The origins of Easter: little-known fun facts (part 1)

Here’s an unsystematic presentation of some of the scholarly thinking about Easter and Passover. Regular readers of this blog will not need a disclaimer about my own lack of credentials as a scholar. I’m merely an interested layperson, a religiously inclined agnostic with no particular axes to grind. Please keep in mind that biblical scholars themselves disagree about nearly everything.

I will of necessity favor the reductionist approach, about which I do harbor some reservations. Source-criticism has its roots in the scientism and progressivism of the 19th century. Motivated by the anti-Semitic belief that the Rabbis couldn’t possibly know what the Old Testament was all about, German Protestant scholars began to vivisect the text in an ultimately fruitless search for the “original” meaning of the Bible. By contrast, some recent scholars favor a more holistic approach, focusing on received textual interpretations – the Bible as it has been lived (or selectively ignored) by actual faith communities. But much as I enjoy this latter approach, I won’t be drawing on it much here.

I mention this only to point out that the following compendium of nifty interpretations shouldn’t be read as a guide to what Passover and Easter “really mean.” Such a discussion would involve us in nothing less than a sweeping critique of Judaism and Christianity themselves – which would make for a really, really long post, even for me.

As for what “really happened,” either during the Exodus or the Passion, I’ll be touching on that only negatively, to emphasize how much we DON’T know. Given how little we know about key events of our own time (the JFK assassination, the events of September 11, 2001), we could well argue that such lack of verifiable knowledge is a prime marker of events of transcendent significance in the history of every sacred or secular community. (Yeah, I know – there I go with that via negativa crap again!)

Fun fact # 1: The Last Supper was a Passover meal

C. S. Mann, in his translation of Mark for the Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1986), summarizes the evidence as follows:

“1. The prescriptions for Passover in Exod 12:26-27 and 13:8 require that at each celebration the father of the family was to explain the reasons for the gathering, and bring to mind the redemption of the people.

“2. The custom of explaining the particular manner of the meal was faithfully observed and remains to this day.

“3. In Jesus’ time on the afternoon before the full moon of Nisan, thousands of lambs were brought in to the temple courts of Jerusalem to be slaughtered, commemorating the deliverance of the Hebrew from Egypt (cf. Exod 12:21-25).

“4. The Passover meal began after sunset in families and in groups such as that of Jesus and his disciples. The meal began with bitter herbs and a fruit relish. The roasted lamb was brought in but not yet eaten. This was the occasion for the head of the gathering to explain the particular features of the meal. This obligation was treated with great emphasis, and Rabbi Gamaliel (claimed as Paul’s teacher in Acts 22:3) insisted that the Passover command was not observed unless three things were explained: the Paschal lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs.

“5. Interpretations were not invariable or fixed. The unleavened cakes might be explained as exemplifying the haste with which the Hebrews left their exile (so leaving no time for the dough to rise), or as signaling the “bread of affliction” (Ps 80:5), or even as a contrast to the abundance to be expected in the Age of Blessings to come. [See below, Fun fact #3, for much more on unleavened bread.]

“6. What we appear to have, therefore, in the words of interpretation used by Jesus with the bread and cup [in Mark 14:22-26 – “This is my body . . . This is the blood of the Covenant”] is nothing more or less than the customary exercise by a head of household at Passover.” What was radical about Jesus’ ministry was his inclusion of sinners and outcasts in his adoptive family gathered at the table for the Passover feast.

So reinterpreting paschal motifs is not as sacrilegious an activity as it might appear! What’s profane here, what keeps mere exegesis from becoming inspired midrash, is the disembodied setting – all the more so for being not merely textual but digital, virtual: in cyberspace. Judaism and Christianity are both blood religions, which is why I like them. And table fellowship remains central to Jewish and Christian concepts of blessing and the creation of sacred space.

Fun fact #2: The word usually translated as “Passover” may mean something else

My source here is William H.C. Propp’s magisterial new (1999) translation and commentary for the Anchor Bible, Exodus 1-18:

“We are uncertain of the original derivation and meaning of Pesah. Exodus provides an explanation of sorts: the blood of Pesah caused Yahweh to pâsah over Israel’s houses (12:13, 23, 27). This bears all the earmarks of folk etymology yet cannot be dismissed out of hand.” According to one traditional interpretation, which Propp himself inclines toward, the root verb might actually mean “protect,” referring to Yahweh’s protection of the Israelites’ houses from the Destroyer.

“But even accepting the Bible’s explanation, we are not certain what the crucial verb means. If pâsah means “pass (over),” then “Passover” is an acceptable translation for Pesah. If, however, pâsah refers specifically to hopping or skipping, matters are less clear.” Here’s where it gets fun.

“Some posit an archaic, limping dance connected with the holiday, comparing the dance of Baal’s priests in 1 Kgs 18:26 . . . The ultimate in conjecture is Keel (1972): the limping dance imitated the progress of the deformed demon of the East Wind, the ‘Destroyer.’ Others imagine a paschal ritual of skipping over a threshold (Zeph 1:8-9; cf. 1 Sam 4:5). But if pâsah means ‘protect,’ then Pesah simply means ‘protection.'”

But in that case, the cynic might add, the whole sacrificial lamb/destroying angel schtick takes on the distinct aura of a protection racket.

Fun fact #3: yeast is unholy

As an amateur baker and homebrewer, this is my favorite fun fact. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Massot) required the complete eradication of leavening, and therein – according to Propp – lay its uniqueness. “Unleavened cakes were baked the year round for various sacral and secular purposes . . . To judge from Exodus 12, neglecting to eat them during Massôt would be at most a peccadillo. Instead, the severest sanctions apply to the eating of leavened food . . . Here may lie the holiday’s original significance.

“The process of fermentation must have seemed mysterious to the ancients. Fermentation of grain yields not only toothsome bread but also intoxicating spirits . . . Leaven in particular is fraught with poignant, multivalent symbolism. Leavening entails both putrefaction and growth, death and life; its pungent odor reaches every corner of the house.” Amen, brother!

“Leaven is incompatible with . . . ‘ultimate holiness.'” Propp suggests elsewhere that the priestly obsession with maximal purity means, among other things, that “an offering should be eaten not only at or near sacred space but during or near sacred time.” Not only can putrefaction not have been involved in the production of consecrated food, but such food must be eaten within strictly circumscribed periods (usually one day or less) to minimize the risk of spoilage. The prototype here is, of course, Manna. Propp also speculates that “The prohibition of hoarding [Exod 16:19-24] is a test of Israel’s faith in Providence. Perhaps for sacrifices, too, one must eat the meat one shares with Yahweh heartily, without concern for the matter.” These additional nuances in interpretation make the ban on yeast a little easier to sympathize with.

“During the week of Unleavened Bread, not just the home but the entire land of Israel becomes like a vast altar to Yahweh, leaven-free,” Propp says, and goes on to offer a parenthetical “SPECULATION: While leaven and honey are never offered to Yahweh (Lev 2:11), salt accompanies every sacrifice (Lev 2:13). Eating one’s overlord’s salt has well-known covenantal overtones (Num 18:19; Ezra 4:14; 2 Chr 13:5). But salt may also be considered leaven’s opposite. While one is the product and agent of decay and defilement, the other preserves. Salt, in the proper hands, can repel death itself (2 Kgs 2:20-21) and is compatible with God’s absolute holiness.”

I don’t know about you, but I just eat this stuff up! To save time, however, I’ll pass over a paragraph discussing postbiblical Jewish references (blog posts must be read on the same day they are written, or they start to go bad).

“Apart from the association with purity, unleavened bread may have been considered more primitive, closer to the created order and hence more sacred than leavened . . . Leaven and fermentation symbolized civilization. Deut 29:6 recalls Israel’s desert wanderings as an austere time when ‘(leavened?) bread you did not eat, and wine or beer you did not drink.’ . . . Just as one fasts on certain days or undertakes temporary vows of abstinence to show independence of food, so one periodically avoids leavened bread and eats the purer massôt to attain a higher spiritual-ritual state.”

O.K., now get this. “The disposal of leaven has still deeper significance. Yeast is in theory immortal. The Israelite’s entire chronometric system, however, and their entire worldview presuppose that time is not a continuous stream. It is and must be periodically interrupted. Six workdays are punctuated by the Sabbath; six years of agricultural labor are punctuated by the Year of Release; forty-nine years of commerce are punctuated by the Jubilee; each life ends with a death. Israelite history itself is punctuated by periods of absence from Canaan . . . The laws of Unleavened Bread ensure that the bread by which people live does not transcend time, at least within the Holy Land. Once a year, all yeast must be killed, with a week of separation before the souring of a new batch. It is crucial that aliens within the land also comply, lest their old leaven be used after the holiday to circumvent the taboo.”

The only thing I would add here is that the pre-modern understanding of yeast as a spirit would’ve reinforced the sense of competition with Yahweh and especially with his creative Breath. Actually, Propp does sort of admit the possibility a little later, speculating that some people may have believed that demons were attracted to leavening.

He concludes: “The Festival of Unleavened Bread is primarily a rite of riddance. Leaven symbolizes the undesirable: misfortune, evil intentions and especially ritual impurity.” Rabbinical commentators tended to associate yeast with pridefulness; I assume this belief must be unattested for earlier periods or Propp would’ve mentioned it. “To purge is to make a fresh start, to experience catharsis. This understanding fits well with the historical context of the holiday. In the month of New Grain, the Hebrews cast off centuries of oppression and assumed a holier, more ascetic status for their desert wanderings and subsequent national life. It also fits the seasonal aspect, for, throughout the world, equinoxes are opportunities for fresh beginnings.”

3 Replies to “The origins of Easter: little-known fun facts (part 1)”

  1. Hi Dave–I wonder if you could help me on something. In the beginning of Part I of your April 2004 essay about the origins of Easter and Passover (fun facts), you note– “Motivated by the anti-Semitic belief that the Rabbis couldn’t possibly know what the Old Testament was all about, German Protestant scholars began to vivisect the text in an ultimately fruitless search for the “originalâ€? meaning of the Bible. By contrast, some recent scholars favor a more holistic approach, focusing on received textual interpretations – the Bible as it has been lived (or selectively ignored) by actual faith communities. ” My question is this: Do you think at this late date you could come up with any names or references that would present this more recent holistic approach to the meaning of the Bible such as you referred to above?

  2. Hi Sarah – James Kugel is one, very accessible author of that ilk. I enjoyed his The Bible As It Was, one of several titles in a similar vein. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative both take the wholeness of the text as a starting point. Somewhere in this series, I think I also mention the historian Donald Harman Akenson’s somewhat revisionist history of the creation and reception of the Bible and Talmuds, Surpassing Wonder, which presents a skeptical yet sympathetic look at how faith communities might’ve turned texts into idols.

    Hope this helps. Thanks for the comment!

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