Monday, December 30, 2019
Eusebius, EH.5.23-25: The Quartodeciman Controversy
This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical History: Book 5, chapters 23-25. Listen here.
Notes and Commentary:
These chapters concern the Quartodeciman controversy among early Christians. This controversy involved a dispute as to when the death and resurrection of Christ should be remembered and celebrated by Christians. The churches in the East celebrated on the original Passover date of Christ’s passion, 14 Nissan, regardless of the day of week on which it fell (thus, they were the Quartodecimans). The churches in Rome and the West, however, celebrated on the Sunday after Nissan 14.
Chapter 23 introduces the Quartodeciman controversy, noting that it was ultimately determined “that the mystery of Christ’s resurrection from the dead should be celebrated on no day save Sunday.” Mention is made of a conference convened in Palestine, presided over by Theophilus of Caesarea and Narcissus of Jerusalem. Another statement came from Victor of Rome. Still more statements came from Palmas of Pontus, Irenaeus of Gaul, and Bacchylus of Corinth, among others.
Chapter 24 describes Polycrates as the leader of the Quartodeciman side in the controversy. A document he addressed to Victor of Rome is cited in which he claims the tradition came to him from early luminaries like Philip the Apostle (confusion with Philip the evangelist?), John the Apostle, Melito (described as a eunuch) of Sardis, and others. He claims to be the eighth from his family to serve as a bishop and that all his kinsmen had kept this practice, as he had for 65 years of his Christian life.
In response Victor attempted to excommunicate the Asian churches. Others, like Irenaeus, however, chided Victor for being too harsh and noting that the controversy was not only about the date, but also how it should be observed.
Irenaeus also reminded Victor that past bishops of Rome had been tolerant of this difference with the Eastern churches. He notes, in particular, how Anicetus and Polycarp did not agree on this matter, but it did not disrupt their unity.
Irenaeus thus reflected his name by serving as a peacemaker.
Chapter 25 returns to the decision on this matter by the churches of Palestine under Narcissus and Theophilus, and others. A letter is cited from them which notes that the church at Alexandria also held the same practice as they.
These chapters are interesting on a number of levels. First, the demonstrate an early Christian interest in commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. Second, they demonstrate how the early churches dealt with controversy and threats to their unity. In particular, this controversy shows an early difference between Eastern and Western practices. It is also noteworthy that Victor the Roman bishop has his actions and desires tempered by others, in this case, especially, Irenaeus, who comes off in the narrative as a hero for unity and peacemaking.