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.