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On the Origins of the Primary Feast of the Christian Church
by William J. Tighe
For all Christians today who observe a “liturgical year,” the high point of that year is the annual commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection at the end of Holy Week. Good Friday recalls to the faithful the Lord’s suffering and death, and in most Christian traditions is a day of ascetical practices, particularly fasting. Holy Saturday commemorates his entombment and descent to hell, and thus is also a day of asceticism. Easter Sunday, by contrast, is the joyous celebration of his resurrection, and of the resurrection of mankind in him.
Despite these discrete “episodes,” however, most Christian churches or denominational traditions have not completely lost track of the ancient sense that what we commemorate in the course of these three days is a process rather than separate events: the Lord’s “passing over” from life through death to new and eternal life, as both a realization and a promise to those who, by faith and baptism, have been incorporated into Christ. How and when the Church came to observe this annual “feast of feasts” has long been a matter of dispute, and in recent decades the areas of disagreement have grown greater—or at least a longstanding scholarly consensus has been strongly challenged.
“Easter” is, of course, an English word, and one lacking the multivalence of the more widespread term “Pascha.” This term, which has different forms in different languages, derives ultimately from the Hebrew Pesach, or “Passover,” and thus can mean both “Easter” specifically and more generally the “triduum” of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
Dating the Crucifixion
It appears, based on a variety of historical and astronomical considerations (including the lunar cycles determining the dating of Passover every year) that the Lord’s crucifixion could have occurred only on either Friday, April 7, A.D. 30, or Friday, April 3, A.D. 33. And if the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that “the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood” (Joel 2:31) at Christ’s death, to which St. Peter referred in Acts 2:20, came about (as scholars such as F. F. Bruce have held) through a khamsin dust storm from the Arabian desert both darkening the sun and turning an eclipsed moon visible from Jerusalem blood-red, the date can be further narrowed to A.D. 33. No such lunar eclipse would have been visible from Jerusalem in A.D. 30, but one would have been visible there on April 3, 33.
The Jews, of course, did not follow the Roman solar calendar, but their own lunar calendar, and in that calendar, Passover fell in the month of Nisan (corresponding to our March/April), which was also the first month of the year in their reckoning of religious festivals. From the four Gospels it is not clear whether the Crucifixion fell on the Eve of Passover, as the Gospel of John states (in which case its Jewish date would have been Friday, 14 Nisan), or on Passover Day itself, as the synoptic Gospels appear to witness, (in which case it would have fallen on Friday, 15 Nisan). In the former case, the Last Supper would not have been a Passover meal, while in the latter it would.
Others have argued, on rather slender evidence, that the Lord and his disciples followed the Qumran Essene calendar (the Essenes were a sectarian Jewish group that rejected any connection with the Jerusalem Temple and its priests), in which case they would have celebrated a Passover meal on Tuesday evening, with the Lord’s arrest occurring early on Wednesday morning, followed by a two-day interrogation and trial process culminating with his crucifixion on Friday, 14 Nisan, the Eve of Passover in the “official calendar.”
Passages such as “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7) may give further support to the likelihood of a 14 Nisan date for the Crucifixion, and it seems that, with a few exceptions (like Tertullian and St. Cyprian), most early Christians followed or assumed the Johannine chronology.
Sunday versus 14 Nisan
It is fairly well known that there was a major controversy throughout the Church in the second century about the keeping of Pascha (as we shall call it from here on). It has generally been supposed that this controversy concerned the date on which the celebration should culminate, that is, whether it should be on a Sunday, after, perhaps immediately after, the Jewish Passover, or whether it should be on whatever day of the week might be deemed the Christian equivalent of the Jewish 14 Nisan. It is because of the significance to them of the latter date that its proponents were termed Quartodecimans (“Fourteenthers”).
Certainly these were the alternatives when the controversy erupted in a big way early in the pontificate of Pope Victor (A.D. 189–199). There is some indication that the controversy stemmed from difficulties between the Roman Church and a group of Asian Christians at Rome, who, although in “peace and communion” with the Roman Church, had been allowed up to that point to celebrate Pascha according to their own reckoning. But a major church conflict arose after the pope sent letters to Catholic bishops throughout the Mediterranean world soliciting their views about the proper practice.
Synods of bishops met in different regions to consider the question. Most of them—in Italy, Gaul, North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere—declared themselves for the Sunday Pascha (even though all of these churches did not follow the same methods of computing it, which meant that in some years different regions might observe it on different Sundays). But those in Roman Asia (meaning today’s Asia Minor or the greater part of Asiatic Turkey), who acknowledged the primacy of Ephesus and its then bishop, Polycrates, indicated their resolve to maintain their Quartodeciman Pascha, which they declared had been handed down to them originally by the Apostle John.
Pope Victor then proceeded to excommunicate the Asiatic churches, despite the pleas of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who wrote a letter urging him to withhold, or perhaps withdraw, the excommunication. How events played out after this point—whether the Asians submitted, or Pope Victor withdrew his excommunication (and, if so, whether unconditionally or as the result of a compromise)—is unknown due to the lack of surviving information. But by the time the Council of Nicaea condemned the Quartodeciman Pascha in 325, it seems to have been observed only by “fringe groups” in Asia and to have become unknown elsewhere.
Something Not Observed
However, the bitter quarrel between Pope Victor and the Asian churches had a prehistory of some length, and it is here that the scholarly consensus has “destabilized” over the past quarter-century. At some point, seemingly towards the end of his long life, the aged Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, paid a visit to Rome. This was in the time of Pope Anicetus, whose pontificate is traditionally dated from about A.D. 150 to about 168. According to Irenaeus (whose letter to Pope Victor some twenty to thirty years later is the source for this information), Polycarp and Anicetus had disagreed on several matters, including Pascha observance, but when each failed to persuade the other of the superiority of his church’s custom, they agreed not to quarrel. As a gesture of respect for his visitor, the pope allowed Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist, presumably the principal or only Sunday service for the Roman Christians.
Irenaeus’s argument against Pope Victor’s action against the Asian churches involved not only the example of Polycarp and Anicetus “agreeing to disagree” but also the claim that they had been “more opposed” to one another in their dispute than were Victor and the Asians. Yet in spite of their differences in practice, they had lived in peace, sharing the same faith. As Irenaeus wrote to Victor,
Among these were the presbyters before [Pope] Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, Pius, Hyginus, Telesphorus and Xystus. They neither observed themselves, nor did they permit those with them to do so. And yet although not observing, they were nonetheless at peace with those who came to them from the parishes which observed, although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe. But none were ever cast out on account of this matter, but the presbyters before you who did not observe sent the Eucharist to those of other parishes who observed.
What Irenaeus appears to be saying is that the Roman bishops from Xystus through Anicetus, that is, from about 117 to about 168, did not observe something, but were nevertheless at peace both with the Christians in Asia and with Asian congregations in Rome who observed the Quartodeciman Pascha. These bishops of Rome even sent portions of the consecrated elements from their own Eucharists to the Asiatic congregations in Rome (a custom of the Roman Church known as the fermentum).
What did these Roman bishops “not observe”? In Victor’s time they did not observe the Quartodeciman Pascha, observing instead the Sunday Pascha, but if this had been the case earlier on, before the time of Pope Soter (who was pope from about 168 to 175), it would be hard to know why their practices could be described as “more opposed” than those that occasioned the dispute in Victor’s time.
Such considerations have led many scholars to propose that the Roman Church prior to the time of Pope Soter did not observe any Pascha at all, and that it was the question of whether to observe it, not merely when to observe it, that underlay the inconclusive discussions between Polycarp and Anicetus when the former visited Rome. Subsequently, perhaps under Soter’s episcopate, the Roman Church did begin to celebrate an annual Sunday Pascha; thus (as Irenaeus seems to have argued), Victor and Polycrates were closer to one another in practice than Anicetus and Polycarp had been.
The Transformed Passover
Such a radical solution goes against the longstanding belief, or assumption, that the annual celebration of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection was both primordial and universal among Christians, but it is a hypothesis that makes sense of a good deal of scattered information. At the same time, it illustrates the mutual influence of Jewish and gentile Christians upon one another in the century or so after the apostles and their generation passed from the scene.
Although his own observance of Jewish festivals was a matter of some interest to St. Paul (Acts 20:16, 1 Cor. 16:8), and his instruction of converts would no doubt have included much about the sacrifice of “Christ our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7), it is not at all clear that the churches Paul founded (as well as churches of “another man’s foundation” such as the Church of Rome) that were primarily gentile in composition would initially have observed any temporal cycle beyond the weekly commemoration of the Lord’s Resurrection on Sunday morning, perhaps as the climax of a night-long vigil. For it was not annually, but “as often as” the Eucharist is celebrated that the memorial of Christ’s death and proclamation of his resurrection is made (1 Cor. 11:26).
It is, however, virtually certain that the Jewish Christians of the apostolic generation and beyond continued to observe the Passover festival, although it was now transformed by the commemoration, not only of deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but also from the greater bondage of sin and death, effected in Christ’s “passover” from death to life.
The Johannine Influence
In the course of the First Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66 to 73, which climaxed in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in September 70, there was a great dispersal of Jewish Christians, along with other Jews. Although some Jewish Christians returned to the environs of Jerusalem after the revolt was suppressed, it appears that many of them dispersed to the cities of Asia Minor, many of which, notably Smyrna and Ephesus, had flourishing Jewish communities. Among the latter may have been the Apostle John and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who seem to have settled in or near Ephesus.
It would appear that this “post-Pauline Johannine influence”—if we may use the phrases loosely—may have resulted in an annual Christian observance of Pascha (in addition to the universal observance of Sunday as the “Day of Resurrection”) becoming a fixed feature of the churches in this region, even those initially founded or organized by St. Paul.
What was the Pascha that these Asiatic churches observed? It was a Pascha that commemorated the whole of the Lord’s redemptive activity—his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection—but whose celebration was centered on what was believed to be the anniversary of his death on the Cross, or its equivalent—hence the long tradition of deriving “Pascha” from the Greek verb paschein, meaning “to suffer.”
The Asian Pascha
What was the date? It was 14 Nisan, or rather what was deemed to be its equivalent in the Greek version of the Roman calendar that was adopted throughout the Hellenistic world towards the end of the last century before Christ. This was a solar, not a lunar calendar, but its months began nine days before those in the Roman calendar in the Latin West, and they had different names. The first month in this calendar, Artemision, the month in which the spring equinox occurred, ran from what would have been March 24 to April 22 in the Latin version of the calendar.
Artemision would have more or less coincided with the Jewish Nisan, but at least by A.D. 100, Christians and Jews had become so thoroughly estranged that Christians were no longer willing to follow the Jewish calendar, the more so after the determination of its festal dates, which had been the prerogative of the Temple priesthood, passed to the rabbinic assembly at Jamnia—a rabbinic assembly that was profoundly hostile to Christianity. So the Asian Christians (or the larger part of them—there appear to have been sectarian groups that followed other reckonings) simply took 14 Artemision as the equivalent of 14 Nisan, and celebrated the Lord’s Pascha on that date.
How did the Asians celebrate their Pascha? They undertook a severe fast on the day itself, continuing the fast through the night until cockcrow (about 3:00 A.M.), when it ended with the celebration of the Eucharist. This was not in any sense a “historical” commemoration of the Lord’s Resurrection, since (by modern reckoning) it would have spanned only two days, not three, as in the later triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Rather, it was a Christian adaptation and reorientation of the Jewish Passover to commemorate the entirety of the redemption accomplished in Christ, from his incarnation through his death to his resurrection and ascension.
(The prolongation of fasting through the night to cockcrow should probably be seen as an instance of Christians fasting while Jews feasted, fasting on behalf of the Jewish people who had, as the early Christians saw it, “missed their moment” when their leaders handed over Christ to the Romans to be crucified, and it was probably the origin of the later Christian insistence that Easter had always to come after the Jewish Passover.)
The Sunday Pascha
The Sunday celebration of Pascha may have been introduced at Rome in the 160s, under Pope Soter. It probably did not originate there, though, but rather, as Karl Holl first suggested, in Jerusalem, where the permanent barring, under pain of death, of any circumcised male from the new Roman city founded by the Emperor Hadrian around 135, after the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, destroyed the Jewish Christian church that had survived there up to that point, and resulted in its supersession by a wholly gentile church. Later on, when the Palestinian bishops met to support Pope Victor’s insistence on the Sunday Pascha, they noted that it had long been their custom to exchange letters with the Church of Alexandria so that they and the Egyptian Christians might observe Pascha on the same Sunday.
At first, this Sunday Pascha followed the pattern of that of the Asians; that is, Saturday was treated as the equivalent of 14 Nisan, with a daylong fast ending far into the night, and culminating with the Eucharist early on Sunday morning. Locating its culmination on Sunday morning, however, would have made it an exceptionally festive annual “magnification” of the normal Sunday celebration of the Resurrection, and it would not be long before the commemoration would be extended backwards to include Friday, as the day of the week on which Christ suffered. This would have been all the more easily done, since Fridays, like Wednesdays, had been weekly fast days since the apostolic era, as indicated in the Didache.
In most Christian traditions today, and in all that predate the Reformation, Good Friday is a strict fast day, while Holy Saturday is a less strict one. But as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian all witness, early on the contrary was the case: the Saturday Paschal fast was regarded as more strictly binding than that of the preceding Friday. Nevertheless, by the early decades of the third century, both days were fast days oriented towards the Paschal celebration on Sunday morning.
By the middle of that same century, as the Didascalia Apostolorum and other contemporary evidence indicate, in some Eastern regions, notably Syria and Egypt, the pre-Paschal fast had been extended back to the beginning of what is now Holy Week, seemingly on the basis of a survival of an echo of the ancient Essene calendar that would have had the Lord eat the Passover with his disciples on Tuesday evening, as the Didascalia itself claims. This backwards extension was the origin of the Eastern separation of the Paschal fast of Holy Week from the preceding fast of Great Lent by the weekend of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, while its absence in Rome was what caused the Roman Church, when it adopted the forty-day Lent in the fourth century, to terminate it on Maundy Thursday, with the sacred triduum immediately following it.
Fifty Days of Rejoicing
Among both the Quartodecimans and the Sunday observers alike, the Paschal celebration was followed by a fifty-day period of uninterrupted rejoicing, during which both fasting and kneeling in prayer were strictly forbidden, and although there is some fourth-century evidence that a few churches highlighted the week after Easter Sunday, most made no such distinction. Canon 20 of the Council of Nicaea in 325 “codified” this prohibition on kneeling during these fifty days.
The period itself was not a Christian invention, but rather an adaptation of the Jewish festal period of seven weeks plus one day after Passover, called Shabuoth, or “weeks” for Christian purposes. On the final, fiftieth day, the Jewish festival climaxed in a celebration of the giving of the Law and of the covenants God had made with Noah, Abraham, and Moses.
The Christian version ended with a simultaneous celebration of both the Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit. By the end of the fourth century, however, Christ’s ascension was increasingly coming to be celebrated on the fortieth day of this period, often preceded by a fast day and usually followed by the resumption of normal Wednesday and Friday fasting—the last a matter of some controversy and a development long resisted in both Jerusalem and Egypt.
Jewish Roots Remain
In retrospect, the fixing of the Eucharistic culmination of Christian Pascha on Sunday probably ensured that it would slowly alter its nature from that of a Christianized Passover focusing on the redemption and deliverance effected in Christ, to a historical commemoration of the events by which they were wrought by Christ. All the other feasts of Christ throughout the year—the Annunciation, Christmas, Epiphany, the Ascension, and Pentecost, as well as Great Lent itself—arose in connection with, and with dates determined by, this “feast of feasts.”
No doubt this long process was attended by both benefits and drawbacks, too many to enumerate and too difficult to reckon. If there is any “lesson” to be learned from this process—apart from amazed contemplation of its complexity, and of the intricacy and subtlety of the manner in which Christianity both preserved and transformed so much of its Jewish matrix without repudiating it—it may be to caution those who, whether in blame or praise, highlight the “hellinization” of Christianity and its “loss” of its “Jewish roots.” In fact those roots, transformed as they have been, still live and undergird the liturgical cycles of historical Christianity.
Certainly, to give one concrete example, it does pose a question to those Christians who in recent decades have taken up the affectation of holding “Christian Seder meals,” all unaware that the Lord’s own final meal with his disciples (whether it was a Passover meal or not) has been perpetuated from the very beginnings of Christianity in the observances of Holy Week, and most especially in the Great Easter Vigil.
Sources include “Dating the Crucifixion” by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, in Nature Vol. 306, 22/29 December 1983, pp. 743–746; Stuart Hall, “The Origins of Easter,” in Studia Patristica 15/1 (1984), pp. 554–567; and especially The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley (1991 rev. ed.). A simpler and more condensed version of Talley’s views on the subject can be found in a collection of his articles and essays entitled Worship: Reforming Tradition (1990) as its ch. 6, “History and Eschatology in the Primitive Pascha.”
William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.