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Columbanus and the Celtic Church’s, Quartodeciman (Nisan 14-20) Observance of Easter/Passover

Columbanus the Culdee, and his subsequent disciples founded numerous pre-Benedictine Culdean Monasteries all over Western Europe, such as Luxeuil. A prominent feature of the Celtic (Culdean) Church has been the defense of the true Biblical Easter that lands on the same days as the Hebrew Passover season (Nisan 14-20). In these steps the Celtic church repeatedly distanced itself from the Western and Roman church, and aligned itself more with the Eastern church.

Columbanus, also known as the dove of the church, is our most well known founder of the Celtic church on the continent. He fiercely defended the Celtic church against the attacks of the pope Gregory. This centered mainly on the matters of the proper observance of Easter in the Biblical Hebrew manner.

While the Roman pope was creating new divisions, Columbanus promoted the Orthodox unity in advancing the Biblical feast of Passover observance of Easter. The Celtic observance is also called the Quartodeciman observance of Easter.

Columbanus in his letters to the pope had focused on the Scripture which mandated the correct Hebrew observance of Easter. He was surprised the pope would use his only reason for having Easter on the incorrect date, was so it doesn’t land on a “Jewish” day. Columbanus not only cited Scripture to back the Celtic observance of Easter, but also numerous church fathers. He didn’t mention the Didascalia but did say the pope would be going against Saint Jerome amungst others.

He could have also cited Bishops Polycarp and Polycrates of Ephesus, though he did refer to Anatolia, the greater area. Polycrates was excommunicated by Pope Victor for his statements that he would be willing to be martyred for his literal observance of Passover. In his letter to Pope Victor he cited he’s the 8th Bishop of Ephesus after the Apostle John. He indicated how they remove the leaven out of the house in the Hebrew way, and that was how the first century church had made it clear is to be followed.

The Didascalia, which is canonical to most of the Eastern Orthodox, also mentions the Passover is to be kept on the Biblical Hebrew day. Also how to calculate it (the New moon after the equinox), and that we should consult with “our brethren the circumcised” to ensure we hold it on the accurate day that Yahshua was actually crucified.

Pope Gregory had attacked the Celtic Church, and Columbanus had to give a strong reply. The purpose of this article is to show his balanced response. Gregory said that Rome’s calendar compiled by Victorius “had written that Easter should be celebrated on the fifteenth day after the full moon.” To prevent Christians from holding the feast on the same day after the full moon as the Jews, following Victorius’ recommendations Gregory added: “The Church of Rome celebrates on the twenty-second day. … As a result many people in Gaul hold Easter on the fifteenth day, but I myself kept the feast on the twenty-second day.”

At Luxeuil Columbanus was criticized by pope Gregory for following the Celtic cycle for the mere reason that it lands on the same days as the Jewish days.  Of all his very scholarly responses to the pope’s new tradition of men, people mostly quote Columbanus for one of his more outstanding responses, where he wrote,
“We out not to hold Easter with the Jews? What relevance has that to reality?” and they leave out the rest of his very convincing points. Lets take a look at those.

Below are some excerpts of a great analysis of all the letters of Columbanus, from the book “The Celtic and Roman Traditions: Conflict and Consensus in the Early Medieval Church.”, pages 27-29:

 

Starting at page 27:

“Columbanus also accuses Victorius of violating Old Testament Law. He states that Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread should only be celebrated between luna 14 and 20 as stated in Deuteronomy. Victorious, by using lune 21-22, added two days that are outside the law of God(23). In addition, by moving the dates of Easter from lune 14-20 to lune 16-22, Victorious is telling God that there should be nine days for the Feast of Unleavened Bread so that Easter would always fall at least two days after Passover. While Victorious succeeds in ensuring that the dates for Feaster and Passover never overlap by calculating from lune 16, Columbanus points out that by doing this Victorious(the roman pope/bishop) has changed the word of God. He quotes Deutronomy 4:2 “You shall not add to the word that I speak to you: neither shall you take away from it.”(24) It is no wonder that when Irish scholars examined Victorious’ table, it “earned ridicule or indulgence rather than authority”(25)

 

Columbanus then moves the discussion to the problem of keeping Easter on Passover with the Jews, the main criticism of the Celtic-84 since it allowed Easter to fall on luna 14. He argues that Jews do not celebrate Easter and it does not belong to them. Thus, there is nothing wrong with having Easter occur on luna 14 if it is a Sunday because God, not the Jews, instituted Passover. This holiday observes God’s miracle of saving the exiles in Egypt and thus Passover is not a day to elevate or honor Jews, but one that recognizes the Lord’s grace and mercy in saving His people. Easter celebrates this same idea; Christ died to save sinners from damnation. To say that lune 14 is a “Jewish day” gives Jews the authority that they have forfeited by rejecting Christ and ignores God’s power over all creation.

 

He next reminds the pope that during the Easter dispute of the late second century, the bishops in the East did not agree with Pope Victor’s (189-98) condemnation of celebrating Easter with the Jews. Columbanus is taking this somewhat out of context, however. In the second century, the issue was whether Easter should always be celebrated on luna 14, regardless of the day of the week.(27) Columbanus was not advocating a return to this practice since he thought Easter could only be observed on Sunday. Therefore, he is stretching his argument a bit by implying that not only did the East allow Passover and Easter to occur on the same day, but it upheld Easter limits of luna 14-20 as well.(28)

 

In addition, Columbanus cites Anatolius, bishop of Laodicea (c.268-283), as an expert who supported the Celtic-84 lunar limits. Not much is known about Anatolius except the information provided by Eusebius in the Ecclesiastical History. He relates that the bishop was very learned in maths, astronomy, and physics and that the people of Alexandria asked Anatolius to establish a school of Aristotelian philosophy.(29) Eusebius even incorporates passages from Anatolius’ On the Pasch in his History. Later, St. Jerome included a paraphrase of this information about Anatolius’ learning and skill in his On Illustrious Men (c392).(30)

In his letter, Columbanus quotes directly from Anatolius’ discussion of Paschal tables which states that luna 21-22 are not acceptable for Easter.

The Anatolian passage continues:

“For those who assert that it is possible for Easter to be celebrated at this period of the moon not only cannot affirm it by authority of divine scripture but incur the charge of both sacrilege and contumacy, and the peril of their souls, as long as they affirm that the true light, which rules over all darkness, can be offered while darkness has any dominion.”(31)

 

Based on this passage, anyone arguing for the Victorian Easter limits is in error and aligning themselves with heretics.(32) In case the reader is unsure whether Anatolius correctly understood the complexities of Easter dating, Columbanus reiterates the information that Jerome admired Anatolius’ knowledge and spoke well of his On the Pasch.

Therefore, according to Columbanus, Irish scholars, the bishops of the East, Anatolius and by extension, Jerome have all condemned the Victorian table and/or its lunar limits. He pleased with the pope not to see this as an argument between lowly monk and Victorius, but between the authorities of the Church and Victorius. Who ultimately should be trusted—Scripture and the Church fathers or a cleric who could not figure out how ot correctly calculate an Easter table? Columbanus cautions the pope that “he who goes against the authority of St. Jerome will be a heretic or reprobate, whoever he may be, in the eyes of the churches of the West; for these repose an undoubted faith in divine scripture in all things.”(33)

 

Other Letters by Columbanus about Easter

Three additional letters by Columbanus survive that discuss Easter. The first of these was written in c.603, when Columbanus was asked by the Burgundian bishops to appear before a church council.(34) he chose not to attend and instead sent a written reply. Jonas makes absolutely no mention of the council in his Life of Columbanus, but most scholars agree that this letter was in response to a council held at Chalon in c.603.

A comparison of the Easter tables helps to show why controversy might have arisen at this time. For supporters of the Celtic-84, the April 7 date listed on the Victorian table in 603 fell on luna 23, a totally unacceptable date (table2.2). According to the Victorian table, March 31, as advocated by the Celtic-84, would fall on luna 14. Maters were even worse in 604 when the Victorian date was March 22, before the March 25 equinox for the Celtic table. The Easter dates in that year were also a full four weeks apart since the Celtic-84 listed April 19 as the correct date. In addition, it is interesting to note that in 606, the Celtic-84 would begin another 84-year cycle and its lunar dates would shift one more day out of alignment with the actual moon.(35) Keeping this all in mind, it is not too surprising that the controversy came to a head in c.603.

After Chalon, Columbanus again wrote to the papacy.(36) Due to the fact that he names no specific pope, this letter is usually dated to 604 to 607, when there was a short papal vacancy. By the time of the composition of this letter, Columbanus was facing more pressure from the Burgundian bishops to abandon the Celtic-84. As far as is known, he received no responses from pope Gregory, and it can be assumed the Celtic-84 was condemned at the Council of Chalon.

Columbanus’ last letter in which Easter is mentioned was written after he had been exiled from Burgundy in 610.(37) He addresses his monastic community at Luxeuil and specifically Athala, who he assumes will take his place as abbot. This letter contains advice on maintaining peace and unity within the community, specifically in terms of observing the correct date of Easter.

These three letters contain many of the points found within the letter to Pope Gregory. Columbanus again argues that the Victorian table violates both the Old and New Testaments and that it celebrates a dark Easter thereby rejecting the need for humanity to be saved.(38) In addition, he repeats the fact that scholars have condemned Victorious’ table and its Easter limits. Further undermining the authority of this table is the fact that it was composed “recently,” after the age of Martin of Tours (c.316-97), Jerome (c.342-420), and Pope Damasus (304-84).(39) In light of all this, Columbanus argues, it should be obvious that the Celtic-84 and Anatolius are correct in their support of the luna 14-20 lunar limits.

What is new in these letters is Columbanus’ argument for a compromise solution. In the letter to the Council of Chalon, he suggests that both sides prayerfully examine the two Easter tables. If each tradition is found to be worthy, then both should be followed. However, just after pointing out that the Victorian table violates Scripture, he declares that only those tables that agree with the Old and New Testaments should be accepted. Obviously, he believed that his tradition would triumph.(40)

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