The Quartodeciman Controversy – Part 1
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus kept the Passover (also called Pascha) on the 14th of the Hebrew month called Aviv or Nisan. He taught the disciples to remember His suffering and death on this day. This instruction was followed by the early disciples (see Acts 20:6, I Cor. 5:6-8, I Cor. 11:17-32 for some examples). Remembering the death of Jesus on Passover was of major importance to early Christians.
In the mid-second century, a movement started among some Christians in Rome to abandon the Passover feast; they also tried to establish a new celebration. The dispute about which celebration was truer to the first Apostles became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy. Quartodeciman is a Latin word meaning “fourteenth.” Believe it or not, this subject had an impact on the weekly Sabbath!
The Quartodeciman Controversy in early Church history had three phases to it. In this week’s article, we will review the first of these phases, called the Controversy Begins. It contains four episodes.
Episode #1 – Polycarp Visits Rome
In about 155 AD, the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, abandoned the Passover feast. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the Apostle John, was still alive at that time. The churches of Asia connected to his leadership still followed the example of Jesus and the early disciples. He was likely the last living eye-witness of the first Apostles. To learn more about Polycarp, CLICK HERE to read a free article.
Polycarp traveled to Rome to convince Anicetus to continue with the Scriptural reckoning for Passover – the 14th of Nisan. Eusebius, a fourth century chronicler, tells us about this event:
“At this time, while Anicetus was at the head of the church of Rome, Irenaeus 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, 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…” (ibid, 5.24.16-17; emphasis mine).
Essentially, the issue between Polycarp and Anicetus came to a standstill. Polycarp could not convince Anicetus to celebrate Passover as he received it from the first Apostles, and Anicetus could not convince Polycarp to change. Notice one detail provided by Eusebius in the account above: Anicetus followed the customs of men. To him, the traditions of the bishop of Rome were of greater weight than the example of Jesus. While the two parties disagreed, they still maintained peace with each other.
Polycarp had greater standing to maintain his view than did the bishop of Rome. Anicetus was either the 10th or 11th bishop of Rome. Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John and appointed by him and other disciples to be the Bishop of Smyrna. During the tenure of Anicetus, heretical teachings were rampant (Click here to read an article about heresy being rampant under Anicetus’ tenure). Another reason Polycarp went to Rome was to confront these heretical teachers.
Polycarp was especially set apart by God to face the challenges of his times. He was taught by the disciple who leaned on the Lord’s chest during Passover. Anicetus’ decision initiated a dispute which would last for centuries to come.
Episode #2 – The Dispute in Laodicea
About a decade after this event, a dispute about Pascha arose in the province of Asia. The chronicler Eusebius described the situation:
“In those days also Melito, bishop of the parish in Sardis, and Apollinarius, bishop of Hierapolis, enjoyed great distinction…The following works of these writers have come to our knowledge. Of Melito, the two books On the Passover…In the books On the Passover he indicates the time at which he wrote, beginning with these words: ‘While Servilius Paulus (Sergius Paulus) was proconsul of Asia, at the time when Sagaris suffered martyrdom, there arose in Laodicea a great strife concerning the Passover, which fell according to rule in those days; and these were written’…” (ibid, 4.26.1-4; emphasis mine).
It appears that the nature of the conflict in Asia concerning Pascha was serious. This episode introduced a new paradigm where Christian leaders composed literature to defend or clarify their view on Pascha. For instance, Melito composed two works on the subject (one of which was republished in the mid-twentieth century). It was followed by other leaders such as Clement of Alexandria.
Another church leader from this time mentioned by Eusebius was Claudius Apollinarius. He served as the bishop of Hierapolis, a city close to Laodicea, between 160-180 AD. He also composed a work On Pascha. Claudius thought that Jesus died on the fourteenth of Nisan and used the gospels (plural) to support this view. He refuted the arguments of those who thought Jesus died on the fifteenth of Nisan.
In this second episode, we learn that believers developed different views about the chronology of events at the end of Jesus life. Due to the limited amount of material, it is not clear how or if these differing views affected their Paschal practice.
Episode #3 – Controversy in Rome
Eleutherus was the bishop of Rome from 174-189 AD. During his tenure, Quartodeciman Christians worked to convince others in Rome to return to the example of Jesus and observe Passover. Among the leaders of this movement was a man named Blastus.
In Pseudo-Tertullian we learn: “In addition to all these, there is likewise Blastus, who would latently introduce Judaism. For he says the Passover is not to be kept otherwise than according to the law of Moses, on the fourteenth of the month…” (Against all Heresies, 8)
Immigration from east to west was very common in the ancient world. The Quartodeciman Christians who immigrated and settled near Rome likely maintained their native practice. Blastus and others could have fallen in this category. According to Eusebius, he had a significant following (Church History, 5.15.1, 5.20.1).
To our knowledge, Blastus only differed from Rome in the Quartodeciman practice. His movement must have been influential because the well-known bishop Irenaeus wrote a letter to counter his efforts. We do not possess much information about this episode in the controversy.
Episode #4 – Victor and Polycrates
Not long after these events, the fourth episode of this controversy occurred (early 190s). This time the disagreement occurred between Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, and Victor, the bishop of Rome. The outcome was very different than previous chapters.
“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, 5.23.1; emphasis mine).
Eusebius, a pro-Roman Church writer, admitted that Polycrates and the bishops in agreement with him followed an older practice than that of the bishops of Rome. And it certainly was not just a tradition, but truth rooted in Scripture and the example of Jesus and His early disciples.
Polycrates wrote a letter to Victor to defend his practice of Passover; it preserved by Eusebius and an excerpt is located below:
“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, 5.24.1-8; emphasis mine).
Polycrates cited that he and his relatives also celebrated the day of removing leaven (a reference to removing 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’ supported him. Eusebius attested that all the churches of Asia still kept Passover in this manner.
The Bishop of Rome, Victor, would have none of this! He tried to excommunicate the Eastern churches. This move was an attempt to separate the two groups from each other. Eusebius discussed this development.
“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” (ibid, 5.24.9-10).
Other Christian bishops did not approve of Victor’s actions. They sent letters to rebuke him for this move. It was likely viewed as a power grab or an attempt to denigrate the churches of the East. This is the first time that the Bishop of Rome tried to assert such authority over another group of churches – and the first time they tried to sever ties with others. In later centuries, this attempt to exert control over another region would become standard practice.
The bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, also disagreed with Victor. In his youth, Irenaeus spent some time around Polycarp; he is one of our primary sources about his life. He sent a scathing letter to Victor. In it, he said that some of the prior Roman bishops did not observe Passover. They still maintained peaceful communication with those who differed from them.
Irenaeus wrote: “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, 5.24.14-15; emphasis mine).
Irenaeus provides us with a list of Roman bishops who did not keep Passover. The earliest one did not date to the time of the early Apostles, but instead to a man named Xystus (also called Sixtus). He was one of the Roman bishops during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138 AD.
The Christian writer Epiphanius (approx. 380 AD) said that all of Christendom used to keep Passover in the same way until the reign of Hadrian. He wrote:
“(speaking of the Audians) For they choose to celebrate the Passover with the Jews…And indeed, < it is true > that this used to be the church’s custom…each is found writing to the other and quarreling, and down to our own day. This has been the situation ever since was thrown into disorder after the time of the circumcised bishops…” (Panarion, 70.9.1-2, 9, Translated by Frank Williams)
The confusion about when to keep Passover occurred when the time of the circumcised bishops ended. When was this? In the 130s AD, Hadrian fought a major war with the Jewish people. At the end of it, he banned Jewish people, including Jewish Christians, from Jerusalem.
In the book of Acts, we learn that Jerusalem was considered the de-facto capital of Christendom. Leaders met there to make important decisions. Ministers were sent out to assist the brethren in other places. Those same ministers had to report back to Jerusalem about their activity. For some examples of this, see the following verses: Acts 1:4-8, 11:1-2, 11:19-22, 11:26-27, 12:24-25, 13:13, 15:2, 16:4, and Gal. 2:1-2.
Starting with Hadrian’s ban, there was confusion about which city held that type of authority in Christianity. Up until that time, all the bishops of Jerusalem had been Jewish, but they also held the purity of the faith. Those that followed them did not have this purity. Eusebius related:
“…But I have learned this much from writings, that until the siege of the Jews, which took place under Adrian [Hadrian], there were fifteen bishops in succession there [Jerusalem], all of whom are said to have been of Hebrew descent, and to have received the knowledge of Christ in purity, so that they were approved by those who were able to judge of such matters…” (Eusebius, Church History, 4.5.2).
In the writings on this subject, none of the bishops of Rome appealed to Peter or Paul as a reason to abstain from keeping Passover. And they could not use their writings or example. Peter kept Passover with Jesus. Paul instructed the Corinthians to observe 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?” Though we do not know exactly when this practice started, by the time of Victor the Roman Church kept Passover on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. From the position of a once a year observance, pro-Roman Church writers pushed for weekly observances. Friday was promoted as a day of fasting because they believed Christ died on that day. Weekly Sunday services were pushed because they believed Christ resurrected on that day.
Tertullian remarked about the weekly Friday fast and gatherings on Sunday, which he called the ‘day of the Lord’s resurrection.’ We have two quotes from him: “Why do we devote to Stations the fourth and sixth days of the week, and to fasts the preparation-day?” (On Fasting, 14). “We, however (just as we have received), only on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude…” (On Prayer, 23). In other writings, Tertullian advocated for the continuity of the Sabbath (see Against Marcion, 4.12).
By the time of Eusebius, it became more common to fast on Friday and then meet on Sunday. He wrote: “But we celebrate these same mysteries throughout the whole year, commemorating the passion of the Saviour by fasting on every day before the Sabbath [that is, Friday]… and on every Lord’s day [Sunday] being revived by the sanctified body of the same saving Pascha…” (De Solemnitate Paschali, quoted by Odom, p 287).
In another place, Eusebius claimed that these practices replaced the once a year meeting for Passover. “Those with Moses killed the lamb of the Passover once in every year toward evening on the fourteenth (day) of the first lunar month; but we, those of the new covenant [who are] observing the Pascha on every Lord’s day [Sunday], are always satisfying ourselves with the body of the Saviour, always partake of the blood of the Lamb…Wherefore, also, in every week we perform the feast of our Pascha on the salutary and Lord’s Day [Sunday], fulfilling the mysteries of the true Lamb by whom we are redeemed” (ibid, p 286).
The Quartodeciman Controversy was part of the movement by the Church of Rome to abandon any practices considered ‘Jewish.’ Their actions were contrary to those taught by the first Apostles. Moreover, this controversy was eventually used to push the idea of weekly fasting on Friday and Sunday gatherings.
Despite these Church Councils and laws, a significant number of Christians, especially in the East, continued to keep Passover into the fourth and fifth centuries.
In Part two of this series, we will examine the next two phases of the Quartodeciman Controversy: Confusion and Forced Conformity.
Passover and Unleavened Bread is a practice that takes us back to the example of Jesus and the early disciples. It reminds us of the early Church practice before man-made practices came along.
To learn more about this subject, download our FREE book “The Quartodeciman Controversy” (CLICK HERE).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion, 70.9.1-2,9. Translated by Frank Williams. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Books II and III, De Fide. 2nd ed. Boston: Brill Publishers, 2013. pp 420-421.
Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History, 4.5.2, 4.6.3-4. 4.14.1-7, 4.26.1-4, 5.5.8, 5.15.1, 5.20.1, 5.23.1-2, 5.24.1-17. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1890. pp 176-177, 187, 220, 229, 237, 241-244.
Eusebius. De Solemnitate Paschali, VII, X-XII. Translated by Robert Odom. Sabbath and Sunday in Early Christianity. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association. 1977. pp 286-287.
Irenaeus. Against Heresies, 3.3.4, 3.4.3. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. pp 416-417.
Tertullian. Against All Heresies, 8. Translated by Rev. S. Thelwall. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. p 654.
Tertullian. On Prayer, 23. Translated by Peter Holmes. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885. p 689.
Tertullian. On Fasting, 14. Translated by S. Thelwall. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. p 112.
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