Exactly how did Easter - a holiday not found in the Bible and never celebrated in the early Church - come to replace the Passover, an observance that is plainly found in the Bible?
Bust of Roman emperor Constantine in the Vatican Museum.
How did Easter become the popular holiday it is today? Have you ever looked into it?
Isn't it important to know the truth of the matter? Jesus Christ Himself said that the truth would make us free (John:8:32). He was speaking of being free of wrong ideas that mislead, entrap and enslave us.
If we look back in history, one key date regarding Easter is the year A.D. 325. At that time, the Roman emperor Constantine held an assembly with some 250 bishops at Nicaea, a town in what is now northwestern Turkey, close to present-day Istanbul. This meeting is known in history as the Council of Nicaea.
What does this Council have to do with Easter? It actually set the stage for the removal of God's biblical feasts and the establishing of alternative feasts not found in the Bible, including Easter. Yet the Bible reveals what our practice ought to be.
Constantine and the Nicene Council reject biblical practices
At the Council of Nicaea, under the dominating eye of Constantine, the majority of the bishops backed replacing the biblical and Christian observance of Passover with the celebration of Easter, among other issues.
Actually, it should be understood that while they called the new celebration of Jesus' resurrection Pascha or Passover, it was certainly not the Passover of Scripture, but a religious celebration derived from pagan origins. Later it would become known as "Easter," the Germanic name for this festival and what it is commonly called today. (Other languages still call it Passover of the Resurrection, which can cause some confusion. Some English sources refer to the true Christian Passover, a memorial of Christ's death, as Easter, but this is clearly a misnomer, as we'll see.).
The dispute over this matter in the early Christian centuries is known in history as the Paschal Controversy. Regrettably, we virtually have only one side of the story.
James Carroll, writing about the Nicene Council in his book Constantine's Sword, explains the Roman emperor's motives: "Immediately upon coming to power as the sole ruler of the empire [A.D. 324], but only then, Constantine asserted the right to exercise absolute authority over the entire Church. He did this despite the fact that he was not baptized, and, as was not unusual, would not be until shortly before he died" (2001, p. 188, emphasis added throughout).
After this Council, Constantine wrote a blatantly anti-Semitic letter to the churches in the Roman Empire letting them know his thoughts about the Easter-Passover controversy.
Here is part of what he wrote as to the rationale for Christians to abandon the biblical feast of Passover, which the Jewish people had long observed in fulfillment of God's commands: "And truly, in the first place, it seemed to everyone a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches!, having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds.
"It is fit, therefore, that, rejecting the practice of this people, we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite in a more legitimate order ... Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.
" We have received another method from the Savior. A more lawful and proper course is open to our most holy religion ... Let us withdraw ourselves, my much honored brethren, from that most odious fellowship" (quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History , "Council of Nice," 1974, p. 52).
At first glance, it appears Constantine was attacking only Jews of the Jewish faith, but notice what Mal and Donna Broadhurst insightfully point out: "The fact that Christianity never had religious fellowship with non-Christian Jews means the Jews referred to were the Christian Jews . The reference to Jews instructing Christians how to observe the Christian Passover feast could only be applicable to Christian Jews, as non-Christian Jews did not tell Christians how to observe the Passover. The fellowship from which Constantine wanted the Church to withdraw was fellowship with Christian Jews" ( Passover Before Messiah and After ,1987, p. 147).
In fact, the leaders of Jewish Christianity, the successors of the group who had held the prevailing beliefs for the first century after the Church was founded, were either not invited to this Council or knew better and did not appear.
As the Broadhursts point out: "Constantine apparently began his plan to unify the church by simply not inviting any [Christian] Jewish representatives to the Council. (It is possible Jewish church leaders were invited and refused to come, but other facts about the Council lead to the former conclusion.) The lists of those present at the Council shows them all to have had Greek names. None of those present had characteristic Jewish names. The Palestinian delegates were from the coastal cities where mainly Gentiles lived. It is known that there were Jewish bishops in Palestine at the time" (p. 146).
The sword drawn against "Fourteeners"
As emperor, Constantine tolerated no dissent. So he soon drew his sword against those not following his wishes in not conforming to the teachings of the Catholic, or universal, church. The historian Robin Lane Fox notes: "At Nicaea, the Emperor himself imposed criminal sentences of exile on the bishops who refused to sign . He also investigated other reports of heresy" ( Pagans and Christians, 1986, p. 656).
Eventually, those bishops who did not agree with the decisions made in Nicaea were exiled and their works banned. A vicious persecution against Christian Jews and others branded as heretics began. So the Catholic Church, which previously had been persecuted, became the chief persecutor of those who chose to obey the commands of the Bible rather than the commands of a deeply compromised church.
"The Paschal Controversy was 'settled' at the Council of Nicaea—not theologically, but politically," the Broadhursts further explain. "It was settled by eliminating one of the viewpoints. Church law had been laid down. No longer could any Christians celebrate [the] Christian Passover the way [the apostle] John, Philip and other [Christian] Jews had celebrated it. All were required to celebrate on the Sunday following the 14th [of the Hebrew first month of Nisan]. Once respected 'Quartodecimans' ["Fourteeners"] who persisted in the belief handed down to them from the Apostles, would henceforth be called heretics" (p. 148).
What was the result of this Council? Historian Jesse Hurlbut candidly describes the consequences: "But while the triumph of Christianity resulted in much that was good, inevitably the alliance of the church and state also brought in its train many evils. The ceasing of persecution was a blessing, but the establishment of Christianity as the state religion became a curse.
"Everyone sought membership in the church, and nearly everybody was accepted ... The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festival s with change of name and of worship ... As a result of the church sitting in power, we do not see Christianity transforming the world to its ideal, but the world dominating the church" ( A History of the Christian Church, 1918, pp. 78-79).
A.D. 325 as the beginning of the Dark Ages
So the year 325 is crucial in the outcome of what traditional Christianity has become.
"As far as [the] Christian Passover is concerned , "the Broadhursts conclude, "the beginning of the Dark Ages can be set at 325 A.D. with the Council of Nicaea. Along with turning their backs on [Christian] Jews, the Gentiles turned their backs on the Jewish Scriptures [the Old Testament].
"They disallowed Jewish input to their faith, lifestyle, and worship ... It took a major reformation centuries later [in the 1500s] to begin to undo the horror and destruction the church brought on the world when the Gentiles at Nicaea formally adopted the policy of 'having nothing in common with the Jews'" (p. 149).
A few years later, in 332, Constantine again sternly rebuked those who opposed Catholic teachings with this warning and threat: "Forasmuch, then, as it is no longer possible to bear with your pernicious errors, we give warning by this present statute that none of you henceforth presume to assemble yourselves together.
"We have directed, accordingly, that you be deprived of all the houses in which you are accustomed to hold your assemblies: and [ we ] forbid the holding of your superstitious and senseless meetings, not in public merely, but in any private house or place whatsoever.
"Let those of you, therefore, who are desirous of embracing the true and pure religion, take the far better course of entering the catholic Church, and uniting with it in holy fellowship, whereby you will be enabled to arrive at the knowledge of the truth" (quoted by Eusebius, Life of Constantine, sect. 3, chap. 65).
A bloodbath eventually occurred. Those who did not conform to the Church of Rome, now united with the powerful Roman Empire, suffered implacable persecution. Regarding the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, famed historian Will Durant stated, "Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome" ( The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4: The Age of Faith, 1950, p. 8).
The Roman calendar adopted by the Roman Church
Due to the decisions of the Nicene Council, the pagan Roman calendar was adopted instead of the Jewish calendar to determine the dates of what were now deemed to be Christian festivals. Those who continued keeping the true Christian Passover as handed down from the apostles had to go into hiding, for they were targeted along with other "heretics" by the church under Constantine and his successors.
Church historian Henry Chadwick points out about the Easter controversy: "Victor of Rome's intervention [referring to the earlier Roman bishop Victor's ruling to observe Easter instead of the Christian Passover or be excommunicated] turned out to be successful in the sense that his view was eventually to prevail. But it was a long time before those who kept Easter [i.e., the true Passover, it being misnamed here] on the fourteenth day (nicknamed Quartodecimans) died out.
"The group still existed in the ninth century despite the vigor with which church councils deplored them. It was impossible in so weighty a practical question for diversity to be allowed, but there can be little doubt that the Quartodecimans were right in thinking that they had preserved the most ancient and apostolic custom. They had become heretics simply by being behind the times" ( The Early Church, 1967, p. 85).
So from approximately 325 to 1585, a period of 1,260 years, Christians who continued to follow the Bible's instruction about Passover had to flee and hide from the vicious church and state persecutions during those ensuing centuries.
The curtain finally rises on the period of religious persecution
It was only during the time of Elizabethan England that a measure of religious tolerance was granted and the inheritors of the legacy of those early Jewish and gentile Christians, who followed the original practices of Jesus and the apostles, could finally emerge.
In 1585, England and Spain went to war, mainly over the attempt of Spain to militarily impose the Catholic faith on England. Spain lost the war, and also its famed Spanish Armada, so England was free to continue its religious tolerance—which eventually spread to its colonies abroad, including what became the United States and Canada.
Interestingly, there is a prophecy in the Bible which describes how the Church, symbolized by a woman, would have to flee and hide in safety for 1,260 days (Revelation:12:1-6). According to Scripture, a "day" in a prophetic context can represent a year (see Numbers:14:34; Ezekiel:4:6). So this period mentioned in Revelation 12 could well refer to the Church having to flee from the vicious persecutions during those terrible 1,260 years—until those dark ages ended and a new era of religious tolerance began.
In large part thanks to what happened then, we enjoy those same freedoms of worship in advanced nations of the world today.
The returning Christ will lead the world to keep God's festivals
Let's move forward to the 21st century. From what we have read, dare we ask if there is something better and more biblical to observe than Easter?
To answer this, just imagine in your mind the following scene: Jesus Christ has finally returned to rule on the earth, just as He had promised (Matthew:24:30).
And note what will happen, as foretold in Zechariah:14:3-19: "Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east ... And the Lord shall be King over all the earth ...
"And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles [one of God's annual festivals, listed in Leviticus 23]. And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain.
"If the family of Egypt will not come up and enter in, they shall have no rain; they shall receive the plague with which the Lord strikes the nations who do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles."
Yet that is not the only festival all will be required to observe. Jesus will command all to celebrate God's weekly Sabbath and all His appointed annual feasts, and those who don't will be sternly disciplined. At last, all the nations will accept His rule and will observe His teachings. Then there will finally be joy, peace and harmony on the earth.
Included then among the required festival observances will be not Easter, but the true Christian Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread immediately following.
What Easter replaced—the Christian Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread
Shortly before His death, Jesus prophesied to His disciples what feast He would keep when He returned. Again, it was not the manmade counterfeit Easter. Rather, He said, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke:22:15-16). Clearly, one of the festivals Christ will again celebrate when He establishes His Kingdom is the Christian Passover!
Similarly, the apostle Paul reminded Church members in Corinth to keep the Christian Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed it. He wrote: "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians:5:7-8).
These true feasts of God were banished from the mainstream Christian calendar when the Council of Nicaea ruled that people were not to follow biblical instruction with regard to the feasts, but rather to eventually set up a different reckoning of time. As we have seen, the Nicene Council targeted the first of the annual biblical feasts—the Christian Passover—and there they chose instead Easter Sunday. Logically, since the seven annual feasts of God are grouped together as a unit in Leviticus 23, this decree would also affect the keeping of the other listed feasts as well.
This substitution of manmade feasts for the feasts of the Bible should not be taken lightly. It was prophesied centuries earlier in the book Daniel that such change would eventually be attempted, when a future haughty ruler would try to change the biblical dates and laws. (And considering that much of Bible prophecy is dual, these changes may be a forerunner of similar changes to occur during the end times.)
Speaking of this development, God had foretold in Daniel:7:25: "He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law"— dates on the calendar and biblical festivals, among other vile revisions. Remember, only the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, should determine which days are God's Holy Days and when they are to be kept—instead of looking to manmade traditions.
So yes, there is something available that is far better and more satisfying than Easter, and that is the Christian Passover, which was celebrated by the apostles of Jesus and the early Church. And although it was largely stamped out after the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, God's faithful people continued to celebrate this deeply meaningful biblical festival in spite of the threat of persecution and even death.
We can look forward to the day when Jesus Christ returns and restores all the genuine Christian feasts that were changed by deceived and deluded men in the distant past. The good news is that we can now celebrate all His feasts and rejoice in them every year—having wonderful fellowship and, as Jesus foretold in John:4:23-24, truly worshipping God in spirit and truth.