James Patrick’s Blog

April 13, 2009

Good Thursday? part 7 – Thoughts on the ‘Easter controversy’

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 11:52 pm
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If we are suggesting a change to a tradition as entrenched as ‘Good Friday’, perhaps it would be helpful to consider the reasons lying behind the ‘Easter controversy’ in the first four centuries of the Early Church.  These might point towards an appropriate solution for how best to apply our discoveries concerning ‘Good Thursday’.

14th of Nisan and Sunday don’t match!
As noted in the first post on the subject of Good Thursday, the alternatives in the second century were either to celebrate Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan (the preference of the churches in Asia Minor, following John the apostle), or to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday (the preference of the other churches led by the church in Rome).  It is little surprise that we are not told in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History how the church in Rome celebrated the days preceding the day of the resurrection.  At some point they must have started celebrating Good Friday as the day of Jesus’ death, hence our modern tradition, but regardless, it was the day of resurrection that provided the climax to their celebrations.

On the other hand, it is a surprise that the controversy focused on the 14th of Nisan, the day of Jesus’ death, rather than the day of His resurrection.  The natural alternative to a celebration on Easter Sunday would be a celebration on the 16th of Nisan, which would be the date of the resurrection and the Feast of Firstfruits if the Early Church had been unanimous that Jesus had died on the sixth day of the week (Friday).  In that case, the special Sabbath on the 15th would have coincided with the normal Sabbath, and the resurrection could be assigned a date in the Jewish calendar also.  The debate would then centre on whether to celebrate the resurrection on a particular date (the Jewish preference) or on a particular day of the week (the Gentile preference).  Yet there is no question that the debate instead focused on the 14th of Nisan, hence the name of the adherents to this tradition as ‘Quartodecimans’.

Most would argue that it was precisely the trend in the church away from its Jewish roots that led to the Easter controversy.  Yet if this were the only issue, the ‘Jewish’ side would have been arguing for the 16th of Nisan as an alternative to the Gentiles’ Easter ‘Sunday’, not the 14th.  One might then perhaps argue instead that the debate was a theological one as well as a cultural one; focused on whether to celebrate the death of Jesus or the resurrection of Jesus: the ‘Jewish’ side preferred to emphasise Jesus’ death, and the ‘Gentile’ side insisted on the resurrection.  It is hard, though, to imagine that either side would try to downplay the significance of the alternative event, and surely all believers must have commemorated both events each year from the beginning.  We cannot get away from the problem of the lack of correspondence between the 14th of Nisan and the Sunday.

Good Thursday explains the two alternatives
I would propose that the solution that makes best sense of the controversy is that initially both ‘sides’ were aware of Jesus having died not on Good Friday but on Good Thursday, and having risen not on the 16th of Nisan but on the 17th.  The key to understanding the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament feasts and prophecies is the fact that on this particular year the special Sabbath on the 15th was followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, so that after Jesus died on the Feast of Passover, he was in the grave for ‘three days and three nights’ and yet still rose on the Feast of Firstfruits, the ‘day after the Sabbath’.  The key to understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection was precisely the way in which the dates of the Jewish calendar and the days of the week happened to intersect that particular year.

Hence the two sides of the ‘Easter Controversy’ reflect these two important lines of evidence – dates and days of the week.  The two types of Sabbath, calendrical and weekly, have been recognised as an important matter for study and observation ever since the institution of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 23:2-4; Numbers 28-29).  It is plausible that in seeking to commemorate an unusual sequence in the calendar on the year Jesus died, disputes would arise over whether to give priority to the dates or to the days of the week.  Neither side would be able to claim to adequately represent the events of that particular year.

Reconstruction of the opposing positions
On the one hand, the churches of Asia Minor insisted that the 14th of Nisan was to be observed as the date of Jesus’ death, because the date of Passover was precisely how the crucifixion gained its significance.  Their problem was that people in their congregations could easily become confused by the Feast of Firstfruits being on the 17th, because Jews almost always observed this feast on the 16th, the day after the special Sabbath.

Their opponents may have also noted that it was the sign of ‘three days and three nights’, following Jonah, that Jesus intended to be understood by the Jewish people as a sign of judgement on them, with merely one generation of forty years as an opportunity for repentance (like Jonah’s forty days).  If believing Jews were being tempted to neglect the three days and three nights in order to celebrate the resurrection on the Feast of Firstfruits, this was ignoring the sign that Jesus intended the Jews in particular to recognise.  The resurrection must be celebrated on the 17th, even though this date was hardly ever actually the Feast of Firstfruits.

On the other hand, the churches led by Rome were convinced that the way to ensure the sequence of days was properly commemorated was to celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday, the ‘first day of the week’, since the fact that the resurrection was on the ‘day after the Sabbath’ was precisely the reason Jesus could fulfil the ‘three days and three nights’ and rise ‘on the third day‘ after His death.  They could then work backwards from this day to celebrate the day Jesus died on the Thursday.  The significance of each day could be taught to believers even if the Jewish dates were not being followed, dates that were impractical for the majority of the Roman empire anyway.

An advantage of this approach was that the first day of the week, ‘the Lord’s Day’, was also the day on which believers met together, and even ‘broke bread’ together in commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice (Acts 20:7).  Their opponents, however, may well have observed that by failing to celebrate Jewish festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits at the same time as the Jewish people, the Church stood to lose far more of the significance of these feasts and of Jesus’ fulfilment of them.  As it turned out, history has demonstrated the truth of these concerns, and the majority of the Church is now unaware of the many remarkable ways in which Jesus’ last week fulfilled Scripture.

So we find that a celebration of Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan emphasised the importance of the dates of the Jewish calendar, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the three feasts.  On the other hand, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday emphasised the importance of the days of the week in that particular year, focusing on Jesus’ fulfilment of the ‘three days and three nights’, and the ‘third day’ that the prophets foretold.  Both are important aspects of our commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but both have drawbacks to them that must not be brushed aside.

Where do we go from here?
I propose that the best solution to the ‘Easter controversy’ is precisely the one demonstrated in the dispute of Polycarp and Anicetus around 150AD and appealed to by Irenaeus against Victor at the end of that century.  The significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection hangs on the way the calendar and the days of the week happened to coincide on the year Jesus died, and there will only be the occasional year on which it is possible to celebrate the Feast of Firstfruits on the 17th of Nisan.  Some will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the Jewish festivals by commemorating His death on the Passover each year, while others will choose to celebrate Jesus’ fulfilment of the words of the prophets by commemorating His death on a Sunday each year.  As long as each are holding on to the truth of the Gospel accounts and teaching both aspects of Jesus’ fulfilment of Scripture, I see no problem in allowing each stream of churches to celebrate in their own way and on days that are appropriate to them.

I would only urge churches that observe the Jewish feasts to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week that particular year that ensured He fulfilled the sign of Jonah as well as the Feast of Firstfruits.  Likewise, I would urge churches that celebrate the resurrection on a Sunday to be careful to recognise that it was Jesus’ death on a Thursday that particular year that enabled Him to fulfil the Jewish feasts as well as the words of the prophets.  This may mean that churches have to go against their own traditions to be true to Scripture, but the benefits of understanding Jesus’ fulfilment of the Old Testament far outweigh the inconvenience.

April 12, 2009

Good Thursday? part 6 – Summary of the arguments

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 1:33 am
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Early celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection were held either on the fourteenth day of the lunar Jewish month of Nisan (the date Jesus died) or on an appropriately located Sunday (the day Jesus rose again).  Disputes over which to celebrate were apparently known by around 120AD, but the Council of Nicea in the fourth century insisted that all celebrate Easter Sunday rather than the 14th of Nisan, despite ancient apostolic authority for the latter in Asia Minor.

Gentile misunderstandings about the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection were already evident enough in the first century for the apostle John to include in his Gospel a number of clarifications intended to correct the ways in which many were wrongly interpreting the three earlier Gospels.  One of these clarifications was John’s observation in 13:1 and 18:28 that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples was “before the Feast of the Passover”.  Another in 19:14 and 19:31 was that the ‘Day of Preparation’ on which Jesus died was preparing not for the regular Jewish Sabbath (Friday night through Saturday), but for the Passover and the ‘special Sabbath’ that kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan.  The 15th was observed as a Sabbath rest in much the same way as today we celebrate the 25th of December with a holiday, regardless of the day of the week on which it falls.

Nevertheless, a lack of awareness in the Gentile church about the Jewish regulations for the Passover in Exodus 12 meant that soon those who celebrated Easter Sunday simply assumed that the ‘Day of Preparation’, on which Jesus died, could only be a Friday before the normal Jewish Sabbath.  While this could be reconciled with an inclusive counting of resurrection ‘on the third day’, it seemingly ignored Jesus’ explicit prediction in Matthew 12:40 that He would be buried for “three days and three nights”, according to the ‘sign’ of Jonah the prophet.  A crucifixion on Friday and resurrection on Sunday can at most be described as three days and two nights, although if Jesus did indeed rise ‘while it was still dark’ on the Sunday (John 20:1), this could make it as little as two days and two nights.

On the other hand, if we consider the possibility of the ‘special Sabbath’ on the 15th being followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, this naturally leads us to a crucifixion on the Thursday afternoon (the first ‘day’), followed by two more ‘days’ on the Friday and Saturday, and three nights also (Thursday-Friday, Friday-Saturday and Saturday-Sunday).  Although none of the Gospels speaks of plural ‘Sabbaths’ on which the women rested, they also do not preclude this possibility with their wording.  In fact, the request of the chief priests on the day after Jesus died (Matthew 27:62-66) that the tomb be made secure “until the third day” (rather than ‘until tomorrow’) does imply two full days of inactivity before the resurrection.

An observation related to the Jewish background of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which would hold true regardless of whether one held to Good Friday or Good Thursday, is that the meal Jesus ate with His disciples cannot have been eaten on the ‘correct’ night, as we noted with John’s Gospel above.  Rather, Jesus ensured quick preparations for the meal in order to celebrate the Passover with His disciples before He died, as His comments at the start of the meal in Luke’s Gospel make clear.  The meal was a Passover meal even if its timing was wrong, much in the same way one might eat a Christmas dinner one day early.  However in the case of Jesus’ meal, since the lambs were to be sacrificed the following afternoon, they must have been eating a vegetarian meal, which focused on the unleavened bread as the representation of Christ’s body to be commemorated by His followers, rather than the lamb.

Further arguments supporting a Good Thursday understanding can be found in the preceding week, as described in the four Gospels.  Immediately preceding this week, John deliberately tells the story of Lazarus’ resurrection as a foreshadowing of Jesus’, although it is the contrasts that are in focus: in the story of Jesus women found the stone already rolled away, graveclothes already unwrapped, and no decay because the dead man had risen just before the start of the fourth day.

John also notes that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover (12:1).  If one starts with Good Friday, Jesus must have arrived in Bethany the previous Saturday, but travelling on a Sabbath was forbidden beyond a very limited distance (Acts 1:12).  If one works with Jewish days consisting of an evening and a morning, Jesus could have arrived on the Friday instead (taking the ‘Passover’ as the Thursday night – Friday), but this would have meant riding a donkey into Jerusalem on the Sabbath, an equally prohibited activity.

On the other hand, starting with Good Thursday as the 14th of Nisan, Jesus would have arrived in Bethany the previous Thursday night, and entered Jerusalem on the Friday rather than the Sunday – both activities entirely lawful.  Not only that, but this explains Mark’s little noticed observations that (1) Jesus looked around the temple that afternoon but then returned to Bethany, and cleansed the temple on the following day; (2) Jesus would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple courts; and (3) Jesus quoted Isaiah 56, saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”.

If the cleansing of the temple was on a Monday, none of this makes sense.  However, if Jesus returned to Bethany on the Friday night, to be with Lazarus for the Sabbath meal, it was the lack of change in the temple courts on the next day, the Sabbath, that so infuriated Him.  He refused to allow people to carry merchandise, as the law stated, and also taught from Isaiah 56, a passage that requires of foreigners only that they observe the Sabbath in order to be welcomed within the courts of the temple.

The next day, after another night spent in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus was confronted in the temple courts by every recognised religious ‘household’ in Israel, who tested Him to find fault with Him.  Passover regulations in Exodus 12 require that on the 10th of Nisan every household in Israel choose a lamb without blemish, and look after it until the 14th when it is slain.  On a Good Friday reckoning, the 10th of Nisan would be the day on which Jesus cleansed the temple, which shows no clear fulfilment.  On the other hand, with Good Thursday being the 14th, the 10th would be the Sunday on which Jesus was found by every ‘household’ in Israel to be a Lamb without fault.

Luke’s Gospel clearly records that following this ‘choice’ of Him by every religious household in Israel, Jesus no longer allowed Himself to be accommodated by His friends (although He did have a meal with Simon the leper on the Monday evening).  Rather, He spent every night from then on in the olive groves of Gethsemane, returning to the temple early in the morning to teach.  Since the households that had chosen Him failed to look after Him, He slept outside, as close to the temple as possible.  Having been there for the previous three nights, Judas knew exactly where to lead the chief priests’ officers on the Wednesday night (14th of Nisan), even though he had left the meal early (John 18:2).  At long last, the religious households were taking responsibility for their chosen Lamb.

Finally, we turn to consider the significance of the resurrection in light of Jewish regulations.  Leviticus 23 explains that the grain may be harvested immediately following the ‘sabbath’ which begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the harvest continues for seven weeks until the celebration for it on the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost.  Yet before any of this harvested grain may be eaten, the first sheaf must be presented in the temple as the ‘firstfruits’, hence the name of the Feast of Firstfruits.  Although on most years this feast would be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath, on certain years when a normal Sabbath followed the special one the harvest could not be started until the 17th, the day after the Sabbath, pushing the feast a day later.

Therefore Jesus must have been aware that in order to completely fulfil the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, and the ‘sign of Jonah’, rising on the ‘third day’ (using an exclusive counting) according to Hosea 6, there was only a certain year when the special Sabbath of the 15th of Nisan would be followed by an additional normal Sabbath.  Jesus knew He had to die on that year and so He ‘set His face toward Jerusalem’, becoming the perfect sacrifice chosen by the Jewish people, unleavened by sin, slain at the same time as the Passover lambs, His blood staining the wooden upright and crosspiece so that the wrath of God would pass over His people, buried in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights like Jonah as a sign of coming judgement on the unrighteous, and raised for our healing and life as the ‘firstfruits’ of the resurrection in which we will all share at His return.

What an awesome plan of salvation!  What a glorious Saviour!  Christ is risen – He is risen indeed!

April 9, 2009

Good Thursday? part 5 – Choosing the Lamb, and the Feast of Firstfruits

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 3:13 pm
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In Part 4, we found that starting with Good Thursday (celebrated this very day), we can make sense of Jesus’ arrival in Bethany and triumphal entry into Jerusalem six days earlier on Palm Friday.  Not only that, but Mark’s observation that Jesus cleansed the temple a day later fits perfectly with the next day being a Sabbath.  This brings us to the remaining days of the passion week of Jesus.

So what about the 10th of Nisan?
To make sense of the argument that follows, we must familiarise ourselves with some of the other regulations surrounding the Feast of Passover in Exodus 12:3-6.

On the tenth of this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their fathers’ households, a lamb for each household.  Now if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbour nearest to his house are to take one according to the number of persons; according to what each man should eat, you are to divide the lamb.  Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight.

If we start with Good Friday, and accept Palm Sunday according to tradition, this means that the cleansing of the temple took place on the Monday, which would be the 10th of Nisan if the 14th was Friday.  In this case, there would be no apparent connection between the regulations for the 10th of Nisan in Exodus and the events of the 10th of Nisan during Jesus’ passion week.  However, if we start with Good Thursday and Palm Friday before that, the cleansing of the temple took place on the Saturday, the Sabbath, and the 10th of Nisan wasn’t until the Sunday of that week.  This unlocks the meaning of the Gospel accounts.

Confrontations with ‘every household’
Matthew’s Gospel clearly states that after cleansing the temple, Jesus “left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”  He returned to Jerusalem the following day past the withered fig tree, and in the temple was challenged by the chief priests and elders of the people, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the lawyers.  Mark’s Gospel similarly records after the cleansing of the temple that “When evening came, they would go out of the city.”  The next morning they passed the withered fig tree on their return to Jerusalem, after which Jesus was challenged by the chief priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes again.  Luke also clearly separates Jesus’ cleansing of the temple from the confrontations between Him and the chief priests, scribes, elders and others “on one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple”.  The evidence seems to suggest quite directly that Jesus’ confrontations with the various groups happened particularly on the Sunday, which would be the 10th of Nisan.

Although the Gospel writers themselves do not emphasise this point, when we compare the regulations concerning the choice of the Passover lamb in Exodus with the details of Jesus’ passion week, as revealed through an understanding of Good Thursday, we discover just how perfectly Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures.  On the very day that lambs were being selected by every household in Jerusalem, Jesus was in the same temple courts being selected by every religious ‘household’ of the Jewish nation.  Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians (too small a ‘household’ to select the Lamb on their own), chief priests and elders of the people – each in turn came to Jesus with their hardest questions, and to each group Jesus demonstrated Himself ‘without blemish’, a perfect sacrificial lamb.

Chosen, but no place to stay
One further observation that confirms this understanding can be recognised when we consider Jesus’ accommodation arrangement during that final week.  Matthew and Mark both record a meal Jesus had at the house of Simon the leper, after which the Passover would be coming two days later.  This implies that this meal happened on the Monday evening, the start of the 12th of Nisan, four days after the meal at Lazarus’ house where Jesus was similarly anointed with costly perfume according to John.  Simon the leper lived in Bethany like Lazarus and his sisters, but we don’t have evidence that at this point Jesus was actually staying with Simon.

On the contrary, Luke very specifically records at the end of the ‘Olivet Discourse’, which concluded the dialogues on the 10th of Nisan, the following (21:37-38):  “Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet.  And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him.”  Prior to the 10th of Nisan, Jesus had been staying in Bethany, passing the fig tree on two different mornings on His way into Jerusalem.  However after being ‘chosen’ by ‘every household’ of the nation, He was to be looked after by those who had chosen Him.  He could no longer be looked after by friends, but when none of those religious ‘households’ offered Him accommodation, He simply spent the night in the olive groves nearest the temple.  This is precisely the reason why Judas knew where to find Him on the 14th, even though Judas had left the others before the meal had ended (John 13:27-30) – Jesus had been sleeping there for the previous three nights (Luke 22:39; John 18:2).

Three feasts in three (or four?) days
The final aspect of our discussion of the Jewish background to Jesus’ death and resurrection involves that very resurrection on the first day of the week.  Regulations about the Passover are spoken of in Exodus 12, Leviticus 23, Numbers 28 and Deuteronomy 16, but only the Leviticus passage specifically mentions one further feast held at that time in addition to Passover and Unleavened Bread.  This is the Feast of Firstfruits.  Exodus mentions nothing of this feast, Numbers speaks of “the day of the firstfruits” in connection with the Feast of Weeks, Deuteronomy clarifies that the Feast of Weeks is calculated as exactly seven weeks “from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain” (16:9), but Leviticus explains further.

When the grain first begins to be harvested, no bread nor fresh or roasted grain is to be eaten from it until a sheaf of the ‘firstfruits’ is brought to the priest who will wave it before the LORD.  Clearly the harvest must have been started for the first sheaf to be able to be offered, and being work this must take place on “the day after the Sabbath” (Leviticus 23:11, 15).  In Jewish tradition the ‘Omer’ is therefore counted from the special Sabbath that begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan.  Seven complete sabbaths are counted, or fifty days, until the Feast of Weeks is celebrated, also known as Pentecost.

We might then say that the Feast of Firstfruits must always be celebrated on the 16th of Nisan, the day after the special Sabbath starting the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th, which itself is the day after the Day of Preparation, or the Feast of Passover, on the 14th.  However this is not quite correct.  As the Feast of Firstfruits must signify the start of the grain harvest, it cannot be held on a Sabbath, so on those very rare years when a normal Sabbath follows the special Sabbath of the 15th, the Feast must be delayed an extra day to the 17th.  This must be what happened on the year that Jesus died.

Christ our firstfruits
Although the Gospel writers do not emphasise the fulfilment of the Feast of Firstfruits, it was a widely known concept in the Early Church.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions not only the Passover and Unleavened Bread in 5:6-8, but also the Feast of Firstfruits in 15:20-23.  Here Paul says, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who are asleep”, and again, “Christ the firstfruits”.  Paul recognised that in Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’ promise that we too will receive resurrection bodies just like His.  Equally, the grain that features in the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, is first prefigured in the Feast of Firstfruits, much as the Holy Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost the year Jesus rose again, was first prefigured on the Feast of Firstfruits, the first day of the week when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on His disciples (John 20:19-22).

However only on particular years would Jesus be able to die as a Passover lamb, unleavened with sin, and rise again after ‘three days and three nights’ like Jonah, as the Firstfruits of the resurrection from the dead.  Only on a year when a special and normal Sabbath were consecutive could Jesus spend the required length of time in the grave, delaying the Feast of Firstfruits for one extra day.  Jesus would have been able to calculate exactly which year He needed to die, quite a time beforehand.  No wonder that year He “set His face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing that this was the year He was to die.

Women waiting through a double Sabbath
Thus the women were made to wait a whole two Sabbaths “according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56) before going out to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  None of the Gospel writers say “the Sabbaths” plural: John avoids mentioning the Sabbath in connection with Jesus’ resurrection, Luke says that “on the Sabbath [the women] rested”, Mark says that “When the Sabbath was over [the women] brought spices”, and Matthew says that “after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first of the week…”.  None of these are evidence against a double Sabbath that year, but at best they are simply silent about this fact.

However, in Matthew’s Gospel we do find some evidence toward a longer period than one day separating the day of Jesus’ death from that of His resurrection.  Matthew 27:62-66 records a fascinating scene in which the chief priests and Pharisees approached Pilate on the 15th of Nisan, the day after Jesus’ death, and recalled Jesus’ promise to rise again “after three days”.  They therefore requested that the grave be made secure “until the third day”.  If it had been the following day they had been assuming, they should rather have said, “until tomorrow”, but as it is, it appears they were speaking of a day two days hence, and must therefore have been talking to Pilate on the Friday rather than the Saturday.

In the concluding post we will summarise the various arguments and also suggest a resolution to the ancient Easter controversy.

April 8, 2009

Good Thursday? part 4 – Lazarus, triumphal entry and temple cleansing

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 11:11 pm
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In Part 3, we considered the significance of the ‘Passover’ meal that Jesus ate with His disciples, one evening too early and therefore without the lamb.  This observation would hold true even if one were to maintain a belief in ‘Good Friday’, because in that case, the 14th of Nisan would be the Thursday evening / Friday, followed by the (extra special) normal Sabbath, and then the resurrection on the Sunday.  As it is, I am proposing that there were two Sabbaths in a row, a ‘special’ Sabbath (15th of Nisan) on the sixth day of the week that kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by a normal Sabbath on the seventh day.  That means Jesus celebrated the Passover meal early and was then arrested and crucified all on the evening and morning of the fifth day of the week, the Day of Preparation (14th of Nisan = Wednesday evening / Thursday).  If this is so, how does it affect our understanding of the days prior to the Last Supper?

The ‘four days’ of Lazarus
The progression of events recorded by John in his Gospel seems to lay particular weight on the story of Lazarus as a ‘sign’ of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, which makes it worth considering carefully.  From chapter ten of John’s Gospel onwards there is a clear focus on Jesus’ power over death.  In John 10:18 Jesus says, “I have authority to lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again.”  Then in 10:38, He says, “…though you do not believe me, believe the works [I do], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me…”  Chapter eleven is all about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and Jesus tells His disciples in 11:4, “This sickness is …for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”  This is part of a theme of glory found throughout John’s Gospel, and in particular, the glorification of Jesus that came through His death (see 12:23-33).

In 11:25, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  When Martha then pointed out at the tomb that Lazarus had been dead for four days, and would be rotting behind the stone, Jesus replied to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (11:40).  At the beginning of the next chapter is the story of when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with pure nard, which Jesus justified by referring to “the day of my burial” (12:7).  This story begins the Passion narrative in John’s Gospel, culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Perhaps the clearest contrast between the resurrection of Lazarus and that of Jesus a few weeks or months later is the fact that when the weeping women went to Jesus’ tomb on the fourth day, the stone was already moved, the graveclothes folded neatly rather than wrapped around the body, and the body itself had no hint of rottenness about it.  God had not allowed His “Holy One to see decay” (Acts 2:27); Jesus had risen before the start of the fourth ‘day’.  This ‘evidence’ for a ‘3 days and 3 nights’ burial is perhaps less than conclusive, but taken together with John’s interest in clarifying details of Jesus’ death and resurrection seen elsewhere, it may gain more weight.

Traveling to Bethany on the Sabbath?
John starts the Passion week in 12:1-2 earlier than any of the other Gospels, by noting that “six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was…  So they made Him a supper there,” and Lazarus’ sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard.  The following day Jesus approached Jerusalem over the Mount of Olives on a donkey, and the crowds came out with palm branches to meet Him (12:12-14).  Those who hold to Good Friday calculate backwards six days, and therefore have Jesus arriving in Bethany on the previous Saturday, which means that Jesus would have entered Jerusalem on what has therefore become known as ‘Palm Sunday’.

The problem with this is that Jesus must have therefore travelled from the city called Ephraim, “near the wilderness” (John 11:54), to Bethany on the Sabbath.  Scholars suggest Ephraim may have been a certain town about twelve miles north-east of Jerusalem.  Acts 1:12 tells us that the Mount of Olives where Bethany was located was “a Sabbath day’s journey” from Jerusalem (2000 cubits = 3/5 mile).  The Sabbath would have been the wrong day to choose to journey to Bethany from a town any distance away.

On the other hand, if we calculate six days earlier from the Day of Preparation (i.e. the Feast of Passover – 14th Nisan), which was Wednesday night / Thursday, we arrive at Thursday night / Friday of the previous week.  This would have Jesus arriving in Bethany on the Thursday night, and then riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Friday.  We know it was against the Law of Moses to let even donkeys work on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14), so Jesus would not have ridden into Jerusalem on a Saturday.  But a Friday would have been perfectly acceptable.

Those who hold to Good Friday cannot calculate six days back from the Feast of Passover as John says, on the 14th of Nisan (Thursday night / Friday).  Rather, to avoid Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on the Sabbath, they must adjust the timing John gives and push it a day later to the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the 15th of Nisan (Friday night / Saturday), therefore arriving at Palm Sunday.  As we saw above, this means that Jesus’ arrival into Bethany would have been on a Sabbath, which would have been equally unacceptable.  On the other hand, if one accepts Good Thursday, the entrance into Jerusalem naturally falls on Palm Friday.

Cleansing the temple a day late?
At this point we must observe that whereas Matthew (21:9-13) and Luke (19:37-46) both give the impression that Jesus cleansed the temple immediately on arrival into Jerusalem after His triumphal entry, Mark corrects this with a very valuable historical note in 11:11.  “Jesus entered Jerusalem into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late.”  It was only on the following day that He returned and cleansed the temple.  One can hardly help wondering, if Jesus was so upset at what was going on in the temple courts, why would He merely look around and then leave?  Was He just a bit too tired to make a fuss?  Did it take Him a while to get zealous enough to go back and sort things out?  Had too many traders already closed up shop to make it worth His while to cause a scene so late in the day?

If one holds to Good Friday and Palm Sunday, cleansing the temple on the Monday makes practically no sense.  However with Good Thursday and Palm Friday, an explanation is immediately apparent.  Jesus saw everything in the temple late on Friday afternoon, but the Sabbath was drawing in (“it was already late”), and He wanted to be back in Bethany for the Sabbath meal with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  The following day He walked into Jerusalem rather than riding, which was acceptable since it was “a Sabbath day’s journey” away (Acts 1:12), but the difference was that this time He was entering the temple on a Sabbath day.  What a difference!

Two details of Mark’s account of the cleansing of the temple support our interpretation.  The first is the note in 11:16, peculiar to Mark, that “He would not permit anyone to carry a vessel through the temple”.  Carrying was particularly forbidden on the Sabbath, and Jesus’ actions are reminiscent of Nehemiah’s in Nehemiah 13, when he rebuked those carrying “all kinds of loads” into Jerusalem on the Sabbath, and instead forbad traders from entering Jerusalem on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, when we consider the context of Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”, we find in Isaiah 56:2-8 that both eunuchs and foreigners are encouraged specifically to observe the Sabbath as their way of becoming acceptable to God, receiving a memorial “in my house and within my walls”.  In Jesus’ day, trading happened in what was known as the “Court of the Gentiles”, and when this took place on a Sabbath, foreigners who wanted to draw near to God were prevented from doing the very thing the Scriptures required of them.  How appropriate that Jesus cleared space for Gentiles to draw near, and prevented people carrying vessels through the temple.

One more post to follow, matching up the other events of Jesus’ passion week with regulations concerning the Feast of Passover, and then a summary of our argument.

April 6, 2009

Good Thursday? part 3 – What ‘Passover’ did Jesus eat?

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 12:19 pm
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In the last post we established the difference in Jewish regulations between the ‘special Sabbaths’ that started and ended the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the normal Sabbaths on the seventh day of each week.  Every 15th and 21st of Nisan were to be ‘special Sabbaths’, and the 14th of Nisan on which lambs were to be slaughtered and yeast removed from houses was commonly known as the ‘Day of Preparation’, referred to by all four Gospels (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31, 42).  If the special Sabbath on the 15th of Nisan was followed by a normal Sabbath on the 16th, this would result in the ‘three days and three nights’ predicted by Jesus in Matthew 12:40, and it would mean that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday rather than a Friday.  However, if Jesus did die on the 14th, this raises questions about the ‘Passover’ meal Jesus is said to have eaten with His disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The Synoptic versions of Jesus’ last supper
To begin, it will be helpful to consider what the three ‘synoptic’ Gospels say about this meal.

Matthew 26:17-20
Now on the first of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?’  And He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, ‘My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'”‘  The disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover.  Now when evening came, Jesus was reclining with the twelve disciples…”

Mark 14:12-17
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they were sacrificing the Passover, His disciples said to Him, ‘Where do you want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?’  And He sent two of His disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher says, ‘Where is my guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'”  And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished, ready; prepare for us there.’  The disciples went out and came to the city, and found it just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover.  When it was evening He came with the twelve…”

Luke 22:7-14
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover had to be sacrificed.  And Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, so that we may eat it.’  They said to Him, ‘Where do You want us to prepare it?’  And He said to them, ‘When you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters.  And you shall say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?'”  And he will show you a large, furnished upper room; prepare it there.’  And they left and found it just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover.  When the hour had come, He reclined and the apostles with Him.

“There was evening and there was morning, the fourteenth day.”
The impression that is given in all three of these accounts is that the search for a room in which to eat the Passover began on the very day that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.  Apart from the surprising lack of foresight this would indicate in the disciples, we have the added problem that the term ‘day’ is being used to refer to different segments of time in these accounts.  Genesis 1 introduces the Jewish understanding of a ‘day’ being made up of a night followed by a day (“evening and morning”), that is, twilight to twilight.  In a culture without watches, this is far more sensible than to calculate a day from midnight to midnight (night + day + night).

If we refer back to Exodus 12 and the regulations governing the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, we are told that the lambs are to be slaughtered on the 14th of Nisan, before the sun sets (i.e. at the very end of the Jewish day).  In addition, the Feast of Unleavened Bread is said to begin on that 14th day (Exodus 12:18), even though elsewhere the Feast of Passover (14th) and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15th – 21st) are carefully distinguished (e.g. Leviticus 23:5-6; Numbers 28:16-17).  Based on the account in Exodus, therefore, it would be perfectly correct to describe the night before the lambs were sacrificed (part of the 14th of Nisan) as part of the Day of Preparation, the ‘first day of Unleavened Bread’.

The ‘first day of Unleavened Bread’
If Jesus did indeed die on the 14th of Nisan, the Day of Preparation, this means that His meal the previous evening was also officially on that Day of Preparation, the first day of Unleavened Bread.  This is the primary focus of all three synoptic Gospels – they intend to point out for the reader that the important Last Supper, instituting the sacrament of bread and wine for the Church, was eaten with the disciples as part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  By the time of the New Testament, the ‘leaven’ (yeast) could be used to symbolise sin (1 Corinthians 5:6-7), and it was important theologically to note that the bread representing Jesus’ body was unleavened bread.

The finding of a room earlier that ‘day’ (although officially the 13th of Nisan) is only told to give the context for the meal itself, which was on the 14th.  In fact, although Matthew’s account gives the most basic of descriptions about where the meal took place, Mark and Luke both highlight the fact that Jesus was far more prepared for this meal than His disciples were.  When one remembers that the Passover lambs were still to be sacrificed the following afternoon, this merely emphasises the fact that due to Jesus’ preparation, the Passover meal was all ready to be eaten a whole day earlier than the disciples had expected.

Passover meal before Passover?
Such an observation is made more prominent when we see how Luke has taken the predictions of the kingdom that Matthew and Mark had linked to the sharing of the cup, and put them at the beginning of his account of the meal, delaying mention of the betrayal until after the institution of the bread and wine.  Luke begins the story of the meal (22:15-18) with Jesus saying to His disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  Then taking a cup (not the cup of the new covenant, which came after the meal), He said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.”

Twice, Jesus emphasised to His disciples that He would not be sharing this meal with them again for a long time.  He also explained how much He had wanted to eat the Passover with them before His suffering.  Considering that the correct time for the Passover meal was the following evening, these comments are entirely consistent with what the disciples must have been asking Him – “So are we going to be doing this all over again tomorrow?”  Much in the same way as friends of mine who always eat their Christmas dinner a day early, just so the whole family can be there, Jesus decided to eat the ‘Passover dinner’ a day early, to share it with His disciples.

Where is the lamb?
One further observation is essential here.  If the Passover lambs were not to be sacrificed until the following afternoon, the ‘Passover’ meal eaten by Jesus and His disciples at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan would have been without meat.  One can hear the disciples asking Jesus, like Isaac asked Abraham, “Behold, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, but where is the lamb?”  And like Abraham on the same mountain two thousand years earlier, Jesus’ reply was, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the sacrifice.”

“For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us celebrate the feast.” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)

Exodus 12:10 makes it clear that the Passover lamb was to be eaten on the night beginning the 15th of Nisan, roasted just after it had been slaughtered at twilight on the 14th.  If any was left over until the morning, it was to be burned with fire.  When John mentions in John 18:28 that the high priest and his officers avoided entering the Praetorium “so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover”, he is making it unmistakeably clear that the actual Passover meal was not eaten by the rest of the Jewish nation until after Jesus had died.  If it had actually been eaten the night before, all that would have been left by this time in the morning would have been ashes.

As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple that afternoon, Jesus was “led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7), and as lambs’ blood was daubed on lintels and doorposts across the land, Jesus’ blood was staining the upright and cross-piece of the wooden cross.  In fulfilment of that command to Moses in Egypt nearly fifteen hundred years earlier, the worthy Lamb, the firstborn Son of God Himself, was slain in order that God’s judgement of Death might ‘pass over’ those of us who shelter beneath His covenant.

The next post looks at how this understanding of Good Thursday helps to explain the days prior to the Last Supper.

April 4, 2009

Good Thursday? part 2 – ‘Good Friday’ and the ‘Day of Preparation’

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 9:18 pm
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In Part 1 we noted that disagreements about commemorating the days of Jesus’ death and resurrection were openly acknowledged early in the second century AD, and apparently trace back even to the time of the writing of John’s Gospel in the first century.  One of these disagreements involved the different reasons for celebration of the date of Jesus’ death as the 14th of Nisan (Jewish lunar calendar) or instead the day of His resurrection as Sunday, or ‘the Lord’s Day’, the “first day of the week” as every Gospel records.  Another disagreement is more implicit, as Matthew’s quotation (12:40) of Jesus predicting a ‘three days and three nights’ period in the tomb does not fit with a belief that Jesus was buried on ‘Good Friday’.

The day before the Sabbath = ‘Good Friday’?
So where does the belief that Jesus died on a Friday come from?  Every Gospel writer quotes Jesus’ frequent references to resurrection “on the third day”.  If this is the case, a burial on Friday could naturally lead to Sunday being spoken of as the ‘third day’, if Friday counts as the first day.  However, a burial on Thursday would fit just as well.  In Luke 24:21, Cleopas as he walked to Emmaus on the Sunday said to Jesus, “it is the third day since these things happened”.  Had he been telling the story on Friday he could have said, “it is a day since these things happened”, or on Saturday, “it is two days since these things happened”.  The ‘Good Friday’ option uses an inclusive way of measuring time, whereas the ‘Good Thursday’ option uses an exclusive way of measuring.

Is there any further evidence that has led people to such a unanimous view that Jesus died on a Friday?  Clearly something must have been stronger than Matthew’s evidence of “three days and three nights”, which could only really fit with a crucifixion on Thursday.  The answer is found in Mark 15:42, where we are told that Jesus’ burial took place on “the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath”.  A few verses later in Mark 16:1-2 we find that “When the Sabbath was over, …very early on the first day of the week…”, Jesus rose again.  From Genesis chapter two we know that the Sabbath is the seventh day, the last day of the week.  If, therefore, the regular Jewish Sabbath was the day after Jesus died, His crucifixion must have happened on a Friday, hence, ‘Good Friday’.  Every Gentile in the church would have known that the Jewish Sabbath was a Saturday, so few would have questioned whether Jesus died on a Friday.

But which sort of Sabbath?
Someone has said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and it seems John was aware of the confusion that could have, or already had, arisen in the minds of Gentile readers of earlier Gospels, unfamiliar with Jewish customs.  Therefore in his own account of the crucifixion and burial, he quotes Mark verbatim that “it was the day of preparation” (19:31), but then emphasises that the Sabbath that followed “was a high day” (literally, “for the day of that Sabbath was great”).  That is, it wasn’t just any old Sabbath.  This was a special Sabbath coming up, and the day before it, on which Jesus was crucified, was that day known as “the Jewish day of preparation” (19:42).  Earlier in 19:14, John had referred to this day as “the day of preparation for the Passover”.

To understand what John was trying so hard to make his readers realise, we must look back at the regulations about observance of the Feast of Passover in the Old Testament.  In Exodus 12, we find the instructions about killing a lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month (i.e. Nisan), some of whose blood was to be put on the doorposts and lintels of each house, making the Angel of Death ‘pass over’ their houses (12:2-14).  This Feast of Passover was to be a permanent memorial, but it coincided with another Feast known as ‘Unleavened Bread’, during which no yeast (‘leaven’) was to be eaten at all, or even found in anyone’s house.  Exodus 12:15-20 describe this part of the feast:

On the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and a holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you.  You shall also observe the Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt…  In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.

Just as the sacrifice of the lambs at twilight on the 14th of Nisan commemorated the ‘Passover’ of the Angel of Death, so the unleavened bread, eaten in a meal with that lamb and throughout the following seven days (15th – 21st), commemorated the haste with which God brought His people out of Egypt the next day.  Yet both the 15th and 21st of Nisan were set apart as holy days, special Sabbaths on which no work was to be done.  Preparing the lambs, and presumably also the unleavened bread, had to happen on the 14th, therefore, which naturally became known as the Day of Preparation of the Passover.

Two Sabbaths in a row!
One crucial point to note here, though, is that because the Feast(s) happened on a certain date every year, the day of the week would change from year to year.  Exactly the same thing happens with our western celebration of Christmas.  If the 25th of December happens to fall on a Saturday or a Monday, Christians may well attend church two days in a row.  If, on the other hand, the 25th was a Sunday, the special day of worship and the normal day of worship would coincide, and be celebrated together.  So with the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  On certain years the 15th and 21st of Nisan would happen to fall on the seventh day of the week, in which case the special Sabbath and normal Sabbath would coincide (the necessary situation if one is to hold to ‘Good Friday’).  On all other years there would be two additional Sabbaths to observe, with a normal Sabbath somewhere in between them.

What John is at pains to point out is that Jesus died on the day before a special Sabbath, not just on the sixth day of the week before a normal Sabbath.  But then, what if John is going further, and actually trying to indicate that it was not the sixth day of the week?  What if John is suggesting that the special Sabbath and normal Sabbath were different days that year, and that therefore Jesus was in the tomb on both the sixth and seventh day of that week?  This would fit perfectly with Matthew 12:40, and mean that Jesus was buried before sunset on the Thursday (first day, = 14th Nisan), spent that night (first night, = 15th Nisan), Friday (second day = 15th Nisan, + second night = 16th Nisan), and Saturday (third day = 16th Nisan, + third night = 17th Nisan) in the tomb, rising again before sunrise on the Sunday (John 20:1, clarifying Luke 24:1-2, Mark 16:2-4 and Matthew 28:1-2).

If the Day of Preparation was not a Friday (that term is not generally used by Jews for the sixth day of the week) but rather a Thursday, this would mean that Jesus died on the 14th of Nisan, the very day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and then the women were kept from going to the tomb for two full Sabbaths, ensuring that Jesus was in the grave according to the sign of Jonah for three days and three nights.

This solves the problem of the three days and three nights, but what then of the statements by Matthew, Mark and Luke, to the effect that Jesus celebrated a Passover meal the night before He was crucified?  That is the subject of the next post…

April 3, 2009

Good Thursday? part 1 – Problems with Passover and Matthew 12:40

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 9:16 pm
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Ancient celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection
Many Christians throughout the world are in the midst of the forty day fast known as ‘Lent’, which concludes just before ‘Easter’ Sunday.  Few know, however, that even in the time of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon in the late second century, the tradition of fasting before Easter was already ancient, perhaps starting as early as the times of the first generation of apostles.  In the second century, though, fasting was generally carried out only during the period in which Jesus was dead, which some apparently calculated to be forty hours.  Irenaeus mentioned that in his day some fasted one day, some two, some more than that, but by the mid-fourth century the forty day fast observed nowadays was commonplace.  [See Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 5.23-25 for more evidence.]

Interestingly, from the second century until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, there was a long-running dispute over when Christians should celebrate Easter.  Churches in Asia Minor (Turkey), who traced their authority back to great fathers of the Church including Philip the Evangelist (Acts 21:8) and John the Apostle himself, finished their fast on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan in the lunar calendar (whatever day of the week that was).  This was the same day that the Jews sacrificed the Passover lamb, in accordance with the Law of Moses.  Apparently the ‘Asian’ churches did this to commemorate the day on which Jesus, our Passover Lamb, was crucified.

Churches in other regions, led by the churches in Rome, insisted that it was only right to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on ‘the Lord’s Day’, that is, Sunday – the ‘first day of the week’ when He rose again.  According to a letter written by Irenaeus, the presiding elders in Rome from about 120 AD onwards had celebrated on a Sunday rather than on the 14th of Nisan, and yet had maintained fellowship with those who did differently.  Irenaeus’ teacher, Polycarp, was the leader of the church in Smyrna and had known John the Apostle and several others of the first generation of apostles.  Around 150 AD he had travelled to Rome, and while there he disputed with the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus, about the issue of when to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Although neither could persuade the other, they maintained fellowship, unlike Anicetus’ obstinate successor Victor at the end of that century.  Eventually the Council of Nicea nearly two hundred years later insisted that all Christians celebrate the Sunday rather than the 14th of Nisan.

‘Passover’ differences in the Gospel accounts
Clearly the increasing distance of the Church from Jewish culture and traditions eventually led to her rejection of the Jewish date of the Passover as the appropriate day for commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection.  However this has made me wonder whether the same distance, now far greater, has resulted in an even greater lack of understanding about the actual events of the final ‘Passion’ week of Jesus.  The dispute between the ‘Asian’ churches, tracing their authority back to John the Apostle, and the western churches, apparently started even earlier than 120 AD, and can even be seen even back in the Gospels themselves.

It has long been noted by scholars that whereas Matthew (26:17-19), Mark (14:12-16) and Luke (22:7-15) all give the impression that Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal together on the night before Jesus died, John explicitly denies this.  In 13:1-2, John says, “Now before the Feast of the Passover… during supper…”, and even more clearly, in 18:28-29 he writes, “Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.  Therefore Pilate went out to them…”  Almost everyone accepts that John was writing after the other Gospels, and assuming that his readers would be familiar with the other Gospels.  In this case, it appears that John was trying to correct a misunderstanding that had already arisen in his time about the events of Jesus’ final week (in mortal flesh).  If John is right, what were Jesus and the disciples eating?

“Three days and three nights”?
One further point of apparent disagreement between the Gospels about the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the matter of Jesus’ prediction about it.  This time it is Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, that differs with the others.  In Matthew 12:39-40, Jesus says plainly, “No sign will be given to [this generation] but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  Luke’s equivalent passage, 11:29-32, doesn’t mention any specifics about the way that Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, perhaps because Luke was aware of traditions already in circulation that believed Jesus had risen on “the third day” as counted inclusively (Friday to Sunday) rather than exclusively (‘three days later’; see 9:22, 13:32?, 18:33).  In fact, this verse in Matthew is the only place where Jesus is recorded as speaking of ‘three nights’ in addition to ‘three days’.  Elsewhere Matthew also speaks simply of the ‘third day’ (16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 27:64).

If Jesus was buried late on Friday afternoon and had risen by sunrise on Sunday, how can this even count as three days?  The standard explanation is that any part of a day may count as one day, so Jesus’ body was in the grave for part of Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday.  Fair enough – this way of using the word ‘day’ inclusively is common enough in English too.  Whether you were born at 5:00am or 11:50pm on the third of April, you can celebrate that ‘birth day’ all day long.  But the problem comes with Jesus’ explicit quotation of Jonah 1:17 with its “three nights”.  Any way you look at it, if Jesus was buried on Good Friday, there are only two nights involved.

Some commentators refer us to 1 Samuel 30:12-13 where ‘three days and three nights’ apparently means just ‘three days’, but the evidence there is far from clear.  Alternatively, Esther 4:16 and 5:1 might perhaps suggest that three nights and three days is concluded on the third day, but again, this is hardly proof that ‘nights’ does not actually mean ‘nights’.  We can certainly acknowledge that ‘day’ and ‘day and night’ might refer to the same period of time, but it would seem obvious that when nights are deliberately referred to, a more specific delimitation of time is intended than the the phrase ‘three days’, or ‘on the third day’.  Standard explanations do not seem adequate in explaining the conflict between Matthew 12:40 and a crucifixion on ‘Good Friday’.

So, we have two issues to consider, the timing of ‘Passover’, and the length of time Jesus was interred.  I would like to suggest that a closer consideration of the Jewish background to this feast will bring us to a satisfying resolution of both, but we may have to be open to the idea of ‘Good Thursday’.  More to follow…

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