James Patrick’s Blog

April 13, 2009

Good Thursday? part 7 – Thoughts on the ‘Easter controversy’

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 11:52 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

If we are suggesting a change to a tradition as entrenched as ‘Good Friday’, perhaps it would be helpful to consider the reasons lying behind the ‘Easter controversy’ in the first four centuries of the Early Church.  These might point towards an appropriate solution for how best to apply our discoveries concerning ‘Good Thursday’.

14th of Nisan and Sunday don’t match!
As noted in the first post on the subject of Good Thursday, the alternatives in the second century were either to celebrate Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan (the preference of the churches in Asia Minor, following John the apostle), or to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday (the preference of the other churches led by the church in Rome).  It is little surprise that we are not told in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History how the church in Rome celebrated the days preceding the day of the resurrection.  At some point they must have started celebrating Good Friday as the day of Jesus’ death, hence our modern tradition, but regardless, it was the day of resurrection that provided the climax to their celebrations.

On the other hand, it is a surprise that the controversy focused on the 14th of Nisan, the day of Jesus’ death, rather than the day of His resurrection.  The natural alternative to a celebration on Easter Sunday would be a celebration on the 16th of Nisan, which would be the date of the resurrection and the Feast of Firstfruits if the Early Church had been unanimous that Jesus had died on the sixth day of the week (Friday).  In that case, the special Sabbath on the 15th would have coincided with the normal Sabbath, and the resurrection could be assigned a date in the Jewish calendar also.  The debate would then centre on whether to celebrate the resurrection on a particular date (the Jewish preference) or on a particular day of the week (the Gentile preference).  Yet there is no question that the debate instead focused on the 14th of Nisan, hence the name of the adherents to this tradition as ‘Quartodecimans’.

Most would argue that it was precisely the trend in the church away from its Jewish roots that led to the Easter controversy.  Yet if this were the only issue, the ‘Jewish’ side would have been arguing for the 16th of Nisan as an alternative to the Gentiles’ Easter ‘Sunday’, not the 14th.  One might then perhaps argue instead that the debate was a theological one as well as a cultural one; focused on whether to celebrate the death of Jesus or the resurrection of Jesus: the ‘Jewish’ side preferred to emphasise Jesus’ death, and the ‘Gentile’ side insisted on the resurrection.  It is hard, though, to imagine that either side would try to downplay the significance of the alternative event, and surely all believers must have commemorated both events each year from the beginning.  We cannot get away from the problem of the lack of correspondence between the 14th of Nisan and the Sunday.

Good Thursday explains the two alternatives
I would propose that the solution that makes best sense of the controversy is that initially both ‘sides’ were aware of Jesus having died not on Good Friday but on Good Thursday, and having risen not on the 16th of Nisan but on the 17th.  The key to understanding the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament feasts and prophecies is the fact that on this particular year the special Sabbath on the 15th was followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, so that after Jesus died on the Feast of Passover, he was in the grave for ‘three days and three nights’ and yet still rose on the Feast of Firstfruits, the ‘day after the Sabbath’.  The key to understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection was precisely the way in which the dates of the Jewish calendar and the days of the week happened to intersect that particular year.

Hence the two sides of the ‘Easter Controversy’ reflect these two important lines of evidence – dates and days of the week.  The two types of Sabbath, calendrical and weekly, have been recognised as an important matter for study and observation ever since the institution of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 23:2-4; Numbers 28-29).  It is plausible that in seeking to commemorate an unusual sequence in the calendar on the year Jesus died, disputes would arise over whether to give priority to the dates or to the days of the week.  Neither side would be able to claim to adequately represent the events of that particular year.

Reconstruction of the opposing positions
On the one hand, the churches of Asia Minor insisted that the 14th of Nisan was to be observed as the date of Jesus’ death, because the date of Passover was precisely how the crucifixion gained its significance.  Their problem was that people in their congregations could easily become confused by the Feast of Firstfruits being on the 17th, because Jews almost always observed this feast on the 16th, the day after the special Sabbath.

Their opponents may have also noted that it was the sign of ‘three days and three nights’, following Jonah, that Jesus intended to be understood by the Jewish people as a sign of judgement on them, with merely one generation of forty years as an opportunity for repentance (like Jonah’s forty days).  If believing Jews were being tempted to neglect the three days and three nights in order to celebrate the resurrection on the Feast of Firstfruits, this was ignoring the sign that Jesus intended the Jews in particular to recognise.  The resurrection must be celebrated on the 17th, even though this date was hardly ever actually the Feast of Firstfruits.

On the other hand, the churches led by Rome were convinced that the way to ensure the sequence of days was properly commemorated was to celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday, the ‘first day of the week’, since the fact that the resurrection was on the ‘day after the Sabbath’ was precisely the reason Jesus could fulfil the ‘three days and three nights’ and rise ‘on the third day‘ after His death.  They could then work backwards from this day to celebrate the day Jesus died on the Thursday.  The significance of each day could be taught to believers even if the Jewish dates were not being followed, dates that were impractical for the majority of the Roman empire anyway.

An advantage of this approach was that the first day of the week, ‘the Lord’s Day’, was also the day on which believers met together, and even ‘broke bread’ together in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice (Acts 20:7).  Their opponents, however, may well have observed that by failing to celebrate Jewish festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits at the same time as the Jewish people, the Church stood to lose far more of the significance of these feasts and of Jesus’ fulfilment of them.  As it turned out, history has demonstrated the truth of these concerns, and the majority of the Church is now unaware of the many remarkable ways in which Jesus’ last week fulfilled Scripture.

So we find that a celebration of Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan emphasised the importance of the dates of the Jewish calendar, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the three feasts.  On the other hand, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday emphasised the importance of the days of the week in that particular year, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the ‘three days and three nights’, and the ‘third day’ that the prophets foretold.  Both are important aspects of our commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but both have drawbacks to them that must not be brushed aside.

Where do we go from here?
I propose that the best solution to the ‘Easter controversy’ is precisely the one demonstrated in the dispute of Polycarp and Anicetus around 150AD and appealed to by Irenaeus against Victor at the end of that century.  The significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection hangs on the way the calendar and the days of the week happened to coincide on the year Jesus died, and there will only be the occasional year on which it is possible to celebrate the Feast of Firstfruits on the 17th of Nisan.  Some will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the Jewish festivals by commemorating His death on the Passover each year, while others will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the words of the prophets by commemorating His death on a Sunday each year.  As long as each are holding on to the truth of the Gospel accounts and teaching both aspects of Jesus’ fulfilment of Scripture, I see no problem in allowing each stream of churches to celebrate in their own way and on days that are appropriate to them.

I would only urge churches that observe the Jewish feasts to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week that particular year that ensured He fulfilled the sign of Jonah as well as the Feast of Firstfruits.  Likewise, I would urge churches that celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ death on a Thursday that particular year that enabled Him to fulfil the Jewish feasts as well as the words of the prophets.  This may mean that churches have to go against their own traditions to be true to Scripture, but the benefits of understanding Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament far outweigh the inconvenience.

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2 Comments »

  1. Would love to share a study on the topic of the death and resurrection since you seem to have an interest in this topic. This study is two years in the making and it’s the most objective study on this topic to date.

    Please view carefully all that is presented at the following link.

    http://www.thedeathandresurection.com/pdf/the%20death%20and%20resurrection.pdf

    God Bless

    Comment by Todd M. Vetter — September 24, 2009 @ 1:51 am | Reply

  2. This is a very good article on the dates and days. I enjoyed reading it.

    The one caution I have about giving credence to various ‘church observances’ is this:

    When people practice rituals that do not have their original form and meaning, they lose the meaning of the commanded observance. The result is frivolous “religion” (modern “Christianity”) and wide-spread division (re: denominationalism).

    What would be so terrible about the ‘churches’ changing their ‘Eucharist liturgies’ to conform w/the Passover commandment?

    I do not see any commandment anywhere in both the OT & NT which enjoins ‘God’s people’ to observe Sunday, or to observe any other day than what Moses prescribes, as YHWH’s prophet. If anybody knows any commandment that state otherwise, please post it in this forum for me to see.

    Also, let’s keep in mind that “Christians” didn’t exist back then. The seminal ‘apostolic church’ consisted originally mostly of “Jews”. Even Paul’s “gentile churches” started w/mostly “Jews”.

    The simple historical reality/fact is that the ‘Jesus movement’ existed as a political sect in 2nd Temple Israel, and was not spawned in a gentile nation. The apostles were all “Jews”, and followed the 2nd Temple halakah (= regulations). This is all a simple matter of historical law & politics, not “religion” as we know it.

    So what good can come of modern Christianity’s conversion of the Bible into a “religion”, when Christ’s redemption and God’s commandments are a matter of covenant practice/procedure and legal stipulation?

    Just something to think about when considering how far modern churchianity has strayed from apostolic covenant community life … Chris

    Comment by Chris — May 26, 2014 @ 4:30 pm | Reply


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