THE PASSOVER-EASTER DISPUTE by Rabbi Dr. Mark Kinzer
The story told and celebrated on Passover and Easter is essentially one and the same story, viewed from two different angles. It’s the story of God’s redeeming power, bringing freedom to Israel, the nations, and all creation. This story is the beating heart that sustains both Israel and the Church, and its telling brings to Jewish disciples of Yeshua nothing but joy.
But there is another story here that we remember, and it is distressing rather than joyful. It’s the story of how these two holidays were forcibly separated from one another, and became hostile competitors in the hands of the two warring communities that observed them. My task is to tell this second story, but in doing so we must never lose sight of the first. After all, it is God’s love in the Messiah that makes possible the repair of what has been broken through the troubled history of our two communities.
The first disciples of Yeshua, all Jews, lived according to the traditional Jewish calendar. The holiday of Passover had special significance for them, since it was in the Passover season that Yeshua was crucified and raised from the dead. Paul speaks of Yeshua as the Passover lamb, and asks the Corinthians to observe the feast with the matzah of “sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:6-8). For them, this was one holiday, telling one story of God’s redeeming love.
Many of the early disciples of Yeshua also seem to have added something new to the Jewish calendar, at least it in its weekly rhythm. They saw special significance in the “first day of the week [mia sabbatou]” (1 Cor 16:2), and appear to have gathered regularly in the evening after Shabbat ended to “break bread” (Acts 20:7). Most likely this was a way to remember the resurrection of the Messiah, which occurred on the first day of the week.
As for the way the early disciples of Yeshua celebrated Passover, we can only speculate. We do not really know very much about how any first century Jews celebrated Passover, especially when they were outside Jerusalem and unable to eat of the Passover sacrifice.
But we do learn something of one set of customs that existed in the early second century. These followers of Jesus would fast on the 14th of Nissan, study the twelfth chapter of Exodus, and pray for the Jewish people. They would break their fast sometime after midnight, not by eating a large Passover meal, but by celebrating the Eucharist. In this way they focused their observance especially on the redemptive death of Jesus, whose blood, like that of the Passover lamb, brought true liberation.
Some second century Christians found this practice troubling. Why? Because it made the Jesus-community dependent on the Jewish community for the ordering of their calendar. After all, it was the Jewish community which determined the official beginning of each lunar month, and which decided when to add leap months to bring the religious calendar in line with the solar year.
Moreover, celebrating the redemption accomplished by Jesus on the same day as Passover made the practice of the Jesus-community quite similar to that of the Jewish world. This added to the dissatisfaction of those who wanted to draw a clear line between the two communities.
By the end of the second century most of the Church seems to have modified the earlier practice by moving the fast to the Friday after Passover, and by making Sunday the day of Christian celebration. In addition to distinguishing their practice from that of the Jewish community, this had the added advantage of connecting the annual commemoration of the death of Jesus with the weekly celebration of his resurrection. Now one could focus on the death of Jesus on the Friday after Passover, and his resurrection on Sunday.
Some held firm to the earlier approach, which more closely resembled Jewish practice. But increasingly they were treated as outliers, or even as heretics or schismatics.
But the majority were still not satisfied. Despite moving the celebration to a Sunday, the Jesus-community remained dependent on the Jewish community for the reckoning of the holiday, since it was always set to occur on the Sunday of Passover week. As Christians developed an identity separate from that of the Jewish people, and viewed the Jews as rivals, this sort of dependence became intolerable.
In the fourth century they took the final step, deciding that the date of Easter would be fixed not according to the Jewish calendar but in relation to the vernal equinox. Some resisted the new rule, but eventually it became universal.
Up to this point our tale of two holidays is sad, but not yet tragic.
The transition from division to devastation occurs only in the Middle Ages. By that time Holy Week, and Good Friday in particular, had become an occasion to focus not only on the suffering of Jesus but also on the treachery of the Jews. Passion-plays and Holy Week sermons reminded the people that the Jews were guilty for murdering God. Malicious rumors circulated that Jews used the blood of Christian children in the making of Passover matzoh. As a result, attacks on Jewish communities were not uncommon at this time of year. Holy week was a fearful time to be a Jew.
Naturally, anti-Christian elements also became part of the Jewish celebration of Passover. However, these elements were less overt, in order to avoid further provocation to violence. But if you know where to look for them, you can certainly find them!
Thankfully, the antisemitic aspects of holy week and Easter have been rejected by most Christians since the Holocaust.
Purified of the dross, the religious genius of the Christian liturgies of East and West shines like the sun in a cloudless sky. Living in an ecumenical community for twenty years, I encountered the spiritual richness of holy week and Easter first- hand, and did so in a context in which Passover was likewise honored. We live in a time of new possibilities.
But we Jews are a people of memory, and we cannot and should not forget this sad tale of two holidays. And as Jewish disciples of Jesus we are continually summoned to the work of tikkun—the task of repairing the torn fabric of relationships between Jews and Christians, between Jews and Jesus. That task involves acknowledging past wounds—remembering them, not to accentuate the pain - but to clear the way for true healing.
As we reflect on how to best approach this season, let us not forget the sad tale of two holidays, but let us regard it in the far greater light of the story which is at the heart of them both—the glorious victory of the God of Israel in Messiah Yeshua, for Israel, the Church, and all creation.
This message was first presented to the members of Yachad beYeshua, “Uniting Jewish Disciples of Jesus,” on April 12, 2022. Used by permission, yachad-beyeshua.org/.