When did Christians begin to celebrate Easter?

The following entry has been reproduced from Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament by Markus Vinzent, published 2011 by Ashgate Publishing Ltd. Book can be purchased here.

If, after the year 70 AD, Christianity evolved within a Jewish environment that was cult reluctant, how and what did they celebrate? Pharisees and Rabbis structured their time according to the Pharisaic lunar calendar; the Samaritans, like the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, used the solar one. Those Christians who came from non-Jewish backgrounds brought along their own religious and cultural festivals and liturgical habits, some of which we find gradually introduced into an emerging Christian liturgical directory.

We should not see ‘Sunday liturgies’ in ‘all the Easter visions of the New Testament that carry a time indication’.[i] Conflicting evidence with regard to the time and location of Christ’s appearances should make us sceptical. Some sources suggest Saturday evening, some Sunday morning.[ii] In Matthew 28:1 the women go to the empty tomb at the end of the Sabbath, hence the evening of the beginning Sunday; in John 20:1 it is in the morning, ‘early, when it was still dark’; in Mark 16:2 a little later, ‘just when the sun had risen’; Luke 24:1 reports that it was ‘on the first day of the week, very early in the morning’. Similarly, while Luke and John locate the Resurrection appearances in or around Jerusalem, Mark, Matthew and John place them in Galilee; we read ‘in the country’ in the later ending of Mark, on the way to Damascus in Acts and Paul.

Theologians often like to deduce historical information from the Gospels, finding in that information a reflection of liturgical practices. In this case we would need to conclude that the variety in both timing and location highlights that early Christians had not developed a uniform tradition of celebrating the Lord’s day, and that the Lord’s day is not directly connected with Easter, nor does it belong to the very beginning of Christianity.[iii] The ‘conventional explanation of the Christian Sunday’, which has been ‘based on the fact of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday’, an ‘opportunity for Christians to remember it every week on the Sunday’, has been dismissed.[iv]

The New Testament never refers to the ‘day of the Resurrection’, a name that appears much later in Christianity; instead, any naming and dating remains closely linked to the Jewish Sabbath. Both Paul and Luke speak of ‘the first day after the Sabbath’ (μία σαββάτου).[vi] We find in the New Testament no trace of any linking of the Christian gathering to the Resurrection that could have suggested ‘that one should introduce a new sacred day in its memory; on the contrary one could cite Origen representing the early Christian scepticism to highlight the Sunday:

“For the perfect Christian every day is a Lord’s day”’.[vii] Nothing ‘indicates that the first weekday in the life of the early church was a “holy day” on an analogy with the Sabbath in the life of the Jewish people’.

Indeed, a glance at the social circumstances permits us to understand that the small groups of people mostly recruited from the lower classes of society which composed the first Christian communities had no practical possibility of simply deciding to set aside a special weekday as their holy day, turning aside from the daily habits of their surroundings. Such an assumption is unrealistic and also lacks support from the sources.[viii]

Hence, there is no ‘simple explanation’ that ‘Sunday is observed because Jesus rose on that day’; on the contrary, it is ‘a petitio principii’ whereby scholars have a fixed idea according to their own weekly practice, whereas in early Christianity the celebration might just as well have been a ‘monthly or annual’ gathering and ‘still be an observance of that particular day’.[ix] If the origin of the ‘Sunday’ does not lie in the Easter experience, then where does the ‘Sunday’ and its combination with the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ come from? When did Christians first gather to ‘break bread’ on the first day of the week? ‘The justification of the Sunday feast with reference to Jesus’ Resurrection surfaces only in the second century with great reluctance’, and is mentioned in only three of our many sources (IgnMagn. 9:1; Barn. 15:9; Justin, 1Apol 67:7), as we shall discuss below.

In the earliest texts which bear on the Christian Sunday there is absolutely no mention of Jesus’ Resurrection, and when the Resurrection does appear [in the three mentioned texts] one has the impression that this motivation may be a secondary addition.[x]

Finally, in Justin’s First Apology (67:7) the primary motivation for the observance of Sunday is to commemorate the first day of the creation of the world and only secondarily the Resurrection of Jesus. It is only at the end of a long process that the title ἀναστάσιμος ἡμέρα occurs for Sunday. For a long while previously it had been called ‘the first day of the week’, ‘the Lord’s day’, ‘the eighth day’ and ‘Sunday’.[xi]

In Judaism, the first day of ‘Pentecost’ always fell on the first day of the week. However, Christian observance of this day is attested only from the second half of the second century,[xii] and it was not a day of joy or celebration in the Jewish calendar. Some scholars, therefore, link the Christian breaking of bread on the Lord’s day not with Pentecost, but with the Jewish Paschal meal, a stance defended, for example, by Gustav Bickell in 1872,[xiii] but called ‘very artificial’ by Anton Baumstark.[xiv]

1Clement 40:2-5 advocates a strict keeping of festival times, stating that:

He commanded us to celebrate sacrifices and services, and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has himself fixed by his supreme will the places and persons whom he desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to his good pleasure, and be acceptable to his will. So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, for they follow the laws of the Master and do no sin. For to the High Priest his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests the proper place has been appointed, and on Levites their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity.

Christian communities continued to celebrate at least some traditional Jewish feasts, and developed these further; they do not appear to have started off by introducing new ones.



[i] Pace R. Staats, ‘Auferstehung II/2’ (1979), 514.

[ii] See Acts 20:6–12; Pliny the Younger, Ep. X 96,7; Matth. 28:1; Luke 24:28–43; John 20:19–26; R. Staats, ‘Sonntagnachtgottesdienste’ (1975), 244.

[iii] R. Bauckham, ‘Lord’s day’ (1982), 235: ‘We conclude that the accounts of the Resurrection appearances permit no demonstrable case that Sunday worship originated at that time’; ‘[t]here is no unambiguous evidence that Easter was ever called simply κυριακή’ (ibid., 230); ‘even patristic defenses of Sunday observance are notable for their failure to appeal to a command of the risen Lord’ (ibid., 233).

[iv] W. Rordorf, Sabbat (1972), xv–xvi, is more or less a quote (not indicated) of H. Riesenfeld, ‘Sabbat’ (1958), 212; S. Bacchiocchi, Sabbath (1977), 74–5.

See H. Riesenfeld, ‘Sabbath’ (1970), 124; although when he refers to Origen (C. Cels. VIII 22) his argument that the Resurrection dominated the accounts of the New Testament, including the epistles, seems anachronistic.

[vi] See 1Cor. 16:2; Acts 20:7; E. Schürer, ‘Woche’ (1905), 2–3.

[vii] H. Riesenfeld, ‘Sabbat’ (1958), 212; Orig., C. Cels. VIII 22; however, Origen here is only reflecting a cynical idea of the whole of life being a feast (see Diogenes according to Plutarch, De tranq. an. 20), also known from Philo, De spec. leg. II 42, 46; see M. Klinghardt, ‘Feiertag’ (1991), 206–7.

[viii] Riesenfeld, ‘Sabbath’ (1970), 124–5.

[ix] .Bacchiocchi, Sabbath (1977), 75; see the earlier study by S.V. McCasland, ‘Origin’ (1930); similarly later C.W. Dugmore, ‘Easter’ (1962), 273.

[x] W. Rordorf, Sunday (1968), 220, continues: ‘For instance, we read, in the first place, in Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians (9:1) that … [the Lord’s day] was observed “on which also” (ἐν ᾗ καί) our life sprang up through him [sc. Jesus] and his death [referring our resurrection to Jesus’ death, not to Jesus’ Resurrection]. And again, one reads in the Epistle of Barnabas (ch. 15) that the Christians celebrate the eighth day of the week, “on which day also (ἐν ᾗ καί) Jesus rose from the dead”’.

[xi] W. Rordorf, Sunday (1968), 220, summarizing H. Riesenfeld, ‘Sabbat’ (1958), 212.

[xii] J. V. Goudoever, Calendars (2rev.1961), 165.

[xiii] G. Bickell, Messe (1872; trans. 1891), 161–2 (with older lit.).

[xiv] See also E. Lanne, ‘Liturgie’ (2001) (and other contributions in the volume of proceedings on this conference on Baumstark, who, although deeply affected by National Socialist ideology, was an early critic of an ideological reading of liturgical history); on the question of the relation of Easter to Pascha see the controversial literature in G. Visonà, ‘Ostern/Osterfest/Osterpredigt’ (1995), 518 (he himself sees Easter as the opening of Pentecost).


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