Jesus’s Passover

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today
Tags: Archaeology, ASOR, biblical archaeology, Exodus, James Strange, Jerusalem, Jesus, Jewish, Nisan, Passover
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By: Dr. James F. Strange, University of South Florida Professor 

Passover in Exodus 12-13 was a family ritual, but in Jesus’s day it had developed into a national pilgrimage holiday centered in Jerusalem. Practices that were found at first in the family had become more institutionalized in Jesus’s day, with priests managing thousands of sacrifices in the Temple. But Josephus mentions the crowds streaming into Jerusalem, and we are left to imagine many men, women, and children making their way into the city from all directions, excited and full of joy at the prospect of worship and sacrifice for eight days, and relieved to reach Jerusalem after a difficult and dangerous journey. So many came that whole villages and towns in Judea were seemingly depopulated. The historian Josephus reports that when the Roman army marched southward on the coast toward Lydda or Diospolis in AD 66, they found the city virtually deserted because of pilgrimage for the Festival of Booths or Sukkoth (War. 2.19).

Passover itself was understood to be one day, namely the fourteenth of Nisan. This day was followed by seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the two holidays were thought of as one observance. Every adult, Jewish male was expected to travel to Jerusalem, and sometimes women and children were present as well. Visitors to Jerusalem either lived with relatives or friends in Jerusalem or depended on hospitality offered by citizens of the city or synagogues, as shown by the Theodotus Inscription of the first century AD, which mentions amenities for travelers. Some likely lived in temporary shelters or even rented rooms or courtyards. Others simply camped in surrounding villages or places like the Beth Zatha quarter north of the Temple, where archaeologists have found very little in the way of important building remains.

Theodotus inscription.

According to Josephus there were massive crowds in Jerusalem during Passover, and there were tumults from time to time, as often accompanies crowding. Some pilgrims began arriving a week early so that they could purify themselves, as all were expected to eat and celebrate in a state of ritual purity. (Failing to deal with purity may have interfered with pilgrimage for some.)


The thirteenth of Nisan was the Day of Preparation for the Passover. Exodus 12:15 calls for removal of all leaven “from your houses”. Exodus 13:7 ramps up the prohibition: “And no leaven shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen among you within all your boundaries.” Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8 is well acquainted with this custom of leaven removal associated with Passover and uses it as a metaphor for “cleaning house” of those who practice evil.

As for what happened in detail, we can develop a picture of the practice from the ancient mentions of Passover in the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament. It appears that there is both a family observance and a Temple observance. If there are no families present, but individual pilgrims, then they may eat the Passover and celebrate “by companies” (Josephus). According to the Hebrew Bible the head of the household slaughters an unblemished, yearling lamb or kid toward sundown on the fourteenth of Nisan. Josephus informs us that the priests started slaughtering thousands of lambs from the ninth to the eleventh hour or from about 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., though Philo knows about families slaughtering lambs as well.

Samaritans making matzot for Passover, ca. 1900-1920, Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

In Jerusalem an observant group of from ten to twenty people ate the Passover. (A yearling animal is full-grown, and the dress-out weight of a 150 lb. lamb would range from 55 — 78 lbs. The same calculation for a 120 lb. goat would range from 54 to 66 lbs.) We reconstruct a priestly observance beginning the afternoon on the fourteenth of Nisan, which was followed by a family meal or ritual-group meal that began after sundown. The family meal at homes in Jerusalem is assumed in Josephus, Luke, Philo, and the Mishnah, even if it may not be a widespread custom at the time.

That night the cooks cooperate to prepare the lamb or kid to be eaten. It is to be completely consumed with unleavened bread (matzos) and bitter herbs, taking care to break no bones of the Passover sacrifice. Whatever remains uneaten, which may be considerable, is to be burned up before the break of dawn. The entire week is a joyous festival with wine, food and matzos, prayer and singing, and special burnt offerings.

Josephus explains that beginning on the sixteenth of Nisan fruits and vegetables may be eaten. On the sixteenth they also offer the first fruits of barley and sacrifice a lamb to God. Most of the other special foods that moderns associate with Passover were not well represented at the ancient Passover except for the Passover lamb, matzos, and bitter herbs.

What becomes of the bones? Some have suggested that they were buried. The evidence is from Qumran, namely, the many deposits of animal bones with large pieces of jars or pots in the open spaces of the ruin of Qumran. The animal bones represented mainly sheep and goats, though there were also bones of calves and cows or oxen. Whatever practice this custom was derived from, it at least gives a possible archaeological precedent for what happened to Passover animal bones. It is also possible that the custom was confined to Qumran.

Samaritan family sharing Passover sacrifice, ca. 1900–1920, Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

The first and last days, the fourteenth and twenty-first of Nisan, were solemn assemblies, and no work was allowed. Priests and Levites prayed aloud and sang hymns to God, complete with musical accompaniment. Family prayers and singing of hymns are mentioned in various Jewish sources including the Gospels. The tradition of singing the Hallel or Praise Psalms (Psalms 113–118) is so well attested later that it may have its origins in the period of the Second Temple. This is also the occasion to sing the Song of the Sea (Ex 15:1–21).

Other practices attested here and there are giving alms to the poor and drinking wine during the meal instead of solely at the beginning or at the end. John 13:29 recounts that Jesus said something to Judas Iscariot which the others thought might be instructions to give something to the poor. Mishnah Pesach 10:1 gives instructions that the poorest Israelites are to receive alms “for no fewer than four cups of wine.”

Unfortunately there is very little from archaeology that broadens our perspective. Yet the picture is clear. Thousands of pilgrims, tens of thousands of sacrifices, hundreds of priests and Levites praying and singing and playing music. All this accompanied by shouts of exultation, more singing, and sounds of cooking, feasting, and laughing all with a view to remembering God’s mercy for the Israelites in Egypt. No one was prepared for the changes to Judaism that would come with the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple within a bit more than a generation.


James Strange is Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida.


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2 Comments for : Jesus’s Passover
  1. Pingback: Aantekeningen bij de Bijbel · Livius Nieuwsbrief / april

  2. Pingback: The Passover Meal, the Seder, and the Eucharist

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