The Origin of Easter Sunday - Samuel Bacchiocchi

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

The historian Eusebius (ca. A.D. 260-340) provides a valuable dossier of documents regarding the controversy which flared up in the second century over the date for the celebration of the Passover.”[1] There were of course two protagonists of the controversy. On the one side, Bishop Victor of Rome (A.D. 189-199) championed the Easter-Sunday custom (i.e., the celebration of the feast on the Sunday usually following the date of the Jewish Passover) and threatened to excommunicate the recalcitrant Christian communities of the province of Asia which refused to follow his instruction.[2]

On the other side, Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus and representative of the Asian Churches, strongly advocated the traditional Passover date of Nisan 14, commonly called “Quartodeciman Passover.” Polycrates, claiming to possess the genuine apostolic tradition transmitted to him by the Apostles Philip and John, refused to be frightened into submission by the threats of Victor of Rome. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (from ca. A.D. 176), according to Eusebius, intervened as peacemaker in the controversy.

In his letter to Victor, Irenaeus not only displays a magnanimous spirit, but also endeavors to show to the Roman Bishop that the predecessors of Soter, namely, “Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus and Telesphorus and Sixtus,” even though “they did not observe it [i.e., the Quartodeciman Passover] … were none the less at peace with those from the dioceses in which it was observed.”[3] By stating that Soter’s predecessors did not observe the Quartodeciman Passover, Irenaeus implies that they also, like Victor, celebrated Easter on Sunday. By tracing the controversy back to Bishop Sixtus (ca. A.D. 116-ca. 126), mentioning him as the first non-observant of the Quartodeciman Passover, Irenaeus suggests that Passover began to be celebrated in Rome on Sunday at his time (ca. A.D. 116-126).

To conclude this from this passing reference of Irenaeus may be rightly deemed hazardous. There are however complementary indications which tend to favor this possibility. Bishop Sixtus (ca. A.D. 116-ca. 126), for instance, administered the Church of Rome right at the time of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) who, as we noted earlier, adopted a policy of radical repression of Jewish rites and customs.[4]

These repressive measures would encourage Christians to substitute for customs regarded as Jewish, new ones. In Jerusalem, we noticed, the Judaeo-Christian members and leaders were at that time expelled from the city together with the Jews, and were replaced by a new Gentile group. It was also at that historical moment that, according to Epiphanius, the Easter-controversy arose. The Bishop of Cyprus writes, “the controversy arose after the time of the exodus (ca. A.D. 135) of the bishops of the circumcision and it has continued until our time.”[5]

If, as Epiphanius implies, the controversy was provoked by the introduction after A.D. 135 of the new Easter-Sunday celebration which a significant number of Quartodeciman Christians rejected, then Sixtus could very well have been the initiator of the new custom, since he was Bishop of Rome only a few years before. Some time must be allowed before a new custom becomes sufficiently widespread to provoke a controversy. The references of Irenaeus and Epiphanius appear then to complement one another. The former suggests that Easter-Sunday originated in Rome under Sixtus and the latter that the new custom was introduced in Jerusalem by the new Greek bishops, thus provoking a controversy. Both events occurred at approximately the same time.

Marcel Richard endeavors to show that the new day was introduced at this time not by the Church of Rome but by the Greek bishops who settled in Jerusalem. Owing to Hadrian’s prohibition of Jewish festivals, they would have pioneered the new Easter-Sunday date to avoid appearing “Judaizing” to the Roman authorities.[6] While we accept Richard’s conclusion that Easter-Sunday was first introduced in Hadrian’s time, we find it hard to believe that it was the new Gentile leadership of the Jerusalem Church that introduced the new custom and to cause a large segment of ‘Christianity to accept it especially at a time when the Church in the city had fallen into obscurity.

There is a wide consensus of opinion among scholars that Rome is indeed the birthplace of Easter-Sunday. Some, in fact, rightly label it as “Roman-Easter.” [7] This is suggested not only by the role of the Church of Rome in enforcing the new custom and by Irenaeus’ remarks,[8] but also by later historical sources. In two related documents, namely the conciliar letter of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)[9] and Constantine’s personal conciliar letter addressed to all bishops, [10] the Church of Rome is presented as the prime example to emulate on the matter of Easter-Sunday, undoubtedly because of her historical position and role in championing its observance.

Easter-Sunday and Weekly Sunday

What is the relationship, one may ask, between the annual Easter-Sunday and the weekly Sunday? Were the two feasts regarded perhaps as one similar feast that celebrated at different times the same resurrection event, or were they considered as two different feasts which fulfilled different objectives? If the two were treated as one similar feast, it would seem plausible to suppose that the birthplace of Easter-Sunday could well be also the place of origin of the weekly Sunday observance, since possibly the same factors acted in the same place to cause the contemporaneous origin of both.

In numerous patristic testimonies the weekly and annual Easter-Sunday are treated as basically the same feast commemorating the same event of the resurrection. In a document attributed to Irenaeus it is specifically enjoined not to kneel down on Sunday nor on Pentecost, that is, the seven weeks of the Easter period, “because it is of equal significance with the Lord’s day.”[11] The reason given is that both feasts are a symbol of the resurrection.” Tertullian confirms that custom but adds the prohibition of fasting as well: “On Sunday it is unlawful to fast or to kneel while worshiping. We enjoy the same liberty from Easter to Pentecost.”[12] F. A. Regan comments on the text, saying: “In the season extending from Easter to Pentecost, the same custom was followed, thus showing the relation between the annual and weekly feasts.”[13]

Origen explicitly unites the weekly with the yearly commemoration of the resurrection: “The resurrection of the Lord is celebrated not only once a year but constantly every eight days.”[14] Eusebius similarly states: “While the Jews faithful to Moses, sacrificed the Passover lamb once a year … we men of the New Covenant celebrate every Sunday our   Passover.”[15]

Pope Innocent I, in a letter to Bishop Decentius of Gubbio, confirms the unity existing between the two feasts: “We celebrate Sunday because of the venerable resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only at Easter but in actuality by the single weekly cycle [i.e. every Sunday].”[16]

In the light of these representative statements, it would appear that when the weekly and yearly Easter-Sunday gained acceptance, they were regarded by many as one feast that commemorated at different times the same event of the resurrection. Though the resurrection is not presented in earlier sources as the dominant motivation for Sunday observance, there seems to be no question as to the basic unity of the two festivities.

At this point it is important to ascertain what in Rome caused the abandonment of the Quartodeciman Passover and the introduction of Easter-Sunday. We would presume that the same causes motivated also the repudiation of the Sabbath and the introduction of Sunday-keeping, since the latter was regarded by many Christians as an extension of the annual Easter. (Today Italians still refer to Sunday as “pasquetta”—which means little Easter.)

Scholars usually recognize in the Roman custom of celebrating Easter on Sunday instead of the 14th of Nisan, to use J. Jeremias’ words, “the inclination to break away from Judaism.”[17] J. B. Lightfoot holds, for in- stance, that Rome and Alexandria adopted Easter-Sunday to avoid “even the semblance of Judaism.”[18] M. Righetti, a renowned liturgist, points out also that Rome and Alexandria, after “having eliminated the Judaizing Quartodeciman tradition, repudiated even the Jewish computations, making their own time calculations, since such a dependence on the Jews must have appeared humiliating.”[19]

The Nicene conciliar letter of Constantine explicitly reveals a marked anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Quartodeciman Passover. The Emperor, in fact, desiring to establish a religion completely free from any Jewish influences, wrote:

“It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, there- fore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Saviour a different way… Strive and pray continually that the purity of your souls may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the customs of these most wicked men… All should unite in desiring that which sound reason appears to demand, and in avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jew[20]

The anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Jewish reckoning of Passover could not have been expressed more explicitly and force- fully than in the letter of Constantine. Nicaea represents the culmination of a controversy initiated two centuries earlier and motivated by strong anti-Judaic feelings and one which had Rome as its epicenter. The close nexus existing between Easter-Sunday and weekly Sunday~ presupposes that the same anti-Judaic motivation was also primarily responsible for the substitution of Sabbath-keeping by Sunday worship.

Several indications have already emerged in the course of our study supporting this conclusion. We noticed, for instance, that some Fathers reinterpreted the Sabbath as the trademark of Jewish unfaithfulness. Specific anti-Sabbath measures were taken particularly by the Church of Rome. The ‘Sabbath was made a day of fasting to show, among other things, contempt for the Jews. Similarly, to avoid appearing to observe the day with the Jews, the eucharistic celebration and religious assemblies were forbidden on the Sabbath. Additional evidence on the role played by anti-Judaism in the abandonment of Sabbath observance will be submitted in chapters seven and nine.

Easter-Sunday and Anti-Judaism

As long as Jewish Christians had influence in the church, the Biblical typology and experience of Passover were maintained by the church. But as Gentile Christians gained control of the church and promoted Easter-Sunday, the Biblical Passover themes began to wane, being replaced by pagan symbols and myths that, as we shall see, became part of the Easter celebration. Donna and Mal Broadhurst rightly observe that:

“Gentile Christians usually came from a background devoid of Scriptural knowledge. They did not have a natural appreciation for, allegiance to, or comprehension of the Scriptures, especially the Law and Prophets which they misunderstood, overlooked, or actually discarded in the early church struggle to break free from erroneous legalizers. They found it easy to disregard Passover and other major institutions of the Mosaic Covenant.”[21]

The problem with Gentile Christians was not only their lack of familiarity with Scripture, but also their excessive fascination with their Greek philosophical speculations, which conditioned their understanding of Biblical truths. While Jewish Christians often erred in the direction of legalism, Gentile Christians often erred in the direction of philosophical speculations which sundered Christianity from its historical roots.

The detachment of Gentile Christians from their Jewish roots was influenced by the repressive policies adopted by Roman emperors against the Jewish people and religion as well as by the defamatory campaign waged by Jews against the Christians. These factors encouraged Gentile Christians to develop a “Christian” theology of contempt toward the Jews as a people and toward Judaism as a religion. A whole body of Against the Jews literature was produced by leading Fathers who defamed the Jews as a people and emptied their religious beliefs and practices of any historical value.[22] Two major casualties of the anti-Jews campaign were Sabbath and Passover. The Sabbath was changed to Sunday and Passover was transferred to Easter-Sunday.

Scholars usually recognize the anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Jewish reckoning of Passover and adoption of Easter-Sunday instead. Joachim Jeremias attributes such a development to “the inclination to break away from Judaism.”[23] In a similar vein, J. B. Lightfoot explains that Rome and Alexandria adopted Easter-Sunday to avoid “even the semblance of Judaism.”[24]

Nothing in Common with the Jews

Perhaps the most explicit and forceful expression of anti-Judaism for the repudiation of the traditional Passover dating is found in the letter that Emperor Constantine formulated at the Council of Nicea in A. D. 325. In desiring to establish a religion completely free from any Jewish influence, the emperor wrote regarding Passover:

“It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. . . . Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd: for we have received from our Savior a different way. . . . Strive and pray continually that the purity of your soul may not seem in anything to be sullied by fellowship with the custom of these most wicked men. . . . All should unite in desiring that which sound reason appears to demand, avoiding all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews.[25]

The Council of Nicea (A. D. 325) put an end to the controversy over the date of Passover by decreeing that it should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. To ensure that Easter-Sunday would never be celebrated at the same time as the Jewish Passover, the council decreed that if the 14th of Nisan fell on a Sunday, then Easter was to be celebrated on the following Sunday. Nicea represents the culmination of the Passover controversy initiated two centuries earlier and motivated by strong anti-Judaic feelings. Unfortunately, the controversy was “settled” at Nicea, not Biblically but politically. It was settled by suppressing the traditional observance of Passover and by adopting instead Easter-Sunday as championed by the church of Rome.

“As far as Christian Passover is concerned,” write Donna and Mal Broadhurst, “the beginning of the Dark Ages can be set at 325 A. D. with the Council of Nicea. Along with turning their back on Jews, the Gentiles turned their back on the Jewish Scripture. They disallowed Jewish input to their faith, life-style, and worship. They became persecutors of the Jews. In place of the Exodus Passover story to inspire a sense of justice and freedom for all men, the Gentile church had the words and example of power-hungry leaders who taught oppression. It took a major reformation centuries later to begin to undo the horror and destruction the church brought on the world when the Gentiles at Nicea formally adopted the policy of having ‘nothing in common with the Jews.’”[26]

Easter-Sunday and Pagan Symbolism

The change from the primitive observance of Passover to that of Easter-Sunday was not only a change of dates from Nisan 14 to the following Sunday, but also a change of meaning and experience. The primitive Christian Passover, as we have seen, followed in many ways the Jewish Passover. Both celebrated the drama of redemption, though the focus of the Christian Passover was not the deliverance of God’s people from Egyptian bondage, but their deliverance from the bondage of sin through the sacrifice of the true Paschal Lamb.

The waning influence of Jewish Christians and the growing influence of Gentile Christians led not only to the adoption of a new date, Easter-Sunday, in order to have “nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd,” but also to the acceptance of pagan speculations and fertility myths, which are foreign to the Biblical meaning of Passover.

In his scholarly book The Bible and Liturgy, the renowned Jesuit scholar Jean Daniélou examines in chapter 17 the meaning of “Easter” in the thought of the Fathers (a term used to refer to church leaders of the first five centuries). What is conspicuous in his survey is the attempt of Gentile church leaders to explain the meaning of Easter on the basis of philosophical speculations about cosmic mythologies, rather than on the basis of the Biblical Passover story. In this study, we can cite only a few examples. In his Treatise on Easter, the historian Eusebius explains that Easter is celebrated in Spring because this is the time when “the sun begins to run the first part of his course, and the moon at his side, in its full brillance, transforms the whole course of the night into a luminous day. Ended are the furies of the storms of winter, ended the long nights, ended the floods.”[27]

Eusebius continues arguing that Easter is observed in Spring also because it is the anniversary of creation:

“This time was that very one which appeared at the moment of the first creation of the world, when the earth brought forth shoots, and the stars appeared; it is at this time that the Lord of the whole world celebrated the mystery of His own feast and, like a great star, appeared to light up the whole world with rays of religion and thus to bring back the anniversary of the cosmos.”[28]

Similar philosophical speculations on the cosmic significance of Easter are frequent in the writings of the Fathers. A good example is found in the Paschal Homily of Gadentius of Brescia (about A. D. 400), who says:

“The Lord Jesus decreed that the blessed feast of the Passover should be celebrated at a suitable time, after the fog of autumn, after the sadness of winter, and before the heat of summer. For, indeed, Christ, the Sun of Justice, was to scatter the darkness of Judaism and the ice of paganism before the heat of the future judgment by the peaceful light of His Resurrection, and bring back to the peaceful state of their origin all things which had been covered with obscurity by the prince of darkness.”[29]

In spite of the imaginative rhetoric, these arguments are foreign to Biblical thought and derive from pagan speculations about Spring and the sun cycle. Nowhere does Scripture appeal to the ideal time of Spring as the reason for the date of Passover. In the Bible, the date of Passover is linked not to cosmic speculations but to a historical event, the night God delivered His people from Egyptian bondage.

Easter-Sunday and Philosophical Speculations

One could wish that the Fathers would have used their rational skills to help Christians understand and accept more fully the drama of redemption typified by the substitutionary sacrifice of the paschal lamb. Unfortunately, they failed to do so because their understanding of redemption was conditioned by their philosophical (gnostic) thinking, which viewed salvation more as metaphysical deification through special knowledge than a moral transformation through the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

This helps us understand why many Fathers sought for the meaning of Easter in philosophical speculations about springtime, the spring equinox, numerical symbolism, and the conflict between light and darkness.[30] Their concern was to attain salvation through secret knowledge of mysteries to be found in the Bible and in cosmic cycles. Thus, the five days which separated the choice of the lamb on Nisan 10 from its immolation on Nisan 14 had for the Fathers a mysterious allegorical meaning, namely, that they represented the five ages of the world. This is brought out, for example, in the Paschal Homilies of Pseudo-Chrysostom:

“This space of the five days is a figure of the whole time of the world, divided into five periods, from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to the coming of Christ, and from the coming of Christ until now. During all this time salvation by the holy Victim was presented to men, but the Victim was not yet immolated. It is in the fifth epoch of history that the true Pasch was immolated and that the first man, saved by it, came out in the light of eternity.”[31]

Speculations abound even on the symbolism of the 14th day of the lunar cycle on which Passover was to be celebrated.[32] Being the day on which the moon is full, it is interpreted by some of the Fathers as the triumph of light over darkness. This interpretation is surprising since they no longer observed Passover on the 14th of Nisan. Gregory of Nyssa brushes aside this incoherence in his Sermon on the Resurrection, simply by saying that the spiritual significance was more important than the literal observance.[33] In the mysterious cosmic speculations of the Fathers, we find, as Jean Daniélou himself acknowledges:

“the incorporation into the Christian mystery of a whole solar mythology. The conflict of light with darkness is expressed by the myth of Ormuzd and Ahriman, of Apollo and Poseidon. But Christ is the sun of the new creation. He rose at the time of the Incarnation: His name is Orient, the Dawn in the East, He attacked the power of darkness, and, on the day of His Resurrection, He completely scattered the darkness of death and of sin. So Christianity disengages the cosmic symbols from the pagan myths . . . and incorporates them as figures of the mysteries of truth. This line of thought shows that we are in the fourth century, at the time of the decline of paganism, when Christianitybegantocloth itself in itsgarments.”[34]

Easter: Anglo-Saxon Spring Goddess

The process which led Christianity to clothe itself in the garments of paganism began when Gentile Christians gained control of the Church, and it continued during the Middle Ages when hordes of Barbarians entered the Church with their superstitious beliefs. Passover was renamed “Easter,” which derives from Eostre, Eastur, Ostara, Ostar, terms used by the Norsemen (ancient Scandinavians) to refer to the season of the rising sun. According to Bede (ca. A. D. 673-735), the “Father of English History,” the word “Easter” is derived from Eastre, an Anglo-Saxon spring goddessto whom sacrifices were offered at the vernal equinox (March 21).[35] “This pagan festival probably gave way to the Christian celebration of the resurrection.”[36]

Donna and Mal Broadhurst point out, “It is probable that Eostra/Ostara is the Anglo-Saxon version of Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love and war who in Canaan evolved into a moon goddess and wife of Baal. According to Sumerian lore, Ishtar was the wife of the Summerian god, Tammuz. Both are spoken of in the Bible–Tammuz in Ezekiel 8:14 and Ishtar, called Ashtoreth and Queen of Heaven, in Judges 2:13, Judges 10:6, Jeremiah 44:17, and elsewhere.

“When Tammuz died, Ishtar followed him to the underworld, leaving the earth deprived of its fertility. She and Tammuz were rescued from death when the Queen of the Dead allowed a heavenly messenger to sprinkle them with the water of life. This allowed them to return to the light of the sun for six months of each year. For the other six they had to return to the land of death. The worship of Ishtar as a nature goddess had spread throughout the ancient world. In Phoenicia and Syria her name had become Astarte. Her husband earlier called Baal, and known as Tammuz farther east, became Adon and Adonai in Phoenicia and Syria. In Greece, Ishtar and Tammuz became Aphrodide and Adonis; in Asia Minor they became Cybele and Attis. Diana of the Ephesians (Acts 19:27) probably traces to Ishtar.”[37]

What makes these cults the forerunners of Easter is the fact that most of them had their annual festival at the vernal equinox, the Easter season, during which they celebrated the cycle of death and resurrection. In his book Easter: Its Story and Meaning, Alan W. Watts discusses the relationship of these pagan cults to Easter and notes that “their universal theme–the drama of death and resurrection–makes them the forerunners of the Christian Easter and thus the first ‘Easter services.’ As we go on to describe the Christian observance of Easter we shall see how many of its customs and ceremonies resemble these former rites.”[38]

Lent from Pagan Cults

One example of the former rites is the fast of Lent, which begins forty days before Easter. This practice most likely derives from the fast practiced among various ancients cults. A Lent of forty days was observed by the worshippers of the Babylonian Ishtar and by the worshippers of the great Egyptian mediatorial god Adonis or Osiris. The rape of the goddess Proserpine also was commemorated among the Romans by forty nights of wailing. Among the pagans, this Lent period seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual (usually spring) festivals commemorating the death and resurrection of their gods.[39]

Lent, with the preceding revelries of carnival, was entirely unknown in the earliest Christian Passover celebration. Christians fasted, as we have noted, the night of Passover until dawn, when they broke their fast with the Lord’s Supper, which commemorated Jesus’ expiatory suffering and death. The extension of the fast to forty days was apparently borrowed from pagan spring festivals.

Another example of pagan influence in the Easter celebration is the service of light, which is still part of the Catholic Easter liturgy. For this service, the priest and his assistants come with a candle to a wood fire in front of the church. After a greeting and a short introduction, the priest blesses the fire which he uses to light a candle. The priest then leads a procession with the lighted Easter candle to the church altar for the blessing and lighting of all the candles.[40]

The service of light, according to some liturgists, “is of Frankish origin and seems intended from the beginning as a sacrament of the Church that would replace the fires lit in spring by the pagans in honor of Wotan or some other heathen divinities to assure good crops.”[41] Alan Watts derives the lightening of the Easter candle from the great fire lighted by the devotees of Attis as they stood around his grave on the night of the spring festival celebrating his resurrection.[42] Though there is disagreement over which pagan practice influenced the origin of the Easter blessing of the fire and candles, there is ample consensus as to the pagan derivation of such practice.

Easter Bunny and Eggs

Pagan influence can also be seen in the replacement of the Passover symbolism of the lamb with that of the Easter hare. The Easter hare was once a bird which the goddess Eostre changed into a four-footed creature. The hare, or rabbit, became a symbol of fertility, presumably because rabbits are notably prolific. The hare laid eggs which became the symbol of the abundant new life of spring. Thus, the Easter egg is the production not of some mystical bird but of a rabbit or hare.

The origin of the Easter egg is traced back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Greece, where the universe is said to have been born from a mighty world egg. “The ancient peoples of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, and China exchanged eggs at their spring fertility festivals. In Babylonia, eggs were presented to the goddess of fertility, Astarte (Eostre).”[43]

Hyginus, the Egyptian historian who was the curator of the Palatine library in Rome at the time of Augustus, wrote: “An egg of wondrous size is said to have fallen from heaven into the river Euphrates. The fishes rolled it to the bank, where the doves having settled upon it, and hatched it, out came Venus, who afterwards was called the Syrian Goddess [that is, Astarte].”[44] The egg became one of the chief symbols of Venus or Astarte. In Cyprus, one of the chief centers of the worship of Venus, an egg of a wondrous size was represented on a grand scale before her Temple.[45] Christians adopted eggs for their Easter celebration because the egg was a popular pagan symbol of death and life. It was a symbol of death because the shell is like a tomb that imprisons the life-germ inside. It was a symbol of life insofar as it contains the source of a new creature.

Innumerable European folk customs are found in connection with Easter eggs. Eggs were elaborately painted with symbols, often Roman crosses and swastikas. Egg hunting in gardens was a favorite Easter game for children. In my country, Italy, eggs are blessed by the priest on Easter-Sunday with holy water when he goes from home to home. The “blessed” Easter eggs are then sold on the market with the promise of miraculous power, very much as sacrificial meat was sold on the market of ancient Rome (1 Cor 8:1-6). With the advent of the industrial era, Easter eggs were transformed into chocolate and sugar, wrapped in tin foil, or even trimmed with real gold and jewels, as was the custom among the wealthy in czarist Russia.

“Eggs laid on Good Friday are credited with miraculous powers. There is the belief that if such an egg is kept for a hundred years its yolk will turn into a diamond, or that if it is cooked on Easter Sunday it will work as a powerful amulet against sudden death or as a charm for fruitful trees and crops.”[46]


[1] Eusebius’ account of the Easter controversy is found in his HE 5,23-24.

[2] It is difficult to accept Eusebius’ claim that with the exception of “the dioceses of Asia, … the churches throughout the rest of the world” celebrated Easter on Sunday (HE 5,23,1) when we consider the following facts:

(1) Pope Victor (ca. A.D. 189-199) demanded the convocation of councils in various provinces to codify the Roman Easter (Eusebius, HE 5, 24, 8) obviously because a divergent custom existed.

(2) The bishops of Palestine who assembled together to discuss the matter, according to Eusebius, “treated at length the tradition concerning the passover” and then they formulated a conciliar letter which was sent “to every diocese that we [i.e., the bishops] may not be guilty toward those who easily deceive their own souls” (HE 5,25, 1). The lengthy discussion and the formulation of a conciliar letter aimed at persuading and preventing the resistance of the dissidents (possibly Judaco-Christians who had not been invited to the Council) again indicates that in Palestine by the end of the second century there were still Christians who persisted in the observance of the Quartodeciman Passover.

(3) The following testimonies of the Fathers indicate a wider observance of the Quartodeciman Passover than conceded by Eusebius: Epistola Apostolorunt 15; two fragments from two works of Hippolytus (one of them was on the Holy Easter) preserved in the Chronicon Paschale 6 (PG 92, 79) where he states: “Consider therefore in what the controversy consists …” This would imply that the controversy was still alive in his time and possibly in Rome; Athanasius of Alexandria, who mentions the “Syrians, Cilicians, and Mesopotamians” as observant of the Quartodeciman Passover (see his de Synodis 1, 5 and ad Afros Epistola Synodica 2); Jerome, who paraphrases a statement from Irenaeus’ work, On the Paschal Controversy, where the latter warns Pope Victor not to break the unity with “the many bishops of Asia and the East, who with the Jews celebrated the Passover, on the fourteenth day of the new moon” (see De Viris Illustribus 35, NPNF, 2nd, III, p. 370); a fragment of Apollinarius, Bishop of Hierapolis (ca. A.D. 170) from his work on Easter, preserved in the Chronicon Paschale 6 (PG 92, 80-81), where it says: “The 14th Nisan is the true Passover of our Lord, the great Sacrifice; instead of the lamb, we have the Lamb of God”; Severian, Bishop of Gabala (f 1. ca. A.D. 400), who strongly attacks those Christians who still main- tained the Jewish Passover ritual (see his Homilia 5 de Pascha, ed. J. B. Aucher [Venice: 1827], p. 180; Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (ca. A.D. 315-403) deals extensively with the Quartodeciman controversy in his Ad- versus haereses 50 and 70. The Bishop suggests in various instances that the Quartodeciman custom, which he calls “heresy,” was widespread. He writes, for instance: “And another heresy, namely the Quartodeciman, arose—rose up again) in the world—anekupse palim to kosmo” (Adversus haereses 50, 1, PG 41, 883). On the basis of these testimonies we would concur with Jean Juster’s comment that Eusebius is guilty of “wilful obscurity” when minimizing and limiting the observance of the Quartodeciman Passover only to the dioceses of Asia (Les Juifs dans l’empire romain, 1965, p. 309).

[3] Eusebius, HE 5, 24, 14.

[4] Hadrian’s repressive policy toward the Jews is discussed above pp. 159-62 (of Samuele Bacchiocchi’s Sabbath to Sunday).

[5] Epiphanius, Adversus haereses 70,9 PG 42, 355-356; the passage is examined in my Anti-Judaism and the Origin of Sunday, 1975, pp. 45-52; cf. above p. 161 (of Samuele Bacchiocchi’s Sabbath to Sunday).

[6]M. Richard, “La question pascale au lIe si~cle,” L’Orient Syrien 6 (1961):185-188. Richard’s view that Easter-Sunday was first introduced by the Greek bishops of Jerusalem is difficult to accept, not only because these did not enjoy sufficient authority to influence the greater part of Christianity, but also because the necessity of a differentiation from Judaism arose, as we have seen, earlier in Rome than in Palestine. However, Richard’s conclusion that the Easter-controversy started at the time of Hadrian with the introduction of Easter-Sunday, deserves credibility, since our informer, Epiphanius, a native of Palestine, was interested in the traditions of his country and possessed documents which have since disappeared. He mentions, for instance, the conflict between Alexander of Alexandria and Crescentius on the problem of Passover, which is not reported by others (Adversus haereses 70, 9, PG 42, 356B). For a thorough analysis of the thesis of Richard, see Christine Mohrmann, “Le conflict pascal au lie siécle,” Vigiliae Chris tianae 16 (1962): 154-171; see also p. Nautin, Lettres et écrivains chr~tiens des lIe et IlIe si~cles, 1961, pp. 65-104.

[7] The expression “Roman—Easter” as a designation of Easter- Sunday is frequently used by C. S. Mosna, Storia della domenica, pp. 117, 119, 333; cf. also M. Righetti (fn. 77), II, pp. 245-246. This does not mean that in Rome only Easter-Sunday was observed. A statement of Irenaeus suggests otherwise. He says: “The presbyters before thee who did not observe it [i.e., the Quartodeciman Passover], sent the Eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it” (cited by Eusebius, HE 5, 24, 15). The Eucharist (a small piece of consecrated bread called “Fermentum”), was in fact sent by the Bishop of Rome as a symbol of communio to the main churches—tituli—-inside and outside the city and to not-too-faraway bishops (for a discussion of the problem, see C. S. Mosna, Storia della domenica, p. 333; V. Monachino, La Cura pastorale a Milano, Cartagine e Roma nel secolo IV, 1947, p. 281; L. Hertling, Communio, 1961, p. 13; cf. Hippolytus, Traditio Apostolica 22). The fact that the Eucharist was sent to Quartodeciman Christians living in Rome or in its outlying districts, indicates not only that they were present in Rome, but also that the predecessors of Victor had maintained Christian fellowship with them. C. J. Hefele explains the aversion of Victor against the Quartodeciman Passover as a reaction against a certain Blastus, who according to Tertullian (De prescriptione 53) “wanted to introduce Judaism secretly” (A History of the Christian Councils, 1883, I, pp. 312-313). Canon 14 of the Council of Laodicea forbade the sending of the Eucharist to other parishes, which shows that the custom prevailed till the fourth century.

[8] Eusebius writes that the churches which celebrated Easter on Sunday, leaned on an “apostolic tradition” (HE 5, 23, 1). Irenaeus, however, though a supporter of the Roman—Easter, does not refer to the Apostles, but to “earlier times—kai polu,” mentioning specifically Bishop Sixtus (ca. A.D. 116-125) as the first non-observant of the Quartodeciman Passover. It is possible then that “earlier times” might refer to Sixtus’ time. W. Rordorf, “Zum Ursprung des Osterfestes am Sonntag,” Theologische Zeitschrift 18 (1962):167-189, argues for the apostolic origin of the Roman Easter. B. J. Van Der Veken, “De primordis liturgiae paschalis,” Sacris Erud. (1962): 500f., holds, on the contrary, that while the Quartodeciman Passover has an effective apostolicity, less probable is that of the Roman—Easter. Kenneth Strand (see Three Essays on Early Church with Emphasis on the Roman Province of Asia, 1967, pp. 33-45), advances persuasive arguments in sup- port of the thesis that possibly “Rome and other places where Peter and Paul labored did indeed receive from these apostles a Sunday-Easter tradition, whereas Asia received from John a Quartodeciman observance” (p. 36). Strand’s arguments are basically the following:

(1) The 364-days fixed solar “priestly” calendar used by various sectarian groups like the Qumranites where the day of omer or first fruit was celebrated always on Sunday, could well have been adopted by a segment of Early Christianity.

(2) A Roman innovation could not have “so successfully and universally supplanted an apostolic tradition at so early a period, especially at a time when the flow of Christian tradition was still definitely from East to West rather than vice versa” (p. 35).

(3) Irenaeus, reared in Asia, a disciple of John and defender of the apostolic tradition, would hardly have yielded to the Quartodeciman tradition for the Easter-Sunday, if the latter had no apostolic authority.

(4) The geographical distribution of the two customs given by Eusebius (supposedly only the Asian Christians observed the Quartodeciman Passover) fits with the geographical sphere of influence traditionally attributed to Peter and Paul. While it must be admitted that these arguments have been cogently formulated, it would seem to us that they do not take into account the following facts:

(a) Various sources (see above fns. 97 and 102) suggest that the Quartodeciman Passover was far more widespread than Eusebius is willing to admit. In fact, prior to Pope Victor’s time, it seems to have been practiced by some Churches even in Rome (see fn. 102). The fact that Irenaeus refers to “the presbyters before Soter” (Eusebius, HE 5, 24, 14), by-passing the latter, as examples of Bishops who allowed the observance of the Quartodeciman Passover, suggests that the change in the Roman policy on the Easter question took place at the time of Soter. L. Duchesne, a renowned Hellenist, notes in this regard that “under Soter, successor of Anicetus, the relations seem to have been more tense” (Histoire ancienne de l’Église, 1889, I, p. 289. In Gaul, however, the two divergent Easter celebrations seem to have co-existed, even at the time of Irenaeus, without causing major problems. In fact Irenaeus testifies: “We also live in peace with one another and our dis- agreement in the fast confirms our agreement in the faith” (HE 5, 24,13).

(b) The Easter controversy, as we have noticed (see above pp. 161-2), according to Epiphanius, “arose after the time of the exodus of the bishops of the circumcision” (PG 42, 355, 356). This statement seems to imply that prior to that time, Easter-Sunday was unknown in Palestine and probably was practiced only by a few Christians in the rest of the world. If this were so, then Irenaeus’ reference to Sixtus (ca. A. D. 115-125) as the first non-observer of the Quartodeciman Passover (HE 5,24, 14) should be regarded not as a passing or casual example, but rather as accurate historical information.

(3) It is rather inconceivable that a man like Paul could have been influenced by a sectarian calendar that laid stress on days and that he should have introduced it in the areas where he labored, since, as P. K. Jewett notes, “he is the only New Testament writer who warns his converts against the observance of days (Col. 2:17; Gal. 4:10; Rom. 14:6)” (Lord’s Day, p. 56). Furthermore, it should be noticed that Paul respected the normative Pharisaic-rabbinic calendar as is indicated by the fact that he hastened to be at Jerusalem for Pentecost (Acts 20:16; cf., I Cor. 16:8). In fact Paul’s free public ministry ended (ca. A.D. 58-60) at the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, while undergoing the rite of purification to demonstrate to the Jewish brethren that he also was living “in observance of the law” (Acts 21:25; see above pp. 148-51).

(c) Concerning Irenaeus, while on the one hand it is true that he had been reared in Asia and that he was a defender of the apostolic succession, on the other hand it should be noted (a) that he always advocated peace and compromise as indicated not only by his letter to Bishop Victor but also by his embassy to Bishop Eleutherus, Victor’s predecessor, on behalf of the Montanists (see Eusebius, HE 5,4, 1; 5, 3, 4); (b) that he had studied in Rome and was serving the Church in the West (Bishop of Lyons from ca. A.D. 177); (c) that he greatly respected and supported the Church of Rome founded “by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul” and with which “every church should agree, on account of its preeminent authority” (Adversus haereses 3, 2, ANF I, 415).

(d) The authority that the Bishop of Rome exerted by the end of the second century should not be underestimated. It is worth noting that even though Polycrates disagreed with Victor on the observance of the Passover, he complied with the Bishop’s order to summon a council. In fact he states: “I could mention the bishops who are present whom you required me to summon and I did so” (Eusebius, HE 5, 24, 8). Similarly Irenaeus did not challenge Victor’s right to excommunicate the Asian Christians, but only advised a more magnanimous attitude (see below pp. 207f.).

(e) The conflict and tension between Judaism and the Empire, which be- came particularly acute under Hadrian, may well have induced Bishop Sixtus to take steps to substitute those distinctive Jewish festivities as the Passover and the Sabbath with new dates and theological motivations, in order to avoid any semblance of Judaism. The anti-Judaic motivations for both the Paschal and weekly Sabbath fast would seem to provide additional support to this hypothesis (see above. pp. 193f.). All these indications seem to challenge and discredit the hypothesis of an apostolic origin of the Roman— Easter tradition.

[9] The conciliar decree of the Council of Nicaea specifically en- joined: “All the brethren in the East who formerly celebrated Easter with the Jews, vdll henceforth keep it at the same time as the Romans, with us and with all those who from ancient times have celebrated the feast at the same time with us” (Ortiz De Urbina, Nice et Constantinople, 1963, I, p. 259; cf. Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica 1,9).

[10] Constantine, after having deplored the disagreements existing concerning such a renowned feast, exhorts all the bishops to embrace “the practice which is observed at once in the city of Rome, and in Africa; throughout Italy, and in Egypt” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 19, NPNF 2nd, I, p. 525); cf. Chronicon Paschale, PG 92, 83 where it is reported that Constantine urged all Christians to follow the custom of “the ancient church of Rome and Alexandria.”

[11] Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus 7, ANF I, pp. 569-570.

[12] Tertullian, De Corona 3,4, CCL 2, 1043; in the treatise On Idolatry14, Tertullian, referring to the pagans, similarly writes: “Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even if they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians” (ANF III, p. 70).

[13] F. A. Regan, Dies Dominica, p. 97.

[14] Origen, Homilia in Isaiarn 5, 2, GCS 8, 265, 1.

[15] Eusebius, De solemnitate paschali 7, 12, PG 24, 701A; cf. also 706C.

[16] Innocent I, see fn. 90; cf. Athanasius, Epistolae paschales, PG 26, 1389.

[17] J. Jeremias, “PaschaTDNT V. p. 903, fn. 64.

[18] J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 1885, II, part I, p. 88. The full statement reads: “In the Paschal controversy of the second century the bishops of Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre and Ptolemais ranged themselves not with Asia Minor, which regulated the Easter festival by Jewish passover, but with Rome and Alexandria, thus avoiding even the semblance of Judaism.”

[19] M. Righetti (fn. 77), II, p. 246.

[20] Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, NPNF 2nd, I, pp. 524- 525 (emphasis supplied). The letter is found also in Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica 1,9; Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica 1, 10. The anti-Judaic motivation for the adoption of a new Easter date is explicitly expressed also in an earlier document, Pseudo-Cyprian, De Pascha computus, trans. G. Ogg, 1955, where paragraph I says: “we desire to show … that Christians need at no time … to walk in blindness and stupidity behind the Jews as though they did not know what was the day of Passover .. .“ (written ca. A.D. 243).

[21] Donna and Mal Broadhurst, Passover: Before Messiah and After

(Carol Stream, Illinois 1987), p. 142.

[22] See my analysis of “Anti-Judaism in the Fathers” in From Sabbath to Sunday, (Rome, 1977), pp. 213–235.

[23] Joachim Jeremias, “Pasha”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Friedrich, ed., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1968), vol. 5, p. 903.

[24] J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (New York,1885), vol. 2, p. 88.

[25] Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene

Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1979), second series, vol. 1, p. 524-525. Emphasis supplied.

[26] Donna and Mal Broadhurst (note 21), p. 149.

[27] Eusebius, Treatise on Easter, Patrologiae Graeca 23, 696D, cited and translate by Jean Daniélou, The Bible and Liturgy (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1956), p. 289.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Gaudentius, De Paschate Sermones, Patrologiae Latina 20, 844- 845, cited and translated by Jean Daniélou (note 27), p. 292.

[30] For patristic texts, see Jean Daniélou (note 27), pp. 287-302.

[31] Pseudo-Chrysostom, De Paschate Sermones, Patrologiae Graeca 59, 724, cited and trans. by Jean Daniélou (note 27), p. 295. The same allegorical interpretation of the five days which separated the choice of the lamb from its immolation is found in the writings of Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine. For patristic texts, see Jean Daniélou (note 27), pp. 294-295.

[32] For patristic texts, see Jean Daniélou (note 27), pp. 296-298.

[33] Gregory of Nyssa, De Resurrectrione Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, Patrologiae Graeca 46, 628C-D.

[34] Jean Daniélou (note 27), p. 299. Emphasis supplied.

[35] Bede, De Ratione Temporum 15.

[36] J. C. Connelly, “Easter,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclpopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, 1978), vol. 2, p. 180.

[37] Donna and Mal Broadhurst (note 21), p. 156.

[38] Alan W. Watts, Easter: Its Story and Meaning (New York, 1950), p. 58.

[39] Ibid., pp. 59-65. See also Austen Henry Layard, Nineveh and Babylon (London, 1853), p. 93; James Wilkinson, Egyptian Antiquities (London, 1837), p. 278; Edwin H. Landseer, Sabean Researches (London, 1823), p. 112; Arnobius, Adversus Gentes 5 (Paris, 1836), p. 403.

[40] For a description and historical survey of the Easter blessing of the fire and of the candles, see Mario Righetti, L’Anno Liturgico, Manuale di Storia Liturgica (Milano, 1969), pp. 255-264.

[41] Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, Its Meaning, and Its History after the Reformofthe Liturgy, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York, 1981), pp. 77-78. Adam quotes from L. Eisenhofer, Handbuchderkatholischen Liturgik (Freiburg, 1932), vol 1, p. 536.

[42] Alan W. Watts (note 38), pp. 64-65.

[43] Donna and Mal Broadhurst (note 21), p. 157.

[44] Hyginius, Hygini Fabulae (Leipsig, 1856), pp. 148-149.

[45] Edwin H. Landseer (note 50), p. 80.

[46] Alan W. Watts (note 38), p. 65.


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