James Patrick’s Blog

April 3, 2009

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

Filed under: History — alabastertheology @ 9:16 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

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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