Monday, April 24, 2006
Monday, April 17, 2006
Easter in the early Church
The observance of any special holiday throughout the Christian year is believed by some to be an innovation postdating the early church. The ecclesiastical historian Socrates Scholasticus (b. 380) attributes the observance of Easter by the church to the perpetuation of local custom, "just as many other customs have been established", stating that neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. However, when read in context,this is not a rejection or denigration of the celebrationwhich, given its currency in Scholasticus' time would be surprisingbut is merely part of a defense of the diverse methods for computing its date. Indeed, although he describes the details of the Easter celebration as deriving from local custom, he insists the feast itself is universally observed.
A number of ecclesiastical historians, primarily Eusebius, bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, by tradition a disciple of John the Evangelist, disputed the computation of the date with bishop Anicetus of Rome in what is now known as the Quartodecimanism controversy. Anicetus became bishop of the church of Rome in the mid second century (c. AD 155). Shortly thereafter, Polycarp visited Rome and among the topics discussed was when the pre-Easter fast should end. Those in Asia held strictly to the computation from the Hebrew calendar and ended the fast on the 14th day of Nisan, while the Roman custom was to continue the fast until the Sunday following. Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus was able to convert the other to his positionaccording to a rather confused account by Sozomen, both could claim Apostolic authority for their traditionsbut neither did they consider the matter of sufficient importance to justify a schism, so they parted in peace leaving the question unsettled. However, a generation later bishop Victor of Rome excommunicated bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and the rest of the Asian bishops for their adherence to 14 Nisan. The excommunication was rescinded and the two sides reconciled upon the intervention of bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, who reminded Victor of the tolerant precedent that had been established earlier. In the end, a uniform method of computing the date of Easter was not formally settled until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (see below), although by that time the Roman timing for the observance had spread to most churches.
A number of early bishops rejected the practice of celebrating Easter, or more accurately Passover, on the first Sunday after Nisan 14. This conflict between Easter and Passover is often referred to as the "Paschal Controversy". The bishops dissenting from the newer practice of Easter favored adhering to celebrating the festival on Nisan 14 in accord with the Biblical Passover and the tradition passed on to them by the Apostles. The problem with Nisan 14 in the minds of some in the Western Church (who wished to further associate Sunday and Easter) is that it was calcuated by the moon and could fall on any day of the week.
An early example of this tension is found written by Theophilus of Caesarea (c. AD 180; 8.774 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers") when he stated, "Endeavor also to send abroad copies of our epistle among all the churches, so that those who easily deceive their own souls may not be able to lay the blame on us. We would have you know, too, that in Alexandria also they observe the festival on the same day as ourselves. For the Paschal letters are sent from us to them, and from them to usso that we observe the holy day in unison and together."
Polycarp, a disciple of John, likewise adhered to a Nisan 14 observance. Irenaeus, who observed the "first Sunday" rule notes of Polycarp (one of the Bishops of Asia Minor), "For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forgo the observance [of his Nisan 14 practice] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of the Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant." (c. AD 180; 1.569 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). Irenaeus notes that this was not only Polycarp's practice, but that this was the practice of John the disciple and the other apostles that Polycarp knew.
Polycrates (c. AD 190) emphatically notes this is the tradition passed down to him, that Passover and Unleavened Bread were kept on Nisan 14 in accord with the Biblical Passover and not the later Easter tradition: "As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord.... These all kept Easter on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel.... 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" (8.773, 8.744 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers").
Early within the Church it was admitted by both sides of the debate that the Lord's Supper was the practice of the disciples and the tradition passed down. The Last Supper is believed by some to be a Passover Seder (see: The Last Supper). The Nisan 14 practice, which was strong among the churches of Asia Minor, becomes less common as the desire for Church unity on the question came to favor the majority practice. By the 3rd century the Church, which had become Gentile dominated and wishing to further distinguish itself from Jewish practices, began a tone of harsh rhetoric against Nisan 14/Passover (e.g. Anatolius, c. AD 270; 6.148,6.149 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). The tradition that Easter was to be celebrated "not with the Jews" meant that Easter was not to be celebrated on Nisan 14.