Toward a Better Understanding of Passover by Jim Rector

Part 14 - The Early Church Carries On

The apostles carried on the same teaching and practice in their ministries.  It is clear that Paul, for instance, continued right on keeping the weekly Sabbath and the annual holydays, just as he had always done. He even defended himself as being a Pharisee when it came to observing the Law of God (Phil. 3:5). He never deviated from the commandments.  He further stated to the Philippians that when it came to the Law, he was BLAMELESS.  Paul could have never gotten away with such claims if he had been observing Passover on a different day than the Pharisees.  He would have immediately been identified as a lawbreaker.  But, of course, nothing of the kind ever happened.

The Jews who opposed Paul knew who he was.  He had been formally trained in rabbinic studies at the feet of none other that the esteemed Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel himself.  He even defended himself before the Jewish Sanhedrin in Acts 23 by claiming his pedigree as a Pharisee (and remember that the Pharisees always slew the Passover late on the 14th day and ate it at the beginning of the 15th).  This was many years after his conversion, so if he were observing the law in a different manner, they would have branded him as such.  He could have never gotten away with such a defense.

We must be bound to follow the commandments of God, not the traditions of men.  The keeping of the Passover on the early part of the 14th day is historically inaccurate, Biblically inaccurate, and theologically inaccurate.  It breaks the great unity and perfection which God originally built into the Passover saga.  If Christ ever had intended His followers to conduct Passover a day earlier than the Law required, He would have said so, and said so forcefully! This would have represented a fundamental change in the commandment of God.  Yet nowhere is there any evidence that this ever took place.

When did the early believers keep Passover?  We don’t have a lot of information, but what we do have is significant.  Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi makes the following statement:

“Moreover we know from the Quartodeciman sources (i.e., those who kept the Passover on Nisan 14, according to the Jewish reckoning), which apparently represent a DIRECT CONTINUATION OF THE CUSTOM OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH, that the Paschal Feast (Passover) was observed by Christians.  Its celebration . . . occurred, as well stated by Joachim Jeremias, at the SAME TIME AS THE JEWISH PASSOVER, THAT IS ON THE NIGHT OF THE 15TH OF NISAN, and by the date rather than the day” (From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 81).

Furthermore, we have the testimony of Epiphanius, one of the early Christian leaders and historians, who said:

“Christians everywhere observed PASSOVER ON THE JEWISH DATE, NAMELY ON NISAN 15TH.”

Epiphanius further states:

“The Nazarenes (the name by which the early Christians in Judea were known) do not differ in any essential thing from them (the Jews) since they PRACTICE THE CUSTOM AND DOCTRINE PRESCRIBED BY JEWISH LAW, except that they believe in Christ.”

Around 135 A.D., a major uprising occurred in Jerusalem known as the Bar Kochba revolt.  The Roman emperor Hadrian ruthlessly suppressed this rebellion among the Jews and persecuted them on a scale not witnessed since the days of Antiochus IV (Ephiphanes).  It was about this time, according to Epiphanius, that the controversy arose over the correct date of Passover.  Prior to that time, Christians had practiced the Jewish Passover. In fact, The Apostolic Constitutions, one of the earliest Church documents of the late first century, states:

“You shall not change the calculation of the time (of Passover), but you shall celebrate it AT THE SAME TIME AS YOUR BRETHREN WHO CAME OUT OF THE CIRCUMCISION.WITH THEM OBSERVE THE PASSOVER” (Adversus Haereses, p. 42, 357-358).

This is really overwhelming early first-century evidence that the original Christians, especially those connected with the Jerusalem Church (and of the apostolic tradition of Peter, James, and John), not only continued to observe the Passover, but did so at the historically correct time, indeed keeping it right along with the Jews. 

As the Roman church developed and gained more and more power, it sought to change the Laws of God. Eusebius, the foremost early Church historian, states that Polycarp, a direct disciple of the apostle John and bishop of Smyrna, strongly resisted the introduction of Easter by Rome in place of the Passover.In 154 A.D., he visited Rome and was confronted by bishop Anicetus. The tide of Easter adherents was on the rise, and Anicetus was in the forefront of a movement to replace Passover with this pagan festival. Notice Eusebius’ report:

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe it (Passover), because he had ALWAYS observed it with John, the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the apostles, with whom he associated; and neither did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, who said he was bound to follow the customs of the presbyters before him” (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, p. 134).

Late in the second century, this same conflict broke out once again. This time the principle opponents were Victor of Rome, who stood in favor of the adoption of the Easter tradition, and Polycrates, pupil of Polycarp and bishop of Ephesus, who strongly opposed the imposition of this pagan festival.In the controversy, Iranaeus, bishop of Lyon, attempted to act as an intermediary.  He sternly warned Victor not to break the unity with the “many bishops of Asia and the east WHO WITH THE JEWS CELEBRATE THE PASSOVER” (Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers, III, p. 370).

Unfortunately, Polycrates was just as unsuccessful as his predecessor had been in persuading the Roman church to embrace the truth of Scripture.  The truth did not mean anything to Rome – only power, money, and influence. J. B. Lightfoot points out in his excellent work, The Apostolic Fathers:

“In the Paschal controversy of the second century, the bishops of Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre, and Ptolemais ranged themselves not with Asia Minor, which regulated the Easter festival by THE JEWISH PASSOVER, but with Rome and Alexandria, thus avoiding even the semblance of Judaism” (Vol. 2, part 1, p. 88).

The Asian Churches of God were strongly adhering to the Jewish Passover date and were resisting the introduction of Easter, a tradition that came from paganism and long pre-dated Christianity. It is a sad commentary that by the end of the 2nd century even Jerusalem and Caesarea capitulated and sided with Rome on this crucial question. Indeed, Marcus Righetti states that Rome and Alexandria “having eliminated the Judaizing Quartodeciman tradition, REPUDIATED EVEN THE JEWISH CALCULATIONS, making their own computations, since such dependence upon the Jews must have appeared humiliating” (From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 206).

By 325 A.D., at the Council of Nicea, held during the reign of Constantine, anti-Semitism reached its peak in the Roman empire. The emperor expressed his sentiment very concisely in the following statement:

“It appears an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast (Easter) we should follow the PRACTICE OF THE JEWS . . . Let us have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd . . . All should unite in desiring that which sound reason appears to demand, and in AVOIDING ALL PARTICIPATION IN THE PERJURED CONDUCT OF THE JEWS” (Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, III, p. 18-19).

During the first two hundred years of the current era, the early New Testament Church, which began so pure and innocent, became perverted, being infiltrated by false teachers who eventually took over the affairs of the ostensible church, putting out those who resisted their encroaching power.  They were gradually able to impose their will on virtually all local churches. The Council of Nicea gave its final statement on the subject of the Easter-Passover as follows.  It is a very telling confession:

“All the brethren in the East (primarily Asia Minor) who formerly celebrated PASSOVER WITH THE JEWS, will henceforth keep it at the SAME TIME AS THE ROMANS” (Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd, I, p. 525).

As a final source, notice what Alexander Hislop states in his book The Two Babylons. He is right on target when he says:

“The festival, of which we read in Church history, under the name of Easter, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Roman Church, and at the same time was not known by any such name as Easter.  It was called Pasch or THE PASSOVER . . . That festival AGREED ORIGINALLY WITH THE TIME OF THE JEWISH PASSOVER, when Christ was crucified . . . that festival was not idolatrous, and it was preceded by no Lent” (p. 104).

By the time of the Council of Laodicea in 364 A.D., both the Passover and the weekly Sabbath were completely abolished by the Roman Catholic Church.  It was a masterstroke of Satanic proportions, and nearly succeeded in eradicating the pure truth in that era. Thankfully, some withstood the onslaught of Rome, and we have vestiges of their fight.  It is a part of the great legacy that has come down to we believers today.  It would be a shame if we capitulated as did our former brethren of old.

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