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.
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 6–7 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 8–9 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.