Exodus and Easter

Christian celebrations of Easter are closely bound to the exodus story.

Fresco of the Resurrection in the Byzantine Church of the Chora, Istanbul, Turkey. 14th century.

Many people have been struck by the many uncanny parallels between the Easter story and the widespread pagan myths about a dying and rising god. It raises the question: Is there a connection between the two? More especially, did the pagan myths give rise to the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Many today believe that is the case.

But when we turn to those first centuries of Christianity when the distinctive Christian understanding of Easter takes shape, we find a surprising phenomenon. We would expect to find allusions to those ancient fertility cults in the earliest accounts of Easter in the church. However, we find no allusions to the fertility cults at all in our earliest accounts. That is strange if Christians were drawing their Easter beliefs from the fertility cults or shaping their Easter traditions along the lines of the common fertility cults to appeal to pagans. 

…the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery, symbolism, and language of the Jewish Passover.

What we find instead is that Christians associate their Easter celebrations not with the pagan fertility cults, but with the Jewish festival of Passover. In those early years, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery and symbolism and language of the Jewish Passover.

In fact, the name these early Christians give to their Easter festival is the Greek word paschaPascha is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Pesach, which is the Hebrew name for Passover. The Latin church picks up this usage and calls Easter in Latin as pascha as well. And from that Latin origin, modern European romance languages get their name for Easter:

    • French: Paques
    • Spanish: Pascua
    • Italian: Pasqua

New Testament Antecedents

We see this linkage between Passover and Easter already in the New Testament. Probably the earliest reference of all is a verse in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

In Corinth Paul is dealing with a church undergoing intense conflict. He seeks to guide this church into living harmoniously with one another, by counseling them to give up their fights and petty bickering, and the intellectual or spiritual pride that lie behind them.

As a part of his advice, he strangely says this:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Unleavened bread forms a part of the Jewish Passover meal, and Paul is alluding to this in what he says. But what is most interesting is his describing the crucifixion of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice, with Christ forming the sacrificial lamb. Here the link between the crucifixion and Passover is already assumed. Paul does not introduce it as a new concept, but one that the Corinthian Christians are well aware of. Keep in mind that this passage was probably written no more than 25 years after the death of Jesus.

We find other New Testament passages making this same link between the Jewish Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross on the day of 14 Nisan. This is the day each year when the lambs served at the Passover dinner are sacrificed in the Jewish temple. According to John, Jesus dies at the same hour as the Passover lambs. 

In John the Last Supper is not a Passover dinner, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it clearly is. There when Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine with his disciples, it is important to note the words he uses with the cup of wine. 

In all three accounts, Jesus links the wine to his death, describing it as the blood of the covenant or of the new covenant. This wording links what is happening in this last supper and the upcoming crucifixion with the spilling of blood that sealed God’s covenant with Israel, as described in Exodus 24. We are not only remembering the exodus, but also re-experiencing it. 

The Linkage of Passover and Easter in the Patristic Church

In the years following the New Testament, this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover becomes well-established. The first Easter sermon to survive from the early church is a sermon given by a bishop named Melito of Sardis about the year 170 A.D. It’s a longish sermon. Strikingly it is almost completely a long meditation on the Jewish Exodus events which are interpreted as symbolic of the reality that has now occurred in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

What we find in Melito is that the Jewish Passover is seen as a type of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is a technical way of talking about the linkage. A type is a symbol of its antitype, which is the reality to which the type points. The type foreshadows the reality to come.

The type serves as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the antitype, which is the reality to which the type points and its fulfillment. In this way of thinking, the Jewish Passover lamb is the type or the foreshadowed symbol for the crucified Jesus. There is a hint that this understanding of the Passover as a type for the death of Jesus was already operative when the evangelist John describes Jesus dying on the cross at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. 

Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea in the Jewish Exodus is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of baptism.

The Pascal Vigil: the Chief Easter Celebration

By about the 4th century, this understanding of Easter as the Christian Passover is so well established that it is the core of what became the primary liturgical celebration of Easter in the early church. This was the service known as the Paschal Vigil. This service was celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. 

It began with the lighting of the new Easter fire about midnight. From this fire a priest lit the Paschal candle which represented the risen Jesus in the service. And from this one candle all the worshippers present lit their personal candles or torches until the church was filled with light.

Following that the deacon led the congregation in the singing of the distinctive Easter hymn/acclamation, known to us by its Latin name Exultet.* After that came a series of readings from the Bible, with many of them drawn from the Old Testament dealing with the Jewish Exodus story. After the readings and sermon came the baptism of new converts to Christianity. After their baptism they were dressed in white robes and led into the church for their first Eucharist. 

The service could last for several hours into the night, and was the Easter service of the early church. It has been largely preserved in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It has been revived as a strong liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches in the last 50 years.

We should note a number of things about this service. One, it was called the Paschal Vigil, or the Christian Passover Vigil.

The language of the service is heavily soaked in the language of the Jewish Passover. This is very clear in the wording of the distinctive Easter hymn, the Exultet. The Old Testament readings chosen for the service dwell upon the Jewish exodus experience. 

Baptism is seen as a Christian form of passing through the Red Sea. Baptism leads the new convert out of spiritual Egypt and introduces him or her into the Promised Land, which is the church. One sign of this is that at some vigils, new converts were served not only bread and wine at their first Eucharist, but also milk and honey. 

In this early period, you had the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus celebrated all in one festival service rather than in three separate festivals as today. The Christian Passover was not just Easter morning alone but included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Ascension Day as well. Together they formed the Christian Passover.

Easter Hymnody

Another example of this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover is an example of an early Easter hymn from the 7th century. It is a hymn composed by the Eastern Orthodox church father John of Damascus. Most Protestants will know it best from the English translation made by the 19th century Anglican translator John Mason Neale.

The first two stanzas read:

Come, you faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!

God has brought forth Israel into joy from sadness,

Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters;

Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.


‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,

And from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.

All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying

From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.**

Someone uninformed about early church liturgics might be puzzled by John’s bringing a reference to the Exodus into an Easter hymn. What’s going on here, they might ask. But if we have some knowledge of how early Christians thought of Easter as the Christian Passover, it all makes sense. Like Melito, John sees the exodus as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

When Christians describe the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as another Passover, they are also signaling how they regard those events. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as events of liberation, in this case, not from Egyptian slavery but from slavery to sin, the devil and death. Easter then becomes another Passover festival celebrating God’s salvation, salvation seen as God liberating humanity from a kind of spiritual enslavement. The Christian Pascha is a celebration of an event and of an experience of liberation. 

Additional Note:

I lead this posting with a reproduction of the Eastern Orthodox image for the resurrection, a mural on the walls of the Byzantine Church of the Chora in Istanbul, Turkey. Orthodoxy does not picture Jesus rising from his tomb as does most Western art. Instead it focuses on the theological significance of the resurrection as that moment when Christ shatters the gate of Hell and releases imprisoned humanity. The symbol of Christ leading humanity into freedom is the image of Christ lifting Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. The shattered gate of Hell lies in ruins beneath him. It is an image–and understanding–of Christ’s resurrection as a liberation event. It owes much to the early church’s linkage of Easter to the exodus event. 


* The Exultet contains a striking understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve. The hymn calls it a  “truly necessary sin” and a “happy fault (felix culpa)”. It suggests that in a paradoxical way the sin of Adam has turned into an occasion of great happiness and rejoicing for humanity, because it was the prelude to the great redemption that is Christ’s resurrection. 

** In the second stanza of the hymn we find John bearing witness to the Christian linking of Easter to the seasonal return of spring. Through this linkage some elements of the old pagan fertility cults seeped into Easter celebrations, like eggs and bunnies. But this linkage is a later development in Christianity. It is not a feature of the earliest celebrations, as we see in the Easter Vigil. There the link is entirely to the exodus story.

Christ is Risen: How Do We Know?

Belief in Christ’s Resurrection Suggests We Live in an Open Universe.

The traditional Eastern Orthodox depiction of Christ’s resurrection from the Church of the Chora in Istanbul, 14th century.

During this holiday weekend, Christians around the world will shout out the ancient Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Critics of Christianity–as well as sometimes our own doubting selves–keep asking the question: How do we know that it is true? Is it just one vast delusion or even an egregious lie?

Categories of Evidence

The New Testament offers three categories of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first is its stories of the empty tomb. When men and women on Easter morning come to the tomb where Jesus was buried, they find it open. Entering in, they find the grave clothes but no body in repose.

They also encounter strange figures in the tomb, which some gospel writers identify as angels. These strangers offer the meaning of the empty grave clothes. Jesus has risen, the angels tell them (see Matthew 28:1-8).

The second category of evidence the New Testament writers offer is the personal encounters various disciples have with Jesus. These include the encounter Mary Magdalene has with Jesus in the garden (John 20:1-18), the encounter the eleven disciples have with Jesus on Easter evening behind locked doors (John 20:19-23), and the encounter two disciples have with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

The gospel writers suggest that these encounters are more than ghostly visions by emphasizing very material things that Jesus does during these encounters. Luke, for example, tells us that the risen Jesus eats a fish in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24:41-43). John says that Jesus invites doubting Thomas to place his finger in the wound scars on his body.

What is fascinating to me about these two categories of evidence is that they depend upon each other for their full persuasiveness. The empty tomb, for example, has been challenged ever since ancient times. People have charged that someone stole Jesus’ body, or his disciples moved it.

The empty tomb is not persuasive by itself. But if you balance it with the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, then the empty tomb begins to take on more persuasive power.

Likewise the stories of the encounters with the risen Jesus have been challenged. Some charge that they represent wishful thinking on the part of the disciples or possibly some kind of group hallucination.

Those challenges become harder to sustain when the evidence of the appearances is combined with the evidence of the empty tomb. If the tomb was truly empty of a body, then the appearances may be something more than ghostly apparitions.

So we find the two categories of evidence do not work well alone. They must work in tandem to support each other.

The Evidence of Changed Lives

The New Testament also offers a third category of evidence. That is the changed lives of the disciples.

The gospels are blunt that the resurrection of Jesus comes as a surprise to his disciples. They do not expect it. Instead the picture we get in the gospels of the disciples after the crucifixion is one of fear and disillusion.

The gospel of John, for example, says that when the risen Jesus appears for the first time to his eleven disciples on Easter evening, they are gathered in fear behind locked doors. They were afraid for their own lives.

When Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel, and they tell him of the events that have just happened in Jerusalem, they conclude their narrative with what I consider some of the most despairing words in the Bible: But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21). That word had speaks volumes about their true feelings.

And the gospel of John tells us that after the events of the crucifixion, the disciples return to their old jobs of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). It’s as if now that their hopes have been dashed, they return to old, abandoned occupations.

Yet when we turn the pages after the Gospel of John, we find in Acts stories of these same disciples boldly preaching about Jesus despite all orders from the ruling authorities to cease. When the Sanhedrin orders Peter to stop preaching, he (the one who had denied Jesus three times out of fear) refuses, saying, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The other writings of the New Testament show these same disciples as well as others confidently presenting their message without any cowering fear for their own lives. Despite fierce opposition from both Jewish and Gentiles sources, they continue to boldly scatter out into the world with their message.

How do we account for this dramatic change? Something clearly happened that changed the way they looked at life and how they felt about their lives. Something extraordinary, in fact.

Identifying that something is one of the greatest challenges any historian of Christian beginnings faces. The New Testament attributes the change to the impact of Jesus’ resurrection and his subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit. These changed lives then become the third category of evidence. For me personally, it is the most convincing of the three categories of evidence.

The Challenge to Our World View

Whether any one individually finds these three categories persuasive will depend in large part on how willing we are to concede that we may live in a far more open and mysterious universe than we commonly imagine.

Those of us who are heirs of the Enlightenment live with an understanding of the world where the world’s natural processes are governed by scientific laws of nature. These laws not only describe how the universe operates but also how the universe must operate. The picture of the universe they give us is of a universe that is a closed system. And it permits no exceptions to its iron laws. This is why Enlightenment thinkers were convinced that all miracles were impossible.

This is the common vision of the world that I suspect most people absorb from their rather rudimentary education into the sciences. In that vision something as exceptional as a true resurrection is impossible. It cannot be believed.

To even concede the possibility of a resurrection, therefore, involves a willingness to accept that the Enlightenment view of the universe as a totally closed system may just be wrong. Modern science as it has developed in the 20th century with such things as relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. gives evidence that scientists may not be able to be so dogmatic about the universe as scientists sometimes seem to be.

Life and the universe may be just more open and mysterious than we are able at the moment to understand. If we accept the Easter proclamation as true, then we must be prepared for all our presuppositions about the universe and life to be shaken. And that includes our presuppositions about how we should live. An open universe becomes an invitation into a journey that will constantly shake us up and startle us, but at the same time astound us with its beauty and surprising hopefulness.

May I wish you all an Easter of joyful surprises.

Mark’s Ending: One Solution to the Riddle

The ending of Mark’s gospel may hide a surprising pastoral strategy.

Biblical scholars have long recognized that the Gospel of Mark ends oddly. Its canonical ending (verses 16:9-20) is clearly a later add-on to Mark’s original version. In all the earliest manuscripts, Mark 16 ends with verse 8:

So they [the women who find the empty tomb] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

But what a strange way to end the gospel story! The women who visit the tomb and find it empty meet there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen. But they do not—nor anyone else—have an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Here Mark differs sharply from the other three gospels.

Instead the young man tells the women that they are to tell Peter and his disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him. But then Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee. Matthew does. So does John. But Mark is silent.

This has led scholars to speculate that the original ending of Mark’s gospel got detached from the rest of the gospel at a very early date. The last leaf of the papyrus scroll may have been torn off.

In the original Greek, verse 8 in fact ends with the Greek word gar, which is the Greek conjunction for the word for. Many people cannot imagine Mark ending his story so abruptly, especially given the fact that the sentence describes how the women said nothing to anyone about the empty tomb or their encounter with the young man and his message because they were afraid.

So how did the original version of Mark end? That is a riddle Marcan scholars have long sought to answer.

A Speculative Answer

I don’t know the answer to that riddle. But I like to entertain the possibility that the original manuscript of Mark did end at verse 8. Is so, what was Mark up to in ending his story this way?

Well, to speculate an answer, I suggest we go back to what the young man tells the women. He says Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells the women to tell his disciples and Peter that he Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him.

But where in Galilee? That must have been the question the disciples asked, as do we. I want to propose one possible solution to question.

The disciples will meet Jesus in Galilee. But since Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee, where is the reader to find this encounter that fulfills the promise?

One must, in a sense, return to the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee abruptly. And his ministry continues in Galilee until he makes the fateful move to travel to Jerusalem and his death.

In Galilee, Jesus teaches and preaches, he heals and casts out demons, he calms storms, he feeds the hungry, he forgives sinners, he eats with outsiders, he challenges the scribes and Pharisees. These actions reveal the very inner character of Jesus, and ultimately according to Christian belief, the very character of God.

He characterizes his mission in the potent words to James and John in Mark 10:35-45. He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. His disciples need to learn that he who would be great must become the servant of all.

Jesus Resumes His Ministry of Service

The risen Jesus does not leave this mission of service behind, now that he can ascend to heaven and become the lord of the cosmos. The one who sits on heaven’s throne remains this very one whose life was all about service and giving his life for others. The one who sits on the throne and the one who serves the needy in Galilee are the one and the same Jesus.

So what the risen Jesus is doing when he goes ahead of his disciples into Galilee is to return to that ministry that was his from the start. And that is where his disciples will meet him. In the needy they serve, they will not only follow in his footsteps. They will see him.

What is different is that now, as a result of the resurrection, his Father has confirmed the path that Jesus has followed as God’s way. The Father has confirmed Jesus as the true Messiah, but the Messiah who brings liberation in this servant way.

So what Mark does is drive his readers right back to rereading his gospel, but now in the new perspective that the resurrection brings. Go back to Chapter 1, the gospel seems to be saying, and there you will see the risen Jesus in Galilee doing what he was always doing.

And when you come to the end of the gospel, then go back once again, over and over again, until your consciousness begins to absorb the gospel message and you recognize in Jesus’ way the work of the true Messiah. It is hard to change our consciousness, but if we keep reading the gospel over and over again, something of its power may begin to sink in and dissolve our hard-heartedness . Then one day we may awake and find that we see life and God and Jesus in a wholly new way.

So maybe in the end, in the way he ends his gospel, Mark reveals a strange and surprising pastoral strategy.