James Patrick’s Blog

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 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…

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