The Quartodeciman Controversy (Part 2)

The Quartodeciman Controversy (Part 2)

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

In part one of this series, we looked at the first phase of the Quartodeciman Controversy. It started when the Church of Rome decided to depart from the celebration of the Biblical Passover (also called Pascha) under the influence of Gnostic heresies. As its replacement, they enacted a resurrection service on the Sunday after Passover. This change was an uphill battle as Christians even in Rome resisted this move for decades. In the second century, many Christians in the East still observed Passover as they received it from Jesus and the first disciples.

In part two of this series, we will discuss the next two phases of the Quartodeciman Controversy, which are often overlooked.

Confusion Abounds

The second phase of the Quartodeciman Controversy is confusion. Because the new ‘Roman Pascha’ mixed some human reason with some Biblical reasoning, variations of practice were developed by Christians in other areas. Pascha might be observed in a different way or date depending on the city or region.

An important early writing on this subject was composed by Anatolius of Alexandria. He was the bishop of Syrian Laodicea in the mid to late third century. In The Paschal Canon, he discussed the variation of calculations concerning the Paschal date.

Anatolius reasoned that Pascha should be celebrated anytime between the 14th day through the 20th day of the first lunar month so long as it was held on Sunday (which he called the Lord’s Day). Other variations existed. One group he described might keep Pascha as late as the 22nd or 23rd day of the first month, which he found unacceptable. He also disagreed with another group who commemorated Pascha on the 21st day of the first month (or as late as the 21st day). Another source tells us that some Christians kept March 25 as Pascha every year (Epiphanius, Panarion, 50.1.6).

Moreover, he reasoned that it was necessary to calculate a range of dates on the Roman Calendar that Passover should fall within. According to his calculations, Pascha should always occur between March 27 and April 23. This cycle was not accepted by certain believers in north Africa. They asserted that Pascha had to occur between March 22 and April 21. Why did this discrepancy exist?

In ancient times, the spring equinox was recognized as a different day in different places. The Roman Julian Calendar established March 25 to be the day of the equinox, but the Alexandrian Calendar viewed the equinox as March 21. Both groups thought Passover should fall after the equinox, but they disagreed as to which day was the equinox. So there were also differing views as to which dates on the Roman Calendar were acceptable to keep Pascha. To this day, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches disagree on the calculation for Pascha.

If this wasn’t confusing enough, there were also disagreements as to how many years into the future that the Pascha feast should be calculated. For instance, Anatolius argued for a nineteen-year time cycle. Hippolytus had a sixteen-year cycle, and Dionysius had an eight-year cycle (Eusebius, Church History, 6.22.1, 7.20). There is also the famous Hippolytus statue. On it is inscribed a 112-year cycle for keeping Pascha. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, an 84-year time cycle was also utilized in the early church (article: Easter Controversy).

The following were variables that resulted in numerous ways to keep Pascha in the second, third, and fourth centuries:

1) Different view of which range of dates the Pascha could fall upon (or if a specific date were needed)

2) Differing view of the equinox

3) Different view of yearly cycles

At the very least, the writings of Anatolius and others give us an idea of the confusion initiated by the first phase of the controversy. No one could really agree on when to keep the new Pascha introduced by the Roman Church. In his discourse about this subject, Anatolius also mentioned the Quartodeciman Christians. He claimed that they did not have any difficulty with their observance.We have a quote from him below:

“…But nothing was difficult to them with whom it was lawful to celebrate the Passover on any day when the fourteenth of the moon happened after the equinox. Following their example up to the present time all the bishops of Asia—as themselves also receiving the rule from an unimpeachable authority, to wit, the evangelist John…were in the way of celebrating the Paschal feast, without question, every year, whenever the fourteenth day of the moon had come, and the lamb was sacrificed by the Jews…”

Why did the Quartodeciman Christians not have difficulty? Because they obeyed the Bible, not the commandments and doctrines of men. When the Bishops of Rome and other leaders tried to change the Scriptures, it caused confusion. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace…” (I Cor. 14:33).

Forced Conformity

The third phase of the Quartodeciman Controversy is Forced Conformity. In the fourth and fifth centuries, people were coerced to comply with the Roman Church practice concerning Pascha. Four methods were used in these efforts: 1) Church Councils, 2) Polemic Writings, 3) Roman Law, and 4) Force.

Constantine became Western Roman Emperor in 312 AD. The next year, he gave freedom of worship to all religions with the Edict of Milan; this included Christianity. During his reign, an opportunity arose for the Roman Church to assert its reckoning of Pascha above all others – but not in the way you might think.

Disputes erupted between the Roman Church and other Christian groups in the early fourth century regarding other issues. Church Councils were convened to resolve them. As part of this process, these groups appealed to Constantine to settle the disagreements. After all, he was the highest civil authority in the Western Roman world. This led to a series of unforeseen consequences that favored the Roman Church Pascha.

Church Councils

Arles (314 AD) – The Council of Arles was held in 314 AD. It was the third council convened to resolve the dispute between Donatists and the Roman Church. Arles was also the first Church Council with wide representation from across Western Europe. The first judgment issued by the Council was to impose upon all other regions the same Pascha observance as the Roman Church (canon one). This helps us understand its importance to their leaders. They desired to end the confusion by imposing their view on others.

Nicaea (325 AD) – In 324 AD, Constantine became ruler of the entire Roman Empire. The next year, he was again asked to resolve a dispute between the Roman Church and two other groups: the Meletians and Arians. The Council of Nicaea was convened to resolve these issues and others. At its conclusion, Constantine directed that a letter be sent to church leaders and compelled them to follow, among other things, the Roman reckoning for Pascha. It was left up to Church leaders to enforce its contents. This letter did not have the force of imperial law; Quartodeciman practice still existed in some areas of the east.

While these church councils were initially convened to resolve disputes, Roman Church leaders utilized them to force other groups to follow their Pascha practice. Other councils were held after Constantine’s reign that increased the marginalization of Quartodeciman Christians. We have summarized three of them below.

Antioch (341 AD) – The first canon or decision of the council excommunicated from fellowship Quartodeciman Christians.

Laodicea (363/364 AD) – One of the goals of this council was to pronounce condemnation on Christians who practiced celebrations considered Jewish. In canon seven, Quartodecimans and other groups were pronounced as heretics. In canon twenty-nine, Christians were condemned for keeping the Sabbath. In canon thirty-seven, Christians were denounced for keeping feasts with Jewish people or heretics. This council expressed the views of the Roman Church and did not have the force of law behind it.

Constantinople (381 AD) – In canon seven, heretical groups were required to perform certain actions to be accepted back into fellowship with the ‘Catholic’ Church. Some were required to write down a renunciation of their beliefs and then be anointed by a priest. Others had to be rebaptized. Quartodeciman Christians could fall into either category.

Polemic Writers

Roman Church leaders also composed polemic writings and sermons against Quartodecimans. These works condemned them in various ways. For instance, Epiphanius (late 300s AD) and Theodoret (early to mid 400s AD) both denounced Quartodeciman practices as false doctrine (Panarion, 70.10.1-5; Compendium of Heretical Tales, 3.4). John Chrysostom (late 300s AD) pronounced eternal condemnation on those Christians who kept feasts such as Passover (Eight Homilies Against the Jews, 3.4.1, 3.5.6, 4.3.5, 4.4.1, 6.7.9). He was also very anti-Semitic.

Roman Laws

Another development which started during the reign of Constantine was the gradual intertwining of Roman Empire and Roman Church. Laws were enacted which favored and codified Roman Church practices, including their Pascha feast. By the end of the fourth century, this religious system became the preferred religion of Roman Emperors. Thus, Roman law became another method by which the Roman Pascha was imposed on others. There were two categories of laws pertaining to this subject.

The first category of laws curbed or prohibited public activities on the Roman Pascha. This granted their version of the feast recognition by the imperial government and throughout the empire. This forced the average person to be aware of the Roman Church Pascha because their activities were restricted. The bulk of these laws were enacted between 389-425 AD (see CT: 2.8.19, 2.8.21, 2.8.24, 9.35.4, 9.38.3-4, 9.38.8, 15.5.5).

The second category of Roman laws related to this subject were those which condemned heretics. As previously discussed, various fourth-century Church Councils started to define certain beliefs, practices, and groups as ‘heretical.’ As the Roman Church and Roman Empire became intertwined, punishments against groups deemed ‘heretical’ became codified into Roman law.

In 380 AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius enacted a law that commanded all to follow the teachings of the Bishop of Rome (CT: 16.1.2). Those who did were called ‘Catholic Christians’; all other groups were pronounced as heretical and insane. Other Theodosian laws relating to religion were fanatical.

For instance, non-Roman Church groups were banned from owning church buildings or assembling. Sometimes they chose the Paschal season to perform these confiscations! (CT: 16.5.12 [383 AD]) Theodosius tried to intimidate people into conformity.

Other laws, both during and after his reign, prescribed exile and confiscation of goods upon non-conformist groups (see CT: 16.6.6, 16.10.24). In 425 AD, heretics were banned from the city of Rome (CT: 16.5.62). Anyone caught assisting non-conformist groups were fined and could be severely punished (CJ: 1.5.5 [428 AD]). This second category of laws took civil protections away from groups considered heretical.


The early Christian historian Sozomen wrote that Theodosius chose not to enforce the harshest laws against non-conformist groups (Church History, 7.12). He hoped to persuade people to the Roman Catholic cause through intimidation rather than force. Despite this laxity in enforcement, his laws established a dangerous precedent. After his reign, we have at least two recorded instances where certain punishments prescribed by Roman law were carried out.

The first of these came from John Chrysostom, a virulent anti-Semitic Roman Catholic leader of that time (briefly discussed above). He was also the bishop of Constantinople from 398-403. He was deposed for his violent mistreatment of non-conformist groups, including Quartodeciman Christians. Socrates Scholasticus recorded: “Others, however, asserted that John had been deservedly deposed, because of the violence he had exercised in Asia and Lydia, in depriving the Novatians and Quartodecimans of many of their churches…” (Church History, 6.19).

Another example of this violent behavior was exhibited by Nestorius, who was the archbishop of Constantinople from 428-431. His tenure started the same year that a repressive anti-heresy law was enacted (CJ: 1.5.5). He supposedly received a prophetic message from ‘God’ that the emperor would be given heaven and victory over the Persians if he purged the empire of heretics. Immediately after this message, the audience erupted into a frenzy and burned down a non-Catholic place of worship.

He also persecuted Quartodeciman Christians in Asia Minor. Apparently, he caused people in other cities to be put to death! His aggressive rhetoric may have incited mob violence against them.  Socrates related the following concerning these events: “…With what calamities he visited the Quartodecimans throughout Asia, Lydia, and Caria, and what multitudes perished in a popular tumult of which he was the cause at Miletus and Sardis, I think proper to pass by in silence…” (ibid, 7.29).

While unconscionable, the actions of John Chrysostom and Nestorius followed established Roman Law towards non-conformists. Other such incidences may have occurred. These violent acts were a by-product of the intertwining of Roman Church and Roman State.

Another point to be emphasized from these sources is that Quartodeciman practice still existed in the fifth century. This means that the group did not instantly disappear during previous times. Due to the pressure from Church Councils, Polemic Writings, Roman Law, and Force, Quartodeciman Christians were reduced to a small minority. Their civil rights were taken from them. Being involved with or connected to the group became dangerous.

Quartodeciman Christians were thus scattered to the wind. Various groups have held to this practice off and on from that time until the present.

To read about this subject in more depth, download our free book “The Quartodeciman Controversy” from (Free Resources Page).


To view the Bibliography, see The Quartodeciman Controversy, pp 109-113.

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