Passover and Gentiles: A Universal Exodus

Many peoples and cultures can identify with the themes of oppression under foreign powers, exile from a homeland, and the hope of liberation.


PassoverApr 12, 2016

PassoverApr 12, 2016


Passover Seder Dinner at the White House. Image by Pete Souza (White House Flickr Account) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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“Where the heck is the matzah?” I mumbled to myself. I was at Whole Foods looking to buy some matzah for the upcoming Passover festival but couldn’t locate the Passover section.

I eventually had to ask one of the workers to help me find it. As we walked toward the Passover section he asked me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question? What is Passover? Customers keep talking about it and I have no idea what it is.” Before I answered his question, I tried to take a quick assessment in my mind of his background. Obviously, he was not Jewish, and I guessed he was not a Christian either. So I proceeded to tell him about the festival and its symbolism in the most universal way possible while still centering on the biblical background of the exodus from Egypt.

Passover, although a thoroughly Jewish festival, has meaning for non-Jews. Many peoples and cultures can identify with the themes of oppression under foreign powers, exile from a homeland, and the hope of liberation. Ellen Frankel in an article entitled “The Power of Passover for Jews and Buddhists,” points out what a Buddhist can learn from the Passover Seder. Like the Jewish people, many Buddhist people have been banished from their homeland and need to find hope in their current state of exile. At the end of the article she writes:

In so many places today, we have seen the struggles of people across the globe to move from oppression to freedom. While there is much work to be done, sometimes it is the stepping back and the sitting together with family and friends over a meal to recall our past, reclaim our deepest values and re-ignite the flame of hope that burns inside. This Passover provides an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to come together in the spirit of hope and freedom.

In the days of the apostles there were many God-fearing Gentiles who celebrated Passover along with the Jewish people. Even rabbinic literature made room for non-Jews at a seder. In the Second Temple Era, Gentiles were not permitted to eat the actual Pesach sacrifice (Exodus 12:48), but they were allowed to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs and participate in the rest of the meal.[1] Eusebius records an account that at the Passover feast in Jerusalem toward the end of the Second Temple Period “all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.”[2] In the days of the Temple, Passover had a universal appeal.

Rabbi David Katz uses the imagery of Passover and matzah to esoterically illustrate the journey of every Gentile who leaves idolatry and joins himself to the worship of the One True God:

In and of itself, matzah is pashut, free from the addition of other elements. It contains nothing but flour and water, and is kneaded, rolled out, and baked. Conversely, leavened bread, i.e., chametz, in addition to flour and water, is combined with se’or, leavening, which attaches itself to every grain of flour, causing the dough to rise. As a result, the grains are not free, but under the influence of leavening. Similarly, when one is subjugated to a master, he has not attained freedom. And freedom is the ingredient through which Redemption (Geulah) was created.[3]

He goes on to say that the Gentile must free himself from the yoke of idolatry and into the freedom of the worship of the God of Israel. It is like his own personal exodus.

If there are aspects of the Passover Seder from which all people can learn, how much more so is this true for believers in Messiah? After all, our Master Yeshua chose the wine and the matzah of a Passover Seder to represent his body and blood. More than just learning about and celebrating the concept of freedom from oppression and exile, for disciples of Messiah, the seder celebrates Yeshua’s atoning death and resurrection while remaining firmly grounded and centered on God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from Egypt.

There is ample evidence that, for the earliest Gentile believers, the celebration of Passover was an important holiday celebrated by all believers in Messiah—both Jewish and Gentile. Paul wrote the book of 1 Corinthians to a predominantly Gentile audience who attended both synagogue and weekly gatherings of believers. Additionally, the timing of the letter seems to have been sometime in early spring before the Passover season had begun. Many portions in the letter allude to Passover and seem to offer instructions for observing it properly with the right heart-attitude:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Although the imagery to “celebrate the festival” is clearly metaphorical, it could really be understood only by readers who were in fact literally celebrating Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, complete with some level of abstention from leaven.

David Rudolph writes of the widespread practice of Gentile believers celebrating Passover in the second century:

It appears that almost all of the churches in Asia (where Paul devoted much of his ministry), as well as churches in Asia Minor, Cilicia, Syria, and Mesopotamia, observed Gentile Passover in accordance with the Jewish festival calendar, on the fourteenth day of the first month, the month of Nisan. Far from being a minor schismatic group, Christians who celebrated Gentile Passover on Nisan 14 stretched across a vast geographic region. Many of these Gentile Christians celebrated with Jews, and the similarity of their observance to Jewish Passover probably varied from community to community.[4]

When the Roman church sought to limit the celebration of Passover to the first Sunday after Passover, other Christians, especially those in Asia Minor, insisted on celebrating the festival according to the Jewish practice on the fourteenth of Nisan as they had always done. The venerable Bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, insisted that the Jewish observance of Passover had been transmitted to them through the apostles.[5] As the church at large began to adopt the Sunday practice instead, the Quartodecimans (“fourteeners,” those who observed the fourteenth of Nisan) separated into their own sect. They existed up until the fifth century.

In the Syriac Lectionary (fifth century CE), the week before Easter is called the Week of Unleavened Bread.[6] The Canons of Hippolytus (third to fifth century CE) instructs:

The week during which the Jews celebrated Passover must be observed by the Christian people with the greatest earnest, they must be careful to abstain from all eagerness.[7]

Although this text is not advocating Passover observance in the Torah sense per se, it does indicate that the early church retained traditions based upon Passover observances found in the Torah. It indicates that, at some earlier point, the church was indeed observing the actual Jewish festival.

This makes complete sense. Gentile believers have been brought near to the commonwealth of Israel. Although this does not make Gentile Christians into Jews, they share in the spiritual heritage of the nation of Israel. Paul tells the Gentiles in Galatia that they are now “sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7), and when addressing the mixed congregation in Corinth, he even refers to the Israelites that came out of Egypt as “our fathers” (1 Corinthians 10:1).[8] This indicates that the exodus from Egypt has become a part of the Gentile believer’s spiritual heritage. A member of the nations who joins himself or herself to Messiah retains a Gentile identity and yet shares in Israel’s connection to and celebration of redemptive history. In fact, Gentiles being drawn to the God of Israel are a significant and beautiful part of this grand plan of redemption as we long for the even greater exodus that will come in the Messianic Era (Jeremiah 16:14-15).

Footnotes:
  1. Mechilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Exodus 12:45. Cf. b.Pesachim 92a.
  2. Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.4,10-18.
  3. Rabbi David Katz, The World of the Ger (Israel: Ger Gear, 2014), 36-37.
  4. David J. Rudolph, “The Celebration of Passover by Gentile Christians in the Patristic Period,” Verge 2:3 (2010): 4.
  5. "Quarterdecimanism," The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 1364-1365. See also J. Van Goudoever, Biblical Calendars (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1961), 155-163.
  6. Goudoever, 176-181. See also G. Rouwhorst, “Jewish Liturgical Traditions in Early Syriac Christianity,” Vigiliae Christianae 51, no. 1 (March 1997): 81-82.
  7. Goudoever, 178.
  8. Cf. 1 Clement 4.
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About the Author: Toby Janicki is a teacher, writer, and project manager for First Fruits of Zion and Vine of David. He contributes regularly to Messiah Journal and has written several books including God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel. More articles by Toby Janicki

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