Labor Day is over. Little children, carrying new book satchels and wearing new clothes, have found their way back to their schools. University students have returned to their campuses and the football season is well underway. Summer’s vacation time is over. So it is time for this column to return to its theme for the year, a week by week study of the gospel of Matthew. We study Matthew through this column, however, from a very different perspective than the way we once did in our childhood Sunday school classes. We read it through Jewish eyes with the recognition that it is a Jewish book.
This gospel is a product of the synagogue and was written before Christianity separated itself from Judaism. Matthew’s organizing principle is not the life of Jesus, as we have assumed through the ages, but is the liturgical calendar followed in the synagogue. Week by week I have sought to illustrate how the memories of Jesus have been related to the holy days in the Jewish calendar. That is why the story of Jesus’ crucifixion has been attached to the Passover. That is why Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” has been shaped by the liturgy of Shavuot, which remembers the time when Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. That is why the story of John the Baptist and the signs of the in-breaking Kingdom of God have been attached to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when prayers for God’s kingdom to come are recited. We have examined each of these connections in great detail. Today we come in our study to the next holy day of the Jewish calendar. It is called Sukkoth and it is the harvest festival of the Jewish people. Thus we re-enter our study of Matthew’s gospel at this point.
This Jewish version of Thanksgiving Day was probably the most anticipated, happiest celebration of the liturgical year. It came when the agricultural cycle was complete and the harvested food was stored for the winter. The Jewish people called it not just Sukkoth, but Tabernacles and Booths as well. It was an eight day observance and was the third holy season to be observed in the Jewish fall month of Tishri. Strangely enough, however, despite its clear popularity, which exceeded that of both Passover and Shavuot, this festival was only mentioned by name once in the entire New Testament (John 7).
Mark, as we have earlier observed in this series, began his gospel with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of the month of Tishri, and he concluded it with Passover in the spring month of Nisan. Mark then added the single story of Jesus’ resurrection to the first Sabbath after Passover to conclude his story. That is why the original text of Mark’s gospel comes to an end rather abruptly with verse 8 of chapter 16.
Major Jewish festivals, like Sukkoth and Dedication (Hanukkah), however, later took on an octave of eight days to enhance their meaning. So it was not long before an octave came to be wrapped around Easter by the Christians. This meant that a second Easter story had to be developed to provide a proper lesson for the second Sabbath that would fall within the octave. So someone added to Mark’s final chapter verses 9-20, which are still carried in some versions of the Bible as part of Mark’s original text. This second resurrection story, written well after the original publication of Mark, thus gave some early Christians a chance to flesh out Mark’s rather spare story of Easter. They did just that. Recall that in the original Marcan Easter story there was no recorded resurrection appearance of Jesus made to anyone, so by adding verses 9-20 more spectacular details could be included.
When we move to the later gospels, we discover that each of them has two distinct resurrection stories to cover the two Sabbaths that would be included within the octave. In Matthew one of these stories is set at the tomb near Jerusalem while the other takes place in Galilee on top of a mountain. Luke’s two Easter stories are set with one at the tomb near Jerusalem and the other in a village called Emmaus. Finally, John also gives us two resurrection stories, the first revolving around the tomb and featuring Magdalene, Peter and the “Beloved Disciple.” The second was set in the upper room involving appearances to the disciples, once without Thomas and once with Thomas.
The harvest festival, called Sukkoth, became the best known of the octave celebrations in the Jewish liturgical year. While Mark, Matthew and Luke do not mention Sukkoth by name, they each, however, have included a cluster of harvest stories located at exactly the right time in the Jewish calendar to allow the followers of Jesus to celebrate this eight day festival with appropriate Jesus’ narratives.
In Mark, the whole of chapter 4 is dedicated to harvest stories, most particularly including that long and elaborate “parable of the sower,” who sowed his seed on four different kinds of soil and thereby produced four different kinds of harvest. It is clear in Mark’s gospel that Sukkoth has arrived in the synagogue. Matthew will follow Mark’s lead very closely.
Before we begin to look at Matthews’s version of the Sukkoth celebration, however, let me first flesh out our knowledge of all the aspects that the observance of Sukkoth contained. A major element was a liturgical procession through the streets of Jerusalem and into the Temple. For this procession, the worshipers carried a bundle of leafy branches called a “lulab.” These branches were made up, according to a prescription set forth in the book of Leviticus, from the trees of willow, myrtle and palm. They were bound together and carried in the right hand of those in the procession, where they were waved during the march as the worshippers recited the words of the 118th psalm, the psalm most associated with Sukkoth. Among the words of this psalm are these: “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”
Waving leafy branches and reciting these words are immediately recognized by Christians as reminiscent of the Palm Sunday procession, which makes it appear that they might have originally been borrowed from Sukkoth and moved to Palm Sunday. This is just one of the reasons why some scholars suggest that Passover was not the original context of the crucifixion, and that historically the crucifixion was an event that occurred in the fall of the year rather than in the spring. Perhaps the movement of the crucifixion from Sukkoth in the fall to Passover in the spring came primarily from the interpretive process of identifying Jesus as the new paschal lamb of Passover. Paul had originally made this connection about the year 54, long before any of the gospels were written, when he wrote the letters to the church in Corinth and proclaimed that Christ is “our new paschal lamb who has been sacrificed for us, therefore,” he continued, “let us keep the feast.”
The next thing that marked the Sukkoth celebration was that, in addition to waving leafy branches in the air as they walked around the Temple reciting the words of Psalm 118, they also carried in their left hand something called an ethrog (pronounced e-trog) into which was placed the sweet smelling fruit, perhaps even the zest, as well as the leaves and the flowers of the citron tree. There is some speculation that this ethrog custom was represented in the gospel story by the account of the women bringing sweet smelling spices to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.
The final distinguishing mark of the Sukkoth celebration was that the people were encouraged to erect a temporary booth outside their homes in which, on one of the eight days of the Sukkoth celebration, they were required to eat a ceremonial meal. From these temporary structures this celebration acquired “Booths” as one of its traditional names. These booths were said to remind the people of that historical time spent in the wilderness between Egypt and what they believed was their “promised land,” when, as a people, they lived without housing that had any permanency.
These symbols were all brought together in the Sukkoth celebration, when the leafy branches were laid across the top of the temporary booth to provide a covering; the ethrog was placed inside the booth to provide it with a special fragrance, while they observed the ritual of eating a ceremonial meal inside that temporary dwelling.
Are there any echoes of this “booth” tradition in the gospel story? We speculate, once we develop Jewish eyes, that the tomb of Jesus might have been originally conceived of as a “temporary dwelling.” It was said to have been the gift of one named Joseph of Arimathea, described in Mark as “a ruler of the Jews” and in Matthew as “a rich man.”
The story of Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four gospels, but no mention of him ever appears except in this final episode in Jesus’ life. Most scholars believe that this Joseph tradition has its origins, not in historical memory so much as in the task of making the story of Jesus conform to the messianic expectations found in the prophets. II Isaiah (chapters 40-55) does say in chapter 53 that the “suffering servant,” the hero of this 6th century BCE passage, whose story was so often applied to Jesus, was himself “with a rich man in his death” (Isa.53:9).
Perhaps a more specific identification between the temporary dwelling of Sukkoth and the Easter story appears in Luke’s Emmaus Road story. Luke is the only gospel to record this account of Cleopas and his companion, stopping at a temporary place to share a ceremonial meal with the stranger, who had accompanied them from Jerusalem after the crucifixion. In this unique episode, the stranger was said to have presided over that ceremony by “taking, blessing, breaking and giving” the bread in order to start that meal with the traditional blessing. In this action, Luke said, the stranger was recognized as Jesus and then vanished out of their sight.
For those who have the eyes to see, Jewish symbols are constantly woven into the gospel narratives. Now with the symbols of Sukkoth raised to our consciousness, we will return to Matthew’s narrative and watch how he weaves his story of Jesus around the observance of Sukkoth, the harvest festival of the Jews.