The Passover/Easter Controversy
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1980
Edited and expanded by David Sielaff, April 2005
At this season of the year many people begin to think about some important religious ceremonies of the Old and New Testaments. There is Passover, Easter and the Lord’s Supper. Should Christians celebrate any of these observances today?
The first thing that any New Testament believer should realize is that there is not one ritual or ceremony mentioned in the entirety of the Bible which must be observed for salvation. Many people do not believe this, but it is true. The reason for this is simple. Salvation is something awarded to Christians through the agency of grace, not works (and that means any works) on the part of us humans (Romans 11:5–6). The fact is, one’s salvation is something that was given to each of us through Christ before the world ever came into existence (2 Timothy 1:9).
The trouble with so many teachings today is the assumption that there is something for people to do to obtain a salvation in Christ, whereas the teaching of biblical Christianity tells us how Christ saved us long ago! This means that one does not have to observe the Passover, Easter or take the Lord’s Supper (sometimes called the Eucharist) to partake of a salvation in Christ!
This does not mean that one cannot celebrate proper Christian festivals or ceremonies in order to honor Christ or to learn from the physical experiences. One can take of the Lord’s Supper “as often as you drink it ... as often as you eat this bread” (1 Corinthians 11:25–26). This was a perfectly proper thing to do as long as people realized the significance of the symbolic gesture. 1 Paul did not designate the time (or times) of the year in which the ceremony could be accomplished. If one wished to keep it at the period of the year in which it was originated then the service should be on the evening of Nisan 14 by the biblical calendar (one day before the ordinary Jewish Passover).
Some of the chronological factors concerning this date have caused major arguments among individual Christians and the various denominations. 2 Some want to abide by the Jewish calendar as the standard to follow, while others wish to observe their own new moons for the beginning of the biblical years and months. When people start selecting their own “new moons” there are often some differences from the calculations afforded by the modern Jewish authorities.
In the middle of the 2nd century a major controversy broke out among orthodox Christians regarding the time for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (not to be confused with the Jewish Passover which is a very different ceremony). It seems that the Jews had to make a change in the manner of commencing the beginnings of their years which always started, for festival purposes, near the Spring of the year. Some Christian authorities wondered if Christianity should follow the Jews in their alteration of the Jewish calendar from the type that was in existence in the time of Christ. Two such authorities were Polycarp (who was a disciple of the apostle John himself) and Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome. The problem involved the time for celebrating the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper).
Indeed, Polycarp had been ordained, according to the early Christian scholar Irenaeus, by the apostles themselves. 3 Since Irenaeus as a youth had heard Polycarp speak about his conversations with the apostle John, 4 this is powerful evidence that the opinions of Polycarp could very well tally with those which were once expressed by John. Certainly, Polycarp had a deep respect for John and his authority. It could be said, with a great deal of confidence, that he was the successor of John as leader of the Christian church in the region of Asia Minor.
The difficulty that developed over the time of the Eucharist has been called by historians the Quartodeciman Controversy. It came to prominence in the year 154 C.E. when Polycarp made a journey to Rome in order to talk with Anicetus (the Bishop of the city) about this matter. It concerned the time for completing a short fast period before the celebration of the Eucharist and a few other minor questions of difference between the churches of Asia Minor and those under the leadership of the Roman church. Polycarp stated most emphatically that he, and the other Bishops of Asia Minor, had been taught by the apostle John to observe the time of the Eucharist on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month — on the day before the Passover of the Jews. This meant that the time for celebration could fall out to any day of the week. With the Romans, however, they had started, about 140 C.E., to keep the Eucharist on a Sunday following the Passover week.
Polycarp was unable to persuade the Bishop of Rome to abandon this new method of observation adopted by the Romans, even though Polycarp evoked the authority of John for his case. In fact, Anicetus had some definite reasons for not accepting the Jewish manner of calculating their calendar. The reason for this was because the Jews recently made a change in the way they began their months and years. What did the Jews do to their calendar about the year 142 C.E.? To understand it, we have to go back a little in time for the history.
In 70 C.E. the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews were no longer able to maintain their Sanhedrin (their Supreme Religious Court) at Jerusalem. It was this court that was in charge of all calendar matters. After 70 C.E., the Sanhedrin moved to a coastal city called Jamnia (not too far from modern Tel Aviv). While at this new headquarters Jewish religious authorities continued to send out their authoritative announcements to the various Jewish communities scattered around the world regarding the times for the beginnings of the sacred years and months.
Unfortunately in 132 C.E., the Jews went to war once again with the Romans. This time the consequences were even more disastrous for the Jewish religious authorities. The emperor Hadrian again destroyed Jerusalem 5 and forbade any Sanhedrin from operating at Jamnia. This caused chaos in the Jewish religious world regarding the proclamation of the Jewish calendar dates for the celebration of the Mosaic festivals. This is where the problem concerning the Jewish calendar had its real beginning (and note that this was about 35 years after the death of the apostle John).
The Jewish authorities moved the Sanhedrin to a small town in Galilee called Usha. This was too far from Jerusalem to officially observe the moon to determine accurate times for calendar dates. So they devised a new type of calendar — very similar to the one that existed before — but one based on calculation rather than observation. It was because the Jews accepted this different calendar that some Christians expressed displeasure. There were reasons why the alterations were objected to, and the objections even seemed logical on the surface. Let us look at the problem a little closer.
The Jewish year was a Lunar-Solar one. The normal Lunar Year is about 11 days shorter than the Solar and about every three years an extra (thirteenth) Lunar month had to be added to the calendar in order to keep it abreast with Solar time. In a period of 19 years, there were seven extra months added to the calendar in order to maintain the Jewish festivals in their proper seasons of the Solar Year. This was not done haphazardly. In fact, it required the official body of Jewish elders in Jerusalem (when the Sanhedrin was there) and then at Jamnia (after 70 C.E.) to accomplish this task. The Jewish community throughout the world was then informed, usually a year or so in advance, when the proper years and months could begin.
After the disastrous war of 132 to 135 C.E., the Sanhedrin located at Jamnia was prevented from functioning and Jews throughout the world were denied any official sanction for the beginnings of their years and months. Confusion resulted over the Jewish calendar! It meant that no Leap Months (the thirteenth months) were being utilized! Progressively, the Jewish festivals began to be celebrated eleven days earlier each year. Without the addition of the “Leap Months,” by 142 C.E. (a short seven years after the Jewish/ Roman War) the Passover was beginning to be observed as early as January. 6 This was an intolerable situation and something had to be done about it.
It was accomplished by the establishment of the new Sanhedrin at Usha in Galilee about 142 C.E. 7 From then on the Jews were once again provided with official pronouncements concerning the times of the beginnings of their years and months. This new calendar was, unlike the former ones, based primarily on calculations rather than on actual observations of the Moon. This is because the emperor Hadrian forbade any Jew from approaching the city of Jerusalem, and his decree remained in force for another 200 years! This presented a problem to Christians because the new calendar had one feature about it which was offensive to many Christians.
In the 17th year of the new Jewish calendar cycle the Passover happened to occur two days before the Vernal Equinox (the time for the beginning of Spring). This was contrary to all tradition of earlier times. In the past it had become a cardinal rule that Passover had to be celebrated after the start of Spring! Anatolius, an early Christian scholar, called attention to the fact that all previous Jewish authorities vouched that in the time of Christ the Passover was always held after the Vernal Equinox. He said:
“This may be learned from what is said by Philo, Josephus, and Musaeus; and not only by them, but also by those yet more ancient, the two Agathobuli, surnamed ‘Masters,’ and the famous Aristobulus, who was chosen by among the seventy interpreters for the sacred and divine Hebrew Scriptures. ... All these writers, explaining questions in regard to the Exodus, say that all alike should sacrifice the passover offerings after the Vernal Equinox in the first month.”
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VII. 32:14–19
And, in the very year that Polycarp went to Rome to inform Anicetus that the Eucharist should be celebrated according to the calendar of the Jews, that year was the 17th of the Jewish Metonic cycle.
Anicetus would have none of it because, for one reason, it placed the time of Passover back into the winter season! As a matter of fact, when the Jewish calendar began to be in disarray at the end of the Jewish-Roman War (135 C.E.), many Christian authorities took it upon themselves to calculate their own Full Moon for the Eucharist ceremonies. And some, notably those at Rome, simply abandoned an association of the Eucharist with the Full Moon and decided to observe it on a Sunday (the day of Christ’s resurrection) after the Full Moon of Spring had occurred.
Their argument was: “Why should we let the Jews tell us Christians when the year should begin and when we Christians ought to celebrate our Eucharist,” which up to that time had normally been observed on Nisan 14, the day before the Jewish Passover. After all, the Christians had as good astronomers as the Jews (so it was believed) and they did not feel it was necessary to follow a “new-fangled” calendar which placed the Passover of the Jews two days before the start of Spring.
Most Christians in Egypt, Rome and Carthage simply gave up on the ability of the Jews to make a proper calendar so they abandoned any attempt to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in conformity to the new calculated Jewish calendar. Polycarp, however, and most of the Christians who lived in Asia Minor (where the apostle John spent the last 35 years of his life) felt it better to remain with the Jewish calendar determinations. So, Polycarp made a journey to Rome to discuss the matter with Anicetus. And they met on friendly terms.
Polycarp, however, was not able to convince Anicetus that the Jews should have authority in this matter. He and Anicetus simply observed their own respective Eucharists and parted in an amicable manner. This shows that there were no other major doctrinal differences between the two church communities in 154 C.E. But it does indicate that the opinions which came from those who followed directly in the footsteps of the apostle John in Asia Minor had no influence upon the clerics at Rome.
The parting of Polycarp and Anicetus in a friendly way was not the end of the story. About the year 190 C.E. another controversy came up over this same matter. This time, Victor, the Bishop of Rome, was not at all pleased with the people in Asia Minor who continued to follow the disciples of John. He brazenly excommunicated those who looked to this eastern area as the center of Christian authority. Irenaeus, who had been a personal disciple of Polycarp (and was himself born in Asia Minor), while siding with the Roman way of calculating the time for the Eucharist, rebuked the Bishop of Rome for such a unilateral decision. 8 Again it must be recognized that there is no hint that there were other major doctrinal differences between the two church regions. 9
When one surveys the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin (the top orthodox authorities of the 2nd century, and people who record much teaching that resembles that of the apostles) it seems that the opinion of Hegesippus’ was in the main correct for the orthodox churches. As far as basic doctrine was concerned, the churches around Ephesus would have been little different from those in Rome — except in the matter of celebrating the Eucharist! 10
What we do find, on the other hand, is a distinct desire for some Bishops to exercise administrative power over others. Irenaeus considered this wrong. This is why he felt compelled to admonish Victor of Rome not to be so rash in his dealings with the churches of Asia Minor where John’s disciples remained! Nevertheless, Rome slowly began to exercise a position of leadership among most Christian congregations.
It was Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage, about 250 C.E., who finally stated that Rome had inherited the Petrine authority of primacy (the “keys” being given by Christ to Peter). But even with this doctrine beginning to be used, Cyprian did not think this gave supreme authority to Rome in all doctrinal and administrative matters. 11 In fact, Cyprian even disputed with the Roman Bishop on numerous issues and quoted the statement of Christ (John 20:21ff) that “all the apostles” had been given a type of equal authority. 12 It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. that the Petrine theory of supremacy for the Roman Bishop was finally made “official” in the Empire, and that is when Christ’s reference of the “keys” being given to Peter was dogmatically introduced to prove that leadership. 13
But what finally happened in this matter of celebrating the Eucharist? At the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. the Quartodeciman Controversy was officially settled within the orthodox churches. It was determined that what we call our Easter celebrations today should replace any type of ceremony which might resemble the Jewish Passover. In fact, so determined were Christians by this time to avoid any connection with Jewish calculations that, if by chance Easter would ever occur on the day of the Jewish Passover, Easter itself would be celebrated on a Sunday one week later. Thus, the modern Easter day was born and the Quartodeciman Controversy was settled for those at Nicaea!
Yet there are Christians today who do not wish to let the matter rest. They still insist that Polycarp and the Christians of Asia Minor were correct. They say this because of the close association that Polycarp had with the apostle John. And, they may well have a point. If this is the case, then it seems that the Jewish authorities, no matter if they do not accept Christianity, would still have the prerogative to establish calendar dates for the Mosaic festivals. The fact that Christ said the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, and that He told His apostles to obey them (back in His day, Matthew 23:1–3), and that Paul said the Jews were commissioned to preserve the oracles of God (Romans 3:1–2) have been used by some people today to justify the present Jewish calendar which differs from that used in the time of Christ. They usually claim that the apostle John adhered to this principle and that his disciple Polycarp simply maintained it.
It must be mentioned, however, that the problem over the Jewish calendar did not arise for over 35 years after John’s death and no one knows how he would have reacted to the matter. It must also be stressed that the situation was not considered a “life and death” matter regarding the purity of Christian doctrines because even Polycarp and Anicetus DID NOT excommunicate each other over such an issue. Indeed, they both celebrated their own Eucharists in the Roman church and parted on friendly and brotherly terms.
The fact is there should never have been such a major problem over the matter. Of course, if one places a calendar emphasis on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (and if one wishes to substitute it for the Jewish Passover), then the best time to do it would be on Nisan 14. But should Christians (wishing to do this) accept Nisan 14 on the present Jewish calendar, which differs from the one they had in Christ’s time? Or, should people go back to observing their own new moons to determine the start of months and years? Anicetus and his colleagues did the latter! But, if people today wish to observe their own new moons for the beginning of the Mosaic calendar year, it would mean that in some years people in the eastern parts of the world (even in eastern parts of the United States) would be celebrating their Nisan 14 a day later than those in the west. Much confusion would begin to occur over the issue.
The only way to settle it would be to recognize a central authority somewhere in the world to make the final decision on the matter so that all Christians would be celebrating the Lord’s Supper (erroneously called the “Passover”) on the same day. This is what the Council of Nicaea did for most churches. They officially ordained what has become known as our Easter day and abandoned its association with the Eucharist’ itself.
As far as I am concerned, I would adopt the attitude of Polycarp but I would let other Christians in the world do as they see fit on the matter (and stay on friendly terms with them). Besides, it is not a matter involving salvation.
When the apostle John mentioned that Christ commanded people to eat His flesh and drink His blood or else they would never receive eternal life, he was not speaking about the Lord’s Supper. In no way can a small quantity of wine or a piece of bread be involved in the salvation of anyone! There is much more to salvation than small physical sacraments. One’s salvation in Christ is secure! 14 The “eating” of His body is explained in John 6:35 as “coming to him,” while the “drinking” of His blood was “believing on Him.” Certainly, if a person refuses to believe on Christ or to surrender to His authority, then one would not attain to the first resurrection. Not until one repents and accepts Christ can the person have the (eonian or age-lasting) life that Christ spoke of throughout the Gospel of John chapter 6. But in no way would lose a final salvation in Christ over the issue. Salvation is something, as said before, that was given to us by grace before the world was ever founded (2 Timothy 1:9).
What is most essential for all Christians to realize is that not one of us can understand every point of the Bible in a precise and certain way. All of us are at different stages of understanding of its doctrinal teachings. This is why we should be growing in grace and in knowledge over all biblical matters (2 Peter 3:18). There will always be differences! What determines whether one is a Christian or not is whether the person is endeavoring with the heart (and in order to glorify Christ) to have the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit in operation in his or her life (Galatians 5:22–23). One of the most refreshing discoveries that has come to me of recent date regarding doctrinal matters which were discussed by Christians of the 2nd century is the fact that the fruits of the Holy Spirit were very much in action within the lives of those early Christians who followed in the footsteps of the apostles.
Yes, in the 2nd century there were extreme Gnostic sects who argued against normal orthodox church members, and there were also some Jewish Christians who expressed their Christianity like warmed-over Judaism. In mainline (and proper) Christian circles the harmony based on the nine fruits of the Spirit among those like Polycarp and Anicetus (even when they disagreed with each other) is an example for all of us who live at the end of the age. Though the understanding and the practice of true Christian doctrines are important, and no one should be forced to abandon what he or she feels should be done, it is faith, hope, and love which should prevail among all Christians — and predominantly it should be love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
I hope that whether some Christians keep a type of Passover, an Easter, a Eucharist in the manner of Polycarp, or observe personal celebrations by their own Lunar or Solar calculations, that such things be observed with a love and respect for other Christians and their opinions. Nothing is more complicated than calendar determinations (and I have been working with them over 25 years)! Yet whatever you or I do, let us do it to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Ernest L. Martin, 1984
Edited by David Sielaff, April 2005
If you believe that keeping any holydays or observances (from whatever source) are necessary for salvation, then you clearly have not understood what the Bible teaches on such matters. While you are perfectly free to make up your own mind as to what to do, you cannot state that God demands that you or anyone else obey any observances of days. This is made plain by Paul in the Book of Colossians:
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
The Passover can only be done at a certain place. Recall Bible Secret #77: 15
“Could the conscientious worshiper of God eat the Passover lamb in the areas of Greece or Italy (or even where the United States is today)?
The Passover lamb (or goat) could only be eaten in the environs of the temple which was located at Jerusalem in the time of Christ (Deuteronomy 16:5–6). This means that the Passover could never be eaten in any other area but Jerusalem, and only then when there was a Temple there to sanctify the place.”
Have you “observed” the Passover in your church or home? Here is the passage in Deuteronomy:
“You may not sacrifice the passover within any of your gates, which the Lord your God gives you. But [except] at the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name in, there you shall sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that you came forth out of Egypt.”
Remember that once the Temple was built, Passover could only be kept in Jerusalem. Therefore, you cannot keep the Passover correctly at this time, or after a new Temple is built, anywhere except in Jerusalem.
The articles “Should Christians Celebrate Easter” at http://www.askelm.com/news/n010412.htm, “The Law of Moses, the Passover, and the Lord’s Supper” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d920101.htm, and Dr. Martin’s small but important book The ABCs of the Gospel available complete on the ASK website at http://www.askelm.com/abc/index.asp, and most importantly chapters 1 through 8 of Dr. Martin’s Essentials of New Testament Doctrine all explain how and why Christ fulfilled all requirements. While you are totally free to do as you wish in all matters, it is the purpose of ASK to make clear what the Bible teaches, as opposed to what religion erroneously commands.
David Sielaff, April 2005
1 Take caution not to fall prey to the temptation that you ever must or
should observe such festivals. While they are commanded by God, they
do not and cannot apply to you today. It is easy to transition (in one’s own
mind) from a permitted observance to believe one should or
must observe a particular ceremony. To do so is without biblical command
or warrant. Even worse, it is all too easy to be tempted by outright pagan
observances, celebrations, or holidays. See the Addendum at the end of this
At the same time it is important to understand the important teaching that the biblical festivals contain. See other ASK Website articles:
“The Symbolism of Biblical Holydays” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d950501.htm,
“The Sacrificial System of Israel” (which has an audio of Dr. Martin speaking the article) at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d950502.htm,
“The New Testament Calendar” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d960101.htm, and
“The Modern Jewish Calendar” at http://www.askelm.com/doctrine/d760901.htm. DWS
2 One such controversy dealt with chronological differences between the Synoptic Gospel and the Gospel of John. See the article “The Passover Contradiction” on the ASK Website. DWS
3 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV.14. ELM
4 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V.20. ELM
5 It was later unclear to Dr. Martin, in light of history and in particular his Temple research, whether Jerusalem was ever taken over by Jewish rebels in the war of 132 C.E. DWS
6 Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), pp. 236–239, 274. ELM
7 A new Sanhedrin was established by an ad hoc group in October 2004 in Jerusalem. It is unclear whether their authority will be recognized and accepted by Jews around the world, or even what is the source of their authority. On the other hand, what is to prevent a group of scholars from establishing a Sanhedrin to deal with various questions of calendar, law and ritual? See the short article “Aions, Earthquakes, the Sanhedrin, and Fraud” at http://www.askelm.com/news/n041231.htm. DWS
8 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book V.24. ELM
9 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV.22. For what it is worth, the Jewish convert to Christianity, Hegesippus, mentioned that on a trip from the East to Rome in the middle of the 2nd century he consulted with a number of Bishops about their doctrinal positions and found them all in general agreement. ELM
10 For more information on this matter, see my book The Original Bible Restored. ELM
11 Herbert Newell Bate, ed., Catholic and Apostolic: collected papers of Cuthbert Hamilton Turner (London: Mowbray, 1931), p. 228. ELM
12 Cyprian, The Treatises of Cyprian: Treatise I, Unity of the Church, §4. ELM
13 F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity, from its first beginnings to the conversion of the English (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 341 ELM
14 See the article mentioned above “The Passover Contradiction” about the symbolic nature of the Gospel of John. DWS
15 From Dr. Martin’s book, 101 Bible Secrets That Christians Do Not Know (Portland: ASK Publications, 1998). DWS
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions