17. From Sabbath to Sunday, Passover to Easter and Dedication to Christmas (Some Historical Background)

Richard Peterson

The popular festivals of the twentieth century Church differ in many ways from the seasonal observances prescribed by scripture. During the first four centuries of the Christian era the Church’s feasts were moved from their places in the scriptural calendar and fixed so that, as far as possible, they would not fall on the same days as those of the Jews. The new times were often made to coincide with pagan high days and the festivities now resemble a mixture of Judaism and paganism. The brief outlines that follow sketch three Jewish feasts, the Sabbath, Passover and Dedication, as they were inherited by the earliest Church and as they were changed. Space does not allow a full account of all the influences that combined to bring about their transformation during the next four centuries, so only limited, specifically related historical background will be given.

The book of Acts tells us that there were “many thousands of Jewish believers, all zealous for the Law.”1 As a result of Jesus’ teaching, the Sabbath day and the Feasts of Passover assumed a new significance for them, just as the Feast of Pentecost took on additional meaning following the outpouring of the Spirit. It is probable that Messianic aspects of the other feasts were impressed upon Jewish believers, as they approached them from the perspective of their faith in Jesus. When the Church moved these observances from their context among the scriptural feasts of the Lord they became vulnerable to changes which would eventually confuse their message. Nevertheless, they retained certain characteristics which testify to their Jewish origins.

From Sabbath to Sunday

Jesus’ public ministry took place between roughly 27 and 30 A.D. He and his disciples rested on the Sabbath and did no work, according both to the commandment2 and to the Jewish tradition3. (New Testament passages about Jesus healing the sick and allowing his disciples to rub and eat grain on the Sabbath, immediately spring to mind. However, Jesus’ criticism of hypocrisy4, his insistence that healing the sick5 and the rubbing of heads of grain to eat are permissible6 and that man is master of the Sabbath,7 are all echoed by other early Jewish teachers.) It was Jesus’ “custom”8 to attend the synagogue service, participate in the public reading of the Scriptures9, and teach or exhort the congregation10. There was one service on the Sabbath, beginning in the early morning and ending in time for the main meal, which was normally eaten before noon.11 Weekday services were uncommon, except on Feast days.12 As he was not accused of exceeding the Sabbath day’s walk, we can assume that he travelled no further than was permitted. As an itinerant teacher he was offered and accepted hospitality on the Sabbath13, together with others in need.

From about 43 A.D. onwards Paul was engaged in his missionary journeys. Like Jesus, he made a habit of attending the synagogue of the town in which he was staying,14 listening to the reading of Moses15 and the Prophets16 and, then, accepting any invitation to teach.17 This was normal practice among travelling Jewish teachers.

Likewise, there were many thousands of Jewish disciples of Jesus, who zealously keep the Sabbath commandments18 and synagogue attendance by God-fearing Gentiles was common, both in Israel and the Diaspora.19

Meetings of Jewish believers were called synagogues.20 (Synagogue is a Greek word meaning gathering or assembly.) We have one account of believers meeting “upon the first day of the week.”21 It is the only mention in the New Testament of a specific day of meeting and, in all probability, it took place on a Saturday evening. According to scripture, a day begins at sunset.22 Therefore, in Jewish reckoning, the first day of the week begins at the sunset of the Sabbath, and Saturday evening, after sunset, is part of the first day of the week. (Sunday evening is counted as an early part of the second day of the week.) Large meetings were impossible in daytime hours on the Sunday, because it was a working day, both in Judea and in the remainder of the Roman Empire.

To begin with the Church was not especially persecuted by the empire, because Judaism was legally protected and Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism. However, changes probably began to take place in the ‘sixties, at about the time of Peter and Paul’s execution by Nero, when the leadership of the Church in Rome passed into gentile hands. Perhaps due to the success of the Christians in making converts, especially from among the Gentiles who attended the synagogues, there had been severe rioting between the rival factions in Rome.23 Therefore, certain groups of Jews were active in trying to teach both their own communities and the Roman authorities to make a distinction between Christians and Jews. Nero’s persecution was confined to Rome and did not include Jews. He was clearly aware of the distinction between Jews and Christians, perhaps because his mistress, Poppaea, was a Jewish proselyte. On the other side, following the Judaean uprising and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (65-70 A.D.), the new emperor, Vespasian, diverted the half-shekel Temple tax to the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol in Rome. Known as the Jewish Tax,” it was raised on anyone who lived as a Jew, even if he did not publicly confess Judaism.24 The “Jewish Tax,” combined with an inevitable rise in Roman feelings against the Jews, during the war, may have provided an early incentive for Christians in Rome to begin to dissociate themselves from the Jews and to adopt a distinctly different way of life. However, some years later in about 90 A.D., the Birkat Ha-Minim, a “curse of heretics” and Nazarenes (“Christian” Jews), was reintroduced into synagogues, apparently to discourage the presence of such people. If so, this is an indication that large numbers were often present in the synagogues on the Sabbath.

Didache was composed, probably in Syria, in the late first or early second century. It is the earliest non-biblical record of church law. Many elements appear to have been borrowed directly or transposed from Judaism. There are instructions on baptism, fasting, prayer, the Lord’s Supper and how to treat members of the church hierarchy. It recommends the observance of the Jewish food laws without imposing them,25 but warns Christians not to fast on the same days as “the hypocrites (the Jews).”26 There is no mention of any observance related to Sunday. Apparently Sabbath observance, by all, was taken for granted.

The epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, belongs to approximately the same period. The writer saw Sabbath observance as impossible in this creation, because of mankind’s impurity of heart. Therefore, to avoid any attempt to keep the Sabbath, he recommended observance of Sunday, saying, “The present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me… “27 Jesus’ resurrection was given only as secondary justification, as he continued, “We also celebrate with gladness the eighth day [Sunday] in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.”28

Ignatius of Antioch (martyred about 107 A.D.) gives us the first evidence that many Christians now assumed that Sunday morning (as opposed to Saturday evening) was the time of Jesus’ resurrection, and that some were adopting Sunday as their special day, whilst others continued to observe the Sabbath. He wrote to the Magnesians, “No longer live for the Sabbath but for the Lord’s Day.”29 There is only one mention of “the Lord’s Day” in the New Testament30, where it is probably equivalent to “the Day of the Lord,” the day of judgment, mentioned elsewhere.31 Nevertheless, from now on in Christian literature, Sunday is often referred to as the Lord’s Day.

Meanwhile, Sun cults were increasing in popularity throughout the Roman Empire. So much so that, on his coins, the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) identified himself with the Sun-god.32 The Apology of Quadratus, written to Hadrian as an explanation and defence of the Christian faith in about 124 A.D., is the earliest written evidence of a Christian attempt at reconciliation with the Roman empire. (The only fragment we have is a quotation by Eusebius.33 However, there is evidence that the Epistle to Diognetus reuses and preserves much of its content. Even if not, Epistle to Diognetus probably represents the general thrust of Christian apology at the time.) The writer stressed the distinctions between Jews and Christians, and the separation of the Church from Judaism, attempting to show that Christianity was more compatible with Roman (pagan) society than was Judaism. For example, “(Christians) neither recognize the gods believed in by the Greeks nor practice the superstition of the Jews.”34 He made no bones about his contempt for Judaism: “(The Jews’) qualms concerning…the Sabbath…are utterly absurd and unworthy of any argument.”35

After the fall of Jerusalem, in 135 A.D., the emperor Hadrian prohibited the practices of Judaism, including Sabbath keeping. The Apology of Aristides (Christian Athenian philosopher) was presented to Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, early in his reign (circa 140 A.D.), in an attempt to persuade him that the Christians had a fuller understanding of God than barbarians, Greeks or Jews. He commented, “They (the Jews) imagine themselves to be paying honour to God, whereas what they do is directed rather towards angels.. when they observe Sabbath… (etc).”36

Jewish believers and many of the Gentile churches seem to have observed Jewish festivals, at least until the fall of Jerusalem in 135 A.D.. After that event, Hadrian forbade all Jewish observances. Anyone not Jewish would, therefore, be inclined to avoid any activities resembling those of the Jews, especially public meetings or family festivities. For these it would have been expedient to choose days and ways not associated with those of Judaism.

Around the middle of the second century, some western churches, led by Rome and following the example of the influential heretic Marcion, began to fast on the Sabbath/Saturday in order to show contempt for the Jews and their Sabbath feasting.37 (Fasting on the Sabbath was, and is today, normally prohibited in Judaism.38)

In about 154 A.D. Vettius Valens, a pagan, listed Sun-day as the first (and, therefore, most prestigious) of the days of the Roman week, evidence that the Sun-god (Sol or Mithras) is now the leading deity in the Roman empire.39 (Saturn-day was now the seventh day.) Tertulian later remarked that Sunday was favoured by the pagans “for taking rest and banqueting.”40 It was now more convenient for Christians to gather for worship on Sunday.

Justin Martyr (martyred 167 AD) was a converted disciple of the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato. Like the Jewish philosopher Philo, by means of allegorical interpretation, he found the teachings of Plato in the Old Testament.41 He wrote, “The Deity is discernible to the mind alone, as Plato says.”42 He regarded Christianity as the mother of true philosophy and is known as the founder of theological literature.43 In his First Apology, written to the Roman emperor, he states that Christians assemble on “the day of the Sun.. because it is the first day on which God transforming the darkness. ..created the world, (and) on the same day rose from the dead,”44 which suggests that the church in Rome has adopted the Roman weekly calendar. Jesus’ resurrection is not the primary justification for Sunday observance.

Justin wrote Dialogue with Trypho the Jew in about 158 AD. In it he repeated Pseudo-Barnabus’ argument that the Sabbath was intended to be purely symbolic.45 He maintained that circumcision was given as a sign to mark the Jews out for the suffering that was to be the just reward for killing Jesus,46 and that the Sabbath and the feasts were given “because of your transgression and the hardness of your hearts [at Sinai].”47 He presented a new solution to the problem posed by the Church’s simultaneous affirmation of the Old Testament scriptures and invalidation of Old Testament Law, asserting that the Law ceased to be in force at Jesus’ death and was intended to be purely allegorical.

However, in Justin’s opinion, a Jew who converted to Christianity could continue to obey the rules of Judaism without danger to his soul, provided he did not attempt to impose them on gentile Christians by making them out to be necessary for salvation. He added that his opinion was dated and that some Christians refused to have anything to do with such people,48 indicating a change in popular attitudes during his lifetime.

Tertullian, a Carthaginian father of Latin theology, wrote a letter to “the pagans,” (circa 197 A.D.) in response to accusations that Christians were Sun-worshippers because “they prayed toward the east (the sunrise)” and “made Sunday a day of festivity” just as the pagans did. Evidently the Church’s abandonment of the scriptural Jewish practise of praying towards the Temple in Jerusalem49, as opposed to the sunrise,50 had led to some confusion among the pagans. About the practices of the Law, God appears to have changed his mind: “Us, to whom Sabbaths are strange, and the new moons and festivals formerly loved by God.”51 Tertullian also leaves us the first record of another development, Christian “Sunday Sabbatarianism,” by which the traditional Jewish principles of Sabbath observance were transferred to Sunday. (Rest was made compulsory and fasting unlawful.)52

In the first half of the third century, many Middle Eastern believers still regarded the Jewish ceremonial law as binding. It is to these that Didascalia Apostolorum was addressed. Composed in Syria, and presented as the teaching of the apostles, it declared the Sabbath a fast day, whereas for the Jews it was a feast day. Sunday was given precedence over the Sabbath,53 but it is clear that this community observed both Sabbath and Sunday.

In the same period Eusebius, father of Church history, made the first explicit attempts to justify Sunday observance as a substitute for Sabbath observance, by means of the pagan symbolology of the day of the Sun.54

In 386 A.D. John Chrysostom, later Archbishop of Constantinople said, “…many stand in awe of the Jews and even today treat their religious institutions with reverence.”55 Christians in Antioch were accustomed to attend the synagogue services of the thriving Jewish community, there was much social interaction between the two sects and many of the believers were in the habit of fasting with the Jews on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).56 So, in order to destroy any further interest in Judaism, he delivered eight sermons against the Jews in which he also attacked the so-called “Judaizers.”57 Interestingly, a modern Messianic Jewish writer accuses Chrysostom of “poisonous hatred” while an orthodox Jewish scholar excuses him on the ground of oratorical license.

At the start of the fifth century Jerome, Hebrew scholar and compiler of the first Latin translation of the scriptures, the Vulgate, lived in Bethlehem in daily contact with Jews. He testifies that Palestinian-Jewish scholars were still on the offensive in controversy over Christian interpretation of the scriptures,58 giving us further reason to believe that at least some of the Church’s anti-Judaism was a defence against persistent Jewish “missionary” activity. He listed traditional Sabbath observance as among the possible practices of a Jewish convert to Christianity.59 In response to Augustine’s inclination to allow believing Jews to exercise their own discretion in keeping the law or not, he replied, “This then is the nub of your question, or rather your opinion: Whether Jews who believe in Christianity do well if they observe the commandments of the law. If this is true, we fall into the heresy of Cerinthus and Ebion.”60

Jerome’s classification was a strange one. Cerinthians and the Ebionites were Jewish sects, which incorporated some of the teachings of Jesus while denying his divinity. Yet Jerome classified them with “Jews who believe in Christianity,” direct descendants of Jesus’ Jewish disciples, who continued to do what had once been acceptable and normal throughout the Church.

The empire had been officially Christian for nearly a hundred years, yet, even among those who professed to follow Jesus, there was still confusion about his identity. For example, in 410 A.D. Augustine of Hippo had to denounce the identification of Sol (the sun god) with Jesus as heresy.61 Similarly, Pope Leo I (440-461 A.D.), following the example of the prophet62 bitterly reproved Christians who turned, at the door of their church, to adore the rising sun.63

Continued observance of both Sabbath and Sunday survived in parts of the Middle East until at least 440 A.D, when Sozomen wrote, “the people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week… (such a) custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.”64

The Feast of Dedication to Christmas

The birth of Jesus took place in about 3 B.C. and his circumcision followed eight days later.65 We cannot calculate the season by relating Zechariah’s service at the temple to his wife being in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary was in her first, because we are not told that Elizabeth conceived immediately. Neither are we told whether Zechariah was serving in the autumn or the spring term of service allocated to his priestly division.66 Why was the precise date not recorded? The reason may lie in the fact that the witnesses were Jews.

Jewish tradition records the dates of death of it’s teachers, but not their birthdays. “The day of death (is better) than the day of ones birth.”67 The Bible records the ages of kings at their accession, and the years of their reigns, but the only birthday celebrations recorded are those of Pharaoh68 and of Herod.69 Pharaoh was a pagan and Herod was culturally pagan. We must assume, therefore, that Jesus’ Jewish disciples were neither interested in recording the exact date of his birth, nor in celebrating it. How and why, then, did the twenty-fifth of December become associated with Jesus’ nativity? The answer, as usual with Christian festivals, probably lies in a mixture of Jewish and pagan influences.70

“And it was at Jerusalem the Feast of the Dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the courts of the Temple in Solomon’s porch. Then came the Jews round about him and said unto him, “…lf thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.”71 The Feast of Dedication commemorates the dedication of the rebuilt altar and renewal of the temple service, by the Maccabees in about 167 B.C., after a miraculously successful popular uprising, against an occupying power which had outlawed the practices of Judaism. On the 25th of Kislev three years previously, pagans had initiated idolatrous sacrifices on its altar and executed some women who had circumcised their children.72 Therefore, the new altar was dedicated and sacrifice restarted by the Jews on the same date. In addition, an eight-day feast was instituted, after the pattern of the Feast of Tabernacles, because King Solomon had dedicated the first temple at the Feast of Tabernacles. Josephus calls it the Festival of Lights, because the right to serve God came to the people unexpectedly, like a sudden light.73 From this deliberately evasive explanation74 we can deduce that the custom of burning festival lights was current in the first century A.D. and may, therefore, have been known to Jesus. The book of Maccabees is silent about the origin of the custom, although there are several miracle stories recorded in later writings.75 The Christian and the Jewish feasts both have an emphasis on lights. S. M. Lehrman, a contemporary Jewish scholar teaching on the lights of the Feast of Dedication, points out that the scripture primarily uses light to express the immediate presence of God.76 He quotes a remarkable passage, which Jews interpreted as speaking of the Messianic age: “The sun shall be no more be thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy Glory… “77 Isaiah continues, “Thy people also shall inherit the land for ever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified. A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation: I the Lord will hasten it in his time.” Perhaps, here, we have a clue to the Jewish Church’s association of the feast of Dedication with Jesus’ birth: “The Branch” is a Messianic title, and the word “his” shows that the passage is about a person as well as a nation.

Hadrian’s prohibition of the observance of any Jewish feast (about 135 A.D.) would have made it expedient to de-Judaize any Christian observance of the Feast of Dedication, by changing both its dates and its emphases. However, neither lrenaeus nor Tertullian mentioned Christmas, as such, in their lists of feasts. On the contrary, Tertullian wrote, “How.. wicked to celebrate them (pagan festivals] among brethren! the Saturnalia and New Year and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented, presents come and go, New Year’s gifts, games join their noise, banquets join their din!”78 Some leaders of the Church were evidently making selective attempts to suppress Christian participation in pagan practices.

At about the turn of the century, Clement of Alexandria suggested 20th May as the birth date of Jesus.79 This is the first record of speculation about the birth of Jesus and this date is very plausible, but there were wide differences of opinion.80

The Chronograph of Philocalus (336 A.D.) makes the earliest statement that Jesus’ birth/Christmas is 25th December, although it had probably been observed on this date in Rome for some time, perhaps since about 275 A.D.. Observance on this date was not yet widespread and it seems to have spread from Rome.81

In the late fourth century Middle Eastern Churches, especially in Syria, associated 6th January with the birth of Jesus (whereas 6th January had previously commemorated his adult baptism)82 but, by about 450 A.D. most of the Middle Eastern Churches were observing Christmas on 25th December.83 FinalIy, in 549 A.D., the Church of Jerusalem adopted 25th December for the observance of Jesus’ birth.84 A number of Christmas customs appear somehow to have been transferred from the season’s pagan celebrations. For example, Saturnalia was celebrated from the 17th to 19th December, was the most joyful festival of the year, and involved public feasting, licentious merrymaking, the exchange of presents, festal lights and the cessation of all business,85 Other aspects are reminiscent of the cult of Odin/Woden (a Norse/German god equivalent to the Baal of the Scriptures), which featured the sacred evergreen tree and a Father Christmas-like personality who rode wild horses or reindeer upon the storm. His month started on the 6th December, later to become the feast of St. Nicholas or “Santa Claus.” Others are echoes of seasonal fertility rites involving rich fruit cake or pudding, strong drink, fire rituals, loud shouts and bangs. Holly, ivy, mistletoe and a roast goose (predecessor of the Christmas turkey) were also part of pagan winter-time rites long before Jesus’ birth.

On the other hand, Christmas bears certain tell-tale marks, some of which will now be obvious, which suggest that it originated as a Messianic expression of the Feast of Dedication, but, as Jesus’ historical birthday was of little interest, we must assume that any connection with his birth was seen as purely symbolic:

1. The traditional Jewish Feast of Dedication starts on eve of the twenty-fifth of the lunar month of Kislev (sometime in December) and pagan Rome observed the rebirth of the Sun god on the twenty-fifth of the solar month of December.86 All three feasts are fixed as the 25th day of the midwinter month of their respective calendars. This may be coincidental, but it may have seemed expedient to the Church that its festival always coincided with the Roman feast, but seldom fell on the same day as the Jewish one. In this way the pagans could be weaned from idolatry and the Christians from too close an identification with Judaism.

2. The period from the start of Christmas until the end of New Year’s Day is eight-days, and both days officially begin on the eve, precisely following the pattern of the Feast of Dedication.

3. Another possible transference from a Messianic Jewish interpretation of the Feast of Dedication is the Christian feast of the Circumcision87 (which was observed but went without official sanction until the sixth century), in remembrance of Jesus’ circumcision, eight days after his supposed birth, on 1st January.

From Passover to Easter

The Concise Oxford Dictionary reflects a popular misunderstanding when it states that Easter is the “festival of Christ’s resurrection, corresponding to Passover.”88 In the minds of many it is connected with the Jewish Feast of Passover because Jesus presided at a Passover meal, immediately prior to his betrayal and crucifixion in 30 AD.89

Passover, according to scripture, is the remembrance of the night of 14th Abib (a full moon), on which, as He had promised, the LORD “…passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians….”90 That evening, at the command of God, every Israelite family had sacrificed a year-old, male lamb, daubed its blood on the lintels and doorposts of the house and, then, roasted and eaten its body, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.91 The angel of death did not enter the houses on which he saw the blood of the lamb, but passed over them.92 Hence the name Passover.

Jesus took elements of the Passover meal, unleavened bread and wine, and made them reminders of his own sacrificial death.93 (Bitter herbs and wine are symbolically equivalent, as reminders of the blood of the Passover lamb. When a participant ate the bitter hyssop, he was reminded of the blood with which a sprig of hyssop had sprinkled each Israelite lintel and doorposts. While this association is not made in modern Judaism, the unleavened bread is still traditionally understood to represent the body of the lamb.) In the words of the apostle, Paul, participants “… shew His death until he come.” The New Testament Passover thus remained strictly a reminder of a sacrificial death. Therefore, Good Friday is the nearest modern Christian equivalent to Passover, being the day on which Jesus’ death as the Lamb of God is usually remembered.

Jesus’ resurrection took immediately after the Sabbath following the Sabbath of Passover. This event is foreshadowed in the calendar of scripture by “the day for the waving of the sheaf of firstfruits”94 It is not appointed as one of the Feasts of the Lord and is never a Sabbath-day of rest. By New Testament times this day had become fixed as the first working day after the Sabbath following the Sabbath of Passover and, therefore, coincided with the Sunday on which Jesus rose from the dead. On “the day for the waving of the sheaf of firstfruits,” the first sheaf of the harvest was brought to the priest, who took the large bundle in his arms, raised it off the ground, and waved it before the Lord. Thus the whole grain harvest was consecrated to God. The principle is well expressed in the phrase, “For if the firstfruits be holy, the lump also is holy: and if the root is holy, so are the branches.”96 An obvious New Testament reference is, “Christ is risen from the dead and become the firsifruits of them that slept.. every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.”97

There is no clear New Testament evidence that the earliest Christians kept the day of Jesus’ resurrection as either an annual Feast or Sabbath-day of rest. Why not? Perhaps the answer lies in another question: Why is “the day for the waving of the sheaf of firstfruits” not appointed by the Lord as a Feast and a Sabbath? Perhaps it is because it is the first working day of the new harvest and, according to the pattern set at the very beginning of creation, it is inappropriate to celebrate or to rest until the work is done. God did not rest on the first day. Jesus compared the agricultural harvest with the harvest of souls;98 a harvest which ends with the resurrection and judgement of the dead. In scripture these events are prefigured by the autumn feasts. The Day of Atonement (judgement) is followed, almost immediately, by the Feast of Tabernacles, the biblical harvest festival which is to be observed when the crops are all in.99 Known in the Talmud as “The Celebration Feast,” Tabernacles lasts eight days and begins and ends with a Sabbath. Coming so soon after the Day of Atonement, it calls to mind both Jesus’ parable about the wedding dinner100 and the passage in Revelation about the marriage supper of the Lamb101. Perhaps Jesus had just such a “harvest home” celebration in mind when he vowed102, “I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom?”103 Understood thus, the Feast of Tabernacles offers a biblical pattern more suited to a feast of resurrection, than “the day for the waving of the sheaf of firstfruits.”

Early Church tradition gives us a further clue to the practices of the apostles. We hear that the apostles John and Philip, in Ephesus and Asia Minor (western Turkey), taught observance of Passover on the scriptural date of 14th Nisan/Abib104, and that they taught it as a memorial of Jesus’ sacrificial death as the Passover Lamb of God.105 Didache (see above) neither gives instructions about nor mentions any observance related to Jesus’ resurrection. It is probable that, at least until the end of the first century, where the Christians observed the Passover, they did so according to the scriptural tradition. Ignatius’ testimony that “the Lord’s Day” is now understood to be the day of Jesus’ resurrection indicates that, although some importance was attached to its memory, it was quite distinct from Passover.

The first Bishop of Rome not to observe Passover according to the Jewish/scriptural calendar, was Sixtus (113-c.127 A.D.)106. From now on the churches of Rome and Alexandria observed it on Easter-Sunday, but it was still strictly a memorial of Jesus’ passion and sacrificial death.107 Some churches in and around Rome continued to observe Passover according to the Jewish/scriptural calendar, as did the remainder of the Church in general.108 The change in Rome may have been expedient, due to the intermittent Jewish insurrections which took place throughout the rule of Hadrian, and the fact that Hadrian therefore, “reserved his anger for the Jews.”109 Gentile anti-Jewish feeling in Alexandria had been high for over half a century and, as a result of an uprising in 115 A.D., even the great synagogue in Alexandria had been burned.110 Therefore, here also, the change of dates for celebrating Passover may have been partly prompted by expediency. Before Sixtus there is no record that either Sunday or Passover were formally observed as a Christian memorial of the resurrection, and we have no evidence of any controversy about the matter.

Epiphanius tells us that controversy over the date and interpretation of the Church’s observance of Passover/Easter, “arose after the exodus of the bishops of the circumcision [the Jewish bishops]” from Jerusalem, following its destruction in 135 A.D..111 Hadrian expelled all Jews from Jerusalem and forbade any Jew to enter Jerusalem, on pain of death.112 The Jewish believers left Jerusalem and dispersed, and the Jewish bishops were replaced by Greek bishops. As Hadrian had prohibited Judaism throughout the empire, including the eating of unleavened bread at Passover and observing any Jewish festival, the new bishops would not have been inclined to risk their lives by appearing to disobey him. Therefore, the Jerusalem-Jewish church and its practices lost their dominant influence upon the churches of the Roman world, and the “power base”, naturally, shifted to Gentile leadership in Rome. Nevertheless, the controversy continued until at least 365 A.D. and included, among others, conservative churches in Asia Minor, Cilicia, Syria and Mesopotamia.113

Aristides, a Christian-Athenian philosopher, presented his Apology to emperor Antoninus Pius, in about 140 A.D.. He argued that the Christians had a fuller understanding of God than barbarians, Greeks or Jews, asserting that “They (the Jews) imagine themselves to be paying honour to God, whereas what they do is directed rather than towards angels .. when they observe Sabbath and New Moon, the Passover….”114 Such debunking of Judaism on the basis of a misunderstanding or misapplication of scripture, became common among Christian writers. It is possible that both he and Quadratus (see above) reflect Christian hopes that the empire could be persuaded to confer upon the Church the unique freedom of religious practice previously enjoyed by the Jews.115

Events came to a head when, in about 195 A.D., Pope Victor I excommunicated Polycratus, bishop of Ephesus, and threatened the remaining bishops of Asia Minor, if they continued to celebrate Passover on the 14th of Nisan.116 He appears to have reversed his decision, but the incident shows us how much the bishop of Rome’s authority had grown. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius give us the strong impression that, by this time, the majority of the western churches observed a remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter-Sunday, and that Easter-Sunday had largely displaced Passover observance. A statue of Hippolytus, a Roman anti-Pope (about 222 A.D.) shows independent calendrical tables, designed by himself, which guaranteed that Easter would seldom fall on the same day as the Jewish/scriptural Passover.117 The Church had previously been dependant upon the rabbinic authorities for calculation of the date of Passover/Easter. Just a few years later (243 A.D.) “On the Computation of Passover” was produced,118 to correct an error in Hippolytus’ tables. The desire for self-determination is understandable, but the justification is unbecoming: “We desire to show to those who love and are eager for divine studies that Christians need at no time stray from the way of truth or walk in blindness and stupidity behind the Jews as though they did not know what was the day of the Passover.”

Didascalia Apostolorum (see above), the so-called “teaching of the apostles”, gives us some idea of concurrent developments in the Middle East, when it instructs Christians to begin Holy Week “when your brethren who are of the people keep the Passover,”119 on the 14th of Nisan. However, “you, for your part, fast and zealously keep vigil in the midst of their unleavened bread.”120 Many Christians would have had some Jewish background and were clearly sympathetic with both the Jews and Judaism. However, while they preserved the timing of Passover, their leaders took measures to prevent Holy Week observances being too closely identified with the Passover of the Jews. Instead of joining in and feasting with the Jews at “the season of our freedom,”121 Christians were to fast and mourn in penitence for their brothers’ disobedience.

The determination of the Church’s leadership to bring about a unilateral separation of identity was spelt out in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicaea. The council decreed, “All brethren in the East who formerly celebrated Easter with the Jews, will henceforth keep it at the same time as the Romans..”122 It is underlined in Constantine’s Nicene conciliar letter, “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast (Passover/Easter) we should follow the practice of the Jews.” St. Ephraim the Syrian (about 363 A.D.) wrote in a similar vein, “My brethren, keep far from the unleavened bread in which is. symbolized the sacrament of Judas. Flee, my brethren, from the unleavened bread of Israel, for beneath its whiteness lies hidden shame. Do not accept, my brethren, the unleavened bread of this people whose hands are stained with blood.”123 To avoid resemblance to the Jewish Passover, John Chrysostom (386 A.D., see above) refused to give an annual remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection any more significance than any other occasion on which the Lord’s Supper was celebrated.124 Jerome’s letter from Bethlehem to Augustine (about 400 A.D., see above) spells out just how estranged from its origins the Church has become, “…The ceremonies of the Jews are pernicious and deadly. Whoever observes them, whether Jew or Gentile, has fallen into the pit of the Devil.”125

“Popular Easter;” More Pagan Background

Easter is generally acknowledged to have superseded an old pagan festival in honour of a Germanic spring goddess Eostre.126 The name migrated westward from Asia into Europe with the Germanic peoples, and describes a deity equivalent to Ashtoreth of the Canaanites, the moon-goddess, so-called queen of heaven and mythical wife of Baal. Her origins can be traced to ancient Babel (Babylon).127 According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, “A great many pagan customs celebrating the return of spring, gravitated to Easter.”128

Lent, for example, is reminiscent of the pagan fast of Tammuz, which is also mentioned in scripture: “The Lord said to Ezekiel] thou shalt see greater abominations which they [Israel] do. Then he took me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was towards the north; and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.”129 In paganism the first day of spring (1st Abib in the ancient Hebrew calendar), a new moon, marked the end of a season equivalent to Lent, known as the fast of Tammuz. Tammuz is effectively a type of Baal, who was said to have died a violent death and passed into the underworld. Whereupon his wife/mother, a type of Ashtoreth, pursued him there, in order to have him released. During the resultant winter all vegetation died and animal reproduction ceased. In order to bring about her return, humans fasted and mourned for a period of forty days, known as the fast of Tammuz. According to legend, on the day of her return, accompanied by her resurrected husband/son, spring began.

“Hot crossed buns” are another relic of the cult of Easter/Ashtoreth to which scripture refers. “…the [Israelite] women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, …that they may provoke me to anger.”130 And elsewhere, “Did we make [the queen of heaven] cakes to worship her.. without our men?”131 The Hebrew word “Khavan,” here translated “cakes,” only appears these two times in the whole of scripture. Hislop demonstrates that the English word “bun” is derived from the same root, which denotes a bread made to stand erect by leavening.132 He goes on to quote other ancient sources: “One species of sacred bread which used to be offered to the gods, was of great antiquity, and called Boun.” “[A worshipper] offered one of the sacred cakes called Boun, which was made of fine flour and honey.” Thus the worshipper was consecrated to his or her deity, in this case the queen of heaven/Easter, in a parody and a perversion of the pattern of the worship of the Lord,133 who expressly forbade the use of either leaven (a raising agent) or honey (a sweetener) in a burned (hot) cereal offerring.134 To do so was to bring the Lord’s curse upon oneself.135 Therefore, at the Passover meal on the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took unleavened bread and said, “This is my body [the sacrifice] which is given for you….”136 Yet it is on Good Friday, the Christian equivalent of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, that countless Christian households eat “Boun.”

The custom of giving Easter eggs to one’s friends is also traceable to paganism of the type of Ashtoreth. Her cult involved ritual prostitution as a fertility rite, hence the association with eggs. Babylonian mythology relates a tale of an egg of monstrous size which fell from heaven into the Euphrates and hatched into the goddess Astarte, the Babylonian equivalent of Ashtoreth.137 In ancient Egyptian the egg was associated with the sun-god (type of Baal)138 and dyed eggs were used as sacred offerings at the Easter season.139 In pagan northern Europe eggs were coloured and used as symbols of the goddess of spring.140 Similarly, because of their promiscuity and characteristic springtime mating activities, the hare and the rabbit also became emblems of fertility and of Ashtoreth/Easter. Hence the “Easter Bunny.”141

These are but three of the many customs associated with the return of spring/Ashtoreth, which have gravitated to Easter.


1. Acts 21:20

2. Exodus 20:8-11

3. Matthew 23:2. Jesus affirms rabbinic authority in general, provided that it upholds the purpose of the great commandment, “You shall love…” However, he condemns certain unorthodox teachings, attitudes and practices among certain Jewish groups. His criticism of “Jews” and “Scribes and Pharisees” and their ways should be understood as examples of internal disputes, characteristic of Judaism, rather than denunciation of Judaism and Jews in general.

4. The magazine Jerusalem Perspective has published a number of articles on themes of this kind.

5. Jerusalem Perspective

6. “One may rub with his fingertips and eat.” Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 128a

7. “The Sabbath has been given to you, not you to the Sabbath.” Mekhilta, Ki Tissa 1 (comment on Exodus 31:13-14).

8. Luke 4:16

9. Luke 4:16

10. Luke 4:31

11. The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol 2, ed S Safrai and S Stern, Van Gorcum 1976, p 922

12. Ibid p 919

13. Luke 14:1

14. Acts 17:2; 18:4, 19; cf 13:5, 14, 42, 44

15. Acts 15:21

16. Acts 13:27

17. For example, Acts 13:14-43

18. Acts 21:20

19. Luke 7:5; Acts 14:16,42

20. Acts 13:43; James 2:2

21. Acts 20:7

22. Genesis 1:5

23. Suetonius

24. Suetonius, Domitianus 12

25. Didache 6:3

26. Didache 8:1; cf Luke 18:12. (They fast on the second and fifth, so Christians are advised to fast on the fourth and sixth days of the week.)

27. Pseudo-Barnabus 15:8

28. Pseudo-Barnabus 15:9

29. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistola ad Magnesios, SC 10, ed P. Th. Camelot, 1951, pp 94ff

30. Rev 1:10

31. 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10

32. H Mattingley, The Roman Imperial Coinage 1962, II, p 360, plate XII, n 244

33. Historia Ecclesiastica 4, 3, 1-2

34. Epistle to Diognetus 1

35. Epistle to Diognetus 3:4

36. Aristedes, Apologia, 14.4 (Syriac text)

37. Bishop Sylvester, Adversus Graecorum Calumnias 6

38. Shabbat 15:3

39. Vettius Valens, Anthologarium 5:10

40. Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1:13

41. Justyn Martyr, First Apology 60

42. Justyn Martyr, Dialogue 3

43. A Roberts & J Donaldson, editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol1, reprinted Eerdmans 1985, Introduction to Justyn Martyr’s works.

44. Justyn Martyr, First Apology 67

45. Justyn Martyr, Dialogue 11

46. Justyn Martyr, Dialogue 16

47. Justyn Martyr, Dialogue 18

48. Justyn Martyr, Dialogue 47:1-4

49. Daniel 6:11; Chronicles 6:34

50. Ezekiel 8:16. “Behold, at the door of the temple of the Lord … about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east.”

51. Tertullian, De Idolatria 14

52. Tertullian, On Prayer 23

53. Didascalia 6. 18. 11

54. Eusebius, Commentary on Psalm 91

55. Chrysostom, Homily against the Jews 1:3

56. Chrysostom, Homily against the Jews 8:4

57. Chrysostom, Homily against the Jews 1-8

58. Jerome, Epistle to Titus 3:9

59. “Take for example, a Jew who, having become a Christian, … sacrifices a lamb on the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month (Passover).” (Epistle to Augustus 112:15)

60. Jerome, Epistle to Augustine 75:13,14

61. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Robert Appleton Co, New York, 1911, vol 3, p 727

62. Ezekiel 8:16

63. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Robert Appleton Co, New York, 1911, vol 3, p 727

64. Historia Ecclesiastica 7:19

65. Luke 2:21

66. S Safrai, A Priest of the Division of Abijah, Jerusalem Perspective magazine, February 1989

67. Ecclesiastes 7:1

68. Genesis 40:20

69. Matthew 14:6; Mark 6:21

70. Many of the ideas concerning the possible Jewish origins of Christmas come from an article by Arye Powlison, Celebrating Hannukkah as the Lord’s Birthday, Torah and Testimony, no 6, Rod of Aaron Publications, Jerusalem 1989

71. John 10:22-24

72. 1 Maccabees 1:57

73. Encyclopaedia Judaica, p 1283, col1; cf Josephus, Ant 12:325

74. Josephus had been a Jewish general in the rebellion of 70 AD, who turned historian following his surrender to the Romans. He may therefore have considered it unwise to suggest to the Rioman mind that the seasonal lighting of lamps in Jewish homes was connected with Jewish nationalism and popular rebellion.

75. Some scholars surmise a pagan origin to the burning of lights, perhaps to the exile in Babylon. However, as Lehrman points out, silence is no argument in establishing historical facts. (SM Lehrman, A Guide to Hanukkah, Jewish Chronicle Publications, 1958, p18) Jesus was uncritical of the feast of Dedication, although it is not prescribed by Moses. The Jews’ opening question may have been in reference to the Messianic significance of the feast, and the following references to good works, which may include many miracles (John 10:32,33) may hint at and play on the feast’s associations with the miraculous.

76. A Guide to Hanukkah, Jewish Chronicle Publications, 1958, p 19

77. Isaiah 60:19-20

78. Tertullian, De Idolatria 14

79. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, 1990, Christmas, p 280.

80. Judean shepherds would not have been “keeping their sheep” in the open midwinter, because of the cold. Dr Steven Notley, tour guide and member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, also pointed out to me that, at the time of the Autumn Feast of Tabernacles, there would have been nothing for the sheep to eat, because the land is scorched and there is seldom rain until after that time.

81. Ibid

82. Ibid

83. Ibid

84. Ibid

85. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed MC Howartson, OUP 1989, Saturnalia, p 509

86. Natalis Solis Invicti (The nativity of the unconquered sun) cf The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Robert Appleton Co, New York, 1911, vol3, p 724.

87. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, 1990, Circumcision, The feast of, p 264

88. Concise Oxford Dictionary, OUP, 1940

89. Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-38

90. Exodus 11:27

91. Exodus 11:21,22

92. Exodus 11:23

93. Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20

94. Leviticus 23:9-11, 14

95. The time of day for the waving of the sheaf of firstfruits.

96. Romans 11:16

97. 1 Corinthians 15:20,23

98. Matthew 9:36; 13:24-30,36-43

99. Leviticus 23:29

100. Matthew 22:1-14

101. Revelation 19:5-9

102. Perhaps a Nazirite vow. According to Young’s Concordance, “The appellation of one who by a vow refrains from certain things for a longer or a shorter time “ (See Numbers 6:1-appears to have been a Nazirite for the duration of his missionary journeys. On the completion of the first he had his head shaved (Acts 18:18). He would then have kept the hair with him until he had the opportunity to visit the Temple, to burn it and make the sacrifices appropriate to the conclusion of a Nazirite vow, as he attempted to do at the conclusion of his last journey (Acts 21:23).

103. Matthew 26:29

104. Exodus 12:6; 13:3-10; Leviticus 23:5; Deuteronomy 16:1-5. Nisan and Abib are different names for the same lunar month.

105. Luke 22:19; Romans 11:26; 1 Corinthians 11:24,25; Polycrates; Irenaeus

106. Also known as Xystus

107. Irenaeus

108. Irenaeus, cited by Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 5, 24, 15

109. M Simon, Verus Israel

110. Encyclopaedia Judaica. Destruction of synagogues was illegal during the pagan Roman period, and was only allowed as a punitive measure.

111. Epiphanius, Against Heresies 70:9

112. Justyn Martyr, Apologia 1:47

113. Athanasius, Of Synods 1:5; Letter to the African Synod 2

114. Aristedes, Apologia, 14. 4 (Syriac text)

115. M Simon, Verus Israel, pp 100 & 104. The Roman empire had come to see itself as a unity; culturally Greek and religiously pagan. Peoples outside the empire were known as Barbarians. The Roman world-view therefore saw mankind as consisting of Greeks and Barbarians. The only exceptions were the Jews, who had been granted special privileges. In the words of Julius Caesar, Jews were free to “live according to their own laws.” Therefore, they were not required to take part in the imperial cult (worship of the emperor). In the end Antonius Pius effectively restored the Jews to most of their traditional privileges.

116. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, 1990, p 1437, Victor I, St

117. On the base of a marble statue now in Vatican museum.

118. Possibly by Cyprian of Carthage

119. Didascalia 5. 17. 1

120. Ibid

121. Jewish liturgical name for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover week). (Pentecost is called “the season of the Giving of our Torah (Teaching/Law)” and Tabernacles “the season of our Gladness.”) Dr HJ Hertz, The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, Bloch, 1948, p 811

122. Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica 1:9

123. Hymni Azym, 19.11ff and 16, ed by Lamy, Malines, 1882, pp 624 ff

124. Chrysostom, Homily against the Jews, 12.4&6

125. Jerome to Augustine, Epistle, 75:14

126. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed FL Cross and EA Livingstone, OUP, 1990, p 437, Easter

127. Genesis 11:1-9

128. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, Robert Appleton Co, New York, 1911, vol5, art. Easter

129. Ezekiel 8:14

130. Jeremiah 7:18

131. Jeremiah 44:19

132. Rev A Hislop, The Two Babylons, Loizeaux Brothers, New York, 1959, p107 and fn p 109

133. Exodus 29:32,3. “Aaron and his sons…shall eat the (unleavened) bread…wherewith atonement was made, to consecrate and sanctify them(selves)”

134. Leviticus 2:11

135. Deuteronomy 27:26

136. 1 Corinthians 11:24

137. Rev A Hislop, The Two Babylons, Loizeaux Brothers, New York, 1959, p 109 138. J Forlong, Encyclopaedia of Religions, University Books, New York, 1964, vol 2, p 12

139. J Bonwick, Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, p 24

140. Ralph Woodrow, Babylon Mystery Religion, Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1986, p 144

141. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Henry G Allen Co, New York, art Easter