Computus (Latin for “computation”) is a calculation that determines the calendar date of Easter. Because the date is based on a calendar-dependent equinox rather than the astronomical one, there are differences between calculations done according to the Julian calendar and the modern Gregorian calendar. The name has been used for this procedure since the early Middle Ages, as it was considered the most important computation of the age.
For most of their history Christians have calculated Easter independently of the Jewish calendar. In principle, Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that follows the northern spring equinox (the paschal full moon). However, the vernal equinox and the full moon are not determined by astronomical observation. The vernal equinox is fixed to fall on 21 March (previously it varied in different areas and in some areas Easter was allowed to fall before the equinox). The full moon is an ecclesiastical full moon determined by reference to a lunar calendar, which again varied in different areas. While Easter now falls at the earliest on the 15th of the lunar month and at the latest on the 21st, in some areas it used to fall at the earliest on the 14th (the day of the paschal full moon) and at the latest on the 20th, or between the sixteenth and the 22nd. The last limit arises from the fact that the crucifixion was considered to have happened on the 14th (the eve of the Passover) and the resurrection therefore on the sixteenth. The “computus” is the procedure of determining the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon falling on or after 21 March, and the difficulty arose from doing this over the span of centuries without accurate means of measuring the precise tropical year. The synodic month had already been measured to a high degree of accuracy. The schematic model that eventually was accepted is the Metonic cycle, which equates 19 tropical years to 235 synodic months.
In 1583, the Catholic Church began using 21 March under the Gregorian calendar to calculate the date of Easter, while the Eastern Churches have continued to use 21 March under the Julian calendar. The Catholic and Protestant denominations thus use an ecclesiastical full moon that occurs four, five or 34 days earlier than the eastern one.
The earliest and latest dates for Easter are 22 March and 25 April, in the Gregorian calendar as those dates are commonly understood. However, in the Orthodox Churches, while those dates are the same, they are reckoned using the Julian calendar; therefore, on the Gregorian calendar as of the 21st century, those dates are 4 April and 8 May.
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