Jesus Celebrated Passover
April 19, 2019
Passover and Easter always arrive at the same season—this year,
just days apart—and that is no accident. In fact, some of Christianity’s
core ideas, images and theological convictions can be traced back to the ancient
Jewish holiday. Passover in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem is the
historical anchor of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Freedom from slavery and from oppression, in Jewish tradition; freedom from sin
and from death, in Christian tradition: All of these ideas come together around
the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is because Jesus himself kept
you are at a boarding gate for a flight to Israel, several days before Passover,
as passengers gather to travel to Jerusalem in time for the holiday. Men and
women are jammed together; children are crying or laughing or temporarily
vanishing. Now imagine that more than 250,000 families have assembled. And that
each family unit is accompanied by one living sheep. And that everyone has to
camp out for a week in the terminal before finally boarding the plane.
You are now
beginning to have a picture of what Jerusalem would have been like at Passover
in the time of Jesus. Josephus, a Jewish historian contemporary with the
Gospels’ authors, writes that on Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled
to more than two million as Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple for the annual
celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Ancient pilgrims had
to be in the city no later than seven days before the beginning of the feast.
traditions about Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” we catch an echo of the
excitement and high spirits of the holiday throng. The Passover meal, according
to biblical law, had to be eaten in a state of purity. Pilgrims—Jesus among
them—streamed into the city to undergo a week-long ritual of purification.
Only once that was completed could preparations for the sacred meal begin. The
Feast of Unleavened Bread (matzo) would then continue for another week; only
thereafter would the city begin to empty once the holiday came to a close.
Lots of Jews.
Lots of sheep. Lots of unstructured time, punctuated by bouts of ritual
purification, before the holiday actually began. And, in Jesus’ period, one
more social ingredient went into the mix: lots of Roman soldiers.
Jesus’ native corner of the Jewish homeland, was an independent Jewish state
for all of his lifetime. But Judea, with its capital city of Jerusalem, lay
under Roman jurisdiction. Rome didn’t rule from Jerusalem. The “prefect”
or governor—in our story, Pilate—was garrisoned with some 3,000 soldiers in
the beautiful harbor city of Caesarea. Three times a year, during the Jewish
pilgrimage holidays, the prefect and his troops marched up to the capital to
help manage the holiday crowds.
Jews at prayer
near the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover in 2016. Photo: MENAHEM
KAHANA/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
were in Jerusalem to see and to be seen. They maintained order and kept things
moving. And they ensured that no protests erupted, especially on the Temple
Mount—for it was during these holidays, wrote Josephus, that “sedition is
most likely to break out.” It was in this bustling, bursting space, the
beating heart of the city during the great festivals, that Jesus taught about
the “kingdom of God” in the week before the feast. Rome’s soldiers, alert
to any sign of trouble, would have gazed down at Jesus and his listeners from
their stations on the perimeter wall that surrounded the Temple precincts’
The fact that
Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—and, according to John’s
gospel, to observe many other high holidays as well—means that he was actively
engaged in worship at the Temple. This can come as a surprise to some readers of
the Gospels, because of the scene where Jesus turns over the tables of the
money-changers in the Temple’s Court of the Nations, disrupting the sale of
sacrificial birds. Some readers have assumed that, in so doing, Jesus was
repudiating the very idea of sacrifice.
gospel details point in the opposite direction, depicting a Jesus comfortably at
home in the traditions and practices of his people. Jesus wore “fringes” (in
Hebrew, tzitzit), the ritual garment meant to remind the wearer
of God’s commandments; in one gospel story, a sick woman is cured of her
illness by touching them. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes for his
followers how they should make offerings at the Temple altar. Jesus also affirms
the traditional Jewish belief that the Temple was the place where God dwells.
And in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus celebrates the Seder, the ritual
Passover meal, with his closest followers. The centerpiece of this meal, the
Passover sacrifice, was the lamb itself. There was only one place in town to get
one: the Temple.
first-century Jews, the idea of God’s kingdom implied sweeping hopes for a
glorious end to history.
last, nice detail: Mark’s gospel closes off the Seder scene by commenting that
the group all “sang hymns.” If you’ve been to a Seder, you know: These
first-century Jews finished celebrating the Passover meal by singing the psalms
of praise and thanksgiving that today bring to a close the traditional text for
So far, we
might have described any Passover when Jesus and his followers were in Jerusalem
for the holiday. What made this particular one his last? Think back to the
crowds of pilgrims entering no later than the week before the feast. Think back
to the Roman soldiers. And consider the effects of Jesus’ teaching about the
Kingdom of God.
first-century Jews, the idea of God’s kingdom implied sweeping hopes for a
glorious end to history. God himself—or, in other traditions, the messiah, a
ruler who would be a descendant of King David—would defeat the forces of evil
and establish a universal reign of justice and peace. War and disease would
cease. Pagans would bury their idols and turn to worship Israel’s God. The
Temple would be miraculously enlarged, since, in the words of Isaiah, “many
nations” would flow to it. All 12 tribes of Israel would reassemble. And the
dead, too, rising to join with the living, would enter into the Kingdom.
and his immediate followers might have meant “kingdom” as an end-time event,
inaugurated by God, it might have been heard differently from a middle distance.
Enthusiastic pilgrims, unacquainted with the nonviolent nature of Jesus’
teachings—turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; forgive, in order to be
forgiven—may have heard in it a summons to political action. Roman agents,
always wary of sedition, would be keenly conscious of such an effect.
All of the
gospels recount Jesus’ growing popularity as he taught on the Temple Mount.
The crowds’ enthusiasms waxed as the holiday approached. The priests and
Pilate together were responsible for keeping the peace. John’s gospel tells of
a mixed contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple police arresting Jesus offstage,
away from the public eye, at night, precisely because he was so popular. By the
following day, Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews”—a political charge
that coheres with enthusiasms for a “kingdom.”
A fresco by an
unknown artist depicting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, ca. 1446. Photo: Everett
Jesus died on
a cross, a fact that implies that Pilate thought he was an insurrectionist.
(Crucifixion was particularly reserved for rebels and was a visually grisly form
of deterrence.) But none of Jesus’ followers was rounded up and killed with
him, a fact that implies that Pilate knew perfectly well that Jesus wasn’t
politically dangerous. What’s more, very shortly after Jesus’ execution, his
original followers settled permanently in Jerusalem, without any anxieties about
Pilate or any interference from him. This implies that they knew that Pilate
knew that they were not dangerous. So why, then, did Jesus die by crucifixion?
The answer, I
think, lies with the enthused pilgrim crowds. That is the audience whom Pilate
actually addresses when he puts Jesus on his cross. Crucifixion was the public
performance of the coercive power of the Roman state. It was, in short, a form
of crowd control. (After a rebellion broke out in the year 6, for instance,
2,000 men were crucified outside of the walls of Jerusalem.)
Pilate and the
priests, according to John’s gospel, had many opportunities to observe Jesus
in Jerusalem, where he “always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where
all Jews come together.” They knew by now that he posed no political threat.
But the restive crowd was a different matter. What better way to disabuse them,
to quiet their noisy hopes, than to display their messiah on a cross?
For centuries after Jesus’ death,
Christians continued to celebrate Easter according to the date of Passover.
In the short
run, Pilate was right. The rest of the holiday evidently passed without
incident. But in the long run, of course, Pilate was wrong. Thanks to the
Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the movement that Pilate had sought
to quell would eventually grow to become the sole legitimate religious culture
of the Empire.
the new movement was the conviction of Jesus’ earliest followers that he had
been raised from the dead—the origin of the Christian celebration of Easter.
(As the Gospels relate the story, the short gap between Good Friday and Easter
Sunday allowed Jesus’ Jewish followers to keep the Sabbath before going to his
grave.) Already within the lifetime of that first generation, we know from
Paul’s letters, pagans began to renounce their native gods and, through
baptism into the new messianic movement, to make an exclusive commitment to
these people tipped the movement’s demographic balance, and the various
Christian churches became dominated by gentiles. Developing their new religious
identity, some of these Christians began to express their theological
convictions by sharply and polemically contrasting themselves with Jews and
Judaism. And when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, following another
Judean rebellion, the Temple could no longer serve as a site of common piety. By
the second century, Christianity and Judaism were beginning to go their separate
long and often unhappy history, the story of Jews and of Christians remains
connections between the two communities persisted. Church sources reveal that,
for generations, gentile Christians frequented Jewish synagogue services, had
rabbis bless their fields, participated in the celebration of Jewish fasts and
feasts, took oaths in front of Torah scrolls and kept the Sabbath as a day of
rest. When synagogues held fundraisers, gentiles contributed as well.
centuries after Jesus’ death, Christians continued to celebrate Easter
according to the date of Passover. The Emperor Constantine demanded,
ineffectively, that this practice stop. Imperial insistence on the unity of
theology and practice—sometimes expressed, again, through the coercive power
of the Roman state—eventually led to the active persecution of other
Christians, as well as of pagans and Jews. Fissures among these different
Christian communities—Catholics; Greek Orthodox; the Coptic, Syrian and
Nestorian churches—led to their adopting different dates for the holiday.
Today in Jerusalem, Easter falls out over a zone of time, not on one particular
Despite a long
and often unhappy history, the story of Jews and of Christians remains
intertwined. The bridge between the two is the historical figure of Jesus. This
year, whether you celebrate Passover on April 19 or Easter on April 21, think
back to Roman Jerusalem, in the days of its beautiful Temple—the crowds, the
excitement, the mounting joy, the holiday-forged kinship. The trajectory that
began there, in the Temple’s courts, still carries us forward, in our own
communities, in our own time.
Dr. Fredriksen is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University. Her many books include, most recently, “When Christians Were Jews,” about the earliest community of Jesus’ followers.