The Ancient Passover: Prefigure of the True Passover

With an ancient rite, the Jewish people recalled the passage from slavery to liberty. For Christians, celebrating Easter means commemorating the Lord’s offering to free us rom sin and to give us eternal life.

In times gone by, a sacrificial rite existed among the nomadic shepherds of the Middle East, linked to the common belief of the Eastern peoples: the “resurrection” of Baal at the beginning of spring.

During this season, before setting out in search of pastures for the herd, a young lamb was sacrificed with the aim of assuring the fecundity of the entire flock and, consequently, the prosperity of the people. They poured the blood of the victim on the tent poles to drive away any evil spirits.1

The Jewish Passover: memorial of a predilection

Chapter 12 of Exodus contains a series of instructions given by God to Moses, in which some aspects in common with the aforementioned customs surface, yet with an entirely different essence and meaning. This is not a superstitious act designed to placate the wrath of a vengeful spirit, but a rite symbolizing the predilection of the true God toward his people and the beginning of a new covenant.

Celebrated for the first time before the departure from Egypt, the Jewish Passover also occurs in the boreal springtime, on the fourteenth day of the month of Aviv, subsequently called Nisan, which corresponds to our present March-April. It was to be celebrated within the family by sacrificing a spotless one-year-old lamb or male kid that had been separated four days earlier. Its flesh, cooked over a fire, was to be consumed with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The two doorposts and lintel of the entrance were anointed with the blood of the victim.

In the Exodus narration, the term חַסֶּפ (pesah): “It is the Passover of the Lord” (Ex 12:11), appears for the first time in Sacred Scripture. Although the etymology of this word has been widely debated, most exegetes associate it with the Hebrew root psh, meaning “to pass over”.2 Therefore, it is to be interpreted in a salvific sense: the Lord “passed over” the houses inhabited by the Israelites, sparing them from the extermination of the first-born.

“Lamb of God” – Church of St. Pankratius, Odenthal (Germany)

Allegorical interpretation in Hellenist Judaism

The Hebrew expression pesah was transliterated by the Septuagint to Greek, using the term πάσχα (paskha), giving rise to the Latin word paschæ, whose equivalent in other languages is Pascua, Passover, Pâques, etc.

However, in the first years of our era, Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in his commentaries on Exodus, prefers the terms διάβασις (diabasis): “passage” and διαβατήρια (diabateria): “crossing”, in place of πάσχα, in translating the Hebrew concept pesah. Yet, due to a merely phonetic similarity, this word was simultaneously associated with the Greek term πάσχειν (paschein), meaning “to suffer”.

Thus, among Alexandrians of Jewish origin, following an allegorical interpretation, the Passover took on the meaning of the passage from the state of suffering to that of perfection: setting aside the passions to attain wisdom. The exegesis of Philo demonstrates his intention to make an allegorical interpretation of Passover: to proceed wisely, it is necessary to celebrate it in a spiritual sense, with a moral and mystical disposition, putting aside evil and adopting a more suitable way of life.3

Although this mode of  interpretation seems spurious in face of the Christian concept, which associates the true Passover with the Passion and Death of Jesus, this spiritual dimension born from Hellenistc Judaism inevitably had some influence on the Christianity of early times.

The ancient Passover, prefigure of the true Passover

As is to be expected, the Gospels contain various references to the Passover celebration, particularly in the narrations of Christ’s Passion (Mt 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 13).

However, it is noteworthy that St. John does not explicitly mention the Passover Meal, probably to emphasize the fact that the death of the Lord is the authentic Passover and Christ the true Lamb.4 Perhaps with the same intention, he records a testimony of the Precursor, not related in the Synoptic Gospels: “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29).

It is in this same sense that Christianity of early times would interpret the death of Jesus. The New Covenant, in the blood of the Lamb of God, whose efficacy attains its plenitude with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becomes the perfect fulfillment of what the ancient Fathers called the “symbol of the Lord’s Passover.”

This is beautifully reflected, in the famous homily of Melito of Sardes, as this salient passage reveals: “Therefore, understand this, the mystery of the Passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, mortal and immortal. It is old insofar as it concerns the law, but new insofar as it concerns the Gospel; temporal insofar as it concerns the type, eternal because of grace; mortal insofar as the lamb, but immortal insofar as the Lord who was immolated as a lamb and resurrected as God.”5

“Jewish Passover” – Cathedral of Strasbourg, Alsasce, (France)

Opening to a new and transcendental world

Meditating on these words spoken in the latter half of the second century, modern day Christians feel transported to that epoch, but without ceasing to look toward the future. Because, in that time, as today, the Passover of Jesus opens before us a new and transcendental world.

“What is the advent of Christ? The liberation from slavery and the rejection of the former subjection, the beginning of freedom and the honour of adoption, the source of the remission of sins and truly immortal life for all.”6

With their ancient rite, the Jewish people recalled the departure from Egypt toward the Promised Land, the passage from slavery to freedom. According to the allegorical interpretation in Hellenistic Judaism, the Passover symbolized an amendment of life.  For Christians, celebrating Easter means commemorating the Lord’s offering of liberating us from the dominion of sin and opening to us eternal life. Because with Christ, Passover ceased to be a mere rite and, as Easter, opens our horizons to life, which now attains its fullness in the Lord’s offering. 


1 Cf. GARCÍA LÓPEZ, Félix. El Pentateuco. In: Introducción al estudio de la Biblia. Estella: Verbo Divino, 2003, v.III, p.165; FABRIS, Rinaldo, apud Nuevo Diccionario de Teología Bíblica. Madrid: Paulinas, 1990, p.1411.

2 Cf. ALONSO SCHOKEL, Luis. Diccionario Bíblico hebreo-español. Madrid: Trotta, 1994, p.617; FABRIS, op. cit., ibidem; VAUX, Roland de. Instituciones del Antiguo Testamento. Barcelona: Herder, 1976, p.615.

3 Cf. RAMÍREZ ZULUAGA, Alberto. “…Él es la pascua de nuestra salvación”. Medellín: Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, 2005, p.99-100.

4 Cf. JOSEP-ORIOL, Tuñí. Escritos joánicos y cartas católicas. In: Introducción al estudio de la Biblia. Estella: Verbo Divino, 1995, v.VIII, p.74.

5 SARDES, Melito, apud RAMÍREZ ZULUAGA, op. cit., p.106.

6 RAMÍREZ ZULUAGA, op. cit., p.163.



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