The Easter controversy is a series of controversies about the proper date to celebrate Easter. There are four distinct phases of the dispute.
This was mainly concerned with whether Christians should follow Old Testament practices. Eusebius of Caesarea (Hist. Eccl., V, xxiii) wrote:
- "A question of no small importance arose at that time [i.e. the time of Pope Victor I, about A.D. 190]. The dioceses of all Asia [the Eastern Mediterranean], 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 always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch [epi tes tou soteriou Pascha heortes], 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."
Quartodecimanism ("fourteenism", derived from Latin) refers to the practice of fixing the celebration of Passover for Christians on the fourteenth day of Nisan in the Old Testament's Hebrew Calendar (for example, in Latin "quarta decima"). This was the original method of fixing the date of the Passover, which is to be a "perpetual ordinance". According to the Gospel of John, this was the Friday that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the Synoptic Gospels place the Friday on 15 Nisan.
A letter of St. Irenaeus shows that the diversity of practice regarding Easter had existed at least from the time of Pope Sixtus I (c. 120). Further, Irenaeus states that St. Polycarp, who like the other Eastern Christians, kept Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, whatever day of the week that might be, following therein the tradition which he claimed to have derived from St. John the Apostle.
About 195, Pope Victor I excommunicated the Quartodecimans. Though this was regarded as immoderate — Origen in the "Philosophumena" (VIII, xviii) seems to regard them as a mere handful of wrong-headed nonconformists — the practice was forced underground.
The second stage in the Easter controversy centres round the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular phase of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself.
The Syrian Christians always held their Easter festival on the Sunday after the Jews kept their Pasch. On the other hand at Alexandria, and seemingly throughout the rest of the Roman Empire, the Christians calculated the time of Easter for themselves, paying no attention to the Jews. In this way the date of Easter as kept at Alexandria and Antioch did not always agree; for the Jews, upon whom Antioch depended, adopted very arbitrary methods of intercalating embolismic months (see CALENDAR, Bol. II, p. 158) before they celebrated Nisan, the first spring month, on the fourteenth day of which the paschal lamb was killed. In particular we learn that they had become neglectful (or at least the Christians of Rome and Alexandria declared they were neglectful) of the law that the fourteenth of Nisan must never precede the equinox. The Alexandrians, on the other hand, accepted it as a first principle that the Sunday to be kept as Easter Day must necessarily occur after the vernal equinox, then identified with 21 March of the Julian Calendar.
The Council of Nicaea, however, did not declare the Alexandrian or Roman calculations as normative. Instead, the council gave the Bishop of Alexandria the privilege of announcing annually the date of Christian Passover to the Roman curia. Although the synod undertook the regulation of the dating of Christian Passover, it contented itself with communicating its decision to the different dioceses, instead of establishing a canon. Its exact words were not preserved, but from scattered notices the council ruled:
- that Easter must be celebrated by all throughout the world on the same Sunday;
- that this Sunday must follow the fourteenth day of the paschal moon;
- that that moon was to be accounted the paschal moon whose fourteenth day followed the spring equinox;
- that some provision should be made, probably by the Church of Alexandria as best skilled in astronomical calculations, for determining the proper date of Easter and communicating it to the rest of the world
The Roman missionaries coming to England in the time of St. Gregory the Great found the British Christians, the representatives of that Christianity which had been introduced into Britain during the period of the Roman occupation, still adhering to an ancient system of Easter computation which Rome itself had laid aside. The British and Irish Christians were not Quartodecimans, for they kept the Easter festival upon a Sunday. They are supposed (e.g. by Krusch) to have observed an 84-year cycle and not the 532-year cycle of Victorius which was adopted in Gaul, but the most recent investigator of the question (Schwartz, p. 103) declares it to be impossible to determine what system they followed and himself inclines to the opinion that they derived their rule for the determining of Easter direct from Asia Minor.
The World Council of Churches proposed a reform of the method of determining the date of Easter at a summit in Aleppo, Syria, in 1997: Easter would be defined as the first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem. The reform would have been implemented starting in 2001, since in that year the Eastern and Western dates of Easter would coincide. This reform has not yet been implemented.