Easter Controversies

Easter Controversies There was much controversy in the early Church as to the days on which our Lord's resurrection ought to be celebrated. The churches of Asia Minor celebrated the death of the Lord on the day corresponding to the 14th of the month Nisan, on which day, according to the opinion of the whole ancient Church, the crucifixion took place. The Western churches, on the other hand, were of opinion that the crucifixion should be annually commemorated on the particular day of the week on which it occurred, that is, Friday. The resurrection was accordingly commemorated by the former party on the day corresponding to the 16th of Nisan, and by the other party on the Sunday following Good Friday. The two parties also differed with regard to the fasting preceding Easter. The Western churches viewed the death-day of Christ exclusively as a day of mourning, and they did not terminate the time of fasting until the day of resurrection. The churches of Asia Minor, on the other hand, looking upon the death of Christ wholly as the redemption of mankind, terminated fasting at the hour of Christ's death (5 o'clock in the afternoon), and immediately after celebrated the Agape and the Lord's Supper. In addition to these two parties, both of which were within the old catholic Church, there was another, repudiated by the Church as heretical. This third party, an Ebionitic sect, agreed with the churches of Asia Minor in adhering to the commemoration of the day of the month (14th and 16th of Nisan), but differed from them in insisting upon the continuance of the obligatory character of the ancient law, and the consequent duty of Christians to celebrate the Jewish Passover. Both were called Quartodecimani, from the fourteenth (Latin quartodecimus) day of the month on which they commemorated the death of Christ. Eusebius mentions (Hist.

Ecclesiastes 5:23; Vita Constant. 3:19) Palestine, Pontus, Gallia, Rome, Osroene, Corinth, Phoenicia, Alexandria, as churches following the Western practice. To these the emperor Constantine, in a circular enjoining the observance of a decree of the Nicene Council on the subject, adds all Italy, Africa, Spain, Britain, Greece. Thus the Western practice appears to have largely prevailed. Its adherents traced its origin to the apostles Peter and Paul, while the churches of Asia Minor rested their differing practice upon the authority of the apostle John. Both parties adhered to the name of Pascha (Passover), by which they understood sometimes the whole week commemorating the Passion, sometimes the specially festive days of this week. In the course of time (it is not known when) the death-day was distinguished as πάσχα σταυρώσιμον, and the day of resurrection as πάσχα ἀναστάσιμον. Irenaeus explicitly bears testimony that the bishops of Rome up to Xystus (at the beginning of the 2d century) kept peace with the adherents of the other practice. The first effort to come to an agreement on the controversy was made by bishop Polycarp, of Smyrna, about the middle of the 2d century, when on a visit to bishop Anicet, of Rome. The two bishops received each other with the kiss of peace, but neither of them was willing to sacrifice the practice of his predecessors. Nevertheless they parted in kindness, and peace continued to reign between the two parties. A few years later, the Ebionitish Quartodecimani caused great trouble at Laodicea (about 170), at Rome (about 180), where a certain Blastus was at their head, and in other places. Books against them were written by Melito of Sardis and Apollinaris of Hierapolis, both of whom were adherents of the practice of Asia Minor; by Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus (about the middle of the 3d century). Of all these books only fragments are left. That of Hippolytus shows that at this time the Jewish Quartodecimani were regarded by the Church as heretics. The first serious dispute between the parties within the old Catholic Church broke out about 196, when bishop Victor, of Rome, issued a circular to the leading bishops of the Church, requesting them to hold synods in their provinces, and to introduce the Western practice. Some complied with this request; but the synod held by bishop Polycrates, of Ephesus, emphatically refused, and approved the letter of bishop Polycrates, who, in defense of the Asiatic practice, referred Victor to the authority of the apostles Philip and John, to Polycarp, and to seven of his relations, who before him had been bishops of Ephesus. Victor at first intended to excommunicate the Asiatic churches, and therefore issued an encyclical to the Christians of those regions, but whether he really carried out his threat is not certain; the words of Eusebius (Hist. Ecclesiastes 5:24) on the movements of Victor are by some understood as implying a real execution of the excommunication, while the more common opinion is, that, in consequence of the indignant remonstrances against such a usurpation of power by the Western bishops, especially by Irenaeus, the threat was never executed.

Thus far the controversy between the Asiatic and the Western churches had only concerned two points, namely, (1) whether the day of the week or the day of the month on which the death of Christ occurred should be commemorated; (2) when the fasting ought to be terminated. Now a third point of dispute arose, as to the time when the 14th day of Nisan really occurred. Many of the Church fathers are of opinion that, according to the original calculation of the Jews up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, the 14th of Nisan had always been after the spring equinox, and that it was only in consequence of a miscalculation of the later Jews that the 14th of Nisan occasionally fell before the equinox. They therefore insisted that the 14th of Nisan, which for both parties within the Church determined the time of Easter, should always be after the equinox. As the year of the Jews is a lunar year, and the 14th of Nisan always a full-moon day, the Christians who adopted the above astronomical view, whenever the 14th of Nisan fell before the equinox, would celebrate the death of Christ one month later than the Jewish Passover. As the Christians could now no longer rely on the Jewish calendar, they had to make their own calculations of the time of Easter. These calculations frequently differed, partly from reasons already set forth, and partly because the date of the equinox was fixed by some at the 18th of March, by others at the 19th, by others at the 21st of March. The Council of Aries in 314 endeavored to establish uniformity, but its decrees do not appear to have had great effect. The subject was therefore again discussed and acted upon by the OEcumenical Council of Nice, which decreed that Easter should be celebrated throughout the Church after the equinox, on the Friday following the 14th of Nisan. It was also provided that the Church of Alexandria, as being distinguished in astronomical science, should annually inform the Church of Rome on what day of the calends or ides Easter should be celebrated, and the Church of Rome should notify all the churches of the world. But even these decrees of the Council of Nice did not put a stop to all differences, and it was reserved to the calculation of Dionysius Exiguus (q.v.) to gradually introduce uniformity of practice into the whole Church. Some countries, like Great Britain, did not abandon their ancient practice until after a long resistance. At the time of Charlemagne uniformity seems to have been established, and no trace is to be found of the Quartodecimani. The revision of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII, on the whole, retained the Dionysian era, but determined more accurately the Easter full moon, and made careful provision for avoiding any future deviation of the calendar from the astronomical time. By these minute calculations, however, the Christian Easter sometimes, contrary to the decrees of the Nicene Council. coincides with the Jewish Passover. This, for instance, was the case in 1825. — Mosheim, Church Hist. 1:68; Neander, Church Hist. 1:298; 2:301, 302 Mosheim, Comm. 1:523; Weitzel, Die christliche Paschafeier der ersten Jahrhunderte (1848); Rettberg, in Zeitschrift fir historische Theologie, 1832, volume 2; Hefele, in Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. 3:871; Steitz, in Herzog, Real- Encyklop. 11:140; Steitz, Die Differenz der Occidentalen u. der Kleinasiaten (in Stud. u. Krit. 1856). (A.J.S.)

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