I want to interrupt our study of Matthew for a few weeks in order to turn our attention to the great themes of Good Friday and Easter as we live through these aspects of the Christian story. It is an appropriate time to do this. We have now carried Matthew’s story through the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; we have identified the sources from which the concept of miracles has entered this gospel; we have brought Matthew’s text up to the point where he has joined his primary source, Mark, which he will now track very closely. It is, thus, the perfect moment to pause to absorb what we have done so far and to turn our attention briefly to the seasonal stories of Jesus’ cross and its meaning.
To accomplish this I want to look at the crucifixion and resurrection through a primary symbol of the Christian faith, a symbol so universal that it is immediately recognized and yet so enigmatic that it is almost universally misunderstood. I start with a story.
Several years ago, when I was making the first of what would ultimately be three lecture tours of Sweden, we visited the Swedish National Cathedral in Stockholm. There we discovered a statue placed in one of the major crossings in that structure. There was no plaque to identify it. It was not a statue of Jesus or one of the twelve disciples. This being a Lutheran Cathedral, it was not a statue of the Virgin. It was not even a statue of one of the heroes of Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon or even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century Lutheran pastor and martyr hanged by the Nazis. No, this was simply the statue of a lamb! It did not seem strange because a lamb has become a universally recognized symbol for Jesus. Have you ever wondered how that happened? What was the process by which a lamb entered the Christian story so deeply that in many churches today, Christians refer to Jesus as “The Lamb of God?”
The answer is found in what will be a familiar source for readers of this column. The lamb entered the Christian story through the life of the synagogue. It came out of Jewish worship. There are, however, three distinct and different lambs in Jewish worship, but in the Gentile ignorance of western Christianity, we have tended to blend them all into one, thereby confusing the symbol dramatically. Over the next three weeks I will try to separate the three lambs used as symbols in Jewish worship and to show how each in turn shaped the Christian story. Today, I will focus on the Lamb of Passover and its profound influence on Christianity.
Paul was the first biblical writer to make the connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb. Addressing a letter to the church in Corinth about 54 CE, Paul likened Jesus’ death to the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb at Passover. “Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed,” he wrote, “let us, therefore, celebrate the festival (I Cor. 5:7).” What was the connection in Paul’s mind between the lamb of Passover and the story of Jesus on the cross? To answer that question, we need to know the Passover story. Most Christians do not, so, let me relate it.
In the book of Exodus, we discover that the Passover was born out of the final in a series of ten plagues that God was said to have visited on the Egyptians to force them to free their Hebrew slaves. Today we must wonder just why the divine power was not sufficient to achieve such a release with just one plague. The Exodus narrative, however, actually suggests that the Pharaoh, during this reign of terror, went to Moses more than once and said: “Enough! We will let you go! Just call off your God.” So Moses prepared to leave. The text of the story then says, however, that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” so that more plagues became necessary. Apparently God enjoyed beating up the Egyptians!
This final plague was the most terrifying one of all. According to Exodus, God’s plan was to send the “angel of death” throughout the land of Egypt to kill, let me say it more emotionally, to murder the first born male in every Egyptian household. The practical problem was to determine how this angel of death was going to tell the difference between Egyptian and Jewish homes, lest some of the executed victims should turn out by mistake to be Jewish. God, therefore, instructed the Jews to gather themselves into extended families so that no single Jewish man, woman or child was left out and then to choose a lamb from their flocks. The lamb was to be slaughtered in the afternoon, then roasted and eaten at a special meal that would occur on the night when this dreadful final plague was to occur. They were also told to drain the blood from the lamb and spread it on the doorposts of all Jewish homes. When the angel of death saw the bloody doorposts, this angel would know that this was a Jewish home and would pass over it, thus killing only Egyptians. That experience was the source of the word “Passover.”
The blood of the Passover Lamb was thought to have the power to repel death among the “chosen people,” in this critical moment of their national history. Once Paul had chosen this analogy, it became a regular theme for Christian preaching in the synagogue during the Passover season. In this way, the crucifixion of Jesus and the killing of the paschal lamb were drawn together so tightly that by the time the gospels were written, some forty to seventy years after the crucifixion, it seemed natural to locate the story of the crucifixion in the season of Passover. I doubt if that is historically accurate, since there are too many details in the crucifixion story that cry out for a fall date for the crucifixion. Let me mention just three of them briefly.
If Jesus’ crucifixion had occurred originally at Passover, that would have placed it in late March to early April on our calendars. Yet in the first account of the last week in Jesus’ life in Mark’s gospel, he says that a week earlier Jesus had been welcomed to Jerusalem with a procession in which leafy branches were waved. There are no leaves on branches at that time of the year in that part of the world. Leaves do not appear on trees until about the first of May. When Matthew wrote his gospel about a decade after Mark, and using Mark as his guide, he came across this problem and sought to address it. So the leaves disappeared in Matthew’s narrative and his crowd waves only branches. Branches without leaves, however, are sticks. It is the leaves that wave so Matthew’s attempt to adjust this text to reality is odd.
When Luke writes, perhaps a decade after Matthew, and with Mark also as his guide, he too appears to sense a problem and so he omits both the leaves and the branches. Luke’s crowd simply lays down its garments over the road on which the procession is to walk. Even that, however, suggests a warmer climate that late March, for these clothes would have been their outer garments and in the early spring, temperatures would be uncomfortable without this clothing. Perhaps early spring then was not the original setting of the crucifixion.
The second hint comes again first in Mark in one of the stranger stories of the New Testament. On the first day after the “Palm Sunday Procession” into Jerusalem, Mark says that Jesus and his disciples journeyed from Bethany, where they had spent the night, back into Jerusalem, about a two mile walk. During this early morning trip, Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry and seeing a fig tree in the distance, he went to pick some figs to eat. This tree, however, had no figs. No fig tree in the Northern Hemisphere ever produces figs in late March! In his disappointment, however, Jesus was said to have laid a curse on that fig tree. Then they continued on to Jerusalem where they threw out the money changers in the Temple, pronouncing that place “a house of prayer for all people and not a den of thieves.” At the end of that day, they returned to Bethany and on the way back, they passed the cursed fig tree now dead to its roots. It is a very un-Jesus-like story. Does one curse a fig tree for not producing figs in March? Does one curse a man for not being able to get pregnant? Some things are bound by nature.
Matthew, apparently embarrassed by that story, collapses it into a single unit in which the tree wilts and dies immediately when cursed. In his gospel it does not linger on in two episodes. Luke, apparently equally embarrassed by this story, omits it entirely, but later adds to his gospel a parable about a barren fig tree. A fall date would transform this fig tree story dramatically.
The final thing to note is that the Jews celebrated a harvest festival each fall called Sukkoth. At this festival, worshipers paraded around the Temple waving a lulab, a handful of branches made up of willow, myrtle and palm. As they marched waving their “leafy branches”, they recited the 118th psalm, which says: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We recognize these words as ones now said on Palm Sunday. They appear to have been taken from the fall liturgy of Sukkoth and moved into the orbit of Passover. Did that also happen to the story of the crucifixion?
I am now persuaded that the story of the crucifixion was moved from the fall into the season of Passover sometime between the crucifixion and the writing of the gospels. I suspect it was done to enable the symbol of the Passover lamb to be applied to Jesus. In that development, the cross came to be thought of as the doorpost of the world. Jesus, the new Paschal Lamb, when crucified was said to have covered this symbolic doorposts with his blood. His blood, like the blood of the Passover lamb, was thought to be capable of repelling death. That was the claim the Christians were making in the resurrection. It all fit together and it made sense to the Jewish audience for whom the gospels were originally written.
If we knew how to read the gospels with Jewish eyes, these stories would make sense to us also! This is not a literal story; it is an interpretation of Christ as our “new Paschal lamb,” whose death broke the power of death for us.
Next week I will examine Jesus understood as the Lamb of Yom Kippur.