Unlocking The New Testament: The Lamb (3)

The Passover Lamb

This is our last installment of the Lamb series, and here we will talk about the Passover Lamb. Like the Akedah, Passover holds a unique place in the Jewish tradition, and in order to properly understand the spiritual meaning of the New Testament symbols, we cannot ignore the fact that the Jewish Passover, as it was understood at the time of Jesus, provides not merely the background, but the very foundation of the New Testament soteriology.

It is here that we find for the first time the image of the sacrificial lamb as a basis for salvation. The slain lamb in Exodus, with whose blood the doorposts were stained, was the symbol, the promise and the basis for Israel’s salvation from Egypt. The Lamb looking as though it had been slain,[1] from the book of Revelation, is perceived as the symbol, promise, and basis for the salvation brought to the whole earth. Is there a connection between these two lambs?

The connection between Jesus and Passover is evident: The New Testament accounts of Christ’s death refer or allude to the preparation of the Passover lamb in such a clear way that we have absolutely no doubt that the evangelists were consciously presenting Christ and his death as their Passover. The piercing of Christ’s side in John 19:34 recalls the Mishnah prescription to “slit the heart and let out its blood”. The Gospel of John gives the death of Jesus as occurring precisely at the time of the slaughtering of the Passover sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple.  Verse 36 in John 19: “Not a bone of him shall be broken” is a very clear Passover reference[2]. All this indicates how completely the New Testament writers looked upon Christ’s death as a Passover event—as a Passover Lamb sacrifice.

No less revealing is the verse we find in the first epistle to Corinthians (though, as I previously mentioned, there is no  word “lamb” in Paul’s letters): “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you  may be a new lump, as you are unleavened.  For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”[3] Undoubtedly, while writing, Paul had in mind the Passover sacrifice, and the logic of this verse, however strange it might seem from the first reading, is perfectly understandable against the background of the Passover sacrifice: since the Passover lamb is sacrificed, the bread is unleavened. It’s very likely that the apostle refers here to the custom of bedikat chametz – the ceremony of the “searching for leaven,” which existed in the time of Jesus and still exists in Jewish homes today, both in Israel and in the dispersion: on the evening before 14th of Nisan, all the likely and unlikely places all over the house are inspected lest they have any occasional crumbs.

 

Different perception

The words our Passover undoubtedly  refer to the  Passover lamb, which was to be sacrificed and eaten in remembrance of the Exodus and which was also a memorial  of the Aqedah lamb. Most scholars agree that “the association of the Aqedah with Passover was established well before the beginning of the Christian era”[4]. This means that the bond between the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of Isaac was almost inevitable, once the association of Jesus with Passover had been established. However, we have to realize that the only readers of this verse for whom this fact—that our Passover means Passover lamb—was self-understandable and obvious, were Jewish followers of Jesus. For a gentile Christian reader there was nothing self-understandable in the identification of the Passover (or Pascha, as it is often translated), with the lamb. Yes, the word sacrifice still brings into this verse the image of the Lamb which was slain, and thus a gentile reader, knowing nothing about the Jewish Pesach and Aqedat Itzhak, would read Paul’s verse through the eyes of the developed Christology: Christ is the Lamb which was slain and in whose blood the elect, being saved and purified from sin (which is the leaven), became the unleavened bread. As with so many other originally Jewish images and symbols, we witness here an unconscious shift from one set of meanings to another—an almost naive take-over of the Jewish symbols by the gentile Christian tradition.

We can sum up our discussion now and to try to comprehend this absolutely different perception of the image of the Lamb by Gentiles and Jews. When a first-century Jew referred to someone as a “Passover Lamb,” he implicitly applied to this person an entire collection of implications, connected both with the Aqedah sacrifice and with the Exodus. Thus, in saying that Jesus was the Passover Lamb, he knew that the saving virtue of the Passover lamb proceeded from the merits of the very first lamb, bound on mount Moriah. But as the new Jewish belief started to become a gentile religion, the process of cutting off this “Lamb” tradition from its original meaning began. Very quickly, all the details of the original Jewish Passover had lost their original meaning for the gentile believers and became just part of the religious code of the new Christian theology. By the time Christianity became established, this process had been completed. While for the first Jewish believers, the whole comparison to a Passover lamb was meaningful only because of the already existing image of the Passover sacrifice and its connection to Aqedat Itzhak, for gentile Christians, the image of “the lamb” would bear no other meaning except for the Christ, who is sacrificed for us. When in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb,” he referred to the Paschal Lamb of Passover sacrifice, with its atoning power based on the first and exclusive sacrifice—Aqedat Itzhak. Yet the significance of this original allusion disappeared completely for generations of Christian readers. The image of the Lamb, as it was developed in later Christianity, would hardly recognize its Jewish ancestors.

[1] Rev. 5:6

[2] See Ex.12:46

[3] 1 Cor.5:7

[4] Geza Vermes, Redemption and Genesis XXII,p.215

 

 I wanted to let you know that the book “Unlocking the Scriptures”  is published already    and is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

You might enjoy also my other  books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/   

If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, or learning more about the Jewish background of Jesus’ teaching, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com).

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (8 comments)

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  1. Thor Ivar Grønli

    Hello Julia, earlier the was a blog about the Purim from the book of Esther that you have write, but this blog is hidden now. I want to read it once more time and please can you help me to find it or send it to me?

    Thor Ivar

    1. Julia Blum

      Hello Thor, here are two Purim posts that I published this year:
      https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/the-book-and-the-festival-1/
      https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/the-book-and-the-festival-2/

      Hope it helps. Blessings!

      1. Thor Ivar Grønli

        Thanks, God bless

  2. Jo

    Thank you for this interesting series. I’ve read in commentaries and articles how Jesus was the ‘anti-type’ to all the types of sacrifices mentioned in the first seven chapters of Leviticus, as well as the Passover sacrifice of course. This aqedah lamb is new to me. Even though it’s an extra-biblical tradition, the image of the ‘father’ of the Jewish people sacrificing his son, who then rose from the dead, would certainly have been astonishing to the first Christ followers who saw the tradition fulfilled both typologically and actually before their eyes. I hope I’m understanding this correctly.

    I used to attend an older, liturgical church and just before the Lord’s Supper we recited or chanted “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast” right out of the old KJV- 1Cor 5:7-8, as a part of the liturgy. Clearly this was interpreting Paul as saying that the Lord’s Supper is a parallel to Passover Seder with Jesus as the sacrificed lamb. I would like to ask about a sentence in the fifth paragraph, concerning your description of developed Christology. I always understood the unleavened bread to be the spiritual (for some actual) Body of Christ. Thus we consume the sacrificed lamb. The clergy will say “the Body of Christ” when distributing it. The way the second to the last sentence in that paragraph is worded it sounds like you might be saying that the *elect* become the unleavened bread, presumably because they are made sinless in Christ? By imputed righteousness? I’m unfamiliar with that tradition. Have I misread this sentence? I like learning about different viewpoints. Thank you.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Jo. No, you have not misread the sentence; while in traditional churches the unleavened bread represents the Body of Christ literally, most of the evangelical denominations see it as a symbol of believers (also Body of Christ, but in a different sense). In 1 Cor.5: 7 Paul speaks of the “old leaven”, “the leaven of malice and wickedness” which corresponds to the “old man” and its corrupt deeds; once a believer becomes a new man, born again in Christ, he becomes “the unleavened bread” and encouraged by Paul to “keep the feast”, to remain “unleavened”.

      1. Joy Dittmer

        l too noticed this distinction in your article and agree with you that most Christians see the unleavened as a symbol of Christ……l am equally fascinated by your reading of 1 Cor 5:7 and wonder how we as believers can “remain unleavened” ? In other words, now that we see this distinction, what to do with it?

  3. Nick Edwards

    Thanks again Julia for exploring these ideas. I think you are saying that the Passover lamb was not a sin offering as such, but a reminder of the Aqedah preserving the first born – Isaac. (no disrespect to Ishmael intended). Without the Jewish context, Jesus became God, perhaps to Gentiles???

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Nick, first of all, I want to thank you for following faithfully this blog: often times, your comments come first, and I am always delighted to read them! As for the lamb – the Passover lamb of Ex.12 was definitely not a sin offering; however, if see chapters 21 and 22 of Genesis as foreshadowing two goats of Yom Kippur, then Isaac can indeed be seen as “the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people” (Lev.16:15, I wrote about it at length in “Abraham had 2 sons”). For a 1-st century Jewish believer, Jesus as “the Lamb of God” was a reference to both: the Passover lamb and the Aqedah lamb. However, without this Jewish context, the Christian image of the Lamb became completely cut off from the original meaning.