The Quartodeciman Controversy
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Jesus established the early Christian practice of Passover on the 14th of Nissan. This example was followed by the early disciples (see I Cor. 5:6-8). Remembering the death of Jesus was of major importance to the early Church. In the mid-second century, a movement started out of Rome to stop practicing Passover and establish a new celebration. This became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy. Believe it or not, this subject had an impact on the weekly Sabbath!
We will pick up in the mid-second century in about 150 AD which is about 120 years after Jesus’ death. Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John and thus appointed by him (with perhaps some others) to be Bishop of Smyrna. He was likely the last living eye-witness of the first Apostles. To learn more about Polycarp, CLICK HERE to read a free article about His life).
At this time, the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, decided that He did not want to honor Passover according to the Scriptural reckoning. Jesus and the earliest disciples commemorated Passover on the 14th of Nissan. Polycarp and the rest of the Eastern Churches followed that example. Polycarp traveled to Rome to convince Him to follow the example of Jesus.
“At this time, while Anicetus was at the head of the church of Rome, Irenæus relates that Polycarp, who was still alive, was at Rome, and that he had a conference with Anicetus on a question concerning the day of the paschal feast…” (Eusebius, Church History, bk 4, 14:1- 7).
“And 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 the 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 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. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church” (ibid, bk 5, 24:16-17).
Essentially, the issue between Polycarp and Anticetus came to a standstill. Polycarp could not convince Anticetus to celebrate Passover the proper way as he received it from the first Apostles, and Anticetus could not convince Polycarp to change. Notice one detail given in the account above: Anicetus decided to stay with the customs of man. To Anicetus, the traditions of the bishop of Rome were of greater weight than the example of Christ. While the two parties peaceably disagreed, they still communicated with each other.
Polycarp had greater standing to maintain his view than did the bishop of Rome. He was taught by the first Apostles whereas Anicetus was the 10th or 11th bishop of Rome from the time of the first believers. Under the watch of Anicetus, heresy reached a climax (for that time). He diverted people from the example of the original Apostles and did not stop the spread of rampant heresy among the Roman Christians (we reviewed the rise of heresy in the second century in three-part series – Click Here to start).
Of all people who would be groomed and preserved to tackle this issue – God chose Polycarp, who was taught by John, who leaned on the Lord’s breast during Passover. Only God could have known about this issue before it occurred and prepared a witness for the dispute.
Anicetus’ decision would bring about a controversy that would last for centuries to come. The issue about when to keep Passover became known as the Quartodeciman controversy. Quartodeciman is a Latin word meaning “fourteenth.”
About thirty-five to forty years later (190-195 AD), the same issue came up again. This time the disagreement occurred between Polycrates, who was the disciple of Polycarp, and Victor, the bishop of Rome. The outcome was very different.
“A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover” (ibid, bk 5, 23:1).
In part of the discussion about this issue, Polycrates wrote a letter to Victor (preserved by Eusebius).
“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, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles…and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord…And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr…[others are mentioned]… Melito the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven… 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. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man’ [Acts 5:29]…I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus” (ibid, bk 5, 24:1-8).
Polycrates cited that he and his relatives (spiritually speaking) also celebrated the day of removing leaven (a reference to getting out leaven before the feast of unleavened bread). Those that celebrated Passover on the 14th of Nisan had tremendous support – Polycrates said that a great multitude backed him. The Bishop of Rome, Victor, would have none of this! He tried to cut off communication with the Eastern churches.
“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” (ibid, bk 5, 24:9).
The bishop of Lyons, Irenæus, who had spent some time around Polycarp, sent a scathing letter to Victor. In it, he said that some of the prior Roman bishops did not observe Passover at the same time as Jesus. However, they did not excommunicate Christians who celebrated Passover. We have a quote from him:
“Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so….And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it….But none were ever cast out on account of this form; but the presbyters before you who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it” (ibid, bk 5, 24:14-15]).
The earliest Roman Bishop who was listed as not keeping Passover in the Biblical manner was Xystus (also called Sixtus). He was one bishop during the reign of Hadrian. The writer Epiphanius (approx. 380 AD) said that all of Christendom used to keep Passover in the same way on the fourteenth of Nissan until the reign of Hadrian (Against Heresies, section 70).
In the communication about this issue, none of the bishops of Rome appealed to Peter or Paul for the reason not to keep Passover. And they couldn’t use them either. They both kept Passover with Jesus and Paul even instructed the Corinthians to keep it (I Cor. 5:6-8). Therefore, the practice of Rome at that time was not even Apostolic in its claim.
You might ask yourself: what does this issue have to do with the Sabbath? During the time of Victor, the Roman Church kept Passover on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nissan. Later they would use the once a year Sunday observance as the justification to push weekly Sunday services (Eusebius wrote about this in the fourth century).
This issue would come up again over the centuries and become a central aspect of the council of Nicea in 325 AD. At that council, Constantine ruled Christians should keep Passover after the Roman custom, which was on Sunday.
Side note: Despite Constantine’s decree, a significant number of Christians did not heed this command to keep Passover like the Roman Church. It was brought up during later times (such as the Council of Laodicea in 364 AD); a group of Christians honoring Passover on the 14th persisted for centuries after this; many Christians still do so to this day.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org