Early Church [including Polycarp] Continued to Celebrate Passover

Eruv Pesach - April 14 2014

Both Jewish believers and Gentile Christians in the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch, including Polycarp, a Church Father (80-167 CE) continued to celebrate the Passover on the 14th of Nisan and did so for the first two centuries, possibly until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

Polycarp (80 – 167 AD) considered a Church Father, who both Irenaeus and Tertullian state was a disciple of John the Apostle, was the bishop of Smyrna (69 – 155 CE) in Asia continued to celebrate Passover on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan 14 [2], the day that Jesus was crucified (John 19:14, 19:31, 19:42) as he had been taught by the Apostle John. The Church at Jerusalem and Antioch continued to celebrate Passover, while the churches in and around Rome changed to the practice of celebrating Easter on the following Sunday calling it “the day of the resurrection of our Saviour” [2] .

Those who continued to celebrate the Passover on the 14th of Nisan were called Quartodecimani, Latin for “fourteenthers”, because of holding their celebration on the fourteenth day of Nisan.

Irenaeus says that Polycarp visited Rome when Anicetus was bishop (153–68 CE) and among the topics discussed was this divergence of custom, with Rome instituting the festival of Easter in place of the Pasch. Irenaeus noted:

“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 had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him [3].”

Anicetus, while disagreeing with Polycarp continued to let him partake of the Eucharist in the church as a mark of respect.

Irenaeus observed;

“and they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.”[3]

Salminius Hermias Sozomenus (400-450 CE), historian of the Christian Church notes:

“As the bishops of the West did not deem it necessary to dishonor the tradition handed down to them by Peter and by Paul, and as, on the other hand, the Asiatic bishops persisted in following the rules laid down by John the evangelist, they unanimously agreed to continue in the observance of the festival according to their respective customs, without separation from communion with each other. They faithfully and justly assumed, that those who accorded in the essentials of worship ought not to separate from one another on account of customs” [4].

Sozomen reports that Irenaeus stated that the Roman custom was observed since at least the time of Bishop Xystus (115–25 CE) [3]

According to Eusebius, in the last decade of the second century a number of synods were convened to deal with the ‘controversy’ of continuing to celebrate Passover on the 14th of Nisan, ruling unanimously that the celebration of Easter should be observed and be exclusively on Sunday.

“Synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast [5].”

One of these synods held in Rome in 193 CE was presided over by its Bishop Victor (Pope Victor I), who sent a letter about the matter to Polycrates of Ephesus and the churches of the Roman province of Asia. Polycrates is best known for this letter, attempting to find a consensus about the proper date to celebrate the death of our Lord.

Polycrates emphatically stated that he was following the tradition passed down to him:

We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming … All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven [5].”

Within the same year, Polycrates presided over a council at Ephesus attended by several bishops throughout that province, which rejected Victor’s authority and kept the province’s paschal tradition.

Bishop Victor was so upset by Polycrates’ position regarding the continued observance of Passover on the 14th of Nisan that he sought to have him excommunicated from the church. He later reversed his decision after bishops that included Irenaeus interceded, recommending that Victor follow the more peaceful attitude of his predecessors.

“Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom.” [6]

In a section titled “How All came to an Agreement respecting the Passover”, Eusebius recounts that the Bishops Narcissus and Theophilus in the land, together with the bishops of Tyre and Ptolemais, wrote a lengthy review of the tradition of Sunday celebration of Easter which they insist ” had come to them in succession from the apostles”, stating that the continued observance of Passover by the Church on the 14th of Nisan amounted to “a deception of souls”:

“Endeavor to send copies of our epistle to every church, that we may not furnish occasion to those who easily deceive their souls. We show you indeed that also in Alexandria they keep it on the same day that we do. For letters are carried from us to them and from them to us, so that in the same manner and at the same time we keep the sacred day [7].”

It is believed that the celebration of the Passover on the 14th of Nisan by the Church disappeared around the time of the First Ecumenical Council, held in 325 at Nicaea and was replaced by the celebration of Easter on a Sunday [8].

Sources

[1] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3

[2] Eusebius, “24”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL; cf

[3] Irenaeus, “Letter to Victor” (bishop of Rome), quoted in Eusebius (chapter 24), in Schaff, Church History

[4]  Sozomen, “19”, in Schaff, The Ecclesiastical History, book VII, CCEL.

[5] Eusebius, “23”, in Schaff, Church History, Christian Classic Ethereal Library (CCEL)

[6] Eusebius, “24”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL; cf. Cantalamessa, Raniero (1993), “Sources for the history of the paschal controversy of the second century”, Easter in the Early Church. An Anthology of Jewish and Early Christian Texts, OFMCap, pp. 33–37

[7] Eusebius, “25”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL

[8] Duchesne, L. “La question de la Paque au Concile de Nicée”, Revue des Questions Historiques, 28 (1880), 5-4

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