Thursday, 13 April 2017

Passover 2 - The Last Supper and Easter

Previously, we saw how our Easter celebrations should be more significant than our Christmas parties. How, then are we to memorialise the pinnacle event of History? What does Scripture have to say?

Today we have Easter with chocolate eggs, the Easter Bunny, a Sunday morning service and a long weekend. But this wasn’t how the crucifixion was originally remembered, nor is it quite what scripture envisaged, especially with the adding of a mythical creature. Where did Easter come from? It’s interesting to note that the term Easter comes from the Germanic name of the month when the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection took place Eosturmonath (Eostur month). But this name for the celebration is relatively new. We see this in the work by the 8th Century monk, A Reckoning of Time:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance (in Wallis 1999, p54).

So even by the 8th century, the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus was still referred to as ‘Passover’. In fact, the word Easter seems to have only come into usage around the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century. One of the oldest examples seems to be in Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible when he translated the Greek pascha (Passover) into Osterfest in verses such as Luke 2:41. And shortly after, Tyndale used the English variant Easter in his translation. However, the English and German speaking world seems to be the only ones who use ‘Easter’, while many others continued to use variations of the Greek Pascha. For example, in Spanish: Pascua, Dutch: Pasen, and in Afrikaans: Paasfees.

It appears, therefore, that at least etymologically, Passover is closer to how the early church memorialised the death and resurrection of our Messiah than chocolate eggs and a mythical rabbit. I intend to cover the historical journey from Passover to Easter in a future post, however for now, I want to focus on what the Apostolic writers and Jesus had to say about Easter. How does Scripture tell us to memorialise the death and resurrection of Jesus? Of course, remembering and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus should be a daily occurrence, just as celebrating and honouring one’s marriage should be a regular occurrence. But is there a sense in which it should be memorialised more significantly like a birthday or anniversary?

We find two significant passages of scripture that tells us to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, and how, which are tied to the one event: The Lord’s Supper. One passage is from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and is a retelling of what Jesus said to His disciples at His last supper.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (cf Matt26:26-28, Mk 14:22-24, Lk 22:19-20).

We have here in the words of Paul, a retelling of a tradition and practice that began with Jesus on the night that he was betrayed. That night, He told His disciples to eat bread and drink wine ‘in remembrance of [Him].’ But note the wording in verse 26: This bread and the cup. These are written in what is known as the ‘accusative’ case, which can be best understood as a limiting case (Webb and Kysar, 119-120). For example, in John 8:46, Jesus said: “Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” Here truth is in the accusative case, thus limiting Jesus’ words to truth. So, according to Scripture, we ‘proclaim’ or celebrate ‘the Lord’s death’ not with any old bread, but with this bread. And not just with a cup, but the cup (Biblically speaking, cup doesn’t necessarily refer to the vessel, but more often a reference to its contents).  To understand what these are, we need to consider the context in which Jesus gave this instruction. What was Jesus doing on ‘the night He was betrayed’?

Luke’s Gospel explains most clearly the context for that meal:
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?”  He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer (Lk 22:7-15) [emphasis added].

Now, the chronology of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion is a debated one, and not one I intend to resolve completely in this post, but Jesus’ words seem to make it quite clear that they were eating a Passover meal. And I believe He does so in three ways. 
Firstly, the day ‘the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed’ was the 14th of Nisan (Lev 23:5, Ex 12:6-8, 2Chro 35:1), which by the First Century became known as both Passover and Unleavened Bread (Josephus, Ant. 18.2.2). 
Secondly, Jesus sent his disciples to prepare the Passover that he may eat it with them. In Matthew, the disciples relay to the man that Jesus had said ‘I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples’ (Mat 26:18). 
And thirdly, just before he broke the bread he calls what they are about to eat, 'Passover.' This could be referring to the whole meal itself, but more likely as a shorthand name for the sacrificed lamb (Ex 12:21,43; Deut 16:1-6).

Now, it could be argued that because a number of the elements of the Passover meal, or seder, are missing, it couldn’t have been the Passover.  However, many of the things  today that are a part of the Passover Seder today that we are familiar with (charoset, egg, four cups etc...) are part of a tradition that post-dates the first century. What the bible does prescribe is the lamb, bread, and bitter herbs. Although not mentioned explicitly, the bitter herbs could be what is referenced in John 13:26, and the lamb, as mentioned above, was possibly named with the shorthand, Passover. But even if they’re not, Tim Hegg (2009, 10) explains that:
The fact that the Pesach lamb or meat eaten from it is not mentioned in the ensuing narrative of the Synoptics should not be considered significant... It is apparent that the Synoptic authors were focusing more on the bread (matzah) and wine since it was through these symbols of the seder that Yeshua emphasize His own death as the Pesach lamb.
Another argument against Jesus eating a Passover meal is that he was crucified on the 14th, therefore it could not have been a Passover. Typically, John 18:28 is quoted to support this:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
Here, the priests have accompanied Jesus to Pilot, and out of fear of being rendered ‘unclean’ and unable to participate in the Passover (Num 9:6-7). However, this need not be necessarily about the lamb sacrificed on the 14th, but rather the festival sacrifices made throughout the week of Unleavened Bread, which are also called 'Passover.' This is laid out in Deuteronomy 16:1-3
 Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.
Here, the people are instructed to eat it, (the Passover sacrifice) for seven days with Unleavened Bread. Considering that the lamb sacrificed on the 14th cannot remain after the next day, and that verse 2 talks about sacrificing from the flock or herd (meaning it isn’t just a lamb), it is apparent that sacrifices continued throughout Passover week is what the priests outside of Caiphas’ house were concerned about.

But even apart from these explanations, the fact that Jesus said on the day the Passover lambs were sacrificed: ‘Go prepare the Passover’; ‘I will eat the Passover’; and ‘I want to eat this Passover’, it’s quite clear that this bread and the cup that Jesus told us to remember Him by, was the bread and wine of the Passover.
Consider this scenario. Say I ask my wife to buy and prepare a roast chicken so that I can eat a chicken with her, and that night I say, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this chicken with you', what do you think I'm eating? Chicken. Do think after all that I'd just not eat it? Why would Jesus and the Passover be any different?
 I don’t believe Jesus was abolishing Passover or reinventing it. We don’t find those words from Jesus, nor any reaction from the disciples that would suggest otherwise; e.g. “You mean we’re not doing Passover anymore?” Consider how deeply the Passover was engrained in the disciple’s identity, culture, and history. If Jesus was getting rid of it, surely there would have been some reaction. Perhaps this is just an argument from silence, but this silence is quite significant. Rather, I believe Jesus was helping His disciples to see how the Passover, which celebrated the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, was pointing to the way Jesus would redeem humanity from slavery to Satan, sin and death. A symbolism hidden within the meal that was now coming to light, as reflected in his fulfilling the law statement from Matthew 5:17. And now He is telling His disciples, 'do this in remembrance of me.' 

But even if I am wrong, and Jesus did not eat a Passover meal the night he was betrayed, it appears that He is nonetheless making a strong connection between Passover and the bread and wine. More than that, the New Testament authors made a strong connection between Passover and the Exodus with the crucifixion event, which is symbolised by the bread and wine. This strongly suggests that the Passover still stands as the way in which we were intended to understand and celebrate the Passion event, even if the days don’t line up exactly (consider the book of Hebrews connection between the crucifixion and the Day of Atonement, which is 7 months after the Passover). Therefore, in either case, we could possibly rephrase 1Cor 11:26 as follows: 
“For as often as you eat the Passover bread and drink the Passover wine, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

In our next post we will be considering: does this paraphrase fit the wider context of 1 Corinthians?

Hegg, Tim. The Chronology of the Crucifixion. Torah Resource (2009).
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, (Trans. William Whiston).
Wallis, Faith (Trans.) Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool University Press. (1999)

Webb, J and Kysar, R. Greek for Preachers. Chalice Press: St. Louis (2002)

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