Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Supper and the Passover Lamb

Each year when Christians celebrate Easter week, Thursday is of particular importance because this is the day Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples. It was after this evening meal that Jesus was arrested and put on trial before the Jewish authorities. Depending on one’s particular theological background, this day may be called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday.

During the last week of his life, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. Passover was, and is, the Jewish holiday celebrating when the Angel of the Lord passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt, sparing their children’s lives during the 10th plague, prior to the Exodus. In antiquity, Jews from all over the Jewish homeland made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. In the last year of his life, Jesus also made this pilgrimage, together with his companions.

Part of the ritual of Passover was the slaughter of a perfect, unblemished lamb. This not only hearkened back to the story of the Exodus, when the Jews used the blood of slaughtered lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of the Lord would know which houses to bypass, but it also symbolized corporate atonement for sin. The sins of the Jews were, in effect, atoned for by the blood of the lamb offered as sacrifice to God. The lamb itself was then eaten by faithful Jews as part of a ritual meal that inaugurated the Passover festivities.

According to Mosaic Law, Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the 1st month of the Jewish calendar. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and thus different from our Western calendars, this is why Passover, and therefore Easter, falls on a different day each year.

In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, (collectively called the “Synoptic Gospels”) Jesus’ Thursday meal with his companions was not only their last meal together, but it was also the ritual Passover meal. After the meal, Judas Iscariot leads the authorities to where Jesus is praying. Jesus is arrested, put on trial, and finally crucified the following day, Friday. Thus, Jesus’ execution and death happen during the Passover celebration. For these gospel writers, Passover began on Thursday evening and lasted until Friday evening. On Friday evening, the weekly Sabbath began, as it does every week in the Jewish calendar.

Here, it is important to understand how ancient Jews conceived of a day. In the modern world, we understand a day to be a 24-hour period beginning at 12:00 a.m. and ending at 11:59 p.m. In the ancient world, centuries before modern calendars and concepts of time had been formulated, the concept was different. For the Jews, a day simply ended at sundown. Since the “day” ended at sundown, the next day began at sundown. Thus, where we conceive of a day lasting from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., the ancient Jews conceived of a day lasting from sundown to sundown. In modern terms, we might say the Jewish day lasts from 7:00 p.m. to 6:59 p.m. Thus, the Passover meal – a meal eaten at the beginning of Passover – is eaten in the evening at the start of the day of Passover. It is an inaugural meal, not an adjourning meal.

For the authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Passover began on Thursday evening. Thus, Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was the Passover meal. Jesus was executed the following day, in the middle of Passover, and was taken down prior to sundown, before Passover ended.

This is important to note, because the Gospel of John pushes everything back a day. For the author of John’s gospel, Passover begins on Friday night, not Thursday night, meaning that Jesus is executed prior to Passover, not during Passover. This also means that for the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, but simply the evening meal on the day before Passover.

Consider the language from Mark:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” … So the disciples set out and went to the city…and they prepared the Passover meal (Mark 14:12, 16).

Luke and Matthew also call this final meal the Passover meal.

Now compare John:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father…And during supper, Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself (John 13:1-4).

At first glance, this passage may not seem at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. John notes simply that it is “before” Passover, and that Jesus is eating “supper” with his disciples. Couldn’t this be the Passover meal?

John’s chronology becomes clearer when you look at what he writes after this Last Supper scene (which, incidentally, takes up the next five chapters of John’s gospel). In chapter 18, after Jesus has been arrested, John writes:

Then [the Jewish authorities] took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover (verse 28).

It is now the following morning (Friday morning), and John tells us explicitly that the Passover meal is set to be eaten that evening. In the following chapter, John again reinforces this chronology: “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’” (John 19:14).

The day of Preparation for the Passover was the day before Passover. It was the day, mentioned above, when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the evening meal. For John, this preparation day was Friday (or, more specifically, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday), and the Passover itself began at sundown Friday.

All this, of course, brings up an obvious question: Why the discrepancy? Someone must be wrong; it can’t be both ways. Jesus can’t have been executed on Friday, during Passover, and on Friday, before Passover. The Last Supper can’t have been both a Passover meal and a meal on the day before Passover.

My interest here is not to focus on the discrepancy itself. Rather than arguing about which account is historically accurate, or harping on the fact that the Bible is not inerrant, I’m far more interested in why John might have altered the chronology of previous traditions.

For anyone familiar with the Gospel of John, that his chronology of Passover week differs from the other gospels should come as no surprise. Much of John’s chronology is at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. The cleansing of the Temple, for instance, happens early in Jesus’ ministry in John, but happens during the last week of his life in the Synoptic gospels. In the Synoptics, the Triumphal Entry occurs on Sunday (thus “Palm Sunday”), but in John it happens on Monday. In the Synoptics, Jesus’ anointing in Bethany occurs on Wednesday evening before his execution on Friday, but in John it happens on the previous Sunday.

What could have been John’s reason for changing the chronology of the Passover? Why was it important for John to move the festival back a day? Surely it wasn’t a decision made willy-nilly.

Over the years, historians have tended to agree that the change occurred to fit John’s particular theological purposes. More than any other gospel in the New Testament, John focuses on Jesus’ symbolic representation as the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. Most Christians are familiar with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. This is a phrase that is used twice in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus – with both occurrences happening on the lips of John the Baptizer. It doesn’t occur in any other gospel, or in any other text of the New Testament. Anyone familiar with what we might call Christian Theology 101 recognizes that Christians believe Jesus’ blood atoned for the sins of humanity. Thus, “Jesus died for our sins.” For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate atoning sacrifice. This is a theology that is explicit and rife throughout John’s gospel in particular. For John, Jesus became the ultimate sacrificial lamb of the Passover, spilling his blood to save humankind from its sins.

This “lamb of God” theology is fairly unique to John’s Gospel. For Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ death wasn’t necessarily about becoming the sacrificial lamb of the Passover, but was instead part of the Suffering Servant model from Isaiah. Jesus would suffer and die, and through that suffering, bring salvation to the world. For Luke, Jesus died so that human beings would have an opportunity to recognize their sinfulness (which put Jesus on the cross) and thus seek repentance. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus’ death function explicitly as atonement – a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity, like the sacrificial lamb of the Passover.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why John may have changed the chronology of Passover. Recall the discussion above about the festival of the Passover. It was inaugurated by a ritual meal wherein Jews would offer a blood sacrifice from an unblemished lamb, then consume the meat of the lamb. On the day before Passover, called the Day of Preparation, ordinary Jews would purchase an unblemished lamb, take it to the Temple, and have it ritually slaughtered by the priests. The blood would be offered on the altar, and the remaining meat would be cooked in preparation for the evening meal. All of this took place during the late morning and afternoon on the day before Passover. At sundown, Passover would officially begin, and the ritual Passover meal would be eaten.

By changing the chronology of Passover and moving it to Friday evening, John is effectively having Jesus crucified on the afternoon of the Day of Preparation. In other words, while the priests in the Temple are busy slaughtering the sacrificial lambs in preparation for the evening Passover meal, Jesus is at Golgotha being crucified. Jesus, then, is functioning as a human sacrificial lamb; his blood is being spilled for the atonement of humanity’s sins.

This is why John changed the chronology we find in the Synoptic gospels. John, more than any other gospel writer, wanted to show that Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb. He was crucified so that his blood could atone for the sins of humanity. For that reason, he was executed at the same time that the priests were slaughtering the ritual Passover lambs.

As a result, in the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, as it is in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Instead, it is simply an evening meal on the day before Passover. This is of particular interest in light of a recent study about depictions of the Last Supper in art over the centuries. Researchers have found that the portions depicted on the table have steadily increased over the years, reflecting the increase in our collective dietary habits (particularly in the West). Some folks have noted that the portions would likely have been large anyway, since it was a Passover meal, and thus a veritable “feast.”

In John’s gospel, however, it was not the Passover meal at all, and would instead have been a modest meal of bread, fish, and wine.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Parable of American Politics

There was once a hired hand, a woodcutter, doing his daily work on a sprawling stretch of land. There was a tree on the land, an old, towering monolith that was home to countless mammal and insect life.

One day, the woodcutter took his ax and began chopping at the base of the tree. “I need kindling for my fire,” the woodcutter said to himself as he chipped away at the tree’s massive base. “This tree is 20 feet in diameter; it can easily absorb the loss of some bark and wood around its base. My ax won’t harm this tree.”

The woodcutter went about his work industriously. Bark and woodchips began to fly off the base. At the end of the day, the woodcutter gathered the wood and built a roaring fire that night, over which he grilled a sumptuous feast.

The woodcutter enjoyed the feast and the warmth of the fire so much that he decided to do it again the next night. “Just one more night of warmth and food,” the woodcutter said to himself as he dug his ax into the base of the tree.

On that second night, the roaring fire drew visitors to the woodcutter’s home. He shared his feast with them and everyone enjoyed the fruits of his labor. “We should do this more often,” his visitors told him. “The great tree is enormous; its base is twenty feet in diameter. We can feast every month and we won’t harm this tree.”

The woodcutter agreed, and his monthly feasts quickly became sprawling banquets, attended by dozens of local villagers. In time, dozens became hundreds, then thousands. Each month, the woodcutter would faithfully chip away at the base of the great tree, confident that the grand old monolith would withstand his petty, occasional interference. “What are a few chips of bark, a few chunks of kindling, to a tree as mighty as this?” the woodcutter reassured himself. “It has sufficient time to heal in between our banquets. A few chops of my ax each month isn’t going to harm this tree.”

After a few years, a hard winter struck the land. It was bitterly cold, colder than any winter in recent memory. “We need warm fires each night,” the woodcutter told himself. “We’ll freeze to death without them. I’ll have to cut wood more often. This tree is twenty feet in diameter; it’s large enough to sustain us. My ax won’t harm this tree.”

The winter raged on, and the woodcutter began cutting the base of the tree twice a month, then once a week, and finally every two or three days. Near the end of the winter, a massive blizzard struck, worse than anything even the oldest villagers could remember. Everyone huddled into their homes, cut off from the land, buried beneath the snow that would not stop falling.

In the midst of the blizzard, the woodcutter made one final trip to the base of the grand old tree. The snow and darkness was so heavy he stumbled on his way, and when he began chopping again at his familiar spot, he did it by rote, trusting his hands to find their way to the wood that would sustain the village. The woodcutter doled out the fruits of his labor to the villagers, then retired to his hut to wait out the storm. “We’ll have enough wood for the winter now,” he told himself. “I won’t cut the tree again this year. We’ll cancel our regular feasts. We’ll let the tree repair itself.”

After endless weeks huddled down from the storm and its aftermath, spring came to the land and began to thaw the snow. The villagers and the woodcutter emerged from their homes like mice from their winter nests. Shock and dismay overtook them when they saw the tree. It was still standing, but only by the slimmest of margins. The woodcutter’s final frenzy had left only a few inches of wood nestled in the center, between the body of the tree and the stump. It teetered so precariously that it seemed even a slight breeze in either direction might tip it over.

“We must take great steps to repair this,” the woodcutter said. “This is a fantastic old tree, we cannot let it collapse.” As he said these words, the woodcutter noticed angry stares around him. He backed away. “You can’t blame this on me,” he said. “We all enjoyed the feasts. I cut this tree with your approval. No one could have foreseen the bad winter or the blizzard!”

His defense was no good. The villagers ran him out of town, banishing him from the sprawling land they all shared. From among their ranks, a new woodcutter was chosen. “You must repair our tree,” the villagers told him. “It seems hopeless to all of us, but we are putting our faith in you.”

The new woodcutter spent weeks evaluating the tree. “How can I possibly fix this old monolith?” he thought to himself. “Its entire twenty-foot diameter has been nearly cut completely through. A strong wind from any direction will blow it clean down.”

But the woodcutter thought it out as best he could and finally decided on a solution. When the villagers came out to see the fruits of his labor, they were scandalized. “What have you done!” they exclaimed. The new woodcutter had let the tree fall, then cut it up into firewood.

“We couldn’t just sit back and expect this tree to heal itself,” the new woodcutter told them. “It was too badly damaged. It was beyond hope. The only option was to salvage what was left for firewood, and plant a new tree in its place.”

As the new woodcutter finished speaking, a murmur went through the crowd. Someone was coming up from the rear, and the people were backing away to let him through to the front. It was the old woodcutter, returned from his banishment.

“You must be insane!” he said, pointing a finger at his replacement. “Are you happy to just hack our tree up without a thought in the world? What a hypocrite you are! How dare you kill this tree!”

The new woodcutter paused a moment, a curious look on his face. “I didn’t kill this tree. I salvaged a tree that was already dead, destroyed by the blade of your own ax.”

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Inalienable Rights

Several recent conversations have gotten me thinking: Do Americans really believe in “inalienable rights”?

That phrase, of course, is familiar to most Americans from the Declaration of Independence. A friend of mine – who is, ironically enough, an atheist – recently noted that the wording of the Declaration of Independence substantiates the argument that the USA is a nation founded on what he called “Christian principles.”

As a way to begin, here’s the famous passage in question:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…
What, exactly, is Thomas Jefferson saying here? Have you ever paused to think about it? Here’s my analysis (and you’ll note that I interpret “men” as referring to humankind): For Jefferson, there are at least two self-evident truths that can be ascertained. First, all people are born equal. Race and national origin, gender and social status, have no bearing on a person’s inherent human worth. Second, the “Creator” of the world has bestowed upon human beings three “inalienable rights” – namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Jefferson’s account, governments are created in order to protect these self-evident truths, these basic human rights. Thus, the government’s job is to ensure that these rights are not taken away, trampled on, or ignored.

The phrase about how humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” is the one I want to focus on here. Many (like the friend I mentioned above) use this phrase to argue that we are a nation founded “under God,” based on basic Christian principles. “Under God” may be a phrase inserted into our Pledge of Allegiance only in 1953, but the Declaration of Independence itself includes similar language, referencing the basic human rights that have been endowed on humanity by the Creator of the universe and for which the government is charged in protecting.

That Jefferson’s language is Deist in nature, and not Christian, is not my focus here. In fact, I’m not even attempting to argue that religion in general didn’t play a role in the founding of America, because it most clearly did. Instead, I want to look more deeply at that phrase about the “Creator” and the “inalienable rights” and take it out to its ultimate conclusion.

For Jefferson, and thus for anyone who agrees with Jefferson’s belief (which most Americans say they do), God has given certain basic rights to humanity. These are God’s gifts to us. We didn’t invent them and no human being has bestowed them upon us. They are ours by virtue of being human creatures created by God. As another good friend of mine pointed out, the very thrust of Jefferson’s argument here was that the “Rights of Man” are not bestowed by the British Monarchy or anyone else. Basic human rights are the domain of God, not of kings and emperors, presidents and parliamentarians. This, of course, is the whole theme of the 18th century revolutionary period in America.

So, according to Jefferson, and agreed upon by countless Americans for the last 225 years, God has given us certain “inalienable” rights. That word – “inalienable” – is familiar to most people simply because of its prominent place in the Declaration of Independence. What does it actually mean? According to not transferable or capable of being repudiated. According to Merriam-Webster: incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.

In other words, an “inalienable right” is a right that cannot be taken away by any human being because human beings didn’t invent or bestow the right in the first place. What human beings didn’t give, human beings can’t give away. More pointedly, and more in line with Jefferson’s wording: what God gave, human beings can’t give away.

I think most Americans would agree, and agree profoundly, with that analysis. What I want to do now, however, is take that analysis out to its logical conclusion – a conclusion I have a feeling will be met with some resistance.

Jefferson tells us that among our God-given “inalienable” rights is the right to life. The very phrase “right to life” is a familiar one – it’s most often used in discussions about abortion. All humans have a right to life, given by God and affirmed in one of our most treasured American documents, and thus abortion is not only sinful, it’s also un-American. Without going into a lot of detail about an issue that is anything but simple, many of my readers may be surprised to find that I generally agree with this sentiment. While I consider myself pro-choice for a variety of reasons that are far too numerous to go into here, I also consider myself profoundly anti-abortion. For me, “pro-choice” is a political and social stance, while “anti-abortion” is a moral and ethical and religious stance.

But the phrase “right to life” also has other implications. I’m specifically thinking of capital punishment. I’ve often argued that one can’t be pro-life and pro-death penalty without being hypocritical, just as one can’t be pro-abortion and anti-death penalty without being hypocritical. I consider myself anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. I believe in the right to life and in affirming life, and that belief is consistent across my various political opinions.

Here’s the crux: if we agree with Jefferson that human beings have basic inalienable rights – rights, which by their very divinely-given nature, cannot be taken away by human beings – and if we agree that one of these rights is the right to life, then how can we affirm capital punishment without being inconsistent with what we claim to believe?

The primary argument against this is the one that is most obvious: capital punishment is a totally different ball of wax. Capital punishment isn’t “murder.” Capital punishment is justice meted out against those who have committed violent acts against other human beings. As the Christian Old Testament affirms, murder is a terrible sin, but “killing” in war or as punishment for sin is not the same as “murder.”

By the standards of this argument, one might say that capital punishment doesn’t equate to taking away a person’s inalienable right to life. Instead, the criminal in question voluntarily gave that right up when he or she chose to commit murder. This is an extremely common argument in discussions about capital punishment – capital punishment isn’t murder, nor is it unethical, because the right to life was already surrendered by the perpetrator in the very act of committing their crime.

You may already see where I’m going here. If not, recall the discussion above about the meaning of the phrase “inalienable rights.” An “inalienable right” is a human right which, by its very definition, cannot be taken away, transferred, or surrendered. It is “inalienable.” It is bestowed by a power greater than any human being or human institution. What human beings did not give, human beings cannot give away. What God gave, human beings cannot take away and cannot surrender. If a right can be either taken away by others or surrendered by an individual through an act of violence, then it is not, by definition, an “inalienable” right.

For that reason, I am arguing that capital punishment is inconsistent with American principles, as outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans say they believe in those principles – those inalienable rights – yet most Americans also support capital punishment.

And so we return to the question that opened this discussion: Do Americans really believe in “inalienable rights”? Or is that just something that sounds good on paper, sounds good in a political debate, and sounds pretty to our imaginations, but which we don’t really believe in practice?

If you genuinely believe in the “inalienable rights” that Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence, and you understand what the word “inalienable” actually means, then I don’t see how you can support capital punishment – regardless of what your personal religious beliefs happen to be.

If the right to life is “inalienable,” and if that belief is a deeply American one which our government is charged with protecting, then capital punishment can only be deeply un-American.