Is the Passover a Late Biblical Invention?

No Biblical festival has quite the cultural legacy and rich complexity of Passover. It is a holiday of interest to Jews and Christians and through the Exodus story and the narrative of the Passion of Jesus, Passover has a cultural influence beyond the borders of these two great faiths.

As Passover draws near, it will be a frequent subject on Messianic Jewish Musings. I have a modest but always growing library of books on Passover. I hope, in a decade or two, to be an expert on the subject.

This year I am reading a great new resource for lovers of Passover and its history, My People’s Passover Haggadah, edited by Lawrence Hoffman and David Arnow. I am sure I will refer to it a dozen times in articles leading up to Passover. It puts in one resource (two volumes) a wealth of historical and interpretative material.

In this first Passover article of 2009, I am addressing a subject that may seem less interesting to some than others. Passover articles should be about the mystique, the narrative power, or the spirituality of Passover. Yet, though the topic of this article is somewhat technical, I try to make it interesting, concise, and I hope, by the end, you feel it is a worthwhile addition to your reading as you prepare for Passover this year.

jewish-haggadah-14th-century-old-testamentIs Passover a Late Invention in Biblical History? The Problem in a Nutshell
David Arnow, whose work I quite appreciate both in My People’s Passover Haggadah and in Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities , describes the world of Biblical scholarship’s prevailing opinion that Passover is not the ancient holy day of Israel that it seems to me. Rather, it is an invention from the days of King Josiah, bringing together two different festivals from earlier times and merging them as if they had always been one. And lying behind this lately invented festival are pagan myths and cultic festivals.

But wait, you say, Passover seems rather straightforward. In the days of Moses the Israelites slew a lamb, put blood on the door, and ate unleavened bread. God gave this event a calendrical setting for future commemoration and tradition has added to the elements of Passover since the days of Moses to what we know as the modern Passover Seder, right?

According to Arnow and what he calls the prevailing opinion of Biblical scholars, not so.

Passover, it is said, is a contradiction in the sources from the beginning. The following list represents the basic problems with a simple view of Passover’s origins:

(1) The Bible gives two contradictory dates for the celebration of Passover. Leviticus 23:5 says it is on the fourteenth day of the first month (Abib). Yet Exodus 23:15 (and others places) say it is either “on the new moon of Abib” or “in the month of Abib.” If the correct translation is “on the new moon of Abib,” then we have a contradiction in timing.

(2) The Bible gives two contradictory directives about where Passover is to take place. In Exodus 12:3 the setting is the household, while in Deuteronomy 16:2 the setting is the sanctuary.

(3) The Bible represents Passover in Leviticus 23:5-6 as two separate festivals (Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) but only one in Deuteronomy 16:2-3 seemingly combines the two (“slaughter the Passover . . . and eat nothing leavened with it”).

(4) Finally, we learn in 2 Kings 23:1-22 that Josiah held a Passover at the sanctuary in accordance with Deuteronomy (which is assumed to contain innovations from the time of Josiah) and we read that “the Passover had not been offered in that manner in the days of the judges who ruled Israel or in the days of the kings of Israel and Judah.” Thus, the Deuteronomic Passover at the sanctuary with all Israel gathered was the first ever held.

The Problem With the Problems
While I appreciate the concise summary David Arnow provides of these problems, they betray a series of assumptions leading for a foregone conclusion, all going back to Julius Wellhausen’s theory that the Torah is a pastiche of sources from different periods (the documentary hypothesis, which in modified form is a widely-held model in Biblical scholarship still).

In my judgment, those looking for contradictions in multiple sources will find them by assuming contradictions when they do not exist. If nothing else, we should be ashamed at our low estimate of the intelligence of those who redacted the Torah in later generations. The genius of the Torah seems too great, I think, to presume these redactors would fail to harmonize such simple details. Thus, here is my response to each of the alleged problems with Passover having a unified origin in the days of Moses:

(1) There is no reason to avoid translating Exodus 23:15 and verses like it in accordance with the view that Passover is in the middle of the month of Abib (“in the month of Abib”). It is no stretch at all in Biblical Hebrew to assume that chodesh could refer to new moons as well as the period between new moons (i.e., months). Thus, the first problem only exists if the narrowest view of chodesh’s semantic range is assumed.

(2) The alleged contradiction between the household Passover of Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 is similarly an illusion (rabbinic literature addressed this eons ago). Exodus 12:3 refers to the first Passover only while Deuteronomy 16 refers to Passover following the inauguration of the sanctuary of Israel.

(3) The idea that Leviticus 23 represents Passover as two separate festivals is exaggerated, though it may contain a kernel of truth. God’s institutions in numerous cases adopt and adapt existing cultural institutions. It is quite possible that a grain festival celebrating the early grains of barley and a pastoral festival celebrating the bounty of spring lambs both lie behind the complex Passover/Unleavened Bread festival. The alleged disunity of Passover and Unleavened Bread is only there for those who insist on finding contradictions.

(4) It is the last of the alleged problems with the unity of Passover’s ancient origins that is easiest to dismiss. In order to interpret 2 Kings 23:21-22 as saying that the first Passover held at the sanctuary occurred in the days of Josiah, David Arnow presented the following translation, “the Passover sacrifice had not been offered in that manner in the days of the judges . . . or during the days of the kings.” The Hebrew is not difficult (ki lo na’asah ka-pesakh hazzeh mimei ha-shofetim) and I would translate it, “no Passover had been held like this one since the days of the judges.” What was different or unique about Josiah’s Passover festival? Arnow and others assume it was the fact that is was held at the sanctuary. But it could quite as easily have been that it was the largest and grandest celebration in Israel’s history.

The evidence that Passover was a late invention in Biblical history is underwhelming. It is possible, of course, to doubt the validity of the Biblical account. It is possible to theorize about changes to the Biblical text made by later editors (and it would be foolish to deny that such things happened). Yet the existence of glaring contradictions in Israel’s most important festival is a rumor greatly exaggerated.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Passover, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Is the Passover a Late Biblical Invention?

  1. rabbiadam says:

    This is fascinating. The modern celebration of an eight-day festival as “Passover” is clearly not what Scripture intended, but rather Passover being one day and Unleavened Bread for seven… but of course, it also seems today to totally ignore the Day of First Firsts, which from a plain reading of the Leviticus passage takes place on the Sunday (Yom Rishon) following Passover. I’ve suspected this all came about to obscure the intrinsic connection of Passover & First Fruits to the crucifixion and resurrection.

  2. mchuey says:

    I am glad to see that someone other than myself is willing to engage with JEDP Biblical scholarship, even though I don’t know a single Messianic (including myself) who believes it.

    During the festival times (most especially around Passover) this can be a major point of contention, because Leviticus 23 gives one set of instructions, and other instructions appear elsewhere in the Pentateuch. What Leviticus 23 says about counting the omer (sheva shabbatot), for example, “differs” from what Deuteronomy 16 says (sheva shavuot & the gathering at the appointed place). Either one set of instruction is from P, and the other is from D–or they are both Mosaic and they have to be synthesized together (in addition to other theological factors to be considered).

    I’m glad we just don’t rely on Leviticus 23 alone to tell us how to observe the appinted times.


  3. rabbiadam says:

    I hope this doesn’t sound too stupid, but what is JEDP?

  4. mchuey says:

    The JEDP documentary hypothesis has existed for around two centuries. It is a mainstay in the critical tradition of Biblical Studies. It advocates that the Torah or Pentateuch is not a document of Mosaic origin, but rather was a compilation of disparate sources composed after the Babylonian exile.

    The Jewish Study Bible was composed with commentary from the critical tradition, and is often the first exposure Messianics I know have of it.


  5. Adam:

    You said, “The modern celebration of an eight-day festival as “Passover” is clearly not what Scripture intended…”

    There is an idea I have tried to get across here many times: the Torah does not fill in the details, but leaves them to the community. The Torah is often vague and leaves to the judges of the community decisions about interpretation and practice. So your statement has a faulty premise, in my view, assuming that God gave a very specific set of parameters for Passover and that somehow the Jewish community missed it.

    I’d ask you to consider the ambiguity of the text and how much it leaves to the interpreter to decide. In my opinion that is purposeful.

    The reason Passover is eight days in Judaism is the decision that Yom Tovs (holidays that are special Sabbaths) should be kept two days outside of the Land of Israel.

    Best we can determine in Exodus 12 is that the 14th is a day for slaughtering lambs, the Seder begins after sundown when it has become the 15th, and the 7 days begin on the 15th with the Seder.


  6. rabbiadam says:

    I don’t see this text as being ambiguous. The Passover is a one-day event, the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. Then there is a separate seven-day festival call the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

    As for the decision to keep Yom Tovs for two days outside of Israel, I would consider that a violation of the commandment not to add to the Torah. It’s real specific how long the festival is.

  7. Adam:

    I have to push back at you for being so quick to call rabbinic tradition (in this case a second day of Yom Tov for Passover) adding to the Torah. Consider the bankruptcy of that statement. Torah is incomplete and does not fill in the details. It says to sanctify the Sabbath but doesn’t say how. It is not adding to the Torah to apply it to real life situations.

    The reason for the second day of Yom Tovs concerns uncertainty about the correct timing of the Yom Tovs outside of Israel. It was enacted long ago when signal fires had been used but suddenly were not able to be used anymore. By mandating two days the rabbis were certain that the diaspora communities would celebrate the right day.

    The real concern should not be adding to the Torah, but a refusal on the part of Orthodoxy to change with the times. We now have no uncertainty about calendar issues and the two-day Yom Tov is a relic of a bygone era and Torah should not be fossilized. Thus, a substantial part of the Jewish community does not feel a need to keep the antiquated second day.

    Adam, as long as you decide that you know better than the tradition how to keep Torah, you are living in the days of the Judges, each man doing what seems right in his own eyes.


  8. rabbiadam says:

    Derek, you have a total misunderstanding of my point here. We are actually in agreement about tradition in general, just not on this one point in specific. I’ve addressed this as a response to your later post about the general issue, but let me address this in specific here.

    Scripture is very clear that some traditions are fine and good, and others are not. Yeshua’s discussion on the proper usage of Torah in Mark 7 is a prime example. The debate is over the proper role of tradition. Yeshua is particularly clear about two points: 1) You cannot teach the traditions of man as co-equal to the commandments of God — which would include not making commandments that are counter to the literal words of Torah — and 2) traditions cannot be used in counter to the SPIRIT of either a specific Torah command or the Torah in general. Quoting:

    Mark 7:6-13
    And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

    He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

    Based on this and other similarly-themed passages in the Apostolic Writings, I believe in applying a three-fold test to traditions to determine their validity for practice.

    1) Does the tradition violate the literal intent of the words in the Torah? If so, then the tradition must be discarded. If not, the tradition may be subjected to the second test.

    2a) Does the tradition violate the spirit of the command it’s based on or 2b) violate the spirit of the Torah in general? Assuming that it passes the second test, the tradition may be subjected to the third test.

    3) Does the tradition point towards Messiah (specifically Yeshua), is it neutral towards Messiah, or does it point away from Messiah? If a tradition points towards Messiah, then I think not only can we keep it, but we should. If a tradition is neutral towards Messiah, then I think we may keep it, but it’s not a should or shouldn’t. If it points away from Messiah, then I think we shouldn’t keep it.

    In the case of the tradition combining Pesach and Chag Matzah (and discarding Yom HaBikkurim) into one eight-day festival starting on the 15th of Nisan, in my view it is a complete and total violation of the literal words of the Torah, which speaks of three festivals: one one-day festival called Pesach, which occurs on the 14th of Nisan; one seven-day festival called Chag Matzah, which begins on the 15th of Nisan; and a one-day festival called Yom HaBikkurim, which occurs on the Yom Rishon following the Shabbat following Pesach, beginning the fifty-day count to Shavuot. (Leviticus 23:5-15) Therefore, this tradition fails to meet even the first test.

    Let me give you an example of a tradition that meets this test: the Passover Seder itself. Not only does it not violate any specific commandment of the Torah, it actually assists in keeping some of the commandments having to do with Pesach & Chag Matzah. So, it meets test one. We are commanded in Torah to make this a remembrance and to celebrate a feast. This upholds the spirit of those commandments. So, it meets test two. Finally, Yeshua Himself showed us how the Seder — in particular the Afikoman and Cup of Redemption — points to Him. So, it meets test three in a BIG way.

    Do you see what I am saying here?

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