Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lenten Reflections – The Passover Context of the Passion

The studies of the Gospel of Mark posted on this village have been on hiatus since Advent. As we are now in the season of Lent, I want to do several commentaries on Mark’s Passion narrative. These are in a somewhat different format than our traditional studies which looked at consecutive verses and scenes. Reasonable comments that stay on topic are welcome

The Passover Context of the Passion

We have so programmed ourselves to do our liturgical thinking in terms of a Holy Week, i.e. Sunday to Sunday, that it is hard to understand the time frame for the passion narrative as it appears in the accounts found in Mark.

Of course, there are two mutually contradictory traditions in the Bible, the synoptic tradition and the tradition from John and they suggest very different time frames.

In the Marcan synoptic tradition (imported later into Matthew and Luke) while the gang is coming to Jerusalem for Passover, they get there a little early. This is not uncommon. There are pre-festival preparations to accomplish, especially if one must complete certain cleansing rituals in a timely manner.

Jesus and his disciples (actually the central 12 apostles and a few women who also travel with the group) are apparently staying in Bethany, perhaps in tents pitched outside of Martha and Mary’s home in the small village located on the Mt. of Olives’ eastern slope. Bethany sat “about two miles” southeast of Jerusalem, the urban center. It has been a long road trip. They had first retreated to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. The had then returned to the Gallilee. Eventually, they had come on back into Judea. This is a special time for instruction and as Mark tells the story, Jesus has been speaking quite directly about his expectations that it is going to be pretty nasty for him as a prophet in Jerusalem. The disciples don’t really understand – a fact that seems to repeat itself over and over in Mark.

In the Gospel of John, the dispute with money changers and the sellers of animals for sacrifice has happened on an earlier trip to the temple city. John also recalls during another previous festival visit, argumentation with the crowd and temple officials that got Jesus is serious trouble and danger. Because, John sees the death of Jesus theologically as related to the rituals of the butchering of the Passover lambs, the last meal with the disciples is not a Seder gathering and Jesus is arrested one day earlier (i.e. the afternoon prior to the 14th day of Nisan) instead of Passover, which begins the evening of the 14th in this first month in the Jewish calendar.

Rather than the Gregorian calendar with which we are most familiar, the Jewish year was charted on a lunar rotation. Days do not proceed from midnight to midnight, but sundown to sundown following the observations of the cycle of the moon. So, Sabbath proceeds from sunset on our Friday night through the Saturday daylight hours. Existentially, much like the story in Genesis, a day moves from darkness to light.

The traditional Chinese calendar, in which we have just recently celebrated Chinese New Year, and the Muslim calendar both follow the lunar cycle as well.

Our calendar, which takes its data from observations of a solar rotation, has 365 days each year with a leap year which adds one extra day to February. The twelve months alternate generally from 30 to 31 days long (February excepted).

Charting the phases of the moon, the months of the Jewish year are either twenty-nine or thirty days long. This reflects the fact that a lunar month is twenty-nine and a half days in length, and the months always must begin with the new moon. There are twelve lunar months, but the year is some eleven days shorter than a solar year.

[Let me share some background context. The following information is taken directly from study articles available on My Jewish Learning]

In order to ensure that the various seasonally based holidays in the Jewish calendar continue to occur at the correct season, the rabbis developed a system over time that allowed them to coordinate their lunar months with the solar year by inserting a leap month at the end of the year seven times in every 19-year cycle. This is now fixed in the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years of the cycle. Although this is traditionally ascribed to Rabbi Hillel II in the fourth century CE, it is probable that the system in use today developed slowly during the course of the mid to late first millennium.

n order to further fine-tune their calculations, the rabbis determined that the months of Nisan (March-April), Sivan (May-June), Av (July-August), Tishrei (September-October), and Shevat (January-February) are always thirty days long. Iyyar (April-May), Tammuz (June-July), Elul (August-September), Tevet (December-January), and Adar (March-April) are always twenty-nine days long. Heshvan (October-November) and Kislev (November-December) are either twenty-nine or thirty days in length. In a leap year, there are two months of Adar, the last month of the year. When that occurs, Adar I is thirty days long, and Adar II twenty-nine. A short Jewish year, therefore, consists of 353 to 355 days, while a leap year varies between 383 and 385 days.

The names that we use for the Jewish months are actually Babylonian in origin and were adopted by the Jews as of the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. The Bible indicates that until then the months were oftentimes called simply by their numerical position in the year (First Month, Second Month, etc.), just as the days of the week–with the exception of Shabbat–still are in Hebrew. In addition, the Bible does record some ancient names for the months that disappeared once the Jews adopted the Babylonian names. These include the now forgotten months of Bul and Aviv, among others. The Gezer Calendar from the 10th century BCE, arguably the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered, refers to the months according to the agricultural activities associated with them.

The Jewish month begins with the first sighting of the new moon, the Rosh Chodesh. There are special prayers associated with the beginning of the month, and Rosh Chodesh ceremonies have oftentimes played an important role particularly among the female members of the Jewish community.

Although the Jewish New Year is celebrated at the beginning of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), this month is actually the seventh month according to ancient reckoning. The first month is actually Nisan, during which Passover (Pesach) falls. In this manner, the Jewish year begins with God’s great redemptive act at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.

Jewish holidays and festivals are spread throughout the year,“with the exception of the month of Heshvan. Therefore, this month has also been termed Marheshvan, bitter Heshvan, since it lacks a holiday. However, the term “mar” could also be read as “mister,” which is also interpreted midrashically to mean that this poor month without a holiday is compensated by receiving special respect!”

In contrast to the Muslim calendar, the Jewish “leap month” rhythm keeps the traditional agricultural based festivals in relative position each year. In the Islamic calendar, the fast month of Ramadan can be in the spring in one year and a different season in the next.

Most of us really don’t do festivals these days unless we take a vacation say to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or Latin America for Carnival. Originally based in an agricultural context, Jews took three 7 (8) day pauses each year to rehearse their core identity, their Jewishness if you will.

The Chinese New Year festival is somewhat instructive. This festival is a 15 day long period. The following rubrics are borrowed from a University of Victoria in Canada faculty website

The first day of the Lunar New Year is “the welcoming of the gods of the heavens and earth.”Many people abstain from meat on the first day of the new year because it is believed that this will ensure long and happy lives for them

On the second day, the Chinese pray to their ancestors as well as to all the gods. They are extra kind to dogs and feed them well as it is believed that the second day is the birthday of all dogs.

The third and fourth days are for the sons-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law.

The fifth day is called Po Woo. On that day people stay home to welcome the God of Wealth. No one visits families and friends on the fifth day because it will bring both parties bad luck.

On the sixth to the 10th day, the Chinese visit their relatives and friends freely. They also visit the temples to pray for good fortune and health.

The seventh day of the New Year is the day for farmers to display their produce. These farmers make a drink from seven types of vegetables to celebrate the occasion. The seventh day is also considered the birthday of human beings. Noodles are eaten to promote longevity and raw fish for success.

On the eighth day the Fujian people have another family reunion dinner, and at midnight they pray to Tian Gong, the God of Heaven.

The ninth day is to make offerings to the Jade Emperor.

The 10th through the 12th are days that friends and relatives should be invited for dinner.

After so much rich food, on the 13th day you should have simple rice congee and mustard greens (choi sum) to cleanse the system.

The 14th day should be for preparations to celebrate the Lantern Festival which is to be held on the 15th night.

Passover (Hebrew: Pesach) is the first of the three pilgrim festivals. It begins on 14 Nisan. The festival is observed for seven days. The first and seventh days are feast days. This festival also mixed with the more traditional Spring Barley Harvest Festival which began on 15 Nisan. Leaven is removed from the house in the evening before the festival. During Passover it is forbidden to eat or possess leaven, and only Unleavened bread (matzah) is eaten. During the period of the First and Second Temples, a Pascal Lamb was sacrificed on the eve of the festival. After the destruction of the Temple, a home celebration (Seder) was instituted.

We don’t have a lot of clarity about the daily rubrics of this temple festival. We certainly know there were processions, services at the sanctuary, a lot of time spent basking in the wonder of this awesome structure and events promoting the renewal of family ties, many family members who have returned for this special time of year from the larger Diaspora.

Traditionally, Mark has been read to be a related sequence of events, first day by day, and then hour by hour. Let me take to time to point out a particularly helpful book, recently written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The Final Week is published by HarperSanFrancisco and is now available in paperback. I will refer to it often in the next set of Lenten posts.

My reading of Mark’s narrative does not convince me of such a tight construction. Mark certainly does give clues, but these clues are not necessarily consecutive. I place Jesus and his disciples arriving several days before the festival. While Mark’s first story is what has been called the “Triumphal Entry” and has generally been read as happening as the group arrives in Jerusalem, I think we have clues that suggest otherwise, clues that Jesus at least has been in town for a while.

In order to secure the donkey for Jesus’ ride, the disciples are told to go find one tethered outside a particular person’s door. I want to suggest that this does not represent some mystical clairvoyance on Jesus’ part, but represents instead the fact that Jesus has already been in town and knows that there is a donkey tied up at one of his friend’s yard. When his disciples ask what they should say in case people ask questions, Jesus tells them to say that the Lord needs it. Again, this is not some sort of magical formula. The donkey belongs to a disciple that calls Jesus his Lord. They have already visited a couple of days earlier.

On the next day, we do seem to have the group attending to the temple. The previous day, when Jesus entered and looked around, Mark tells us that Jesus left because it was late in the day. I will return to that in our next post. This next day holds the confrontation with folks at the temple and what Paula Fredricksen calls a tantrum. The next day (perhaps), Mark relates that Jesus returns once more and spends that day doing what good Jews do, i.e. he argues with others about scripture, what the sages call “filling in the gaps.” We should be careful to not understand this as “winner takes all” competition. What is particularly interesting about the Talmud is that it holds numerous minority reports and the bulk of the questions are categorized in the final analysis as remaining undecided.

Having said this, Mark does note that some folks are very unhappy with Jesus. Probably not so much becauser of the arguments, but because he made them look silly and corrupt.

I believe that Mark formally begins his passion narrative when he describes the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus. Jesus is taken as saying that this event is related to the lesson that he has been trying to communicate now for several days about his impending suffering. Time wise, we only know that it happens two days before Passover actually starts. We should generally fix the event as happening according to Mark on 12 Nisan. Whether this is at night or the next morning is not clear.

Passover will begin the evening of 14 Nisan. Passover is the only festival where the sacrificial animals are butchered on the previous day (read late Thursday afternoon – 13 Nisan equals Wednesday sunset through Thursday afternoon.) Jesus has asked a couple of his followers to take care of the arrangements. Passover will begin with a common meal that Thursday night, Jesus will be dead before 24 hours are finished.

Just a brief note to point out the Mark doesn’t exactly have his days right where he talks about the sacrifice of lambs on the Day of the Feast of Unleaven Bread. Traditionally, the old spring Barley Harvest festival began 15 Nisan – cf. Leviticus 25. Mark’s dating may reflect confusion and different traditions found in Torah texts where these festivals seem in some places to also start at the New Moon.

The Sabbath (Friday/Saturday) will come and go. The women will visit the tomb, probably the morning of 16 Nisan, not quite three full days. They will be told by a person in white who appears to be an angel that Jesus has gone on ahead of the crew, much like he has done for the past year. They should go to the Galilee and continue to do the work he started.

In Mark, Jesus is crucified the first day of Passover. I am not sure most of the 100,000 or so pilgrims even notice. Crucifixions under Pilate are pretty common fare. Most folks who have very little clue who this guy is, will just see three unfortunate bodies out on the hill. The festival is just beginning and it will last another 6 days. Jesus’ death will only rise to the level of rumor among a few who knew of him.

The question, “Who Killed Jesus” remains a point of contention for Christians during Holy Week. Before I close, I do want to point out two interesting verses in Mark.

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

Mark clearly places some of the scribes and some of the temple leadership in a position of seeking to cause harm to Jesus. But, they clearly don’t want this to happen during the holidays. Having said that, in the context of a Passover reading, Jesus is unjustly executed not after the holidays are over, but on the very first day of the holidays. It seems to me that this suggests that the timing is in the hands of Pilate not the Jews. Pilate forces the issue. Pilate determines the moment. Pilate and his troops order it. They fulfill it. They have their own reasons. We can return to this point in our next post.

Grace and Peace,


Photo Used with Permission: Cyrus restoring the vessels of the Temple. Engraving from 1870. Engraving by Gustave Dore, Photo by D Walker.


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