Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Quartodecimans and the Easter Controversy

Speaking about Easter or Passover, we have to mention the controversy about the timing. This strife was finally settled at the Council at Nicaea in AD 325, where it was agreed to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on a Sunday whatever the date. In Wikipedia we read:

"The second stage in the Easter controversy centers around the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular age of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself, since Sundays can occur on any date of the month. Shortly before the Nicean Council, in 314, the Provincial Council of Arles in Gaul had maintained that the Lord's Pasch should be observed on the same day throughout the world and that each year the Bishop of Rome should send out letters setting the date of Easter." [1]

First time we hear of divergences in this question is around the AD 120. According to the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) Polycarp (d. 155), the bishop of Smyrna and a companion of Papias,[2] who had known the Apostle John, had travelled to Rome to  convince the Pope that the right thing was to commemorate the death of Jesus on the 14th of the lunar month Nisan. In Rome, and in the West, Sunday had been chosen instead to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

Quoting Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (d. c. 202) Eusebius writes:

"And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of [Pope] Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him." [3]

Interestingly, Polycarp based the celebration of the 14th of Nisan on the practise of the apostles. This would be in harmony with the words of Jesus when he instituted the Lords Supper: "Then he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it in pieces, and handed it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Keep on doing this in memory of me.'" [4]

Polycarp and Anicetus parted in disagreement, but in peace. But this was not the end of the controversy. A footnote to Eusebius has this to tell us:

"About 170 a.d. the controversy broke out again in Laodicea, the chief disputants being Melito of Sardis and Apolinarius of Hierapolis. In this controversy Melito advocated the traditional Asiatic custom of observing the fourteenth day, while Apolinarius opposed it." [5]

Many years after the death of Polycarp, the problem was up again. Eusebius writes:

"A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour." [6]

Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus where the Apostle John had died a hundred years earlier, went to Rome to see Pope Victor (d. 199). Eusebius quotes Polycrates addressing Victor with these words:

"We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

"He fell asleep at Ephesus.

"And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

"Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?

"All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’” [7]

It seems, therefore, that Christians in the East, Antioch included, continued to observe the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan as the day of Jesus' death.

Interestingly, there was never any disagreement between the eastern and western churches about the date of Jesus' resurrection. All of them admitted that it fell on Sunday, Nisan 16. The issue was about which day to observe. In the words of Catholic Encyclopedia:

"The question thus debated was therefore primarily whether Easter was to be kept on a Sunday, or whether Christians should observe the Holy Day of the Jews, the fourteenth of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews were called Quartodecimans or terountes (observants); but even in the time of Pope Victor this usage hardly extended beyond the churches of Asia Minor." [8]

That the Sunday celebration of western churches was for the Lord's resurrection is clear enough. But what did the Quartodecimans, or the eastern churches do on Nisan 14?

These words of Eusebius seem to clarify the matter:

"A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover." [9]

Keeping in mind that the 14th of Nisan started at sunset on Thursday and continued until Friday evening, it is reasonable to believe that the ancient custom consisted of celebrating the Lord's Supper (also called Eucharist) in commemoration of the death of Christ. As a footnote to Eusebius states:

"The Asiatic churches, in observing the fourteenth of Nisan, were commemorating the last passover feast and the death of the paschal Lamb." [10]

The question now is how this dissent came about. The standpoint of the eastern churches is clear: they just did what the scriptures apostles had told them to do. The West chose to celebrate the resurrection instead of the death of Christ, claiming that this was what the apostles Peter and Paul had told them to do.[11] However, both Peter and Paul are connected to the eastern city of Antioch as well, and Paul travelled extensively in Asia Minor, where the practice of the Quartodecimans was widespread.

One cannot help wondering if the western churches changed an ancient custom simply to disassociate themselves from the Jews, who celebrated their Passover on the same day Christ instituted the Lord's Supper.
1. "Easter controversy," Wikipedia, accessed April 4, 2013,
2. Papias is reported to have said:
"I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord's disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains." - Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Academic, 2006) 309, quoted at Wikipedia, "Papias," accessed on April 6, 2013.
3. Eusebius Pamphilius, ed. Philip Shaff, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (New York:Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890  493 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ).
4. Luke 22:19, International Standard Version (© 2012).
5. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, 487n1687.
6. Ibid., 487-88.
7. Ibid., 489-90.
8. "Easter Controversy," Catholic Encyclipedia (New Advent), accessed April 6, 2013,
9. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine,485.
10. Ibid., 409n1702.
11. Thus Early Church History to A. D. 451, Lesson 10, Page1, accessed April 6, 2013,


Wednesday, 3 April 2013



The Orthodox church in Antakya
By now Christendom is well over its Easter celebration. Easter is regarded as the main church festival. However, in many aspects it looks more like a pagan festival.
The name itself seems to indicate this. At a time when the Church was closer to original Christianity, the festival was called Pascha or Passover, derived from the Hebrew פסח. But as time went on more and more pagan practices were introduced, and the name was changed to Easter. The origin of the name itself may have been pagan. Wikipedia has this to say about it:
"In his 725 AD work, De temporum ratione, the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and Christian scholar, suggested that the modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre. This is generally held to have originally referred to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, a form of the widely attested Indo-European dawn goddess. The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon goddess, however, has not been universally accepted, and some have proposed that Eostre may have meant "the month of opening" or that the name Easter may have arisen from the designation of Easter Week in Latin as in albis." [1]
In his book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop observes: 
"Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, "the priests of the groves." Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians, who, centuries before the Christian era, traded to the tin-mines of Cornwall. But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind." [2]
All this may be right or wrong. Whatever the case, Easter has been mixed up with elements that are foreign to any Christian celebration. An example are the Easter eggs. This custom naturally has a myth of origin. It says:
"The coloring of “Easter eggs” originated from the pious legend that Mary Magdala was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Christ – This remains the tradition among observant Jews even in our own time – When Mary Magdala saw the Lord, the eggs in her basket turned brilliant red. Thus, the true meaning of dyeing Easter eggs is to show forth the miraculous transformation and re-creation of the whole world by the victorious resurrection of Christ." [3]
Alexander Hislop disagrees. Quoting Fabulae of Gaius Julius Hyginus (d. AD 17) he writes:
"The classic poets are full of the fable of the mystic egg of the Babylonians ; and thus its tale is told by Hyginus, the Egyptian, the learned keeper of the Palatine library at Rome, in the time of Augustus, who was skilled in all the wisdom of his native country: "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. Hence the egg became one of the symbols of Astarte or Easter; and accordingly, in Cyprus, one of the chosen seats of the worship of Venus, or Astarte, the egg of wondrous size was represented on a grand scale." [4]
Hislop may have a point. A footnote by John Garstang  in the book The Syrian Goddess by Lucian of Samosata says: "Atargatis, [Astarte] according to the form of the legend given by the scholiast on Germanicus' "Aratus" was born of an egg which the sacred fishes found in the Euphrates and pushed ashore." [5]
Now, all this is very strange. In the Middle East, Antioch (or Antakya) included, there was a tradition of weeping for the god Tammuz. The story goes that the young Tammuz (who, among other things, represented vegetation) died and was bewailed by his consort Ishtar (or Astarte), the goddess of love and sex. Eventually he returned to life again. With the egg as a symbol of life or resurrection – and at the same time connected to Venus or Astarte – it is puzzling to read the story of Mary Magdala at Jesus' tomb, where she takes upon herself the role of the wailing the death of Jesus with eggs turning red at his resurrection.
Besides all this, it should be remembered that the Nusairy Alewites (a group of Muslims regarded as renegade by the mainstream) in Antakya and western Syria celebrates a "Festival of Eggs" roughly at the same time as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter. And evidently, this festival has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ. The Nusairys are not afraid of admitting that they, besides Muslim holidays, also celebrate those of their Christian neighbours, such as "Epiphany, Pentecost, and Palm Sunday." [6] However, they do not claim that their Festival of Eggs has any connection with anything Christian.
Nevertheless, a similarity exists between the Festival of Eggs and the Melkite story about Mary Magdala. The Nusayri Alewites, like the Hindus, believe in reincarnation in the literal sense of the word. According to a source of mine, a Protestant with an Alewite background, the eggs represent reincarnation. Obviously the Nusayri Alewites and the churches have the tradition of celebrating a festival by using eggs from the same source although the connotations of the eggs are different, but not at all dissimilar.
Is it not strange that Mary Magdala, who by some is believed to be a former prostitute, is waiting at Jesus' tomb for his resurrection with eggs in her hands? It is as if the egg-born Astarte is waiting for the resurrection of her Tammuz, just in a new disguise.
People are naturally free to mix whatever they like into their popular beliefs. However, the uncontrollable connotations of their new discourse may take them to places they did not anticipate.
For further information about the Nusayri Alewites in Antakya, please see my book Antioch on the Orontes - A History and a Guide
1. "Easter," Wikipedia, accessed April 2, 2013,
2. Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (London: S. W. Patridge &Co., 1858) 103.
3. "Great Lent and the Holy Week," Eparchy of Newton –Melkite Greek Catholic Church, accessed April 2, 2013,
4. Hislop, The Two Babylons, 109. See also Hyginus, trans. Mary Grant, Fabulae 150-199, accessed April 2, 2013,
Into the Euphrates River an egg of wonderful size is said to have fallen, which the fish rolled to the bank. Doves sat on it, and when it was heated, it hatched out Venus, who was later called the Syrian goddess. Since she excelled the rest in justice and uprightness, by a favour granted by Jove, the fish were put among the number of the stars, and because of this the Syrians do not eat fish or doves, considering them as gods."
5. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, (London: Constable and Company LTD, 1913) 81n56
6. Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites – The Ghulat Sects, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988) 393.