Easter & Passover: A History of Bigotry

canstockphoto25967427Sometimes when I start to write something it takes a life of its own and sends me in directions I didn’t intend to go. This is one such blog. It started out as an article for Easter morning, but my research led me to some things that fundamentally altered where I was being taken—dark things that needed to be brought to light, just not on Easter. So I’ve waited a few days. Not everyone will agree with it, not everyone will like it, but this needs to be said, and this needs to be discussed.

It’s impossible to know the exact year when Jesus was crucified. We don’t know the date of Jesus’ birth—best estimates place it in 7-6 B.C.E.

We don’t know how old he was when he began his ministry—Luke 3:23 says “around thirty”, but depending on your definition of “around” that could be 27-33.

We don’t know how long his ministry lasted before he was executed. It’s commonly accepted that it was around three years but that is based on the fact that John mentions three Passovers during Jesus’ ministry—but there could have been more. There’s indications from John 8:57 and from the Church Father Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John, that Jesus was around fifty when he was crucified.

Nonetheless, though we aren’t sure what year he died, when we look back at the years when it was possible that Jesus was crucified we can say that occurred sometime between early April and early May.

That’s because we know that he was crucified during Passover, and Passover always begins on 14 Nisan in the Jewish calendar.

You would think that Christianity would associate the date of Easter with that of Passover, but that is not the case—not anymore, anyway.

Back in 325, however, the Council of Nicaea established that Easter would occur on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox, and that it would always occur after the Passover.

Why the change?

This occurred just a dozen or so years after Constantine converted to Christianity and started preferential treatment of Christians in the Roman Empire.

Constantine remained neutral toward the pagan religions, even if Christians didn’t, but by 325 anti-Jewish sentiment was entrenched in Christianity, and this was the reason that Easter was disassociated with Passover.

Part of this anti-Jewish passion was because of the persecution of the Jews by Rome following the Jewish revolt in Palestine in 132-5; the now largely Gentile Christian leadership wanted to separate the church from its Jewish roots so as to not get swept up in the persecution.

It is nonetheless clear, however, that the church had developed some very strong anti-Jewish sentiments by the time Constantine privileged them.

In a letter after the council, as recorded by Theodoret, Constantine said

It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. By rejecting their custom, we establish and hand down to succeeding ages one which is more reasonable, and which has been observed ever since the day of our Lord’s sufferings. Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries.

The bishops went along with his wishes, most likely because they agreed with him and his prejudice against the Jews.

This both saddens and angers me.

In spite of the clear teaching of the New Testament, bigotry and discrimination are an ugly part of Christian history.  In all of Paul’s letters you see him imploring Jewish believers and Gentile believers to love one another.

It’s in almost of all of his letters in one form or another. They had a hard time getting it.

Sadly, it seems we still don’t.

Remember, the Holocaust occurred in a nation filled with Christians.

It’s not just anti-Semitism that has marred the church’s history, but racism in general. When you consider that at one time it was possible to be both a good Christian and a slaveholder, you know this infection has been a part of us for a long time.

When you consider that in my lifetime it was possible to be both a good Christian and a person who refused to serve African-Americans at your restaurant, you know this is something that isn’t easily rooted out.

At the very least this means that evangelical theology (at least the Southern version, although that has come to be the most pervasive version) was such that it had nothing to say about either of these evils. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that evangelical theology actually supported these two evils.

That, in effect if not in intent, the theology I grew up on supported the subjugation of one people to another.

Think about that for a second.

Don’t like to?

Neither do I, but there it is.

I’m not saying that the Bible supports it—it doesn’t—but our reading of it did. And in many minds, that’s the same thing.

It’s sadly ironic that in the time of year when we commemorate that Jesus died as the ultimate and final scapegoat, the death that was supposed to end all scapegoating, we still find ways to scapegoat whole classes of people, and in the name of religion no less.

I don’t care if their religion is not Christian—as I just showed, ours hasn’t always been either.

I don’t care if their lifestyle is sinful—let the one whose lifestyle is not sinful cast the first stone.

Jesus died to end scapegoating, and we cannot call ourselves his disciples while we still do it. Neither can we say that we are doing in love, to get them to see the error of their ways.

Scapegoating in anti-Christian.

Bigotry in all forms is anti-Christian.

Discrimination in all forms is anti-Christian.

We’ve been doing it for far too long, and it is damaging the image of Christ.

Stop doing it. Stop defending it. Stop calling it something else in order to defend it.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. 

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ArkadiyBa

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