The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Weeks (Part 1)

Weeks (Shavuot)

This is the lastest installment of a periodic series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4).

Name and Origin

The designation “weeks” is a loose English translation of the Hebrew plural noun toub%v* (š¹»¥±ô¾). The noun is derived from the root ubv, indicating the number seven (ub^v#, hu*b=v!); it denotes a period of seven days, thus corresponding with a “week” of days in English parlance. In Exodus 34:22, there is mention of a “festival of seven-day periods” (toub%v* gj^), utilizing the noun gj^, as a specialized term for a processional or pilgrimage festival—that is, involving a procession of pilgrims attending the festival at a centralized location. It is one of three such festivals mentioned in Exodus 23:14-17 and 34:18-24. The festival is sometimes referred to as Shavuot, an anglicized transliteration (š¹»¥±ô¾) of the plural noun toub%v*. Greek-speaking Jews came to refer to the festival as penthkosth/ (pent¢kost¢¡), the “fiftieth (day)” (see below).

Like the Passover festival, the festival of “Weeks” has agricultural origins, marking the time of the (wheat) harvest. This is clear from the name given in Exod 23:16, “festival of the gathering [i.e. harvest],” where the noun ryx!q*, refers to the gathering/collecting of the grain (and binding it in sheaves). It specifically refers to the beginning of the harvest, as the qualifying phrase indicates: “the first-fruits [<yr!WKB!] of your activities [spec. works/labors] which you have sown in the field”. In 34:22, the wheat (plur. <yF!j!) harvest is specified.

As a pilgrimage festival (gj^), all adult males are expected to travel to the central religious shrine of the Community, and to appear before YHWH (“be seen before [the] face of the Lord YHWH”, 23:17; 34:23). This implies the presentation of sacrificial offerings, dedicated to YHWH, at the shrine. The short notices in Exodus make no mention of any specific offerings that are required. However, Leviticus 23:15-21 provides detailed instructions for the grain offering that represents the “first-fruits” of the harvest, in the form of two baked loaves that are to be waved ([Wn, noun hp*WnT=) back and forth, in a ritual manner, before YHWH (vv. 16b-17). Other offerings of sacrificial animals (seven year-old lambs, two rams, one bull) are prescribed, as burnt offerings from the Community, along with a sin-offering (he-goat), and a <l#v# offering [cf. chap. 3] (two year-old lambs), accompanied by the required grain and drink offerings (vv. 18-20). Numbers 28:26-31 gives similar instructions. These elaborate sacrificial offerings unquestionably represent a development of an earlier (simpler) ritual tradition associated with the harvest.

Leviticus 23:15-16a also indicates the time-frame for the festival, as it came to be established. Once the first sheaf of grain from the harvest is presented as an offering before YHWH (vv. 9-14), seven šabbats (totB*v^), or ‘weeks’, are counted off (v. 15), resulting in a period of 49 days—to which an additional day is counted (the day after the final ‘week’), viz., the fiftieth day (v. 16). It is this tradition which led to the festival of Weeks/Shavuot being called the “fiftieth (day)” (penthkosth/ [pent¢kost¢¡] in Greek).

In the Levitical code, as in the older Exodus traditions (see above), the festival of Weeks/Shavuot is closely connected with the festival of Passover and the days of ‘unleavened bread’. Following the instructions for Passover (vv. 4-8), the ritual offering for the first sheaf of grain is described (vv. 9-14), and then the instruction regarding the harvest festival (Weeks/Shavuot) itself (vv. 15-21) is given.

The offering of the first sheaf is to be made on the “day after the šabbat [i.e. Sabbath]” (v. 15)—but which šabbat is meant? The connection with the Passover, in light of its agricultural origins, seems to suggest that the šabbat day immediately following the days of Unleavened Bread is intended. However, a different line of rabbinical interpretation understands this šabbat in a more general, symbolic sense, applying it to the first day of the Unleavened Bread festival. Thus, the counting would begin from the second day of that festival (Nisan 16), with the festival of Weeks/Shavuot then being celebrated on Sivan 6. This allows for celebration on a fixed day of the calendar, whereas the beginning of harvest itself could occur on various days from year to year.

Deuteronomy 16:9-12 provides a simpler presentation of the festival. It mentions only a voluntary offering (hb*d*n+) from each person/family, based on one’s means (and the success of the harvest). How this relates to the prescribed offerings of Lev 23:16-20 par may be debated.

Old Testament Tradition

There is no other direct reference to the festival of Weeks/Shavuot in the Old Testament Scriptures. However, there is a longstanding tradition, connecting the time/date of the festival with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. The chronological notice in Exodus 19:1 provides the basis for this association, as it indicates that the people of Israel arrived in the Sinai outback in the third month—which is the month (“new moon”) during which Weeks/Shavuot would have been celebrated. The revelation at Sinai (chap. 19) and the giving of the initial Torah (chaps. 20-23), followed by the ratification of the covenant (chap. 24), thus, according to tradition, were thought to correspond to the time of the festival.

Similarly, 2 Chronicles 15:8-15 mentions a covenant-renewal ceremony, during the reign of Asa, which took place during the third month, doubtless under the influence of the Sinai Covenant Tradition. It may well be that this ceremony took place during the Weeks/Shavuot festival, even as the dedication of the Temple in the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 8 par) took place in connection with Sukkot. The pilgrimage festivals would the best time for such a large public ceremony, when considerable numbers of people would be present in Jerusalem.

This basic line of tradition, associating the third month (and thus Weeks/Shavuot) with the covenant between God and His people, can also be seen in the book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.). This work presents not only the Sinai covenant (1:1), but also the Noahic (6:10) and Abrahamic (14:1ff) covenants, as being established in the third month. The Sinai covenant tradition also informs the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as we shall examine in Part 3 of this article.

In Part 2, we shall further explore the festival of Weeks/Shavuot in Jewish tradition, including references and allusions to the festival in the Qumran texts.

NOTE: I have coordinated this article for the Christian celebration of Pentecost. In 2024, in the Western Churches, Pentecost falls on Sunday May 19. However, it should be noted that, in the Jewish calendar, Shavuot (Sivan 6-7) falls on June 12-13 this year.

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Sukkot (Part 1)


This is the second installment of a period series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles (earlier this year) dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4). This current set will explore the festival of Sukkot, which is celebrated at this time of the year.

Name and Origin

The name Sukkot is a transliteration of the Hebrew toKs% (s¥kkô¾), a plural form of the noun hK*s%, from the root iks which has the fundamental meaning “block off, cover”. The noun refers simply to a covering, usually in the sense of a protective dwelling or shelter; the related noun Es) has essentially the same meaning, and may be viewed as a byform of the same word. The word hK*s%, in spite of being a common noun, is relatively rare in the Old Testament, at least when it is used in the general sense of a shelter—cf. Gen 33:17; 2 Sam 11:11; 22:12; 1 Ki 20:12, 16; Job 27:18; Isa 1:8; Jonah 4:5, etc. At least as often, it is used in the specific context of the festival under discussion here (Lev 23:34ff; 2 Chron 8:13, etc).

The name derives from the practice of families and individuals setting up temporary (and ceremonial) shelters (toKs%) to dwell in during the festival. In English, the Hebrew term is often translated loosely as “booths” (i.e., festival of Booths), though the more traditional rendering is the archaic (and rather inappropriate) “Tabernacles”.

Even though the name Sukkot (toKs%) came to be traditional designation for the festival among Israelites, the earliest (historical) tradition clearly indicates the festival’s origins. In the instructions (Torah) given in the book of Exodus, it is called the festival of “the gathering” ([ys!a*h*), Exod 23:16; 34:22. All of the three major pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Weeks, and Sukkot/Booths—were originally agricultural festivals, tied to specific points of the harvest season. This is quite clear from the instruction in Exod 23:13-16; 34:22-24.

The festival of Sukkot/Booths celebrates the “gathering”, in reference to the end of the harvest generally, but also specifically to the gathering of the grapes and olives which marks the end of the season (in the late summer/early fall). This occurred during the seventh month, Nissan, which corresponds to a period in September-October of our calendar. The festival was held over an eight-day period, 15-22 Nissan, following the harvest (Lev 23:33, 39; Deut 16:13; Num 29:12ff).

Ancient Practice and the Torah

The instruction for the festivals in the book of Leviticus (chapter 23) provides some basic information on how Sukkot/Booths is to be celebrated (vv. 33-43). The first and last days of the festival are marked by a “call to holy (observance)” (vd#q) ar*q=m!), which means that the time (and space) is to be kept pure and set apart, so that no ordinary labor is to be done (v. 35-36). This sets the boundaries and establishes the sacred character of the festival: its time belongs to YHWH (vv. 39, 41), and should be devoted to worship. In particular, a sacrificial offering (“[by] fire”) is to be presented to God on each day (v. 36).

The second component of the festival is described in verse 40. The people are to take leafy branches from various trees (lit. “tree[s] of splendor”), and use them in joyful acts (vb jm^c*) of celebration and worship “before YHWH”. The palm-tree and brook-willow are specifically mentioned as sources of these branches; they presumably they were to be waved about as part of the rejoicing.

The final component involved the construction of temporary shelters (toKs%), the significance of which is explained:

“In s¥kkô¾ [i.e., shelters] you shall sit [i.e. dwell] (for the) seven days; (all) th(ose) grown up in Yisrael [i.e. native Israelites] shall sit in the s¥kkô¾. (This is so that) as a result, (the) circles of your (descendants) may know that I made (the) sons of Yisrael to sit in s¥kkô¾ in my bringing them forth from (the) land of Egypt. I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One).” (vv. 42-43)

The shelters thus represent and symbolize God’s providential care for the people during their Exodus-journeying out of Egypt. The shelter-coverings, by the very meaning of the word hK*s% (cf. above), allude to protection, to the “blocking out” of the elements, etc. There may also be a bit of wordplay involved, since the homonym Sukkoth is also the name of first stopping-point on the Exodus journey (according to Exod 12:37).

An interesting final detail is that the eighth (final) day of the festival is specifically referred to by the term hr*x*u&, indicating that, as with the first day, the time was sacred (like the Sabbath) and that no ordinary work/labor was to be performed (v. 36). The precise meaning of hr*x*u& here, however, is uncertain. The basic meaning of the root rxu is something like “hold back, restrain, detain”. Probably the significance of the term in relation to the eighth day of the festival is that the people should refrain from doing work; however, it has also been suggested that the idea of the people being ‘detained’ for an additional (eighth) day was intended.

In Numbers 29:12-38, there is additional instruction given for the observance of Sukkot, devoted to descriptions of the prescribed sacrificial offerings for each day. The brief instruction in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 includes the detail that all adult males shall appear before YHWH (in Jerusalem) for the festival, along with the principle that each person shall give an offering as he is able, according to the extent to which God has blessed him and his family. In Deut 31:10-13, the festival of Sukkot is marked as the occasion when “this Instruction [Torah],” referring to the book of Deuteronomy itself, is to be read out before the people.

There is no specific indication of the festival of Sukkot being celebrated prior to the Kingdom-period (cf. the notice in Neh 8:17). According to 1 Kings 8:2ff, it was celebrated, in a grandiose manner, by Solomon, when it was utilized as the setting for the inauguration of the newly-built Temple in Jerusalem. As would be fitting for the importance of the occasion, an additional seven days were added to the prescribed seven for the festival, doubling its length to fourteen, after which the eighth/final day was celebrated (v. 65). In the separatist Northern kingdom, under Jeroboam, the Sukkot festival was celebrated in Bethel, rather than in Jerusalem, for obvious reasons (12:32).

Apart from brief notices or allusions to Sukkot in Hosea 12:9 and Lamentations 2:6-7, the only other Old Testament references come from the early post-Exilic period. Celebration of the festival is mentioned in Ezra 3:4, as part of a program of restoration and reform, which entailed both the rebuilding of the Temple (with its ritual/sacrificial apparatus) and a renewed adherence to observing the Torah. Once the Temple and its altar were rebuilt, the prescribed sacrifices for the festival (cf. above) could be offered (cp. 2 Chron 8:13). A more detailed description of the celebration of Sukkot is mentioned in Nehemiah 8:13-18, more or less following precisely the Levitical instruction regarding the festival (cf. above). Branches of olive, myrtle, and palm trees are specifically mentioned (cp. Lev 23:40). It is also noted that the shelters (toKs%) were constructed variously on the rooftops and in the courtyards of individual homes, but also in the courts of the Temple and in the public squares at two of the city gates, presumably to allow for additional access to the ceremonial shelters by the population (v. 16). Also, in accordance with the Deuteronomic directive (Deut 31:11-13), the author mentions that the “Book of the Instruction [Torah] of God” (i.e., Deuteronomy) was read out loud before the people during the festival.

In Part 2, I will examine the influence of Sukkot, both within the Old Testament, and in the subsequent early Jewish tradition. Particular attention will be focused on the important reference in Zechariah 14, and on the possible setting of the festival for a number of the Psalms (esp. Psalm 118).




The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 4)

Passover—Part 4:
Early Christian Tradition

Note: This belated article concludes a series begun earlier this year (cf. Parts 1, 2, and 3); I regret not having the opportunity to post it in a more timely manner.

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.


Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 81 (Part 1)

Psalm 81

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPse (vv. 2-3 [1-2]); 11QPsd (vv. 5-11 [4-10]; MasPsa (vv. 2-17 [1-16])

This Psalm has a curious hybrid character: part hymn, part prophetic oracle, and a composition that may have had a place in the Israelite liturgy for the celebration of the festivals (esp. Passover, cf. the discussion below). Like other of the Asaph Psalms that we have recently examined, Ps 81 appears to have a northern provenance (indicated by the Israel/Joseph pairing in vv. 5-6).

There is a definite two-part structure to this Psalm, and here the Selah (hl*s#) pause marker serves as a legitimate structural indicator. The first part (vv. 2-8) is a hymn to YHWH, functioning as a call to worship. Within this framework, the historical tradition of the Exodus provides the setting for the prophetic oracle that follows in the second part (vv. 9-17). The words of YHWH begin at v. 6b, and this fact has led commentators, incorrectly I believe, to treat vv. 6b-17 as a coherent division of the Psalm; it is the Selah marker the provides the correct structural point of division, as noted above.

Metrically, this Psalm follows the typical 3-beat (3+3) couplet format, though there are a few exceptions (which will be noted). The heading gives the musical direction tyT!G]h^-lu^, as in Pss 8 and 84; the term tyT!G] could refer to a type of instrument (perhaps a harp), or to a particular melody (or mode).

Psalm 81 is one of the best attested Psalms among the Dead Sea manuscripts, including a MS from Masada where it fully represented. All of the manuscripts are quite fragmentary, however it is perhaps worth noting that there are no variant readings of substance in the portions of the text that are preserved.

As with all of Pss 7383, this composition is attributed to (and/or associated with) Asaph. The second half of this Psalm is presented as a prophetic oracle, and, as we have seen, a number of the Asaph-Psalms have certain prophetic features; for more on Asaph, and the tradition that he and his descendants were prophets, cf. the earlier study on Ps 50).

PART 1: Verses 2-8 [1-7]

Verse 2 [1]

“Ring out (praise) to (the) Mightiest, our Strength,
give a shout to (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The opening couplet is a call to worship, calling on the people to sing/shout praise to YHWH. The basic religious and theological principle is that YHWH is the God (Mighty One) of Israel (Jacob); as a result, He is considered as the ultimate source of their strength (zou) and protection. The suffixed word “our strength” is a bit unusual, and it is possible that here the noun zou connotes “stronghold”. Dahood (II, p. 263) reads parallel construct expressions in both lines (i.e., “Mighty [One] of…”) and treats the final <– of <yh!l)a$ as an interposed enclitic <-; in such a case the expressions would, indeed, be parallel: “Mighty (One) of our strong(hold) / Mighty (One) of Jacob”.

Verse 3 [2]

“Lift up music and give (it on the) tambor(ine),
(on the) sweet lyre (together) with (the) harp.”

The call to worship continues with this direction for the people to take up their instruments, in order to sing out praise to YHWH (as directed in v. 2). They are to “lift up” their music (hr*m=z]); curiously, the regular term (romz+m!) designating the Psalm as a musical composition is absent from the heading of Ps 81. The adjective <yu!n` means “sweet, pleasant”, here referring to the sweet sounds that can be produced on the lyre and harp.

Verse 4 [3]

“Blow (the) horn on the (day of the) new (moon),
on the full (moon), for (the) day of our festival.”

The call to worship continues, with the praise being located at the time of a public festival. The term gj^ came to designate the great pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover and Sukkot. Here the timing of the festival coincides with the beginning of the month—the expressions “new (moon)” (vd#j)) and “full (moon)” (hs#K@) are obviously parallel, marking the transition from one month to the next. The Exodus context of vv. 6-11 suggests that the festival in question is Passover.

Verse 5 [4]

“For this (is) an engraved (decree), O Yisrael,
an edict from (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob.”

This couplet refers specifically to celebration the festival (gj^) mentioned in v. 4. If the context is the celebration of the Passover, then the solemn declaration here would be particularly appropriate (cf. the instructions and tradition regarding Passover in Exodus 12). The order to celebrate the festival is here treated as an edict or decree sent down by a king (YHWH), using the terms qj) (denoting something engraved or written) and fP*v=m! (a decision given down by a ruling figure which has the force of law).

This verse demonstrates the wide range of meaning that attaches to the simple prepositions l= and B=. Here, the first prefixed –l is best treated a vocativel (“O Israel”), though most translators render it flatly as “for Israel”; the vocative better fits the context of a call to the Israelite people to praise YHWH and celebrate the festival. The second –l clearly refers to the decree as coming from YHWH, though it also possible to translate the preposition in this instance as “belonging to”.

Verse 6ab [5ab]

“(As a duty to be) repeated He set it on Yôsep,
in his going out (from) upon (the) land of Egypt.”

The term tWdu@ is parallel with qj) and fP*v=m! in v. 5, referring to the command by YHWH to celebrate the festival; the context here would seem to require that Passover is the festival in view. According to the tradition(s) recorded in Exodus 12, the directions for celebration of Passover were given at the time of Israel “going out from the land of Egypt”.

The noun tWdu@ fundamentally refers to something which is repeated; I take it to be used here with this basic emphasis, referring to the regular/repeated celebration of the Passover festival.

The use of the preposition lu^, in the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is peculiar; one would rather expect /m! as in many other such references (e.g., here in v. 11 of this Psalm). As noted above, many of the Hebrew prepositions have a wide semantic range, and lu^ can occasionally carry a meaning something like “from” in English (cf. Dahood, II, p. 264). Other commentators (e.g., Kraus, Hossfeld-Zenger) translate it here as “against”, but this does not seem appropriate (or correct). I have slanted my translation slightly, to capture the idea of the Israelite people going out from the place where they had been—viz., living upon (or spread over) the land of Egypt.

Verse 6c-7 [5c-6]

“(The) lip of (one) I did not know I heard,
(and) I turned aside his shoulder from (the) load,
and his hands passed over from (the) basket.”

There is an abrupt change of speaker at the third line of verse 6, and it immediately becomes clear that YHWH is now speaking; thus the Psalm shifts to become an oracle, with the Psalmist functioning as a prophet. The setting of the Exodus, introduced in 6b, provides the impetus for this brief but dramatic recounting of YHWH’s role in the Exodus events.

It is, I think, best to treat v. 6c together with v. 7 as a tricolon. It presents a clear narrative progression:

    • God hears Israel’s cry for help =>
      • He responds and takes away the burden =>
        • The people become free from their service/labor

It may seem strange that YHWH would refer to Israel as “(one) I did not know”. This could be an allusion to the sequence in Exodus 2:23-25: the people cry for help in their bondage, and the cry comes up to God, who hears it; the cry prompts Him to remember the covenant He established with Israel’s ancestors (Abraham/Isaac/Jacob). Then in v. 25 we read: “And (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and the Mightiest knew (them).” This was the moment when God truly knew Israel as His people.

Verse 8 [7]

“In the (time of) distress you called and I pulled you out;
I answered you (from with)in (the) hiding (place) of thunder,
(and yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife.”

The oracle continues with a second tricolon that further summarizes the events of the Exodus (cf. vv. 6-7 above). The first two lines here may simply be repeating the general idea of Israel’s cry for help and YHWH’s answer; however, I think it probable that the scene has shifted to the more specific setting of the episode at the Reed Sea (Exod 14-15), where the people cried out to God (14:10), and He answered them, through the hand of Moses (vv. 13-14ff). The reference to “the hiding (place) of thunder” is an allusion to the storm-theophany, applied to YHWH as Creator and heavenly Ruler, with his control over the waters; for more on this ancient cosmological imagery, expressed with some frequency in the Psalms, cf. my earlier article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”. His power over the Sea allowed Israel to escape from Egypt. The thunder-motif, with the theophanous cloud as a ‘hiding place,’ also alludes to the scene at mount Sinai (Exodus 19ff).

The implied reference to the waters of the Reed Sea is paralleled by the reference, in the final line, to the episode at the “waters of strife/Merîbah [hb*yr!m=]” (cf. Exod 17:1-7; Num 20:10-13). Dahood (II, p. 265) is almost certainly correct in his assessment that injba needs to parsed as a passive (Niphal) form with dative suffix (of agency)—i.e., “I was tested by you”. This act of faithlessness by the people is meant as a stark contrast with the faithfulness of YHWH in answering them and rescuing them from their bondage in Egypt (lines 1-2). My translation above brings out this contrastive emphasis: “…(yet) I was tested by you at (the) waters of strife”.

This ending of the Psalm’s first half, on a negative note highlighting the people’s lack of trust in God, sets the stage for the second half (vv. 9-17), in which YHWH, in another prophetic oracle, brings forth a complaint (in the tradition of the ‘covenant lawsuit’) against His people for their lack of loyalty and trust.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 3)

Passover—Part 3:
Jesus and the Passover

The Gospel tradition

The most notable use of the Passover tradition in the Gospels is historical. That is to say, it relates to the historical tradition that Jesus’ death took place around the time of Passover. This is confirmed by multiple lines of tradition—in both the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 14:1ff par) and the Gospel of John (12:1; 13:1), as well as in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., the Talmudic baraitha in b. Sanhedrin 43a). The ‘Last Supper’ was, by all accounts, a celebration of the Passover meal (Mk 14:12-16ff par; Lk 22:15), regardless of how one chooses to deal with the chronological problems between the Synoptic and Johannine narratives. I have treated all of this at some length recently in the “Passion Narrative” series (Episode 2), including a discussion and overview of the chronological issue, and will not be repeating it here. The Lukan version of the Supper is presented rather more clearly as a Passover meal (for more on this, cf. the study on Lk 22:14-38 in the aforementioned series).

In the Synoptic Narrative, Jesus makes just one journey to Jerusalem; however, there is reliable evidence in the Gospels that this was not his only such journey. The Gospel of John alludes to a number of trips to Jerusalem (cf. below), coinciding with the major festivals. Passover (along with the festival of ‘Unleavened bread’) was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (<yG]j^), during which all adult males (at the least) were expected to travel to the central sanctuary (in Jerusalem) to celebrate the festival—cf. Exod 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Deut 16:16f; 2 Chron 8:13; and see the discussion in Parts 1 and 2. In traveling to Jerusalem for the three <yG]j^, Jesus would have been acting like any devout and observant Israelite, and following the example of his own parents, according the tradition Luke narrates in 2:41ff (cf. also vv. 21-24, 39).

Indeed, this is significant for an understanding of the place of the Passover within the Gospel tradition as a whole. We may begin with a brief consideration, again, of the fact that the ‘Last Supper’ was a Passover meal, and that, in holding this meal with his closest disciples, Jesus was celebrating the Passover with them.

As noted above, it is the Lukan Gospel that brings out this association most clearly, both by the way that the meal presented in the narrative (cf. the recent study), and by the words of Jesus in 22:15 (which occur only in Luke’s Gospel). His declaration begins with a Semitic idiom (cognate verbal complement), rendered in Greek, that is almost impossible to translate in English: e)piqumi/a| e)pequ/mhsa, a verb preceded by a (dative) noun from the same root. This syntactic device gives greater intensity and emphasis to the verb. In this instance, the verb is e)piqume/w, which essentially denotes having an impulse (qumo/$) directed toward (lit. upon, e)pi/) something; in English idiom, we would speak of having one’s heart/mind upon something. The related noun e)piqumi/a refers to this impulse. Literally, the two words would be translated something like “with an impulse upon (it), I have set my impulse upon…”; in this case, the sense is better captured in conventional English, respecting the intensive/emphatic purpose of the cognate verbal complement: “I have very much set my heart on…”. I will use this conventional rendering, in idiomatic English, of the first two words as I fill out the translation:

“I have very much set my heart on this Pesaµ [pa/sxa], to eat (it) with you before my suffering [paqei=n].”

There is an obvious wordplay here between pa/sxa, a transliteration of the Hebrew js^P# (pesaµ), and the verb pa/sxw (“suffer”). Philo of Alexandria brings out this same association (cf. the discussion in Part 2), and doubtless it would have been noticed by many Greek-speaking Jews. The verb e)piqume/w also brings in the connotation of “passion,” which, in a religious-ethical context, also contains the idea of suffering.

It is just here that the Passover came to have an entirely new meaning for early Christians, by its connection with the suffering and death of Jesus. Interestingly, the sacrificial language used by Jesus in the ‘words of institution’ for the Supper (Mk 14:24 par; 1 Cor 11:25) derives, not from the Passover tradition, but from the covenant-ratification ceremony in Exodus 24:1-11. The sacrificial offerings in this ceremony included <ym!l*v= offerings, of which only certain parts were burnt on the altar, with the rest of the meat being eaten by the worshiper; indeed, the covenant-ceremony apparently concluded with a ritual meal (v. 11). Like the Passover lamb, the flesh of the <ym!l*v= offerings was eaten, while the blood—at least in the covenant-ritual—was splashed upon both the altar and the people.

The Gospel of John

The Passover tradition is more prominent in the Gospel of John than in the other Gospels. According to the chronology of the Johannine narrative, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for at least three different Passovers, and the Christian interpretation of the festival—specifically in relation to the death of Jesus—was developed in a distinctive way in the Gospel of John. For more on the Johannine theme of Jesus fulfilling, in his person, key aspects of the festivals, cf. parts 8 and 9 of the series “Jesus and the Law”.

John 1:29, 36

In 1:29, and again in v. 36, John the Baptist declares regarding Jesus:

“See, the lamb of God, the (one) taking (up) the sin of the world!”

This is part of the important theme (especially prominent in chaps. 1-3) of John the Baptist as a witness to who Jesus is. Part of this witness involves identifying Jesus as the “lamb” (a)mno/$) of God. Since Jesus is specifically identified with the lamb slain at Passover elsewhere in the Gospel (cf. below), it is naturally for commentators to make the same connection here. Probably this is the primary point of reference intended by the Gospel writer, though one might rightly question whether this would have been the meaning (at the historical level) for John the Baptist. For a concise survey of the interpretive options, cf. the discussion in Brown, pp. 58-63.

How would the Passover lamb have been connected with the idea of “taking away sin”, which more properly refers to a sin offering? There are three factors that may help explain such a connection, within the Gospel tradition, as it was developed.

First, as the Passover lamb came increasingly to be viewed as a sacrificial offering, it was natural that this concept would attract features of other sacrificial offerings—such as the offerings made for sin, or the <ym!l*v= offerings which were more akin (in nature and purpose) to the Passover lamb. Second, central to the Passover tradition were the themes of salvation, liberation from bondage, and protection from God’s judgment—all of which could be applied, figuratively, in relation to sin. There is evidence from Philo of Alexandria’s writings, for example, that Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D. were already interpreting the Passover tradition in this way. Indeed, his utilization of the pa/sxa/pa/sxw wordplay (cf. above) occurs in just such a context. Egypt represents the passions, which lead people to irrational (and sinful) behavior, while the Passover represents moving away from such passions. And, since sin leads to God’s judgment, one can easily see how the protective blood from the slain lamb can also symbolize removal of the effect of sin (by saving/protection from judgment). Finally, there is the established Gospel tradition of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, where the blood “poured out” was connected with the removal of sin, by at least the time of Matthew’s Gospel, since the Matthean version (26:28) contains an explicit reference to the forgiveness of sin.

John 2:13-22

In the Johannine version of Jesus’ Temple-action (i.e., the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple), though it is narrated at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than toward the end (as in the Synoptics), it still takes place around the time of Passover (2:13, 23). Scholars continue to be divided on whether the Gospel of John has relocated the episode to an earlier point in the narrative, or whether the Synoptics have included an earlier Jerusalem episode as part of Jesus’ final time in Jerusalem (since the Synoptic narrative records just one journey to Jerusalem).

The view of some traditional-conservative commentators, that Jesus performed essentially the same Temple-action on two different occasions, has little to recommend it, beyond serving an innate desire to harmonize or explain away the chronological discrepancy.

In the Synoptic version, the connection with Jesus’ death is contextual, occurring as it does so close in time to the Passion-events. By contrast, in the Johannine version, the connection is made explicit—not through the narration of the Temple-action itself, but in the Temple-saying that follows in verses 19ff:

“Loosen [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine, and, in three days, I will raise it.”

This saying is similar to the charge made against Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Sanhedrin interrogation-scene (Mark 14:58/Matt 26:61; cp. Acts 6:14), which, in that narrative, is presented as a false charge, or at least a misrepresentation of what Jesus actually said. According to Jn 2:19, Jesus did, in fact, utter a Temple-saying along these lines. In any case, it is the Gospel writer’s comment in vv. 21-22 that makes the connection with Jesus’ death clear:

“…but he said (this) about the shrine of his body.”

Jesus identifies the Temple with his own person (and body), implying, according to the Johannine theological idiom, that Jesus himself is the true Temple—in contrast to the ordinary/physical Temple in Jerusalem. For more on this subject, cf. Parts 67 the series “Jesus and the Law”; just as Jesus represents the true Temple, so he also fulfills, in his own person and being, the true meaning of all the festivals (cf. Parts 89 of the aforementioned series).

The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6)

In the Johannine version (6:1-15) of the Miraculous Feeding episode (on which, cf. the articles in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”), the miracle takes place around the time of Passover (v. 4). In terms of the original historical tradition, this is quite plausible, given the detail of the presence of green grass (v. 10; Mk 6:39 par), which suggests a spring-time setting. For the Gospel of John, this means that the Bread of Life Discourse which follows (vv. 22-59), and which clearly relates to the miracle, also has a Passover setting.

According to v. 59, the Discourse took place in the synagogue (of Capernaum), and it is possible that Jesus is specifically drawing upon the synagogue Scripture-readings for Passover season (for more on this theory, see the study by A. Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship: A Study of the Relation of John’s Gospel to the Ancient Jewish Lectionary System [Oxford: 1960]; cf. Brown, pp. 278-80). In any case, he utilizes the Moses-Exodus tradition of the Manna (Exod 16), referred to as “bread from heaven” (v. 4; cf. Psalm 78:24-25; 105:40; Neh 9:15).

On the relation of the Bread of Life Discourse to contemporary Jewish expository and homiletical tradition, cf. the important study by P. Borgen, Bread from Heaven: An Exegetical Study of the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John and the Writings of Philo (Brill: 1965).

Jesus identifies himself as the true manna, sent by God the Father to give life to the world (vv. 33, 51); thus he further expounds the expression “bread from heaven” (vv. 32-34) as the “bread of life” (vv. 35-40ff) and “living bread” (vv. 51-58), comparable to the “living water” of 4:10-15. The first section of the discourse (vv. 25-34) develops the expression “bread out of heaven”, with the theological emphasis on Jesus as the one who has come down from heaven (from the Father) to give life. The second section (vv. 35-50) develops the expression “bread of life”, emphasizing that (eternal) life comes through trusting in Jesus (as the one who has come from the Father). Finally, the third section (vv. 51-58) develops the expression “living bread”, emphasizing the life that Jesus, as the Son sent by the Father, possesses, and that one must partake of that life by ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ it.

It is in this final section that the association with Jesus’ death comes clearly into view. And it is unlikely that any early Christian would have missed the strong eucharistic emphasis of vv. 51-58, drawing upon the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (Mk 14:23-25 par), a connection that had already been made within the tradition of the Miraculous Feeding episode itself (cf. verse 11; and compare the language in Mk 6:41 par). I have discussed verses 51-58, as well as the Discourse as a whole, in some detail in prior notes and studies, including currently in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” and as part of a set of notes on “The Spirit and the Death of Jesus”, focusing on the specific interpretive relation between vv. 51-58 and verse 63.

The Passion Narrative (John 19)

Finally, the Johannine Passion narrative clearly identifies Jesus, in his death, as the lamb that is slain for Passover. This is unique to the Fourth Gospel, and, we may presume, to the Johannine tradition which the Gospel writer inherited. Contrary to the chronology of the Passion narrative, Jesus is crucified on the day of Passover Eve (Nisan 14), which means that the Last Supper, if it was intended as a Passover meal, would have been celebrated in advance.

One way that scholars have attempted to harmonize the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies, is to posit that Jesus and his disciples were following a different calendar than that of the Jewish religious establishment. One theory is that they followed a (364-day) solar calendar akin to that which, apparently, was used by the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. the discussion in Part 2). According to this view, Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover earlier in the week, before the date when the rest of Judaism (including the members of the Sanhedrin) would have observed it. This has the benefit of avoiding the implausibility of the Council convening a meeting to interrogate Jesus on the day of Passover. On the whole, it is an attractive theory, but not without its own problems; indeed, the actual evidence supporting it is extremely slight.

There are two (possibly three) details in the narration of Jesus’ death (in chapter 19) which bring out this interpretation of Jesus as the Passover lamb:

    • According to v. 14, Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover eve (cf. above), around the time that the lambs were being killed
    • The mention of the hyssop branch in v. 29 (if original) may be an allusion to the Passover instruction in Exod 12:22
    • Jesus’ legs remaining unbroken (vv. 31-33) is explained (v. 36) in terms of the instruction regarding the Passover lamb (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12; cf. also Psalm 34:20)

In Part 4, we will examine the Passover tradition as it is referenced and interpreted elsewhere in the New Testament and other early Christian writings.

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 2)

Passover—Part 2:
Old Testament and Jewish Tradition

The Earliest Festivals

The ancient historical tradition, associating the Passover festival with the Exodus (Exod 12-13), was discussed in Part 1. The same tradition clearly connects the Passover (js^P#) feast (on the 14th/15th of Abib-Nisan) with the festival of ‘Unleavened (Bread)’ (toXm^) on the 15th-21st of the same month. The two festivals are thus joined together from the earliest times, with the js^P# feast effectively marking the beginning of the seven days of toXm^.

Interestingly, in the Torah regulations found elsewhere in the book of Exodus, greater attention is given to the festival of toXm^. The main reason for this is that the annual cycle of Israelite festivals was, from the very beginning, closely tied to the agricultural cycle. The three great festivals, outlined in the early calendar-notices in the Torah (Exod 23:14-17; 34:18-23), were all harvest festivals. The festival of toXm^, in particular, was related to the barley harvest. It is the first of the three gj^-festivals mentioned in these passages. The etymology of the word gj^ remains uncertain, but it is used almost exclusively in reference to pilgrimage festivals—that is, occasions when the people would travel to a (central) sanctuary location, and there celebrate the festival. The related verb gg~j* (Exod 23:14, etc) denotes the celebration of the festival.

More expansive and comprehensive instructions on the festivals are given in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy 16. In these sections, the Passover is included as a primary festival (Lev 23:4-8; Num 28:16-25; Deut 16:1-8), though always in connection with the seven-day toXm^ period. The notice in Lev 23:4-8 is relatively brief, but declares that the first day of the toXm^, the day of the Passover proper (Abib-Nisan 15), is a call (ar*q=m!) for the people to gather for a holy assembly, a day on which no regular work is to be done (v. 7). Sacrificial offerings are to be made to YHWH at the sanctuary on each of the seven days (v. 8); the seventh day is a day of holy assembly, just like the first. The requirements for the daily offerings are given in Num 28:19-24.

The instruction in Deut 16:1-7 shows signs of development, indicating that we are dealing with a well-established tradition. The reference to the historical tradition of the Exodus in v. 3 sounds very much like a fixed liturgical formula, by which the elements of the Passover feast are meant to remind the celebrants of the Exodus event in Egypt. The main Deuteronomic feature of the Passover instruction involves the centralization of cultic ritual and worship at the (Temple) sanctuary in Jerusalem:

“You are not able [i.e. allowed] to slaughter [i.e. sacrifice] the Pesaµ in any of your gates [i.e. of the towns/cities] which YHWH your Mighty (One) is giving to you, for (it is only) to (be done) at the place which YHWH your Mighty (One) shall choose for (the) dwelling of His name…” (vv. 5-6)

The implication is clear enough: the people must travel to the Jerusalem Temple-precincts, bringing the Passover lamb, to have it slaughtered there. This also means that ritual meal has to be eaten in Jerusalem as well (v. 7).

Old Testament References to Passover

The second celebration of Passover is recorded in Numbers 9:1-14, said to have taken place one year after the first Passover (v. 1), and held at the appointed time (v. 2) and according to the established instructions (vv. 3-5, 11-12, cf. above). This festival was held, at Sinai, following the construction and consecration of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), including a consecration/purification ceremonies for the Levites (8:5-22) in preparation of the performance of their duties in the Tent. This emphasis on (ritual) purity is also prominent in the instructions regarding Passover (9:6-13).

In Joshua 5:10-11, it is stated that the people of Israel celebrated the Passover while they camped at Gilgal, on the 14th day of the month (Abib-Nisan 14/15), according to the tradition. There is no indication that the festival was celebrated during the years of ‘wandering’, prior to the people’s entry into the Promised Land. This essentially confirms the connection between Passover (and the festival of Unleavened bread) and the agricultural cycle (cf. above)—which requires a presence on the land. From this point on, the Israelites will cultivate and farm the land, a change that is symbolized by the manna ceasing on the very day following the Passover (v. 12). This date corresponds with the beginning of the toXm^ festival, and, correspondingly, the people partook, in a very rudimentary way, of the produce of the land.

The notice in 1 Kings 9:25 (par 2 Chron 8:12-13), indicates that king Solomon presided over the festal sacrificial offerings at the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem. This parallels the setting of the Sinai Passover, following the construction of the Tabernacle (cf. above).

According to the Chronicles, the first proper celebration of Passover, held (as intended by the Deuteronomic instruction) in Jerusalem, was arranged by king Hezekiah. According to the Chronicler’s narrative (2nd book, chap. 30), it was truly a grand affair. The call to assemble was sent, even into the northern territories, where it was clearly intended as a (symbolic) way of uniting the remnants of the northern Kingdom with the southern Judean Kingdom (centered at Jerusalem). The exhortation for the people to repent and to “return” to YHWH is expressed in traditional prophetic language. The celebration of Passover is described as part of a wider project of Hezekiah to ‘cleanse’ the Temple from the idolatrous influence and corruption that took place during the reign of his father Ahaz. Because of the work required to restore the proper functioning of the Temple, the celebration of Passover had to be delayed until the second month (vv. 2-3). The narrative also alludes to the fact that, up to that point, the Passover had not been observed as often as it should have been. Indeed, in the history of Israel, as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, the Passover organized by Hezekiah was the first since the initial celebration at Gilgal in the time of Joshua (cf. above).

The books of Kings do not mention the Passover during Hezekiah’s reign, indicating that the first proper Passover, held according to the Torah instructions (especially those in Deuteronomy 16:1-17 [cf. above]), took place during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23:21-23). It was part of the Josianic program of religious reform, tied explicitly to the regulations and instructions given in the “book of the covenant” (i.e., the book of Deuteronomy). This entailed, above all else, the centralization of worship at the Temple-sanctuary in Jerusalem, just as Deut 16 prescribes. A parallel account of Josiah’s Passover is given in 2 Chron 35:1-19, in much expanded form; the grandiose details mirror the earlier Passover held by Hezekiah.

There are only two other direct references to the Passover in the Old Testament. First, there is the notice in Ezekiel 45:21ff, part of the instruction regarding the ritual activities to be held in the new Temple of the (eschatological) New Age. The book of Ezekiel is a product of the exilic period, a period of generations when it was no longer possible to celebrate the Passover at Jerusalem. The first post-exilic celebration (in Jerusalem) by the returning exiles is described in Ezra 6:19-22; this apparently took place sometime prior to the beginning of Ezra’s mission in Jerusalem (c. 458 B.C.).

Jewish Tradition in the First Centuries B.C./A.D.

It is somewhat surprising how rarely Passover and the festival of Unleavened bread are mentioned in Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. For this study, I will focus on writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D., from c. 250 B.C. to the mid-second century A.D. These texts would pre-date the Mishnah tractate Pesaµim (c. 200 A.D.) which gives extensive information on the festival, along with instruction on how it is to be observed.

Prior to the first century A.D., the main surviving passage dealing with Passover is chapter 49 of the book of Jubilees, a work usually dated to the middle of the 2nd century B.C. The bulk of Jubilees is a reworking of the narratives in Genesis and Exodus (up to Exod 24:18), presented as an Angelic revelation to Moses. The thrust of this historical presentation is to affirm, for Israelites and Jews of the 2nd century (in face of the influence of Hellenism), the importance of adhering to the Torah regulations. The section on Passover (chap. 49) comes at the conclusion of the work. In light of the overall emphasis on maintaining ritual purity (vv. 9-11, cf. Num 9:13), the instructions regarding observance of Passover are reiterated (vv. 12-15, 19-21). There is an idealistic sectarian orientation to this instruction, with the focus on the participants being males twenty years and older (cf. Exod 30:14), who are instructed to eat the meal in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 16-17).

There would seem to be a number of points of contact between the book of Jubilees and the Community of the Qumran texts (cf. below). Indeed, Jubilees appears to have been quite popular with the Community, having the status of something like authoritative Scripture. There are at least 15 copies of the work among the surviving Qumran texts, more than for many books of the canonical Old Testament.

We find a similar interpretive reworking of the Old Testament Passover tradition in several other Jewish writings of the period. The author of the book of Wisdom makes extensive use of the Exodus traditions in the closing chapters 16-19, part of a longer treatment (chaps. 10-19) of the role of God’s Wisdom throughout Israelite history. Chapter 18 (vv. 5-19) gives a powerful and moving account of the Passover night, when the Israelites were saved from death (and delivered from their bondage), while the firstborn children of their Egyptian enemies were destroyed. The Passover sacrifice(s), alluded to in verse 9, reflect the faith and unity of all righteous Israelites, being in agreement to live according to God’s law. Wisdom is identified with “the imperishable light of the law” that is given to the world (v. 4).

The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (1st century A.D.) present a similarly imaginative retelling of Israelite history. The command to observe the festivals is introduced at 13:4-7 (paraphrasing Leviticus 23, cf. above). This work also evinces an interesting tendency to identify certain unspecified festal occasions mentioned in Scripture (Judg 21:17-19; 1 Sam 1:3-4ff) with Passover (48:3; 50:2). For another example of a creative retelling of the Exodus/Passover narrative, cf. the Exagoge of Ezekiel (the Tragedian), spec. lines 149-192.

The Qumran Texts

References and allusions to Passover in the surviving Qumran texts are rather slight. Based on the various liturgical and calendric texts, we can be fairly certain that the major festivals played an important role in the life of the Community (and/or those who copied and used the texts). Documents 4Q320-30 give evidence for the use of a (six-year) 364 day solar calendar, tied to performance of ritual priestly duties and used for establishing regular dates for the various festivals. Texts 4Q320-321 and 329a specifically mention Passover. The book of Jubilees (cf. above) followed a similar solar calendar (cf. also 2 Enoch 1:1). Aristobulus also discusses the issue of determining the date for Passover (section preserved in Eusebius’ Church History 7.32.16-18), an indication that such calendrical questions were pertinent among Jews in the 2nd century B.C.

Several surviving documents—1Q34 (and 1Q34bis), and 4Q505/507-509—contain prayers to be recited during the festivals. The specific context cannot always be determined from the fragmentary remains, but several of these prayers may be intended for Passover (e.g., 4Q505 125, 127, 131 [+ 132i]). For a convenient treatment of these texts, with translation and notes, cf. James R. Davila, Liturgical Works (2000) in the Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls series, pp. 15-40.

The Temple Scroll (11Q19) also refers to the sacrificial offerings to be performed in connection with Passover and the seven day toXm^ festival (col. 17), as part of the overall Temple ritual (cp. Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple in chaps. 40-48).

Philo and Josephus

Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria are first-century Jewish contemporaries of the early Christians, writing in Greek, and their treatments of Scriptural tradition (and related matters of religion) are most relevant for a study of the New Testament. In his Antiquities, Josephus retells the Old Testament narratives, often adding imaginative details and other bits of Jewish tradition. The relevant portions of the Exodus narrative, where the Passover (pa/sxa) festival is mentioned, are given in 2.313 and 3.248-9 (cf. also 3.294). References corresponding to other Old Testament passages are: 5.20-21f [Josh 5:10-12]; 9.260-72 [2 Chron 30]; 10.70-71ff [2 Kings 23:21-23 par]. Notices of later celebrations of the Passover are given in 11.110; 14.21, 25ff; 17.213f; 18.29, 90; 20.106-108ff; and in Wars 2.10.

The most notable mention of the Passover by Josephus is in Wars 6.420-8, where he explains how a vast multitude of people, having come to Jerusalem for the festival, found themselves trapped in the city by the Roman siege.

It is typical of Philo that he gives an allegorical interpretation to the Passover tradition. He interprets the Pesaµ (Greek Fasek = Pa/sxa) in the ascetic-philosophical sense of “passing over” from the passions, using a bit of wordplay between pa/sxa and the verb pa/sxw (“suffer,” participle paqw/n), just we might between “passover” and “passion”. The main reference is in On the Special Laws 2.145-9:

“…the passover figuratively represents the purification of the soul; for they say that the lover of wisdom is never practising anything else except a passing over from the body and the passions. And each house is at that time invested with the character and dignity of a temple, the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who has provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions. And those who are to share in the feast come together not as they do to other entertainments, to gratify their bellies with wine and meat, but to fulfil their hereditary custom with prayer and songs of praise. And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honour may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything.” (Yonge translation)

Philo specifically explains the girding of the loins (Exod 12:11) in terms of restraining one’s appetites. By moving away from the passions, and offering the Passover sacrifice (12:4), one makes the ‘advance toward perfection’, with the unblemished lamb symbolizing a moderate spirit. The passage away from the passions should be done promptly and willingly, i.e., “in haste”. Cf. On Allegorical Interpretation 3.94, 154, 165; On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain §63; On the Migration of Abraham §25; Who Is the Heir…? §192f, 255. On the Preliminary Studies §106. The Passover is also mentioned in On the Decalogue §159; and cf. his discussion in On the Life of Moses 2.221-7.

Perhaps the most direct and full exposition of the Passover by Philo is found in Questions and Answers on Exodus (1.4), which I quote here in full (from the LOEB translation by Ralph Marcus):

“They make the Passover sacrifice while changing their dwelling-place in accordance with the commands of the Logos, in return for three beneficent acts (of God), which are the beginning and the middle of the freedom to which they now attain. And the beginning was that they were able to conquer the harsh and insupportable masters of whom they had had experience and who had brought all kinds of evil upon them, and this (came about) in two ways, by having their force and their numbers increase. And the middle was that they saw the divinely sent punishments and disasters which overtook their enemies, (for) it was not the nations which fought against them but the regions of the world and the four elements which came against them with the harmfulness and violence of beasts. That is the literal meaning. But the deeper meaning is this. Not only do men make the Passover sacrifice when they change their places but so also and more properly do souls when they begin to give up the pursuits of youth and their terrible disorder and they change to a better and older state. And so our mind should change from ignorance and stupidity to education and wisdom, and from intemperance and dissoluteness to patience and moderation, and from fear and cowardice to courage and confidence, and from avarice and injustice to justice and equality. And there is still another Passover of the soul beside this, which is its making the sacrifice of passing over from the body; and there is one of the mind, (namely, its passing over) from the senses; and as for thoughts, (their passing over consists) in one’s not being taken with oneself but in willingly thinking further of desiring and emulating prophetic souls.”

Important in relation to the early Christian application of the Passover festival is Philo’s exposition (in On the Special Laws 2.150-61) of the seasonal symbolism, emphasizing the rebirth of new life in the springtime, and the dominance of light over darkness:

“The vernal equinox is an imitation and representation of that beginning in accordance with which this world was created. Accordingly, every year, God reminds men of the creation of the world, and with this view puts forward the spring, in which season all plants flourish and bloom…. For it is necessary that the most beautiful and desirable phenomena belong to those things which are first and have received the position of leadership, those phenomena through which the reproduction and growth of animals and fruit and crops take place, but not the ominous destructive forces. And this feast is begun on the fifteenth day of the month, in the middle of the month, on the day on which the moon is full of light, in consequence of the providence of God taking care that there shall be no darkness on that day.” (vv. 151-5, Yonge translation)

In Part 3, we will begin examining how the Israelite/Jewish Passover tradition influenced early Christian thought. Our initial focus will be on the Gospel of John.

The Ancient Israelite Festivals: Passover (Part 1)

This is the beginning of a regular, periodic series, focusing on the major Festivals of ancient Israel, as attested in the Old Testament Scriptures, and subsequently in Jewish practice. I will be relying primarily on the Scriptural sources, with an emphasis on how the Festival traditions and customs influenced early Christian thought and practice. These studies will correspond, generally if not strictly, with the traditional dating and chronology for each festival during the year. We begin with the festival known as Passover—Hebrew js^P# (Pesaµ), Greek Pa/sxa (Páscha).

Passover—Part 1:
Ancient Origins and Old Testament Background


The traditional term “pasch(al)” comes from the Greek transliteration (pa/sxa, páscha) of the Hebrew noun js^P# (pesaµ), while our English “passover” stems from the customary assumed meaning of the root jsp I in Hebrew (“to pass over”). Unfortunately verb forms of jsp I are extremely rare in the Old Testament, with only four occurrences, three of which are in Exodus 12 (cf. below), and those may represent an attempt to explain the meaning of js^P# in terms of the historical tradition of the Exodus. The other occurrence is in Isaiah 31:5. There is a separate root (jsp II) which apparently means something like “limp, hobble” (cf. 2 Sam 4:4; 5:6; 1 Kings 18:16, 21, and the derived adjective j^s@P! “lame”).

Some commentators believe that jsp I more properly denotes protection (i.e. “guard, protect”) which certainly would fit the context in Exodus 12, as well as the reference in Isa 31:5. The core Exodus tradition indicates that js^P# signifies a specific kind of sacrificial/ritual offering, and could relate to the Akkadian pašâ—u, meaning something like “soothe, appease”, such as of the deity in a ritual context; and, indeed, there are scholars who would explain Hebrew js^P# on this basis. The Hebrew noun itself is used exclusively for the “Passover” festival—or, specifically, to the sacrificial offering of the festival.

The Exodus Narrative and Tradition

Our understanding of the origins and background of the js^P# festival stem almost entirely from the ancient historical-religious tradition(s) in the book of Exodus (chapters 12-13). This, of course, refers to the traditions regarding the “Exodus” of the people of Israel from Egypt, made possible through the miraculous “plagues” that struck the land of Egypt (chaps. 7-12). The last of these plagues took place on the evening of the “first Passover”, the night-vigil of the Exodus.

The narrative in Exodus 12 is typical of the way that traditional narrative and religious law/custom are blended together throughout the Pentateuch, but especially in the book of Exodus. While this is part of the sheer beauty and power of the book, it also creates difficulties for commentators who approach the narrative from an historical-critical perspective—exploring both the historical background and historicity of the narrative. In terms of the Passover/js^P#-tradition itself, there are three aspects which have to be considered:

    • The ancient background of the festival, which may pre-date the Exodus tradition
    • The context of the historical tradition of the Exodus, and
    • The parameters of the festival as it would be understood and practiced subsequently by Israelites
The Initial Reference in Exodus 12:11

The festival is established and outlined in vv. 1-11, at the conclusion of which is the following declaration:

“It is a js^P# to/for YHWH”
(v. 11b, cf. also vv. 27, 48, Lev 23:5, etc)

By all accounts this is an extremely ancient formula, however one evaluates the narrative otherwise from an historical-critical standpoint. This wording suggests that js^P# represents a kind of sacrificial/ritual offering. Apparently it is a familiar term, requiring no explanation; however, it is not immediately clear whether this familiarity should be understood (a) from the standpoint of (later) readers, or (b) in terms of the underlying historical tradition. If the latter (b), then it would mean that Israelites at the time of the Exodus would be familiar with the word and its usage. Let us consider this possibility.

A Pre-Exodus Festival?

A number of critical commentators have posited the theory that the Passover/js^P# reflected a pastoral religious tradition already in existence among Israelites (and/or other Semitic peoples) by the mid/late-2nd millennium (i.e. by the 13th century B.C.). This would conform with other aspects of ancient Israelite religion, whereby current/existing forms and customs were adapted—and re-interpreted—to be given a new and deeper meaning, specific to the religious experience of Israel. For example, the basic design of the Temple/Tabernacle was hardly unique or original, but tended to follow a pattern already in existence in Canaanite Temples, and nomadic Tent-shrines, etc. The same can be said with regard to many aspects of the sacrificial ritual, and other areas of Israelite religion. The uniqueness was not in the specific form, as much as it was of special (revelatory) meaning it had for Israel as the covenant people of YHWH.

The same may have been true of the js^P# offering. It may have originated as a pastoral/nomadic custom—an offering from the flock/herd, possibly intended to ensure God’s protection for the tribe. The communal-meal aspect of the offering could well have been part of the basic rite. According to this theory, Exodus 12:1-11 takes an existing rite, and applies it specifically to the context of the Exodus setting. This is a js^P# offering to God, but one with very special meaning and significance, since it marks YHWH’s protection over Israel and His deliverance of them from bondage in Egypt.

The Traditions in Exodus 12-13

By all accounts, Exodus 12-13 represents a complex blending of historical and religious traditions. The historical Exodus-setting of the Passover rite is, of course, foremost in view; and yet this narrative also serves as the framework for what we would call Torah—that is, instruction on important matters related to the religious and cultural life of the Community. As noted above, the guidelines for performing the Passover festival are given primarily in 12:1-11. The basic details are well-known, and may be summarized as follows:

    • The Passover is to take place in the month of Abib (Nisan, March-April), which becomes the first month of the Israelite calendar (v. 1; cf. 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut 16:8)
    • Each household (ty]B^) selects a lamb (from the sheep or goats) for the Passover meal (vv. 3-5); the lamb is to be a male in its first year, and must be “complete” (<ym!T*)—an adjective with ritual significance, as it refers to the physical wholeness/perfection that is required for sacrificial offerings (Lev 1:3; 3:1; 22:19ff; Deut 15:21, etc).
    • The lamb is selected on the 10th of the month, and kept (vb rm^v*) until the 14th, when it is to be slaughtered “between the two settings (of the sun)” (<y]B*r=u^h* /yB@), a phrase taken to denote the time between noon and sunset—i.e., in the afternoon/evening (vv. 36). According to the Mishnah (Pesaµim 5:5), the slaughtering was done in groups of thirty or more, a number that might cover more than one household.
    • In each house where the meal is eaten, blood from the slaughtered animal is put upon the doorposts and crosspiece (lintel), v. 7. This implies the removal of the animal’s blood before it is eaten, an essential religious and societal requirement for Israel (Gen 9:4; Exod 29:12, etc).
    • The meat (“flesh,” rc*B*) is to be eaten that same night, roasted in fire, and served with toXm^ and “bitter herbs” (<yr!r)m=), i.e., herbs with a sharp/pungent flavor used for seasoning (v. 8). The word hX*m^ is introduced and used here without any explanation, and we may assume that, like js^P# itself (cf. above), hX*m^ was a familiar term even at the time of the Exodus. The context indicates that it refers to flat bread-cakes made without leavening (cf. below), though the relation of the word to the presumed root Jx^m* (“drain [out]”) is not entirely clear.
    • The whole animal is to be roasted, and whatever of it that is not eaten must be burnt up in the fire that night, with nothing remaining of it into morning (vv. 9-10).
    • The instructions regarding how one is to be dressed when eating (v. 11) clearly is meant to symbolize and commemorate the historical circumstances of the Exodus. The historical tradition is particularly emphasized in vv. 12-13; on the central declaration in v. 11b, cf. the discussion above.

More detailed instructions follow in vv. 14-27, beginning with the statement in v. 14, which clearly has future generations of Israelites in mind:

“And this day shall be to you for a memorial (/ork=z]), and you shall celebrate it (as) a festival (gj^) to YHWH…”

Verses 15-20 establish the connection between the Passover festival and the seven-day festival of toXm^ (‘Unleavened Bread’); cf. also in 13:3-16. It is likely that this originally involved two separate celebrations, and the festivals remained distinct throughout Israelite history, even though they were inseparably joined from the earliest time, due to the historical Exodus-tradition. During the seven days (15th-21th of the month), there should be no leavened dough (lit. sourdough, Jm@j*) present in Israelite houses; the leavening agent itself is called roac= (13:7; Deut 16:4, etc), the etymology of which remains uncertain.

Specific ritual instructions for the js^P# (Passover) festival then follow in vv. 21-27, describing: (1) how the blood is to be applied to the doorframe, and the ritual symbolism involved (vv. 22-24); and (2) application of the symbolism within the Passover meal-service in the house (vv. 25-27). The latter includes the famous instruction which forms the basis of the liturgy (Passover Haggadah) that would develop:

“And, it shall be that, (when) your sons should say to you, ‘What (does) this service (mean) for you?’ even (so) you shall say: ‘It (is the) slaughtering [jb^z#, i.e. sacrifice] of (the) passover [js^P#] to YHWH, who passed over [lu^ js^P*] (the) houses of (the) sons of Yisrael in Egypt, in His striking (the) Egyptians; and (indeed) our houses He snatched (out of danger).'” (v. 26f)

Further instructions on the Passover are found in vv. 43-49, following the statement in v. 42, declaring the Passover evening as a night-vigil commemorating the historical tradition of the Exodus.

In Part 2 of this article, we will survey other Old Testament references to the Passover (and toXm^ festival), with some consideration given to how it developed in Israelite/Jewish thought and practice. This will be important for an understanding of how the festival—and its ritual symbolism—influenced early Christianity. The importance of the Passover in the Gospel tradition, with its specific connection to the Passion (and death) of Jesus Christ, is currently being featured in a set of studies in the series “The Passion Narrative” (Episode 2). See also the note on the chronological issues involved with the Passover association in the Gospel narrative(s).