There is no agreed upon way to set a date for the Christian Passover. The most authentic way to date the Christian Passover is to use the cycles of the moon and the vernal equinox. This is how the day of Passover would have been set in the year Jesus was crucified.
Many Christians are informed that Jesus is our Passover Lamb. But if Christians are supposed to celebrate Passover instead of Easter, this raises some issues. To start, when should the Christian Passover be celebrated? Should we use date of Passover on a calendar or celebrate Passover on Easter Sunday?
The Christian Passover is simply the time of the year when Jesus was delivered up and crucified, becoming our Passover Lamb. However, there is surprisingly little agreement on when the Christian Passover should be recognized. For a number of reasons, there is no agreed upon way to determine this time of the year, and set a date for Passover.
There are several difficulties in trying to set a date for the Christian Passover. Many assume we can look up the date of the year that Jesus was crucified, and make this the Passover every year. However, this isn't possible because we don't know the date Jesus was crucified. Further, the nation of Israel used an entirely different calendar system from the one we use nowadays.
Our modern calendar is based on a solar calendar. We measure years by cycles of the earth going around the sun. However, ancient Israel used a lunar calendar. The Hebrew word for month means literally "new moon", because they used the lunar cycle to measure the passage of time. One cycle of the moon was roughly one month, and then the days and years were set by this metric.
Further, this ancient system was, in part, an observational system. The changing of the months and years depended, in part, on certain natural observations. The religious authorities would look at the moon, and also other indicators like the ripening of crops (1), and use this information to "set" the dates of the year.
Because times and dates were set this way, no one knows exactly when the Passover occurred in the year Jesus was crucified. It would have depended on when the authorities had recognized the changing of the months and years (2). This would have depended on previous years, and in part, on observations made that year.
We've established that we don't have an exact "solar" date for the Christian Passover, but this doesn't mean we can't celebrate it. We can simply use the Hebrew system for determining the date of Passover. We can then set this date into our calendar system as the Christian Passover.
There is disagreement here, but I believe using the Hebrew system is the most authentic way to set the Passover date. Jesus was a Jew, living among Jews in the nation of Israel, and crucified by Jewish religious authorities. Thus the Hebrew lunar calendar is the most authentic way to set a date for the Christian Passover.
In the Hebrew system, the Passover occurs on the same day every year. The Passover starts on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the religious year. So the goal is to know when this date occurs on our calendar. To find this date we have two main options.
The first option to determine the 15th of Nisan is simply to look on a modern Hebrew calendar. This calendar sets the date for Passover, and other Jewish holidays, according to our calendar. For example the 15th of Nisan might fall on April 12th one year, and March 30th another year. Using this method we'd be celebrating Christ as our Passover on the same day when religious Jews celebrate Passover.
This method is an acceptable way to date the Christian Passover, but it does have a major flaw. The problem is that the modern Jewish calendar isn't the same as the the ancient one. It was developed later, after the nation had been effectively destroyed and dispersed (3). Thus the modern Jewish calendar is not a true continuation of the calendar used when Jesus was crucified.
The next, and I believe better option, is to determine the Passover by using cycles of the moon. This is how it would have been done in ancient Israel, at the time Jesus walked the earth. This method is also fairly easy thanks to modern astronomy.
The Jewish months were set according to the cycles of the moon. The months would end when the moon disappeared. The next month would begin when the thin crescent of a "new moon" was confirmed by at least two witnesses (3). In other words, what we call the "new moon" was the close of one month and the start of the next month. Twelve of these cycles would roughly equal one Hebrew year.
This means that there would be a full moon close to the middle of every Jewish month. Because the 15th of Nisan is near the middle of the month, we know that the year Jesus was crucified the Passover would have fallen on a full moon. Every year, for the most part, the Passover would have started around the time of a full moon.
The bible documents this, "Blow the trumpet at the new moon, At the full moon, on our feast-day" (Psalm 81.3 ASV bible). In ancient Israel the Passover feast day would typically come around the time of the full moon.
One of the problems with a lunar calendar is that twelve lunar months is shorter than one solar year. So over time the days of the lunar calendar fall earlier and earlier in the solar year. This means that there must be corrections put into the lunar calendar to keep the seasons inline.
The bible is clear that the Passover was to be celebrated in the spring (Deuteronomy 16.1). However, nothing is said about how to ensure that the Passover falls in spring every year. If we recognize the Passover in the spring of one year, and then count 12 lunar months, it will come earlier each subsequent year.
Traditionally the religious authorities would stop this seasonal "slide" by adding an extra month to the year every few years (3). They decided whether or not to add the extra month by looking at a number of factors, including the vernal equinox and the ripening of certain crops (1). Then if appropriate, the year was lengthened and the Passover pushed forward a month.
There is no way for modern Christians or Jews to account for this decision making process. There is no governing body like the San Hedrin to declare when the month of Nisan should start. Finally, because the scriptures don't specify how to keep the Passover in the spring, we should consider various methods for doing this.
The best way to keep the Christian Passover in the spring is to use the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox is the exact time of the year when the northern hemisphere enters its growing season. It's the most accepted and accurate way to determine the start of spring in the region of the world where Israel is located. Thus, the Christian Passover should always be set according to the date of the vernal equinox.
In order to find the date of the Christian Passover, one first looks up the vernal equinox for a given year. This is the start of spring in Palestine. Then one finds the day of the first full moon after, on, or at most one day before the vernal equinox. In other words, one finds the earliest full moon that isn't more than 24 hours before the equinox. All this is easily accomplished using astronomical charts. When looking at the charts use the full moon time for the city of Jerusalem.
The sunset of the day of the full moon begins the 14th of Nisan, when the last supper occurred and Jesus was betrayed (Mark 14.12). The day after the full moon is the day of the crucifixion, when Jesus died around 3 PM (ninth hour). Jesus was placed in the tomb before sunset on this day. Then the sunset of the day after the full moon is when the 15th of Nisan starts. This is the time of the full Passover "seder" (John 19.14).
This is somewhat confusing, but note that the earliest full moon is allowed to fall on the same day as the vernal equinox or one day before it. The reason is that the Jewish month doesn't start until the new moon can be sighted. Typically the full moon comes 13-14 days after the new moon can be seen (4). Thus the full moon marks the 14th of Nisan, and the Passover comes one day later.
In Jesus' time, the San Hedrin would allow the 15th of Nisan (Passover) to come as early as the vernal equinox, but not before it (1). So if the full moon marks the 14th of Nisan it can come at most one day before vernal equinox. This ensures that the Passover isn't any earlier than the equinox.
Of course this method isn't perfect because we don't know when exactly Jesus was crucified. However, this method best follows the intent, and is most consistent with the principles of the ancient Hebrew calendar, because it goes by cycles of the moon, and the start of spring.
Christianity, of course, is not a religion based on the observance of times and seasons. Knowing the historical date of Jesus' crucifixion is not as important as understanding that he is our Passover Lamb. However, recognizing the start of Passover, and possibly having a Passover meal can be enjoyable.
|Christ's Betrayal||March 23 (after sunset)||April 11 (after sunset)||March 31 (after sunset)||March 21 (after sunset)||April 08 (after sunset)||March 28 (after sunset)||April 16 (after sunset)||April 06 (after sunset)|
|Christ's Crucifixion||March 24 (daytime)||April 12 (daytime)||April 1 (daytime)||March 22 (daytime)||April 09 (daytime)||March 29 (daytime)||April 17 (daytime)||April 07 (daytime)|
|Christian Passover||March 24 (after sunset)||April 12 (after sunset)||April 1 (after sunset)||March 22 (after sunset)||April 09 (after sunset)||March 29 (after sunset)||April 17 (after sunset)||April 07 (after sunset)|
References: (1) Menachem Posner; ""How Does the Spring Equinox Relate to the Timing of Passover?"; chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/495531/jewish/How-Does-the-Spring-Equinox-Relate-to-the-Timing-of-Passover.htm, (2016); chabad.org. (2) Claus Tondering; "When was Passover in AD 30?"; tondering.dk/claus/cal/hebrew.php, (2016); tondering.dk. (3) Tracey R. Rich; "Jewish Calendar"; jewfaq.org/calendar.htm, (2016); jewfaq.org. (4) "Crescent Moon Visibility"; aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/crescent.php, (2016); aa.usno.mil.
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