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Easter, one month later

by
19 April 2024

As Passover begins, Helen Jacobus suggests a special significance for the little-known Second Passover

Alamy

The Temple Scroll, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in Qumran

The Temple Scroll, one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in Qumran

ALTHOUGH Easter and Passover usually occur close together, they are a month apart this year. Passover is late — on 22 April — because this year the Jewish lunar calendar has an extra month. Interestingly, every year, there is a little-known festival one month after Passover: the Second Passover, unconnected with Easter.

This is the Passover for Jews who had been made ritually impure by being in contact with a dead body shortly before the pilgrim festival, or who, in ancient times, were on a long journey when the feast was taking place, and so could not be in the temple in Jerusalem at the right time.

The biblical amendment to Passover, giving some Jews an extra month in which to celebrate the festival, is written in Numbers 9.6-14. The early-first-century Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria suggests that it was convenient to have another Passover in Jerusalem for the large influx of pilgrims from outside Judaea: “One country will not contain the entire nation by reason of its great numbers. . .” (Moses, vol. II).

Nowadays, the Second Passover is used only by Jews who would have been involved with burying the dead shortly before Passover, and are therefore temporarily “corpse-contaminated” (as it is called). This year, the festival falls on 22 May.

 

THE biblical clause for those exempted from the first Passover owing to being away on a long journey would appear to have applied to Jews living in the diaspora at the beginning of the Common Era. I have suggested (in the latest number of the Polish Journal of Biblical Research) that, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus died on the Second Passover. This theory proposes that Jesus became ritually impure after the raising of Lazarus (which, in the Gospels, is the only story in which Jesus raises a person from the dead close to the time of Passover).

In the Bible, the impurity from a dead body lasts for seven days, and requires a ritual of purification on the third and seventh days (Numbers 19.11-22). It is likely that, as a Jew, Jesus would have undergone some form of ritual purification after he brought Lazarus back to life. After raising Lazarus, Jesus separated himself, with his disciples, in the town of Ephraim, near the wilderness (John 11.54); I suggest that this was because he was corpse-contaminated.

The later-first-century Jewish historian Josephus, in his opus Jewish War, notes that Jews would begin gathering in Jerusalem a week before Passover. My suggestion is that Jesus remained absent during Passover when the Jews were in the temple (John 11.56) because he was still unclean.

 

A MONTH later, on the Saturday night six days before the Second Passover, Jesus, now purified, arrived at Lazarus’s house in Bethany (John 12.1). He would have travelled after sunset so as not to break the sabbath. The following day, Sunday — day one of the six days before the Second Passover — Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Reckoning the days from their beginning after sundown (the beginning of the calendrical day in the Jewish calendar), the timeline would look like this:

 

MONTH ONE

One week before Passover (John 11.55)/Passover (John 11.56): The worshippers are in the Jerusalem temple; Jesus and his disciples are absent in Ephraim


MONTH TWO

Saturday night, six days before the Second Passover (John 12.1): Jesus arrives at the house of Lazarus in Bethany.

Sunday (Day One): The triumphal entry into Jerusalem

Monday (Day Two), Tuesday (Day Three), Wednesday (Day Four)

Thursday (Day Five): Meal begins

Friday (Day Six): Meal ends. Day of preparation. Jesus dies. Second Passover/ sabbath

Saturday/Sabbath (Day Seven)

Sunday: Resurrection

 

THIS theory is not as far-fetched as it might appear. There would be no reason for the second set of Passover pilgrims to feel that they had missed the main Passover event in Jerusalem. Having a separate Passover for individuals unable to attend the first Passover in the temple for religious or practical reasons was common practice.

The scholar Michael Daise notes that the Second Passover “enjoyed great currency” in the first century, and could have “readily fallen within the purview of the Fourth Evangelist”.

The earliest known use of the festival’s name, the “Second Passover”, occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the lists of the so-called “calendars of the priestly courses”: timetables, written in Hebrew, for the weekly rota of service of priestly families at the Jerusalem temple.

The calendars, from Qumran — the archaeological site where a sectarian Jewish community once lived, surrounded by caves where the scrolls were discovered — have been dated to the late first century BC and the early first century AD. The papyrus manuscripts, however, were not officially published until 2001; so generations of New Testament scholars did not have the advantage of knowing that the “Second Passover” was listed in Jewish sectarian documents during the time of Jesus.

 

IN THE Synoptic Gospels, the day after the Last Supper is the day of the crucifixion and also the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Last Supper is regarded as the Passover meal. In John’s Gospel, Jesus died on the “day of preparation”, which is before sundown on the day of an unnamed solemn assembly that takes place in the evening.

Since, in the Bible, the Second Passover is referred to as Passover, without the Feast of Unleavened Bread, this could well be the “solemn assembly” — a name to differentiate it from Passover — that coincided with the sabbath on the day that Jesus died.

Curiously, the Feast of Unleavened Bread is not mentioned at all in John’s Gospel, although it is very important in the other Gospels. The final meal in John’s Gospel is not Passover.

Instead of containing discrepancies, the Fourth Gospel offers a dramatic twist: Jesus becomes the Passover lamb for the Second Passover. The references forbidding the breaking of a bone of the Passover lamb, and not leaving its remains until the morning, are in the biblical passage concerned with the Second Passover.

Not only does the Fourth Gospel possibly preserve a festival that was widely used during the time of Jesus, but it may also have given the now almost forgotten day an intriguing early Christian story.

 

Helen R. Jacobus is an honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Biblical Studies, at the University of Manchester. “The Gospel of John and the Second Passover” is published in the Polish Journal of Biblical Research, volume 22.

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