Monday, March 29, 2010

Passover among Christians

I read with interest a newspaper article this morning which described a growing practice among liberal Christian churches in Houston, of celebrating the Passover as well as Easter. It is celebrated with a Christian interpretation of the lamb, with Jesus' passion at its heart. Some of the local Jewish communities are concerned that their festival is being usurped by the Christians, stating that the Christians are taking their holiday and symbols and investing them with meanings foreign to them. They are not happy with this new Christian tradition. One rabbi said that he doesn't mind having other groups celebrate Passover as long as it is celebrated as Jews would do.

Being a historian of early Christian, my first reaction to this is well, what is new? This is the exact conversation (with the same complaints) that the early Christians and the early Jews were having in the first and second centuries. Most Christians in this period celebrated Passover as a Christian holiday altering all the symbols so that they pointed to Christ. Our earliest homily is by Melito and it is the homily he preached at Passover. It has this classic reinterpretation, which also ends up being very anti-semitic in its orientation as you might well imagine. Easter isn't mentioned in any documents as far as I know until the fourth century (Nicaea, 325). When it is mentioned by Socrates Scholasticus (380), it is recognized as a local custom that was not biblical (that is Jesus and his apostles didn't command it) but had developed in the catholic churches as a way to celebrate the resurrection.

UPDATE: Link to Melito's sermon


Alan Brill said...

Can you post the sermon from Melito or at least a link to it?
Do you think that much of the philo-semitism in America of copying Jewish practice such passover, and sabbath has an unexamined dark side of returning to the Patristic zero-sum antagonism?

Unknown said...

Yes it doesn't seem very new at all. I think that Jesus' resurrection was situated around Passover specifically for replacing Judaism. It certainly fits the motif of other allegories in Christianity (like the parable of old and new wineskins, parable of the wicked tenants, etc.).

A new covenant was created between the Jews and YHWH on Passover, and another covenant has to be established in the same time period.

Unknown said...

The Peri Pascha of Melito of Sardis can be found here:

Robert Mathiesen said...

It is very far from obvious that the Last Supper actually was a Passover meal. Indeed, two quite early sources (one Latin, the other Syriac) even claim that it happened on a Tuesday, not a Thursday. See Annie Jaubert, _La date de la Cene: calendrier biblique et liturgie chretienne_ (1957), which strikes me as a very sound piece of scholarship.

Of course, "Easter" is a Germanic word for what the Greek churches called and still call "Paskha," and controversies over the correct date to celebrate Christian "Paskha" are earlier by centuries than the First Council of Nicaea. The documentation has been collected and interpreted by August Strobel in _Ursprung und Geschichte des fruehchristlichen Osterkalendars_ (1977) and _Texte zur Geschiochte des fruehchristlichen Osterkalendars_ (1984).

I think this is my first or second comment to your excellent blog, so I want to emphasize how much I value it. These comments of mine touch on minor points only.

Robert Mathiesen

Pastor Bob said...

We Christians are very good at borrowing/stealing from other religions. In fact you might say that it is a tradition!

Robert Mathiesen said...

Come to think of it, the fragmentary text on computus bound up with the unique manuscript of the Paschal Chronicle (in Greek) preserves a fascinating quote from a lost text by Peter of Alexandria (martyred in 311). If memory serves me rightly, Peter says that the Jews no longer celebrate their Paskha (Passover) on the correct day, but knowledge of the correct day is preserved by Christians, who use it to determine the correct Sunday on which to celebrate their Christian Paskha (Easter).

I do not remember Jaubert citing this text, but her treatment of the clashing calendars in Judaism around the time of Jesus sheds considerable light on it. There is probably some historical basis for what Peter says.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Melito's sermon is almost the kind of stuff I was bought up listening to, especially from one Scottish preacher, in the Plymouth Brethren.

Interestingly, he says that the Spirit of the Lord was present at Passover. If you were a Jew, this would of course be the Spirit of the one and only God.

Jane said...

In urban Sheffield my friend Janet invited her congregation to a MAundy passover meal including lamb burgers.

I would often in parish ministry hold a form of passover meal because it is so useful for teaching, for sharing the story, for discovering new meaning - the food elements help connect with the biblical witness to liberation and the overcoming of death. It's also an intergenerational event.

Banshee said...

Yeah, seder meals are a 1970's thing. So my conservative suburban Catholic parish in Ohio was that far ahead of these big city liberal churches... heh!

I have to say that, once I knew Jewish people and had visited a synagogue, I finally understood why we stopped doing that at our parish. Acting out a seder meal strikes me now as being just as weird as people from a different religion acting out a Mass. Very iffy. Not really respectful. I mean, this is performative language and performative action, so....

Now, that said, I don't think there'd be any harm watching a video of a seder, or letting kids sample some of the foods. Knowing about Jewish stuff is important for a Christian to understand the Bible and to underline Christian beliefs and practices.