The Easter Controversy

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Podcast Transcript

Every year, Christians around the world celebrate Easter. 

However, when they celebrate Easter can vary dramatically. In fact, the possible dates of Easter can vary by over a month.

What most people don’t know is that setting the date for Easter was one of the biggest controversies in the early Christian church. In fact, it was a major reason behind one of the most important councils in history. 

Learn more about the Easter Controversy, aka Quartodecimanism, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Holidays roughly fall into two categories. The first are holidays which are always on a particular date.

For example, New Year’s Day is always on January 1, regardless of what day of the week that might be. 

The other type of holiday is always celebrated on a certain day of the week. For example, American Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, regardless of what the date might be. 

The major question which faced Easter early on was which kind of holiday it was going to be. Was it going to be tied to a date, or was it going to be tied to a day of the week? …and that is actually an oversimplification, as you will soon see. 

Plus, there is a whole issue about calendars and the moon. 

Just a refresher, Easter is a religious celebration by Christians to commemorate the date they believe Jesus rose from the dead. It is the most important day of the year for Christians, and the importance of the date is the major reason why there was such a big controversy surrounding its date. 

The date of the event was never in question because it was tied to the Jewish celebration of Passover. 

Passover was always celebrated on the 14th of Nissan in the Jewish Calendar, and the events of Easter took place three days after that. As as aside, Passover today is celebrated on the 15th of Nissan, but I will leave the discussion of the dates of Passover for a future episode. 

So the date of Easter was never questioned by anyone in the first few centuries of Christianity.  

When Christianity spread in the first and second centuries, it wasn’t very organized. There were disparate communities that developed their own practices and traditions. 

In particular, the celebration of Easter was celebrated on different dates in different places. 

In parts of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, Christians would celebrate Easter on the first day of Passover, the same day that seders were held.

Other communities would celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the start of Passover. 

Here I need to explain why Sunday is important to Christians. 

The very first Christians were ethnically and culturally Jewish. They honored the Sabbath, which was on Saturday. 

However, as they believed Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday, they would keep the Sabbath and worship on Sunday, which they called the Lord’s Day. 

As Christianity spread, more Gentiles became Christians who didn’t observe the Sabbath. Their day of worship, which recognized the resurrection, was Sunday. 

There was another problem. These new Gentile Christians didn’t use the Jewish calendar, on which Passover was calculated. The Gentiles in the Roman Empire used the Julian Calendar, which is a solar calendar. The Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar, which uses an entire leap month every three years. 

So you can’t just map dates from one calendar to the other. 

Other communities didn’t use the Jewish calendar at all and began to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox.

The lack of a single date to celebrate the most important day on the Christian calendar became a huge issue in the second century. 

There were two primary camps. Those who advocated for celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nissan were known as Quartodecimanists. Quartodecimanism is just Latin for “fourteenth.” 

The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea wrote: 

A question of no small importance arose at that time [the time of Pope Victor I c.?190]. The dioceses of all Asia, according to an ancient tradition, held that the fourteenth day, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch, contending that the fast ought to end on that day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. However, it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this point, as they observed the practice, which from Apostolic tradition has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the Resurrection of our Saviour.

One of the advocates of celebrating on the 14th on Nissan was the bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp. The argument was that Polycarp had gotten the belief directly from John the Apostle, which carried a lot of weight.

On the other side were those who wanted Easter to be celebrated on a Sunday. 

To solve the problem of different dates being used for Easter and to address other issues, Emperor Constantine called the First Council of Nicea in 325.

Prominent bishops from around the Christian world descended on the city of Nicea, which is today the city of Iznik, Turkey. 

Going into the council, there were only two goals that Constantine had set regarding the dates of Easter.

The first was to create a uniform date that could be observed by all Christians. The second was to pick a date that wasn’t reliant on the Jewish calendar anymore. 

The reasons for eliminating the Jewish calendar were severalfold. 

The obvious one was that they didn’t want to rely on another religion to determine the dates for Christianity’s holiest day. 

The greater argument was that there was reason to believe that the Jewish calendar was wrong. Somewhere along the way, an error was made, and the calendar in the 4th century was now off. 

In particular, the contemporary Jewish calendar at that time was now celebrating the 14th of Nissan before the spring equinox, which was something that had never happened before. 

In eliminating the use of the Jewish calendar, the goal was to create a new Christian Nissan where Easter couldn’t come before the equinox. 

These two general principles were the only things regarding Easter that came out of the Council of Nicea.  Unfortunately, they never selected an actual method of determining the date, which meant that they couldn’t get everyone on the same page for using the same dates for easter. 

One place that had a method of selecting the date of Easter that did satisfy the requests of the Council of Nicea was Alexandria.  

Alexandria was still the center for learning in the world at that time and had the best astronomers. In Alexandria, they calculated Easter using a system that didn’t require the Jewish calendar and also ensured that Easter wouldn’t fall before the equinox. 

The “Alexandrian computus,” as it became known, was a table that calculated the date of Easter as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox. 

This gave Easter a range of 35 days on which it could occur. 

However, the date of the equinox isn’t the astronomical equinox. Rather, they set March 21st as the ecclesiastical equinox.  

This seemingly minor detail is important because the astronomical equinox is a single moment at occurs at different clock times around the world. 

For example, in 1905, the Vernal Equinox occurred in

Greenwich, England, at 7 a.m., Tuesday, March 21. It occurred

in San Francisco, California, at 11 p.m., Monday, March 20.

Similarly, the true astronomical full moon for that time of year

happened at Greenwich on March 21 after the equinox;  and in San Francisco, it happened on March 20 just before the equinox. 

Had the real moon been the guide in each location, Easter

would have been kept on March 26 at Greenwich and on April

23 at San Francisco. Whereas the ecclesiastical full

moon occurred everywhere on Wednesday, April 19; hence

Easter was the Sunday after, April 23.

The Alexandrian system caught on in the decades following the Council of Nicea. In fact, many people think that the Council of Nicea created this system, but they did not. 

By the 8th century, the Alexandrian system for calculating Easter was almost universal. 

For a while, as in several centuries, everything was good on the dating Easter front.

However, there were other problems with the calendar that I’ve talked about on past episodes. The Julian Calendar was off by a small amount, and over the centuries, the errors piled up. 

To correct this, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII announced a new calendar that corrected the drift which had set in with the Julian Calendar. 

Catholic countries adopted the new calendar rather quickly, and eventually, Protestant countries did as well. By the end of the 18th century, almost all of Western Europe was using the Gregorian Calendar. 

However, the Orthodox Churches in the east didn’t take to the calendar reform, which was instituted by a Catholic pope. They continued to use the Julian Calendar, which was now off by almost two weeks from the Gregorian Calendar. 

This resulted in Orthodox Easter usually being one week after the celebration of Easter in the West. The Orthodox system of determining Easter is the same as that used in the West, just with a different calendar. 

This isn’t always the case. Some years, Easter is celebrated on the same day. This was the case in 2017, and it will be the case again in 2025. In other years Orthodox Easter might occur five weeks after Western Easter. In 2024, Western Easter is on March 31 and Orthodox Easter is on May 5.

This difference in dates means that the Easter Controversy still isn’t over, and there are still efforts underway today to create a single unified date for Easter. 

In 1963, the Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council. One of the things which came out of it was an agreement to accept a fixed Sunday for Easter if other churches agreed to it. 

One proposal would just be to use the second Sunday in April. 

In 1997, the World Council of Churches held a summit in Aleppo, Syria, and made a proposal for the change in Easter. 

They proposed using the timing of the astronomical full moon and the astronomical equinox at the Jerusalem meridian. This way it wouldn’t matter what calendar was being used as it would just eliminate the concept of an ecclesiastical equinox. 

The plan was to implement the new system in 2001, when both Easters would fall on the same date. 

However, because this system uses astronomical observations, and because the Gregorian calendar is more accurate, this would have resulted in the Orthodox Churches having to change their calendar more in the first few years, and the proposal was never adopted. 

This was not the last effort to try and get a unified date for Easter. There were proposals made in 2008 and in 2015. There seems to be a desire on the part of everyone to come to some sort of solution, but to date, nothing hasn’t been agreed upon.

The relevant parties had better get to work. Given the way the Julian Calendar slowly loses time relative to the seasons, the last year that both Easters will fall on the same date will be in the year 2700.  That means there are a little under seven centuries to figure this out.

For all of you observing Easter, have a happy one, regardless of what day you might be celebrating it. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener The infamous goose on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Gary is making a poor Montana kid a little smarter!

I’ve been listening for about a year and have absolutely 0 complaints. Very informational and doesn’t drag on for hours. My favorite way to describe the podcast to someone is by telling them there is a really good chance there is a “YKK” on your zipper, then there is the bewildered look when they look and see haha. Gary is the man! Keep up the good work!

Thanks, goose! There aren’t a whole lot of zipper companies out there, and it isn’t something that most people think about. So, pointing out the YKK on someone’s zipper is a good way to surprise someone with a high probability of success.

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