There is obviously a lot of Passover imagery in the Passion narrative, beginning with Jesus’ meal with the disciples on the night before he died right and continuing through is death on the cross. Writing at the Sacred Page, Catholic Biblical scholar Brant Pitre points us toward another Jewish antecedent to the Crucifixion story: the perpetual sacrifice in the temple at Jerusalem.
A Perpetual Sacrifice
Numbers 28:1-8 and Exodus 29:38-42 describe a sacrifice that took place twice daily in the temple. Here is the description from the book of Numbers:
Each day offer two rams a year old as sacrifices to please me. The animals must have nothing wrong with them; one will be sacrificed in the morning, and the other in the evening. Along with each of them, two pounds of your finest flour mixed with a quart of olive oil must be offered as a grain sacrifice. This sacrifice to please me was first offered on Mount Sinai. Finally, along with each of these two sacrifices, a quart of wine must be poured on the altar as a drink offering. The second ram will be sacrificed that evening, along with the other offerings, just like the one sacrificed that morning. The smell of the smoke from these sacrifices will please me.
Each morning and evening, then, a lamb was offered along with wine and a cake of flour mixed with oil. This offering is known as the Tamid, or perpetual sacrifice.
Although the scriptures don’t indicate at what times these sacrifices were offered, Pitre says that the Mishnah, Josephus and Philo do: 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. These are the same hours at which – according to Mark – Jesus’ crucifixion began and ended. Mark writes that Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9 a.m. – Mark 15:25) and died at the ninth hour (3:00 p.m. – Mark 15:33-37). Pitre suggests that this is an intentional allusion on Mark’s part to the Tamid sacrifice.
If Pitre is correct about Mark’s intentions, then, the paschal lamb (to which Mark alludes in Mark 14:12) who died at Golgotha (and whose memorial is celebrated weekly with bread and wine, Mark 14:22-24) obviated the need for the daily Tamid sacrifice. God’s people will now maintain their covenant relationship with him in their worship of Jesus, lord and messiah, and not at the altar of the temple. This is fortunate, since Mark’s gospel anticipates the temple’s coming destruction (Mark 13:2). Mark’s description of the rending of the temple veil when Jesus died (Mark 15:38) is a prolepsis of the temple’s devastation and a sign that the sacrifice of Jesus has taken its place.
Pitre goes on to note that prayers accompanied the temple sacrifices. While there is a good bit of scholarly dispute about the content and nature of those prayers, Pitre lays out some reasonably convincing evidence that the set, formal prayers known as the “Eighteen Benedictions” (or at least their antecedents) formed the basis of the daily sacrificial prayers.
Among other things, the prayers ask for understanding, repentance, forgiveness, healing, economic sufficiency, redemption from affliction, national liberation, in-gathering of exiles, the defeat of evil, the restoration of Jerusalem, true peace, the resurrection of the dead, the re-establishment of the David’s kingdom and the reign of God.
In short, if these traditional prayers do in fact go back to the Second Temple period–and I realize that this is disputable–then something remarkable emerges. For we find a plausible explanation for why Mark emphasizes Jesus’ crucifixion and death as corresponding to the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. We find that ancient Jews were praying for the very things Christians believe were dispensed by Jesus on the Cross, at the very hour he was dispensing them.
I continue to be astonished by the rich imagery and symbolism that the Biblical authors wove together from scripture and tradition.