It has become common for Christians seeking to recover the Jewish roots of their faith to claim that the Church celebrations are on the wrong dates and therefore these Church dates are of pagan origin.
Christians holding to this view seek a return to “God’s appointed feasts” (Leviticus 23). I have generally found that Messianic Jews do not make these assertions as much as Christians who have attached themselves to Messianic congregations or to the Jewish people in general. Internet communication has made this claim very common. What a message is being given to most Christians – they are compromised by paganism! Easter and Pentecost are the wrong dates due to paganism, and Christmas is wholly rooted in paganism. This is such a divisive claim that we had better be sure that it is really grounded in factual evidence.
The evidence for this claim is not clear cut. In the past, we have argued that Christians in this age are not responsible for the Jewish calendar, which is part of a covenant made with the Jewish people. Acts 15, Romans 14, Colossians 2, and Galatians make this quite clear. However, the Church has embraced a yearly calendar cycle of celebration and gathering. The less traditional celebrate weekly on Sundays and yearly at Christmas (in early January in the Eastern Churches), Easter and Pentecost. More traditional churches include many more dates built around a year designed to recognize events in the life of Yeshua: His circumcision and dedication, Lent, Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension Day, All Saints Day and more.
I believe that the problem with the Church days of celebration is not the dating, but that they are not anchored in their ancient roots. This has allowed some pagan symbolism and interpretation to be imposed upon the celebrations. It is not our part to criticize the Church for its dating. Rather, a return to Jewish roots is a return to Jewish contexts for understanding, an embrace of Jewish believers who obey their calling to remain within and witness to the Jewish community, and an affirmation of Jewish life. Let me suggest some reasons why I think that the claims against Church celebrations as pagan on the basis of incorrect dating are wrong.
1. The Rabbis teach that the dates of the Feasts are set by man; only the Sabbath is set by God. What does this mean? We know the right day for the Sabbath, as it is simply the seventh day week after week. However, when we deal with the annual biblical calendar, we have a major problem. How shall we bring the cycle of the moon into reconciliation with the annual cycle of the Sun? Because 12 lunar months will be out of alignment in a solar year by at least 5 days, something has to be done so that we are not celebrating the fall festivals in the winter! The Jewish lunar calendar compensates for the difference between the lunar and solar year by establishing a 19 year cycle to harmonize itself on track with the solar year. One extra lunar month is added to seven of the years in the cycle, giving us a 13 month year in those 7 “leap” years. Solar calendars make a reconciliation by adding a day to five of the twelve months and then, in contemporary times, adding one extra day every four years.
The Bible does not tell us how to resolve the discrepancy between the lunar and solar calendars. This is a human decision. In addition, the consensus of the Rabbis determined the exact day of the new moon and full moon. Contra-wise, the ancient Essenes, the Jewish ascetics from the first century, chose the solar calendar and made an annual reconciliation. Some argue that the calendar discrepancy can even be found in the Gospels. The Gospel of John can be read to suggest the celebration of Jesus took place before Passover; the Synoptics on the actual Passover date.
2. The evidence of history, as detailed in Oskar Skarsaune’s monumental book, In the Shadow of the Temple, is that the Eastern and Western Churches differed on when to celebrate the church feast days. In the East, closer to the Rabbis, the death and resurrection of Yeshua was celebrated on the date of Passover according to the Jewish calendar. The Rabbis taught that the feast of First Fruits was the day following Passover; this was known as the quartodeciman position. In the West, the Church decided to work back from the Resurrection which was always on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath of Passover week. This produced a great controversy at the end of the second century as both churches claimed apostolic authority for their celebration dates.
If the Eastern Church followed the Pharisaic observance of First Fruits and the resurrection being together and the Western kept First Fruits on the Sunday of Passover week as did the Sadducees, we can see the controversy itself as rooted in Judaism. Skarsaune argues that the celebration of First Fruits is behind the Western tradition. From Resurrection Day, the Church calculated back to their celebration of the crucifixion, rather than strictly keeping to the Hebrew dates, Nisan 14 and 15. Interestingly, but unintentionally, this coincides in most years with the Sadducean Temple date for First Fruits.
Skarsaune also provides amazing details concerning how the liturgy for communion took over elements from the early Passover Seder! Observing Sunday as a weekly celebration may be rooted in this as well, though my study suggests that the evidence here is more ambiguous. However, the resurrection became the dominant reason for Sunday observance. The sad aspect to this was the later rejection of the legitimacy of the seventh day Sabbath for Jews.
3. Pentecost would then follow from these calculations (both by the Western and Eastern Churches) fifty days later, and is obviously rooted in Shavuot (Pentecost). Skarsaune also argues that themes of the Law and the Spirit were also found in Judaism and became incorporated in the Christian celebration.
4. Even Christmas – although corrupted with pagan imagery, especially in the secular society, and its convenient dating to sanitize the pagan feast of Saturnalia – may also have Jewish rooting by the conflation of the 25th of Kislev, Hanukkah, with December 25th. This is the most likely time for the conception of Yeshua on the basis of the calculation of the birth of Yeshua at Sukkot (Tabernacles). If so, the evidence of Hegissipus, a 2nd century historian who claimed that Yeshua was born on the 25th of December, could be a confusion of birth and conception.
5. Skarsaune’s evidence for Jewish influence on the creeds is very important as well. He sees them as preserving the Jewish understanding in the Scriptures against heresy that arose out of the broad pagan Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire.
The Church is called to return to Jewish roots in the sense of being joined together with Israel and the Messianic Jews, acknowledging Jewish roots and understanding the Bible in its original context. This requires returning to a more Biblical understanding of an involved and responsive God, over against the abstract changeless God of Greek philosophy that has dominated Christian theology. The repudiation of the theology that says the Church has replaced the Jewish people is a foundational key in all of this.
Such an approach to Jewish roots is a much more feasible and truthful way to approach the churches and to gain their support in the great last days work for the salvation of Israel.