Book: The Christian Passover

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By restricting the Passover to Jerusalem and its environs, Ezra established a standard that became a permanent practice among the Jews. This restrictive measure, which was instituted to prevent idolatry, focused on Jerusalem and the temple of God as the center of the true worship of God under the Old Covenant. The book of Ezra records the first Passover to be observed after the dedication of the second temple. Although the Passover was centered at the temple, the lambs were slain at the beginning of the 14th and were eaten on the night of the 14th (Ezra 6:19-21).

In later temple-centered observances, the lambs were slain late on the 14th and were not eaten until the night of the 15th. Although the temple sacrifice in the afternoon of the 14th became a widespread tradition, it did not wholly replace the domestic sacrifice of the lambs at the beginning of the 14th. Some Jews continued to observe the domestic Passover as commanded in the Scriptures, and others kept the temple-centered Passover as sanctioned by the religious authorities. The records of Scripture and history show that the two practices existed side by side.

It is important to understand that Ezra’s decree did not change the time for killing the Passover lambs. His Passover law did not in any way alter or contradict the Passover ordinances of God, as recorded in Scripture. The measures that Ezra enforced were aimed at protecting the true worship of God and upholding His laws—not changing or replacing them. His restriction of the Passover to the area of Jerusalem promoted a templecentered observance, but it did not replace or prohibit the domestic killing of the Passover within that area.

In the previous chapter, we learned that Ezra’s “new Passover law” was based on God’s command in Numbers 9. As high priest, Ezra had full authority to interpret the Scriptural commands for observing the Passover. His Passover decree was accepted as a religious law for all Jews, as were the decisions of other high priests. This law was enforced by the Great Assembly, which was founded by Ezra and Nehemiah to oversee the religious practices of the people. As the leading authority in religious matters, the Great Assembly maintained unity and stability in the religion of the Jews for more than two centuries. However, the rule of the Great Assembly was undermined by the rise of Hellenism in the 300’s BC.

Hellenism was introduced by the Greeks in the days of Alexander the Great. The Greeks actively promoted their Hellenistic beliefs in the lands that they dominated. The spread of Hellenism among the Jews was curbed for a time by the influence of Simon the Just, who was high priest in the last years of the Great Assembly. As the last of the Sopherim—the great teachers of the law—Simon was held in high esteem by all Jews. With his death, the rule of the Great Assembly came to a close, and Hellenism became the dominant influence in the lives of the people. Its impact on the Jewish community led to major changes in the teachings of the religious leaders.

Dr. Lauterbach, a Jewish historian, describes the changes that occurred during this period: “Thus we see that after the death of Simon the Just, the conditions of the community and as a result thereof the activities of the teachers differed greatly from those that obtained in the times of the Soferim [the teachers of the Great Assembly]” (Rabbinic Essays, p. 200). The priests and Levites were no longer teaching the laws of God that had been so diligently upheld and enforced by the Sopherim of the Great Assembly. Under the domination of Hellenism, the priesthood had lost its authority. In the religious confusion that followed, a great number of lay teachers arose: “But when the authority of the High-Priest as the ruler of the community was gone, and the priestly teachers also lost their official authority.... Since there was no official body of teachers to decide authoritatively all religious matters, the pious [lay] man who cared for the Law had to be his own religious authority....These new [lay] teachers soon claimed for themselves the religious authority which was formerly the prerogative of the priests” (Ibid, pp. 198-199).

These self-styled teachers had not been trained in the Scriptures and did not know how to accurately interpret the wording in the Hebrew text. As a result, they introduced so many different interpretations of the Law that a state of anarchy developed in the religious life of the Jews: “There prevailed a state of religious anarchy, wherein the practical life of the people was not controlled by the law of the fathers as interpreted by the religious authorities, nor were the activities of the teachers carried on in an official way by an authoritative body. This chaotic state of affairs lasted for a period of about eighty years...” (Ibid. p. 200).

The religious chaos that prevailed among the Jews left the door open to major advances by Hellenism. At this time in history, Palestine was dominated by the Egyptians, who had developed their own form of Hellenism. For an entire century, 301 BC to 198 BC, Palestine was under the control of the Egyptians. Many Egyptian religious customs were adopted by the Jews and are still taught and practiced in Judaism today. Some of these pagan religious practices were recorded by the historian Herodotus during a visit to Egypt in the fifth century BC. The Egyptian customs that Herodotus describes are strikingly similar to the practices of Orthodox Jews today. These practices include drinking from pots and pans which have been scoured every day, shaving the whole body, and religiously bathing twice daily. Herodotus writes, “They are religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men, and use the following ceremonies: they drink out of brazen cups, which they scour every day: there is no exception to this practice. They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always [been] fresh washed. They practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely. The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods....They bathe twice every day in cold water, and twice each night; besides they observe, so to speak, thousands of ceremonies” (Book II, pp. 37-41). The Egyptians had a countless number of such practices. Many of these practices became part of Judaism and were carried down to the time of Jesus Christ. He strongly condemned these self-righteous rituals as vain traditions of men (Mark 7:1-9).

Among the religious practices that the Jews adopted during the Egyptian domination was a change in the timing of the Passover observance. This change was introduced because the Egyptian calendar, which is based strictly on the solar cycle, begins the day with sunrise—unlike the Hebrew calendar, which begins the day at sunset. In addition, the months of the Hebrew calendar are regulated by the lunar cycle and may vary in number, whereas the Egyptian months are fixed divisions in the solar year: “The substitution of solar for lunar months was the earliest change in the Egyptian year....The day was divided into twelve [hours] and the night into as many hours. The first hour of the day commenced with the dawn, so that the hours could not originally have been of equal length; at the Ptolemaic period the hour was subdivided into minutes and seconds” (Wilkinson, The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, Vol. II, p. 368).

Although the Jews retained the lunar calendar, they embraced the Egyptian method of reckoning the day from sunrise to sunrise, instead of the Scriptural method of reckoning the day from sunset to sunset. Solomon Zeitlin acknowledges that the Jews have not been consistent in their method of calculating the day: “To ascertain when the Jewish day began we must clear up various matters about the Jewish calendar. If the calendar were solar [as it was during the Egyptian domination], the day began with dawn; the year began with the spring or after the winter equinox. If the calendar was lunar, the day began either when the sun set or when the stars became visible” (The Jewish Quarterly Review, 1946, pp. 403-404).


For those Jews who reckoned the day from sunrise to sunrise, the 14th day of the first month began twelve hours later than by Scriptural reckoning. The Jews who kept the Passover at this later time were actually observing the 15th, according to Scriptural reckoning, although it was designated as the 14th day of the month by Egyptian reckoning. After the Egyptian domination ended, the Jews went back to reckoning the day from sunset to sunset, but the influence of the Egyptian practice had a lasting effect by contributing to the development of a 15th Passover.

By this period of history, the worship of the Jews had become so polluted with pagan teachings and practices that God allowed the desecration of the temple and its altar by Antiochus Epiphanes. In 169-168 BC, he plundered and ransacked the temple, offered swine on the altar of God, and poured swine’s blood in the holy place. This desecration is known among the Jews as an abomination that desolated the temple.

After this historic desecration, the temple was not restored for three and a half years. Because no temple sacrifices could be offered during this time, the Passover could only be kept as a domestic observance. All Jews who desired to keep the Passover were obliged to kill their own lambs at home, as commanded by God in Exodus 12. The Jews of that time were well acquainted with God’s commands for the Passover. The official, authorized Scriptures were available in every synagogue for every Jew to read and verify the commands for the domestic sacrifice of the Passover. For those Jews who desired to obey God, the only Passover that could be observed was the domestic Passover, since the temple was not in service for any sacrificing. Even after the restoration of the temple, the domestic Passover remained the predominant observance. Historical information provided by Philo indicates that it was more widely observed among the Jews in New Testament times than was the temple sacrifice of the Passover.

Philo Records Domestic Observance of Passover

Philo was a Jewish philosopher who wrote at the time of the compilation of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. His writings describe the Passover as observed in New Testament times. Here is what he records: “...the day called by the Hebrews in their own tongue, the Pasch [Passover], on the which the whole people sacrifice, every member of them, WITHOUT WAITING FOR THE PRIESTS, because the law has granted to the whole nation for one special day in every year the right of priesthood and of performing the sacrifice themselves” (Philo, De Decalogue, p. 159, emphasis added).

This historical record confirms that the Jews of New Testament times were still practicing the domestic Passover, as commanded in the ordinances that God delivered to Moses. In another book, Philo records the following about the Jews’ observance of the Passover: “After the New Moon comes the fourth feast called the crossing-feast, which the Hebrews in their native tongue call Pascha [Passover]. In this festival many myriads of victims are offered—by the whole people, old and young alike, raised for that particular day to the dignity of the priesthood. For at other times the priests according to the ordinance of the law carry out both the public sacrifices (evening and morning) and those offered by private individuals. But on this occasion the whole nation performs the sacred rites and acts as priest...” (Philo, De Spec., Leg. II, p. 146, emphasis added).

Ignoring the evidence of history, some claim that there was no domestic observance of the Passover in New Testament times. But Philo could not have described the domestic observance of the Passover if he had not seen it being practiced by the Jews of his day. His graphic eyewitness account of the Jews’ practice shows that the Passover lambs were being killed by the people and not by the priests.

Philo’s records give us firm historical evidence that at the time of Jesus, and shortly after, there was widespread observance of the domestic Passover. Furthermore, the lack of any reference by Philo to the temple sacrifice of the Passover lambs indicates that the domestic sacrifice was the predominant practice. As we will see, the temple sacrifice of the Passover was practiced by only a small minority of Jews in New Testament times. Because of the vast number of lambs required for the Passover in Jesus’ day, it was not possible for the priests at the temple to kill all the lambs during the allotted time. It was therefore necessary for most of the lambs to be killed at houses and inns in Jerusalem and in neighboring cities within the greater festival area. Joachim Jeremias explains why the Passover observance was extended to the area surrounding Jerusalem:

“...It is highly improbable that the huge crowds drawn into Jerusalem by the feasts could all find rooms inside the city walls. Some might stay in nearby places like Bethphage or Bethany, where Jesus found shelter during his last stay in Jerusalem....The majority of pilgrims, however, had to have tents in the immediate neighbourhood of the city, since at Passover time it was still very cold at night and there could be no question of sleeping out in the open. Actually we have evidence of Festival pilgrims camping out at night....However, the participants in the Passover feast were obliged to spend the Passover night (14-15 Nisan) [which was actually “the night to be much observed”—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread] in Jerusalem. The city itself could not take the crowd of pilgrims, and so that they could fulfill the law the boundaries of Jerusalem were extended to take in even Bethphage (M. Men. xi.2)” (Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus, p. 61, emphasis added).

Although the domestic Passover was the prevailing practice in New Testament times, the temple sacrifice of the Passover was firmly established among the Pharisaic Jews. The Pharisees observed a 14/15 Passover, taking their lambs to the temple to be sacrificed on the afternoon of the 14th and eating their Passover meal on the 15th. The temple sacrifice of the Passover, as observed by the Pharisaic Jews, later became an official tradition of Judaism. This tradition was practiced until the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Some claim that Jesus and His disciples conformed to the traditional temple sacrifice of the Passover. But the New Testament records that Jesus kept the Passover the night before the traditional temple observance. The Gospel accounts of His last Passover make it abundantly clear that it was a domestic observance on the night of the 14th. The disciples Peter and John were commanded by Jesus to prepare a Passover lamb that was killed at the house, or inn, where they kept the Passover (Luke 22:8). Based on the Gospel records, we can conclude that the domestic sacrifice of the Passover and the temple sacrifice of the Passover were existing side by side.

Josephus Documents Change in the Meaning of the Word “Passover”

The temple-centered 14/15 Passover was substantially different from the domestic 14th Passover, both in the manner of observance and in the meaning of the day. To justify the temple sacrifice of the Passover, a new interpretation was applied to the ordinances of God. God’s commands to keep the Passover on the 14th were misinterpreted to mean that only the killing of the lambs was required to be done on the 14th, and the time of the sacrifice was changed from the beginning of the 14th to the afternoon of the 14th. The effect of killing the lambs at the temple on the afternoon of the 14th was to move the Passover meal from the night of the 14th to the night of the 15th. For Jews who observed the traditional temple-centered Passover, keeping the Passover on the 14th meant nothing more than killing the lambs at the temple. They did not complete their observance on the Passover day because the lambs were not roasted and eaten until the night of the 15th.

The temple sacrifice of the Passover ended when the temple was destroyed in AD 70. Recognition of the 14th day as the day that God had ordained for the Passover was essentially eliminated from Jewish practice. The sacrifice of the Passover lambs was officially replaced by the 15th Jewish Seder meal. Since the Seder meal was called the Passover but was eaten on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the separate meaning of the two days and the two feasts was lost.

The transition to a single observance is documented by Josephus’ contrasting descriptions of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In these accounts, Josephus shows that there was a change from the separate designation of the two feasts, which originally totaled eight days. His narration is most revealing: “...But when the fourteenth day was come, and all were ready to depart, they offered the sacrifice, and purified their houses with the blood, using a bunch of hyssop for that purpose; and when they had supped, they burnt the remainder of the flesh, as just ready to depart. Whence it is that we do still offer this sacrifice in like manner to this day, and call this festival Pascha, which signifies the feast of the passover, because on that day God passed us over, and sent the plague upon the Egyptians; for the destruction of the first-born came upon the Egyptians that night...” (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 11, Ch. XIV, Sec. 6, emphasis added).

In this narration of Exodus 12, Josephus clearly depicts the Passover as commemorating the event of God’s passing over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, and he calls this commemorative observance the festival of “Pascha,” or Passover. He does not call the Feast of Unleavened Bread the “Passover” at this point. In the next section of his exposition, after his narration of the Exodus itself, we find this statement about the entire eight days: “Whence it is that, in memory of the want we were in, we keep a feast for eight days, which is called the feast of unleavened bread” (Ibid., Ch. XV, Sec. 1, emphasis added). Here he includes the Passover day with the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, making a total of eight days.

These two accounts by Josephus show that the terms “Passover” and “Feast of Unleavened Bread” were beginning to be used interchangeably, although the two observances were entirely different in their meaning. Josephus’ accounts show that the original distinction between the two feasts was beginning to be blurred. The following narration reflects the change in the usage and meaning of the term “Passover”: “Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called Passover, and is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt...” (Ibid., Bk. XVII, Ch. IX, Sec. 3, emphasis added).

Recounting the same event in Wars of The Jews, Josephus again records the change in terminology: “And indeed, at the feast of unleavened bread, which was now at hand, and is called by the Jews the Passover...” (Bk. II, Ch. I, Sec. 3, emphasis added).

Josephus’ writings clearly show that the Jews had renamed the Feast of Unleavened Bread “the Passover.” This was common terminology in Josephus’ day. The meaning of the name had shifted from God’s “passing over” the children of Israel on the night of the 14th to their Exodus from Egypt on the night of the 15th. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was probably first called Passover in the days of Josiah (II Chron. 35:7-9). Ezra, who recorded this terminology in II Chronicles 35, also edited Deuteronomy 16 to reflect this same usage.

Although the Jews of Ezra’s time used this terminology, they recognized and observed the 14th as the day that God had ordained for the Passover. However, this knowledge was lost to later generations of Jews, who observed only a seven-day festival. In the Mishnah—rabbinical writings which were compiled by the third century AD—we find a seven-day Passover observance codified. Its acceptance as a law of Judaism is justified by reinterpreting the meaning of the command in Deuteronomy 16:3: “ days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith...” (JPSA).

As we learned in Chapter Fourteen of this book, the word “with it” in this verse is referring to the sacrifices of the flock and of the herd, which are described in Verse 2. These sacrifices, which were offered during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, were originally called peace offerings (II Chron. 30:21-22, 24). Verse 3 adds to the command in Verse 2 by stating that with those sacrifices, which were renamed “passover-offerings,” the children of Israel were to eat unleavened bread for seven days. These verses are referring only to the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Ignoring the true meaning of these verses, the writers of the Mishnah have perpetuated the Jewish misinterpretion of Deuteronomy 16:3 as referring to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb: “What is the difference between the Passover offering in Egypt and the Passover offering of succeeding generations? The Passover offering in Egypt had to be acquired on the tenth and required the sprinkling with a bunch of hyssop upon the lintel and upon the two door-posts and was eaten in haste during one night, but the Passover of all succeeding generations had to be observed throughout seven days” (Pes. 9:5, emphasis added).

As the writers of the Mishnah expressly state, the traditional Passover of the Jews does not conform to the Passover ordinances that God delivered to Moses. In fact, this tradition of Judaism rejects the commandments of God, even as Jesus said (Mark 7:9).

Records of the Passover Sacrifice at the Temple

After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, there was great danger that all knowledge of the sacrifices and ritual services of the temple might be lost. When it became obvious that the Jews would not be able to rebuild the temple in the foreseeable future, the leading rabbis began to record the details of the temple and its services. Their writings, which were codified and preserved in the Mishnah, are the only descriptions we have of the services that were performed by the priests at the temple. Much of this information had been handed down orally and was reconstructed from memory.

The Mishnah gives a detailed account of the temple sacrifice of the Passover. These records show the enormity of the task that the priests were required to perform. Most people today have no knowledge at all of what is involved in slaughtering great numbers of animals. Today, nearly all of us go to a supermarket where we buy our meat neatly cut and packaged, ready to take home and prepare. Because our modern society has left us totally lacking in the knowledge of animal slaughter, the records in the Mishnah can help us understand how the slaughtering of thousands of Passover lambs was accomplished.

The Mishnah also provides insight into the schedule for killing the Passover lambs at the temple. In the traditional Jewish Passover, the lambs were sacrificed during the afternoon hours of the 14th day of the first month. However, the sacrificing of the lambs did not always begin at the same hour of the day. If the Passover day fell on the sixth day of the week, the sacrificing of the lambs began one hour earlier in order to be completed before the Sabbath. Although the time to begin sacrificing the Passover lambs could vary, it always followed the daily burnt-offering: “The daily burntoffering was slaughtered at the eighth hour and a half and offered up at the ninth hour and a half; but on the eve of Passover it was slaughtered at the seventh hour and a half and offered up at the eighth hour and a half, whether on a weekday or on the Sabbath. When the eve of Passover fell on the eve of the Sabbath, it was slaughtered at the sixth hour and a half and offered up at the seventh hour and a half, and the Passover sacrifice after it” (Pes. 5:1).

The following record in the Mishnah shows the Jewish interpretation of the Passover commands in Exodus 12. In the traditional Jewish Passover, the slaughtering of the lambs was carried out by three successive courses of men. This traditional practice replaced the commanded slaughter of the lambs by the whole congregation of the children of Israel after assembling by families at their individual homes. To justify their traditional practice, the rabbis applied their own interpretation to key words in the Scriptural command. While the Scriptural command in the Pentateuch remained the same, its meaning was changed from the original intent of God into a totally different interpretation. That is how non-Scriptural Jewish traditions have been made to sound Scriptural, when in fact they are not! Notice how subtly this Jewish misinterpretation of Scripture is presented in the following record from the Mishnah: “The Paschal lamb was slain in three parties, as Scripture says, And all the assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slay it—assembly (and) congregation, and Israel. [This statement shows how the Passover ordinance was misinterpreted to fit Jewish tradition; the command in Exodus 12:6 that all Israel kill the lambs at the same time was transformed and made to fit the three courses for sacrificing the paschal lamb at the temple.] When the first group [assembly] had entered, the forecourt was filled; they closed the doors of the forecourt; they sounded the [sustained quavering sound—of the silver trumpet;] the priests stood row upon row and in their hands were dishes [bowls] of silver and dishes [bowls] of gold; the whole of one row had silver ones, and all in the other had golden ones; they were not mingled; and the basins had no rims lest they set them down and the blood congealed” (Ibid., 5:5, emphasis added).

In the following description from the Mishnah, notice that God’s command for the head of the household to slay the lamb at home has been altered to fit the temple sacrifice of the lambs: “An Israelite might slay it [footnote: “A layman or non-priest, was allowed, if he desired the honour, to perform the slaughtering in the case of all sacrifices.”]; and the priest received it [the blood] and handed it on to his fellow [priest] and this one to his next fellow [priest]. He took hold of the full one [bowl of blood] and returned the empty one. The priest nearest to the Altar sprinkled [tossed or slung the blood] in one act against the base” (Ibid., 5:6).

Although three courses were allotted for the temple sacrifice of the Passover, the number of the lambs slain in the last course was generally smaller: “When the first group [assembly] went out, the second group [congregation] came in. When the second [congregation] left, the third [Israel] entered. Just as the first had done, so did the second and third. They [the Levitical singers] recited the Hallel [footnote: “Psalms 113-118 thus designated were sung while the slaughtering was proceeding, and it was repeated if the animals were many and much time was taken up.”]; if they finished it they repeated it, and if the repetition were completed they recited it a third time, although it never occurred in their days to have had to recite it a third time [we are not told how long each recitation took]. R. Judah says, It never happened even when the third group went in that they ever reached as far as I love the Eternal for He heareth [Psa. 116:1] because its number was few” (Ibid., 5:7, emphasis added).

This record shows that the number of lambs killed in the third course was below the maximum that could have been sacrificed. In some years, the number of lambs was so small that the third course was not needed, and only the first and second courses entered the area where the lambs were slaughtered. In other years, the third course went in, but only for a short time because most of the lambs had been sacrificed in the first two courses. Later, we will see reliable estimates of the number of men and priests that could assemble in the Court of the Men of Israel, the area at the temple where the lambs were slaughtered.

In his book The Temple, Its Ministry and Services, as They Were in the Time of Christ, Alfred Edersheim gives the following account of the sacrifice of the Passover: “On the occasion to which we refer the evening sacrifice had been slain at 1:30, and offered at 2:30. But before the incense was burned or the lamps were trimmed, the Paschal sacrifice had to be offered. It was done on this wise: The first of the three festive divisions, with their Paschal lambs, was admitted within the Court of the Priests. Each division must consist of not less than thirty persons (3 X 10, the symbolical number of the Divine and of completeness). Immediately the massive gates were closed behind them. The priests drew a threefold blast from their silver trumpets when the Passover was slain. Altogether the scene was most impressive. All along the Court up to the altar of burnt-offering priests stood in two rows, the one holding golden, the other silver bowls. In these the blood of the Paschal lambs, which each Israelite slew for himself (as representative of his company at the Paschal Supper), was caught up by a priest, who handed it to his colleague, receiving back an empty bowl, and so the bowls with the blood were passed up to the priest at the altar, who jerked it in one jet at the base of the altar. While this was going on, a most solemn ‘hymn’ of praise was raised, the Levites leading in song, and the offerers either repeating after them or merely responding. Every first line of a Psalm was repeated by the people, while each of the others they responded by ‘Hallelujah,’ or ‘Praise ye the Lord.’ This service of song consisted of the so-called ‘Hallel,’ which comprised Psalms cxiii to cxviii” (page 223).

The Mishnah adds these details about the slaughtering of the lambs: “How did they suspend and flay [them]? Hooks of iron were fixed into the walls and into the pillars on which they were hung and flayed [after their throats had been cut and the blood caught in the silver or gold bowls to be splashed at the base of the altar]. And for whomsoever there was no place for suspending and flaying there were thin smooth staves which he placed on his shoulder and upon the shoulder of his fellow and so hung it up and flayed it. R. [Rabbi] Eliezer says, If the fourteenth happened to fall on the Sabbath he placed his hand on his fellow’s shoulder and the hand of his fellow rested upon his shoulder and thus suspended it and flayed it” (Pes. 5:9).

The Mishnah records that after all the lambs had been sacrificed, the three courses remained in the temple area until the beginning of the 15th: “One rent it [cut open the lamb’s belly] and took out its fat; he put it on a tray and offered it upon the Altar. The first group went out and stayed on the Temple Mount, the second party in the fortification, and the third lot remained in its place. When it became dark they went forth and roasted their Passover offerings” (Ibid., 5:10).

Nowhere in the Old Testament are there any instructions for the killing of the Passover lambs to justify these practices that are recorded in the Mishnah. They cannot be justified because God never commanded those practices! Nowhere in Scripture can we find any command from God to kill the Passover lambs at the temple, to splash the blood of the Passover lambs at the base of the altar, or to burn the fat of the Passover lambs on the altar. These practices do not conform to the Passover ordinances that God delivered to Moses.

Only in the manner of roasting the lambs did the traditional Jewish Passover conform to God’s commands. It is curious that the Jews would choose to follow this particular ordinance while ignoring the other ordinances that are commanded by God in Exodus 12. The following description in the Mishnah is in accord with the Scriptural instructions for roasting the Passover lambs by fire: “How do they roast the Passover offering?— they bring a spit of pomegranate-wood, thrust it through its mouth to its buttocks, and place its knees, and its entrails [the edible parts—not the intestines] inside it. This is the opinion of R. Jose the Galilean. R. Akiba says, this would be a form of cooking; rather they [the legs] hang outside it.

“They may not roast the Passover offering on a skewer of metal or on a grating. R. Zadok said, It once happened that Rabban Gamliel said to Tabi his slave, ‘Go forth and roast for us the Passover offering upon the grating.’ If it touched the earthenware of the oven, he must pare away that part. If any of its juice dripped down on the earthenware and it came back upon it [the lamb], he must remove that part...” (Ibid., 7:1-2).

These rabbinical teachings show that the Jews understood that God had forbidden any method of roasting the Passover lambs which allowed juices to soften the meat. No liquid of any kind was permitted to touch the lamb. No portion of it could be steamed, simmered or boiled. The fact that the rabbis acknowledged and observed this Passover ordinance confirms that the “passover-offering” described in Deuteronomy 16, which was boiled, was not the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The offerings that are referred to as the “passover-offering” in Deuteronomy 16 were peace offerings for the Feast of Unleavened Bread (II Chron. 30, 35). Boiling the Passover lamb was ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN.

Joachim Jeremias’ Calculations of the Number of Passover Lambs Sacrificed Yearly at the Temple

The number of Passover lambs that were slain at the temple each year has been reliably estimated by Joachim Jeremias in his book Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus. However, because he assumes that there was no domestic observance of the Passover, he incorrectly presents his calculations as the total number of Passover lambs that were slain. Since the size of the sacrificial area at the temple limited the number of lambs that could be slain during the three courses, Jeremias’ estimation of the number of Passover participants in Jerusalem is far below the numbers recorded by Josephus, Tacitus and others.

Although Jeremias has erred in calculating the number of people who kept the Passover at that time, he does give an accurate estimation of the maximum number of Passover lambs that could have been slain at the temple. In his book, he relates the mathematical facts on which his estimate is based: “Since we know the dimensions of the Temple from M. [Mishnah] Middoth and from Josephus, we can calculate the approximate measurements of the space available for the three groups, and from that make a deduction of the numbers of pilgrims at the feast....How much space did a group occupy when slaughtering the sacrifice?” (Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus, p. 79, emphasis added).

After citing the measurements of the temple area where the Passover lambs were slain, he concludes the following: “Since the actual slaughtering was in the place of slaughter, and the priests who stood in lines naturally claimed some of the space in the inner court, we could deduct approximately one-fifth of the available space for this, and the result is the same as our calculations. One group took up about 3,900 sq. yards when they were not slaughtering.

“How many men would this space hold? The people were closely packed. It is the eighth of the ten wonders of the Holy Place that there was enough room for them all. (M. AB. V.5). However, things did not always go as well as that: in b. Pes. 64b we read that, ‘The Rabbis taught: No man was ever crushed in the Temple court except on one Passover in the days of Hillel, when an old man was crushed, and they called it “The Passover of the Crushed.” ’ Josephus also knows about such crowded conditions. At one Passover between AD 48 and 52 on the fourth day, not the Day itself, there was a panic in the Temple area and 30,000 people were crushed to death according to BJ 2.227. In such a restricted space we must reckon two men to a sq. m. [meter], each with one, or very occasionally with two (M. Pes. viii.2), animals for sacrifice; that is, about 6,400 men, which means about 6,400 animals for each group. This agrees with Josephus’ account of the Passover of 4 BC, according to which the troops of Archelaus killed 3,000 people while they were sacrificing (BJ 2.12f; Ant. 17.218), while the rest escaped.

“There were three groups, of which the last was not as large as the other two, since everyone naturally tried to get in the earlier groups....In this way we arrive at a figure of 18,000 passover victims” (Ibid., p. 82, emphasis added).

Jeremias arrived at this figure by allowing the full capacity of 6,400 for the first two courses and a reduced number of 5,200 men for the third course, which historically was smaller. If the third course had been filled to the maximum capacity, an estimated total of 19,200 Passover lambs could have been slain at the temple each year.

Jeremias’ detailed calculations are found on pages 79-83 of his book. Here is part of a note which he added to an edition published in 1966 in reference to these calculations: “As regards the number of festival pilgrims, the calculations described on pp. 79-83, based on the space available for the worshippers at the Passover, are probably quite right, but I now ask myself whether it should be assumed that the entire inner forecourt, including the space at the sides and back of the Temple building, was thickly packed with worshippers (though we cannot imagine the throng of men with their sacrificial animals on their shoulders, described on p. 82). As a consequence, is the figure of 6,400 for each of the three groups, and therefore the total of 180,000 participants including the population of Jerusalem [estimating ten people per lamb], fixed a little too high? However, there can be no doubt that the influx of pilgrims at Passover time from all over the world was immense, and amounted to several times the population of Jerusalem” (Ibid., p. 84).

Jeremias’ estimate that 18,000 Passover lambs were slain at the temple is reasonably accurate, but he erred in using this figure as a basis for determining the total number of Passover participants. Assuming that all the Passover lambs were slain at the temple, he allowed ten persons per lamb. The resulting figure of 180,000 participants in the Passover does not include the large number of people in Jerusalem who were observing the domestic Passover on the 14th, according to God’s instructions in Exodus 12.

While scholars disagree as to the number of people who observed the Passover in Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple in AD 70, most sources give figures in the range of Josephus’ estimate. Josephus places the number of people at approximately 2,700,000, as opposed to Jeremias’ extremely low estimate of only 180,000. Remember that Jeremias based his estimate on the assumption that all Passover lambs were killed at the temple, and that the domestic sacrifice of the Passover was no longer practiced. This false belief can easily be disproved by examining Josephus’ account of the last great Passover of the Jews before the destruction of the temple. The huge number of Passover lambs that Josephus records for this observance makes it obvious that a majority of the Jews were still practicing the domestic sacrifice of the Passover.

Josephus’ Account of the Last Passover at the Temple

In his account, Josephus records the total number of lambs that were sacrificed for the Passover in AD 70: “So these high priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the Passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the eleventh, but so that a company not less than ten belong to every sacrifice...found the number of sacrifices was two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred; which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two million seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons that were holy and pure...” (Wars of the Jews, Bk. VI, Ch. IX, Sec. 3).

Josephus states that 256,500 lambs were killed for the Passover that year. To kill 256,500 Passover lambs at the temple, 85,500 lambs would have to be slain in each of the three courses. But the size of the sacrifical area limited the number of lambs in each course to less than 6,500. The number of lambs that Josephus records is thirteen times the maximum number that could have been killed in the three courses.

Some believe that Josephus has exaggerated the number of Passover lambs that were slain in AD 70. If we cut Josephus’ figures in half and estimate that only 128,250 lambs were killed, we are still confronted with the fact that this huge number of Passover lambs could not possibly have been sacrificed at the temple during the three courses. With the three courses filled to maximum capacity, it would have taken SEVEN DAYS to kill even half the number of lambs that Josephus records. On the other hand, if the number of lambs recorded by Josephus is correct, it would have taken TWO WEEKS to kill all the lambs. These mathematical facts show how absurd it is to claim that all Passover lambs were slain at the temple! In the time it would have taken to kill all those lambs, the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread would have been past! The Jews would have been eating the Passover lambs after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, instead of beforehand, as God had commanded!

WE CAN CONCLUDE THE FOLLOWING: Far more lambs were sacrificed for the Passover than could possibly have been slain at the temple during the allotted courses. The only logical explanation is that most of the lambs were not slain at the temple!

This mathematical dilemma is resolved when we accept the fact that a majority of the Jews in the first century killed their own Passover lambs. Since the maximum number of lambs that could be slain at the temple was less than 20,000, there is no way to account for the tens of thousands of additional lambs that were slain unless we acknowledge that the domestic Passover was the predominant practice. This is the only explanation that fits the Scriptural and historical facts.

Contrary to what some have claimed, the domestic Passover continued as the predominant practice down to New Testament times. In the following chapter, we will see that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last Passover confirm the observance of the domestic Passover by the Jews of that day.