Quartodecimanism (derived from the Vulgate Latin: quarta decima, meaning fourteen) refers to the custom of Christians celebrating Passover on the 14th day of Nisan (14 of Abib in the Old Testament's Hebrew Calendar) (). This was the original method of fixing the date of the Passover, which was said to be a "perpetual ordinance" ().
According to the Gospel of John (for example ), this was the Friday that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the Synoptic Gospels place the Friday on 15 Nisan. A controversy arose concerning whether it should also be a resurrection holiday, and thus whether it should instead be celebrated on one particular Sunday each year, which is now the floating holiday that is commonly called Easter Sunday.
Very early in the life of the Church, disputes arose as to which date Pascha (Easter) should be celebrated. This dispute came to be known as the Paschal/Easter or Quartodecimanism controversy.
The dispute involved the date on which Pascha should be celebrated. The practice in the East at the time was for the pre-Pascha fast to end on the 14th day of Nisan, in accordance with the rules under the Hebrew calendar. The Eastern custom became known as Quartodecimanism among the Latins. Melito of Sardis was a notable Quartodeciman.
The Roman practice was to continue the fast until the Sunday following. An objection to the 14th of Nisan date was that it could fall on any day of the week and the Roman Church wished to associate Pascha with Sunday (regardless of the day of the calendar) and to sever its association with Jewish practices. Based on the writings of Irenaeus, the Roman Church had celebrated Passover on a Sunday at least since the time of Bishop Xystus or Sixtus I, 115-125 A.D.
According to a rather confused account by the early church historian Sozomen, both sides claimed Apostolic authority for their traditions. A number of ecclesiastical historians, primarily Eusebius, claimed that bishop Polycarp of Smyrna in Asia Minor, a disciple of John the Evangelist observed Pascha on 14 Nisan. He disputed the computation of the date with bishop Anicetus of Rome as to when the pre-Pascha fast should end. Shortly after Anicetus became bishop of Rome in about AD 155, Polycarp visited Rome and among the topics discussed was this divergence of custom. Neither Polycarp nor Anicetus was able to persuade the other to his position, but neither did they consider the matter of sufficient importance to justify a schism, so they parted in peace leaving the question unsettled.
Irenaeus, who observed the "first Sunday" rule, notes of Polycarp: "For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forgo the observance [of his Nisan 14 practice] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of the Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant." (c. AD 180; 1.569 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). Irenaeus also notes that this was not only Polycarp's practice, but was the practice of John the disciple and the other apostles that Polycarp knew.
Polycrates of Ephesus (c. AD 190) emphatically notes this is the tradition passed down to him, that Passover and Unleavened Bread were kept on 14 Nisan in accord with the local interpretation of the dating of Passover: "As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord.... These all kept Pascha (Easter) on the 14th day, in accordance with the Gospel.... 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" (8.773, 8.744 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). These Quartodeciman Christians kept a Passover ceremony, with the bread and wine symbolizing Jesus as being the lamb of God.
The 14 Nisan practice, which was strong among the churches of Asia Minor, becomes less common as the desire for Church unity on the question came to favor the majority Roman practice. By the 3rd century the Church in general, which had become gentile-dominated and wishing to further distinguish itself from Jewish practices, began a tone of rhetoric against 14 Nisan/Passover date (e.g. Anatolius of Laodicea, c. AD 270; 6.148,6.149 "Ante-Nicene Church Fathers"). The tradition that Pascha was to be celebrated "not with the Jews" meant that Pascha was not to be celebrated on 14 Nisan.
The aged Apostolic Father Polycarp visited Rome circa in AD 154, at which time he discussed the difference in Paschal calculation with Bishop Anicetus and reached an amicable compromise. In addition Polycrates of Ephesus and Irenaeus wrote in support of the Quartodecimans. Irenaeus also noted that "Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect". (Eusebius H.E. 5.24.17)
In the end, a uniform method of computing the date of Pascha (Easter) was not formally addressed until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (see below), although by that time the Roman Church position had spread to most churches.
Despite this schism, several Quartodecimans who died prior to the excommunication under Victor I, including Melito of Sardis and Polycarp, are recognized as Saints by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Another recognized Catholic saint, Apollinaris, wrote,
The excommunication was rescinded and the two sides reconciled upon the intervention of bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, who reminded Victor of the tolerant precedent that had been established earlier.
A Sunday date was selected (regardless of the day of the calendar), instead of Nisan 14 (which can fall on any day of the week).
Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History 1.9 records The Epistle of the Emperor Constantine, concerning the matters transacted at the Council, addressed to those Bishops who were not present:
The feast of the resurrection was thenceforth required to be celebrated everywhere on a Sunday, and never on the day of the Jewish passover, but always after the fourteenth of Nisan, on the Sunday after the first vernal full moon. The leading motive for this regulation was opposition to Judaism, which had dishonored the passover by the crucifixion of the Lord. ... At Nicaea, therefore, the Roman and Alexandrian usage with respect to Easter triumphed, and the Judaizing practice of the Quartodecimanians, who always celebrated Easter on the fourteenth of Nisan, became thenceforth a heresy. Yet that practice continued in many parts of the East, and in the time of Epiphanius, about a.d. 400, there were many, Quartodecimanians, who, as he says, were orthodox, indeed, in doctrine, but in ritual were addicted to Jewish fables, and built upon the principle: “Cursed is every one who does not keep his passover on the fourteenth of Nisan.” They kept the day with the Communion and with fasting till three o’clock.
Yet they were divided into several parties among themselves. A peculiar offshoot of the Quartodecimanians was the rigidly ascetic Audians, who likewise held that the passover must be kept at the very same time (not after the same manner) with the Jews, on the fourteenth of Nisan, and for their authority appealed to their edition of the Apostolic Constitutions. And even in the orthodox church these measures did not secure entire uniformity. For the council of Nicaea, probably from prudence, passed by the question of the Roman and Alexandrian computation of Easter. At least the Acts contain no reference to it. At all events this difference remained: that Rome, afterward as before, fixed the vernal equinox, the terminus a quo of the Easter full moon, on the 18th of March, while Alexandria placed it correctly on the 21st. It thus occurred, that the Latins, the very year after the Nicene council, and again in the years 330, 333, 340, 341, 343, varied from the Alexandrians in the time of keeping Easter.
On this account the council of Sardica, as evident in the recently discovered Paschal Epistles of Athanasius, took the Easter question again in hand, and brought about, by mutual concessions, a compromise for the ensuing fifty years, but without permanent result. In 387 the difference of the Egyptian and the Roman Easter amounted to fully five weeks. Later attempts also to adjust the matter were in vain, until the monk Dionysius Exiguus, the author of our Christian calendar, succeeded in harmonizing the computation of Easter on the basis of the true Alexandrian reckoning; except that the Gallican and British Christians adhered still longer to the old custom, and thus fell into conflict with the Anglo-Saxon [one of the issues addressed at the Synod of Whitby ]. The introduction of the improved Gregorian calendar in the Western church in 1582 again produced discrepancy; the Eastern and Russian church adhered to the Julian calendar, and is consequently now about twelve days behind ... [the Western Church]. According to the Gregorian calendar, which does not divide the months with astronomical exactness, it sometimes happens that the Paschal full moon is put a couple of hours too early, and the Christian Easter, as was the case in 1825, coincides with the Jewish Passover, against the express order of the council of Nicaea."
The majority of Christians abide by the decision of Nicaea and observe Easter (Pascha, that is, Passover) on a Sunday, known as Easter Sunday, although the method for calculating which Sunday varies. See also Computus and Reform of the date of Easter.
There also exist Christian groups such as Torah-submissive Christians that adhere to Quartodeciman observance and celebrate a Christian Passover on the 14th of Nisan. They typically use unleavened bread and wine, but vary on whether or not the traditional Jewish Passover Seder is done. (In Messianic Judaism, Passover is generally observed according to Jewish practice.) These groups typically claim to trace their history back to the Quartodecimans of the second century, citing historical evidence. There are, however, many scholars of ecclesiastical history that believe that the historical evidence cited is not firm enough to prove that claim of continuance.