Thursday, April 04, 2013

Did the Crucifixion Take Place at the Time of Passover?

by John Shelby Spong

Mark, the earliest gospel to be written (ca. 72 CE) locates the crucifixion of Jesus in the season of Passover, suggesting that the “Last Supper” was a Passover meal. Matthew, the second gospel to be written (ca, 82-85), and Luke, the third (ca. 88-93), follow Mark’s lead and between the three of them the Passover-crucifixion connection was installed deeply into the Christian tradition. Most people today assume this connection and think of it as historically real.

John, the last gospel to be written (ca. 95-100), destabilizes this connection, but only very slightly. He says the “Last Supper” was not the Passover meal, but one eaten in preparation for or in anticipation of the Passover. This new detail in the passion narrative enabled John to present the crucifixion of Jesus as occurring at the exact time that the Passover lamb was being slaughtered, tying together quite firmly the symbol of Jesus as the “new Passover lamb.” This means that in John the Passover meal was eaten in the evening of the day Jesus was crucified. With this slight variation, all of the gospels locate the crucifixion in the Passover season.

When we go back into the pre-gospel writing period of Christian history, however, we discover that in the years before 70 this connection is not at all so firm. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64, is the first New Testament writer to describe the “Last Supper.” He does so in I Corinthians 11 (ca. 54). There Paul writes: “On the night he (Jesus) was ‘betrayed,’ he took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it.”

Three things are of note about this first biblical reference to that final meal that was to become so important in Christian history and practice. First, there is no suggestion whatsoever in this Pauline epistle that this meal that “occurred on the night he was betrayed” was a “Passover meal.” Second, the word we have translated as “betrayed” literally means “handed over” and that is not quite the same as “betrayed.” Third, there is no hint anywhere in the entire Pauline corpus that he knew the story of Judas Iscariot and no suggestion that he was aware that the “handing over” of Jesus was done by one of the twelve. So, in the earliest layer of New Testament writing that we have there is no connection between the betrayal, the Passover meal and the crucifixion. We then are led to wonder whether this connection had not yet been made or whether Paul simply omitted this important detail.

Continuing to search in the writings of Paul, however, we do discover that Jesus and the Passover lamb had been symbolically linked, probably liturgically, by Paul. In I Cor. 5:7, the apostle writes: “Christ our new paschal lamb (or Passover) has been sacrificed for us.” This verse points to the established fact that in the early days of the Christian movement, the liturgy of the synagogue was the context in which the Jesus story was told and understood. Not only had Jesus been coupled liturgically with the Passover lamb, but in other gospels sources he was also identified with the sin-bearing scapegoat and the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Matthew’s narrative of the “Sermon on the Mount” is set against background of the observance of Shavuot, the Jewish day of Pentecost, which celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. John the Baptist in each of the synoptics appears to proclaim the message identified in the synagogue with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration contains elements that link it to the Jewish celebration of Dedication, now called Hanukkah.

It appears that the use of the symbols of the Jewish liturgical year to interpret the life of Jesus was a very early pattern. Understanding Jesus as the Passover Lamb was just one more of these. So, we ask: Did the liturgical connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb cause the story of the crucifixion of Jesus to be moved into the season of Passover or was the season of Passover actually the time in which the crucifixion occurred? My study over the years has increasingly led me to conclude that the crucifixion and the season of Passover were not originally attached historically in any way, but that the crucifixion was drawn into the orbit of that season as an interpretive device. Let me cite the data that has lead me to that conclusion.

Mark, who gave us the first account of the crucifixion that we possess, says that it was the Passover that drew Jesus to Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion. The dates of Passover are 14-15 Nisan, which would locate it on our calendars in late March or early April. He also says, however, that a week prior to the crucifixion Jesus rode into Jerusalem in what we call “the Palm Sunday Procession,” at which time the crowds waved “leafy branches” and shouted words from the 118th psalm, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord.” A week before Passover would place that procession even earlier in either March or April. If one is familiar with plant life in that part of the Middle East, one would know that there are no leaves on the branches that early in the spring. That is the first crack in suggesting that the connection between crucifixion and Passover might not be of history. Leafy branches are a strange Passover season detail.

It is interesting to note what both Matthew and Luke do with this detail, since both of them had Mark in front of them when they wrote and their gospels represent both a borrowing from and an expansion of Mark. Matthew seems recognize that there is a problem with leafy branches at that time of the year, so he removes the leaves from his narrative and has the crowd only wave “branches.” It is, however, only the leaves that wave, leafless branches are just sticks. One suspects that Matthew recognized that something about the inclusion of “leafy branches” just did not quite fit and so he sought to make a clarifying adjustment.

When Luke, about a decade after Matthew, wrote his account of Palm Sunday, he also seemed to sense an incongruity and he responded by omitting both the leaves and the branches. Luke rather has the crowd lay down their garments before Jesus as the procession unfolds. Even this detail, however, points to a warmer season than early spring. One is not likely in the “holy land” to shed one’s outer garments in late March or early April.

There is still another story in Mark’s passion narrative that raises a similar question. After the Palm Sunday procession, Mark tells us that Jesus went to the Temple, looked around, saw the money changers and left with his disciples, going to the village of Bethany about two miles away to spend the night. The next day, Mark says, Jesus went back to Jerusalem, this time to confront the money changers in the Temple. On this return trip Mark says that Jesus was hungry and, seeing a fig tree in the distance, went to it in search of fruit. No fruit was found for this is late March or early April and no fig tree in the northern hemisphere produces fruit in the early spring. Mark acknowledged this fact by saying “it was not the season for figs!” Mark tells us, nonetheless, that the disappointed Jesus laid a curse on this fig tree for the sin of not producing figs in March! At the very least, that was an un-Jesus like act.

Jesus and the disciples then continued to Jerusalem where he cleansed the Temple of those who bought and sold animals, returning to Bethany that afternoon by the same route. On the trip home, Mark says that Jesus and his disciples came to this fig tree, which by now had shriveled and died. It is a strange story that raises many questions. At the very least, if this story had been set in the fall of the year some of its strangeness would vanish. Was that then its original setting? Was it moved to the early spring at the time when the crucifixion was also moved to the early spring?

Once again, it is interesting to see what Matthew and Luke do when they come to this Marcan story. Matthew collapses it into a single episode not separated by the events at the Temple. It is as if he were embarrassed and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. Luke simply omits the story. Some suggest that he turned it into his “Parable of the Fig Tree.” Thus in both Matthew and Luke there appears to be some “dis-ease” about the time of the year in which the story of the crucifixion has been placed, which suggests that perhaps the season of Passover was not the original setting.

Finally, we note that in the Jewish liturgical year, the harvest or fall festival, called Sukkoth, has some activities connected with it that the Christians clearly borrowed and moved from the fall to spring, where these details did not quite fit. At Sukkoth a procession through the streets and to the Temple was a major part of the celebration. The worshipers in that procession carried in their right hands a bunch of leafy branches made up of myrtle, willow and palm called a lulab, which they waved while marching. They also shouted the words of the 118th Psalm. This was, however, a fall harvest festival. The gospel writers clearly moved the symbols from Sukkoth in the fall and placed them, rather awkwardly, into the spring season of Passover.

These are the details that have convince me that the time of the crucifixion might also have been shifted, driven by the power of the symbol of Jesus understood as the “new Passover lamb.” These connections were developed liturgically and homiletically over the years. In the first Passover, the blood of the Paschal lamb was sprinkled on the doorposts of Jewish houses on the night of the Exodus, when the angel of death swept through the land of Egypt to kill the first born male in every household. When the death angel saw the blood of the paschal lamb on the doorposts, the angel would “pass over” those houses as if repelled by the blood of the lamb. To the blood of the lamb was attributed death-defying power.

The followers of Jesus developed that analogy by suggesting that the blood of the new paschal lamb on the cross, understood as the doorposts of the world, now repelled the power of death from the followers of Jesus. It was a powerful, symbolic story, true, but not literally or historically accurate. In it, however, we find a clue to reading the gospels non-literally, for this is the way they were written and I am convinced that this is the way they were intended to be read.

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