Paschal Controversy (Easter [Resurrection Day] Controversy)

The ‘Paschal Controversies’ refers to the controversy between the Eastern and Western churches during the second and third centuries concerning the Passover celebration date.1) Historians define the 'Paschal Controversies' as the “Method of determining the date of Easter2) Controversy.” So, it is also called the 'Easter (Resurrection Day) Controversy'.

An 1842 copy of Eusebius' Church History

There are two errors in the 'Paschal Controversy'.

One is an error in church history. In fact, the Paschal controversy was not ‘Easter (actually Resurrection Day)’, but ‘Passover’. 'Pascha (πασχα)' is a Greek word which means 'Passover'3). The word Easter, which is still being misused, is Pâques in French, Pascua in Spanish and Pascha in Latin, and their origin comes from the Greek word Pascha, which means “Passover.” The expression ‘Easter’ came from the Western church which placed importance on Easter.

A record of Eusebius (Eusebius of Caesarea), who is called the Father of Church History, in the 4th century, confirms that this incident originated from the Passover.

“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 Savior's Passover”.

The second is a Biblical error. The date of Easter (Resurrection Day) is already specified in the Torah.4) For this reason, there was no need to re-appoint that date. According to the Pentateuch, the origin of the New Testament Resurrection Day [Western Church’s Easter] is the Day of First Fruits, the first day after the Sabbath after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In other words, the first Sunday after the Feast of Unleavened Bread.5)

The Paschal controversy began after all the early Christians were martyred or dead. Less than 100 years after a series of sudden cataclysms, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus which became the foundation of Christianity, Christianity was formed in several cities of Asia Minor, Africa and of course the Roman Empire.6)

Mithra Artefacts Mithras exposed in Baths of Diocletian (Rome)

Within the Roman Empire, various myths and religions were prevalent. Greek mythology, the Egyptian goddess Isis and Mithraism were also welcomed by the Romans.7) In this kind of atmosphere, the Roman church accepted pagan ideas.8) This was a result of a combination of factors, such as compromise with the empire to avoid persecution, effective evangelism missions targeting pagans and so on.

The 2nd century Roman church was walking a different path from that of the early Christian tradition. For example, one of them was to combine Resurrection Day with the spring festival (Eostre – now called Easter) which the pagans were keeping at the time of the vernal equinox.9) In other words, the Roman Church was unable to distinguish the difference between the Passover and Resurrection Day. The Passover contains the meaning of Jesus' death. Whereas Resurrection Day is the commemoration of Jesus' resurrection. Early Christians commemorated Jesus' death on the Passover, celebrating the Holy Communion of sharing His flesh and blood. In contrast, they commemorated Jesus’ resurrection by breaking bread on Resurrection Day.10) However, the Roman Church disregarded the Passover and kept the Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.

The Eastern Church, centered on Jerusalem, celebrated the Holy Communion on the 14th day of the month of Nisan (1st month) of the Jewish calendar, following the tradition of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus partook in the Holy Communion with his disciples on the evening of the 14th day of the month of Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is the Passover according to the Gospel of the New Testament.11) And the next day (Feast of Unleavened Bread) was sacrificed on the cross and resurrected on the first Sunday (Day of First Fruits) after the Feast of Unleavened Bread.12) This is the origin of Resurrection Day.

There was great disagreement between the Eastern and Western churches. As a result this caused great confusion for Christians who traveled between Asia Minor and Rome. For example, when Christians went to Rome, after celebrating the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread in Asia Minor, they could not help but be surprised to see the Holy Communion was being celebrated again.13)

S. Polycarpus, engraving by Michael Burghers, ca 1685)
Pope Anicetus

In 155 A.D. Polycarpus (Polycarp), the director of the Church of Smyrna, visited Rome and discussed the issue of the Passover with Anicetus, the Roman Catholic bishop (equivalent to today's Pope).

Polycarp, known as the disciple of Apostle John, stressed that “l have kept the Passover every year with John, a disciple of Jesus, and with many apostles,” and according to the tradition of Jesus and his apostles, the Passover must be kept on the evening of the 14th of Nisan (1st month sacred calendar). However, the two men could not persuade each other and agreed to follow the customs of the Bishops that preceded them.

In regard to this, “Eusebius' Church History” contains a letter from Irenaeus, the Bishop of Gaul to Victor I, the Bishop of the Roman Church at the time of the Second Paschal Controversy.14)

“And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of 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.”

Even after that, the date of the Passover Communion was still a controversial issue. Melito, the Bishop of the Church in Sardis, was one of the people who supported those who adhered to the 14th day of the month of Nisan when the Passover discussion took place in Laodicea around 168 A.D. In his book “Peri Pascha” (On the Pascha) he compares the Jewish Passover of the 14th day of the month of Nisan with the new Passover. And he focuses on the fact that Jesus had established a new way to observe it.

As the head church of the Western churches, the Church in Rome became more and more powerful as a church established at the center of the Roman Empire. The Paschal Controversy reignited in 197 A.D. when Victor I, the Bishop of the Church of Rome, forced all churches to celebrate Easter and not the Passover.

Victor I

The Western churches accepted Pope Victor I’s insistence, however, the Eastern churches, which were the early foundations of Christianity, strongly resisted. Furthermore, Polycrates, the Bishop of the Church in Ephesus, sent a letter to Victor I in which he expressed his disapproval.15)

“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep…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…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…am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said 'We ought to obey God rather than man.'”16)

Polycrates emphasized the fact that he was the eighth bishop of the Church in Ephesus and following the tradition of the previous Bishops observed the Passover. Pope Victor I, thus saw the letter as a direct opposition to his orders and regarded all the churches that were in agreement with Polycrates as unorthodox and excommunicated them immediately.

Still, this was not the common opinion of all churches. So, Bishops who kept the customs of the Roman church intervened. One of them was Irenaeus, Bishop of the Church in Gaul as aforementioned. In Eusebius' Church History, it is written:

“Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided…He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom…”

Ironically, a Roman emperor who had no ties with Christianity unexpectedly ended the Paschal Controversy. He is Constantine the Great.

A History of the Early Church to AD 500, John William Charles Wand, RoutledgeISBN-13: 978-0415045667
Actually the Resurrection Day
Torah (תּוֹרָה, Torah) is a Hebrew word meaning 'Law'. It refers to the Pentateuch, but also to Scripture.
6) , 8)
The History of Christianity (A Lion Handbook), Lion Publishing Plc. ISBN-10: 074591652
1 Corinthians 5:7-8, 11:23-26,Acts 20:6-7
Matthew 26:17-28, Mark 14:12-24, Luke 22:7-20
Matthew 28:1-7, Leviticus 23:9-14, 1 Corinthians 15:20
14) , 16)
EUSEBIUS ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY, By Eusebius, Baker Book House  Ch.24 ISBN-10BD08071786X
A History of the Early Church to AD 500, John William Charles Wand, Routledge ISBN-10 0415045665