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As the annual observances of Easter and Passover approach, a second-century controversy remains relevant for Christians today.
Easter bunnies, Easter eggs, Easter bonnets and Easter sunrise services! Back by popular demand! But whose demand—and what should we do about it?
Springtime is the season for one of Christendom’s most prominent festivals—Easter. This traditional holiday is called a memorial to the resurrection of Jesus and is practiced by most denominations of professing Christianity.
But even young children ask what rabbits and eggs have to do with Jesus and His resurrection. Parents may be at a loss for an answer, but the history of the Easter traditions is well known. Observance of a springtime resurrection and fertility festival long predates Christianity, and the symbols associated with that festival’s ancient mythologies—including eggs and bunny rabbits—survive in modern celebrations.
In original Christianity, faithful Christians held on to the original practice given by Jesus Christ and kept by His disciples. When others tried to introduce an “Easter” festival to replace the Christian Passover, these faithful Christians were labeled as “Quartodecimans”—and ultimately a whole region that kept the original practice was “excommunicated” by Easter-keeping leaders.
Why should a second century ad controversy matter to us today? What happened then, and why should we care now?
From the time they had been taught to do so by the Apostles, particularly by Paul and John, the Asiatic churches had observed the Christian Passover in the evening beginning the fourteenth day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Nisan 14). When in the second century ad the Roman church insisted that all keep a Sunday festival called Easter instead of the Christian Passover, a major controversy arose between those called “Quartodecimans”—“Fourteenthers” (the word comes from the Latin “four and ten” quartadecima)—and those willing to change to the “Easter” observance.
Understanding the great “Quartodeciman Controversy” of the second and third centuries ad sheds a lot of light on the modern traditions associated with Easter—and also illuminates a profound belief and practice of the first-century Church.
Writer Ted Olsen reminds us that it was the seventh century ad English historian Bede (“The Venerable”) who suggested that Easter’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, [also spelled Eastre] associated with spring and fertility, and celebrated around the vernal equinox (“Why ‘Easter’?, christianitytoday.com).
What about the eggs and bunnies associated with the Easter celebration? Spring is the time when trees come back to life, the weather warms up and there is abundant food for birds to feed their broods. So, eggs were plentiful in the springtime and represented rebirth and fertility after the winter’s sterility. The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for their celebration of the Spring Equinox more than 2,500 years ago. Hares and rabbits are very prolific, and have long been associated with fertility and the return of life in the Spring in many ancient cultures. The hare was the sacred animal of the Saxon fertility goddess Oestre, who was closely connected with the Germanic goddess Ostara. Modern “neopagans” have reinstituted the worship of these goddesses and incorporated the ancient symbols of the egg and hare in their spring rites.
So, how did these customs come to the New World? “Eighteenth-century German settlers brought ‘Oschter Haws’ [the Easter Hare]… to America, where Pennsylvania Dutch settlers prepared nests for him in the garden or barn. On Easter Eve, the rabbit laid his colored eggs in the nests in payment” (ibid.). Sound familiar? This practice is typical of modern Easter egg hunts.
There was great persecution of Jews early in the second century ad, particularly under the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the observance of “Jewish” customs by Christians was distinctly unpopular in that day. Many of the Gentile believers wanted to distance themselves from those practices and to assign Christian meaning to the more popular dates of their local cultures. Religious historians know that both the name and time of Easter had their origin in paganism, but theologians have long reasoned that it is possible to “sanctify the pagan.” In this view, a culture may keep its pre-Christian forms, but the pagan symbols and myths can become Christian in meaning and purpose. The influential Catholic leader, Cardinal Newman, wrote, “We are told in various ways by Eusebius [an early church historian], that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own…. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints… holidays and seasons… turning to the East, images at a later date… are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption in the Church” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch. 8:6).
So the fact is well known among secular and religious historians that the name of the holiday, many of its symbols and the time of its observance came from pagan practices. What is questionable is the doctrine of “sanctifying the pagan” that is used to justify many practices in Christendom. While this rationale can be attractive for theologians and traditionalists, the Bible condemns it.
God said, “When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:29–32). It is not likely that God changed His mind about this. He said, “For I am the Lord, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6), and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God rejects pagan practices and instructs us not to incorporate them into His worship. He tells us what days we are to observe, how we are to observe them and why we are to observe them. There was no instruction by Christ or the apostles to have an annual memorial to Christ’s resurrection, but they did authorize another practice.
But is Easter mentioned in the Bible? In the King James Version of the Bible, the Greek word, Pascha, in the original text is rendered as “Easter” (Acts 12:4). But that comes from a mistranslation of Pascha, which means Passover. This error is corrected in the New King James Version and in most modern translations, which render the word correctly as “Passover.”
Historically, in the first century—as for centuries thereafter—the original Church of God observed the Christian Passover on the same day and in the same manner that Jesus taught them to do it the evening before His death by crucifixion. The apostles also taught this practice. What many denominations today call “The Last Supper” was actually the Passover—kept by Jesus and His disciples. Remembering that a biblical day begins at sunset, notice what the disciples called it the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion, when they asked for His instructions: “Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?” (Mark 14:12). And, when He responded, He told them to go to a certain man they would meet, and ask, “Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?” (v. 14). That was the same night that Judas betrayed Jesus—Passover, Nisan 14. The Bible notes that the evening beginning the next day was the High Day, Nisan 15 (John 19:31; Leviticus 23:4–7), so we know Jesus observed it on Nisan 14.
Jesus Himself said that they were eating the Passover that evening. “When the hour had come, He sat down, and the Twelve Apostles with Him. Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’” (Luke 22:14–15). That night, before Judas betrayed Him, Jesus instituted the symbols of the Christian Passover, the bread and wine symbolizing His body and blood. “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’” (Matthew 26:26–28).
The Apostle Paul emphasized the meaning of the symbols of the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. He instructed the Church in Corinth, “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
The Lamb of God became our Passover! Just as ancient Israel was passed over through the blood of the first paschal lamb in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:1–13), the sins of today’s repentant Christians—spiritual Israel—are covered, “passed over,” by the shed blood of the Lamb of God (John. 1:29). The Passover is of great importance to Christians!
In 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, the Apostle Paul gave the “when, what and why” of taking the Christian (Quartodeciman) Passover. “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus… [when we are to do it] on the same night in which He was betrayed… [what we are to do] took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you;… [why we are to do it] do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” Paul instructed the first century Church to keep a memorial to Christ’s death—not to His resurrection. In history, the believers who kept this instruction faithfully were called “Fourteenth-ers”—Quartodecimans—because they did it in the evening beginning Nisan 14 as Christ and the apostles taught them to. If the bread and wine are taken on another date, it is not the Passover.
In the second century ad, a controversy raged in early Christianity. The Roman church under Pope Sixtus I had established the keeping of an early version of Easter on a Sunday. But it had long been the practice of the Middle Eastern (Asiatic) churches to keep the Christian Passover as Jesus and the apostles did on the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 23:5). Around the year 160ad, Pope Anicetus insisted on establishing the observance of Easter on a Sunday. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (modern Turkey) and a disciple of the Apostle John, strongly asserted that the tradition taught by the apostles themselves should prevail. The Catholic Encyclopedia reports, “While Anicetus was Pope, St. Polycarp, then in extreme old age, came to confer with him (160–162) about the Paschal controversy; Polycarp and others in the East celebrating the feast on the fourteenth of the month of Nisan, no matter on what day of the week it fell; whereas in Rome it was always observed on Sunday” (article: “Pope St. Anicetus”). Polycarp and Anicetus finally agreed to disagree and parted peacefully.
But the peace did not last. Pope Victor I (189–198ad) “now called upon the bishops of the province of Asia to abandon their custom and to accept the universally prevailing [Roman] practice of always celebrating Easter on Sunday. In case they would not do this he declared they would be excluded from the fellowship of the Church” (ibid, article: “Pope St. Victor I”).
The early church historian Eusebius wrote: “But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him: ‘We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep… Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles… moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord… All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith’ … 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” (Life of Constantine, ch. XXIV). But the practice continued with the Asiatic churches, and in the year 325ad at the Council of Nicea, those who were faithful to the Quartodeciman Passover were declared anathema. The Catholic Pasch—Easter—was set as the orthodox practice of the Catholic Church.
Actually, there is less controversy than you might think. The historical facts are well established by scholars, and the only controversy is what should be done about them. For example, in The Apostolic Age in Patristic Thought, Dr. Gerard A. M. Rouwhorst, professor in the School of Catholic Theology at Tilburg University, acknowledges the antiquity of the Quartodeciman Passover. Before Easter was introduced to replace it, “it played a central part in the life of early Christian communities and it is highly illustrative of their religious beliefs. Furthermore, celebrating it in the right way was considered by many early Christians as vital to their identity… It is quite generally agreed now that the oldest form of Christian Passover was the one celebrated by the Quartodecimans. This group, however, would end up becoming a marginal minority. On the other hand, the celebration on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday which came into existence in the second century as the result of a liturgical innovation, was eventually adopted by the majority of the Christians and regarded by them as normative” (pp. 64–65).
Rouwhorst also notes: “Finally, once the battle was won [by the Roman church] and the Quartodecimans did not constitute but a small minority, their opponents availed themselves of another strategy. They tried to play down the argument drawn from apostolic authority and to make it subordinate to a principle they considered as being of much greater importance, namely maintaining unity, i.e., following the majority. Resorting to apostolic tradition was, as far as the celebration of Easter was concerned, depicted as characteristic of sectarian movements which kept old-fashioned traditions” (ibid., pp. 84–85). But they were not being old-fashioned. They were not trying to be Jewish. They were obeying Christ and the Apostles.
The Apostle Jude gave the first-century Church a message that still applies to Christians today: “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). That faith, from the beginning, included—and still includes—the Christian Passover. So, will you follow the instructions and example of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, as recorded in Scripture? Or will you be content with the pagan traditions that were introduced to replace them? Will you obey God’s word, keep the true Christian Passover and be a Christian “Quartodeciman”?