Paul Krause, a product of Yale University Divinity School, puts pen to paper on one of the most significant seasons of Christendom. Krause is the author of, amongst others, The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books, The Politics of Plato. This particular piece is extracted from VoegelinView, the Philosophy platform.
By Paul Krause
Throughout the Christian world, except in Germanic-language countries, Easter is known as Passover. The Passover, of course, is a Jewish holy festival—it marks the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt and therefore encapsulates the Exodus story and the entry of the wandering Israelites into the Promised Land after forty years according to the Pentateuchal narrative; it is the central story of Judaism. Regarding Jesus of Nazareth, his life and ministry culminating in the Passion narrative of the gospels is a new and innovative construction evoking the Exodus of old and therefore represents a new exodus-passover rather than some borrowing of non-Jewish ideas which now pervade the web despite anyone with even a modest education knowing otherwise. The purpose of this recontextualization of Jesus within a Passover context becomes clear once understood: The Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the “true exodus” (so to speak) and the fulfillment of the Jewish religious hope grounded in the Exodus-Passover celebration according to the Christian vision.
The first century Jewish understanding of Jesus among his followers was firmly rooted in the late Jewish theological imagination and nothing else. (Those who speak of pagan origins of Easter speak from absolute and total ignorance, though this is common nowadays especially on the internet.) Following the post-exilic period, Judaism began to take on its systematic form we know today (with further codification occurring after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). Further developments over the centuries after the Exile led to the rise of apocalyptic and eschatological theologies as revealed by the discoveries at Qumran immediately following the Second World War. While it is still common for armchair critics to cite Rudolf Bultmann and supposed esoteric Platonic and Gnostic influences on early Christianity, this view is thoroughly rejected by mainstream historical-critical scholars familiar with the discoveries of Qumran and the past half century of biblical scholarship which is conveniently ignored by those who seek an implicitly anti-Semitic rewriting of the Easter narrative without its Jewish origins. The followers of Jesus, instead of mythmaking from Platonism and Greek ideas, drew extensively from explicitly Jewish material in their understanding of carpenter from Nazareth. The most important revision to Jewish consciousness offered by the New Testament writers was, as mentioned, the belief that Jesus and his ministry represented the new exodus and liberation to the heavenly kingdom “above” rather than below (cf. Ga. 4:26).
While contemporary historical-critical scholarship casts doubt on the systematic historicity of the Exodus and Conquest narrative, this is not relevant for us to understand the New Testament disposition because the first century followers of Jesus accepted those stories as presented in the biblical text. This is why all the gospel writers evoke the memory of the Exodus in their gospels of Jesus. To a first century Jewish audience, the stories told of Jesus would have conjured up the imagery of the Exodus: Jesus in the desert; Jesus in the Jordan River; Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem including his passing through Jericho; Jesus’s Last Summer and reflections on the manna from heaven. Indeed, the entire movement of the synoptic gospels (even the gospel according to John) tell a (new) story built solely on the Exodus memory within a late, dissident, Jewish theological framework.
This late—dissident and minority—Jewish theological framework is important to understand especially within the synoptic gospel traditions. While apocalyptic and eschatological imagery and notions began to appear in the late Hebrew Bible, especially during the Hellenistic period (Daniel, Trito-Isaiah, and Zechariah), by the time of the first century this theology of apocalypse and eschatology had become normative for non-Temple Judaisms. The discoveries at Qumran give us a more developed understanding of the innovation of the apocalyptic-eschatological tradition: spiritual warfare between God and the demons; children of light and children of darkness; liberation from darkness; expectations of the coming Messiah; a new heaven and new earth—a new kingdom of righteousness; the restoration of Israel; a new covenant (berith ha-hadashah); baptism and purification for being born in darkness. It is from this context that Jesus is situated as the deliverer of the righteous into a new kingdom as conceived in the New Testament gospels.
Additionally, from this context the synoptic writers sought to utilize the most important memory of Jewish religion to underscore their belief of Jesus as Deliverer: Jesus completes the new, true, exodus. The Qumranic theological innovations are therefore mixed with the more traditional Exodus memorial imperative of Second Temple Judaisms to form the basis of the Christian vision and identity. (On this note, the apocalypticist War Scrolls (1QM) and the messianic Melchizedek Scroll (11QMelchizedek) bear the strongest resemblances to what eventually saturates New Testament consciousness, as does the Rule of Congregation Scroll (1QS) dealing with the restoration of Israel, water cleanings, and community meals.) The New Testament writers drew from dissident and minority traditions in the non-Temple Judaisms of the first century emphasizing a new exodus with messianic aspects of Qumranic theology and eschatology infused in their writings.
The election of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) occurs within the Exodus narrative. When God is speaking to Moses, he instructs Moses to tell Pharoah, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son’” (Ex. 4:22). So too is the divine sonship of Jesus announced in a desert, wilderness, environment in the Marcan account: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:11). The association and evocation with Exodus to Jesus’s divine sonship and election is unmistakable for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Immediately afterward Jesus enters the desert for forty days and forty nights, a literary evoking of the forty years of Israel in the desert and the wilderness, struggling against dark forces and sin before entering the Promised Land. So too is Jesus tempted by the dark and insidious forces of sin, personified in Satan who is now a developed entity out of that apocalyptic-eschatological Jewish theology of spiritual entities doing battle for control of the earth. It wasn’t just flesh and blood humans, like Pharaoh and his army, that were opponents of Israel in the past. Behind the scenes are spiritual demons and other forces who embody the real action in accord to the Qumranic vision (hence why demons and other dark spirits are far more prominent in the New Testament than the Old Testament which focuses more on other gods instead of demons). Despite this Qumranic inheritance that is essential to the cosmic struggle envisioned in the gospels, as many biblical scholars have routinely explained in analyzing Jesus in the desert: “Old Testament typology is clearly alive here, recalling Israel in the desert.” While there is extensive influence of Qumranic theology and ideas over the New Testament writers, the New Testament writers are equally and deeply indebted to the Exodus narrative. (Typology and allegory are not, contrary to uniformed critics, modern inventions but inventions of the New Testament writers; Paul himself uses the terms typos and allēgoroumena in his authentic epistles.)
While the Exodus narrative details the apostasy of Israel in their struggles, Mark depicts Jesus as faithfully overcoming the temptations as a reversal of the Exodus failures which point to the superiority of Jesus vis-à-vis the Israelites in their liberation from Egypt. Satan, sin, is rebuked. Jesus remains clean. The movement into the new promised land can continue. Jesus succeeds without blemish where Israel of old failed. (It is important to recall that the entry of the Israelites into Canaan was predicated on their faithfulness and cleanliness and this motif is carried over regarding Jesus’s life and ministry.)
If the association of Jesus with the Exodus isn’t yet clear, it certainly becomes more-so as the movement to the crucifixion quickly approaches. The ministry of Jesus includes the selection of twelve disciples symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel, thereby further associating Jesus with the Exodus narrative. Jesus commands the twelve to proclaim the kingdom and cast out the new enemies of faithful Israel: the demons (who take the place of the Old Testament Canaanites). The role of the twelve evoke the twelve tribes as they prepare to enter the promised land and drive out the enemies of God—here understood in that late apocalyptic-eschatological context of spiritual warfare. Biblical scholar Tremper Longman III writes, “The twelve symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel and represent a restorationist theme in Jesus’ ministry.”
As the push to the climax of the Jesus narrative nears, Jesus experiences his Transfiguration on a “high mountain” meant to symbolize a new theophany akin to Moses at Sinai: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them” (Mk. 9:2). In fact, Moses is present in this vision of Transfiguration making the association unmistakable. (Elijah is also present.) The culmination of the giving of the Law at Sinai is now “fulfilled” in Jesus (who is also the consummation of the Prophets per the inclusion of Elijah and apocalyptic expectations of the return of Elijah in some of the surviving Qumran scrolls). As the eminent New Testament scholar Raymond Brown noted, “The ‘after six days’ of 9:2 seems to recall Exod 24:16 where cloud covers Sinai for six days and only on the day after that does God call to Moses.” Furthermore, to underscore the Exodus-Sinai allusion, Peter proposes building three tabernacles just as the Tabernacle was built after the theophany at Sinai. In conversation, as included in the Gospel of Luke, Moses and Elijah, “spoke about his exodos [the Greek word often translated as “departure”] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31).
Moving even further into the ministry of Jesus as a recapitulation of Exodus in its mature, fuller, idealization, Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem—the “promised land”—takes him past the city of Jericho (the first city infamously conquered in the conquest narrative irrespective, again, of the historicity of that event). Part of Jesus’s conquest of the new promised land is his healing ministry, casting out the demons—read: unclean Canaanites—and purification of the land, all of which evokes the Exodus story and the commands of God to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Jesus is coming as a conqueror like the Israelites under Joshua (who was interpreted, famously, as a type of Christ in early Christian theology), in whose arrival drives out the forces of sin (the Canaanites in the Hebrew Bible, the demons in the Qumranic/New Testament context) and purifies the land so that God can dwell in it (healing of the various impure and unclean sinners and individuals). After his time doing battle against the demons and unclean in Jericho, representing Jesus’s conquest of the city, Jesus proceeds to enter Jerusalem in a pattern that should be recognizable to any reader/listener of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Exodus, in a sense, wasn’t complete until David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The Exodus-Conquest narrative is only consummated in this moment when Jerusalem is captured and God can dwell in that city; as David brings the Ark into Jerusalem he is greeted by loud cheers and trumpets blaring (cf. 2 Sm. 6:1-5). As the ministry of Jesus is meant to convey the same message, so too does Jesus come to Jerusalem as the Ark incarnate (the Ark that the Israelites bore with them through the wilderness and into Canaan) to emphasize a new exodus-new conquest narrative that the gospel writers have been constructing wherein Jesus is celebrated with throngs of dancing, cheers, and trumpets echoing what happened when David brought the Ark to Jerusalem according to Second Samuel (cf. Mk. 11:1-11; Mt. 21:1-11; Lk. 19:28-44; Jn. 12:12-19).
It is within Jerusalem, then, that the new exodus that is Jesus’s life and ministry reaches its climax. The Last Supper coincides with the beginning of the Exodus-Passover festival. Mark recounts: “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?’” (Mk. 14:12). This culminating chapter of the Jesus-Exodus ministry and story is now fully tied to the Exodus of Jewish memory; if anyone was incapable of seeing it, now it is explicitly stated so with the direct reference to Passover. Whatever may have been oblique in the narrative up to this point—which wasn’t much to the learned or committed Jew—is now made expressly manifest.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus directly invokes the covenant of Exodus with his covenant at the table with his disciples, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’” (Mk. 14:24). The covenant which mattered here was the Passover/Exodus covenant and not, as some might say, the covenant with Abraham. After all, the Passover was directly referenced at the beginning of the Last Supper discourse and the entire life and ministry of Jesus is replete with Exodus motifs and imagery and evocative language; nothing of like can be said of the Abrahamic covenantal narrative or that of Noah’s.
Even more pronounced than the gospel according to Mark is the gospel according to John which connects the Last Supper with the manna from heaven eaten by the Israelites as their nourishment during the wandering years in the desert, ‘This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever’” (Jn. 6:58). Once again, Jesus’s life and ministry as being the new exodus cannot be brushed away. Everything the gospel writers have been working up to reaches this direct and unmistakable connection to the Exodus as the onset of Jesus’s Passion is to begin.
Jesus, as we know, is then betrayed, arrested, and crucified. His followers later came to believe in his resurrection. The apostles then spread the gospel to the nations.
That the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs in Jerusalem is not insignificant for the new exodus narrative portrayed on the gospels. While I have largely contained this essay to Mark, the same is true for Matthew, Luke, and John in their respective ways. As mentioned, the culmination of the Exodus-Conquest narrative in the Hebrew Bible in its consummate understanding is the capture of Jerusalem, the bringing of the Ark to Jerusalem, and the eventual construction of the Temple in which God dwells.
Within the new exodus narrative as told in the gospels, Jesus as the Ark incarnate—the divinely elected Son of God—enters Jerusalem as the true presence of God just as it was believed in ancient Israelite history and memory and takes the city captive in his Passion, death, and resurrection. To his followers and the gospel writers as I’ve been explaining, this, too, evokes the Exodus since their entire construction of the Jesus ministry moving toward the Passion, death, and resurrection is a new exodus story culminating in his capture of Jerusalem. Moreover, Jesus, in his rebuke at the marvel given to the temple of stones (cf. Mk. 13:1-2; Lk. 21:5-6; Mt. 24:1-2), and the association of Jesus as the true temple, and therefore the true presence of God, is expressly triumphalist with imagery and language relating to a conquest: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (Jn. 2:19-21). This is meant to signify the culmination of the new exodus-passover-conquest gospel narrative (lest we forget Jesus also “cleanses” the Temple from the moneychangers to make it pure for the arrival of himself as the incarnate presence of God which again evokes the cleansing stories of the Exodus-Conquest narrative). Some would suggest that we cannot know if Jesus said these words himself; that, again, is missing the point of the gospels’ purpose: to the gospel writers Jesus was the new temple and the new Passover who inaugurated and completed the new exodus in which Jesus as the new temple conquers Jerusalem as the final act of the new exodus-passover-conquest narrative.
It is, therefore, essential that the climax of the new exodus takes place in Jerusalem for the reasons stated above: it was the bringing of God to Jerusalem in the Exodus narrative that was the final consummation of the Exodus-Passover-Conquest story and so too this must be true of Jesus. Since Jesus is constructed and portrayed in a new exodus-passover-conquest story arc, it is only appropriate that the completion of the narrative is in Jerusalem. Jesus is the presence of God come to Jerusalem to cleanse and conquer it (this also bears strong Qumranic roots in which the Temple in Jerusalem was to be superseded by a new “Temple of Adam” in some of their eschatological writings).
Because the Passion of Jesus was portrayed as the climax the new exodus narrative, Paul would subsequently be able to claim: ‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’” (1 Co. 5:7). And since Paul wrote prior to the gospels, we know with some certainty that the earliest followers of Jesus conceived of Christ in this new exodus-passover belief that also echoes of Qumranic materials. The life and ministry of Jesus is wholly, and entirely, saturated within a rich Jewish context of historical memory and theological innovation and imagination.
Easter, then, is the new and “fuller” (from the Christian perspective) understanding of the Exodus-Passover miracle so foundational to Judaism. The claim of Christians is that their exodus-passover miracle, founded in Christ, is the fullest manifestation of what became the defining feature of Jewish identity and self-understanding by the time of Christ’s own life. It has, as all serious students and scholars know, absolutely no non-Jewish influences. As mentioned, in all other Christian cultures and languages rooted in the Romance languages, rather than Anglo-Saxon/Germanic, Easter is referred to as Passover—a nod to this Jewish festival inheritance from the Greek translation of Passover: pascha.
What is the meaning of Easter? Jesus was understood as the new exodus-passover lamb and liberating God dwelling with his people, freeing them from the dark spirits holding them in sinful bondage per the Qumranic “light-dark” cosmic struggle, and blazing the path to the new promised land—a “kingdom not of this world”—that would include all people (but beginning first with the restored fruit of Israel). This is far richer than the mere atonement and resurrection pulpit preaching we are familiar with today. The meaning of Easter can only be understood within this Jewish context. And in this Jewish context we find a very and uniquely Jewish Jesus of Nazareth.