The Feast of Passover in the Early Church

Except from God’s Festivals in Scripture and History: Part 1 – The Spring Festivals (p. 28-29) by Samuel Bacchiocchi available for download here.

Passover Kept as a Night Vigil

The New Testament does not offer us a clear picture of how Passover was observed by the apostolic church. The picture becomes clearer when we come to the second century. Several documents inform us regarding the meaning, manner and time of the observance of the Christian Passover. According to these documents, Christians celebrated Passover at the same time as Jewish Passover, beginning at sundown of Nisan 14 and continuing their vigil until the next morning. For this reason, they are called “Quartodecimans,” the Latin for “fourteeners.”

Christians did not eat the Passover lamb, but fasted in memory of Jesus’ death and possibly in reparation for the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. They read and expanded the Passover story in Exodus 12 by applying it to the suffering and death of Jesus. They engaged in prayers, singing, and exhortations until dawn, when they broke their fast by partaking of the Lord’s Supper and an agape meal.

The earliest account of Christian Passover is in the Ethiopic version of the apocryphal Epistle of the Apostles, probably written in Asia Minor around A. D. 150. Chapter 15 contains the following address of the risen Christ to the apostles:

“And you therefore celebrate the remembrance of my death, i.e. the passover; then will one of you, who stands besides me, will be thrown into prison for my name’s sake, and he will be very grieved and sorrowful, for while you celebrate the passover he who is in custody did not celebrate it with you. And I will send my power in the form of my angel, and the door of the prison will be open, and he will come out and come to you to watch with you and rest. And when you complete my remembrance and my Agape at the crowing of the cock, he will again be taken and thrown in prison for a testimony, until he comes out to preach, as I have commanded you.”[1]

The deliverance of Peter alluded to in this passage makes for a real “Passover story.” This “deliverance” of Peter took place in the Passover night, the night of watching. Here, Passover is kept as a night vigil in remembrance of the death of Jesus. The vigil extended to the early morning of the 15th day when the fast was broken with “my remembrance and my Agape,” a clear reference to the Lord’s Supper and the love feast.

The extension of the fasting to the early morning is mentioned in several other documents and seems to be a characteristic that distinguished the Christian observance from the Jewish. The reason for this extension of the fasting appears to be twofold. On the one hand, Christians chose to postpone their rejoicing until after the termination of the Passover feasting of the Jews, which ended at about midnight. On the other hand, the time prior to dawn had an eschatological meaning in relation to the expectation of the Return of Christ. While the Jews expected the coming of the Messiah on Passover night, the Christians awaited the Return of Christ before dawn. Jerome calls it an apostolic tradition to extend the Passover vigil until past midnight because of “the expectation of the Advent of Christ (expectantes adventum Christi).”[2]

The passage in the Epistle of the Apostles continues with the disciples asking Christ: “O Lord, have you then not completed the drinking of the passover? Must we then do it again?” Jesus responds to the apostles, saying: “Yes, until I come from the father with my wounds.”[3] The question posed by the disciples reflects the author’s awareness of a dispute over the necessity for Christians to observe Passover. Presumably, some Christians felt no need to observe Passover because they viewed it as a Jewish feast. The dispute may have arisen, as Thomas Talley suggests,[4] as a result of the influx of Gentiles who were reluctant to observe a feast previously unknown to them. This view is supported by a significant testimony of Epiphanius, who, as we shall see, asserts that the controversy over Passover erupted after A. D. 135, when the Jewish-Christian bishops of Jerusalem were replaced by Gentiles bishops as a result of Hadrian’s edict which forbade Jews and Jewish-Christians to enter the city.

A Passover Homily

Another informative document of the Christian observance of Passover is the Sermononthe Passover (dated about A. D. 165) by Melito, Bishop of Sardis. In a highly rhetorical fashion, Melito explains how the old Passover has found fulfillment in Christ. It is significant that the Biblical setting is still the Exodus story (Ex 12:11-30), which the author reads and expands as in the Jewish Passover haggadah (narration, ritual).

“Therefore hear ye beloved: Thus the mystery of Passover is new and old, eternal and transient, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal. It is old according to the Law (of Moses), but new according to the Word; transient according to the world, but eternal through grace; corruptible as to the slaughter of the sheep, incorruptible because of the Life of the Lord; mortal because of the burial of the Lord, immortal because of the Resurrection from the dead.”[5]

This sermon makes it incontrovertibly clear that Christians in Asia Minor observed Passover at the same time as the Jews, using the same story and metaphors of the Jewish Passover. The difference is that they did not sacrifice a lamb, because their Passover Lamb was already slaughtered. They did not commemorate deliverance from Egypt, but celebrated instead their deliverance from the bondage of sin. They did not expect the coming of the Messiah on Passover night, but awaited on that night the Return of Christ. The Exodus story was read, but a new Christian meaning was attached to it.

“For led as lamb and slaughtered as a sheep, he [Jesus] ransomed us from the ruin of the world as from the land of Egypt, and freed us from slavery of the devil as from the hands of Pharaoh, and sealed our souls with his own spirit and the members of our bodies with his own blood . . . This is he who rescued us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life, from oppression to an eternal Kingdom and made a new priesthood and a chosen people. He is the true Passover, he it is who in many men suffered many things.”[6]

Melito’s paschal homily clearly reveals that the primitive Christian Passover focused primarily on the suffering and death of Jesus rather than on His resurrection. Though he makes few passing references to the resurrection, it is clear from the context that these function as the epilogue of the passion drama. The Easter-Sunday celebration of the resurrection widely observed today represents a significant departure from the date and meaning of the primitive Christian Passover. The suffering and death of Jesus is the recurring theme of Melito’s sermon and the very definition he gives to the term “Passover”:

“What is Passover? Indeed, its name is derived from that event– to celebrate the Passover [pascha] is derived from ‘to suffer’ [paschein]. Therefore, learn who the sufferer is and who he is who suffers along with the sufferer.”[7]

The explanation that “Passover–pascha” derives etymologically from “to suffer-paschein” is unfounded, since in Hebrew the term “Passover– pesah” means “passing over,” or “sparing.” Though erroneous, this definition reveals the Christian view of Passover, namely, the commemoration of the suffering and death of Christ.

The Passover Controversy

The importance of Passover in the religious life of the early Christians is indicated by the controversy which flared up in the second century over the date for the celebration of the Passover. This became a major controversy in the latter half of the second century that threatened to split Christian churches. Our primary source of information for this controversy is the historian Eusebius (ca. A. D. 260-340) and the letters preserved by him in the fifth book of his Church History (chapters 23-25). For the purpose of this study, we briefly consider only the basic issues of the controversy.

The two protagonists of the controversy were Bishop Victor of Rome (AD 189-199) on the one side and Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus on the other. Bishop Victor championed the observance of Easter-Sunday, that is, the observance of Passover on the Sunday following the date of the Jewish Passover. He demanded the convocation of councils in various provinces to codify Easter-Sunday. Eventually, he excommunicated the recalcitrant Christian communities of the province of Asia for refusing to adopt Easter-Sunday.

Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and representative of the Asian churches strongly advocated the traditional Passover date of Nisan 14, commonly known as “Quartodeciman (from the Latin fourteenth) Passover.” In accordance with Victor’s instructions, Polycrates summoned the church leaders of his Asian province to consider Victor’s request. The Asian bishops, however, unanimously agreed to remain true to the apostolic tradition transmitted to them by the apostles Philip and John and refused to be frightened into submission by the threats of Victor of Rome. Polycrates concluded his reply to Victor by saying:

“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.’”[8]

Upon receiving this letter, Victor issued letters to all the churches excommunicating the entire province of Asia. Such an impulsive and ill- advised action precipitated the reaction of many bishops, including Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (from ca. A. D. 176), who intervened as peacemaker in the controversy. In his letter to Bishop Victor, Irenaeus urged the Roman Bishop to be more tolerant because the predecessors of Soter (A. D. 165), namely, “Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus and Telesphorus, and Xystus, . . .” though “they did not observe it, they were nonetheless at peace with those from the dioceses in which it was observed.”[9]

Unfortunately, Irenaeus does not explain what it is that some “observed” and some “did not observe.” It has been commonly held that the object of the verb “observe” is the (Quartodeciman) Passover kept on Nisan 14, which Soter’s predecessors did not observe because they observed Easter-Sunday. This popular explanation has been challenged by a number of reputable scholars, who appeal to Irenaeus’s assertion that the difference between the bishops of Rome and the Quartodecimans was more severe prior to Soter than it was in the time of Victor.

This assertion, as Thomas Talley explains,

“has led several important writers in this century to the more radical conclusion that prior to Soter the annual Pascha was not celebrated by the Roman church at all. Irenaeus’ references to those who ‘observe’ does mean, indeed, those who observed the Pascha on the traditional date of Passover. Those who did not ‘observe,’ however, did not observe the Pascha on the traditional date of Passover or at any other time.”[10]

This explanation clarifies Irenaeus’account of the meeting that took place in Rome (about A. D. 154) between Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna and Bishop Anicetus of Rome to discuss among other things the question of Passover. Irenaeus tells us that Anicetus was unable to 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,” and Polycarp was unable to persuade Anicetus to observe as he had, the Roman Bishop declaring that “he ought to follow the custom of the presbyters that had preceded him.”[11]

The meaning of this passage becomes clear, if, as Thomas Talley explains, “we accept the position of Holl and so recognize that the discussion between Polycarp and Anicetus had to do not with when one should observe the Pascha, but whether one should observe it. That, as Irenaeus suggested to Victor, was a more serious difference than the question of the day on which the fast should be terminated, whatever pastoral difficulties that might present. The disagreement between Anicetus and Polycarp represented yet another dimension of the still resolving difference of attitude toward Jewish roots held by the then-dispersed Jerusalem community, on the one hand, and the Gentile mission, on the other. It was simply the question of the importance of Christians continuing to observe Passover, the very question, incidentally, that the writer of Epistula Apostolorum 15 [the Epistle of the Apostles] put on the lips of the apostles and to which they received the Lord’s affirmative reply.”[12]



[1] Edgar Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds. and trans., New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia, 1963), vol. 1, p. 199.

[2] Jerome, Commentatiorum in Evangelium Matthaei 25:6, Patrologiae Latina 26, 184.

[3] Edgar Hennecke (note 14), p. 200.

[4] Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (New York, 1986), p. 7.

[5] Campbell Bonner, trans., Melito of Sardes, the Homily on the Passion, with Some Fragments of Ezekiel, Studies and Documents 12 (Philadelphia, 1940), p. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Eusebius, Church History 5, 24, 7, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1979), second series, vol. 1, p. 242.

[9] Eusebius, Church History 5, 24, 14.

[10] Thomas J. Talley (note 17), p. 22. Among the scholars who defend this view are Karl Holl, “Ein Bruchstück aus einem bisher unbekannten Brief des Epiphanius,” Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte. II: Der Osten (Tübingen, 1927), pp. 204-224; Hans Lietzmann, AHistoryofthe Early Church (New York, 1961), pp. 135f.; Marcel Richard, “La question paschal au IIe siècle,” L’Orient Syrien 6 (1961), pp. 179-212; A. Hamman, “Valeur et signification des reseignements liturgiques de Justin,” Studia Patristica XIII.ii TU 116 (Berlin, 1975), pp. 364-374.

[11] Eusebius, Church History 5, 24, 17.

[12] Thomas J. Talley (note 17), p. 23.


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