When Jesus Celebrated Passover

By Paula Fredriksen

Wall Street Journal

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 Passover.

Imagine that 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.

In Gospel 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.

The Galilee, 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

Roman troops 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’ sacred space.

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.

But other 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.

For first-century Jews, the idea of God’s kingdom implied sweeping hopes for a glorious end to history.

Finally, one 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 the meal.

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.

For 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.

While Jesus 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 Collection

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.

What propelled 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 Israel’s God.

Over time, 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 ways.

Despite a long and often unhappy history, the story of Jews and of Christians remains intertwined.

But lively 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.

And for 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 date.

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.