Passover and the Gospels – Are They In Sync?
Final days of Jesus of Nazareth took place during the annual Passover observance in Jerusalem surrounded by his trial, execution and Resurrection. Interwoven throughout the Gospels are 21 references to the Passover by name and 6 references to either “the feast” or “the festival.” The question arises whether the Gospel accounts are consistent with Jewish legal requirements – not everyone agrees.
Moses had defied Pharaoh some 1500 years earlier in Egypt ending with the 10th plague, death of the firstborn. Hebrews were spared when the angel of death passed over their homes bearing the blood of the sacrificial lambs over their doorposts.
God declared His act of salvation was to be observed annually by the Hebrews to “sacrifice the Passover to the LORD your God “in the place where the LORD chooses to establish His name.” Strict requirements appear in the books of the Law of Moses – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Passover began at twilight of Nissan 14 just after the Pascal Lamb had been sacrificed that afternoon. This evening meal marked the beginning of Nissan 15 when the Feast of Unleavened Bread was to be eaten. A key distinction, Jewish days begin at twilight just after sunset while Western societies begin the new day at midnight.
Most Western societies would consider this evening meal to be the dinner event for the day of Nissan 14 while the first meal of the next day would be breakfast. The Law of Moses, however, considered the evening Feast of Unleavened Bread to be the very first meal of Nissan 15.
Roasted lamb from the Pascal sacrifice became the main course. The meal was literally a feast intended to feed 10 to 20 people, a festive and joyous occasion to celebrate God’s deliverance from bondage – freedom. Any leftovers by midnight were to be promptly burned that night.
Sunrise brought the initial daylight hours of the first day of Passover, Nissan 15, along with the daily necessities still to come. People were busy with required and traditional activities including meals and more sacrifices.
Jewish Talmudic law defined the sacrifices for each day including the meal plan for the first day of Passover. An entire tractate in the Babylonia Talmud entitled Chagigah is devoted to addressing the various expectations and requirements. Two Chagigah sacrifices were associated with the Passover.
First was the optional Chagigah sacrifice that could be offered on Nissan 14 as an optional festal offering intended to supplement the Paschal sacrifice ensuring there would be enough meat to feed a large Passover company. It was “in all respects equal to the paschal sacrifice itself” expected to provide for “the duty of enjoying the festival.”
If this optional festal sacrifice was to be offered, it was to occur before the Pascal sacrifice so that there was no interruption between it and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Like the Paschal lamb, it had to be consumed by midnight with any leftovers to be burned.
By tradition, the second Chagigah sacrifice was traditionally offered on Nissan 15, the first day of Passover, coming to be called exactly that, the Chagigah. It was to be offered under different circumstances than the first with a different purpose and rules. As an obligatory, private “peace offering,” it was to be offered by an individual at the Temple with the assistance of a Priest who became a beneficiary to it.
A portion of the sacrifice was to be given to God, a portion to the Priest as a tithe for his own meal, and the remaining portion of meat was to be taken home by the offerer for his own Chagigah meal. For this reason, a priest had a vested personal interest to assist in the sacrifice.
Meat from this second Chagigah sacrifice was to be prepared during the afternoon of the first day of Passover and served before evening as the main course. It was to be consumed over the course of two days and one night – the first and second days of Passover, Nissan 15 and 16, and the night in between.
John 18;28 “Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”(NRSV)
Things get interesting as it relates to the Gospels’ accounts describing the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, especially John 18:28. After the “Last Supper,” the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus was arrested and put on trial that night. During the trial, Jesus was taken by the Jewish leadership to Pilate at the Praetorium where the priests refused to enter.
Two actions are mentioned that are a cause of contention, the first being “eat the Passover.” Anyone not familiar with the two Passover Chagigah meals might easily conclude John referred to the Feast of Unleavened Bread rather than the obligatory second Chigigiah meal. Second is “so they would not be defiled.”
Entering the Praetorium was one of those things that could place a priest in a state of defilement. Although John does not explain the reason for the defilement, one possibility was due to the Jewish legal concept known as “abortus” – touching a dead body or home that once contained a dead body (the presumption of a Gentile’s home).
After sunset, a ritualistic purification bath by the priest would have absolved this type of defilement; however in this case, after sunset was too late. Meat from the Chagigah sacrifice offered was to be offered, prepared and cooked that same day before evening.
As a consequence, a priest who was “defiled” could not offer any sacrifice that day meaning he would not receive his lawful portion of the Chagigah sacrificial meat for his own meal. For a priest whose personal financial support came directly from his duties performed at the Temple, it was a major incentive not to be in a state of defilement on the first day of Passover.
Evening began the second day of Passover, Nissan 16, with the traditional ritual of a barley reaping in preparation for the Wave Sheaf also known as the Omar offering. It was required to be offered on the second day of Passover to celebrate the Feast of First Fruits of the harvest.
Are the Gospel references to the Passover during the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth in agreement with Jewish Law defined in the Old Testament, the Tenakh, and the Talmud?
Updated February 6, 2022.
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