Passover: Changed in History

April 5, 2017

Passover Started to Differ

After all the apostles died, the Early Church divided into the Eastern Church and the Western Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople in Asia Minor governed the Eastern Church, and the Pope from Rome ruled over the Western Church1).

At that time, both churches kept the bread and wine communion on different dates.

1) Eastern Church: Kept the Communion on Passover

The Eastern Church held the Passover Communion on the 14th day of the first month of the sacred calendar. Indeed, this was in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. Other than the Passover, they also celebrated the Day of Resurrection on the first Sunday after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the 15th day of the first month of the sacred calendar).

“We,” said he, “therfore, observe the genuine day ; neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom.

Figure 1. The Eastern Churches followed strictly the teaching of Jesus Christ, as shown in the “Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History”2)

2) Western Church: Kept the Communion on Resurrection Day

On the other hand, the Western Church did not have the Holy Supper on Passover. Instead, they held it on Sunday (Resurrection Day) after the Passover. Thus, they mixed the two feasts together.

In the Bible, however, we can see that these two feasts are in fact completely distinct. The Passover is to commemorate Christ’s death (1 Corinthians 11:26), and the Resurrection Day, His resurrection.

This non-uniformity among the two churches caused much confusion among the Christians travelling between the east and west since they saw the two churches having differing practices.

…But a difference had arisen between East and West. In Asia the all-important date was the 14th Nisan, … and then celebrate the Eucharist. In the West, however, the fast was maintained until the Sunday following the 14th Nisan and then only was the paschal Eucharist celebrated.

Figure 2. The differing practices of the Eastern and Western Churches, as recorded in the book “A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500″3)

The New Covenant Passover Under Debate

1) The First Passover Controversy

Around A.D. 155, Polycarp, Bishop of the Church of Smyrna (Eastern), and Pope Anicetus, Bishop of the Church of Rome (Western), disputed over the Passover. Polycarp emphasised that the Passover was a traditional custom handed down from Jesus, saying that he had been celebrating the Passover every year, together with John—one of Jesus’ disciples—and many other apostles. In this dispute, however, they failed to persuade each other.

In 155 Polycarp argued the question with Pope Anicetus, but as neither could persuade the other they agreed to differ.

Figure 3. The evidence of the first controversy between the Eastern and Western Churches, recorded in the book “A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500″4)

2) The Second Passover Controversy

Subsequently, around A.D. 197, Victor the Bishop of Rome insisted that the churches should adopt the Roman practice of celebrating the Holy Supper on the Resurrection Day instead of the Passover. Accordingly, he called it the Dominical Rule (Lord’s Rule) and compelled all the churches to accept it. This led to the second controversy. The churches in the West agreed to follow the rule, but the churches in the East greatly opposed it. Especially, Polycrates, Bishop of the Church of Ephesus, sent a letter to Victor, in which he strongly emphasised that the Passover should be celebrated.

All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. Moreover, I, Polycrates, who am the least of all of you, according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have followed. For there ware seven, my relatives bishops, and I am the eighth; and my relatives always observed the day when the people (i. e. the Jews) threw away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, am now sixty-five years in the Lord, who having conferred with the brethren throughout the world, and having studied the whole of the sacred Scriptures, am not at all alarmed at those things with which I am threatened, to intimidate me. For they who are greater I, have said, ‘we ought to obey God rather than men'”

Figure 4. Bishop Polycrates’ letter to Bishop Victor regarding the keeping of the Passover at the correct time, as shown in the “Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History”5)

When Victor received this letter, he planned to excommunicate all the churches in Asia by accusing them of being “non-Orthodox”. However, he could not achieve his plan because of objections from many churches around him.

Upon this, Victor, the bishop of the church of Rome, forthwith endeavoured to cut off the churches of all Asia, together with the neighbouring churches, as heterodox, from the common unity. And he publishes abroad by letters, and proclaims, that all the brethren there are wholly excommunicated. But this was not the opinion of all the bishops.

Figure 5. Bishop Victor’s attempt to excommunicate churches which kept the Passover, in “Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History”6)

A more important stage of the controversy took place in 197 at Rome. There thr Pope Victor, a men of much more dominating temper than Anicetus, determined to put a stop to all confusion and to compel the whole Church to accept the Dominical rule, i.e. observe the feast on the Sunday. Conferences were held at various places in East and West, with the result that the Dominical rule was accepted every where except in Asia. Vitor thereupon pursued his advantage and excommunicated the recalcitrant churches. This, however, raised a storm of protest.

Figure 6. Recordings of the Dominical Rule and further controversy on keeping the Passover in the book “A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500″7)

Passover Abolished

1) The Council of Nicaea

The controversy arose again in the 4th century and this time, the Council of Nicaea finally abolished the Passover in A.D. 325. The Council, convened by the Roman emperor Constantine, decided in favour of the church of Rome. The Passover would be abolished and the Holy Supper be kept on Resurrection Day.

The Eastern and Western segments of the Church could not arrive at any agreement until the Council of Nicaea in 325, when the viewpoint of the Western Church was adopted.

Figure 7. The Council of Nicaea decided in favour of the Western Church, recorded in “Christianity Through the Centuries”8)

At the Council of Nicea, in 325, Church authorities agreed to abolish the Divine appointed festival of Passover and replace in with what Constantine called “the more legitimate feastival of Easter”.

Figure 8. Passover was officially abolished at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, recorded in “Faith of the Ages: The Hebraic Roots of the Christian Faith”9)

With the Passover (including the Feast of Unleavened Bread) abolished, there was no Biblical standard to determine the date of the Resurrection Day. The Council subsequently also decided in favour of celebrating the resurrection on the first Sunday that comes after the full moon of the vernal equinox. This decision was made with the excuse that it was difficult to calculate the date of the feast according to the movements of the moon.

In addition, the Church of Rome, which had been associated with polytheistic traditions and ideas for a long time, introduced Easter to commemorate the resurrection. Easter was originally a festival in honour of Eostre the goddess of spring. It was celebrated at the vernal equinox in Northern Europe10).

2) Passover disappears from History

The decision made by the council had a significant impact on Christianity. The churches which kept the Passover on the 14th day of the first month, not yielding to the authority of the church of Rome, were persecuted and called heretics. Consequently, this forced many saints to move into deserts and caves.

The Western Church had not kept the Passover until then, but it continued to celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday after the Passover. In other words, both churches had used the Passover in determining the date of resurrection. However, as the Council of Nicaea established the date of resurrection based on the vernal equinox, the meaning of the Passover completely disappeared.