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The Quartodecimans and the Council of Nicea 325 A.D.: How the Passover Got Changed

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The Quartodecimans and the Council of Nicea 325 A.D.

How the Passover Got Changed

MP3 Audio (36.17 MB)


The Quartodecimans and the Council of Nicea 325 A.D.: How the Passover Got Changed

MP3 Audio (36.17 MB)

The message uses references from written history to demonstrate that the Church Jesus established observed the biblical Passover on the 14th of Aviv/Nisan for the first 200 years of its existence. And that is was only after significant political pressure that most Christian congregations changed the date of this observance to what is now called Easter Sunday.


The Early Church and the Biblical Passover

Last year leading up to the Passover I walked through three NT scriptures often used to teach against the observance of the biblical holy days. Using the setting and context I showed that Paul was teaching against human customs and traditions rather than the commanded holy day observance of scripture. That message is available online titled: “The Apostle Paul and the Biblical Holy Days”.

Our purpose today is to use references from written history to demonstrate that the Church Jesus established observed the biblical Passover on the 14th of Aviv/Nisan for the first 200 years of its existence.  And that is was only after significant political pressure that most Christian congregations changed the date of this observance to what is now called Easter Sunday.

If the apostle Paul taught against the observance of the biblical holy days as many falsely proclaim then why was the church still observing holy days for 2 centuries after his death?  Was he just a really ineffective teacher? I've had people boldly tell me how Paul's instructions about dumping the holy days are so clear and obvious ... yet the record of history shows the very congregations he established in Asia Minor were upholding the biblical Passover for 200 years later.

And they kept it on the 14th of Aviv/Nisan just like it says to in the book of Exodus and Leviticus 23:5 Leviticus 23:5In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD's passover.
American King James Version×

Early Observance of the Passover

Some say we don't know much about it in the life of the early church... and because we do not have a clear picture of how the Passover was observed by the apostolic church we are free to improvise and create our own traditions.

That's a simply not true. We actually do have a clear picture of how the new covenant Passover was conducted.

Each year there is a gathering on "that same night" the 14th of Nisan. Even today the church of God conducts the Passover on this same date... and we follow the same pattern we find in the gospel accounts of how Jesus kept it with His disciples:

There is a foot washing service [John 13:3-15 John 13:3-15 [3] Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; [4] He rises from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. [5] After that he pours water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. [6] Then comes he to Simon Peter: and Peter said to him, Lord, do you wash my feet? [7] Jesus answered and said to him, What I do you know not now; but you shall know hereafter. [8] Peter said to him, You shall never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash you not, you have no part with me. [9] Simon Peter said to him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. [10] Jesus said to him, He that is washed needs not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and you are clean, but not all. [11] For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, You are not all clean. [12] So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said to them, Know you what I have done to you? [13] You call me Master and Lord: and you say well; for so I am. [14] If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another's feet. [15] For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.
American King James Version×
]... followed by a sharing of bread and wine [Matthew 26:26-29 Matthew 26:26-29 [26] And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. [27] And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink you all of it; [28] For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. [29] But I say to you, I will not drink from now on of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.
American King James Version×
]... together we read through the words of instruction and encouragement Jesus gave the disciples on that night [John 14:1 John 14:1Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in me.
American King James Version×
- 17:26]... we sing a hymn together and we depart [Matthew 26:30 Matthew 26:30And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.
American King James Version×

Some might think that's not much to go on... but if you have ever done it you know it manages to fill in the time quite nicely.

Lastly, the new testament Passover is not based on Jewish traditions, or old covenant practices... other than the date of observance which is the 14th day of the month of Aviv/Nissan. Jesus Himself replaced the sacrificed lamb with the bread and wine. And gave us instruction that from that point forward the Passover would be a memorial of Jesus death and our deliverance from sin rather than Israel's deliverance from Egypt. He said,

"this is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me"..."this cup is the  blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you"..."poured out for the many, for the forgiveness of sin".

Summary: the Church of God conducts the new covenant Passover according to the pattern given to us by Jesus Christ, which was passed along to us by the apostles, and has been passed on to the Church of God to this very day 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 [23] For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: [24] And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. [25] After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. [26] For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord's death till he come.
American King James Version×

After The Apostles Were Gone

The new testament scriptures don't give any authoritative information about what happened in the church after the death of the last apostle [John died about 90 A.D.]. Most records of Church activity at that time were destroyed and burned during the Roman persecutions of the 2nd & 3rd centuries.

We have a few surviving documents which sometimes provide tidbits of interesting information about the times they lived in, but nothing  considered 100% authoritative. The only way to tell the good guys from the bad guys to compare such documents to the authoritative scriptures. So, we still end up referring back to the authority of scripture. Note: UCG does not assign any authority to the writings of the so called "church fathers".

Those who followed truth and those who followed error were like 2 paths in the woods that separate. Early on the 2 paths are fairly close but because they are headed in different directions the difference between them grows wider and wider.

Let's consider a couple of written examples from the decades following the death of John: first, the ironically titled The Epistle of the Apostles [circa 150 A.D.] and another titled Sermon on the Passover written by Melito bishop of Sardis in 165 A.D. This would place us about 100 years after Paul's death.

Reading through these documents demonstrate that the followers of Christ were 1) still observing the Passover, and still referring to it as "the Passover"  2) they were observing it as a memorial of Jesus' death rather than of the Egyptian exodus 3) they were observing it on the 14th according to the biblical calendar.

So, some were sticking with the tradition that had been passed along by the apostles. But others were not! They were heading into new innovative practices authorized solely by their own presumed authority to change Church practice. That divergence of practice created a controversy. Those who stuck with what the apostles had taught them were given a nickname... the 14'ers, or [quarto-decimans in Latin]. The controversy over the Passover became known as the Quarto-deciman controversy.

Our 1st Historic References to the Controversy

A writer named Irenaus who lived during the decades after the last of the apostles reports on a meeting that took place in 154 A.D. between two church leaders: Polycarp and Anicetus. Polycarp was bishop of Sardis representing the congregations in the east, Anicetus was bishop of Rome in the west.

During that meeting Anicetus tried to persuade Polycarp to stop observing the Passover according to the practice of the apostle John, while Polycarp tied to persuade Anicetus to stick with the Passover.

The writing of Irenaus give us our first indication of a diverging of paths: part of the church was keeping the Passover and part was not. The eastern churches [which had been established and taught by Paul] were rejecting and resisting Rome's innovations and attempts to alter times and practices.

The next mention of disagreement on the matter of the Passover is from the writings of Eusebius [260 -340 A.D.]. This time the disagreement gets more specific. Its about the date of the Passover. The main players are:

Bishop Victor of Rome [189-199 A.D.] who championed the observance of Passover on the Sunday following the date of the biblical Passover [note: there is no mention of any such thing anywhere in scripture]. Victor demanded a convocation of the church leaders from all over the empire to write this new dating scheme into official teaching.

Bishop Polycrates of Asia who strongly advocated the traditional / biblical Passover date of Nisan 14th. Polycrates called a council of the Asian church leaders to consider Victor's request. They unanimously agreed to stay with the apostolic tradition... which was not just a tradition it was scriptural.

Polycrates then replied to Victor: "I therefore Brethren, who have lived 65 years in the Lord and had met with the Brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not frightened by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said, "we ought to obey God rather than man".

When Victor received this reply He was enraged and ex-communicated the entire province of Asia. Other church leaders in the west tried to intervene to keep the peace and avoid a schism in the Church.

Why Did Parts of the Church Turn Away From Passover?

The rejection of the Passover was collateral damage from a growing anti-Jewish movement that swept across the entire empire. Much of it brought about because the Jews themselves... who were stirring up trouble and unrest in the empire.

In 70 A.D. while some of the apostles were still on the scene, Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by Roman troops because of Jewish rebellion against the empire. The Church of God had fled to nearby Pella at the time of destruction... but after the decades passed Christians drifted back to Jerusalem once again.

About 62 years later the Jews tried once again to overthrow the Roman rule. The Bar Kokhba Revolt of A.D. 132 - 135 was forcefully put down by the Romans. Because of the revolt the emperor Hadrian put a few measures in place to try and stamp out Jewishness for good.

  1. Hadrian built a brand new Roman style city called Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem
  2. Hadrian instituted laws that prohibited the practise of the Jewish religion
  3. Hadrian specifically targeted the Jewish festivals [which are really God's festivals] presumably so the Jews would not have any excuse to gather together in large numbers and instigate more riots and revolts.
  4. Hadrian expelled the Jews (therefore including the Jewish Christians) from His new city Aelia Capitolina. After the ethnic Jewish leaders of the influential Jerusalem church were gone they were replaced with gentile members and leaders.

This set the stage for some big changes... and serious controversy about observance of the Passover. A Palestinian historian Epiphanius wrote a report about the Quarto-deciman controversy in the late 300's:

"The controversy arose after the exodus of the bishops of the circumcision in A.D. 135 and it has continued until our time." He goes on to say that the 15 Jerusalem bishops had held fast to the date of the 14th of Nisan in keeping with the Apostolic Constitutions where the following rule was given "you shall not change the calculation of the time but you shall celebrate it as the same time as your brethren who came out of the circumcision. WIth them you shall celebrate the Passover."

Once the Christian bishops with a Jewish background were removed the Passover controversy heats up. Epiphanius also speculates that the new gentile hierarchy changed the date to separate and differentiate the Christian church from the Jews... because the Jews were coming under attack and reprisals from the Roman government.

Soon after the big changes put in place by Hadrian in Jerusalem, other gentile Christian congregations began to adopt the Sunday that followed the 14th of Nisan as the time for Passover. The congregation in Rome were early adopters of this new way of thinking which men like Anicetus and Victor promoted.

Changing Demographics in the Church

Jewish Christians - would have made up the bulk of the church in the first decades . They would be well versed in the scriptures having been taught from childhood. They would understand the typology of the Passover and appreciate its meaning scripturally. They would have a built in respect for the bible as divinely revealed and authoritative instructions about when to observe the Passover.

Gentile Christians - would not have grown up with scripture... biblical explanations and reasons for doing this, not doing that, would not be their default setting. Jews were prone to excessive legalism, whereas Greeks were prone to excessive philosophical speculation. Greeks (and Romans) were not inclined to accept truth based on revelation and authority... to the Greeks truth was what made sense to their human reasoning... which was sometime very logical but sometimes complete fantasy (especially when built upon a false premise, which is the major weakness of rationalism).

In scripture, Paul dealt with Jewish legalism in Galatians and gentile philosophy in Colossians. So, we know these different approaches were lurking beneath the surface even in the first century congregations.

Time passed and gentile Christians became more and more the leadership of the church congregations... and the anti-Jewish policies of Hadrian made anything that seemed Jewish undesirable. As time wore on the gentile Christians leading this "new-improved" version of the church became very anti-Jewish themselves. The two major casualties of this strife were the Sabbath and the holy days. Two highly visible practices which most people consider very Jewish. Note: our position is that they are very biblical.

The Council of Nicea 325 A.D.

The Quarto-deciman controversy continued on after men like Polycarp and Polycrates had tried to hold the line. Then after 200 years the debate over when to observe the Passover was ended by an agreement hammered out between the Roman emperor Constantine and the bishops of the church.

Notice the influence of anti-Jewish sentiment in this portion of the resolution: 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 deserving to be 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.

Furthermore, to ensure the new Passover never coincides with the Jewish Passover the council decreed that if the 14th of Nisan ever fell on a Sunday, their celebration would be celebrated the following Sunday.

And that is how the biblical Passover was suppressed and world ended up with what is now called Easter... a humanly devised tradition. A disagreement which was not settled by an appeal to scripture, or an appeal to apostolic practice or teaching... but settled politically.

The celebration called Easter continued changing according to human tradition. Not only was it given a new date it was given new meaning... it became a spring festival filled with fertility symbols reinterpreted as symbols of the resurrection... elements of sun worship twisted into stories of light triumphing over darkness. The name was changed to Easter about 200 years after the council in honor of the spring goddess  Eoster... who was really just another version of Ishtar.

The whole mess is pagan, an expression of Babylonian mystery religion, and not biblical sound.