Easter and Passover: Why Are They Observed When They Are?

Easter and PassoverBy R.E. Olsen

It’s interesting to compare the timetable of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion with the Passover celebration. Come to think of it, why don’t we always celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at the same time as Passover? First we need to know what they mean and how Easter and Passover are related.

What is the difference between Easter and Passover?

Our Christian Easter observance is based on the Hebrew Passover. The Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach, as in “passing over.” In Greek, the translated word is Pascha. Jesus himself ate the Passover meal before he was taken away to be charged and crucified.

Throughout early church history, the feast day in honor of Christ’s resurrection was originally called “The Pasch” (pronounced “pask”), which referred back to the Passover, because Jesus was God’s Passover lamb. It is translated in the languages of the traditionally Christian nations of Europe as follows:

Dutch = Pasen
French = Paque
Italian = Pasqua
Norwegian = Paske
Russian = Pascha
Spanish = Pascua
Swedish = Pask

However, in the official English Bible, the word Pascha came to be translated as “Easter” instead of “Passover.” Compare Acts 12:4 in the 1599 Geneva Bible (printed in Switzerland) and 1611 King James Bible (authorized by King James I of England):

1599 GNV

And when he had caught him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to be kept, intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people.

1611 KJV

“And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of souldiers to keep him, intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

This difference in words is due to the influence of the Anglo-Saxons in England. Originally a Germanic tribe, the Anglo-Saxons had a springtime fertility goddess named “Eostre,” for which they had a celebration around the same time as Passover. That’s how English speakers ended up calling it Easter Sunday and Germans call it Oster Sonntag, when everyone else around the world calls it a variation of Pascha.

The Origin of Passover

We read in Exodus 12 that God sent the tenth and final plague to smite the firstborn of Egypt. The Israelites were told to sacrifice a lamb and cover their doorframes with its blood, so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” the homes of the Jewish people in Egypt and not slay the firstborn of Israel. Meanwhile, the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn son convinced him to release the Israelites from slavery.

The Torah states that Jews are to remember the Passover in a seven-day feast:

“And this day shall be unto you a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.” –Exodus 12:14.

God instructed his people as to when the Passover should be kept:

“In the first month, on the 14th day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and 20th day of the month at even.” –Exodus 12:18

In the lunar calendar, the New Moon is the first day of the new month. The Full Moon is at mid-month, the 14th day of the month. So Israel was instructed to celebrate the Passover on the Full Moon of the month. God even tells us the name of the month:

“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

The word “Abib” means “sprouting” or “budding” and is the first month of Spring, falling in between our months of March and April. Abib is the only month of the year named by God in the book of Moses.

Nisan is normally the seventh lunar month, but during a leap year Nisan is the eighth month. Thus, while Passover always begins on the eve of the 14th day of Nisan, on leap years it will be a full month later.

The Origin of Easter

As mentioned earlier, the Christian celebration of Easter is based on the Hebrew Passover. Because Jesus is God’s Passover lamb, Easter reminds us that Christ died for our sins so that anyone who believes in Him will live forever with God in Heaven.

Like Passover, the Christian Pascha feast is based on the lunar calendar. In A.D. 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first to adopt Christianity and make it legal, issued a decree stating that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday that follows the first full moon on or after the Spring Equinox. Christians have been doing it that way ever since. Consequently, Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.

So with the fluctuations in the lunar calendar, and the fact that Easter has to be on a Sunday, sometimes Easter and Passover overlap, while other years they can be nearly a month apart.

Easter and Passover Timetable

A number of events had to take place in a certain order, and at very specific times, leading up to Passover and the Resurrection. Here are the corresponding Bible verses to read…

Genesis 22:8

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

Exodus 12

And the LORD spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,
2 This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.
3 Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house:
4 And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb.
5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:
6 And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.
7 And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.
8 And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
9 Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof.
10 And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.
11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD’S passover.
12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.
13 And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.
14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever.
15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
16 And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you.
17 And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.
19 Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land.
20 Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.
21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your families, and kill the passover.
22 And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
23 For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
24 And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever.
25 And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the LORD will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service.
26 And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?
27 That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped.

Isaiah 53:7

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

John 1

35 Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples;
36 And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

John 11

47 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
48 If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
49 And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,
50 Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
51 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;

Hebrews 10

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Revelation 5

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

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