Around the world this weekend, Christians are preparing to celebrate Easter, the holiday marking the death and resurrection of Jesus and the culmination of the period of penitence that began with Ash Wednesday on February 17.
The first bishops in Jerusalem were Jews, and so the early Christian community commemorated the Feast of the Resurrection on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Passover. In Temple times, the essential rite of Passover was the slaughter of a paschal lamb; the Christian Bible explicitly tied this ritual with Rome's crucifixion of Jesus: "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). Passover is also the background for the events portrayed in the synoptic Gospels leading up to the passion of Christ crucified.
At the First Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), however, the Church resolutely decoupled Judaism from Christianity, severing the connection between the fourteenth of Nisan and Easter. "It is unbecoming," said the Emperor Constantine, "that on the holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews; henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people." Easter became a date on the solar calendar, with Jesus' resurrection being celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox.
To this day there is no denying that, for many Jews, Easter recalls dreadful memories. The holiday is the source of the Church's "teaching of contempt," the damning of all Jews for the supposed crime of deicide. The cry of "Christ-killers" would pursue Jews from medieval European ghettos to the 20th-century United States. Easter is also associated with the notorious libel that Jews needed the blood of Christian children to fulfill their Passover rituals. Many of Eastern Europe's worst pogroms, including the 1903 Kishinev massacre, were launched during Easter. Indeed, no Christian holiday did more than Easter to inspire the development of modern political Zionism as an answer to Europe's insoluble "Jewish problem."
In post-Holocaust Europe, that message of collective Jewish guilt became progressively toned down, with traces still remaining in the Passion Play performed in Germany every ten years since 1634. Instead, the Jewish state of Israel has come to be identified as, in effect, "this odious people" among the nations, an object of fierce political denunciation often couched in the discredited but still-toxic religious tropes of old. In 2002, an Athens newspaper depicted the PLO chief Yasir Arafat as Jesus being crucified by the Jews; today some pro-Palestinian groups falsely claim that the Jewish state arbitrarily forbids Christians from worshipping freely at Easter.
And yet, at a time when both the Jewish and the Christian traditions face a common danger in extremist Islam, it is worth stressing that contemporary Israel has no firmer friends in the world than evangelical Christians, who recall Jesus as an observant Jew and understand his resurrection not as a post-modern metaphor but as the Gospel truth. In democratic societies, even as they agree to disagree about matters of ultimate truth, believing Jews and Christians continue to have much to talk about, and to defend.
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