28 September 2015

A Note about Passion Week

Religious speaking, Passion Week, as it is officially called in the East, the week leading up to Easter, or Pascha, and with Pascha is the most important time of the Christian calendar, with all else centered upon it.


Passion Week is, of course, called Holy Week in the West, and is commonly referred to as ‘Great and Holy Week’ in the East as well.

Under the pre-1969 Roman calendar and in the Episcopal Church in the United States until 1979, Passion Week once meant (and still does in the Church of England and some other places in the Anglican Communion) the week beginning with what was then Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent.  In fact, under the older forms, the entire two-week period leading up to Easter was the season of Passiontide, which was comprised of Passion Week and Easter Week. 

In the Roman and Episcopal churches, the Sunday of Holy Week is called Palm Sunday: the Sunday of the Passion, and Holy Week is in some quarters referred to as Passion Week.  Some churches count Passion Week as separate from Lent, others as the last week of Lent.  The Eastern churches close out Lent with Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday.

Basic structure

In Eastern churches, Lazarus Saturday serves as the end-point for Lent and the dawn of the coming Passion Week.

Palm Sunday begins Passion Week proper.  The lessons and observances for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday vary. 

The fourth day of Passion Week is often called Spy Wednesday because since the Early Middle Ages, this was the day of the week of the Passion upon which Jesus was supposedly betrayed.

Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, and the Arrest.

Good Friday commemorates the Trial, the Crucifixion, and the Burial.

In the Hebrew calendar, the event of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday took place on the same day.

Holy Saturday, which the Copts call Joyous Saturday and Saturday of Lights and other Easterners call the Great Sabbath, is mostly a day of rest and of preparation for Pashca.

Developmental history

The Church had adopted the Lenten, or Quadragesima, fast in the second century, but not yet the Passion Week.  The Doctrina duodecim Apostolorum, the surviving church order from this century, mentioning only the ‘Day of the Passion’ and the ‘Day of the Resurrection’.

By the first half of the third century, Passion Week was firmly established, even what’s now called the Easter or Paschal Triduum, giving the names ‘Friday of the Passion’,  ‘Sabbath of the Annunciation’, and ‘Sunday of the Resurrection’.

Relation to Christmas and calendar

The designation for Saturday as the ‘Sabbath of the Annunciation’ means exactly what is sounds like; the day upon which the Annunciation took place.  In ancient Jewish tradition, great men were thought to have lived full years, dying on the same day they were born or conceived.  Thus, at least in third century Syria, the Annunciation was fixed on the day after the Passion. 

This was around the time that Pascha was fixed in much of Christendom on the first Sunday after the spring equinox, then 25 March rather than the current date.  That is why the feast of the Nativity, eclipsed for centuries by Epiphany, came to be on 25 December, and, coincidentally, the winter solstice, which then was 25 December instead of the 21st.

Passion Week itinerary, 3rd century

According to the Didascalia Apostolorum, an ancient church order of about 230 CE, in the third century the events of the original Passion Week, and this is the core subject here, followed a much different schedule than commonly believed in the twenty-first century.  The description is in Chapter 21.

Palm Sunday – Entry into Jerusalem
Passion Monday – Cleansing of the Temple, the Betrayal
Passion Tuesday – Passover; Last Supper Arrest on the Mount of Olives
Passion Wednesday – Imprisonment at the house of “Cepha the High Priest”
Passion Thursday – Imprisonment at Fortress Antonia
Friday of the Passion – Trial, Crucifixion, Death, Burial
Sabbath of the Annunciation
Sunday of the Resurrection

Significance and implications

The sequence and timing of events here is much different than that in the gospels as we have them today.  The proximity of the Arrest to the Cleansing of the Temple is much more likely than the timeline of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, which place the Entry and Cleansing on the first day, then have Jesus hanging out in the temple teaching the rest of the week unmolested.  The timing of the Cleansing given above follows the Gospel of Mark.

Assuming Jesus was indeed crucified, he suffered a death meted out only to non-citizen political rebels.  The company his suffered his fate among reinforce that, ‘lestai’ being a Greek word in the first century for what today we would call ‘terrorist’. 

The Cleansing of the Temple as described could only have taken place in the Royal Stoa, which was where the money-changers and animals sellers had their tables and booth; the Royal Stoa was also the meeting place of the Great Sanhedrin, which was presided over by the Nasi (not the High Priest), and since at this time overall supervision of the Temple compound came directly under the prefect Pontius Pilatus, an attack on the Royal Stoa was an attack on Rome.

Were it not for the riot which took place that the same feast that year, crucifixion may have been avoided.  Josephus writes that at the same feast, a large mob gathered outside Pilate’s Jerusalem headquarters to protest money having been taken from the Temple treasury to pay for building the new aqueduct (“give unto Caesar”).  The mob rioted, resulting in possibly scores or even hundreds of Jewish deaths along with a number of Roman soldiers.

Since this timeline does not sync up with that of the gospels as we have them today, some may dismiss it out-of-hand as made up by the compiler(s) of the Didascalia.  But since we know beyond the shadow of a doubt of  many words, phrases, and entire passages have been redacted or interpolated in all the books, it is possible that this is the original timeline.  I can cite several major interpolations right off the top of my head: (1) the Pericope Adulterae in the Gospel of John; (2) the nativity story at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, (3) the entire passages on the conceptions and births of both John the Baptist and Jesus Chrestos in the Gospel of Luke; (4) and (5), the fictional genealogies in Matthew and Luke; (6) the additional post-Resurrection encounters in John; (7) and the longer ending of Mark.  None of those passages exist in the earliest copies of any of the gospels.

The Synoptics make the mistake, Matthew and Luke probably following Mark,  mistakenly equate the first day of Matzot with Pesach, which gives away their Diaspora origin.  Pesach, or Passover, was not the day on which the seder was eaten but the day on which the lambs were sacrificed, because under the Temple the day of the sacrifice was what was important.  John, in fact, in many respects, demonstrates much more knowledge of first century Palestine than all three of the others combined; for example, it does not make the mistake of combining the two separate observances as one.

In light of the witness from the Didascalia, Christians maybe ought to revise their observances of Passion Week, although jamming the most important events into just three days does make it liturgically more convenient, which may be the reason the gospels were written—or rewritten—the way that they are.


Of further interest is the name of the High Priest, the Cohen ha-Gadol, according to the Didasaclia (‘Cepha’), which also contradicts the testimony of all four gospels, each of which gives the name “Caiaphas”.  All four are incorrect; Jewish sources instead name Joseph ben Caiaphas as high priest at the time and have no record of a high priest named Caiaphas.  The second century church order Doctrina duodecim Apostolorum even claims that Joseph the son of High Priest Caiaphas was a secret disciple of Jesus post-Resurrection, clearly an impossibility.

The name given in the Didascalia for the high priest is also incorrect, but is nonetheless highly interesting as it is the Aramaic form of the name Peter.

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