When Was Easter?

Easter Sunday is April 21st this year, but other years it can fall anywhere between March 21st and April 25th. The date of Easter moves around the calendar because we celebrate it on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, on or after our first day of spring. In this, the Church echoes how the ancient, Jewish feast day of Passover was determined. Which raises a question: what’s the historical date of the very first Easter?

By pairing the four Gospels with other historical records we can narrow down the first Easter’s exact date. Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist’s, which Luke reports began “in the fifteenth year of the reign of [the Roman Emperor] Tiberius Caesar,” or 29 AD. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus to death ruled Judea from 26 to 36 AD. We also know Jesus was crucified on a Friday the day before a Passover. There were only two such dates between 29 and 36 AD (namely, in 30 and 33 AD.) Finally, John’s Gospel notes three distinct Passovers (a timespan of at least two years) during the ministry of Jesus, which rules out 30 AD as too early to be Easter. Therefore, we can precisely pinpoint several of Christianity’s most important historic dates:

  • Holy Thursday – April 2nd, 33 AD – The Last Supper & beginning of the Passion
  • Good Friday – April 3rd, 33 AD – Jesus Passion, Crucifixion at noon, & Death at 3 p.m.
  • Easter Sunday – April 5th, 33 AD – Jesus’ Resurrection in early morning
  • Pentecost Sunday – May 24th, 33 AD – Descent of the Holy Spirit at 9 a.m.

Our Catholic Faith, our Christian religion, cannot be dismissed as a misty myth from “once upon a time.” Jesus of Nazareth was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and died, was buried and rose in actual history. As Pope Benedict XVI famously wrote in his first encyclical, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Jesus Christ is a real person who once lived and still lives today.

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