Early Christian Tradition
Paul and the New Testament
It is somewhat surprising that, apart from the Gospels, the festival of Passover (and its symbolism) is hardly mentioned in the New Testament at all. There is a passing historical notice in Acts 12:4, and the author of Hebrews mentions the original historical tradition (and Exodus narrative, cf. Part 1) in 11:28, but without touching upon the typology and symbolism in relation to the death of Jesus (Part 3).
It may be assumed that the earliest Christians—specifically the Jewish Christians in Judea and Syria-Palestine—continued to celebrate the Passover festival in the traditional manner. Christian elements, based on the Gospel Tradition, may have been added to the celebration, but there is no clear evidence for this. There are several allusions to Paul celebrating the festivals (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8), but these are not entirely unambiguous, and, in any case, Passover is not mentioned in this regard.
The only significant reference to Passover in the New Testament (outside of the Gospels) is by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. The way in which he draws upon the Passover tradition here suggests that it has been ‘spiritualized’, with no idea at all about the Corinthians actually celebrating the Jewish festival; rather, one ‘celebrates’ the festival only in the ethical-religious sense of removing the ‘leaven’ of sin and immorality. This is not so very different from Philo of Alexandria’s interpretation, such as in On the Preliminary Studies (§169), where he interprets the leaven as symbolizing “the sweetnesses of the pleasures according to the body, or the light and unsubstantial elations of the soul,” which are “by their own intrinsic nature profane and unholy” (Yonge translation). Philo makes this statement (cf. also On the Special Laws I.291-3) in the context of the sacrificial regulations (in Lev 2:11), but it could apply just as well to Passover and the festival of Unleavened bread. For more on Philo’s allegorical and ethical-philosophical interpretation of Passover, cf. the discussion in Part 2.
The context in which Paul makes his Passover reference is the issue of sexual immorality, and the specific case, addressed in chapter 5 (vv. 1-5). Paul attacks the willingness of the Corinthians to tolerate immorality and to continue associating with a person engaged in such behavior. He clearly is not limiting his instruction to a particular kind of sin only, as the general instruction in vv. 9-12 makes clear. He ends his instruction with the strong exhortation for the Corinthians to “take out [i.e. remove] the evil (person) from you (your)selves” (v. 13), which would be an application of the Passover symbolism of removing the leaven (v. 7).
Let us consider briefly Paul’s specific use of the Passover tradition in vv. 6-8. He begins:
“Your boasting (is) not good. Have you not seen that a little fermentation [zu/mh] ferments [zumoi=] the whole mass of dough?”
The Greek word zu/mh (“fermenting, fermentation”) in the LXX translates both ra)c= (the leavening agent) and Jm@j* (the sourdough that has been leavened), and is used in the instructions for Passover in Exodus 12-13 (12:15, 19; 13:3, 7). The natural process of working the fermenting agent throughout a mass of dough (fu/rama) is utilized as an ethical-religious illustration, much as Philo uses the same imagery (cf. above). Interestingly, in the Gospel tradition, in the teachings of Jesus, leaven can serve as both a negative (Mk 8:15 par) and positive (Matt 13:33 / Lk 13:21) symbol.
The ethical-religious exhortation, applying the leaven-symbolism, comes in verse 7:
“Clean out the old fermentation [zu/mh], (so) that you might be a new mass of dough [fu/rama], just as you are without fermentation [a&zumoi].”
Paul states that the Corinthian believers are, themselves, “without leaven” (a&zumoi), which refers to their corporate status as believers in Christ, the emphasis being on their identity as a community of believers. In this regard the “leaven” refers to an instance of (individual) sin which, if unchecked, can infect the entire community. Paul uses the same proverbial saying regarding leaven in Gal 5:9, where his concern, though involving different issues, was also that the community of believers would become distorted through the teaching and influence of certain individuals. The “new mass of dough” refers to the cleansed community—purged of the instance of immorality that had not been dealt with properly (within the community), and by which sin had thus been allowed to take root. Such leaven is called “old” (palaio/$) because it represents a vestige of the old way of life, before the Corinthian believers came to trust in Jesus, when they would have willingly followed the sinful ways and habits of the society around them.
“For our Pesaµ, (the) Anointed, has been slaughtered; so then, let us celebrate the festival, not with old fermentation [zu/mh], and not with fermentation of badness and evil, but with (bread) without fermentation [plur. a&zumoi] of clear judgment and (the) truth.” (vv. 7b-8)
Here Paul alludes more clearly to the Passover festival. Once the lamb has been slaughtered (vb qu/w), on the afternoon of Passover Eve (14 Nisan), then it will be time for the people to celebrate the festival in the evening. Paul’s reference to the sacrificial death of Jesus, in the context here, probably relates to the idea that the death of Jesus served to free believers from their bondage to the power of sin (cf. my recent notes on Rom 6:1-11 and 7:6). One no longer need to follow the old ways of sin and immorality, nor to tolerate them within the Community. Instead of the “old” way of the leaven of sin, believers should follow the “new” way in Christ.
In v. 7, Paul declared that believers themselves were “without leaven” (plur. adj. a&zumoi); here he states that believers should celebrate the Passover festival (symbolically) with bread that is “without leaven” (same plural adjective, a&zumoi). Clearly Paul is referring to the eating of unleavened bread in the Passover meal, and of Passover as marking the beginning of the festival of Unleavened bread (cf. the discussion in Part 1). There is no suggestion that the Corinthian Christians (or any believers, for that matter) need to actually celebrate the Jewish festival; rather, the celebration is figurative and symbolic, occurring at the ethical (and spiritual) level. This celebration done with ‘bread’ of clear judgment (ei)likrinh/$) and the truth (a)lh/qeia) is reminiscent of the saying of Jesus in John 4:23-24 (on which, cf. my recent note).
By identifying Jesus with the Passover lamb that is slaughtered, Paul is making an association that is not part of the Synoptic Gospel tradition. However, as we have seen, it is part of the Johannine Gospel tradition (cf. the discussion in Part 3), and the reference by Paul here indicates that other Christians (and groups of believers) had made the same connection. It is even possible that Paul shared with the Johannine Gospel the idea that Jesus’ death occurred on the afternoon of Passover Eve (14 Nisan), more or less at the same time that the lambs were being slaughtered.
The book of Revelation seems specifically to follow the Johannine tradition with its prominent identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:29, 36). This imagery first appears in the throne vision of chap. 5, where it is central to the scene (vv. 6ff; 6:1). Of particular importance in the book of Revelation is the connection between the lamb-motif and the sacrificial death of Jesus—both by referring specifically to the Lamb being slain (5:6, 12; 13:8), and by references to its blood (7:14; 12:11; and note the wine-blood imagery [emphasizing the coming Judgment] in 14:11ff). These references to the lamb being slain probably derive primarily from the Passover tradition, though there may also be influence from Isa 53:7-8 (cf. Acts 8:32ff), as well as from the broader tradition of sacrificial offerings (cf. again the discussion in Part 3).
Another possible allusion to the Passover lamb is found in 1 Peter 1:19, where the blood of Jesus is compared to that of a lamb “without blemish [a&mwmo$] and without spot [a&spilo$]”. While such a description (with the use of the adjective a&mwmo$) is more common to the sacrificial offerings (for sin, etc), as detailed in Lev 1:3, etc, it also applies to the Passover lamb (Exod 12:5).
Passover in late-1st and 2nd century Christianity
In the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-160 A.D.), there are almost no references or allusions to Passover at all (cf. Diognetus 12:9). Probably the earliest discussion of note is found in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, where he discusses the true nature of the Passover, according to the Christian interpretation. The Passover lamb, referred to as “the lamb of God” (Jn 1:29, 36), is identified as a figure-type fulfilled by Jesus Christ through his sacrificial death (§40, cf. also §111). In his debate with Trypho (a Jew), Justin ties observance of the Passover festival to the broader concept of a person’s relationship to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (the Torah regulations), framing the matter in Pauline terms—i.e., one is saved only through faith in Christ, not by observing the Torah (§46).
Gradually, the separation from Judaism led to Christians viewing the celebration of the actual Jewish festival in a negative light. The pseudo-Ignatian letter to the Philippians illustrates this, in the case of Passover, by essentially prohibiting Christians from participating in the Jewish festival—by taking part in it they would be participating with the ones “who killed the Lord and his apostles” (§14).
This reluctance to follow the Jewish festival led to considerable controversy, in the second century, among Christians in different sectors of the Church, regarding the date for celebrating Easter and the timing of when (and how) to commemorate the death of Jesus. Working from the historical Gospel tradition and early (Jewish) Christian practice, Easter was regularly celebrated on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover (14/15 Nisan). Tertullian (in On Fasting §14) is a good representative of the Christian sentiment against continuing to follow the Jewish calendar. He also makes clear that commemoration (through fasting) of Jesus’ death should not take place on a Lord’s Day (Sunday), but on the Friday prior (cf. On Prayer 18, On Baptism 19, De Corona 3).
There were Christians, especially in Asia Minor, who continued to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish calendar, regardless of which day of the week this was; they were referred to as “Quartodecimans”, in reference to the fourteenth day of the month. This practice was in conflict with the developing tradition in other regions. In the minds of many in the Church, there were two problematic points at issue: (1) the prospect of commemorating Jesus’ death on a Sunday (Lord’s Day), and (2) the growing belief that Jesus’ resurrection should (always) be celebrated on the Lord’s Day. The points of tension, and differences in practice, led to protracted controversy (or series of controversies) regarding the determination of the proper date/time for celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There were numerous attempts at resolving these conflicts. In 154, for example, the distinguished bishop Polycarp (of Smyrna in Asia Minor) discussed the matter at Rome with bishop Anicetus. The situation was complicated by the influence of the Montanists, who celebrated the Pascha (Passover/Easter) on a fixed date (April 7) according to the Egyptian calendar. Bishop Victor of Rome was inclined to the Montanist views, and was also particularly hostile to the ‘judaizing’ practice of the Quartodecimans of Asia Minor. Councils were called in order to establish an orthodox standard, and to exclude the churches in Asia Minor that would not comply. The view of the Asia Minor churches, in response, was ably represented by Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus. Cf. the account of Eusebius, Church History 5.23-25.
There were additional complications related to the precise calculation for the Christian celebration; in these efforts, Christians in the late-2nd century continued to struggle with the legacy of the Jewish Passover festival. There were Christians who continued to follow the Jewish calendar, using 14/15 Nisan as standard. Others used the first full moon of the corresponding month as the standard, or the full moon following the spring equinox. If the full moon fell on a Sunday, then, for some, Easter would need be celebrated on the following Sunday. Notable Christian authors and theologians of the time, such as Melito of Sardis, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus weighed in on the subject; fragments of these writings are preserved in the 7th century Paschal Chronicle and elsewhere. The first Council of Nicea (314) attempted to establish uniformity among the Churches: following the Egyptian practice, Easter was to be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox; this decision was re-affirmed at the council of Antioch in 341, but did not entirely resolve the matter.
The Paschal (Easter) Chronicle itself provides an extensive discussion of the matter, along with tables for the calculation of Easter. Somewhat earlier, the scholar Dionysius Exiguus had produced an “Easter Table”, that proved to be highly influential, following upon the nineteen-year cycle established by Cyril of Alexandria. This table, with extensions of it, came to be adopted by Rome and in much of the West.
All of this history illustrates both the prevailing importance and influence of the Passover festival within Christianity, as well as the struggles of early believers and congregations in dealing with the various implications of this Jewish heritage.