The origins of Easter (part 4)

Fun fact #9: In naming the paschal holiday for Ostara, the goddess of spring, Anglo-Saxon Christians recognized the original character of Passover as a springtime rite of passage

The original, combined holiday of Unleavened Bread and Passover amounted to, in William H.C. Propp’s estimation, “a rite of passage from season to season and from year to year. The weeklong celebration is what [anthropologist Victor] Turner calls [in The Forest of Symbols] a ‘liminal’ period, a transitional interval set apart from quotidian activity. Throughout the Near East, both equinoxes were times of fate and danger, evoking special rites of purification and protection. In the lunisolar calendar, months were intercalated at the equinoxes – a procedure that strikes us as routine, but in antiquity was fraught with significance.”

Propp continues with a detailed analysis of the multiple parallels between Massot/Pesach and Sukkot/Yom Kippur, the other Jewish New Year festival associated with an equinox. “Both . . . are liminal periods involving evacuation of the house. For the former, one removes all leaven; for the latter, one removes oneself, to live in a temporary shelter (Lev 23:42). Again, time must be punctuated: to live perpetually in a house or to keep yeast alive indefinitely would be unnatural.” Thus, both festivals emphasize ascetic practices and the healing return to primitive Creation/wilderness.

Both festivals involve blood rites beginning in the evening, and “each in some manner placates a supernatural malefic agency: a demon or the Destroyer at Pesah, the demon (or death god) Azazel on the Day of Expiation . . . Both rituals have undertones of purification and vicarious offering played down by the Biblical authors . . . Since Pesah is a domestic rite, while Yom hakippurim is a national rite, the two equinoctial observances annually cleanse the nation at the micro- and macro- levels.”

One should keep well in mind that, however loosely we may now use the term “rite of passage,” for most pre-modern and indigenous peoples such rites were fraught with danger. To this day, initiatory rites for young men in some societies remain sufficiently grueling as to ensure that not all will survive. The paschal rite appears to have grown out of widely practiced ancient Middle Eastern sacrifices of atonement and purging, in which “blood from the slain beast is applied to humans, animals, the ground, a pillar, a domicile – or a doorway.” In folk beliefs prevalent among Middle Eastern Christians, Jews and Muslims to this day, “demons are attracted to and powerful against those undergoing major life transitions.” Blood is used to distract the malevolent spirit, to trick it into thinking its intended victim has already died.

This use of blood from a sacrificial victim which is then consumed in a fellowship meal distinguishes Passover (and the analogous Muslim rite called fidya) from an ordinary sacrifice, where the animal is completely consumed by fire “in a ritual of pure substitution,” Propp notes. “Arguably, sharing food creates fellowship both among celebrants and between celebrants and the demon or deity at whom the rite is directed. Ingesting the meat may also reinforce, or even actuate, the fictive equation of victim and sacrificer underlying vicarious sacrifice.”

An additional nuance in the Biblical account arises from the fact that the Destroyer is identified as an aspect of Yahweh himself. The rigorous monotheism of the Hebrew Bible propels an identification that may or may not have been present in the folk beliefs from which the festival grew. By the time that Yeshua ben Yosef was ready to give himself up as a paschal lamb to try and prevent what he probably foresaw as the imminent destruction of his people, the Devil had, of course, developed into an autonomous figure. But as we have seen, Yeshua’s teachings emphasized that only God has power over life and death. And if we allow “the fictive equation of victim and sacrificer underlying vicarious sacrifice,” we begin to see what may have been the original meaning of the role of “the Jews” in Jesus’ crucifixion. But first, a little more background.

Fun fact # 10: In the original conception of Passover, the blood of the goat or sheep – and the blood of the first born Egyptian – is intended as a vicarious substitute for God’s first-born son, Israel

According to the Torah (e.g. Lev 17:10-14), blood must never be eaten by human beings. That’s apparently because it was viewed as a highly charged, ambiguous material. “It is the current of life,” says Propp. “Its quasi-magnetic bipolarity both attracts and repels the divine, removing and causing impurity.” The blood of circumcision averts Yahweh’s attack of Moses in Exodus 4:24-26. This demonic attack by a God who had just revealed himself to Moses and appointed him prophet and deliverer of Israel has puzzled many commentators. Propp offers the sensible suggestion that the attack was more-or-less automatic upon Moses’ return to the land of Egypt, prompted by the blood guilt he had incurred years before, when he slew the overseer. Recall that in the Bible’s very first murder, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, land, people and blood are closely identified.

The gospels make the connections between Yeshua’s cruxifiction and the apotropaic rites of Passover as explicit as possible: even the herb used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts in Exodus – marjoram or hyssop – is recalled in John’s account of Jesus’ final drink. The passage builds upon an incident also reported in Matthew and Mark, and alludes to a passage from the Psalms (69:21) popularly associated with the Messiah:

For my food they gave me bitterness,
and for my thirst they gave me sour wine.

In both of the other accounts, this wine is offered to Jesus at the beginning of his crucifixion, and he refuses. It is described as a medicinal wine, infused with myrrh. One might suppose he refuses it because the crucifixion alone is to be his medicine. And in fact, Yeshua himself does envision the crucifixion as a form of bitter medicine: “Let this cup pass from me,” he prays on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:42). Thus, only as he prepares to die (John 19:28) does he ask for a drink. In Willis Barnstone’s translation:

After this Yeshua, knowing that all had been done to fulfill the words of the Psalms, said, I am thirsty.
A jar filled with cheap wine was lying there. So they put a sponge soaked with the vinegar on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
Then when Yeshua had taken the wine, he said, It is ended.
And bowing his head he gave up his spirit.
(John 19:28-30)

The identification of this wine with Yeshua’s own blood is reinforced by the incident immediately following, in verse 34: “But one of the soldiers stabbed his side with his spear, and at once blood and water came out.” And the hyssop/marjoram in this passage has more than one antecedent, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:18-20) points out: Moses used the herb to sprinkle the sacrificial blood of the bulls in the original covenant of Yahweh with Israel.

The participation of Romans in this national sacrifice would seem to parallel the role of the Egyptians in the Exodus story. But if there were ever any implications in earlier versions of the gospels that the Romans should have been punished as the Egyptians had been, they were, perhaps wisely, edited out. In any case, I don’t think that the Christological interpretations should blind us to the likelihood that Yeshua himself understood his sacrifice as the paschal rite writ large.

If the reader will permit me to speculate just a little, I think it is important to remember how a Jewish messiah would have perceived himself: not as the literal son of God – much less the second person of the Trinity – but as a very human being who would willingly sacrifice himself on behalf of his people. The author of Exodus 4:22-23 embeds quote within quote within quote when he has Yahweh command Moses (in Propp’s Anchor Bible translation):

And you will say to Pharaoh, “Thus has Yahweh said: ‘My son, my firstborn, is Israel. And I have said to you, “Release my son that he may serve me.” And if you refuse to release him, see: I am going to kill your son, your firstborn.'”

“The firstborn of man and beast are holy to Yahweh,” Propp notes. The book of Numbers depicts the Levites as Israel’s figurative firstborn; the holy Nazarites Samson and Samuel are both first sons dedicated to Yahweh at birth. This conception of divine sonship seems to me the most obvious origin of the phrase “earthly son” or Son of Man, which is how Yeshua describes himself in the gospels. Of great significance for anyone interested in what Jesus may have thought as a good Jew, he never refers to himself as the son of God. We infer that he thought that way only from later tradition, and from the fact that he addresses God as “Father” – a term of intimacy probably not uncommon among teachers in the neo-Nazaritic tradition who wanted to emphasize their independence from the official, priestly cult.

The popularity of the term “earthly son” for the messiah in intertestamental texts recovered from the caves at Qumran suggests how universalized Israel’s sense of divine mission had become by Yeshua’s time. If Yeshua indeed saw himself as God’s annointed, his use of the term “earthly son” probably meant that he viewed his attempt to avert the destruction of Israel as something done on behalf of all the children of Adam (whose name literally means “earth”).

In the paschal symbolism of the crucifixion, the cross now performs the liminal function of the doorpost/altar. Potent symbolism of varied origins and great antiquity could thus be marshalled to construct a message of unmistakable import to the greatest empire the world had even known: no farther. The ambiguity of the cross must have seemed the most effective magic against such a confounding enemy: whatever its sponsoring Power, it was told, Here. Let this cup pass. For (says Propp in reference to the Exodus account) “the paschal blood may not divert the Destroyer by its own virtue. Rather, it may create a zone of ritual purity attractive to Yahweh’s presence . . . God then protects (psh [possible root of paschal]) the household from his own demonic side.”

This interpretation seems obvious, yet it was not the one the gospels foregrounded, probably for the simple reason that the sacrifice failed: the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed a generation after Yeshua’s death. The charm was broken; instead of the “fictive equation of victim and sacrificer,” the followers of Yeshua began to blame their fellow Jews for the catastrophe. What was the charge? It would have been absurd to blame anyone but the Romans and/or Yeshua himself for his sacrifice, and in any case the sacrifice had been thought necessary to try and avert God’s wrath. The strongest biblical antecedent was of course the binding of Isaac by Abraham. No one would have accused Abraham of treachery – he was simply following orders. And so, in a sense, was the disciple known simply as Yehudah (Judas), “the Jew.”

But the story of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac reminds us of one salient fact: the followers of Yahweh had always placed a great emphasis on the inner intention of the worshipper. Abraham is rewarded for his unquestioning faith. Perhaps, thought the Yeshua-Jews, the crucifixion of the Messiah failed because too few of their fellow Jews had “circumcised their hearts” in the required manner. Perhaps their refusal to participate in the new, reinterpreted paschal rite triggered the national disaster.

O.K., I have no idea how Jews of 2,000 years ago would have thought. But this line of speculation does sort of suggest how all that Near Eastern mythology about the dying and resurrecting god got in there: it was needed to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the original justification for Jesus’ death. From the Annointed One of Israel, Yeshua ben Yosef transmogrifies into the cosmic Lamb of God. Mithraic and Magian worldviews, dominant throughout the region, impose a much sharper dualism than normative Jewish theology would ever allow. God is now all good; no dark side is permitted. (By contrast, in rabbinical Judaism evil is generally explained as a consequence of human free will and/or as an outgrowth of that aspect of the godhead that favors strict judgement. The sayings attributed to Jesus suggest he would have endorsed this view.) For the early Christians, God is now responsible only for life; death becomes the devil’s domain. Sin is generalized to the human condition and read back into the Genesis account, in which the serpent is now interpreted as Satan. “I am the light and the life,” proclaims John’s Jesus. Conspiratorial fantasies about Yeshua’s death pit the few righteous against the many damned, in history as in eternity. Christian dualism and anti-Semitism grow up together.

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