As we have touched the subject I deem it not unreasonable to say a few words concerning Easter. It appears to me that neither the ancients nor moderns who have affected to follow the Jews, have had any rational foundation for contending so obstinately about it. For they have not taken into consideration the fact that when Judaism was changed into Christianity, the obligation to observe the Mosaic law and the ceremonial types ceased. And the proof of the matter is plain; for no law of Christ permits Christians to imitate the Jews. On the contrary the apostle expressly forbids it; not only rejecting circumcision, but also deprecating contention about festival days. In his epistle to the Galatians he writes, Tell me ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?' And continuing his train of argument, he demonstrates that the Jews were in bondage as servants, but that those who have come to Christ are called into the liberty of sons.' Moreover he exhorts them in no way to regard days, and months, and years.' Again in his epistle to the Colossians he distinctly declares, that such observances are merely shadows: wherefore he says, Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of any holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath-days; which are a shadow of things to come.' The same truths are also confirmed by him in the epistle to the Hebrews in these words: For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.' Neither the apostles, therefore, nor the Gospels, have anywhere imposed the yoke of servitude' on those who have embraced the truth; but have left Easter and every other feast to be honored by the gratitude of the recipients of grace. Wherefore, inasmuch as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labor: each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast: nor do the Gospels and apostles threaten us with any penalty, punishment, or curse for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews. It is merely for the sake of historical accuracy, and for the reproach of the Jews, because they polluted themselves with blood on their very feasts, that it is recorded in the Gospels that our Saviour suffered in the days of unleavened bread.' The aim of the apostles was not to appoint festival days, but to teach a righteous life and piety. And it seems to me that just as many other customs have been established in individual localities according to usage. So also the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter. And that the observance originated not by legislation, but as a custom the facts themselves indicate. In Asia Minor most people kept the fourteenth day of the moon, disregarding the sabbath: yet they never separated from those who did otherwise, until Victor, bishop of Rome, influenced by too ardent a zeal, fulminated a sentence of excommunication against the Quartodecimans in Asia. Wherefore also Irenæus, bishop of Lyons in France, severely censured Victor by letter for his immoderate heat; telling him that although the ancients differed in their celebration of Easter, they did not desist from intercommunion. Also that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who afterwards suffered martyrdom under Gordian, continued to communicate with Anicetus bishop of Rome, although he himself, according to the usage of his native Smyrna, kept Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, as Eusebius attests in the fifth book of his Ecclesiastical History. While therefore some in Asia Minor observed the day above-mentioned, others in the East kept that feast on the sabbath indeed, but differed as regards the month. The former thought the Jews should be followed, though they were not exact: the latter kept Easter after the equinox, refusing to celebrate with the Jews; for,' said they, it ought to be celebrated when the sun is in Aries, in the month called Xanthicus by the Antiochians, and April by the Romans.' In this practice, they averred, they conformed not to the modern Jews, who are mistaken in almost everything, but to the ancients, and to Josephus according to what he has written in the third book of his Jewish Antiquities. Thus these people were at issue among themselves. But all other Christians in the Western parts, and as far as the ocean itself, are found to have celebrated Easter after the equinox, from a very ancient tradition. And in fact these acting in this manner have never disagreed on this subject. It is not true, as some have pretended, that the Synod under Constantine altered this festival: for Constantine himself, writing to those who differed respecting it, recommended that as they were few in number, they could agree with the majority of their brethren. His letter will be found at length in the third book of the Life of Constantine by Eusebius; but the passage in it relative to Easter runs thus:
It is a becoming order which all the churches in the Western, Southern, and Northern parts of the world observe, and some places in the East also. Wherefore all on the present occasion have judged it right, and I have pledged myself that it will have the acquiescence of your prudence, that what is unanimously observed in the city of Rome, throughout Italy, Africa, and the whole of Egypt, in Spain, France, Britain, Libya, and all Greece, the diocese of Asia and Pontus, and Cilicia, your wisdom also will readily embrace; considering not only that the number of churches in the aforesaid places is greater, but also that while there should be a universal concurrence in what is most reasonable, it becomes us to have nothing in common with the perfidious Jews.'
Such is the tenor of the emperor's letter. Moreover the Quartodecimans affirm that the observance of the fourteenth day was delivered to them by the apostle John: while the Romans and those in the Western parts assure us that their usage originated with the apostles Peter and Paul. Neither of these parties however can produce any written testimony in confirmation of what they assert. But that the time of keeping Easter in various places is dependent on usage, I infer from this, that those who agree in faith, differ among themselves on questions of usage. And it will not perhaps be unseasonable to notice here the diversity of customs in the churches. The fasts before Easter will be found to be differently observed among different people. Those at Rome fast three successive weeks before Easter, excepting Saturdays and Sundays. Those in Illyrica and all over Greece and Alexandria observe a fast of six weeks, which they term The forty days' fast.' Others commencing their fast from the seventh week before Easter, and fasting three five days only, and that at intervals, yet call that time The forty days' fast.' It is indeed surprising to me that thus differing in the number of days, they should both give it one common appellation; but some assign one reason for it, and others another, according to their several fancies. One can see also a disagreement about the manner of abstinence from food, as well as about the number of days. Some wholly abstain from things that have life: others feed on fish only of all living creatures: many together with fish, eat fowl also, saying that according to Moses, these were likewise made out of the waters. Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others partake of dry bread only; still others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards take any sort of food without distinction. And among various nations there are other usages, for which innumerable reasons are assigned. Since however no one can produce a written command as an authority, it is evident that the apostles left each one to his own free will in the matter, to the end that each might perform what is good not by constraint or necessity. Such is the difference in the churches on the subject of fasts. Nor is there less variation in regard to religious assemblies. For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this. The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebaïs, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings they partake of the mysteries. At Alexandria again, on the Wednesday in Passion week and on Good Friday, the scriptures are read, and the doctors expound them; and all the usual services are performed in their assemblies, except the celebration of the mysteries. This practice in Alexandria is of great antiquity, for it appears that Origen most commonly taught in the church on those days. He being a very learned teacher in the Sacred Books, and perceiving that the impotence of the law' of Moses was weakened by literal explanation, gave it a spiritual interpretation; declaring that there has never been but one true Passover, which the Saviour celebrated when he hung upon the cross: for that he then vanquished the adverse powers, and erected this as a trophy against the devil. In the same city of Alexandria, readers and chanters are chosen indifferently from the catechumens and the faithful; whereas in all other churches the faithful only are promoted to these offices. I myself, also, learned of another custom in Thessaly. If a clergyman in that country, after taking orders, should sleep with his wife, whom he had legally married before his ordination, he would be degraded. In the East, indeed, all clergymen, and even the bishops themselves, abstain from their wives: but this they do of their own accord, and not by the necessity of any law; for there have been among them many bishops, who have had children by their lawful wives, during their episcopate. It is said that the author of the usage which obtains in Thessaly was Heliodorus bishop of Tricca in that country; under whose name there are love books extant, entitled Ethiopica, which he composed in his youth. The same custom prevails at Thessalonica, and in Macedonia, and in Greece. I have also known of another peculiarity in Thessaly, which is, that they baptize there on the days of Easter only; in consequence of which a very great number of them die without having received baptism. At Antioch in Syria the site of the church is inverted; so that the altar does not face toward the east, but toward the west. In Greece, however, and at Jerusalem and in Thessaly they go to prayers as soon as the candles are lighted, in the same manner as the Novatians do at Constantinople. At Cæsarea likewise, and in Cappadocia, and in Cyprus, the presbyters and bishops expound the Scriptures in the evening, after the candles are lighted. The Novatians of the Hellespont do not perform their prayers altogether in the same manner as those of Constantinople; in most things, however, their usage is similar to that of the prevailing church. In short, it is impossible to find anywhere, among all the sects, two churches which agree exactly in their ritual respecting prayers. At Alexandria no presbyter is allowed to address the public: a regulation which was made after Arius had raised a disturbance in that church. At Rome they fast every Saturday. At Cæsarea of Cappadocia they exclude from communion those who have sinned after baptism as the Novatians do. The same discipline was practiced by the Macedonians in the Hellespont, and by the Quartodecimans in Asia. The Novatians in Phrygia do not admit such as have twice married; but those of Constantinople neither admit nor reject them openly, while in the Western parts they are openly received. This diversity was occasioned, as I imagine, by the bishops who in their respective eras governed the churches; and those who received these several rites and usages, transmitted them as laws to their posterity. However, to give a complete catalogue of all the various customs and ceremonial observances in use throughout every city and country would be difficult -- rather impossible; but the instances we have adduced are sufficient to show that the Easter Festival was from some remote precedent differently celebrated in every particular province. They talk at random therefore who assert that the time of keeping Easter was altered in the Nicene Synod; for the bishops there convened earnestly labored to reduce the first dissenting minority to uniformity of practice with the rest of the people. Now that many differences existed even in the apostolic age of the church occasioned by such subjects, was not unknown even to the apostles themselves, as the book of The Acts testifies. For when they understood that a disturbance occurred among believers on account of a dissension of the Gentiles, having all met together, they promulgated a Divine law, giving it the form of a letter. By this sanction they liberated Christians from the bondage of formal observances, and all vain contention about these things; and they taught them the path of true piety, prescribing such things only as were conducive to its attainment. The epistle itself, which I shall here transcribe, is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles.
The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law; to whom we gave no such commandment: it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same thing by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.'
These things indeed pleased God: for the letter expressly says, It seemed good to the Holy Ghost to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.' There are nevertheless some persons who, disregarding these precepts, suppose all fornication to be an indifferent matter; but contend about holy-days as if their lives were at stake, thus contravening the commands of God, and legislating for themselves, and making of none effect the decree of the apostles: neither do they perceive that they are themselves practicing the contrary to those things which God approved. It is possible easily to extend our discourse respecting Easter, and demonstrate that the Jews observe no exact rule either in the time or manner of celebrating the paschal solemnity: and that the Samaritans, who are an offshoot from the Jews, always celebrate this festival after the equinox. But this subject would require a distinct and copious treatise: I shall therefore merely add, that those who affect so much to imitate the Jews, and are so very anxious about an accurate observance of types, ought to depart from them in no particular. For if they have chosen to be so correct, they must not only observe days and months, but all other things also, which Christ (who was made under the law') did in the manner of the Jews; or which he unjustly suffered from them; or wrought typically for the good of all men. He entered into a ship and taught. He ordered the Passover to be made ready in an upper room. He commanded an ass that was tied to be loosed. He proposed a man bearing a pitcher of water as a sign to them for hastening their preparations for the Passover. [He did] an infinite number of other things of this nature which are recorded in the gospels. And yet those who suppose themselves to be justified by keeping this feast, would think it absurd to observe any of these things in a bodily manner. For no doctor ever dreams of going to preach from a ship -- no person imagines it necessary to go up into an upper room to celebrate the Passover there -- they never tie, and then loose an ass again -- and finally no one enjoins another to carry a pitcher of water, in order that the symbols might be fulfilled. They have justly regarded such things as savoring rather of Judaism: for the Jews are more solicitous about outward solemnities than the obedience of the heart; and therefore are they under the curse, because they do not discern the spiritual bearing of the Mosaic law, but rest in its types and shadows. Those who favor the Jews admit the allegorical meaning of these things; and yet they wage a deadly warfare against the observance of days and months, without applying to them a similar sense: thus do they necessarily involve themselves in a common condemnation with the Jews.
But enough I think has been said concerning these things. Let us now return to the subject we were previously treating of, the fact that the Church once divided did not stay with that division, but that those separated were again divided among themselves, taking occasion from the most trivial grounds. The Novatians, as I have stated, were divided among themselves on account of the feast of Easter, the controversy not being restricted to one point only. For in the different provinces some took one view of the question, and some another, disagreeing not only about the month, but the days of the week also, and other unimportant matters; in some places they hold separate assemblies because of it, in others they unite in mutual communion.