The Passover-Easter-Quartodeciman Controversy
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 Nisan 14 (the Passover day) or annually on a 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.
But what were some Christians doing on Nisan 14 and others doing on "Easter"? Were some observing the Passover as the only time for the Lord's Supper, while others were observing a pagan holiday? If so, how did each view the other?
A careful reading of the evidence shows that 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. And 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. 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 to him from the apostle John. In other words, Polycarp essentially argued that 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 denying 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 all 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 have framed those terms. The Roman church apparently did not initiate the celebration of Jesus' resurrection, as the Asian churches had no objection to this practice. Evidence indicates that they and the apostle John did the same.
"False Christians" at Rome were not rejecting God's law by substituting pagan festivals for God's Holy Days. There simply is no evidence that because they were anti-Semitic the early Roman church chose Sunday as the day of their celebration. Vehement anti-Semitism arose later. The record shows that they chose Sunday based on their understanding of when the Gospels said Jesus arose.
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.
Hints of sunrise dimmed the eastern stars. Through the darkness Mary Magdalene hurried to the garden tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had donated for Jesus' burial. She and the other women could not sleep. They arose early to finish their hastily done job of preparing Jesus' body for burial. There had not been enough time to buy all of the spices and to wrap the body properly before the Sabbath. Now that the Sabbath was over, the job could be completed.
Grief, love, adoration and faith brought these women to the tomb. Through his life and teaching, Jesus had shown them, as no one before him, the riches and depths of God's love. Now he was dead. The hopes and dreams they identified with him seemed dead as well. Crucified, mocked for claiming to be king of the Jews, his message announcing the kingdom of God appeared frustrated, beyond hope of being true.
Was Jesus a false prophet? Did he cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons? If so, how could they explain the good in his ministry? What prophet except Jesus ever healed a man born blind? Did this not make him greater than Elijah? And his teaching, did it not sound greater than that of Moses? With such tragedy, what would tomorrow bring?
"Who will roll the stone away?" they asked. "How can we use these spices if we can't get in the tomb?" As they hurried along, the women felt an earthquake. The soldiers guarding the tomb would later report that at the time of the earthquake a dazzling angel appeared. The angel rolled away the stone that sealed the tomb. Initially frozen with fear, the soldiers fled the garden before the women arrived.
As the women approached the garden the eastern sky proclaimed dawn's coming. The darkness shrouding the world would soon pass away. Dawn's bright light was about to shine on the earth. The Lord would have his day.
In the predawn light the women saw the open tomb. Mary Magdalene, disturbed as to what this might mean, looked in. Shocked to find no body, she ran to tell Peter. "They've stolen his body! We don't know where they've taken him!"
As the sun slowly rose in the eastern sky, the women returned to the tomb. The rays of early morning had nearly chased away the blindness that darkness brings to all.
Mary Magdalene wept. Two men approached her. They asked, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She explained her deep sorrow. "They have taken my Lord! I don't know where they have put him."
After saying this, Mary turned around. Again she was asked: "Woman, why are you weeping? Are you looking for someone?" Mary assumed the man speaking to her was the caretaker. "Please sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him."
The man said, "Mary." Joy and exaltation exploded within her. Only one person could say "Mary" that way. "Teacher!" she cried.
"Go Mary. Go and tell the others. Tell them that you have seen me. Tell them that I am risen and will be ascending to my Father and your Father. Tell them, Mary."
Fearful to speak at first, Mary and the other women with her could not contain their joy for long. "He is risen!" they proclaimed. "He is risen!"
Awakening before first light, Mary tiredly prepared herself a cup of coffee. While it brewed, she stumbled to the bathroom where she showered and dressed in her Sunday best. Time to get the kids up, she thought.
Quietly she walked to the girls' bedroom. Slowly opening the door, she paused to look at her daughters' innocent faces. Elizabeth, age 7, and Ruth, age 5, lay sound asleep.
Since her husband, Jim, died four months ago in a car accident, life had been rough. Raising two girls while working full-time was hard. Mary's nearly unbearable grief compounded her struggle. Jim had been a loving and caring man. When he was alive, life had seemed so good. Mary's emptiness was deep and profound.
Mary walked over to Elizabeth and Ruth's bunk bed. She gently nudged them. "Get up girls. It's time to get ready for church." "Oh Mom," groaned Elizabeth. "It's not even light yet."
"It will be shortly. Look out the window. It's getting lighter all the time." "Can't we sleep for just a few more minutes?" pleaded Elizabeth.
"No, I'm sorry. We don't want to be late for church. You and Ruth need to eat some breakfast and then get dressed. No more talking. Climb out of those beds. You can eat cereal while I cook you some eggs."
Secretly Mary agreed with Elizabeth. It would be nice to sleep in today. During the week she rarely got enough sleep. But this Sunday was special. It was Easter. So, tired or not, she and the girls were going to church.
Jim had always taken the family to the early Easter morning worship service. A devout Christian, Jim had wanted his children to learn to rejoice over the resurrected Christ. He had especially liked the early service. It helped him imagine what that morning must have been like when Jesus, resurrected, first showed himself to the women. For Jim, Easter dawn had had a special meaning.
This Easter would be the first since Jim's death. Until this morning, Mary had put that fact out of her mind. But now, as the girls ate their cereal and she cooked the eggs, the thought overwhelmed her. Mary wept.
"Mommy, why are you crying?" asked Rachel. "I'm sorry, dear. I was just thinking of your father." "I miss Daddy," Rachel said sorrowfully. "So do I. So do I."
Mary wiped the tears from her eyes and her cheeks. Giving her girls a big hug, she said: "Go ahead now and eat your eggs. You need to hurry so you can get dressed. Don't forget the pretty new dresses I bought for you." "Hurray! New dresses!" they shouted as they gobbled down their breakfast.
After breakfast Mary had to settle a few sibling squabbles, remind the girls to hurry up and then help them comb their hair. Finally they were ready. Gathering her purse, Bible and car keys, Mary hurried the girls out the front door.
"Come on Ruth. Get in the car. What are you doing?" "Mommy, my foot came out of my shoe." Having solved that crisis, Mary backed the car out of the driveway. The sun was beginning to rise, its warm rays dispelling the chill of night. By now the girls were excited, wanting to show off their frilly new dresses and talking about the chocolates they would enjoy later that day.
Mary did not share their joy. Despite the beautiful spring morning, she felt no excitement. She had no anticipation. Mary was tired and depressed. Why get up so early? Why go to church at all? Try as she might, all she could think about was Jim. If only he were here. Why are we doing this anyway?
A few blocks away a small crowd was gathering at the church. As they usually did for Easter, people came in their finest. New dresses were everywhere. The sanctuary would be nearly full. People who rarely made it to church often came to one of the Easter services.
The worshippers commented on the beautiful sunrise and the lovely lilies placed near the pulpit. The pastor, Henry Greenloe, had prepared a finely crafted sermon. He had prayed that God would use his message to move the uncommitted to faith in Christ.
Just a few minutes before church started, Mary's car approached the church parking lot. By now some of the depression had left. She had begun to fondly remember Easters past. As a child she had had the same excitement that Elizabeth and Ruth now had. And she had learned from Jim to focus more on what Easter was about than on how it was observed.
"Easter is about hope," she told herself. "It's about how death is not the end. It gives us a reason for carrying on, no matter what the trials of life."
After parking the car, she and the girls walked toward the front door of the church. As she approached the building, she looked up to read the sign that announced this week's sermon. In bold letters it simply read, "He Is Risen!"
Mary paused. Clasping her girls' hands a little tighter she said to herself: Yes, we should be here, if for no other reason than this: Jesus is alive. Nothing remains the same. Death has no lasting claim. The Sun of Righteousness has arisen. Jesus is alive! He is risen!
Paul leaned over the parchment. His letter to the Corinthian church was becoming unusually long. Yet before he stopped writing he needed to cover one more subject.
Paul was concerned. The problems at Corinth were not simply behavioral. Members there had begun to doubt the central truths of the faith. The salvation of some was in jeopardy.
With a heavy heart he wrote in what we now call 1 Corinthians 15: "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain."
After so much struggle, after what Jesus had done for them, the last thing Paul wanted for the Corinthians would be that their faith had been in vain. So, to emphasize the situation's seriousness he wrote, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance."
Paul understood that time can blur the vision. Priorities can become confused. Apathy can set in. Paul wrote to fight against such corrosion, praying that the Holy Spirit would give him the words the church needed to hear.
What was of first importance? Paul reminded them it was "that Christ died for our sins ... that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day." For Paul, the gospel did not leave Jesus on the cross. It also raised him from the grave.
Paul supported his testimony of Jesus' resurrection by listing many of its eyewitnesses. Starting with Peter, Paul's list grew until finally he wrote, "And last of all he appeared to me."
That appearance forever changed Paul's life. It should forever change ours. Nothing before or since has been as historically important as the resurrection of our Lord. All eternity hinges on that event.
Paul went on to say, "This is what we preach, and this is what you believed." How could some Corinthians believe there is no resurrection?
Paul understood that one cannot abandon the doctrine of Jesus' bodily resurrection without also abandoning the faith. Paul affirmed: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God."
A few lines later he wrote: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost."
Paul assured the Corinthians that departed Christians were not lost, for "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.... In Christ all will be made alive."
As Paul concluded his letter, he did not realize how important his words would become. What was initially a letter to one congregation became an everliving epistle to the whole church in every age.
Through the centuries Christians have found strength in his words. They have faced adversity, poverty, suffering and death by focusing on Paul's reminder of the reality and centrality of the resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ.
For almost two millennia Christians have mourned the death of loved ones. For almost as long, the words of 1 Corinthians 15 have lifted their spirits and given them hope. Take the resurrection of Jesus away and you destroy their hope.
The gospel does not leave Jesus on the cross or in the grave. It proclaims, "He is risen!"
For two millennia believers have said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." Let's continue to say that we are not ashamed. Why are we not ashamed? We are not ashamed, for he is risen!