Sunday, March 11, 2012

Will the Real Passover Please Stand Up!

As we are approaching Passover this year, again there is much discussion about Yeshua’s last Passover meal with His disciples, I thought I would repost this blog from last year detailing the timing of this important chain of events surrounding Yeshua’s crucifixion and resurrection.  I originally wrote this piece as a response to a Jewish apologist (Anti-missionary) who called into question the accuracy of the Gospel accounts of these events.

Yeshua’s last Passover is one of those accounts in the Bible where it seems no matter what, there remains an unsolved mystery.  What is the actual timing of the Passover celebrated by Yeshua, the Crucifixion, and His resurrection?  There is an abundance of diverse opinions on not only the timing of the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread celebrations in general, but whether Yeshua and His disciples actually even ate a Passover meal.  The New Testament scriptures themselves, on the surface, seem to conflict with each other, the most prominent being the differences between the accounts in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that of the Gospel of John.  As I examine the Gospel account, I will be looking at the specific language of the Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew as well as looking back through Jewish traditions to see if we can get a clearer picture of the timing and teachings of the Master Yeshua.

To keep this blog at a reasonable length, please read the following scripture passages on your own before continuing:

Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26 and Luke 22:1-38.  Take your time, I can wait…

OK, now that the heavy reading is out of the way, let’s take a closer look at a couple of key points. 
(1) When is the meal identified as the Passover being prepared? 
(2) And when do the disciples gather to eat it? 

Matthew (26:17) and Mark (14:12) both state that the preparation for the Passover was done on the “first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.”  Luke (22:7) is a little more ambiguous with “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover Lamb had to be sacrificed.”  Even with the ambiguity of Luke, they all seem to be indicating that the Passover meal in question was eaten on the evening at the end of the first Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  As each Gospel account continues, Yeshua then goes out to pray, is betrayed and arrested, taken to the “kangaroo court” before the High Priest and in the morning ends up being crucified at the “third hour” (aprox. 9:00 am) the next day.  According to the terminology used in these three Gospel records, that would place the crucifixion of Yeshua on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, right?  That’s a definite maybe!

But the Gospel of John seems to have a different timing on these events:

John 18:1-3, 28 NKJV 1 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered. 2 And Judas, who betrayed Him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with His disciples. 3 Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. (now skipping to verse 28) 28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.

Wait a minute!  Wasn’t Yeshua crucified on Passover, but He and the disciples actually had their Passover meal on the “first day of Unleavened Bread” according to the other Gospel accounts right?  Wasn’t Yeshua buried at the end of the day BEFORE the High Sabbath began, not the day AFTER?  According to scripture, the first day of Unleavened Bread is a High Sabbath (Lev 23:7).  Wasn’t He resurrected on the first day of the week, that is, the day after the Sabbath?  Was that the High Sabbath or the regular weekly Sabbath?  How can all four of these Gospel accounts be true?  And what “Sabbaths” are they talking about?  There is the “High” or special Sabbath as well as the regular weekly Sabbath.  I’m confused!  How about you?  Let’s see if we can straighten this all out.

The short answer is that all these accounts are all in agreement.  But we must understand the history, culture and religious practices of the Jewish people of this time in order to make the correct interpretation of the Gospel accounts.  After all Yeshua and all the disciples were Jews from the land of Israel.  In order to get a baseline understanding of the timing of the Feasts we need to consult the Bible itself, specifically the Torah and find out when these events are supposed to take place.  The first place to look is in Exodus where the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is first spoken of.

Exodus 12:17-18 NKJV 17 'So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. 18 '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.

Paying particular attention to verse 18 above, let’s take a look at the 23rd chapter of Leviticus where the Feasts of the LORD are spelled out and what this chapter has to say about Passover and Unleavened Bread specifically:

Leviticus 23:4-7 NKJV 4 'These are the feasts of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times. 5 'On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the LORD'S Passover. 6 'And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 'On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it.

I think this pretty much clarifies the Biblical timing of the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread.  So what is the confusion in the Gospel accounts all about?  This is where it gets tricky.  It involves the ages old problem of a combination of cultural and religious traditions getting in the way of Torah along with a little bit of a translation issue.  So let’s start with a little word study and put the pieces together.

The first thing to look at is in Exodus 12:18 “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.”  This passage is very specific as to the month, day and time of day, but this verse does not give the name of the occasion which is on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening.  It only states that “you shall eat unleavened bread” on this day at evening.  Later, in Lev. 23:5 we find that the 14th of Nissan is defined as Passover.

Now what does it mean “at evening”?  In our modern way of thinking, it is as the sun is setting on the day.  I tend to think of summer time when lounging around outside after dinner but before it gets dark as being the evening.  The Bible however, defines it differently.  The Hebrew word translated as “evening” in Exodus 12:18 and as “twilight” in Leviticus 23:5 above as well as elsewhere in the scriptures, is the word “ereb”.  It is defined in the Strong’s Dictionary number 6153:

#6153 ereb, eh'-reb;  dusk:--+ day, even(-ing, tide), night.  And according to the Brown-Driver-Biggs Hebrew Dictionary, “ereb” is defined as “evening, sunset”. (also see #6150)

Assuming that these definitions are correct and in light of the Hebrew reckoning of when a day begins, that is at sunset (See the Genesis account of creation where each of the days consists of “evening and morning”), then ereb: evening, sunset, dusk etc., can only be at one time during a complete 24 hour day as understood in the scriptures, and that is at the “beginning” of a day, which is at sunset; evening!

Before we go on, let’s take a look at another word, this time in the Greek manuscripts of the Synoptic Gospels.  Matthew and Mark both use the Greek word “protos” where the English translation is the word “first”, but according to the Strong’s Dictionary it is defined as follows:

#4413  protos,  pro'-tos.  Contracted superlative of #4253; foremost (in time, place, order or importance):--before, beginning, best, chief(-est), first (of all), former.

#4253  pro,  pro.  A primary preposition; "fore", i.e. in front of, prior (figuratively, superior) to:--above, ago, before, or ever. In the comparative, it retains the same significations.

Only in the vaguest sort of way does “protos” mean “first” in the way it is implied in the English translations of the Gospels.  This is a mistranslation.  The better English word would be “before” not “first”.  Before better fits the timing of these important Spring Feasts as clearly spelled out in the Torah.

In some circles this “discrepancy” is answered by positing that the meal that Yeshua and the disciples ate was not a Passover meal, perhaps it was what is known as a Chagigah, which also involves the sacrifice of a lamb.  This is not backed up by any textual evidence of any kind; historical, or scriptural, in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic or anything else.  The scriptures clearly say in all manuscripts, that this is a Passover.  So I think that settles the issue and we will have to search elsewhere for the answer.

Now here is where the problem with tradition and culture come into play as well as the nature of Semitic languages to have many, and sometimes opposite meanings to a single word.  This makes translating Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures rather difficult unless the translator is intimately familiar with the cultural context in which the scripture is written.  And we all know that cultural elements are dynamic and can change rapidly over time.

In antiquity, especially the late second Temple era, the distinction between Passover and Unleavened Bread became blurred.  To this day, most in the Jewish community refer to the entire eight days of Passover and Unleavened Bread as the “Passover Week” and ignore almost completely the Feast of First Fruits which falls inside the seven days of Unleavened Bread.  In Yeshua’s day, the “Passover” was the meal that launched the week long Feast of Unleavened Bread. The traditional observance and the exact timing of the Passover meal varied from community to community and from one Jewish sect to another.  Residents of Judea and the Galilee ate the Passover nearly a full day earlier than the Priests in the Temple as well as most permanent residents of Jerusalem.

How is it possible that the timing of the Passover meal was varied when the scripture clearly states that it was at the evening or “ereb” as previously pointed out?  Well, maybe the Biblical definition of “ereb” is not so clear after all.  In other interpretations (read translations), the term “ereb” is used in a broader sense, as in “between the evenings” or “afternoon”, as in when the sun is going down as found in Exodus 12:6 in the Hebrew Tanach:  (The Stone Edition from Artscroll)

Exodus 12:6 It (the lamb) shall be yours for examination until the fourteenth day of the month; the entire congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon.

This translation reflects a long standing tradition and interpretation of the meaning of the word “ereb”.  Here it is translated as “afternoon” which is, as had been for centuries, interpreted in Jewish circles as meaning anytime after the sun starts its downward path to sunset.  This is reflected in subsequent translation of the scriptures describing the Day of Atonements, Yom Kippur:

Leviticus 23:26-27, 32 NKJV 26 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 27 "Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD… 32 "It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath."

Here is where this slightly different but all too important definition of the Hebrew word “ereb” comes from.  Verse 27 in this passage establishes the timing of Yom Kippur on the 10th day of the 7th month.  But later in verse 32 states that it is on the 9th day of the 7th month that is the Sabbath of solemn rest “at evening, from evening to evening”.  To resolve this contradiction, the word “ereb” had come to also means “afternoon”.  That is, a period of time when the sun is on its downward path and to include sunset to total darkness.  This has been the understanding of ereb for millennia, from well before the time of Yeshua to the present day.

Now here is where tradition and the differences between the interpretations of the primary sects of Judaism make their appearance.  The residents of the Galilee and Judea, both areas heavily influenced by the two major schools of the Pharisees, partook of the Passover meal at the very beginning of the 14th day of the 1st month at the evening, “ereb”, defined as twilight.  Just after sunset and before total darkness.  Similar to the way the weekly Sabbath begins, with the evening meal.  The priests of the Temple however were largely of the sect of the Sadducees and eat their Passover meal at the end of the 14th day of the 1st month “at even” or “ereb” as the sun was on its downward path before actual sunset; Two distinctly different interpretations of the word “ereb”, or evening.

Both of these timings can be shown to be scripturally correct depending on how one defines the word "ereb”.   But remember the mission and teachings of our Master Yeshua were to “fulfill” the law, meaning to “rightly interpret” the Torah and show us how it is done.  (See “How Yeshua Fulfilled the Law (Torah)” in this blog site.)  I believe that Yeshua and His disciples partook of their Passover meal at the proper time, in the evening of the 14th day of the 1st month at “twilight” the period of sunset to complete darkness at the very beginning of the “day” of Passover, mistranslations not with standing.

It is an interesting note, that in all the Gospel accounts of Yeshua rebuking the Jewish leadership for misinterpretations of the Torah, it is never recorded that He rebuked them for having the Passover meal at the “wrong time”, at the end of the 14th of Nisan and not at the beginning.  He certainly had plenty of opportunity to do so, having celebrated at least two other Passover feasts with his disciples during His ministry.  I think this fact illustrates in a powerful way how Yeshua both partook of the Passover and was also the Passover sacrifice.  Our Passover lamb without spot, wrinkle or blemish.

שלום ברוך
Shalom and be blessed in this up coming Passover/Unleavend Bread/Feast of First Fruits season.
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

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Research for this post was derived from but not limited to the following sources:

The Temple: Its Ministry and Services and Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Time of Christ”.  Both by Alfred Edershiem
The Sign of the Cross by Andrew Gabriel Roth
The Aramaic English New Testament commentary sections
The Complete works of Flavius Josepus a 1st century Jewish/Roman historian

The following is a comment and my response from the original posting last year:

Based on the following quote of your writing, Yeshua is disqualified as Messiah, the lamb was sacrificed between the two evenings of the 14th and then eaten on the 15th. How did Yeshua die on the cross on the 14th and also eat the passover on the 15th. ? "Both of these timings can be shown to be scripturally correct depending on how one defines the word "ereb”.   But remember the mission and teachings of our Master Yeshua were to “fulfill” the law, meaning to “rightly interpret” the Torah and show us how it is done.  (See “How Yeshua Fulfilled the Law (Torah)” in this blog site.)  I believe that Yeshua and His disciples partook of their Passover meal at the proper time, in the evening of the 14th day of the 1st month at “twilight” the period of sunset to complete darkness at the very beginning of the “day” of Passover."

It appears that you may have misunderstood what I wrote. Yeshua both partook of the Passover and was crucified on the Passover, Nisan 14. The Hebrew calendar date changes at sunset, so it was just after sunset as the 14th of Nisan began that Yeshua and the disciples ate their Passover meal. It was the late afternoon of the 14th of Nisan (the 9th hour) that Yeshua died. In this timeline, both interpretations of the meaning of the word "ereb" work. Yeshua both partook of the Passover on the 14th of Nisan, and was crucified, died and buried before sunset at the end of the 14th of Nisan when the calendar date would change to the 15th, which is the 1st day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and a High Sabbath.

There really is not 2 evenings, as in "between the evenings" on Nisan 14 or any other day on the Hebrew calendar. The term "between the evenings" is a cultural idiom and as such not literally accurate. Such idioms are very common to the Jewish culture of the 1st century and are interwoven through the scriptures. They are sometimes very difficult to interpret correctly because we have no similar cultural frame of reference today, some 2000 years removed from the time in question. I hope this explains it a little better.

Shalom and be blessed
Dan Cathcart

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