Passover as Jesus Knew it

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today
Tags: , , , , , ,
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter1Share on Google+15Email this to someoneShare on Reddit0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on LinkedIn0

By: Helen K Bond

Jerusalem in the 30s CE was in a frequent state of heightened political and religious tension, no time more so than at the great religious festivals. Passover was particularly hazardous, with tens of thousands of pilgrims flocking to the holy city not only from Palestine but from all over the Jewish diaspora. Some, like Jesus, would have stayed with friends in the surrounding towns and villages. Others crammed themselves into the narrow city streets, or even passed the chilly nights in tents outside the city walls. The first visitors began to appear over a week in advance, ready to take part in purification rituals, to prepare themselves spiritually, or simply to spend time in the capital.

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, painted between 1886 and 1894.

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, painted between 1886 and 1894.

It was a joyous, celebratory occasion: work was temporarily stopped, families were reunited, food and wine were plentiful, and hopes and dreams were in the air. At the heart of the festival was a story: an account of a chosen people liberated from slavery centuries before through God’s gracious deliverance. But there was also a tragic irony: Israel was no longer free. This time the oppressors were not the Egyptians, but Rome. Together, these ideas created a lethal cocktail of deep religious yearnings, nationalism and resentment. ‘It is on these festive occasions that sedition is most likely to break out’ noted the historian Josephus wryly (War 1.88), and most of the riots recorded in his works seem to have occurred at Passover in particular.

Model of the Antonia Fortress, part of the famous Holyland Hotel Model of Jerusalem, now displayed at the Israel Museum.

Model of the Antonia Fortress, part of the famous Holyland Hotel Model of Jerusalem, now displayed at the Israel Museum.

Riots in Jerusalem were, of course, the very last thing that the Roman prefect of Judaea wanted. The small province had only been under direct Roman control for twenty years, and the prefect’s primary responsibility was to maintain law and order. Not surprisingly, he took extra security precautions at Passover, leaving his Headquarters in Caesarea-on-Sea with a detachment of troops to bolster the city’s meagre garrison. These were auxiliaries, men drawn from the largely pagan cities of Caesarea and Sebaste; they would be housed in the Antonia Fortress while Pilate based his praetorium in Herod’s former palace (visiting Herods would have to make do with the older and less luxurious Hasmonean stronghold).

The prefect in Jesus’ day was Pontius Pilate, a Roman knight who had been in post since 26 CE, and who had presumably enjoyed an impressive career on the battlefield prior to his provincial posting. He would have been sure to make a striking entry into the city, riding on a horse, accompanied by men in armour, a clear statement of Roman power. Once settled in Jerusalem, the troops were there to be seen, and quickly took up their stations on top of the Temple porticoes in full view of the assembled pilgrims. They would certainly have instilled fear in the onlookers, but their very presence also stoked up resentment. Josephus notes the ill will that existed between the populace and these pagan troops, and no doubt their very presence sometimes caused the riots they were supposed to deter.

Albrecht Dürer, Small Passion: 20. Pilate Washing His Hands, 1511.

Albrecht Dürer, Small Passion: 20. Pilate Washing His Hands, 1511.

Rome had few officials in the provinces, and the prefect needed to rely on the help of indigenous leaders, particularly the High Priest and the Jerusalem aristocracy. Their knowledge of local customs, diplomacy and (it was hoped) the respect they commanded amongst the ordinary people, were invaluable to the Roman governor. In the 30s, the High Priest was Joseph Caiaphas, ably assisted by his father in law, Ananus I (the Annas of the New Testament).

By this time, the High Priesthood was a Roman appointment, and presumably only men who could be trusted to pursue a pro-Roman line could expect preferment. Caiaphas had been appointed by Pilate’s predecessor, Gratus in 19 CE, but Pilate allowed him to continue in office, probably finding him to be an able leader and a useful ally. (In fact, both Pilate and Caiaphas lost their posts within a few months of each other in 37 CE). Scholars nowadays doubt the existence of a fixed, formal, judicial body known as ‘the Sanhedrin.’ While there may have been some kind of a town council which oversaw routine administrative matters, governance of the city seems to have been in the hands of the High Priest alone. Typical of the times, he would have presided over affairs through face-to-face diplomacy, temporary liaisons, and by summoning meetings of relevant aristocrats.

Ossuary of the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, Israel Museum.

Ossuary of the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, Israel Museum.

In the tense Passover season, the High Priest, just as much as the Roman prefect, wanted to see peace in Jerusalem. Caiaphas’ chief concern was the smooth running of the vast Temple complex. The regular rounds of feasts and sacrifices guaranteed God’s continued care and blessings not only to the land of Israel, but to the whole world. There was no room for error, and no room for disruption. Riots in particular might lead to Roman involvement, perhaps even profane Roman troops in the sacred enclosures of the Temple. In the turbulent years after the death of Herod I, Roman legions had swept down through the country, stamping out insurrection wherever they found it. Eventually they arrived at the Temple; many Jews lost their lives, the treasury was plundered, and parts of the outer porticoes were burned. Further destructed was averted by the surrender of the city, but the incident must have remained in many people’s memories as an indication of what Rome might do when riled. The fear of the chief priests in John 11:48 that the disruption caused by Jesus might bring about Roman destruction of the Temple, was not an idle one. Order had to be maintained, at all costs.

Giotto di Bondone, Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple, painted between 1304 and 1306.

Giotto di Bondone, Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple, painted between 1304 and 1306.

There were advantages for both Pilate and Caiaphas in working together. Perhaps they met one another soon after the prefect’s arrival to agree tactics. They would have agreed that these were delicate times, that disorder could not be tolerated, and that troublemakers were to be rounded up quickly, before things could escalate. Most routine disturbances could be dealt with by the Roman forces and their commanders; the prefect might be bothered only with more difficult cases. And so a plan of action emerged, an uneasy compromise in the interests of national security between two men who doubtless in other circumstances would have had little time for one another. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Those flocking to Jerusalem for the feast would have known the score. It had been the same every year since the Romans came to power. And as a Galilean prophet rode into the holy city for the Passover and stood in the outer courts of the Temple, ready to overturn the tables of the merchants and money-changers in a symbolic act which signified the end of the sacred complex, he could have had no doubt of the fate that awaited him.

Helen K Bond is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh.

If you liked this article please sign up to receive The Ancient Near East Today via email! It’s our FREE monthly email newsletter. The articles will be delivered straight to your inbox, along with links to news, discoveries, and resources about the Ancient Near East. Just go here to sign up.

~~~

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter1Share on Google+15Email this to someoneShare on Reddit0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on LinkedIn0
6 Comments for : Passover as Jesus Knew it
    • Richard ZNeal
    • April 14, 2014

    When one reads stories like this one, which is very good by the way, about how the Jews celebrated Passover prior to 70 A.D., and contrast that to how they celebrate it today – one has to see how the rabbi’s have, over the past two millennia, reformed their religion to the point it wouldn’t even be recognizable to 1st century Jews…That “reformation” will play a hugely significant role in the eschatological events at the end of this age…www.KingdomOfTheAntichrist.com

      • Emile
      • April 15, 2014

      You are an IDIOT
      If Jesus comes down to earth today he will be going to a synagogue not a church

      • Darren B. St-
      • April 19, 2014

      My dear friend, do you honestly believe that if Jesus would return today and walk into ANY church he would recognize anything that goes on in them due to the wondrous “reformation” his co-called followers engaged in by embracing Pagan/Hellenism with open arms?

    • Andy Whittaker
    • April 15, 2014

    Good article but, your comment in the first paragraph which states that ‘pilgrims flocking to the holy city not only from PALESTINE’ is wrong – in 30CE Jesus would certainly not have been familiar with the geographical term ‘Palestine’ – He would have known the name of land as ISRAEL. The name Palestine was what the Roman Emperor Hadrian re-named Israel in the 2nd C to humiliate the Jews but Jesus most definitely lived in Israel NOT Palestine!

    • lkthompson305@yahoo. com
    • April 15, 2014

    God’s Word says that there was a Sanhedrin. There WAS a Sanhedrin! Tbe members desired the death of Jesus and by the word of two witnesses (liars) judged Him guilty of blaspbemy. His crime? Claiming the truth. He was and is and forever will be the Son of God!

      • Emile
      • April 15, 2014

      Ya right , son of God ?
      Was born a Jew , lived as a Jew and died as a Jew .

Leave a Comment

Sign in to view all ASOR Blog content!
If you have not set up a username and password for the ASOR Blog, please close this box by clicking anywhere on the screen then go to the Friends of ASOR option in the menu above. If you have forgotten your password, please click the Forgot Login Password option in the above menu.