Passover and the Early Church

Question
I have heard that a group of early Christians called quartodecimans practiced a Cahistian Passover and that Irenaeus wrote a letter to Victor of Rome in their support from which I conclude they may well have been based in or near Rome. What do you know about this? Can you suggest any other sources indicating this practice elsewhere in the early church? Can you talk about the view that for the early church breaking of bread on Sunday mornings was in the nature of hospitality in a fellowship meal rather than a "stripped-down" passover/Lord's Supper?
Answer
The quartodecimans (from the Latin for "fourteen") is a term that has been given to Christians in the second century who believed that Easter was to be celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover (14 Nisan). The ancient Jews used a lunar calendar, so that while Passover was always on the fourteenth day of the new year (Exod. 12:1-6), it was not always on the same day of the week. It would seem that the timing held by the quartodecimans might have emphasized Christ's death over his resurrection (in contrast to modern Easter observances), but there is too little primary source literature (at least that I have found) to be certain about this.

In the early church, there were some strong feelings about the Jewish Passover, such as those expressed by Ignatius (ca. A.D. 30-107) in his letter to the Philippians (in the 14th chapter of that letter, by coincidence; in ANF v. 1):

"If any one celebrates the Passover along with the Jews, or receives the emblems of their feast, he is a partaker with those that killed the Lord and His apostles."

The quartodecimans, however, do not really appear to have celebrated Passover. Rather, they celebrated Easter on the same day as Passover. It is worth noting, though, that most in the early church seem to have understood Christ as the fulfillment of Passover, and the celebration of Christ's resurrection as the proper mode of Passover observance. In this way, Easter replaced Passover. Hippolytus (A.D. 170-236) addressed the controversy with the quartodecimans in rather harsh terms in book 8, chapter 11 of The Refutation of All Heresies (in ANF v. 5):

"And certain other (heretics), contentious by nature, (and) wholly uniformed as regards knowledge, as well as in their manner more (than usually) quarrelsome, combine (in maintaining) that Easter should be kept on the fourteenth day of the first month, according to the commandment of the law, on whatever day (of the week) it should occur. (But in this) they only regard what has been written in the law, that he will be accursed who does not so keep (the commandment) as it is enjoined. They do not, however, attend to this (fact), that the legal enactment was made for Jews, who in times to come should kill the real Passover. And this (paschal sacrifice, in its efficacy,) has spread unto the Gentiles, and is discerned by faith, and not now observed in letter (merely). They attend to this one commandment, and do not look unto what has been spoken by the apostle: 'For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.' In other respects, however, these consent to all the traditions delivered to the Church by the Apostles."

The Paschal Canon of Anatolius of Alexandria (ca. A.D. 270; in ANF v. 6) deals extensively with the timing of Easter, refuting the quartodecimans among others. While some of his arguments do sound a bit strange, his is perhaps the most detailed extant early text on the subject.

According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, book 5, ch. 24; in NPNF2 v. 1), Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) wrote to Victor specifically on the quartodecimans. We have a fragment (Frag. 3, in ANF v. 1) of this otherwise lost writing that deals with the controversy over whether or not to keep the "Eucharist." The Eucharist would seem from its description to be an annual event (some fasted for forty days at the time of the Eucharist). Moreover, Irenaeus' mention of Polycarp and Anicetus indicates that he was speaking of the Easter Controversy, so that "Eucharist" ought to be equated with "Easter." This is the same fragment that Eusebius claims Irenaeus wrote to Victor on the subject of the quartodecimans. See also Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, book 5, chs. 22,23,25 (in NPNF2 v. 1) for further details on the controversy during Victor's time as bishop of Rome. According to the bishops of Asia as recorded by Eusebius (ch. 24), the apostles John and Phillip were quartodecimans.

Additionally, Irenaeus' Fragment 7 does not appear to have been authored by Irenaeus, but it does reference a lost work of his entitled On Easter. According to Eusebius, a council was held in the time of Victor that addressed the Easter controversy, and we do know that Irenaeus wrote to Victor at times, so it is not inconceivable that he wrote On Easter to Victor, though its contents are now unknown to us. According to the introductory notes to Irenaeus' Against Heresies in ANF v. 1,

"Victor succeeded to the bishopric of Rome in A.D. 189. This new bishop of Rome took very harsh measures for enforcing uniformity throughout the Church as to the observance of the paschal solemnities. On account of the severity thus evinced, Irenaeus addressed to him a letter (only a fragment of which remains), warning him that if he persisted in the course on which he had entered, the effect would be to rend the Catholic Church in pieces. This letter had the desired result; and the question was more temperately debated, until finally settled by the Council of Nice."

I believe the fragment to which the author refers is the aforementioned Fragment 3.

The controversy over when to celebrate Easter continued at least until the Council of Nicea, which was called at least in part to settle this particular matter. Eusebius details a number of relevant matters in The Life of Constantine (in NPNF2 v. 1), book 5, chs. 5,14,18,19.

The Council of Nicea sent a Synodal letter explaining the agreement of the Council to abandon the Jewish date and use the Roman date for Easter, and the emperor Constantine likewise sent a letter to similar effect. These can both be found in NPNF 2 v. 14 after the last of the Canons of Nicea. Also included is a brief treatment of the controversy that continued after Nicea by Hefele from his History of the Councils (v. 1, pp 328 et seq.).

All the documents referenced above can be found on our site in our digital books section.

As far as the question of the breaking of bread goes, it does seem apparent that it involved a full meal rather than simply a memorial sip of wine and a bite of bread. This is most evident in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 where Paul indicates that some people were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the wine while other went hungry. Clearly there was enough wine for the rich to get drunk, and the intent was to provide enough to eat so that no one would go hungry. This can hardly be a description of the Lord's Supper as it is generally practiced by modern churches. Nevertheless, a good defense of the modern practice can be made in many cases on the grounds that it preserves the fundamental elements necessary for the symbolism of the Supper, and on the grounds that the meal itself was not essential to the Supper as instituted by Jesus. That being said, in areas where there are many poor, even today the Supper could well provide a good opportunity to meet the needs of people who might otherwise go hungry. In such a setting, the elements of bread and wine in the context of a full meal might be an even better symbol of the provision that Christ has made for us.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.