Paschal Controversy


Any controversy arising from differences in the way of establishing the date of Easter. By the second century, the practice of celebrating the major day of the Christian Pascha on the Sunday after the fourteenth day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan, the date of the Jewish Passover, became the established practice throughout Christendom, except in the churches of western Asia Minor, where the practice of ending the fast and celebrating the Pascha every year on 14 Nisan itself (Quartodecimanism) continued.

Disagreement on this point was noticed in Rome around 120, when POLYCARP, bishop of Smyrna, visited there in the reign of Anicetus, but no issue was made of the matter until around 190, when Victor of Rome tried to persuade Polycrates of Ephesus and other bishops of his region to adopt the common practice as the one required by apostolic tradition. When Polycrates consulted his fellow bishops and sent to Victor their refusal to abandon the Quartodeciman practice, which he defended as equally apostolic and traditional, Victor excommunicated the churches of the Province of Asia and adjacent areas, a step that led Irenaeus of Lyons and other bishops to write to Victor, urging him to prefer the cause of peace, unity, and charity to that of uniformity.

In reporting this controversy, Eusebius (Historia ecclesiastica 5.23-25) did not mention the Church of Alexandria in his list of regional councils that at that time insisted that Easter should be observed on Sunday alone; but he did report a document in which the Palestinian bishops, who did hold such a council, said that they exchanged letters with the Alexandrians, so that the churches in both regions observed the holy day together.

Basic agreement on the requirement of celebrating Easter on Sunday did little, however, to settle the determination of the precise date from year to year. Easter tables showing the date in consecutive years differed, mainly because of the different lunar cycles used in reconciling synodical twelve-month lunar years of 354.3672 days with the civil calendar’s solar years of 365.2422 days and because of the different Easter limits set. When controversy arose, the issue was one of Easter limits, which were of two kinds: lunar days, on one of which Easter had to be observed, and dates in the civil calendar, with or without specific solar reference.

In Alexandria, at least by the time of Bishop DIONYSIUS (c. 248-265), Easter was not to be celebrated until after the vernal equinox, whose Alexandrian date was probably the Ptolemaic 26 Phamenoth/Julian 22 March, until the beginning of the fourth century, when it was fixed on the Julian 21 March. The 14 Nisan could not be observed on a luna xiv (the fourteenth, calendar full- moon, day of any lunar month) occurring earlier than the equinoctial day itself.

In third-century Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Cilicia, Christians, in determining their own Easter date, depended on the date of 14 Nisan, as it was established by Jewish computists, who at that time were taking no account of the equinox. The Alexandrian principle that 14 Nisan should be no earlier than the equinox was introduced, but as late as during the time of Saint ATHANASIUS, some Christians of those regions were still following the Jewish calculation. One cannot be sure that Alexandria and the rest of the East before the Council of Nicaea (see NICAEA, COUNCIL OF) avoided Easter on luna xiv itself when the day was a Sunday. After the council, they consistently observed as lunar limits lunae xv-xxi.

Rome and the West fluctuated. At times the Roman lunar limits seem to have been lunae xiv-xx, but lunae xvi-xxii, appearing already in Hippolytus’ table in the early third century, remained the usual Roman lunar limits until the sixth century. In the third century, Rome took no account of the equinox. Even when Romans had accepted an equinoctial limit, they long took the equinox as the earliest day for Easter itself, while the Alexandrians took it as the earliest day for 14 Nisan. In the first half of the fourth century, further confusion resulted from the conflict between the traditional Roman equinoctial date (25 March) and the Alexandrian one, by then 21 March. Peculiar to Rome was 21 April as limit ad quem, evident already in the third century and retained in the fourth and fifth. That is the anniversary of the founding of Rome, whose worldly festivities, moved into Holy Week if Easter was celebrated later, would be unseemly.

In the early fourth century, conciliar efforts were made to promote uniformity of the Easter date. The Council of Arles (314) prescribed that the bishop of Rome should send out paschal letters so that Easter would be observed on the same day everywhere in the world. The Western world must have been meant, for that council was entirely Western, and there is no evidence that the bishop of Rome ever sent paschal letters to Eastern churches. At the Council of Nicaea (325), the Quartodecimans were anathematized, and uniformity of the Easter date was prescribed for all of Christendom. The text of the decree has been lost, but it is clear from a letter of Constantine in Eusebius (3. 18-19) that Easter was prohibited on 14 Nisan, even if the day was Sunday; that it should never be celebrated twice in the same year (the reason for Alexandrian insistence on the equinoctial limit); and that all churches should observe it on the same day. How such uniformity was to be achieved is not clear.

After the Council of Nicaea, paschal nonconformity in the East was almost entirely limited to heterodox groups. Rome seems generally to have followed the Alexandrian Easter dates, even when they exceeded Roman lunar limits, but to have been unwilling to do so when they exceeded Roman calendar limits. In such years Alexandria was at first willing to avoid controversy by yielding to Rome. In 333 the Alexandrian tables prescribed 22 April (too late for the Roman limit of 21 April), but a Syriac chronicle now in the British Library shows that the Alexandrians that year actually observed 15 April, which the Roman chronograph of 354 shows to have been the Roman date for 333. In 346 the Alexandrians observed 30 March instead of 23 March (too early for the traditional Roman equinoctial date, 25 March), and in 349 they observed 26 March instead of 23 April (too late for the Roman 21 April).

By the fifth century, Rome was inclined to follow Alexandria, even when the Roman limit of 21 April was exceeded. It did so in 444, in the pontificate of Leo the Great, but Leo, informed that Roman tables indicated 17 April for 455 while the Alexandrian table gave 24 April, wrote to the Emperor Marcian in 453, protesting and asking him to investigate. The holy fathers, he wrote, entrusted care for the common date to the bishop of Alexandria, who should send the date to the Apostolic See, the whence written announcement should be sent to more distant churches. Later writers understood the holy fathers to be those of Nicaea, but Leo’s expression is not specific. The “more distant churches” must be those of the West, for when Proterius of Alexandria sent Leo assurance that 24 April was correct, Leo wrote again to Marcian in March 455, saying that he had communicated the Alexandrian date for that year to all the “priests of Western parts,” and Proterius, in his letter to Leo, said that the date would be celebrated not only in Egypt but in all the East, which suggests that the major churches of the East received notice of the Easter date not from Rome but from Alexandria.

A Latin text ascribed to CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA in which mention is made of the Roman church’s annual communication of the Easter date to “the universal church throughout the world” is held by most scholars today to be spurious. Controversy broke out once more when Pope Symmachus refused to observe Easter in Rome on 22 April 501. The adherence of Rome to the table drawn up around 525 by Dionysius Exiguus precluded any further controversy between Rome and the East, for Dionysius used the nineteen-year lunar cycle and Easter limits of the Alexandrian. Later controversies were limited to the Latin West.


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