Many people never think about the date of Easter. This year (2016) most Christians in North America will celebrate Easter early, March 27th. Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter over a month later on May 1, 2016. The reason why goes back to the early centuries of the church.
So first, how is the date of Easter decided? Well, there is a formula. In the west Catholics and Protestants schedule Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the first day of Spring). That formula was decided in the early centuries AD as Christian leaders felt a need to distinguish themselves from their Jewish neighbors and co-religionists.
Scholars today disagree on”the parting of the ways,” that is, the period when the religions we know today at Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways. Some think the divide was complete in the first century AD, others the second, still others the fourth. The point is there is good evidence of close collaboration for centuries between Jews, Jewish Jesus followers and non-Jewish Jesus followers.
It is important to remember that at first all the followers of Jesus were Jews. They kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, circumcised their male sons on the 8th day; in other words they lived Jewishly. But as the Jesus movement grew, it became primarily a non-Jewish phenomenon. There were stresses and strains and ultimately fissures and cracks. It became clear to practitioners of the two religions–if these movements can be classified by the modern term “religion”–that they had different destinies.
The Church Councils in Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381) set out to define creeds, practices, Christology, and the date of Easter among other things. The first generations of Christians related the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to the Jewish Passover, the season when these terrible, wonderful events occurred. The Passover is itself a feast that moves around on our calendar (this year, April 22-30, 2016), though it is stable in the Jewish calendar (Nissan 15-22). Eventually Church leaders decided to sever Easter from anything having to do with the Jewish Passover. By then, it seems, the parting of the ways is complete.
All religions or groups define themselves over against others. This is a natural and normal feature of all groups. Eventually these differences take on the form of a “checklist.” Christians are those who believe X, Y, Z and practice 1, 2, 3. Jews, on the other hand, do not believe X, Y, Z and have a different set of practices. These boundary markers were unclear at first; it was possible in the first century to be a Jesus follower and a Jew at the same time. Over time the differences become clear and stark; now a Jew who becomes a follower of Jesus is no longer a Jew but a Christian.
I’m working on the final chapters of a book for Baker Academic Press, An Early High Christology: Paul, the Lord Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel. It should come out in fall 2017. Along the way I’ve come across Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012). Boyarin is a well known Talmudic scholar, a professor at University of California, Berkley.
Boyarin makes a cogent case that for the first few centuries (AD or CE, if you prefer), the situation between Jews and Christians was complicated. There were Jewish Jesus-followers who kept kosher and non-Jewish Jesus-followers who did not. These seemed to exist more or less side-by-side in churches and synagogues up until the Council of Nicea (AD 325). In important ways this was a time before the parting of the ways had occurred, and Judaism and Christianity were not distinguishable religions. In fact, Boyarin argues, the whole notion of what a religion is or is not is modern not ancient one. In particular, movements were not set apart by checklists of beliefs or confessions as they are now. Jewishness was then as it is now an amalgamation of ethnicity and practices. As many scholars have argued, religious movements were distinguished by their practices more so than their beliefs.
Some Jews of the second temple period, Boyarin thinks, were expecting a second divine figure to be incarnated as a human. He knows of course that this is a controversial statement but he goes about working through biblical and extra-biblical texts to make the case.
Christology, that is, thoughts and ideas about Jesus’ significance, is first of all a “Jewish discourse” before it becomes an anti-Jewish discourse (p. 6). Many Jews apparently accepted Jesus as God because they were awaiting a divine Messiah to come to earth in human form (incarnation). Some of those Jews, predisposed as they were to these beliefs, went on to accept Jesus as that divine figure. Others said, “Not so fast” because they didn’t think this particular, unremarkable Jew fit the bill.
Boyarin’s entire project calls into question those interpreters, like Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, who think Jesus was a Jewish prophet who is exalted and came to be regarded as divine “in some sense.” This escalation of Jesus from human to divine status took place, according to some scholars, outside Judaism where the constraints of monotheism were no longer viable. Boyarin regards Christology as a Jewish conversation through and through.
Boyarin’s book is worth a read. I find myself in broad agreement with him about many aspects of the origins of Christianity. For example, he challenges the accepted notion that the title “Son of Man” is a reference to Jesus’ humanity while “Son of God” refers to his deity. I have for years contended the opposite. The “Son of Man” designation links Jesus to Daniel’s vision (ch. 7) of a heavenly figure who comes upon the clouds (a clear, theophanic description) and is granted an everlasting kingdom. So “Son of Man” is actually a divine not human title (I’m aware of the debate whether “the Son of Man” is a title: I’m not arguing that here). “Son of God” is originally a designation of the royal Davidic King (2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps 2:7; 4QFlorilegium), and therefore a human not a divine figure. There are many other points of agreement I have with him. What I am not yet convinced that the belief in a divine-Messiah actually precedes Christianity. What do you think?
I chair an SBL group called “The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.” This fall when we meet in San Antonio (November 2016), one of our sessions will be dedicated to a review of Judith Lieu’s new book, Marcion the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Lieu offers one of the most comprehensive accounts of his controversial life and influence. Marcion was the arch-heretic of his day. Most of what we know about Marcion comes from opponents such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen.
Marcion was one of the most prominent figures of the second century. His teachings about God, Jesus, creation, and Scripture caused his detractors to define clearly what they considered the right teaching and practices ought to be.
If you are in San Antonio this fall, come and join us.