The Quartodeciman Controversy
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus kept the Passover on the 14th of Nissan. 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 out of Rome to stop practicing Passover; they also tried to establish a new celebration. Believe it or not, this subject had an impact on the weekly Sabbath!
We will pick up the story in the mid-second century. In about 155 AD, which is about 125 years after Jesus’ death, this controversy started. At this time, the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, decided that he did not want to celebrate Passover. At that time, Polycarp was the leader of the Eastern Churches at that time. He and the churches connected to his leadership still followed the example of Jesus and the early disciples.
Anicetus was either the 10th or 11th bishop of Rome from the time of the first disciples. Polycarp was the disciple of the Apostle John and thus appointed by him and other disciples to be the Bishop of Smyrna. He was considered the leader of all the believers in the East. He was likely the last eye-witness of the first Apostles. To learn more about Polycarp, CLICK HERE to read a free article about him.
Polycarp traveled to Rome to convince Anicetus to continue with the Scriptural reckoning for Passover. 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 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 followed the customs of men. To Anicetus, 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. He was taught by the first Apostles whereas Anicetus was far removed from the time of the first Apostles. During the tenure of Anicetus, heretical teachings were rampant (Click here to read an article about heresy being rampant under Anicetus’ tenure).
God chose Polycarp, who was taught by the disciple who leaned on the Lord’s chest during Passover, to stand up for truth. 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.”
Nearly forty years later (about 190-195 AD), the issue came up again. This time the disagreement occurred between Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus, 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, 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 the 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 situation:
“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.
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. 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.
The controversy concerning Passover would last for centuries into the future and be discussed at church councils such as Nicaea (325), Antioch (341), Laodicea (364), and Constantinople (381). The groups who persisted in the observance of Passover were deemed heretical because they did not comply with the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, Roman Law would codify penalties against those who practiced Passover like Jesus (see CT: 16.5.9  and CJ: 1.5.5 ). In fact, all groups deemed heretical had severe laws enacted against them (see The Theodosian Code, Book 16, Title 5 for over 60 laws against groups deemed heretical).
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. Eventually, these groups would fade into small, scattered groups. Some lasted for a few more centuries. In modern times, there has been a revival Quartodeciman practice in Christianity.
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 and the time before weekly Sunday services.
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, 5.5.8, 5.23.1, 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, 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. 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.