Early church history contains records of an obscure, but once quite heated controversy — the Quartodeciman controversy. (Quartodeciman refers to the 14th day of the month.) It is sometimes called the Passover-Easter controversy. Others have called it the Easter controversy or the Paschal controversy. Perhaps it is not even fair to call it a controversy.
That some scholars refer to it as an Easter controversy is unfortunate, since Easter is an English word. Today the word implies, for most English-speakers, a host of cultural assumptions alien to the original controversy. The disputants in the Quartodeciman controversy did not use “Easter” to describe what they were arguing over. Therefore, to describe the Quartodeciman controversy as a Passover-Easter controversy can obscure the nature of the dispute rather than clarify it.
Focus on three events
The controversy involved three events: the controversy between Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, and Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, that occurred around A.D. 155; the more heated controversy between Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, and Victor, the bishop of Rome, that broke out around 195; and the decree of Constantine following the Nicene Council in 325.
Scholars disagree about the controversy’s details. They do agree that its arguments revolved around whether the primary Christian spring festival should happen on a day of the month (Nisan 14, the Passover day) or on a day of the week (Sunday).
Eusebius is our primary source for the controversy between Polycarp and Anicetus. Polycarp knew the apostle John and was of such stature that many considered him John’s spiritual, though not apostolic, successor in Asia Minor. Polycarp believed that Nisan 14 was the correct time for the spring festival, but Anicetus, bishop of Rome, favored Sunday.
An annual Lord’s Supper was not the issue, neither was Easter, or at least what we think of as Easter. No one was arguing that the Lord’s Supper should only be kept once a year. No one was arguing over Easter bunnies and colored eggs.
Furthermore, none of the Quartodecimans claimed that it was wrong to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. To the contrary, the evidence indicates that both Polycarp and Anicetus celebrated Jesus’ resurrection annually. Polycarp’s claim seems to have been that the best day to do so was on Nisan 14. Anicetus argued for Sunday.
What is more intriguing for us is that Polycarp claimed his practice came from the apostle John. In other words, the practice of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on Nisan 14 was an apostolic practice, at least for the apostle John. His argument was not so much scriptural as it was traditional.
Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, chapters 23 to 25, makes it plain that the Quartodeciman controversy involved in part when to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. He tells us that the churches in Asia Minor, focusing on the crucifixion as of primary importance, argued for Nisan 14 as the day to commemorate the entire story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. The church at Rome, focusing on the resurrection, argued that there was no need to depend on the Jewish calendar and that Sunday was the most appropriate day of all.
Not about day of Jesus’ resurrection
No one in the Quartodeciman controversy argued over the actual day of the resurrection. This was not in dispute. When Rome said they memorialized the resurrection on Sunday, neither Polycarp nor anyone else argued that the resurrection wasn’t on Sunday. The argument was not over the day of Jesus’ resurrection, but over what day was most appropriate to commemorate it annually.
To resolve the dispute, Polycarp traveled to Rome. A since-lost letter by Irenaeus, quoted by Eusebius and others, tells us what happened:
When the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John, the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he associated…. Neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it.
So what did they do with this impasse? Did Anicetus call Polycarp a Jew for commemorating the resurrection on the Passover? Did Polycarp call Anicetus a pagan, or one who had denied the faith for celebrating the resurrection on a Sunday? Did he accuse him of breaking God’s law? Not at all. Both men decided they would not quarrel. They chose to live in peace.
What happened next we would have thought extraordinary. Irenaeus’ letter records that Polycarp and Anicetus took the Lord’s Supper together. It didn’t matter to them what season or day it was. Taking the Lord’s Supper together symbolically showed their unity in Christ. After this, “they parted from each other in peace.”
We can be certain that this happened because Irenaeus’ letter, written only a few decades after the original event, called on another bishop of Rome to repent and follow the well-known example of his predecessor.
A few decades later Polycrates and Victor did not get along nearly as well. The discussion began to degenerate. In anger, Victor excommunicated the Quartodeciman Polycrates and those who shared his views. Many bishops protested, such as the aforementioned Irenaeus, though they did not agree with the Quartodeciman position. Victor’s attempted excommunication apparently failed.
By the 300s the Quartodecimans were much less influential. Though the Nicene Council dealt primarily with the issue of the Word’s eternal divinity, it also considered and rebuked the Quartodeciman position. Where once churches found unity despite their diversity, some types of diversity were now beginning to be seen as a threat to unity.
The passage of several hundred years since John’s death saw the church combat many heresies. Not every diversity had proven healthy to the faith. As persecution became less of a problem, the church spent more time defining orthodoxy. The Nicene Council decreed that Christians should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday.
After the Council’s close, Emperor Constantine supported its judgment with a vile anti-Semitic attack against the Quartodecimans. He ordered a severe persecution of those who refused to comply.
Celebration of Christ’s resurrection
In summary, the Quartodeciman controversy was not an Easter-Passover controversy, as we understand those terms today. The Roman church apparently did not initiate the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Asian churches had no objection to this practice. Evidence indicates that they and the apostle John did the same. It was not a matter of “false Christians” at Rome rejecting God’s law, substituting pagan festivals for God’s Holy Days. There is no evidence that the early Roman church chose Sunday as the day of their celebration just to be different than the Jews. They chose Sunday based on their understanding of when the Gospels said Jesus rose from the dead.
The issues that separated the Quartodecimans from other Christians were over the timing of their customs, not the value of the customs or the timing of the resurrection. Initially, those holding differing views considered each other Christian. They understood each other to be a part of the body of Christ. To display their unity they took the Lord’s Supper together whatever the date.
It should go without saying that celebrating the foundational events of our faith, especially events having to do with Jesus’ earthly ministry, is fitting. Celebrating his resurrection is the joyful response of believers to the message: “He is risen!”
It is not surprising that early Christians formalized such celebrations as a part of their annual cycle of worship. By contrast, those who argue over dates often miss the profound significance of the events being celebrated.