4 Eviatar Zerubavel, Easter and Passover: On Calendars and Group Identity in American Sociological Review Vol. 47, No. 2 (Apr., 1982), pp. 284-289. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2094969?seq=1
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