Created Monday, June 13, 2005

Eusebius on
The Passover Controversy


Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History: Book V (5):

Chapter 23: The Question then agitated concerning the Passover
Chapter 24: The Disagreement in Asia
Chapter 25: How All came to an Agreement respecting the Passover

Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History: Book VI (6):
Chapter 9: The Miracles of Narcissus

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This event that took place in the 2nd century is a remarkable point in Christianity's history. 1st of all, the way it is ultimately handled should have been the way a number of disputes were handled but sadly, were not. It also shows some dangers that would later get out of hand. Also quite notable was how much different churches had come to vary on their understanding and practice on a matter that was far from being a life or death matter. So let's take a look and see what happened. [{My comments will be in brackets and color within the work of Eusebius like this.}]

Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History: Book V (5):

Chapter 23: The Question then agitated concerning the Passover
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A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour's passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, 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.

[{ Eusebius says this question was of no small importance. But he couldn't be more wrong as we shall see. The main objection was the day of observance, not whether it was observed or not. All churches typically gather every Sunday, the first day of the week and the day Jesus was resurrected. They would actually begin this in the evening preceding day break of Sunday, Saturday night, when Sunday began according to Jewish and Christian observance of days and nights. I'll get more into the issue as Eusebius does. There was clearly difference between the churches of the east and those of the west, the rest. The east and the west would continue to disagree even more with time until a complete divide would occur with the great schism in the 900's. }]

Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord's day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only. There is still extant a writing of those who were then assembled in Palestine, over whom Theophilus, bishop of Caesarea, and Narcissus, bishop of Jerusalem, presided. And there is also another writing extant of those who were assembled at Rome to consider the same question, which bears the name of Bishop Victor; also of the bishops in Pontus over whom Palmas, as the oldest, presided; and of the parishes in Gaul of which Irenaeus was bishop, and of those in Osrhoene and the cities there; and a personal letter of Bacchylus, bishop of the church at Corinth, and of a great many others, who uttered the same opinion and judgment, and cast the same vote. And that which has been given above was their unanimous decision.

[{ Notice how all the churches, excluding those of the east, unanimously declared the churches of the east to be wrong. The numbers and unity would definitely favor the west but there is a problem they are not considering as we shall see. They seem kind of arrogant in their conviction. I believe that should have been tempered by facts coming up. }]

Chapter 24: The Disagreement in Asia
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But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him: "We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord's coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead? All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For 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. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ' We ought to obey God rather than man.' "

[{ I absolutely love the spirit of Polycrates and the churches of the east. How admirable their self guided faithfulness. They don't gie a damn what the other churches think or do. The eastern churches know what they were told and have always observed it that way and have the scriptures to help confirm it as well. It is of no concern to them if the other churches want to condemn them for isn't that what was done to Jesus and the prophets by the leaders of their time?!

But more importantly, their reasons for remaining steadfast against the west are pretty convincing as I see it. First, the passover was started on the 14th in the Old Testament and Jesus had observed the passover with his disciples on the 14th, in order to fulfill and mirror what went on in the original passover led by Moses. This was in contrast to the typical bread and wine shared in remembrance of Jesus' resurrection on the 1st day of the week that was observed every week. The east observed that regular ceremony as well as the special one on the 14th. The west apparently did not.

But the last 2 Apostles alive both lived in the East, most notably John, one of the two most prominent Apostles of the 12, Peter being the other. The last recorded miracle noted by the churches was the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyna of the east. Many notables were mentioned. The east had a very convincing argument. They were the last ones to be instructed by an Apostle, John. They should be the most likely to have the correct instruction. But I suspect that perhaps the east had been instructed not contrary to the west but had that one extra day inserted, perhaps as a test of the faithfulness of the east, seeing if they would remain loyal to their instruction, even in the face of the threat of expulsion from the rest of the churches. Indeed, if that was the case, they succeeded in doing so.

But I think in view of the weight of evidence supporting the east, the west should have been a little more slow and cautious about condemning the east in their observances of the faith. More sensible minds would prevail in the long run but it came close to a disaster initially as we'll see next. }]

He then writes of all the bishops who were present with him and thought as he did. His words are as follows: "I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus." Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day.

[{ Victor, Bishop, not Pope, of the church of Rome, wanted to excommunicate all the churches of the east who stood together and refused to stop practicing as they believe right to do. For one, given how the other western churches responded, Victor had no right or authority to act as he did. Rome was not the leader or ruler over the rest of the churches. But this is no doubt the beginning of Roman bishops to try to lay claim to such authority and power. But the other churches, led primarily by Irenaeus, one of the more famous writers of the 2nd century, stopped Victor cold in his tracks and reproved him for his stupidity, presumptuousness, and arrogance, not to mention lack of love. Irenaeus does confirm the observance of the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord on the Lord's day as he puts it, the first day of the week as any Bible can confirm. But there is more. }]

He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom and after many other words he proceeds as follows:

"For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith."

[{ All of the quote of Ienaeus is full of insight and maturity, so lacking in Victor, who clearly is not infalible, for starters. Further, Victor also is involved in the trinity controversy and always seems to be tied up in some mess. he was a real problem on more than one occasion. Good thing he only reigned 10 years in Rome.

Irenaeus points out that there is quite a bit of difference in how various churches observe the things commanded by the Apostles. The day, the manner of observance, the length of observance, there were all sorts of variations throughout the churches. Irenaeus accurately deduces that strict accuracy was quite evidently not observed and variations developed as a result. But I say that the variations were nothing of a very serious nature and that each should behave as they were instructed and handed down as long as they could not detect any disagreement with the Bible. The Bible alone is not very clear on this Lord's day, the day of his resurrection. The only observance that does seem quite clear is the passover meal Jesus shared with the Apostles on the beginning of passover, the 14th. But evidently, according to a couple scriptures that are not as specific and clear as we might like, we have some vague evidence for the 1st day of the week observance that was termed as the breaking of the bread.

What I want to make clear is that we know much more from early writers about what was done and why then we do from the Bible. It is these written traditions that sort of fill in missing information in the Bible. There is enough between the 2 that I, for one, feel comfortable in accepting the whole of the two, together, since neither seems to contradict or forbid the other. But is someone suggested that we only accept what is clearly revealed in the Bible, I have no problem with that.

Paul says to let no man judge you as respects what days you want to observe as special or something like that. If the anniversary of your marriage is something you want to annually observe, fine, it is your choice. If you prefer not to, that is fine to. We can not insist that others observe if it is not clearly indicated in the Bible.

What that means is that the eastern churches of the 2nd century were doing nothing wrong and may have certainly been taught by Philip and John to do this so it was have every legitimate authority of God behind it. But had it not been commanded to the western churches, then that was fine, too. The live and let live attitude, with each person obeying their own conscience is the proper course. This is what Irenaeus showed was important. I believe as regards disputes about the trinity, that this, too, should have been treated more like this passover issue was. It was not hte big issue everyone was making it out to be. Jesus was empowered by the spirit and appointed of all things and could easily said to be divine due to this and the fact that he was due to go back to heaven to resume his position that he formerly had and a lot more.

Christians absorbed all sort of Greek terms, definitions, meanings, and ideas (such as corporeal/incorporeal, substance, essence, onmipotent, monotheisitc, ethereal ) that were not in the Bible or were slightly different from the Bible and these became very important to them. From these came great disputes and divisions among the churches but should not have been.

If the churches could have maintained the attitude that they did with this passover dispute, which would have been a sign that the fruits of the spirit were present. But they were not. But Jesus told us that the devil would sow weeds among the good wheat and corrupt the faith Jesus had started so we should not be surprised by the developments that have taken place through the years. But this instance shows us that things could have been different. They did do it right at least once. }]

He adds to this the following account, which I may properly insert:

"Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, and Plus, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it. But none were ever cast out on account of this form; but the presbyters before thee who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

[{ Did you notice how those who did not observe it at least did not prevent others from doing so? This was proper for what the others were observing , while perhaps not clearly commanded in the Bible, nonetheless did not violate anything in the Bible; but I would say there is a command to do so in the scriptures but that would be another argument for another place.

But what is notable was that this dispute actually came about much earlier in the days of Polycarp. Polycarp had been a hearer of the Apostle John, being in the same church as John. Surely Polycarp should have been able to remember what John had taught and observed. So I believe there is a good possibility that both sides were acting correctly. The western churches might not have been instructed to observe the 14th day passover whereas perhaps John observed it but it was not because he or those he taught had to but wanted to or they assumed that they were supposed to when really it was just a preference of John's, being present at that original passover of Jesus. Or it could be that the churches of the west had always observed the 1st day, Sunday, and forgot the extra day or that the Apostle who might have taught them was not present during that particular time of spring when that came up.

It is difficult to know what happened to create such a distinct division between one group of churches and the other. But neither side was doing anything outrageous. But I will repeat that it seems to me when Jesus said in Luke, among other places, "Keep doing this in remembrance of me, that this was on the occasion of the passover when he passed the wine and the bread around, symbolizing his blood and body that was shortly to be offered up on their and our behalf. So that would seem to be important to observe and that was the observance of the 14th of Nisan, just after the full moon following the spring equinox. But if they have a different understanding and it is not a serious deviation as I believe this was not a serious deviation, then let it be and they did. What a shame they could not show the same intelligence and spirit of mind later.

The churches still recognized and respected each other as being in the same faith and that was as it should have been. I see much les divide many churches today for they have like many before them, become very intolerant of any deviation of disagreement whatsoever. Sects and divisions are fruits of the flesh. Need I say more?!}]

But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church."

Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches.

Chapter 25: How All came to an Agreement respecting the Passover
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Those in Palestine whom we have recently mentioned, Narcissus and Theophilus, and with them Cassius, bishop of the church of Tyre, and Clarus of the church of Ptolemais, and those who met with them, having stated many things respecting the tradition concerning the passover which had come to them in succession from the apostles, at the close of their writing add these words:

"Endeavor to send copies of our letter to every church, that we may not furnish occasion to those who easily deceive their souls. We show you indeed that also in Alexandria they keep it on the same day that we do. For letters are carried from us to them and from them to us, so that in the same manner and at the same time we keep the sacred day."

[{ I do not assume that they were disputing the day of the Lord's resurrection, which everyone can verify was on the first day of the week, Sunday. This was the passover and those in the Palestine area observed it at the same time as did those in the area of Alexandria so there was some harmony there and also with the Bible. }]

Book VI (6):
Chapter 9: The Miracles of Narcissus
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The citizens of that parish mention many other miracles of Narcissus, on the tradition of the brethren who succeeded him; among which they relate the following wonder as performed by him. They say that the oil once failed while the deacons were watching through the night at the great paschal vigil.

[{ I threw this in as I assume that the "great paschal vigil" was the one Jesus and his disciples observed just before his death. So some were observing it here. And I assume this Narcissus was in Palestine as mentioned just before in chapter 25 just above. }]

This is the end of the work of Eusebius in this article.

Well, I am back to regular text now. This account is good to show how variations had crept into the churches and this particular incident turned out OK, though it nearly derailed. I show this also to demonstrate how trivial differences should be handled and tolerated. There are matters of much more serious concern whereby a dispute should lead to more serious actions such as excommunication such as one who might promote false gods, or free sex or something like that. But at this time, they knew enough to know the difference. This soundness of mind would not last long. Victor as an obvious turning point for even at this time, the trinity was well on its way to being disputed and quarreled over.

I hope we can learn something about priorities and what is important and what is not so that we do not necessarily reject any brothers or sisters in the faith by insisting on what is not necessary or not requiring what is essential such as abstaining from fornication.

But in addition, I believe that it is an obvious requirement to observe the passover of Christ just before his death. The command to "keep doing this in remembrance of me" seems pretty straightforward and clear. I do not understand how anyone can ignore that and clearly the churches of the east and Palestine and Alexandria did not ignore it and observed it. How the west did not come to do this or ignored it is something I do not understand but what I have beyond any shadow of a doubt, is a direct command of Jesus that I must obey to the best of my understanding which happens to come down on the side of the east in this case.

That there was a custom to observe the 1st day of the week as the Lord's day of resurrection is first, accurate, and 2nd, is admitted as happening in the Bible. And we do have the tradition even observed to this very day by the very many churches of Roman Catholic faith as well as the Greek Orthodox eastern churches. But what we do not have is a direct command to keep this ourselves in the Bible. We commit no sin in observing it and maybe there is some good evidence that we should observe it as there does seem to be a united consensus of all the early churches in observing it. But if someone were to confess that they did not keep it because there is no direct Bible command, I would agree with them and respect their abstinence.

But in my own conscience I believe there is enough Biblical evidence to justify its observance. More difficult is to understand how they could neglect the passover date as well. Let your conscience always be your guide!

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