While the New Testament includes very little information in regard to religious festivals, the Hebrew Bible refers to a number of important feasts celebrated during the periods of ancient Israelite religion and Second Temple Judaism. Three of these receive more attention than the others—Passover and Unleavened Bread, Shavuot (also known as Weeks), and Sukkoth (also known as Booths or Tabernacles)—and are grouped together in Pentateuchal festival lists. These eventually become the three annual pilgrimage festivals to the Jerusalem Temple and are each eventually connected with three aspects of Israel’s salvation history: the Exodus, the giving of the Law at Sinai, and the wilderness wandering, respectively.

Scholars generally see each of these festivals as originally associated with agricultural celebrations. Exodus 23:14–17 and 34:18–23 list these three as the times in each year when Israel is to appear before God and call them “unleavened bread” (the word “Passover” is not used in these two lists), “harvest” (although Exod 34:22 also refers to it as Shavuot), and “ingathering.” In these two lists, only Unleavened Bread is specifically connected to any specific historical event, the Exodus, while the latter two are obviously agricultural in nature; and only Unleavened Bread is given a date—“the appointed time in the month of Abib”—while ingathering is said to be celebrated “at the end/turn of the year.” We see here a reflection of the ancient Canaanite tradition of dividing the year into months associated with various agricultural events, as seen in the tenth-century B.C.E. Gezer Calendar (ANET, 320). The same list of festivals appears in Deuteronomy 16:1–17, although here they are all clearly pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem, while Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28–29, both texts associated with the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch, add two other festivals to this list, the Day of Trumpet Blasts and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

Passover and Unleavened Bread.

Passover and Unleavened Bread appear to have emerged as two separate festivals that, by Deuteronomy 16, are understood to be celebrated together in commemoration of the Exodus. While the distinction between the two festivals is maintained throughout the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. (e.g., 11Q19 17:6–16; 4Q326) and by the first century C.E. Jewish authors Josephus (e.g., Ant. 3.248–251) and Philo (e.g., Spec. Laws 2.145, 150), the two terms are also used interchangeably by the end of the Second Temple period (e.g., Ant. 14.21–28; Matt 26:17).

Passover in the Hebrew Bible.

Scholarship generally sees both Passover and Unleavened Bread as emerging as Canaanite agricultural festivals of some sort, but their first appearance in the Bible is in Exodus 12, where both appear together in order to commemorate the Exodus. On the eve of the tenth plague, the fourteenth day of the first month, when God is about to kill the firstborn in Egypt, each Israelite household is to slaughter a lamb, smear some of its blood on the doorposts of the house, and eat it roasted with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exod 12:2–11). According to Exodus 12:11–13, it is a pesaḥ (“passover”) because God will pass over (ûpāsaḥtî) the Israelite houses upon seeing the blood and not destroy the firstborn within them. This is to be done every year as “a day of remembrance”; unleavened bread is to be eaten for seven days, beginning with the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month, and all leaven is to be removed from Israelite houses (Exod 12:14–20). The link between unleavened bread and the story of the Exodus is provided in Exodus 12:33–34, where, after the death of the Egyptian firstborn, the Egyptians urge the Israelites to leave quickly, so they take their dough before it is leavened.

Whatever may have been the original cause of celebration of these two festivals, when biblical passages explain their significance they appear solely to commemorate the Exodus. The texts associated with the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch specifically date Passover to the fourteenth day of the first month, or Nisan (Exod 12:6; Lev 23:5; Num 9:1–3; 28:16), and Unleavened Bread to the fifteenth through twenty-first days of the first month (Lev 23:6–8; Num 28:17; 33:3). Unleavened Bread is associated with the Exodus in Exodus 13:3–10, 23:15, and 34:18; and Deuteronomy 16:1–8 links both Passover and Unleavened Bread to the Exodus. The Exodus appears as the foundational event in Israel’s history in Deuteronomy 16, and of the three pilgrimage festivals in Deuteronomy 16:1–17, Passover and Unleavened Bread is the only one to which non-Israelite residents in the land are not invited, apparently since it celebrates God’s liberation of Israel alone.

Deuteronomy is generally recognized by scholarship to be part of a longer biblical work called the Deuteronomistic History (DH), which encompasses also the books of Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings; and in Joshua 5:10–12 the Israelites, having crossed the Jordan and entered the land, celebrate the Passover, at which point the manna that had sustained them in the wilderness ceases and Israel eats the produce of the land of Canaan. The DH, that is, makes a connection between the act of liberation in the Exodus and its culmination in the gift of the land. A particular emphasis of the DH’s presentation of Israel’s history is the connection between Israel’s worship and its success or failure as a nation: right worship of God is rewarded, and apostasy is punished with national disaster. After Joshua 5, readers of the DH do not encounter another reference to the Passover until King Josiah, who enacts the greatest cultic reform of the history and restores right Yahwistic worship in 2 Kings 23 including a reinstitution of the festival (2 Kgs 23:21–23). Many scholars, particularly North American ones, argue that the original edition of the DH was produced during Josiah’s reign in the seventh century B.C.E. in order to support his cultic reforms. If this is correct, then we can see the text drawing a link in Josiah’s reinstitution of the Passover between God’s salvation of Israel in the Exodus, the gift of the land, and proper cultic reform. In the DH part of the point of celebrating the festival is to acknowledge that proper cultic reform will guarantee God’s continuing work of salvation on Israel’s behalf, ensuring their continuing success in the land.

If Passover commemorates the foundational event in Israel’s history in the DH, it points to the potential unity of Israel in Chronicles. The author of Chronicles, writing in the mid- to late fourth century B.C.E., had the Pentateuch and the DH at his disposal; and the story of the Passover instituted by King Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 30 reflects Numbers 9:1–14, which permits those who are unclean during the celebration of Passover in the first month to keep it one month later (cf. 2 Chr 30:1–3). While Chronicles ignores the stories of the northern kingdom from the DH, it still insists that northerners are part of Israel; and the Passover is presented here as a cultic event for all of Israel, including the north. If Chronicles does not present the Exodus as a foundational event for Israel—resident aliens attend the festival here (2 Chr 30:25), unlike Deuteronomy 16—it nonetheless presents Passover and Unleavened Bread as something that unites all of Israel, whether or not they live in Judah. Celebration of the festival at the Temple under the leadership of the king, priests, and Levites results in God’s mercy and forgiveness (2 Chr 30:7–9); and perhaps it is for this reason that the people celebrate it with great gladness, praise, thanks, and joy, so much so that the festival is extended for an extra week (2 Chr 30:21–23). The text makes no reference to the Exodus, so readers might assume that the people’s joy reflects the mercy God shows Israel in response to this celebration at the Temple, even to those Israelites who live in the north.

Passover in later Jewish texts.

By the second century B.C.E., the book of Jubilees refers to Passover as a celebration of praise and thanks to God for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (49:1–6), as a meal that must be eaten in the confines of the Temple (49:16, 21), and as a meal that, if celebrated properly, will turn away the plague from Israel during the following year (49:15), presumably a reference to the plagues that afflicted Egypt before the Exodus. Jubilees is a retelling of Genesis for a Hellenistic Jewish audience, and it is concerned to portray Israel’s ancestors from Genesis as keeping the Law and celebrating the festivals on the proper days. It links the founding of Unleavened Bread to the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac (17:15; 18:3, 18–19), so the festival emphasizes the theme of God’s mercy in response to Israel’s obedience, an emphasis like that of 2 Chronicles 30.

Late Second Temple texts tell us that in the last centuries of the Temple’s existence Passover was celebrated as a pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem in which people arrived a week early for purification (Josephus, War 6.290), that wine was drunk as the Passover meal was celebrated (Jub. 49:6), and that the family’s celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem involved prayers and singing (Jub. 49:6; Philo, Spec. Laws 2.148). Despite the insistence of Jubilees 49, late Second Temple sources tell us that the Passover meal was consumed in private homes inside Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 11.109; Philo, Spec. Laws 2.148; cf. m. Pes. 8:1). Philo, in fact, states that each home becomes like the Temple at this time (Spec. Laws 2.148). While 2 Chronicles 30:15–17 and 35:10–13 and Ezra 6:19–22 (another text from the fourth century B.C.E.) present the priests as sacrificing the Passover lambs within the Temple, Philo writes that the people’s own participation in bringing the lambs to the altar makes them priests as well (Moses 2.224; cf. Spec. Laws 2.146), a theme picked up also by m. Pesaḥim 5:6. Philo seems to connect this idea to an allegorical interpretation of Passover, in which, just as the individual becomes a purified and holy priest, the soul passes over from the body and its passions to wisdom (Spec. Laws 2.147).

With the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., Passover becomes a household festival by the Tannaitic period in the second century C.E., a development that almost certainly draws from the Greco-Roman tradition of the symposium, a banquet involving entertainment and discourse. Half of the Mishnaic tractate devoted to Passover discusses the old Temple ritual (m. Pesaḥ. 5–9), but the rabbis reformulate Passover to center on story rather than sacrifice. By having the Passover meal focus on a household meal in which the eldest son asks questions about the meal to which the father responds by referring to the events of the Exodus (m. Pesaḥ. 10), rabbinic halakha follows Exodus 12:24–27, which states that observance of the Passover meal is to do precisely this. A festival of Temple sacrifice combined with a household meal has been replaced by one consisting entirely of a meal and story that relates God’s passing over of the Israelite houses (represented by the Passover lamb), the salvation from Egypt (represented by the unleavened bread), and the bitterness of slavery (represented by the bitter herbs); and t. Pesaḥim 10:7 adds that a man should spend the entire night of Passover relating the story. Joy is a predominant emphasis of the household ritual during the night of Passover, and Second Temple period writers refer to the joy of Israel at Passover (Jub. 49:6; Philo, Spec. Laws 2.146). Parts of the Hallel (Pss 113–118, which emphasize praise to God for rescue) are recited at Passover, and b. Pesaḥim 109a stipulates that wine is a necessary component of the Passover Seder so that there can be rejoicing at the meal.

In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides, a twelfth-century rabbi and philosopher, writes that Passover and Unleavened Bread are celebrated for seven days specifically so that the alteration of Israel’s diet in the consumption of unleavened bread for such a significant period will cause the people to recall the Exodus and its goal, the giving of the Law (3.43). Jacob Neusner, a modern interpreter of halakha, reflects both Maimonides’s view of Passover as oriented to the Law and Philo’s view of it as making all Israelites priests when he argues that the rabbinic interpretation of Passover points to the creation of Israel as a kingdom of priests. The lamb, once sacrificed by the priests in the Temple, is now sacrificed within the household, from which leaven has been removed, just as it was absent from cereal offerings in the Temple. Israelites are now like priests, and the individual households, for the period of Passover and Unleavened Bread, are like the Temple (Neusner, 2001, pp. 349–356).

Passover in Christian texts.

The New Testament writings say little about Jewish festivals and provide no dates for them. Passover, however, is of some significance to Christianity since the Gospels date Jesus’s crucifixion in Jerusalem to this festival. Jesus’s final meal with his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels is the Passover meal, during which the Gospels present Jesus as instituting the Christian ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus describes the bread eaten at that meal as “my body” and the wine as “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Matt 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–25; cf. Luke 22:1–20). Matthew 26:29 and Mark 14:25 point beyond the church’s celebration of this ritual to a celebration of it in the eschatological kingdom. Just as Passover recalls the salvation of the Exodus, so the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the gospels points to eschatological salvation at the parousia; as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 11:26, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD’s death until he comes.”

The Gospel of John makes a connection between Jesus’s death and Passover as well, for, in the chronology of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus dies at the same time as the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple, making him a replacement of the Passover sacrifice. This is clearest at his death in John 19:31–36, a passage that refers to the biblical prohibition on breaking the bones of the Passover lamb. Instead of breaking his legs, one of the soldiers pierces his side, and water and blood come out.

Later Christian interpreters of Jewish scripture provide a similar explanation of Passover. For Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165 C.E.), the death of the Passover lamb prefigures Christ’s death (Dial. 14), and Christ’s blood saves those who believe, just as the blood of the Passover lamb saved the Israelites in Egypt (111). Irenaeus, another second-century Christian theologian, also sees the Passover as prefiguring Christ’s death and suggests a connection between the Hebrew word pesaḥ (“Passover, Passover lamb”) and the Greek paschein (“to suffer”) (Haer. 4.10.1). Melito, a second-century bishop of Sardis, wrote a work specifically about Passover that makes this phonetic connection between pesaḥ and the suffering of Christ explicit (Peri Pascha, 46) and saw in Christ’s death the fulfillment of the slaughter of the lamb at Passover (39–44), so that Christ is “the Passover of our salvation” (69; cf. 57–71). We can, in fact, see in Melito’s treatise on Passover a tradition present in some second-century Christian writings from Asia Minor of Christians commemorating Christ’s death on the fourteenth of Nisan, the night of Passover; and because of their emphasis on the fourteenth day they were called “Quartodecimans” by other Christians who emphasized the celebration of the resurrection of Christ on the Sunday after Passover, a tradition that eventually became universal throughout Christianity. The early Christians who observed Passover were clear, however, that they were celebrating a Christian, rather than a Jewish, ritual; as the Apostolic Tradition, a third-century Christian treatise, puts it, “the Passover which we celebrate is not a type, for the type has indeed passed away” (33). That is, just as the death of the Passover lamb is seen as prefiguring Christ’s death, Passover is seen as prefiguring the Christian celebration of Easter.

The writings of some early Christian theologians also reflect Philo’s allegorical interpretation of Passover as a “Platonic rite of passage to a higher plane of existence … embodied in the Law and aided by virtue” (Gerlach, 1998, pp. 89–90). Paul uses ideas associated with Passover—specifically, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb and the removal of yeast from the house in preparation for Unleavened Bread—in order to refer to ethical instructions, specifically as part of an ethical exhortation to the church in Corinth in regard to matters of sexuality (1 Cor 5:7–8). So, for example, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–254 C.E.) writes that Christians are constantly observing Passover in their actions in order “to pass over from the things of this life to God” (Cels. 8.22).

Shavuot (Weeks or Pentecost).

The biblical texts provide no fixed date for Shavuot. The festival list of Leviticus 23:11 refers to a ritual of raising the sheaf of the harvest “on the day after the sabbath”—and since the description of this festival comes immediately after the description of Passover and Unleavened Bread in Leviticus 23:5–8, the sabbath in question is presumably that which falls during that combined festival—and then seven weeks or 50 days later is the presentation of the offering of new grain (Lev 23:15–16; cf. Deut 16:9). This is why Hebrew texts refer to this day as Shavuot (“Weeks”) and why Greek texts refer to it as pentēkostē (“fiftieth”) (e.g., Tob 2:1; 2 Macc 12:32; Josephus, Ant. 3.252; Philo, Spec. Laws 2.176; Acts 2:1), or Pentecost. The fact that Leviticus 23:14 says that it involves the presentation of an offering of new grain, that Exodus 23:16 calls it “the festival of harvest,” and that Exodus 34:22 calls Shavuot “the first fruits of wheat harvest” points to its origins as a harvest festival, a role that it clearly still played in the periods of ancient Israelite religion and Second Temple Judaism (see also Deut 16:9–12). Jubilees is the first work to provide a fixed date for Shavuot, placing it on the fifteenth day of the third month (44:4).

Deuteronomy 16:9–12 is the first text to associate Shavuot with the Law, a concept that is developed in later works so that Shavuot eventually loses its agricultural connections and becomes associated with the lawgiving at Sinai, a counterpart to Passover’s celebration of the Exodus. This connection becomes of particular importance to Jubilees, which provides Hellenistic Judaism of the second century B.C.E. with a retelling of Genesis that demonstrates that the statutes and customs of the Law of Moses were celebrated by the ancestors of humanity before the time of Moses, thereby demonstrating that Jewish customs, not Greek ones, are universal. If God has a covenant with Israel, the first covenant God makes is with Noah, the ancestor of all humanity, and all later covenants in Jubilees are merely renewals of this original one. Jubilees 6:15–22 says that Shavuot is celebrated to commemorate the covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham takes place on Shavuot (14:1), and Abraham is told to circumcise all the males of his household on Shavuot as a sign of the covenant (15:1, 9–14). Abraham moves to Beersheba, the “Oath Well” in 16:11, which is where Isaac, whose birth fulfills the covenant or oath that God makes with Abraham, is born (16:11–18). Jubilees is playing on the Hebrew words šābuʿôt (“weeks”) and šĕbuʿôt (“oaths”) in order to draw the connection between the festival and covenant. Since Exodus 19:1 refers to Israel’s arrival at Sinai in the third month, Jubilees 1:1 implies that God makes the covenant at Sinai on the fifteenth day of that month, the day of Shavuot, as this verse says that Moses ascends Sinai on the sixteenth day in order to receive the Law.

The fact that the Damascus Document, known from tenth- and twelfth-century manuscripts from Cairo, appears in fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls tells us that the sectarian community at Qumran understood itself to be the faithful remnant of the covenant community of Moses (CD 6:1–9). Since the Damascus Document dates the ceremony for the renewal of the covenant to the third month and since we know from the Temple Scroll at Qumran that the community celebrated Shavuot on the fifteenth day of the third month (11Q19 18.10—19.10), it may have been celebrated as a covenant renewal ceremony. Nonetheless, in the Mishnah, Shavuot is a purely agricultural festival; of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, it is the only one without a tractate devoted to it. However, by the Amoraic period (third to seventh centuries C.E.) the Torah portion for Shavuot is drawn from Exodus 19 (b. Meg. 31a), the story of God’s covenant at Sinai, and not from Deuteronomy 16:9–12 as is the case in m. Megillah 3:5, suggesting that we are witnessing a development in rabbinic thought in the association of Shavuot and lawgiving. This certainly seems to be the case in b. Pesaḥim 68b, which states that the Torah was given on Shavuot; and Maimonides writes that Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Law, which was the whole point of the Exodus (Guide of the Perplexed 3.43).

In the New Testament book of Acts, Pentecost is the day on which God’s Spirit descends upon the early Christian community. Acts 2:1–13, which describes the apostles’ reception of the Spirit, reflects the theophany at Sinai in Exodus 19:16–20 at the establishment of the covenant with Israel, which preceded the giving of the Law: it happens in the morning, and the theophany is associated with fire and phōnai “sounds.” These verses in Acts are also full of the same vocabulary that Philo uses to describe the Sinai theophany in On the Decalogue 33–47. The miraculous ability of the apostles to speak in different languages recalls a rabbinic tradition that all the nations heard the divine voice at Sinai in their own languages (b. Šab. 88b), and the author of Luke–Acts may be using these parallels to the covenant celebrated at Pentecost in order to point to the creation of a new covenant with the church. It may be the insistence of Jubilees 6 that Pentecost was established to commemorate the covenant with Noah, the ancestor of all nations, that caused Acts to place the gift of the Spirit to the church, allowing it to spread to all nations, on Pentecost.

Trumpets (or Rosh Hashanah).

The festival lists of Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28–29 refer to “a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts” on the first day of the seventh month (Lev 23:23–25; Num 29:1–6). Ezra 3:1–3, a story of the return of the Babylonian exiles to the land, says that sacrifice is restarted in Jerusalem “when the seventh month came,” which might be a reference to the first day of the seventh month, although there is no reference to trumpet blasts here. And Nehemiah 7:73, which opens the account of Ezra teaching the law to the community of returned exiles in Nehemiah 8, states that Ezra began to teach the law “when the seventh month came,” although here again there is no reference to Trumpets or to a festival. Nonetheless, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which refer to Trumpets as the day of memorial or remembrance (e.g., 4Q321 2.2.2, 6), describe it as a day of Torah reading (11Q19 25.9), likely drawing from Nehemiah; and Philo, who calls it the feast of Trumpets, describes it as a festival of thanksgiving for Torah as the trumpet was sounded at the giving of the Law. The festival functions for him to thank God as well for providing peace, for the trumpet is used in war and for providing peace in the warfare in nature (Spec. Laws 2.188–192).

By the Tannaitic period, however, Trumpets is Rosh Hashanah (“New Year”); and the mishnaic tractate devoted to the day largely associates it with eschatological judgment (m. Roš Haš. 1:2; cf. t. Roš Haš. 1:13). This may be in part because of its proximity in the festival calendar to the Day of Atonement nine days later, although rabbinic thought on the day frequently connects it to God’s mercy in place of judgment. The connection between the blast upon the shofar, or ram’s horn (discussed, e.g., in m. Roš Haš. 3:2—4:4), that had once accompanied the sacrifices of the day in the Temple is now associated not just with the announcement of judgment but with God’s mercy, for the rabbis made a connection with the ram that God provided to Abraham as a substitute for the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Genesis Rabbah 56.9–10 says the Day of Judgment will be a day of mercy like that shown to Abraham, and Pesikta Rabbati, a seventh-century C.E. rabbinic work, states that God specifically wants to judge his creation as righteous on Rosh Hashanah—“It is on New Year’s Day that I acquit my creatures” (40.1)—and that God has shown mercy beginning with Adam, who did not deserve to live after eating of the tree (40.2). Leviticus Rabbah 29.10 says that, just as the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac became entangled in a thicket, so Israel becomes entangled in sin; but Israel will be redeemed by a blast from the ram’s horn. In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is meant to rouse people to think of their acts and to repent, so the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are particularly important ones for doing good deeds (Teshuvah 3.4).

New Testament texts associate eschatological judgment with a trumpet blast. Paul writes that the resurrection of the dead will occur when Christ descends from heaven “with the sound of God’s trumpet” (1 Thess 4:16); in another discussion concerning the eschatological resurrection he writes that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52). This first-century connection between the blast of the trumpet and the eschaton helps us see how a festival associated with a trumpet blast could develop into one associated with eschatological judgment.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

Of the festival lists in the Pentateuch, only those from the Priestly strand, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28–29, refer to yôm hakkippurîm (“the day of the atonements”) (Lev 23:27) as commemorated on the tenth day of the seventh month; and the rituals associated with this day are discussed in some detail in another Priestly text, Leviticus 16. Scholars widely regard this chapter as describing a composite of two originally separate rituals: one involving a purgation of the sanctuary and holy things from the sins of the priests and Israel with the blood of a goat as a sin sacrifice (Lev 16:3–19) and the other the sending out of a different goat that bears Israel’s sins upon it into the wilderness (Lev 16:20–22).

In its current composite setting, the ritual reflects the Priestly understanding of sin as bringing impurity into the sanctuary, thus necessitating its cleansing. While the impurity caused by unintentional sin can be dealt with by means of sacrificial blood on other occasions (see, e.g., Lev 4–5), intentional violations of the law penetrate to the most holy part of the sanctuary, an area in which not even priests are permitted to enter, except for the high priest on Yom Kippur. At the beginning of the ritual, the two goats are chosen, and lots are cast to determine which one is slaughtered so that its blood can be used to effect purification of the sanctuary and which one is to have the sins of Israel laid on it and be sent out to the wilderness (Lev 16:7–10). This latter act purifies the people, as the former purifies the Temple. Leviticus 16:29–34 states that this day is to be one when Israel must “deny yourselves” or fast and on which the people are to do no work.

In the Second Temple period, the participation of the laity in Yom Kippur became more significant. Greek texts refer to the day simply as “the fast” (e.g., Philo, Moses 2.23; Spec. Laws 2.193; cf. Psuedo-Philo, L.A.B. 13.6), and fasting, penitential prayer, remorse, and confession were practiced since they were understood to result in atonement (Jub. 34:18–19; Philo, Moses 2.23–24; Spec. Laws 2.196). By the end of this period, red wool was tied to the neck of the goat to be sacrificed and to the head of the one that carried the people’s sins into the wilderness (m. Yoma 4:2), and the latter was pushed to death into a ravine (Philo, Planting 61; m. Yoma 6:5). After the destruction of the Temple, emphasis moved entirely to acts of self-abnegation that affect atonement; and the mishnaic tractate for the day forbids eating, drinking, bathing, wearing sandals, and sexual activity (m. Yoma 8:1). Repentance for sin is now central to atonement and reconciliation with God, but m. Yoma 8:7 states that repentance reconciles one with God only insofar as it is done with the resolve not to sin again. Despite the emphasis on fasting and repentance in Second Temple and Tannaitic texts, Yom Kippur is also a festival that concludes with joy. Philo actually describes Yom Kippur as a feast, a response to God’s mercy in removing sin (Spec. Laws 1.187; see also 11Q5 27:2–11; Tg. Neof. Lev 23:26–32), and both m. Yoma 7:4 and m. Taʿanit 4:8 refer to feasting at the end of Yom Kippur.

The most obvious reference to ideas associated with Yom Kippur in early Christian texts is Hebrews 9, which refers to the high priest’s entrance into the most holy part of the Temple to offer sacrificial blood for the sins of Israel; for Hebrews 9:6–10 this is merely “a symbol of the present time, during which gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of a worshiper.” For Hebrews, Christ is now the high priest who “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11–14), a sacrifice necessary not annually but simply “once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26). Hebrews is not the first writing to see in Yom Kippur some kind of eschatological typology: 1 Enoch 10:4–8, perhaps from the second century B.C.E., and 4Q180 and 4Q181 from the Dead Sea Scrolls see the reference to the goat cast into the wilderness as the eschatological destruction of the demon Azazel; and the Melchizedek document from the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13) sees Yom Kippur as a model of eschatological judgment, when atonement will be made for the righteous.

Another Christian tradition that draws from Yom Kippur focuses on the two goats used for sacrifice and to bear away the sins of Israel. The early second-century Epistle of Barnabas draws from Leviticus 16 as well as Zechariah 12:10 in order to draw a parallel between Christ and the goat sent into the wilderness. The Epistle of Barnabas 7:6–11 refers to the goat with red wool tied to its head as sent out into the wilderness: it is accursed and pierced (cf. Zech 12:10) and is the type for Jesus destined to suffer. Justin Martyr uses language much like that of the Epistle of Barnabas in connecting Christ to imagery associated with Yom Kippur (Dial. 40), although for Justin it is the goat that is sacrificed, not the one sent into the wilderness, which is the type for Christ. Only slightly later, Tertullian, also using imagery quite similar to that of the Epistle of Barnabas 7:6–11, understands the sacrificed goat to be the first coming of Christ and the goat sent into the wilderness as Christ received in the Lord’s Supper (Marc. 3.7.7–8).

Sukkoth (Booths or Tabernacles).

Sukkoth, meaning “booths,” is the last of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Pentateuchal festival lists. It is called “the festival of ingathering” in Exodus 23:16 and 34:22 and is said to happen “at the end/turn of the year.” Deuteronomy 16:13, naming it as “Sukkoth,” also refers to the agricultural roots of this festival, stating that it is kept for seven days “when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your wine press.” It is a festival of rejoicing in response to God’s blessing “in all your produce and in all your undertakings, and you shall surely celebrate” (Deut 16:15). The word “booths” refers to the structures the ancient Israelites built in the fields during harvest in the autumn, when this festival was celebrated. It is a list from the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch that first connects this festival to the wilderness wandering after the giving of the Law and before the entrance into the land (Lev 23:39–43); this is also the festival list that specifies that Sukkoth is to be observed on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Lev 23:34; cf. Num 29:12). Still, even Leviticus 23:39–40 alludes to the agricultural roots of this festival, stating that it is held “when you have gathered in the produce of the land” and referring to the gathering of the branches of various kinds of trees, including palms, in order to rejoice before God.

Sukkoth in the Hebrew Bible.

Because the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch associates it with an event from Israel’s salvation history, it is in Leviticus 23:42–43 a festival for Israelites alone; only those who are Israelites are to live in booths during this seven-day period, “so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” This is not the case in Deuteronomy 16, where the festival celebrates the bounty of the grape and fruit harvest; Deuteronomy 16:14 specifically invites the “stranger” or resident alien to the festival in Jerusalem along with Israelites. The Priestly lists also add an eighth day to this festival that is only seven days in Deuteronomy 16:15, referring to this day as a “sacred assembly” (Lev 23:36; Num 29:35). The importance of this festival for these Priestly lists is signaled as well by the extensive quantities of sacrifices to be offered during each day of Sukkoth (Num 29:12–38), a much longer and more detailed list than that provided for any of the other festivals in Numbers 28–29. Sukkoth, in the period of the Second Temple, is clearly the preeminent pilgrimage festival, sometimes referred to simply as “the festival” (e.g., 1 Kgs 8:2, 65; Ezek 45:23, 25). The mishnaic tractate devoted to Sukkoth (m. Sukkah) also refers to it simply as “the festival,” and Josephus writes in the first century that Sukkoth was so popular that whole villages in Galilee would migrate to Jerusalem to celebrate it, even during the war with Rome (War 2.515).

The DH links the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem to Sukkoth by having Solomon inaugurate it during the festival (1 Kgs 8:2, 65). The story of the Temple’s inauguration in 2 Chronicles 5–7 draws heavily on the DH’s account, so it dates Solomon’s Temple dedication to the same festival (2 Chr 5:3). In fact, 2 Chronicles 7:8–9 states that Israel “observed the dedication of the altar seven days and the festival seven days,” yet the date provided by 2 Chronicles 7:8–10 implies that these are simultaneous rather than consecutive celebrations; that is, in Chronicles, Sukkoth becomes the celebration of the founding of the Temple in addition to its earlier functions. It is not surprising, then, that the story of Ezra 3:1–4, describing the laying of the foundations of the Temple upon the return from Babylonian Exile, places Temple reconstruction during Sukkoth as well.

While the story of the reconstruction of the Temple in Ezra 1–6 may have been composed in the late fourth century B.C.E., the oracle of Haggai 1:15B—2:9, which also concerns the reconstruction of the Temple after exile, was given when the Temple was actually being rebuilt, or about two centuries before Ezra 1–6 was likely written. While this prophecy does not refer to Sukkoth, it was given on the twenty-first day of the seventh month, or at the end of the festival. In it God promises that the treasures of all the nations will come to the Temple and that it will be filled with kābôd (“splendor” or glory), a word that the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch uses to refer to God’s presence. This reference to the nations in the context of Temple and Sukkoth is found as well in Zechariah 14, a text that likely dates to the Hellenistic period, later even than Ezra 1–6. The chapter describes an eschatological battle with the nations at Jerusalem, when day and night come to an end and when “living waters” flow from the city and God’s rule is established throughout the earth, a time after which Jerusalem will never again be destroyed (Zech 14:7–11). At that time, God will strike the nations with a plague, their wealth will be collected, and they will all have to worship God at Sukkoth each year to avoid further disaster (Zech 14:16–19). The passage appears to build upon the oracle from Haggai, and its eschatological sense is now fully developed. The Temple is the place from which God’s eschatological rule over the world will be manifest, and Sukkoth is the festival at which all of the nations will acknowledge this divine authority.

The book of Ezra–Nehemiah connects Sukkoth to the Law as well as to Temple building, for once Ezra teaches the Law of Moses to the returned exiles, the first action of the exilic community is to celebrate Sukkoth, collecting the “branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written” (Neh 8:14–15). This suggests that the passage is drawing from Leviticus 23:39–40, which refers to the gathering of branches, although Leviticus does not explain what is to be done with them. The assertion of Nehemiah 8 that they are to be used for building booths, temporary dwellings used only during the harvest, reflects the idea in Ezra–Nehemiah that the true community of Israel is still one in exile; in fact, the term “[the children of] the exile” is often used to describe the community of returnees in Ezra–Nehemiah, even generations after the end of the Babylonian Exile (e.g., Ezra 4:1; 6:16; 8:35; 10:6, 7, 16). This is clear enough in the prayer of Nehemiah 9, which follows the teaching of the Law and the celebration of Sukkoth and recounts God’s punishment of Israel for its continual failure to keep the Law, stating that the community lives on the land but only as “slaves” to “the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins” (see especially Neh 9:32–37). That is, Nehemiah 9 portrays Israel’s state as a kind of exile from the land that has not entirely ended just as, during the wilderness wandering, Israel was on the way to, but not entirely in control of, the land. This connection made through the chapter’s reference to the festival and to Leviticus 23’s explanation for the booths tells the exilic community that it will exist in its liminal state until it lives in complete obedience to the Law.

Sukkoth in later Jewish texts.

Philo writes that Jews in Alexandria lived in skēnai (“tents, booths”) in order to celebrate an annual festival (Flaccus 116); it was, in fact, during the time when this festival was to take place that an anti-Semitic Roman official was removed from power there (116–124). Not only does this tell us that Sukkoth was celebrated outside of Jerusalem while the Temple was still standing, but we also see a connection, intentional or not, between Sukkoth and a triumph over Gentiles that reflects Haggai 2 and Zechariah 14. In a different writing (Spec. Laws 2.204–214), Philo reflects on the agricultural roots of the festival, stating that dwelling in booths in order to bring in the autumn harvest reminds one not only of the wilderness wandering but also of the prosperity that comes from God through the harvest and the need to honor God for this. However, the only other postbiblical Second Temple author who refers to the wilderness wandering in the context of Sukkoth is Josephus (Ant. 3.244–247; see Rubenstein, 1995, pp. 75–84), who writes that Moses commanded the Israelites to live in booths in the wilderness because of the cold.

By the end of the Second Temple period, Sukkoth involved a procession around the altar (Jub. 16:31); the waving of tree branches, including those of the palm (Jub. 16:30–31; 2 Macc 10:6–8; m. Sukkah 4:5); and the singing of praises to God (2 Macc 1:30; 13:7). Jubilees 16 describes Abraham as the first to keep Sukkoth, and he does so in this passage rejoicing and blessing God for the birth of Isaac. As a result, God blesses Abraham and all of his descendants because of the celebration of this festival. Like Leviticus 23, Jubilees 16:25 limits this festival to Israel, for it is here a festival that commemorates God’s creation of Israel from Abraham. Abraham does build booths in Jubilees 16, but the passage does not explain the point of this. Jacob also celebrates Sukkoth in Jubilees 32, a story that is combined with a vision in which God changes his name to Israel and promises him many descendants. It is also the point in Jubilees where Levi is invested with his priestly office. Thus, in these passages the festival is related to God’s creation of and care for Israel but also to the Temple (insofar as Levi is the priestly father of its personnel), just as in Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra.

The actual construction of booths as part of the celebration of Sukkoth, however, does not become an important part of the festival until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., for before that time it was a festival centered on pilgrimage to the Temple. The mishnaic tractate on Sukkoth provides detailed instructions in regard to booth construction, referring to the lûlāb (lit. “palm”), a reference to the tree branches to which Leviticus 23:40 refers (m. Sukkah 4:1), as well as to other aspects of the ritual as it appears to have been celebrated while the Temple was still standing. This includes a libation ceremony that concludes with a pouring out of water at the Temple altar (m. Sukkah 4:9) and which t. Sukkah 3:3–10 connects to the vision in Ezekiel 47:1–7 of water flowing from the eschatological temple and to Zechariah’s reference to eschatological “living waters” that will remove impurity (Zech 13:1; 14:8). In t. Sukkah 3:11 the golden flask used for the ceremony is portrayed as referring to the rock from which God gives water to Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 17, so we see in this understanding of Sukkoth a link between the wilderness wandering and God’s eschatological redemption. Sukkoth has now become a festival celebrating God’s protection of Israel, something that occurred during the wilderness wandering and that will occur in the eschatological future when God’s people are delivered. Perhaps as a result, the Hallel (Pss 113–118) was recited every day of the festival, and the eighth and final day became known as śimḥat tôrâ (“the joy of the Law”) (t. Sukkah 3:2), drawing from the connection between Sukkoth and the law present already in Nehemiah 8.

Writings from the Amoraic period continue to draw a connection between Sukkoth and eschatological protection, and they refer to the booths of the wilderness as “clouds of glory” or the divine protection of Israel (e.g., Sifra ʾEmor 17:11; b. Sukkah 11b). In the eschatological future God will make a booth for the righteous (b. B. Bat. 75a) and, according to the Alternative Parsha of Sukkoth, will protect those who observe the festival from eschatological punishment (Pesiq. Rab. Kah. 452). Because its calendric position is so close to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkoth becomes attached to them, emphasizing particularly the sense of favorable divine judgment. So Pesiqta de Rab Kahana 412–413 says God forgives one-third of Israel’s sins upon repentance at Rosh Hashanah, most of their sins during the ten days of repentance and fasting leading up to Yom Kippur, and all of their sins at Yom Kippur, making Sukkoth the beginning of a new and righteous account for individuals. Sukkoth marks, then, a shift from repentance to rejoicing, when the Law can indeed be kept in joy.

Sukkoth in New Testament texts.

The four Gospel accounts place Jesus’s death in Jerusalem during the celebration of Passover, but since John has Jesus’s entrance into the city accompanied by the waving of palm branches (John 12:13) and Mark 11:8 and Matthew 21:8 refer to people strewing tree branches before him, while three of the Gospels refer to cries of “Hosanna” (lit. “Please save us,” part of Ps 118:25, an important verse of the Hallel used during Sukkoth) during the entrance (Matt 21:9; Mark 11:9–10; John 12:13), it is a minority opinion in scholarship that Jesus actually entered Jerusalem during Sukkoth (e.g., Chilton, 2002, pp. 57–60). It is more likely that this tradition simply draws upon the imagery of Sukkoth, which had become associated with God’s eschatological victory in Haggai 2 and Zechariah 14. Jesus is, for the Gospels, God’s eschatological Messiah, a point made in the entrance-to-Jerusalem accounts when Jesus sits on a donkey (Matt 21:1–7; Mark 11:1–7; Luke 19:29–34; John 12:14–16), an allusion to Zechariah 9:9, which says that the king who will rule the world will enter Jerusalem on a donkey.

Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkoth in John 7–8, and he tells those who thirst to come to him and drink since “rivers of living water” will flow from either him or the believer (the Greek may be understood in both senses), a reference to the gift of the Spirit to the church (John 7:37–39). The passage alludes to eschatological texts referring to Sukkoth (Zech 14:17–18) and to water flowing from an eschatological Jerusalem (Ezek 47:2), the same connection made by t. Sukkah 3:3, 18, although in John Jesus himself has become the eschatological temple. As a result, the water that flows from his side in John 19:34 may reflect the gift of the Spirit. During his pilgrimage to Sukkoth in John, Jesus refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12), perhaps a reference to the torchlight ceremony that was held in the Temple at the end of the first day of the festival (m. Sukkah 5:2–4); Jesus says this “in the treasury of the temple” (John 8:20), which is adjacent to the women’s courtyard where the ceremony was held. Here again, the Johannine Jesus is the true eschatological temple that obviates Jewish religious rituals since what is truly necessary for salvation comes from him. Revelation 7:9–17 also draws upon imagery associated with Sukkoth: the “great multitude” from all nations in the vision carries palm branches, a reference to the lûlāb of Sukkoth; they cry “salvation,” a reference to Psalm 118:25; and the text refers to shelter provided by God as well as to “the water of life” or “living water,” an eschatological reference associated with the festival. The standard eschatological ideas associated with Sukkoth in Tannaitic Judaism are present here as well, for Sukkoth, which is not actually named in Revelation 7, is clearly associated with God’s eschatological protection of the faithful as the vision portrays Christian martyrs worshiping at the divine throne, free from all pain and sorrow.




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David Janzen