The festivals of Passover and Easter reveal the profound, if often fraught, relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
Passover is the central Jewish festival that celebrates God’s intervention in history on behalf of the oppressed Israelites to liberate them from Egyptian bondage. This moment, recounted in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is the central element of the Exodus, an event that permeates Tanakh in prose and poetry. The Exodus initiates the communal history of the Jewish people. Liturgically, Passover is known as the “season of our liberation,” zman heiruteinu. The Passover festival is deemed so important that the month in which it occurs counts as the first month of the year, Nisan.
Easter, known in the early church as Pascha (Gk, from the Aramaic pasha [pass over], corresponding to Hebrew pesach), celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is the most important Christian feast and the oldest in the Christian annual calendar. The resurrection was celebrated on Sunday each week, but, as an annual liturgical cycle developed, Easter became its first and most significant feast. Its northern hemisphere origins in the springtime evoked the theme of new creation, and its connection with Passover suggested the leitmotif of redemption. Jesus had become “Life and Resurrection and East and Dawn and Day ‘for those in the shadow of death’” (Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Three-Day Interval between Our Lord’s Death and Resurrection,” ca. 390).
The relationship between Passover and Easter must be situated in the complex and protracted development of both Judaism and Christianity. Neither tradition appeared fully formed as a “religion.” Each emerged from biblical Israel and evolved in relation to various groups of Torah-followers and Christ-followers whose conversations, common and variant practices and rituals, uses of texts, and arguments took place over varying times and places with different levels of intensity. The meaning and significance of Passover became part of the debate in the formative period—ca. mid 1st cent. to the 5th cent.—during which Judaism and Christianity became structured in ways that came to be regarded as distinct “religions,” though this latter term originated only in modernity. Accordingly, when speaking of the first generations of followers of Jesus, we will use terms such as “Followers of the Way” (cf. Acts 24:14) or “Christ Followers” rather than “Christians” as a way of emphasizing the evolution of Christianity. We employ these terms to emphasize that the disciples’ proclamation of the death-resurrection of Jesus happened within a Jewish matrix; the writings of the New Testament, moreover, should be read in the context of Hellenistic Jewish literature. The question of when the Followers of the Way became Christians—thus distinct from Jews—continues to stimulate a lively debate. Many would point to the 4th cent. as the time when the boundaries were more tightly established and anti-Jewish attitudes intensified.
Precisely because Passover figured prominently in the development of both Judaism and Christianity, its meaning and significance were debated. Our essay recounts central aspects of this debate, particularly as it functioned symbolically in Christian claims to supersede Judaism. This supersessionist lens, too often layered with disparaging rhetoric, meant that Christians lost sight of the profundity of Jewish observance of Passover. Only in the wake of the Shoah and in light of significant developments in biblical scholarship and church teaching has a more nuanced understanding begun to emerge. The collaboration of Jewish and Christian liturgists, biblical scholars, and historians makes possible new ways of understanding the significance of Jesus Christ, the complex development of Christianity, and the relationship between Passover and Easter.
The contours of the celebration of Passover as we know it today took shape after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It includes elements originating in the pre-Israelite nomadic, agricultural, and springtime observances recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Chag ha-pesach (Ex 12:14) was a one-day paschal rite rooted in the life of the pastoral nomad who followed a lunar calendar. This ritual involved sacrificing a year-old, unblemished lamb that Israelites were commanded to eat within a group large enough to consume the lamb in one day. The lamb’s blood was to be caught in a basin and smeared on doorposts and lintels as a sign to God that the ritual had been observed. Chag ha-matzot (Ex 12:14-20) was a festival of unleavened bread (matzot) originally celebrated by an agricultural society and governed by a solar calendar. This annual celebration included removing leaven (fermented dough) from the household and eating unleavened bread. These actions symbolized the end of the old year, the beginnings of new life, and the acknowledgement of God as the giver of life. This festival was also called chag ha-aviv, the spring-time festival, and the lunar Hebrew calendar includes modification so as to ensure that Passover always occurs in the spring (Deut 16:1).
The account in Exodus 12 incorporated these pre-Israelite festivals into the story of the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. For example, the blood on the doorposts ensured that God would pass over Israelite abodes when smiting the Egyptians. Similarly, the Israelites were commanded to “observe the [Feast of] Unleavened bread, “for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time” (Ex 12:17). Prior to 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem was the principal site for activities associated with Passover. The High Priest offered a lamb that was completely burned at the altar along with a cake of flour kneaded with oil; the priest also poured wine on the altar. Heads of households also brought a lamb or kid to the Temple, offering it in sacrifice. Households later that same day ate it together in the city as a part of a sacrificial meal. The city’s population of ca. 50,000 would grow by 20 percent during the festival, attesting to its popularity. Evidence for precisely how the Passover meal was eaten prior to the Temple’s destruction is not clear.
Passover is tied to two other biblical holidays. Shavuot (“Feast of Weeks,” comparable to the Christian Pentecost) marks the end of the counting of seven weeks after the onset of the harvest. It is referred to as the harvest festival chag ha-katzir (Ex 23:16) and the day of the “first fruits,” yom ha-bikkurim (Num 28:26), when the first fruits of the harvest are offered to the Lord in the place that God has chosen (Deut 16:11). Liturgically, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah (Ex 19:1-20:23) in the revelation at Sinai. Sukkot (“Feast of Booths”) celebrates the fall harvest, chag ha-asif (Ex 23:16); it, too, relates to Passover as the Israelites were commanded to “live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 23:42-3). Liturgically, Sukkot marks the season of rejoicing, zman simchateinu. These three festivals were also celebrated by gathering together in a central place—later Jerusalem—and bringing burnt offerings to the Lord. Spiritually, they mark the partnership between God and the people to move the world towards exodus, revelation and future redemption.
Given the centrality of Exodus traditions as the archetype of redemptive events and the fact that first-century followers of Christ did not yet constitute a community separate from Jews it is unsurprising that Passover motifs are prominent in the New Testament.
The earliest reference to Passover in the New Testament is Paul’s admonition to the community at Corinth (ca. 57 CE) in which he uses leaven and paschal lamb as metaphors: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:6-7). Later in the first century, the Gospel of John (ca. 90) portrays Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (1:29, 36). Not only is Jesus the “lamb of God” in John, but on the cross, Jesus is offered vinegary wine and his death coincides with the hour the Passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple. The term “lamb of God” appears as well in Acts of the Apostles (8:32), and 1 Peter (1:19). Lamb imagery plays varied functions in some 29 passages in the Book of Revelation.
The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke draw heavily upon Passover imagery in their accounts of the final meal of Jesus with his disciples—the “Last Supper” or the “Lord’s Supper.” They date the meal to the evening of “the first day of Unleavened Bread” (Nisan 15) when the Passover lamb is sacrificed” (Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7). Jesus seeks a room where he might “eat the Passover with my disciples.” In Luke, Jesus says: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover (touto to pascha phagein) with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (22:15-16). In the synoptic narratives, Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it: “Take, this is my body.” Similarly, he takes a cup of wine, blesses and gives it to the disciples: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:22-24). The meal concludes with the singing of a hymn and the departure for the Mount of Olives, where Jesus is later apprehended and put to death at Roman hands the next day.
John’s account of the Last Supper differs both in its chronology and in its emphasis. He situates it “before the feast of the Passover,” i.e., on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. Instead of the “institution narrative” in the synoptics (i.e., “This is my body/blood”), John describes Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, a symbolic action meant as an exemplar: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s fee. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:14-15).
The four evangelists situate the Last Supper as a prelude to the events leading to his crucifixion. Their narratives, however, do not conclude with the death of Jesus but with vignettes of his later appearances to various disciples. None claims to have witnessed Jesus “being raised” from the dead. Rather, the evangelists draw upon language borrowed from Daniel 12:1-3 (cf. Isa 26:19) during a time of persecution. Bodily resurrection revealed God’s compassion for and vindication of those who suffered martyrdom in times of foreign domination. In Second Temple Judaism (beginning with the rebuilding of the Temple after the return from exile in Babylonia, ca. 540 BCE-70 CE), some Jews, such as the Pharisees, believed in resurrection as an event that would happen at the end of time when God would decisively establish the rule of justice; others, however, such as the Sadducees, rejected the notion. Moreover, under the influence of Hellenistic thought, the concept of the immortality of the soul also made its way into some circles of Jewish thought, such as Wisdom 3:1-4.
The claim that God had raised Jesus from the dead thus emerged from at least one stream or “school” of thought of Second Temple Judaism. The gospels portray Jesus of Nazareth as living in fidelity to Torah, bearing witness to the imminent arrival of God’s reign of justice and mercy. Particularly to those who ruled in the name of Imperial Rome, the message Jesus embodied posed a threat, hereby leading to his death by crucifixion. After his death Jesus’s disciples—Jews—experienced him as alive in enigmatic ways, and it is their testimony that lies at the heart of the Christian proclamation of resurrection.
The Easter event encompasses both the death and resurrection of Jesus; the rituals of Good Friday and Easter Sunday are integrally related. In the words of the creed that emerged from the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381): “For our sake he [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
This connection between the death of Jesus and his resurrection is the principal factor in shaping Christian usage of Passover. The evangelists situated the death of Jesus within the context of Passover, though, as shown above, with a slight variance in chronology between the synoptics and John. They assigned responsibility to some Jews (especially the “chief priests and elders of the people”) for his crucifixion, most explicitly in John 19:7-12, in which “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) clamor for this death. The accusation that Jews as a people bore responsibility for the death of Jesus has overshadowed how Christianity framed its understanding of and relation to Passover. In the course of expounding and ritualizing Easter as the Christian “Passover,” the church disparaged the original Passover and those who celebrated it. In the early centuries through late antiquity, each festival played a formative role in the self-definition of both traditions; notes of rivalry, argumentation, and polemic surfaced in many Christian texts in a symbiotic process of identity formation.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Jews searched for a new ritual in place of the Pesach sacrifice that would provide meaning and continuity, highlighting the theme of redemption from Egypt while incorporating the profound grief over the loss of the Temple and hope for its speedy reconstruction. This replacement ritual became the Passover seder, which initially had several elements, including studying the laws of Pesach and perhaps reciting from memory the verses from Deuteronomy (26:5-6):
It also included reciting Psalms of praise and eating a ritual meal in the manner of a Greco-Roman banquet. The seder as we know it came together in the late Tannaitic period (135-220 CE) as an orally transmitted ritual. The Mishnah tractate Pesachim 10 (ca. 200 CE) provides the first extended account of the seder, which is then elaborated upon in Rabbinic literature, especially in the Tractate Pesachim of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us, We cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.
The retelling of the Exodus miracle is based on the scriptural command “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying: It is because of that which God did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Ex 13:8). It is recounted through asking and then answering questions concerning the uniqueness of rituals of the seder and connecting them to the Exodus story.
Rabban Gamliel II, the leader of the Jewish people in Yavneh after the destruction of the Temple, states—based on the ritual commanded in Exodus 12:8—that “he who does not stress these rituals on Passover does not fulfill his obligations: the paschal lamb, matzah, and maror [bitter herb]” (Pesachim l16a). Highlighting the paschal lamb illustrated that God had passed over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt during the slaying of the first-born Egyptian sons. Expounding on the unleavened bread, Rabban Gamliel associated the symbolism of matzah with God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. The symbolism of the bitter herbs recalled the tears shed by the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
The Haggadah (“telling”)—the text used in the seder—is a Rabbinic account of five rabbis who gathered for a seder in the town of Bnei Brak. Recounting the Exodus story lasted all night, until their disciples interrupted to remind them that the time for morning prayer had arrived. Central to the Passover reenactment is the desire to fulfill the Rabbinic dictum that “In each generation, one is required to see oneself as if he (or she) had gone out of Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 10.5). Among many elements of the seder, the Talmud instituted the obligation to drink four cups of wine on the seder night (bPes 109b). While many reasons are offered for this, the most common is that it symbolizes the fourfold divine promise of liberation contained in Exodus 6:6-7: “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from their bondage, I will redeem you, I will take you as my people.” The Talmud also prescribes reclining while eating (bPes 99b), a sign of freedom and wealth.
Liturgy scholar Lawrence Hoffman conceptualizes the seder as sacred theatre consisting of four parts. First is setting the stage, the table laden with special foods. The second part involves posing questions about the food designed to stimulate, third, a free-flowing account of the Exodus in response. The ending consists of praising God by reciting Psalms 113-118 (known as Hallel). However, much remained unfixed, as evidenced by the many Talmudic debates regarding the specific texts to be included and the variable sequencing of the different parts of the seder. Over the centuries, much of this was standardized but additional texts continued to be added to the Haggadah, including lavish illustrations. This tradition of adding to the Haggadah continues to the present day in many circles.
While most scholars have concluded that the Passover and Easter festivals developed along parallel tracks, some posit a more intertwined relationship. Since the late 1970s, considerable scholarly debate has revolved around the question of whether the Last Supper was a seder. Neither its description in the synoptic gospels nor John’s allusions to Passover in his distinctive account should be interpreted as historical fact. The gospels are not documentaries but rich theological interpretations of the meaning of Jesus and his movement some forty to sixty years after his death. Yet Passover imagery permeates the accounts of the Last Supper and of the death of Jesus. The evangelists refracted the final days of the life of Jesus through the lens of Passover: Even as God had redeemed Israel from slavery, so too was another exodus happening. Like Isaiah, for whom God had made a way in the sea and was about to do a new thing (43:16, 19), so too did the early followers of Christ see God’s redeeming power manifesting itself in Jesus’ exodus journey through death to new life.
In a different vein, Israel Yuval suggests a parallel process in which early rabbis and proto-Christians each developed their traditions with an awareness of the other. For example, in each tradition a group gathered to tell a redemption story—the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yuval theorizes that both groups were struggling to find meaning after the destruction of the Temple when they were under the political shadow of pagan Rome and in thrall to messianic ideas.
Establishment of a date for Easter (origin uncertain, perhaps from the designation of Easter week as in alibis, L, dawns, which became eostarum in Old High German and eventually anglicized to Easter) was more than a complex calendrical computation between the Jewish lunar calendar and the wider culture’s Julian calendar. The decision symbolized in large measure how early communities understood themselves in relation to Judaism and to the messianic hopes associated with Passover—God’s continuing promise of redemption—as well as to the variant chronology of the Last Supper between the synoptic gospels and John. Among the oldest Easter rituals were those of the Followers of the Way in Asia Minor. Their liturgy followed the Johannine chronology, so the Easter celebration began late on the 14th day of Nisan, whatever day of the week on which it occurred; hence their designation as “Quartodecimans” (“Fourteenthers”). Having waited for the Passover to end, they fasted throughout a night vigil until cockcrow. Their celebration then concluded at dawn, most likely with Eucharist.
The liturgies of Rome and Alexandria, where Easter was celebrated on Sunday in commemoration of the resurrection, conflicted with Quartodeciman chronology and its emphasis on the death of Jesus. As tensions grew between the churches of the West/North Africa and those of Asia Minor, Emperor Constantine, desirous of preventing further conflict lest a fractious church cause further division in his empire, summoned the bishops of the Roman Empire to convene in Nicaea in northwestern Turkey.
According to Constantine’s Letter to the Churches, the First Council of Nicaea (325) decreed that “the brethren in the Orient too should do as the Romans and Alexandrians and all the rest do, so that all in harmony on the same day may send up their prayers on the holy day of the Pascha.” The impetus for Nicaea’s decision to establish the first Sunday after 14 Nisan—the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox—was twofold. First, many bishops perceived the need to standardize the date of Easter for the entire Christian world. Second, the bishops sought to separate the date of Easter from Jewish calculations regarding the date of Passover, thereby establishing the independence of Christianity from Judaism.
The date of Easter continues to be reckoned as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. However, due to a calendar reform that took place in the late sixteenth century, there is no universal date of Easter even now. The West follows the Gregorian calendar, whereas the churches of the East (i.e., the Orthodox churches) continue to calculate Easter according to the Julian calendar.
Early church writers viewed Jewish events and biblical figures as foreshadowing what became reality in the coming of Christ, establishing a paradigm that dominated the Christian imagination for centuries and contributed to a reductionistic understanding of Judaism.
As tensions intensified in the second century between Jews and communities of Followers of the Way—increasingly constituted by Gentiles— the exodus archetype became a typological tool in the struggle for identity formation. Followers of the Way/proto-Christians employed typology—a mode of interpretation that perceives in a person or event of the past an exemplar illuminating a present person or event—in making meaning of the Hebrew Bible. In the usage of early church writers, however, supersessionism, the claim that Christ/Christianity supersedes Judaism, normally undergirded typology.
This is evident in the writings of the literary elite who sought to form their congregations by way of contrast with Judaism, giving rise to a literature classified as adversus Judaeos (against Jews). The early second-century bishop of Antioch, Ignatius (ca. 108-140), instructed in his Letter to the Magnesians:
Put out, therefore, the evil leaven, which has become old and turned sour and turn toward the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted in him […] It is unfitting to say ‘Jesus Christ’ and live as Jews. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity (10:2-3).
Another example of typology is the Homily on the Passover (ca. 160-170) by Melito, bishop of Sardis (d. 190). His sermon is a literary jewel for its poetic use of typology in which Jesus was the
Yet his sermon’s dreadful accusation overpowered his literary artistry:
Passover of our salvation […] He is the one who was murdered in the person of Abel, bound in the person of Isaac, sold in the person of Joseph, exposed in the person of David, dishonored in the person of the prophets.
O wicked Israel, why did you carry out this fresh deed of injustice, bringing new sufferings upon your Lord […] for you have not seen God or acknowledged the Lord […] you put your Lord to death in the midst of Jerusalem […] The Master is insulted. God is murdered. The King of Israel is destroyed by an Israelite hand.
Context is crucial for interpreting Melito’s sermon. Sardis had a well-established Jewish community with an impressive synagogue in contrast to the fledgling community of Followers of the Way. Melito’s sermon was less an attack on Jews than oratory intended to show his community how Jesus was the “Passover of our salvation.” His attempt to differentiate, however, resulted in misrepresentation and denigration of Judaism. This is a problem that has plagued Christianity throughout the centuries: differentiation tended to lapse into denigration of the Other, particularly Jews. Only in the 1960s, initiated in part by Jules Isaac’s critique of the “teaching of contempt” that had long characterized the church’s relation with the Jewish people, did the Second Vatican Council initiate a process of wrestling with this sinful legacy.
Moreover, in a series of sermons in late fourth-century Antioch, John Chrysostom (347-407) sought to dissuade the people in his congregation from their practice of also attending synagogue and observing Jewish festivals. They were “Judaizers”—Christians who also observed some Jewish traditions—and he inveighed against them by vilifying Judaism: “Do you not see that their Passover is the type, while our Pasch is the truth? [...] the Passover of old freed the Jews from Egypt, while the Pasch has set us free from idolatry” (Discourse III.7, “Discourse Against Judaizing Christians” ca. 387).
Before there was “Easter Sunday,” Christians developed a ritual that began in the darkness of Saturday night and lasted until dawn on Sunday. In its complex development, the Easter Vigil, with numerous variations according to region and tradition, came to encompass a service of light, numerous readings from Scripture, Baptism of catechumens (candidates for Baptism), and celebration of the Eucharist. Passover imagery reverberated throughout, but most notably in an Easter proclamation from the late fourth century, the “Exultet.” While at least nine complete versions of the “Exultet” survive, it typically began along the lines of: “Exult and sing, O heavenly choirs of angels! [...] Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet, sing of our salvation.” In the poetry of the Exultet, the original Passover foreshadows the true one; the events of the Exodus and the Passover are preludes to “our” Passover feast:
While the shadow-to-reality typology in the “Exultet” is implicit, early church writers were typically less subtle, as the citations above from Ignatius of Antioch and Melito of Sardis reveal. Pseudo-Chrysostom (author unknown; perhaps 5th cent.) writes:
The Jews celebrate an earthly Pascha, having refused a heavenly one […] The partial and transitory, as images and figures of the perfect and eternal, prepared for and foreshadowed the reality that has now emerged. When the reality arrives, the figure is obsolete (Homilies on the Holy Pascha, the Excellence of our Pascha 1).
The yearly rituals of Holy Week, which generally overlap with Passover, became the occasion for antagonistic portrayals of Jews in much of Europe in the Middle Ages. An 8th-cent. Catholic liturgical book, the Gelasian Sacramentary, included a series of solemn prayers (perhaps dating to the 5th cent.) in which congregants prayed that God would remove the veil of blindness from the hearts of “perfidious Jews.” Improperia or “Reproaches” first appeared in the 9th cent.; by the 14th cent. they had been included in the Roman Ordo (a ritual book for liturgical functions). While versions varied, the genre consists of plaintive laments of Jesus from the cross, among them:
These laments became part of the liturgy of Good Friday in many Christian traditions. Often chanted within a service of worship in which the passion narrative of John was read, many congregants interpreted the laments as directed at Jews rather than at themselves. The sentiments expressed in the laments contributed to a deepening of theological hatred of Jews; as Christianity grew to dominate the European religious and political landscape, Jews became a convenient target not only for theological reasons but also as a scapegoat for economic and social frustrations.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Savior to the cross.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?
I led you from slavery to freedom and drowned your captors in the Red Sea, but you handed me over to your high priests.
For example, during the First Crusade in 1096, some European Christians attacked Jewish “infidels” in their own midst, rather than travel to the Holy Land to counter Islamic rule. Hebrew Crusade Chronicles recount Jewish suffering, forced conversion, and martyrdom in the Rhineland communities that took place right after the Passover holiday. Scholars debate the extent of the devastation for many reasons—the accounts were written a generation after the events and they include accounts of bishops safeguarding Jews from marauding Crusaders—but the trauma of the First Crusade lingered in collective Jewish memory. In Christian memory, however, a distorted understanding of the Crusades too often fed the narrative of a triumphal church.
In the 12th cent., Christian enmity towards Jews took new forms, including the malicious myth of ritual murder: This blood-libel charge presumed that Jews needed to murder a Christian child in order to use his blood for ritual purposes, such as for baking matzah (unleavened flatbread) for Passover. Similarly, a century later in the wake of doctrinal debates in the church about how to understand the presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and cup, Jews were accused of desecrating the Eucharistic host in a way that would “draw blood,” thus reenacting the deicide (in killing Jesus, Jews had killed God). Both accusations built upon fears and superstitions of the era, but they also heightened Christian worries that Jewish actions maligned Christ and insulted Christianity as a whole. The blood libel myth in particular has proved enduring, cropping up in different towns throughout Europe over several centuries, and even finding its way to Russia in the 20th cent.—as popularized by the notorious Menahem Mendel Beilis trial in 1913—and to the United States in Massena, New York, in 1928.
Passion plays fanned the flames of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nicene Creed says that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” the Roman-appointed governor of Judea. Nevertheless, plays in which Christians enacted the events of the passion and death of Jesus typically heightened alleged Jewish villainy and largely absolved Pontius Pilate. The productions originated in the thirteenth century and flowered in France and Germany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Bavarian village of Oberammergau created the most prominent of the passion plays; it was first performed in 1634 and has been staged virtually every decade since 1680. Oberammergau took up the legacy of medieval vituperation of “wicked Jews” and presented a spectacle that vividly impressed upon its audience the horrific nature of what the Jews allegedly had done—and not just the Jews in first-century Jerusalem. Hitler, who twice attended the play, famously championed its continuance because it provided “knowledge of the menace of Jewry.”
One Jewish response to these heightened tensions in the Middle Ages was an addition to the Haggadah, the narrative used at the Passover seder: “Pour out your wrath upon those who do not know You, and upon the governments which do not call upon Your name. For they had devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place” (Ps 79:6-7). Given the impotence of Jews to effect a change in their condition, it is not surprising that the desire for God to avenge their enemies found an outlet in literary form.
The typological patterns employed by early church writers, which worked on the premise of shadow-to-reality, nevertheless kept alive for Christians the connection between Passover and Easter. In the 1940s, the German Christian Church (Deutsche Christen), which embraced Nazi symbols and ideology, employed a far more radical move of “de-judaizing,” that is, deleting references to Jewish terms (e.g., amen, alleluia) from hymnals and revising the New Testament so as to purge any neutral or positive references to Judaism. In this revision, Passover was eliminated and instead became Easter (Osterfest). Moreover, the continual Nazi vilification and persecution of Jews built upon Christianity’s longstanding charge that Jews were “Christ killers.” The Nazis amplified that charge. The weekly tabloid Der Stürmer, for example, published a sketch on Easter Sunday 1933 of a Nazi soldier standing beside a German woman; both are gazing at a crucifix, with a church steeple in the background. The caption reads: “The Jews nailed Christ to the cross and thought he was dead. He is risen. They nailed Germany to the cross, and thought it was dead, and it was risen, more gloriously than ever before.”
Yet even in lands occupied by the Nazis, Jews kept Passover. Moreover, photos document matzah being baked and Jews gathering for seders in the Warsaw Ghetto. Haggadot were discovered in the ruins of the death camps, and in 1944 rabbis in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp issued a dispensation from the prohibited hametz (foods made out of wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that had been allowed to ferment and rise) so that Jews might eat leavened bread in their seder. In Munich in 1946, the first celebration of Passover after liberation, Jews from nearby displaced persons camps used the Survivors Haggadah, written and illustrated by Yosef Dov Sheinson. As a supplement to the traditional Haggadah and dedicated to She’erith Hapletah (Saved Remnant), it juxtaposed “we were slaves to Hitler” with “we were slaves to Pharaoh.”
The Passover Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus in and for each generation, is ripe for creative interpretation. In the second half of the twentieth century, most Jews could not imagine retelling the Exodus and redemption of the Jewish people without reference to the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel. Many Haggadot incorporated readings that brought to life both the horrors of the Shoah and the miracle of the return to Zion.
Jewish mystics infused the Exodus story with the concept of its being a personal, spiritual journey from slavery to salvation. They understood Passover/Exodus as symbolizing the struggle of the soul to break out of the confining slavery of the body. (The Hebrew word for Egypt “mitzrayim” comes from the same root word as the Hebrew word “mitzarim,” which means narrow straits). Building on this notion, some contemporary Haggadot address specific struggles for liberation such as feminism and LGBTQ identities. In the spirit of ecumenism, some Haggadot offer modern reflections or reinterpretations of the “Pour Out Your Wrath” section. Including Christians as seder guests has also become more common.
As Jules Isaac documented during his research while hidden during the Shoah, the “teaching of contempt” for Judaism had long characterized the church’s relation with the Jewish people—and that contempt provided a sturdy theological foundation for antisemitism. In the past seventy years, however, new life has been breathed into the Jewish-Christian relationship. Many factors have been at play. Of particular theological relevance is the recognition that Jews—whether in first-century Jerusalem or the Jewish people as a whole—do not bear responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. Such was the assertion of the Second Vatican Council in approving its decree “On the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate) on October 28, 1965. Although Nostra Aetate is an imperfect document, its promulgation opened new pathways of conversation and collaboration between Jews and Christians. While a few statements, such as the “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt from the Council of Protestant Churches in Germany” in 1945, preceded Nostra Aetate, Vatican II inaugurated a veritable revolution in thinking. Protestant and Catholic church bodies issued statements countering antisemitism and acknowledging the consequences of their anti-Jewish teachings, academics convened conferences and worked on collaborative projects, Christian colleges and universities instituted chairs in Jewish thought, and local dialogue groups formed. A massive literature on Christian-Jewish relations has emerged. Deep friendships have formed across religious boundaries.
Problematic aspects of Christian rituals and enactments are being transformed in many Christian traditions. Many prayers have been rewritten. For example, the “Reproaches” typically are omitted or rewritten to avoid anti-Jewish sensibilities. The Catholic bishops in the United States have established criteria for the evaluation of passion plays. Christian Stückl, director of the Oberammergau Passion Play since 2000, has been in continuing conversations with Jewish and Christians scholars; under his leadership, the play has been transformed in ways more sensitive to the harm the “Christ-killer” charge inflicted on Jewish communities and expressive of contemporary scholarship.
Especially important is the recognition in many ecclesial settings that a unidirectional hermeneutic between Old and New Testaments had obscured the multiple layers of meanings in texts and, in effect, erased Jewish interpretations of Exodus traditions. The promise-fulfillment paradigm suggested that all had been fulfilled in Christ and in Christianity—as if redemption were complete. Typology, however, need not be competitive. Both Passover and Easter build upon Exodus as the archetypal event of divine deliverance, providing hope that even in our time the God who once delivered Israel from Egypt and who raised Jesus from the dead is still renewing past wonders and redeeming what enslaves. Our respective paschal festivals are distinct yet parallel commentaries on and elaboration of Exodus motifs.
In the 21st cent., many liturgical churches continue to use that fourth-century song of praise, the “Exultet,” in the Easter Vigil. Perhaps in light of the transformation-in-process between Jews and Christians a few additions might be included:
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