Passover - sacrificed for us
The origins of Passover
Passover is the oldest and greatest of the festivals. It begins on eve of 14 Nissan in the Jewish calendar. This is in the spring and marks the start of the festival year in the ancient biblical calendar, where it is called Aviv. The Exodus from Egypt is the foundational experience of the Jewish people. The Israelite's experience in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land changed them from a band of escaped slaves into a nation. Moreover, the experience of their miraculous escape from Egypt and their protection in the wilderness formed them into a covenant people that from that time onward looked to God as their focus and sovereign.
Slaying of the firstborn
The Exodus begins with Passover. This part of the story centers on the final plague on the Egyptians, the slaying of the firstborn, described in Exodus 12. Each household took a year-old lamb without defect, and on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan, they slaughtered it at twilight. The blood was smeared on the tops and the sides of the door frames and the meat was eaten that night with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. It was eaten in haste, with staff in hand and long clothing tucked into a belt (this is the meaning of the old biblical term, `loins girded'). On that same night the Lord passed through Egypt slaying the firstborn of every household and every animal. Where the blood was on the door posts, the Lord `passed over' the home and the household was safe. This festival was also commanded to be a lasting ordinance, and to be celebrated annually throughout all generations.
Passover in Temple times
Once established in the land of Israel, Passover began to develop as a seven day national holiday. Once the Temple had been built, the Passover celebrations became centered on Jerusalem, as one of the three `pilgrimage festivals'. Each of these had a harvest and an exodus or wilderness theme.
The Passover in New Testament times
It is impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened in a first century Passover celebration. We can look at the oldest Jewish sources, however, and gain a few clues as to the Passover nights that would have been experienced by Jesus throughout his life.
Hillel, the famous rabbi of Jesus' childhood, said that there were three things that were essential to a Passover celebration. These were the Paschal lamb, unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs. He suggested that these were eaten (`bound') together, making a kind of sandwich. It is thought that this might have been the method used to eat the very small piece of Paschal lamb. Each of these things was to remind the descendants of those who came out of Egypt what God had done for Israel. The lamb would remind them that God had passed over their homes; the unleavened bread would remind Israel that God had redeemed them; and the bitter herbs would remind them of the bitterness of slavery under the Egyptians.
By the first century, it had become traditional for the youngest son to ask four questions at the Passover. He would begin by asking why this night was different from all other nights. Then he would ask why on this night the family ate unleavened bread, bitter herbs, dip their food twice and ate the special Paschal lamb. After the destruction of the Temple, the question about the Paschal lamb was changed to ask about reclining to eat. The Romans reclined to eat their banquets and this became the custom for wealthier Jewish people. The rabbis declared that all Jews should recline for the Passover since all should celebrate freedom on that night. This may have been practiced in Jesus' day, since we know that Jesus `reclined at table' on that night (Luke 22:14). These four questions are still a central part of the modern Passover.
In a modern Passover there are four cups of wine to drink, two before the meal and two after the meal. These are to remember the events of Exodus 6:6-7: I will bring you out; I will free you; I will redeem you; and I will take you as my people. In the time of Jesus we cannot be clear that this tradition had already begun, though two cups of wine would have certainly been drunk as they were traditional in all Jewish ceremonial meals. In a modern Passover, a piece of unleavened bread is broken and hidden at the start of the meal. This is known as the afikomen. It is found and eaten at the end of the meal, just before the Redemption cup is drunk. This piece of hidden bread has been linked to the Messiah. Many Christians believe it was the afikomen and the Redemption cup that were taken by Jesus to institute the Lord's Supper.
At the end of the Passover meal, the participants would remain and sing the Hallel Psalms. Many would make their way to the Temple where they would pray until late into the night in the hope and expectation that the Messiah would come. In the account of the Last Supper the disciples first sang a hymn before going up to the Mount of Olives. This was probably the Hallel. Jesus asked them to pray with him into the night.
The First Fruits
On the second morning of Passover, the priests would go out to the Kidron Valley and cut the first sheaf of the newly ripened barley harvest. This was brought in to the Temple and presented as a wave offering. If we follow the timetable of John's Gospel, this first fruits offering was being presented at the Temple early on Easter Sunday morning and would have coincided with the Resurrection of Jesus as first fruits from the grave.
From Passover to Easter
The question many Christians ask is how did Passover develop into the Easter tradition? Some Christians believe it was purely to distinguish the Christian festival from the Jewish one. Others are more positive and see the natural development of an independent tradition. In reality, it was probably a combination of both motivations. No record is left of how the Resurrection was celebrated in the very early years of the church and the first accounts that we have are from the second century AD. By then there were two traditions.1 Some Christians kept very closely to the Passover roots and celebrated Easter on the first night of Passover, that is 14 Nissan. They placed the emphasis on Jesus as the Passover lamb, which is also the central theme of John's Gospel. These Christians largely lived in Asia Minor. The second tradition was to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after Passover. This was a main tradition of the church in Rome and these Christians placed an emphasis on the Resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. The Quartodecimans also followed the Jewish practice of having a fast before Passover. In the Jewish tradition this led up to the Passover meal, but Christians fasted and prayed throughout that night and broke their fast with Communion at about three in the morning. This prayer paralleled Jewish prayer and praise after the Passover meal in the expectation that the Messiah might come.
From the middle of the second century onwards, the Roman Church tried to enforce its calendar for Easter. The date was finally decided at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon that directly followed the Vernal Equinox (21 March). In most years this would coincide with Passover, but it would not always be so. The Eastern Churches still retained the earlier Passover practice for several centuries, and the British (Celtic) Church did not adopt the Roman calendar until Roman missionaries arrived in the sixth century.
From Last Supper to Communion
It is also important to consider how the elements of the Passover meal developed into Christian Eucharist or Holy Communion. The first Communion after the Resurrection was presided over by Jesus himself at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). This would still have been within the eight days of Passover and so unleavened bread would have been provided for the meal. It was only when Jesus said the blessing and broke the bread that the disciples recognized him.
We might expect that Communion would have only been celebrated annually on the eve of Passover. However, it is clear from the New Testament that the believers remembered the death of Jesus through bread and wine as a regular part of their common life. The descriptions are generally in the context of an actual meal and Communion was seen as a foretaste of the heavenly messianic banquet.2
During the first hundred years of the church the meal associated with Communion disappeared. We do not know why this happened, although 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 gives some clues. As many non-Jews came into the church, the spirituality of Communion as part of a meal may have been lost. Paul advises Christians to eat in their own homes before coming together for the Lord's Supper, and that advice may have become the tradition of the whole church.
Justin Martyr wrote one of the earliest complete accounts of Communion after the New Testament. Breaking of bread was described in the context of a service and occurred every Sunday. The service followed a synagogue pattern of reading from scripture, a sermon, prayer, and then the Eucharist was presided over by the leader of the congregation. The term Eucharist was used and its meaning `thanksgiving' was the central theme of the celebration.
For the early Christian community, the Passover context of Communion very quickly developed into a regular community meal context. This gradually became established on the first day of the week and, within a hundred years, the meal faded out leaving Communion to be the center of a thanksgiving service.
Passover through the ages
In the third century, among the teaching written down for the first time in the Mishnah, were all the instructions concerning Passover and the verbal order (Seder in Hebrew) for the ceremony on Passover night. Much of this reflected the traditions that were current in New Testament times. By the Middle Ages the Seder had developed in different communities into elaborate liturgies based on material from the Bible, the Mishnah and other sources. Known as a Haggadah, each liturgy book would also contain songs and would often be elaborately decorated.
There were significant changes once the Temple disappeared. The festivals began to be based around the home. For Passover the emphasis was no longer on obtaining and sacrificing a Paschal lamb, but on keeping the Passover Feast in families. Some families, especially in the Middle East, continued to eat roasted lamb, though they would not make a sacrifice. For many Jews, the inability to have a Passover lamb meant that this was the only meat they did not eat on this night. Instead there were two symbols, a lamb bone and a roasted egg. These were added to the traditional foods of bitter herbs, unleavened bread or matzah, four cups of wine, and a dip called clay or haroset, which was a sweet mixture and was introduced to lessen the bitterness of the herbs. It was mandatory to recline, and the Seder contained four questions from the youngest son, which would prompt the telling of the Passover story by the adults. This passing on of the remembrance of God's redemption of the Jews from Egypt continued to be the key theme.
A modern Passover Seder
A modern Orthodox Jewish family will prepare for Passover for weeks ahead. The house has to be totally spring-cleaned to make sure that absolutely no leaven is left. Passover crockery for both meat and milk meals are brought out. Any cooking pots that are used during the rest of the year have to be made kosher for Passover by placing under a flame. Special foods are prepared and arrangements made for large family gatherings.
On the first night, the table is set with the Passover dinner service. There are two candles for the mother of the house to light, and the Matzah (unleavened bread) is placed in a special cover. The other ceremonial foods are arranged on an ornate plate, which also holds the shank bone of the lamb. Wineglasses are on the table and sometimes an ornate cup for the father. There is always an extra place laid for Elijah and he has an extra large cup filled to the brim.
The candles are lit, the family gathers and the Seder begins. As they go through the ancient rite, there is a sense that they too were once slaves in Egypt and God also brought them out from there. The food when it finally arrives is the best meal of the entire year and at times everyone reclines (or at least leans, with their left elbows on the table) to remember the old tradition. The order is a long one and there are many extra bits for the children to keep them awake, including some special nonsense songs at the very end. Finally, in the early hours of the morning the Seder ends and the children are gathered up and taken off to bed. There are still seven more days of Passover, when only unleavened food is eaten and sometimes families have a second night Passover Seder, either in another family home or, especially among Reform Jews, in the synagogue itself.
Making the link
Passover and Easter are inextricably linked and understanding the Passover traditions will greatly enhance Christian understanding of the death and Resurrection of Jesus as well as the Last Supper account. In the intervening centuries, Passover and Easter have developed different traditions and responded to different conditions. It is particularly important to understand the history of persecution that Jewish people have experienced at Passover time if we are to understand the significance of having a `Christian Passover'. This could not have taken place a few hundred years ago or even a few decades ago in some European countries.
It is also important for Christians to understand Passover for its own sake. Jewish people see the Passover and Exodus as the formative period for them as a people. In the Old Testament itself this is the pivot around which all of the rest of the teaching and history rotates.
1. Bradshaw, P., Early Christian Worship (SPCK: London, 1996) p.80ff.
2. Acts 2:42-47 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
This page contains edited extracts from A Feast of Seasons. The full chapter give the complete development of Passover, an in-depth analysis of Passover in the New Testament and gives ideas for celebration including a menu and recipes for a Passover celebration with a liturgy that is easy to follow. There are instructions for making the various items needed including the special cover for the unleavened bread or Matzah.