Concerning the Date of Pascha and the First Ecumenical Council

By Archbishop Peter LíHuillier

From the chapter, "The Council of Nicea," in  The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils

(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirís Seminary Press, 1996) pp. 19-26.

This is made available by permission of St. Vladimirís Seminary Press.

[Though footnote numbers have been left in the text, those interested in the actual references should refer to the original text.]

Background of the Paschal Issue

   According to its agenda, the council was also supposed to revolve the thorny problem about the date of Pascha. [28] The first controversy about Pascha shook the Church in the Second century: the Asiatic communities celebrated the great feast on the fourteenth of whatever the day of the week it might fall. [29] 0ther churches which followed the Asiatic practice finally adopted the general usage. From then on there was only a minority who refused to conform. These Quartodecimens, as they were called, constituted tiny dissident groups whose followers at least later were received into the catholic Church by unction with chrism after renouncing their former position. [30] During the debates raised by the particular customs of the Asiatics, no accused them of being Judaizers because no one questioned the method of calculating the Jewish Passover; it was by this method that everyone calculated the annual date of the great Christian feast. However, using the Jewish method of calculation soon raised its own questions. After the crushing defeat of the revolt of Simon Bar Kochba in 135, Judaism, in fact, lost its contact with Palestine. Now if the Bible clearly indicates when to celebrate Passover, it makes no explicit reference to the equinox, but, looking forward to the expected offering of the first fruits of the harvest, a celebration before this time would have been impossible. [31] Such a criterion, though, lost its exactness with the disappearance of a geographical center, and a variety of calculations began to be used, producing contrasting results.

   At the end of the second century or the beginning of the third Jewish authorities established a new system for fixing the date of Passover. This new system did not take the vernal equinox into account, so that once every three years Passover came before it. [32] Many Christians were troubled by this: why, they asked, should they celebrate the memorial of the passion and resurrection on the basis of a calendar calculation that was not in use in the time of Jesus? Then again, in the new Jewish System, following a calculation based on only on the equinox, there could be a double anomaly: Passover could be celebrated twice in one twelve month period, that is, from one vernal equinox to the next, or it could not be celebrated at all from one to the other. On the whole, Christians gave great weight to the relation between Pascha and the vernal equinox because the time of the passion itself was linked to the six days of Creation. [33]

   Moreover, as the distance between synagogue and the Church grew, it seemed abnormal to the majority of Christians to depend on the Jews for the determination of the date of Pascha. This feeling provoked many authors to write works during the third century, West as well as East. [34] Thus an Alexandrian scientist, Anatolius, who became bishop of Laodicea in Syria, used a cycle of nineteen years, discovered by the Athenian astronomer Meto in 432 BC, to determine the date of Pascha. [35] This cycle was to be imposed on the whole Christian world later on, but according to this system, Pascha was always celebrated after the vernal equinox.

   At the beginning of the fourth century, the Jews modified their method of calculating Passover so that all the possible dates of the feast would fall in the single month of March; this change gave greater weight to the calculation which favored having Passover before the equinox. [36] However, while the majority of churches had long since stopped following the Jewish method of dating Passover, a relatively strong minority around Antioch continued to follow it. The followers of this practice attributed the following saying to the apostles: "As for you, do not make calculations. But when your brothers of the circumcision celebrate their Passover, celebrate yours also...and even if they are wrong in their calculation, do not worry about it." [37]

  Alongside this important difference, there existed, sometimes, slight variations in the date of Pascha between Rome and Alexandria. [38] In 314, the Council of Arles suggested that the bishop of Rome indicate the annual date of the feast to all the churches. [39] The emperor Constantine was not only preoccupied by the disagreement over the divine nature of the Logos but also by the different dates of Pascha. According to the historian Sozomen, he may have sent Bishop Ossius of Cordova to Alexandria to examine these two problems. [40]

The Issue and the Council at Nicea

   The whole affair was thus submitted to the fathers gathered in Nicea. No authentic acts of the council exist. If there were any minutes of the meetings taken, they have not survived. The only documents unquestionably coming from the council are the symbol of faith, the twenty canons, the certainly incomplete list of members, and a synodal letter addressed to the Church of Alexandria. [41] The document about Pascha which John the Scholastic made into an appendix to the Synagoge and which some authorities identify with the decree that the fathers of the Council of Antioch referred to is not, properly speaking, a falsification; it is a redactional arrangement, of unknown origin, compiled from authentic documents which themselves have come down to us. [42] As such, this document does not tell us much more than the originals themselves. Here is the content of the text:

    From the holy council of Nicea concerning the
    holy Pascha: Thus we have put into effect the opinion of
    everyone gathered together at the holy council in the time
    of the pious and great emperor Constantine who not only
    convoked the undersigned bishops to give peace to our
    nation but also attended the meetings himself; he
    examined with them what was good for the catholic 
    Church. Therefore, after having examined the question of
    the duty of the whole Church under heaven to celebrate
    Pascha on the same date, we found that the three parts of
    the universe were agreed with the Romans and the
    Alexandrians; only one eastern region disagreed. It was
    judged good and proper, all questions and contradictions
    being left aside, that the eastern brothers follow the
    example of the Romans and Alexandrians and all the
    others so that everyone should let their prayers rise to
    heaven on one single day of holy Pascha.  And all
    easterners who had a different practice signed the
    document. [43]

Was there a written document, a decree, whose text may have been lost? It is difficult to give a categorical answer. If there was a real decree, it is hard to understand how such an important document could have gotten lost while the twenty conciliar canons were preserved. It is true that the Council of Antioch mentioned [44] In addition, St, Athanasius in his De synodis made reference to a text, unknown elsewhere, which began with the words: [45] These witnesses are to be taken seriously because of their origin and their antiquity. The Council of Antioch which issued the canon about Pascha must not be confused with the synodus in encaenis which took place in that city in 341. It was held ten years earlier, putting it very close to Nicea in time. [46] But the term oros could have had the meaning of "decision," "adopted measure," and did not necessarily imply a written decree. As for the reference found in the De synodis written in 339, it is much too vague for us to deduce that it referred to the supposed decree. A passage from the Panarion of St. Epiphanius established a distinction among the decisions made by the fathers of Nicea:

     At the time of the council, they issued some
    ecclesiastical rulings; but at the same time concerning
    Pascha, they prescribed unity and agreement on the holy
    and very virtuous Day of God. [47]

   It seems clear that, as with the Meletian schism, there was not a decree, as such, about one uniform date for Pascha. Nonetheless, it is possible on the basis of certain testimony to know what was decided on this question. The synodal letter to the Church of Alexandria stated the following:

    All our eastern brothers who up till now have not been in
    agreement with the Romans or you or with all those who
    from the beginning have done as you do, will henceforth
    celebrate Pascha at the same time as you. [48]

The circular letter of the emperor Constantine to the churches about the Council of Nicea, of course, touched on the paschal question and indicated the solution arrived at: [49]

    Christian Pascha must be celebrated on the same day by
    everyone; and for the calculation of the date, no reference
    should be made to the Jews. Such would be humiliating
    and moreover it is possible for them to have two
    Passovers in one single year. [We have seen what this
    assertion signified.] Consequently, the churches must
    conform to the practice followed by Rome, Africa, Italy,
    Egypt, Spain, Gaul, Britain, Libya, Greece, Asia, Pontus,
    and Cilicia.

St. Athanasius himself cited Cilicia as one of the regions where the date of Pascha was calculated according to the Jewish method. [50] In fact, different practices existed there, as in other places, as we learn from Socrates. [51] Canon I of the Council of Antioch mentioned the ruling of Nicea without making the wording precise; this council threatened grave sanctions - excommunication for laymen, deposition for clergy - against anyone who henceforth contravened this ruling celebrating Pascha "with the Jews." The Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in the second half of the fourth century, shows us to what extent the text of the earlier Didascalia was reworked on the question of Pascha so it would harmonize with Nicea. We read:

    You, brothers, celebrate Pascha with minute care
    according to the equinox so as not to commemorate the
    Passion two times in one year. In one year, you will
    remember only one time him who suffered only once and
    you will no longer seek to celebrate with the Jews. [52]

The Canons of the Holy Apostles found at the end of the Apostolic -Constitutions came out of the same north Syrian milieu. Canon 7 declares: "If a bishop, a priest, or a deacon celebrates the holy day of Pascha before the vernal equinox. with the Jews. let him be deposed." [53] St. Epiphanius, refining the position on Pascha taken by the Audian sect, reminds us of the three principles which must guide the orthodox in determining the date of Pascha: (1) the full moon, (2) the equinox, and (3) Sunday. [54]

   We can, therefore, reconstruct the elements of the decision of the first ecumenical council on Pascha in the following way: (1) This feast must be celebrated on the same Sunday by all the churches. (2) It must take into account the full moon that follows the vernal equinox. (3) Consequently, the eastern churches who followed the Jews in calculating the date must abandon this usage. However, the council did not enter into details of the method of calculation and, therefore, did not impose the use of the nineteen-year cycle. As Professor D.M. Ogitsky correctly notes,

     a detailed and exhaustive ordering of all the technical
    aspects of the computation of Pascha (including the
    problems raised by the inexactness of the Julian calendar
    was not in the competence of the council. [55]

However, little by little the idea was introduced that the Alexandrian cycle of nineteen years had been sanctioned by the fathers of Nicea. It seems that this was already the opinion of St. Ambrose. 56] This belief was definitively implanted by the beginning of the sixth century. Dionysius Exiguus affirmed in no uncertain terms that the cycle in question had been established by the fathers of Nicea non tam pertitia saeculari quam Sancti Spiritus illustratione. [57] In the seventh century, the author of the Chronicon Paschale maintained that this cycle, which he called "admirable and worthy of eternal memory," had been adopted by the first ecumenical council under divine inspiration. [58] Dionysiusí influence in the West was such that the cycle of nineteen years spread everywhere; by the reign of Charlemagne, it had been imposed on the whole of Latin Christianity. From then on, there was complete agreement about the date of Pascha between the Latin West and the Byzantine East. This situation was maintained until 1582 when the Roman Catholic Church introduced the Gregorian calendar.

   The refusal to celebrate Pascha "with the Jews" (meta ton Ioudaioun) meant that, in the ancient canonical texts, we were not to celebrate this feast by basing its date on the method of calculation of the Jews. But, contrary to what was believed later, this refusal in no way was aimed at avoiding an accidental celebrating of Pascha and Passover together. This is clearly shown by the fact that during the fourth century after Nicea, Christian and Jewish Paschas coincided several times.[59] St. Athanasius, speaking of those who followed the Jewish method of calculating the date of Pascha and who were later called the Protopaschites, did not say that they celebrated this feast on the same day as the Jews but only during the same period. [60] In the Middle Ages, when it became impossible to celebrate the Jewish and Christian Paschas together because of the loss of time in the Julian calendar, the idea that a concelebration of the feasts had been forbidden by church law was generally accepted; this idea, however, was based on a literal but erroneous understanding of the expression meta ton Ioudaion. Thus Zonaras in commenting on canon 7 of the Holy Apostles stated concerning the Jews that their non-festal Pascha must come first and then our Pascha should follow. [61] Matthew Blastares, who summed up the knowledge and opinions of his time on the Pascha question, indicated that one of the norms to follow in determining the date of Pascha is the non-coincidence of Pascha and Passover. [62]

   The decisions of the Council of Nicea to bring the Protopaschites into line with the general practice ran up against serious resistance. Canon I of Antioch gives us the most ancient evidence on this matter. Theodoret of Cyrus wrote the following about an anchorite named Abraham:

    His simplicity of mind at first led him to celebrate Pascha 
    ahead of time, being apparently ignorant of what the
    fathers of Nicea had stipulated; he wanted to follow the
    ancient usage. Moreover, many others in that time were in
    the same state of ignorance. [63]

In certain cases, it was a conscious refusal to abide by Nicea; such was the case of the Audians. They went so far as to accuse the official Church of having changed the method of calculating the date of Pascha to please the emperor Constantine, which was completely wrong. [64] The Jewish calculation had an unquestioned attraction for the Christian communities of the civil Diocese of the East, especially when the Alexandrian calculation led to a late Pascha, that is, a month after the equinox. That created a real problem. Such was the case in 387 when the Christian Pascha fell on April 25 while the Jewish feast had already been celebrated on March 20. St. John Chrysostom, then a priest in Antioch, gave a speech. He made reference to the decisions of Nicea; and, taking a purely disciplinary point of view, he said that "even if the Church made a mistake, exactness in the observance of times would not be as important as the offense caused by this division and this schism." [65] The late date of Pascha that year also furnished us with a very interesting homily. [66] The author, an unknown easterner, went to great effort to establish the correctness of the equinoxal principal. Here is how he summed up the rules which must be observed:

    In effect, the whole thing is to make sure that the
    fourteenth of the month does not precede the vernal
    equinox, that the Sunday of the resurrection be freed from
    dependence on the fourteenth. It is this that gives 
    problems to those who calculate improperly. It is
    necessary, in effect, that the fourteenth fall in the week
    which precedes the day fixed for the resurrection. If it falls
    in the middle of the week, the solution is easily found; if
    on the contrary, it falls on Sunday, there must be a
    meticulous application because those who do not make a
    careful inquiry sometimes commit the error of believing
    that it is the fifteenth and not the fourteenth. This is
    precisely what has happened in the present case. [67]

This text shows us how in the East the orthodox understood and applied the Nicene ordinance. With time the Protopaschite practice disappeared. Moreover, civil legislation contributed to its fading away; a law of March 21, 413, punished with exile any anyone who celebrated Pascha on a date other than the on a date other than the one of the catholic Church. This stipulation was taken up again in another law of June 8, 423. [68]


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