No, the Paschal date difference is not about Passover (and other Orthodox urban legends)

Note: This is a 2022 update/revision of a 2015 post.

Right around this time of year, various articles and images begin circulating, giving explanations as to why the Orthodox Pascha (Easter) celebration is usually a week or more after the Western Easter. Most will mention something about the Julian calendar and how its spring equinox is different from the one on the Gregorian calendar. The traditional formula for the date of Pascha (the Paschalion) is this: It is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

But one piece of the explanation that comes quite often is this:

Urban Legend #1: The Orthodox Paschal celebration must come after the Jewish Passover, and that’s why Western Easter is different from Orthodox Pascha.

I once read an article that made that claim. This gets repeated quite often. But it’s an urban legend, folks.

Mind you, it’s a very old urban legend, at least since the 12th century, when canonist John Zonaras noticed that, by his time, Pascha always seemed to follow the first day of Passover. But after the formula was decided at Nicea, Pascha actually often coincided with Passover. He didn’t seem to know that, though.

Here’s the relevant text on the so-called “Zonaras Proviso” from the OrthodoxWiki article on the Paschalion:

The decision of the Nicene council concerning Pascha was that it should be computed independently of any Rabbinic computations: hence, a Paschalion that is consistent with Nicene principles cannot have any built-in dependence on the Jewish calendar. Nevertheless, since at least the 12th century it has been widely believed that Christian Pascha is required always to follow, and never coincide with, the first day of Passover, which was by then being celebrated on Nisan 15 in the Jewish calendar (that is, on the evening of the 14th day of the lunar month). By the 12th century the errors in the Julian calendar’s equinoctial date and age of the moon had accumulated to the degree that Pascha did, in fact, always follow Jewish Nisan 15. This state of affairs continues to the present day, even though the Jewish calendar suffers from a slight solar drift of its own, because the Julian calendar’s errors accumulate more rapidly than the Jewish calendar’s.

The 12th century canonist Joannes Zonaras seems to have been the first to state the principle that Pascha must always follow Jewish Nisan 15, so the principle is called the “Zonaras Proviso” after him. Upon examination, it appears that Zonaras derived his new rule from a misconstrual of Apostolic Canon 7, which reads as follows: “If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon celebrate the holy day of Easter before the vernal equinox with the Jews, let him be deposed.” Zonaras found two prohibitions in this one statement: first, that Pascha must be celebrated after the vernal equinox; and second, that Pascha must never coincide with the Jewish feast of Passover. Although Zonaras’ second prohibition has no foundation in the 4th century historical context, or in the grammatical meaning of the sentence, it resembles the fourth (implicit) Nicene principle closely enough to be confused with it. That is, the rule that Christians are not to go along “with the Jews” in setting the date of Pascha has been confused with the fear that if Passover happens to coincide with an independently determined Pascha, Christians would be wrongfully praying “with the Jews” just because both are praying on the same day.

Zonaras was, of course, actually wrong. (You can find similar commentary by other canonists, e.g., in the Rudder.) And he also doesn’t seem to remember that Passover is more than one day. It’s not like the Jewish feast is over on the first day. So, if Pascha has to follow Passover, it certainly is doing it badly. In 2014, for instance, Pascha was on April 20, while Passover was April 14 (evening) to April 22 (morning). In 2011, Pascha was April 24, while Passover was April 18-26. The same is essentially also true for 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2017. (See this list of dates to check for yourself.)

Now, you might say that Pascha only has to follow the first day of Passover. Okay, but what about 2002, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023? Why mention those years? Well, those are all recent and upcoming years in which Western Easter follows the first day of Passover and yet the Orthodox Pascha is still at least a week later. (Again, see this list of dates to check for yourself.)

From Wikipedia “Easter” article

It is true that there have been Orthodox condemnations of Pascha preceding Passover since the 16th century, which might well be interpreted as a new rule starting a few centuries ago. Okay, even if we grant that this is now the rule, that still does not account for why Western Easter and Orthodox Pascha are different, because, as noted in the above table, Western Easter often follows Jewish Passover, yet the Orthodox date is still usually a week or more later.

Further, the prohibition from the canons regarding celebrating “with the Jews” was not about when Passover was but rather about when the vernal equinox was. The idea was to ignore the Jews, not wait for them:

Events in Jewish history contributing to the dispersion of the Jews had as a consequence a departure from the way Passover was reckoned at the time of our Lord’s death and resurrection. This caused the Passover to precede the vernal equinox in some years. It was, in fact, this anomaly which led to the condemnation reflected in Canon 1 of Antioch (ca. 330) and Canon 7 of the Holy Apostles (late 4th century) of those who celebrate Pascha “with the Jews.” The purpose of this condemnation was to prevent Christians from taking into account the calculation of Passover in determining the date of Pascha.

– Lewis J. Patsavos, “Dating Pascha in the Orthodox Church

More deeply than this, however, we have to ask this question: Why should the greatest of all Christian feasts depend on a feast day as calculated in another religion? And what about the many times in history when different Jews celebrated Passover on dates different from one another? What about the fact that the Hebrew calendar has changed over the centuries? Which Jews’ Passover do we pick? And what if Jews all became Christians? Would we have to calculate a festival for a religion that has no actual followers?

The dating of Pascha is of course related to Passover in the sense that the formula puts Pascha around the same time, but since the First Council of Nicea, it is no longer dependent on it. And certainly, there is a whole lot of theological and historical linkage between the two feasts. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about how the dates are actually calculated.

If you need the answer to the question, “Why is Orthodox Easter on a different date from Catholic and Protestant Easter?” I highly recommend the very fine OrthodoxWiki article on the Paschalion. In short, it’s complicated. If you need a quick answer, here’s how I put it:

It’s supposed to be on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. But many centuries ago, we devised predictive mathematical cycles that predicted when the equinox and full moon would be. They were very accurate, but over time, those predictions drifted away from what was happening in the sky. We’ve never updated our tables. In the 16th century, the West did.

That’s about as short as I can make it and still do some justice to the reality.

So let’s wrap this up with two more Orthodox urban legends regarding Pascha. They are both much easier to debunk than the first:

Urban Legend #2: Even though we have both Old Calendar and New Calendar churches, all Orthodox celebrate Pascha on the same day.

Not true. Most Orthodox do indeed put Pascha on the same actual day (though of course the number of the date on the calendar will look different depending on whether you follow the Old or New Calendar). But the Orthodox Church of Finland (and formerly, but not any more, the parishes in Estonia belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but not those belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate) actually celebrate according to the updated (Gregorian) Paschalion, which puts their Pascha on the same day as Western Easter every single year.

Why is Finland’s Paschalion different? As with everything having to do with this question, it’s complicated. Read this article for details.

(And, if one wants to include the Oriental Orthodox in this picture, most Armenians and the Malankara church in India celebrate according to the Gregorian Paschalion. The Coptic, Jerusalem Patriarchate Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian and Eritrean churches do not, however.)

And here’s our final Orthodox Paschal urban legend:

Urban Legend #3: Kyriopascha can never happen on the New Calendar.

“What is Kyriopascha?” you ask. It’s when the Annunciation (March 25) and Pascha coincide. (Lots more here.) This happens once every several decades on the Julian (“Old”) calendar that most Orthodox in the world follow. (It happened last in 1991. The next time will be 2075.) Those who celebrate on the Revised Julian (“New”) calendar can indeed, never celebrate Kyriopascha, because the combination of the updating of the fixed feasts’ calculation (which includes Annunciation) with the retaining of the Julian Paschalion makes it so that Pascha can never fall as early as March 25.

The problem with this urban legend is that those parishes in Finland (and formerly, Estonia) are forgotten about. They do not use the Julian Paschalion. They use the Gregorian Paschalion (i.e., the updated one that came with the Gregorian calendar). So they celebrate Kyriopascha, too, though they celebrate it when the West would, not when the Julian calendar has it. The last Gregorian Kyriopascha was in 1951, and the next one will be in 2035. The two Kyriopaschas don’t coincide, but eventually, they will. Again, from OrthodoxWiki:

There has as yet been no single year in which Kyriopascha was celebrated on both the Julian and Gregorian Calendars, though 232 would have been such a year had the two methods of calculation been in use at that time. The first year in which there will be a Kyriopascha on both the Gregorian and Julian Calendars is 6700, followed by 6779 and 6863.

So it depends on which “New Calendar” you’re referring to. On the Revised Julian calendar, no, there is no Kyriopascha. But on the Gregorian calendar that the Orthodox Finns (and some Estonians used to) follow, yes, there is. But it’s different from the Julian Kyriopascha.

So there you have it. Please don’t spread Orthodox urban legends. Just because they’re Orthodox (i.e., from our Orthodox community) doesn’t mean they’re really Orthodox (i.e., the truth).


An important post script

Some important clarifications for those who might be confused and/or really unhappy with me for this piece:

I am not advocating any changes in Orthodox dogma or practice.

I am trying to describe what that practice actually is.

I do not think this is a matter of dogma, so it could theoretically be changed by the competent authorities. (People on the Internet are not the competent authorities. I am not the competent authorities.)

I have no strong opinion about whether the competent authorities ought to change this. I will happily continue to do whatever my bishop tells me to do.

Any change that such competent authorities might choose to make, in my opinion (which matters little), ought to be about faithfulness to Orthodox conciliar tradition, whether or not such changes happen to align with what other Christians happen to be doing.

Even if we were to happen to align our Pascha with that of other Christians, I do not think that would really be any major step toward unity with them. We have much bigger fish to fry — dogmatic fish.

In response to previous versions of this article, I have gotten some messages from folks demanding to know why I want to change Orthodoxy, why I hate the teachings of the Church so much, etc. Forgive me, but that is nonsense. I am trying to describe what Orthodox practice actually is, not advocate for any changes to it.

People fixate on things that give them a sense of identity. That’s why this is apparently threatening—some folks have been told this their whole lives. How does one counteract an 800+ year old urban legend?

I chalk this up to bad catechism. Orthodox Christians should find their identity in Christ and in the saving dogmas proclaimed about Him universally in Orthodox tradition. How we calculate Pascha (which was not set by the Apostles) is not one of those things.

In any event, please read closely before jumping to conclusions. Thanks!