By: James H. Charlesworth
George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language
and Literature and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project
at Princeton Theological Seminary
In the Spring, Passover is time for reflective celebration. The great festival is also time for joyous expectation, as humans relish in the return of warm sunshine and blooming flowers. Passover (Hebrew pesaḥ; Greek páscha; Aramaic pisḥā˒) commemorates, in particular, when the plague passed over the homes of God’s people, as recounted in Exodus 12:13. Passover is “the feast of Unleavened Bread,” (matzah) because Moses told the Israelite faithful not to put leaven in the bread, as there was insufficient time before their departure from Egypt.
Jesus was in Jerusalem the week before his crucifixion. At least three questions may be asked. Why was he in Jerusalem? Why was that time important? What traditions, beliefs, and hopes did Jesus celebrate and where?
Why was Jesus in Jerusalem? Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians demand that three times a year the faithful are to celebrate festivals in Jerusalem (Exodus 23:14; 2Chronicles 8:13); they are the feasts of Passover (Unleavened Bread), Weeks (Shavuot), and Booths (Tabernacles or Sukkot). The three are the appointed feasts listed in Leviticus 23:2 (compare 2Chronicles 31:3; Ezra 3:5). Jerusalem, Zion, is the city of the feasts, as noted in Isaiah 33:20. The most important festival was Passover.
Jesus was devoutly Jewish. According to Luke (2:41-42), Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem every year at Passover, and when Jesus was 12, his parents went to the Temple, perhaps for his Bar Mitzvah (conceivably his cousin, John, was present). According to sacred traditions, God demanded that all males appear in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Exodus 23:17; Deuteronomy 16:16). All must recline to dine, an arrangement that is clear in Jesus’ Last Supper according to John 13:23.
According to Mark (14:12-21), Matthew (26:17-25), Luke (22:7-14, 21-23), and John (13:21-30), Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The first three gospels describe the first day of Passover, when approximately 10,000 lambs were slaughtered in the Temple, Jesus’ disciples prepared the Passover meal in the upper room of a house in southwest Jerusalem. Jesus’ last supper was either the Passover meal (according to Matthew, Mark and Luke) or a meal just before Passover with Passover traditions informing the evening (John). Following customs that are now well over 2,000 years old, Jesus broke bread, raised the cup full of wine, and chanted the Passover hymn. If Jesus broke “leavened bread,” then it was not matzah and it could not be a Passover meal. Mark (14:26) adds that “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
Why was that week important? The annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the time in the Spring when Jews celebrate God’s formation of Israel when he delivered the nation from slavery in Egypt. The annual celebration is shaped by a shared memory of that deliverance and a focus on experiencing anew God’s pivotal miracle. Passover continued for seven days (Exodus 12:15; Leviticus 23:6), beginning on the 14th of the first month in the evening. The paschal lamb was eaten on the first evening (Exodus 12:6, 8).
Long before Jesus, Jewish traditions reflected a long, sacred commemoration of Passover each year. For example, those with Moses left the city of Rameses in Egypt the day after the initial Passover. According to Joshua (5:10) Israelites celebrated Passover at Gilgal, while King Josiah celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem (2Chronicles 35:1,16). And those returning from the Babylonian exile celebrated the Passover (Ezra 6:19). Knowing these ancient traditions helps us appreciate Jesus’ wish: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22:15).
Sociological research also helps us understand Jesus’ last week; crowds are the most dangerous sociological institution and without warning a crowd can become a dangerous mob. Jerusalem doubled in size as pilgrims assembled as crowds to celebrate Passover. John (12:12) reports the scene accurately: “a great crowd had come to the feast.” Pilgrims came from the West (Spain, Italy, Cyrene, Greece), North (Asia Minor and Syria), South (Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia), and the East (especially Persia and Parthia). According to John (4:45) Jesus entered from the East accompanied by those most feared by the Roman, the Parthians; he had also walked, for about one week, with Jews from Galilee: “the Galileans … also went to the feast.”
Psychological research helps us to appreciate the dangers that abounded in a city swollen with pilgrims and filled with enthusiasm and fanatics expecting God to act again and free the Israelites from Roman bondage. Matthew (26:5) and Mark (14:2) report that the political and religious leaders feared a riot from an uncontrollable mob; they knew not to arrest Jesus, a charismatic leader with ecstatic followers: “not during the feast, or the people may riot.”
What traditions and beliefs did Jesus celebrate and where? Passover celebrated God’s infinite power and God’s promise always to protect Israel, known in the celebration of the Exodus and the creation of the nation, Israel. In Psalm 81 the LORD is portrayed admonishing Israel to listen and to obey him and not to include or worship any foreign god:
I am the LORD your God,
The ONE who brought you up from the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I shall fill it. [Ps 81:10 (11)]
The Jew who composed Fourth Ezra, some decades after Jesus’ death, shared a universal Jewish thought: “I led my people up and out of Egypt; and I led him [Moses] up on Mount Sinai” [14:4].
Archaeological research has revealed many tangible aspects of the Jerusalem Jesus experienced his last week; after 2,000 years we may see what he saw. That astounding view is due to the lower layer preserved beneath the demolition caused by the Roman conquest just before and during 70 CE (AD). Now visible are the remains of first-century streets, walls, mikvaot (ritual baths), buildings, sewers, shops, millions of archeological objects (including a spear and a woman’s arm), and notably the Temple Mount.
One stone in the western retaining wall weighs 570 tons. One may for the first time appreciate windows provided by verses heard but never understood; one of Jesus’ disciples who had never seen a stone over one ton, seeing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, exhorted: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1).
The traditions in the Passover Haggadah (literally “The Telling of the Passover Story”) antedate Jesus. It is a “scroll,” or book, Jews read the first night of Passover to commemorate “the Season of our freedom in love, a holy convocation, commemorating the departure from Egypt.” As the wine cup is raised, Jews bless “the LORD, our God, King of the universe.”
According to Rabban Gamaliel, at Passover one must chant three hymns or psalms (pesaḥ, matzah, and merorim). Pesaḥ is chanted because God passed over the houses of the Hebrews in Egypt. Merorim is chanted because the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Hebrews. Matzah expresses the memory that they were redeemed.
The eternal ritual. Within a few decades of Jesus’ Passover, Paul coined the concept that “Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed.” He urged Jesus’ followers to continue to celebrate Passover: “let us celebrate the feast, (but) not with the old leaven of malice and evil” (1Cor 5:7-8).
Paul seems to know the Passover Haggadah. First, in 1Corinthians 10:4, Paul implies that the rock followed after the Hebrews in their wanderings; according to the Passover Haggadah, the rock was round. Having rolled itself up like a swarm of bees, it followed the Hebrews. Paul helps with a metaphorical meaning by adding that it is “the spiritual rock that followed them.” Second, in 1Corinthians 10:16, in the celebration of Passover, Paul mentions “the cup of blessing;” those exact words are said by the leader of the seder.
Thus, Jesus’ Last Supper becomes “the Lord’s Supper,” the Eucharist. Fluid traditions swirled in the minds of Jesus’ first followers as the Exodus from Egypt framed the life and exodus of Jesus.
Today, Jews celebrate Passover (in Jesus’ language); many look for the coming of the Messiah. Christians celebrate Passover as Easter. Many remember that the Messiah has come, and memorize words like these (in over one hundred languages): “On the evening of Jesus’ last supper, he took bread. Giving thanks, he said this is my body, as you eat it, remember me. After supper, Jesus took a chalice and said, drink this wine in memory of me.” In Jerusalem today, Jews and Christians gather around a table, with their respective families, and celebrate a very old festival in the breaking of bread and drinking of wine. Memory flavors life with meaning; two groups remember God’s mighty salvific works, with words pregnant with a kaleidoscope of meanings: “And out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1).
James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary
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