Book: The Christian Passover

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The book of Deuteronomy contains the only passage in the entire Pentateuch that refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread as “Passover.” This later terminology was apparently edited into the text when Ezra was preparing the books of the Old Testament for canonization. The fact that Ezra used the same terminology when he wrote the book of II Chronicles shows that it was the customary practice of his day.

Why would Ezra use this terminology only in Deuteronomy 16 and not in any of the other related passages in the Pentateuch? The answer is that the commands in Deuteronomy 16 are not the direct words of God, as are the commands in Exodus 12, Numbers 9 and 28, and Leviticus 23. The book of Deuteronomy, which means the “second giving of the Law,” records the final words of Moses to the children of Israel. In this message, Moses reminds them of all the commands of God that they must observe when they enter the Promised Land. Since the commands in Deuteronomy 16 were not spoken directly by God but by Moses, it was considered permissible to edit them.

In this chapter, we will examine the historical circumstances that led to the modifications that Ezra made in Deuteronomy 16. These same circumstances led Ezra to institute a “new Passover law,” which officially centralized the Passover at Jerusalem. As in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah, this action was an emergency measure in response to a national crisis. The true worship of God in Jerusalem was being threatened by a Samaritan conspiracy, and the Scriptures—particularly the books of the Law—were in danger of being corrupted.

To preserve the true worship of God, Ezra used his authority as priest and religious leader of the Jews to edit and canonize the Old Testament Scriptures. As part of his work in preserving the Book of the Law, known today as the Pentateuch, Ezra edited Deuteronomy 16 in order to make the text more understandable to the Jews of his day. Since they referred to the Feast of Unleavened Bread as “Passover,” Ezra edited the commands in Deuteronomy 16 to fit this later terminology. The offerings for the seven days of unleavened bread are referred to as “passover-offerings” because the Feast of Unleavened Bread was called “Passover.”

Misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 16

The proponents of a 15th Passover teach that the commands in Deuteronomy 16 refer to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The first eight verses in Deuteronomy 16 are the key Scriptures that they use to support their claim that the temple sacrifice of the Passover lambs was sanctioned by God. They find Deuteronomy 16 convenient to use because the terminology in this chapter appears to refer to the Passover, itself. They either ignore or fail to understand that the terms “Passover” and “Passover offering” refer to the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. They deny that verse 6 is referring to the offering that God commanded for the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the beginning of the Exodus on the night of the 15th. Instead, they claim that the offering that was commanded “at the going down of the sun” was the sacrifice of the Passover lambs. This misleading interpretation of Deuteronomy 16 makes it appear that the Passover lambs were slain toward the end of the 14th and were eaten on the 15th.

Thus, the supporters of a 15th Passover have been able to promote their false teaching because few understand the true meaning of the terminology that is used in Deuteronomy 16. This general lack of understanding allows the commands in Deuteronomy 16:1-8 to be misapplied and misinterpreted. Another key factor makes it even easier to misinterpret the commands in this passage. Unlike the related passages concerning the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, DEUTERONOMY 16 DOES NOT GIVE ANY SPECIFIC DATES!

The fact that no specific days of the month are found in Deuteronomy 16:1-8 has made these Scriptures the chief text of those who promote a 15th Passover. Although this teaching clearly conflicts with the numbered days that are recorded in Exodus 12, Numbers 9 and Leviticus 23, they have found a way to circumvent these Scriptural passages which specify the exact time for the killing of the Passover lambs. In order to avoid an obvious conflict with God’s command, they claim that ben ha arbayim begins in the afternoon of the day and ends “at sunset,” or ba erev.

The teaching that ben ha arbayim occurs in the afternoon of the day originated in Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, the Passover lambs were always slain on the afternoon of the 14th and were eaten after sunset, on the night of the 15th. As we learned in Chapter Five, there is a Scriptural witness in Exodus 16 that exposes the error in this traditional view. This Scriptural record clearly shows, leaving no room for doubt, that ben ha arbayim, or “between the two evenings,” occurs immediately AFTER SUNSET, and is the period of time between sunset and the darkness of night.

The Scriptural observance of the Passover has always been at the beginning of the 14th day of the first month, between sunset and dark. However, the observance of the Passover by the Jews was shifted from the 14th to the 15th by misinterpreting ben ha arbayim, the time commanded by God for the killing of the lambs. This change from the ordinance of God was justified by applying the first eight verses in Deuteronomy 16 to the Passover, when in reality these verses refer to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was renamed “Passover.” With this new interpretation, the Passover was combined with the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the instructions in Deuteronomy 16 for the offerings for the Feast of Unleavened Bread were applied to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.

The later terminology that is used in Deuteronomy 16:1-8 has been greatly misrepresented and misinterpreted. The internal evidence of the Scriptures clearly shows that the commands in Deuteronomy 16:1-8 do not refer to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. These commands clearly contradict the Passover ordinances given by God at Israel’s first Passover, as recorded in Exodus 12.

The misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 16 played a key role in establishing the temple-centered 14/15 Passover as an official tradition of Judaism. From ancient times, the leaders of Judaism have taught that the commands in Deuteronomy 16:1-8 support their tradition. They also point to the templecentered Passovers of Hezekiah and Josiah as historical precedents to justify their permanent departure from the Passover ordinances in Exodus 12.

Misrepresentation of the Temple Passovers

Contrary to Judaism’s claims, the temple-centered Passovers of Hezekiah and Josiah do not show that God changed the ordinances that He had established for the Passover. In Chapters Eleven and Twelve, we thoroughly studied the Passover observances in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah. The Scriptural accounts make it quite clear that these temple-centered Passovers were observed according to the commands of King Hezekiah and King Josiah—not by the command of God. Apparently, these two kings of Judah commanded a temple sacrifice of the Passover lambs because they could not trust the people to keep a domestic Passover properly, after years of horrible idolatries and abominable Baal and Asherah worship. From the days of King Manasseh and his son Amon, the Jews had been sacrificing to pagan gods in groves on top of every green hill, and EVEN AT THE TEMPLE OF GOD! The land of Judah was filled with altars for sacrificing to pagan gods. King Josiah later destroyed all these idols and pagan places of worship. (See II Chronicles 33-35 for a detailed account.) After Josiah’s reign, the curses of war, famine and captivity were executed against the Jews, as God had warned. The captives who were taken to Babylon were preserved and prospered. (See the books of Jeremiah and Daniel.)

At the end of the seventy-year Babylonian captivity, a few thousand Jews, including priests and Levites, returned to Jerusalem and laid the foundation of the second temple in the midst of great difficulties. When the temple was finished, they kept the Passover, as recorded in Ezra 6. As we will see, the circumstances that transpired in Ezra’s time were nearly identical to those that occurred in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah. In fact, they may have been worse. After returning from the Babylonian captivity in 539 BC, the Jewish people—including many Levites and priests—were again unfaithful to God. Once again, firm leadership had to be exercised. And with the imposition of this leadership came the centralization of the Passover, which was enforced by Ezra under the authority of the king of Persia.

Ezra understood that strict control was necessary to save the Jewish people from decimation or from another harsh captivity. But this need for central authority does not change the fact that the Passover ordinances of God were still in force. No national government or human institution could change that fact. Not even the official sanction of the foremost religious leader could change the Passover ordinances of God.

While Ezra was responsible for centralizing the Passover, it is important to remember that his action was intended to protect the true worship of God. He was not acting in opposition to God’s ordinances and therefore was NOT ACTING AGAINST THE AUTHORITY OF GOD. Although Ezra restricted the observance of the Passover to the vicinity of Jerusalem, it was not restricted to the temple only. Observance of the domestic Passover was allowed in the city of Jerusalem and in the towns within the greater festival area surrounding the city.* Furthermore, the fact that Ezra endorsed the temple sacrifice of the Passover, due to the circumstances of his day, cannot be used as evidence that Ezra instituted the change to a 14/15 Passover. In his account of the temple-centered Passover that was kept by the returned exiles, Ezra makes it clear that this observance took place entirely on the 14th.

As we learned in Chapter Two of this book, they “kept” (Hebrew asah, which includes both killing and eating) the Passover on the 14th day of the first month, as commanded by God (Ezra 6:19-22). Although the lambs were slain at the temple area, they were not slain on the afternoon of the 14th. Since only a few thousand people were observing this Passover, the number of the lambs was not too great to complete the slaying within the time frame commanded by God—at the beginning of the 14th during ben ha arbayim. In recording that the temple-centered Passover in his day was observed completely on the 14th, Ezra shows that the Passover ordinances in Exodus 12 had not been forsaken.

As we examine the historical records of Ezra’s centralization of the Passover, let us keep in mind that Ezra’s motive was to preserve and uphold the laws of God. The temple-centered Passover was instituted to protect the true worship of God. It was not instituted to alter or abolish the ordinances that God had delivered to Moses.

Ezra’s Status Among the Jews and Official Authority Within the Government of the Persian Empire

Ezra held a high position among his people: “In the official [religious] hierarchy, Ezra held a double office. He was the priest, the acknowledged religious leader of his own people, the Jews of Babylonia, the ancestor of the ‘head of the exile’ in later times...” (Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, p. 304).


* When there was an extremely large number of pilgrims, the city of Jerusalem alone could not contain them. Edersheim relates, “How large the number of worshippers was, may be gathered from Josephus, who records that, when Cestius requested the high-priest to make a census, in order to convince Nero of the importance of Jerusalem and of the Jewish nation, the number of lambs slain was found to be 256,500, which...would give a population of 2,565,000, or, as Josephus himself puts it, 2,700,200 persons, while on an earlier occasion (A.D. 65) he computes the number present at not fewer than three millions. Of course, many of these pilgrims must have camped outside the city walls....It is deeply interesting that the Talmud (Pes. 53) specially mentions Bethphage and Bethany as celebrated for their hospitality towards the festive pilgrims” (The Temple, Its Ministry and Services, As They Were at the Time of Christ, p. 215 and footnote 5). These cities, and others in the vicinity of Jerusalem, were considered an extension of Jerusalem for the purpose of celebrating the festivals. The occasion of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was included in the festival area surrounding Jerusalem, hereafter referred to as “the greater festival area.”

Ezra was the “acknowledged religious leader” because he was the great-grandson of Hilkiah, who served as high priest during Josiah’s reign (Ezra 7:1, II Chron. 34:9). Ezra had inherited the right of the priesthood and was therefore leader of all the Jewish exiles, which made him the highest authority for the Jews in religious matters.

Like other leading Jews, Ezra also held a position of authority in the Persian Empire. As Olmstead relates, “Jews of Babylonia were often substantial citizens. As against the natives, they could be trusted to be loyal [to the Persian king]. Some of them were already in minor administrative positions” (Ibid., p. 304).

God granted Ezra great favor in the eyes of King Artaxerxes of Persia, who authorized him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and resettle the Jewish exiles in their own land. Shortly before Ezra was sent to Jerusalem, Mordecai, a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, was elevated to second in charge of the empire.

Jewish influence in the Persian Empire was greatly expanded after the overthrow of Haman and his co-conspirators, who had attempted to execute all Jews in the realm. As a result of God’s intervention through Esther and Mordecai, King Artaxerxes (Ahasuerus) reversed Haman’s order and instead issued orders for the execution of the enemies of the Jews throughout the empire. So powerful was this deliverance by God that many heathen in the Persian Empire converted to the Jews’ religion. (See the book of Esther.)

Before sending Ezra to Jerusalem, the king made him head of the Jews in Babylonia. As Olmstead explains, Ezra was expected to use his authority to ensure that the Jews remained loyal to the Persian Empire: “Persia was tolerant of the various ethnic religions but insisted that their cults should be well organized under responsible leadership and that religion should never mask plans for rebellion. The head of the Jewish community in Babylonia was charged with the administration of its own new lawbook, significantly named data like the king’s law; he might be expected to remain loyal to the royal lawbook [of the Persian Empire] to which he owed his authority as to that which laid down the procedure for the Jewish religion. As an officer of state, Ezra was granted unusual privileges...” (Ibid., pp. 304 -305, emphasis added).

While King Artaxerxes’ major concern was that the Jews remain loyal to his empire, Ezra’s main concern was that the Jews remain loyal to the laws of God. As Olmstead writes, “...he was also the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, or as we might say, the secretary of state of Jewish affairs, responsible to the king for his community. Though he was interested in a genuine colonization of the weak Jerusalem, his chief desire was to introduce to the Jews of Palestine the still unknown Law (Torah) of Moses as set forth in a new lawbook” (Ibid., p. 304).

When Ezra brought this new lawbook to Jerusalem, he was dispatched by the order of King Artaxerxes with the official authority of the Persian Empire. He had received a charter from the king, which included both legal and financial support to rebuild the temple and restore the former sacrifices to “the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:1-28). As the official representative of King Artaxerxes, he was granted full authority to enforce all civil and religious laws and to punish those who rebelled. Here are the final words of the king’s decree: “And now you, Ezra, after the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people who are beyond the River, all who know the laws of your God; and you teach them who do not know. And whoever will not do the law of your God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it is to death, or to exile, or to confiscation of goods, or imprisonment” (Ezra 7:25-26).

When Ezra and his company arrived in Jerusalem, they immediately set about to fulfill the king’s decree by educating the people in the laws of God. Their first step was to translate the new lawbook into Aramaic, which was the current language of the Jews: “Ezra was ready to present the new lawbook. Naturally, it was written in the ancient Hebrew, for all the sacred prescriptions were now assigned to the great lawgiver Moses; as naturally, the majority of Ezra’s hearers did not fully understand it, for they spoke the current Aramaic. Accordingly, with the first introduction of the new lawbook to the Palestinian Jews came the practice of giving a translation into the vernacular. [See Nehemiah 8.] The ‘original’ words of Moses were, of course, read in the sacred language, but the translation was spoken, and we may be sure that from the beginning a written Aramaic copy had been prepared to serve as an aid for the translators and to guarantee the accuracy of the translation” (Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, pp. 306-307).

In compiling the books of Moses into a new lawbook, Ezra was attempting to restore and preserve the knowledge of God’s laws. As part of his work, he made changes in the text to make it more understandable for the Jews of his day. It is likely that the modifications in Deuteronomy 16 were included in this editing by Ezra. Olmstead describes the profound impact of Ezra’s work:

“Day after day the reading and translation continued until the task was completed. The great work of Ezra was done. The lawbook of Moses was henceforth accepted as authoritative. Its influence cannot possibly be exaggerated. Whoever may be conjectured as the author of the lawbook, to which in fact many hands through the centuries had contributed, Ezra was rightly considered the second founder of Judaism, inferior only to Moses himself” (Ibid., p. 307).

In reintroducing God’s laws to the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, Ezra was confronted with a major problem. Contrary to God’s command in the book of Deuteronomy, many of the Jews, including a number of priests and Levites, had intermarried with the surrounding heathen nations. As the religious leader, it was Ezra’s duty to order these unfaithful Jews to put away their foreign wives. Olmstead writes, “The great work of Ezra, the introduction of the law, was completed. There remained only enforcement in detail. Of the needed reforms, the most pressing was the abolition of the mixed marriages, through all centuries the most dangerous threat to Judaism” (Ibid., p. 307). It was, in fact, these mixed marriages which led to a new threat to the true worship of God by the Jews.

Threat of the New Jewish/Samaritan Religion and Temple

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record the grievous sin of the returned exiles in again intermarrying with the people of the land. Many of the priests and rulers of the people were leaders in this unfaithfulness. After responding to Ezra’s demand with fasting and prayers of repentance, the majority of the people put away their foreign wives and returned to God’s ways. Some, however, persisted in their sin against God. Here is Nehemiah’s record of his confrontation with them: “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and from Moab. And their children spoke half Ashdod’s language and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and struck certain of them, and plucked off their hair. And I made them swear by the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons, or for yourselves. Did not Solomon, king of Israel, sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Yet even him did foreign women cause to sin. Shall we then hearken to you, to do all this great evil, to sin against our God in marrying foreign women?’

“And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite [governor of Samaria]; and I chased him from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites” (Neh. 13:23-29).

Nehemiah’s denunciation of these unfaithful Jews reveals his great anger at their callous disregard for God’s law. His greatest indignation was directed toward the priests and Levites who had sinned, as it was their responsibility to teach and uphold the laws of God. Although many of these priests took heed to his words and put away their foreign wives, a number of them refused to repent. A leading figure in this rebellion was one of the sons of the high priest. Nehemiah does not name him in his account, but Josephus records that his name was Manasseh. Manasseh, a son of the high priest Joiada, had married the daughter of Sanballat, governor of Samaria. As a son of Joiada, Manasseh was eligible to succeed his father in the office of high priest. What a dilemma this posed! If Manasseh became the next high priest, the priestly line would be polluted by foreign blood. Ezra and Nehemiah could not allow the priesthood to be corrupted. Manasseh had to be banished along with the other priests and Levites who likewise refused to put away their foreign wives.

Manasseh’s father-in-law, Sanballat, offered the renegade priests a proposition they could not refuse. Sanballat proposed that a temple be built in Samaria, like the one in Jerusalem, and that Manasseh and the other banished priests officiate at this new temple. As governor of Samaria, Sanballat had undoubtedly obtained permission from the king to build this temple. This step would prevent any accusations of rebellion against the Persian Empire or of promoting conflict between Samaria and Judea. As a result, Ezra was unable to use his own authority from the king to force Manasseh and the renegade priests in Samaria to cease and desist. Because they were beyond the power of Ezra’s civil and religious jurisdiction, the revolt of Manasseh succeeded.

Under Sanballat’s jurisdiction, a temple was built on Mount Gerizim, which was originally the Mount of Blessing for the children of Israel (Deut. 27:12). Now Samaria had a temple similar to the one in Jerusalem. Manasseh, a descendant of Aaron, was high priest, and he had a whole corps of Levites as assistant priests. They were setting up a “Moses-like religion” that would compete with the true worship of God. For their Scriptural authority, they claimed and used the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah. (See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 11, Chapters 7 and 8.) They offered the commanded sacrifices, observed the Sabbath, festivals and holy days, and fulfilled all the requirements of the Torah—with the exception of the law against intermarriage. Because they had their own temple and their own priesthood, they did not have to comply with the law against intermarriage. They were now under Sanballat’s jurisdiction, where they were safe from any interference by Ezra and Nehemiah. Through their counterfeit religion, they could begin to influence Jews everywhere in the empire.

What an alarming turn of events! What an absolute disaster this could bring! Only sixty miles north of Jerusalem was a competing religion, a new Jewish/Samaritan religion, with authentic copies of the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Because the founders of this religion had rebelled against the law of God, it was obvious that they did not respect His Word. They would not hesitate to alter the text to suit their own purposes. The Scriptures were in great danger of being corrupted.

At that time in history, there was no official text of the Word of God. The Old Testament, as we know it today, did not yet exist. The books that would become the Old Testament were written on scrolls in the ancient Hebrew script. Manasseh and the other rebel priests and Levites were using these scrolls of the books of Moses at their temple in Samaria. (To this day, the Samaritan Scriptures are written in the style of the ancient Hebrew script.) Since there was no official text of the Scriptures, Manasseh could claim that he also had the Word of God. He may even have claimed that he had the newest revelation of God in order to justify setting himself up as a high priest in competition with the priests in Jerusalem.

In order to present an appearance of authenticity and religious correctness, these Jewish/Samaritan priests apparently observed the Passover exactly as commanded in the Book of Exodus. After all, did they not profess to follow the Torah? Did it not contain the Passover instructions that God had delivered to Moses? Yes! But although they kept the Passover according to the commands of God, they were opposing God because they had broken His laws for the priesthood and had set up their own priesthood and their own religion.

To this day, the members of this Samaritan religion keep their Passover at the beginning of the 14th, in the same manner as their ancestors. The fact that this Jewish/Samaritan sect has always observed a domestic Passover indicates that the temple sacrifice of the Passover lambs was not the practice in Jerusalem when their religion was founded. The following description of their Passover confirms that it has not changed from the original domestic observance:

“They, therefore, observe Pesach exactly as it was observed two or three thousand years ago [emphasis added]....Modern historical research has proved that the Samaritans are not descendants of the heathen colonists settled in the northern kingdom by the conquerors of Samaria, as was once assumed....Actually the Samaritans of today are a small and poor remnant of an old and great Jewish sect....The only religious books that they possess, however, are the Pentateuch and Joshua....these two hundred [remnant] Samaritans observe Pesach to this day on Mount Gerizim, in a manner that other Jews ceased practising thousands of years ago. The custom of offering sacrifices has died out with the Samaritans, except on the fourteenth day of Nisan, when they offer the ceremonial Pesach sacrifice” (Schluss, The Jewish Festivals, pp. 60-61).

The founding of this Jewish/Samaritan religion posed a grave threat to the Jewish people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The rebel priesthood in Samaria was teaching the laws of the Torah and observing the Passover according to the commands of God. They professed to worship God, when in reality their temple and priesthood had been established in rebellion against God. In Jerusalem were the faithful Jews who had not rebelled, but who had remained loyal to God and had obeyed Ezra and Nehemiah. They had the true temple of God and the entire Word of God—though not yet canonized—and they worshiped in Jerusalem, the city that God had chosen. Now this small remnant of faithful Jews was in danger of being corrupted and led astray by the counterfeit religion in Samaria.

The new Samaritan religion created enormous problems for Ezra. There was great danger that this Jewish/Samaritan religion would spread to Jews in all parts of the empire. What if the Jewish people who dwelt in Jerusalem were led astray? He must take decisive action to ensure that the newly returned exiles did not bring upon themselves the divine retribution of another captivity. He must act to preserve the true worship of God.

Ezra’s Solution to the Jewish/Samaritan Threat

Only a short time after their return from the Babylonian exile, the survival of the Jewish people was again being threatened. Manasseh’s rebellion and false religion was flying in the face of God. Through the mercy of God, the Jews at Jerusalem had been granted the blessing of returning to Judea, their native land. God had also blessed them with grace and favor in the eyes of the Persian emperor, who had granted them freedom from taxation, large sums of money and supplies of gold and silver to rebuild the temple, and gifts of animals to reinstitute the sacrificial offerings to God. Now the restoration of the true worship of God was being 82 endangered by the rebellion of Manasseh and his fellow priests, and the advent of the new religion in Samaria with its competing temple service and sacrifices. If the Jewish people began to apostatize and follow this counterfeit religion, God would punish them severely. They would surely be appointed to death or captivity.

Ezra and Nehemiah had to take immediate action to pull the remnant of the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea together. They had to use their power and authority as religious leaders to preserve the true worship of God. They were confronting a competing religion, which professed to uphold the laws of Moses. Its temple stood on Mount Gerizim, the Mount of Blessing, near Jacob’s well. Something drastic had to be done, and it had to be done quickly! The true worship of God had to be protected from being corrupted by the Jewish/Samaritan religion.

To accomplish this task, Ezra and the Great Assembly began to exercise firm authority over every religious practice of the Jews. The Great Assembly supervised and regulated the temple rites and sacrifices, priestly laws, synagogue rituals, and everything associated with religion! Every religious practice had to be approved by Ezra and the Great Assembly and had to be centered at the temple in Jerusalem. Every act of worship had to be thoroughly and completely Jewish—AND ADAMANTLY ANTISAMARITAN!

In order to preserve the true worship of God, it was essential to differentiate the Scriptures of the Jerusalem Jews from the Scriptures of the Jewish/Samaritan religion. The first step was to set the Scriptures in order and canonize each book as the authentic Word of God. When this work was completed, accurate copies of the entire text had to be made and distributed to Jewish synagogues throughout the empire. Once canonized, the Word of God could be preserved for all time. Here is a summary of Ezra’s work, which was a monumental step in the development and preservation of the Old Testament for the Jewish people, and eventually for the world:

“According to Jewish tradition, five great works are ascribed to him: (1) the foundation of the ‘Great Synagogue’ [the Great Assembly], (2) the settlement of the canon of Scripture, with the threefold division into Law, Prophets, and Hagiographa [the Psalms and other Writings], (3) the substitution of the square Chaldee characters for the Hebrew and Samaritan script, (4) the compilation of Chronicles, possibly Esther, with the addition of Nehemiah’s history to his own, and (5) the establishment of synagogues” (Angus, The Bible Handbook, p. 542).

As stated above, one major task that Ezra undertook was to change all the Hebrew letters in the Scriptures of the Old Testament to the square Chaldee script, or the block style. This lettering was commonly used in the sixth century BC in Babylon and elsewhere in the Persian Empire. Ezra’s purpose in replacing the ancient script was to preserve the Word of God from being corrupted by Samaritan influences and to differentiate the official Jerusalem Scriptures from the Samaritan version. As Martin explains, “This was not done simply to facilitate the reading of the Bible but, more importantly, Ezra was able to establish at one fell swoop an official canon of the scriptures which was now (by the use of the new letter configurations) able to be distinguished from heretical Samaritan manuscripts which were written in the old Hebrew script” (The Original Bible Restored, p. 63).

As part of the canonization of the Scriptures, Ezra also edited the books which became the Old Testament. This editing included the substitution of current terminology for ancient names that were no longer in use. When old names were retained, explanatory phrases were sometimes added to identify them. These minor changes helped to update the text and make it more understandable to the people of Ezra’s day. As Martin shows, there were no major alterations to the text: “...Ezra felt that the Old Testament needed editing to allow the Jewish nation of his time to have the complete and full revelation of God in the Hebrew language. Ezra’s additions were not vast changes in the text of the Old Testament” (Ibid., p.102, emphasis added).

Ernst Wurthwein, one of the most well known experts in the text of the Old Testament, verifies the legitimacy of the alterations that were made before the text was canonized: “Before the text of the Old Testament was officially established it was not regarded as unalterable. Accordingly we should expect to find that those who were concerned with the transmission of the text would occasionally make deliberate, fully intentional alterations in the text. In evaluating these alterations we must avoid thinking of them as ‘corruptions.’ They were made in good faith, with no intention of introducing a foreign element into the text, but rather with the aim of restoring the true text and (from the copyist’s view) preventing misunderstandings. They must have originated in a period when the letter of the text could still be changed in order to express its message more effectively for its readership and audience.

“It is quite natural that a text which was not simply the object of scholarly study but intended to be read constantly by the whole of the Jewish community would be adapted to the linguistic needs of the community.... Since the wording of the text was subject to variation before it was officially established, it was also possible to substitute acceptable expressions for ones which were morally or religiously offensive” (The Text of The Old Testament, pp. 108-110).

Wurthwein adds the following statement concerning the editing that was done by Ezra and those before him: “The editorial activity which we glimpse in these deliberate alterations was in respects official, and may be traced to an early period. This is a wide field which unfortunately has not yet been examined as systematically as it deserves” (Ibid., p. 110).

Although a few alterations were made in the text of the Old Testament after its canonization, there is no question that Ezra was the one who compiled the books, edited them and canonized them. A number of books had been canonized earlier by righteous kings of Israel and Judah, but it was Ezra who established the final official text of the Old Testament. Martin writes, “Furthermore, though various suggestions as to which books David, Solomon, Hezekiah, etc. saw fit to canonize have been made in previous pages of this book, this was mainly possible because of hints given in Ezra’s book of Chronicles. It was Ezra (the ‘Second Moses’) who gave to the Jewish world the official (and final) Old Testament to be read in the Temple and synagogues. This makes the canonization by Ezra the most important of all” (The Original Bible Restored, p. 102).

In editing the text, Ezra was simply following the precedent set by Moses and Samuel, who made minor alterations and additions in the Book of the Law as necessitated by changes in terminology and national conditions. Martin describes the editing that was done by these three faithful servants of God: “Ezra’s additions were not vast changes in the text of the Old Testament. These were small edits, mostly in earlier portions of the Law. His editorial comments were mainly restricted to simple parenthetical expressions explaining to the Jews of his time the contemporary geographical names of ancient places and towns that had been changed over the years....Even Moses introduced into the ancient records geographical terms familiar to Israelites of his time (Gen. 2:14). This procedure adopted by Moses also gave Ezra the authority to do the same.

The prophet Samuel did a similar type of editing in his day....This seems certain. Samuel inserted the rules concerning the kingship into the Law of Moses—the books which were preserved in the sleeves of the Ark (see Deut. 31:26). It is evident that the Law did not contain the rules of the kingdom prior to Samuel. Note that when the people clamored for a king in Samuel’s day, they presented no appeal to the Law of Moses for support. Samuel himself was upset by the mere suggestion of having a king. Had the rules concerning the kingdom been already within the Book of Deuteronomy, there would have been no need for Samuel to express displeasure” (Ibid., pp. 102-103).

Like Moses and Samuel, Ezra’s sole purpose in editing the text was to make the Scriptures more understandable for the people of his day. When the work of editing and canonizing the Scriptures was completed, the official text was entrusted to the priests in Jerusalem for safekeeping. The Great Assembly was appointed to oversee the interpretation of the text and to settle any disputes that arose. Martin relates the following facts from the Talmud and Apocrypha: “Ezra arranged the authorized scrolls into a proper order for teaching the people and deposited them with the priests in the archives of the Temple (Deut. 17:18; 31:9). A group of 120 priests were ordained to be the Supreme Court of the land (known as the Great Assembly), of whom Ezra was the chief (Hereford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 56)” (Ibid., p. 64).

The Great Assembly was responsible for making copies of the official text of the Old Testament and distributing them to all synagogues in Judea. To protect the people from the corrupting influence of the apostate Jewish/Samaritan religion, it was necessary to have complete, officially authorized copies of the Scriptures in every synagogue in Judea and everywhere that Jews lived in the Persian Empire. Instituted at the same time was a mandatory scheduled reading of the Scriptures in the temple and the synagogues on every weekly Sabbath and every annual holy day. This mandatory reading was called the “triennial cycle” because it took three years to complete the reading of the entire Old Testament. Ezra knew that the best way to combat the counterfeit religion in Samaria was to educate the Jewish people in the officially authorized Scriptures.

As we continue our study of the Old Testament Passover, it is important to remember that the text of the Old Testament as we know it today was compiled and edited by Ezra. Although some editing may have been done by members of the Great Assembly after Ezra’s death, it is Ezra who was responsible for the final text of the Old Testament. It is Ezra who preserved the origin and history of the temple-centered Passover, giving us the only Scriptural record of the circumstances which led to the centralized observance of the Passover in the days of the kings of Judah.

Ezra Reveals Origin of Temple-Centered Passover

Ezra’s accounts in the second book of Chronicles are the only Scriptures that reveal the origin of the temple-centered Passover observance. Only Ezra records the details of the epochal Passovers of Hezekiah and Josiah. In the account of Hezekiah’s reign in II Kings 18-20, there is not one reference to the observance of the Passover. While the Passover of Josiah is briefly mentioned in II Kings 23, it is not described in detail. Without Ezra’s accounts in II Chronicles 30 and 35, we would know nothing whatsoever of Hezekiah’s Passover, and we would not know that Josiah’s Passover was centered at the temple.

When we examine Ezra’s accounts of these two temple-centered observances, we find a revealing change in the usage of the term “Passover.” In his account of Hezekiah’s Passover, Ezra states, “And they killed the Passover, on the fourteenth day of the second month” (II Chron. 30:15, JPSA). Later in this account, he describes the offerings for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which he refers to as “peace-offerings”:

“And the children of Israel that were present at Jerusalem kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with great gladness....And they ate the appointed things seven days, offering peace offerings and making confession to the LORD God of their fathers” (II Chron. 30:21-22).

When we compare this account with the account of Josiah’s Passover in II Chronicles 35, we find a distinct difference in terminology. This change reflects the later practice of the Jews. Notice: “And Josiah gave to the people from the flocks, lambs and kids, all for the Passover offerings, for all who were present, to the number of thirty thousand, and three thousand oxen....And his princes...for the Passover offerings two thousand six hundred sheep, and three hundred oxen.... [The] chiefs of the Levites gave...for Passover offerings five thousand sheep, and five hundred oxen” (II Chron. 35:7-9).

As the account shows, the Passover offerings included offerings from the herd—bullocks and oxen—which were bovine and therefore could never be used for the Passover sacrifice itself. Since the sacrifice for the Passover was taken only from the sheep or the goats, it is obvious that these Passover offerings were not for the Passover observance on the night of the 14th. However, Ezra makes a clear distinction between the sacrifice of the Passover lambs killed at the temple on the day portion of the 14th, and the later Passover offerings: “...And they killed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month....And Josiah gave...for the Passover offerings... three thousand oxen” (II Chron. 35:1, 7).

These “Passover offerings” were actually peace offerings for the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Ezra confirms this fact by calling these same offerings “peace offerings” in II Chronicles 30:22. Although he uses the original term for these offerings in this earlier account, he chose to use the terminology of his own day in the account in II Chronicles 35. This account is the last Scriptural record of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread before the Babylonian captivity. By using the terminology of his day, Ezra helped the returned exiles to link their observance of this eight-day festival with its observance by their ancestors in the kingdom of Judah.

The terminology that Ezra uses in II Chronicles 35 is the same terminology that we find in Deuteronomy 16. The offerings that are commanded in Deuteronomy 16 are also referred to as Passover offerings and include sacrifices from the herd as well as the flock: “And you shall therefore sacrifice the Passover offering to the LORD your God, of the flock and the herd....You may not sacrifice the Passover offering within any of your shall sacrifice the Passover offering...” (Deut. 16:2, 5, 6).

The fact that the terminology in Deuteronomy 16 is identical to the terminology in II Chronicles 35 points directly to editing by Ezra. As II Chronicles is the final book in the Hebrew Scriptures, so Deuteronomy 16 is the final book in the Pentateuch, or Book of the Law. By replacing the ancient terminology in Deuteronomy 16 with the current terminology of the Jews, Ezra established an additional link for the people of his day. They could trace their Passover practice not only to the time of the kingdom of Judah, but to the days of Moses and the giving of the Law.

The Jews of Ezra’s day did not confuse the “Passover offering” with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, because they were accustomed to calling the Feast of Unleavened Bread by the name “Passover.” They knew that the commands for the “peace offerings” in Deuteronomy 16 did not fit God’s commands for the Passover in Exodus 12. The Passover sacrifice was taken only from the flock and commemorated the Lord’s passing over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, sparing their firstborn.

Those who claim that the term “Passover offering” refers to the Passover lambs are ignoring the Scriptural facts. The context in which this term is used in Deuteronomy 16 clearly shows that it does not refer to the Passover sacrifice itself, but to the peace offerings that began on the following night—the “night to be much observed.” Ezra’s use of the term “Passover offering” in II Chronicles 35 verifies this fact. It is also confirmed by his account in II Chronicles 30, in which he uses the term “peace offering” for the same offerings. This synonymous use of the terms “Passover offering” and “peace offering” shows that these sacrifices were offered on the night of the 15th, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Because the term “passover” may refer to observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the meaning of this term in any passage must be determined by the context in which it is used. A careful examination of the context will reveal whether the word “passover” refers to the observance of the 14th, the Passover day, or to the observance of the 15th.

Let us apply this rule to a verse in the book of Joshua that has been used to promote the teaching of a 15th Passover: “And the children of Israel camped in Gilgal and kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening [ba erev, or sunset]...” (Joshua 5:10).

This observance took place at the end of the forty years of wandering, after the children of Israel had crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. The advocates of a 15th Passover argue that this verse is describing a late 14/early 15 Passover observance. They claim that the lambs were slain on the afternoon of the 14th and were eaten after sunset, when the 15th day began. Let us examine this argument in the light of the Hebrew text.

Joshua records that the children of Israel “kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening.” The word “kept” is translated from the Hebrew word asah, which means to “observe” or “celebrate” (Brown, Drivers, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament). The words “at evening” are translated from the Hebrew ba erev, which means “at sunset.” Since sunset lasts for only a few minutes, it was not possible for the children of Israel to “keep” (asah) the Passover by killing and eating it during the time that Joshua records in his account. It is apparent that ba erev is designating the point in time at which the observance began. The children of Israel began to observe this Passover at sunset—not in the afternoon hours of the day, as the advocates of a 15th Passover claim.

As we learned in Chapter Four, each day begins and ends at sunset, or ba erev. To determine whether the sunset in Joshua 5:10 occurred at the beginning of the 14th or the beginning of the 15th, we must examine the context.

In the previous chapter, Joshua records that the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land on the 10th day of the first month (Josh. 4:19). On this same day, God required all the males who had been born in the wilderness to be circumcised (Josh. 5:2-7). This was necessary because the Passover day was nearing, and no uncircumcised male was permitted to eat of it. (Ex. 12:48). The newly circumcised men of Israel rested in the camp until they were whole (verse 8). Verse 10 records the observance of the Passover “on the fourteenth day at evening.” Verse 11 states that on the day after this Passover, the children of Israel ate unleavened bread made of the harvest of the land. Verse 12 records that the manna ceased on the day after they ate of the harvest. For a technical exegesis of Joshua 5:10, see Appendix O.

When we examine the sequence of events in Joshua’s account, it is evident that he is relating the observance of Israel’s first Passover in the Promised Land, which was kept entirely on the 14th day of the first month, as commanded by God in Exodus 12. On the following day, the children of Israel began their observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The fact that they ate unleavened grain which was harvested from the land shows that the first day of this feast was the Wave Sheaf Day. (A detailed chronology of the events in Joshua 4 and 5 is presented in the booklet Understanding God’s Command for the Wave Sheaf by Dwight Blevins, published by the Christian Biblical Church of God.)

When we let the Scriptures interpret the Scriptures, there is no doubt as to when the Passover in Joshua 5:10 was observed. The use of ba erev shows that this observance of the Passover did not begin in the afternoon of the 14th. It was not observed partly on the 14th and partly on the 15th, but was both sacrificed and eaten on the 14th day of the month.

The Passover was not combined with the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Joshua’s day, nor were the two feasts combined by Ezra. Although Ezra authorized a temple-centered Passover, he did not reduce the observance of the two feasts from the original total of eight days to seven days. His account of the first temple-centered observance by the returned exiles shows that the Passover was kept on the 14th day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread was kept for seven additional days (Ezra 6:18-22).

The fact that Ezra restricted the observance of the Passover to the greater festival area of Jerusalem does not mean that he authorized changing the Passover from the 14th to the 15th, as some claim. His “new Passover law” was not intended to replace or abolish the domestic observance of the Passover with a temple sacrifice of the lambs on the afternoon of the 14th. Ezra’s records of the early temple-centered Passovers in Old Testament times reveal that this practice was not instituted by God, but by the kings of Judah. It was not officially adopted by Judaism until more than a thousand years after the Passover in Egypt.

Although the destruction of the temple ended all centralized Passover observances, as we will see, the Diaspora Jews could not keep the Passover on the 14th day of the first month. The modern remnant of the early temple-centered Passover is the 15th Seder meal, which is now the accepted Jewish tradition. The leaders of Judaism claim that this tradition follows the command of God. But a 15th Passover observance IS NOT COMMANDED IN THE SCRIPTURES AND CANNOT BE JUSTIFIED BY THE SCRIPTURES! No 14/15 Passover observance can be made to harmonize with the ordinances of God as recorded in Exodus 12, regardless of how clever the argument is. The 14/15 Passover does not carry the authority of God!

Why Ezra Centralized the Passover and Enforced the New Law Throughout the Empire

Ezra knew that the temple-centered Passover, which was originally instituted by the kings of Judah, could not replace the ordinances of God. But he also knew that God had accepted the temple-centered Passovers in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah due to the unfaithfulness of the Jews in those times. In view of the rebellion of Manasseh and his co-conspirators, it is not surprising that Ezra decided to centralize the Passover at Jerusalem.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate that the observance of the Passover was restricted to Jerusalem and the greater festival area because of the apostatizing of the Jews and the establishment of the competing Jewish/ Samaritan religion by Manasseh. In order to combat this counterfeit religion, Ezra forbade the offering of any sacrifices to God except at the temple in Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, he also restricted the domestic killing of the Passover lambs to the vicinity of Jerusalem. This command was called “the new Passover law.” To stop the Jewish/Samaritan rebellion from spreading, Ezra used the power granted by the Persian Empire to enforce this law. Thus the true worship of God was preserved by a remnant of faithful Jews and was passed down to New Testament times.

There are solid historical records which document the centralizing of the Passover at Jerusalem by Ezra. The following evidence dates back to the time of the Persian Empire: “Discovery of archives from a Jewish mercenary colony [Jewish mercenary soldiers in the Persian army] near the first Egyptian cataract [in southern Egypt] was truly sensational. Here were the closest parallels in language and in style to the Aramaic of Ezra. Rescripts from Persian kings were cited in Ezra [the letters from King Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:11-26]; Old Testament critics had declared them unauthentic, but now there was ample proof that the critics themselves were in the wrong. For comparison with these once-disputed decrees, there was now still another [empirical Persian decree by Darius Hystaspes], where a later monarch enforced compliance by these distant Jewish heretics [the mercenary colony at the Egyptian first cataract] with the recently promulgated Passover Law” (Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, p. x, Preface).

At Elephantine in southern Egypt, a colony of apostate Levites had built another competing temple where animal sacrifices were being offered. This additional competition added to the problems that Ezra was facing in his efforts to combat the Samaritan heresy. To stem these apostate religions, Ezra used the powers that Artaxerxes had granted him to enforce the new law—that all animal sacrifices, including the Passover lambs, be restricted to Jerusalem and its environs. This edict was proclaimed to the Jewish colony at Elephantine: “Through the satrap Arsames, as announced to the mercenaries at Elephantine by a certain Hananiah [brother of Nehemiah], the king sent...a rescript enforcing the Passover celebration according to the lawbook recently introduced into Judah by Ezra” (Ibid., p. 358, emphasis added).

Those at Elephantine apparently did not comply with the edict to cease offering sacrifices at their temple, and after nine years the temple was destroyed by the Egyptians: “Egyptian support had eventually been secured by a promise to destroy the Jewish temple, so offensive to popular sentiments because of its animal sacrifices. Nephayan led out his Egyptian and other standards. The temple was razed to the ground, its stone pillars were broken, its five gateways of cut stone were torn down, its doors (whose hinges were shod with bronze) and its roof of cedar were burned, and its gold and silver utensils were looted” (Ibid., pp.364-365).

For three years the Jews at Elephantine tried to rebuild their temple, even appealing to Ezra in Jerusalem for help, which of course was in vain. The destruction of that temple had solved a great problem for Ezra and Nehemiah. The Jewish leaders of Elephantine also appealed to Sanballat to assist in the rebuilding, but Sanballat was not able to help (Ibid., pp. 366-367).

These records confirm the institution and enforcement of the “new Passover law,” which centralized the Passover at Jerusalem and prohibited any sacrifices at other locations in the Persian Empire. The “new Passover law” made it mandatory for those who were still living in exile to travel to Jerusalem in order to sacrifice the Passover. Thus, for those who were living in exile, any observance of the 14th was eliminated. This strict prohibition against sacrificing the Passover in a land of exile led to the practice of using a token shank bone for the Jewish Passover meal. This meal was named the Seder and was eaten on the 15th day of the first month—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Seder eventually replaced the observance of the 14th Passover even by Jews who were living in the land of Israel. The Jews today no longer recognize the 14th as the Passover day but refer to the 15th as “the first day of Passover.”

Although it was called the “new Passover law,” Ezra’s prohibition against observing the Passover in foreign lands was not new at all. From the time that the ancestors of the Jews entered the Promised Land, they were forbidden to observe the Passover in other lands. This command was included in the ordinances of the Passover, as recorded in Numbers 9. In imposing the “new Passover law,” Ezra was simply upholding the ordinance that God had delivered to Moses.

In the next chapter, we will examine the Scriptures concerning this ordinance in the book of Numbers, and we will learn why those who were in exile were forbidden to observe the Passover. As we will see, those who were exiled not only were separated from their land but were also removed from the covenant relationship with God.