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.

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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 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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