Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger

Tonight I was dabbling in Latin and noticed that the word for “feeding” is pasco. This is not remarkable in and of itself, of course, but when we look at the other biblical languages a rather strange event occurs: they all point to Jesus and his death.

When we hear “Away in a Manger” we might as well be hearing “Away in the Fridge” if we have ancient ears. Jesus was laid in a place for food. It was a place for animals to eat from to be sure, but it was literally a “feeder” in Greek, and the verb for eating in French is “manger.” Jesus was stuck in the cupboard, and this is how it should be, since he grew up to claim that he was the food from heaven. But he wasn’t only some kind of heavenly bread (manna) that descended from heaven, he was also the Passover lamb who was sacrificed and whose blood saved his followers (who were the same people who ate him!) from the Angel of Death. This happened on Passover around 30 AD.

This icon of Jesus’s identity is conveyed with the word “Pascha” in the three major languages of the time. He was the Pascha in every conceivable way, and in every major language that a 1st century Jew would recognize. This is remarkable, to say the least.

The title of this post is :

Feeding, Suffering, Passover, and the Manger.

Another way of saying it is:

Pasco, Pascha, Pascha, and Pasco.

The Three Languages

In the 1st century there were three major languages in Palestine: Hebrew/Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. This is reflected in the proclamation posted on Jesus’s cross, written in all 3 languages. We will look at all 3 below, starting with the most ancient.

Hebrew

The term for Passover in Hebrew is pecach (pronounced peh’·sakh). It means what you would think: to pass over. When the writers of the LXX translated the Hebrew scriptures  into Greek they often faced a common linguistic choice: to translate a word literally or aurally. For example, one could translate “Joshua” (“Jehovah is salvation”) as θεός σωτηρία or as Ἰησοῦς. This choice faces the translator most often with proper nouns.

With Passover, it appears the translators chose to translate aurally, using the term πασχα instead of σκεπάσω (to pass over). This choice led to the wordplay which is the subject of this post.

For a Jew, Pascha meant “Passover” but it also meant “to suffer” in Greek. The association was unmissable, even if it was one that was due to translation alone (and therefore a secondary or seemingly random connection). When a Jew who knew Greek (and most did) celebrated the Passover, they could not help but associate it with suffering, since the language of the Roman Empire was Greek.

The Passover got its name from the angel of death “passing over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, while visiting all of the Egyptian houses and killing their firstborn. Therefore the feast of Passover/Suffering was when the Israelites were passed over and the Egyptians suffered. The feast was centered around a meal with symbolic foods that called to remembrance the suffering in Egypt and the suffering of the Egyptians that led to the release/salvation of the Israelites. The Israelites were released so that they could go worship God in the desert, receiving the Law from Moses and eating a sacred meal with God.

Greek

It was only with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that suffering was explicitly (or literally) equated with Passover. But by the 1st century this had been the case for roughly 3-4 centuries. It was not a new association.

Yet this association took on new depth when Jesus died on Passover/Suffering. One could not help but think that the LXX translation was inspired to foretell this event. When Passover/Suffering was celebrated, Jesus suffered and died as the firstborn Son of God. Yet in the original Passover, it was the Egyptians (sinners) who suffered. With Jesus, he paradoxically is the only innocent one yet is condemned to die. He, as the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, takes the place of the sinners and is punished in their stead. By this, as in Yom Kippur, the punishment that was due to Israel is passed over to another. Jesus dies as the firstborn of sinners even though he is the firstborn of God. This injustice is reversed with his resurrection, celebrated as the feast of Pascha by Christians (later changed to “Easter” in the West).

In other words, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus was called Pascha by early Christians, denoting both the Passover and Suffering of Jesus. How was it remembered? By a ritual meal, insitituted by Jesus just prior to his pascha on the feast of Pascha during the Paschal meal, the Last Supper.

Latin

The significance of pasco for the Bible is this: eating is sacred. The instances of sacred meals in the OT are too numerous to recount here. Beyond this, Jesus invites people to consume him as food, calling himself “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He goes on to say in verse 51:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Since we are in the Nativity (Christmas) season, it is worth noting that Jesus was born in a “manger.” While we take this as a simple fact that he was born in a trough, the deeper meaning is that he was (in English) born in a receptacle whose name derives from the French term for “eating.” It is, after all, a feeding trough. The Greek term used for manger in the NT, φάτνη, is used only by Luke, and refers only to the place where Jesus is placed after his birth (with the one exception being 13:15). His birth a manger in is in a sense an impromptu accommodation, and in another sense a foreshadowing of his identity as the One Who Is To Be Eaten.

To sum up: in the NT Jesus is born in a “feeder” and to feed in Latin is pasco. This is where Jesus was placed as a newborn, and where he was to be found by the shepherds. They were told that they could identify the child as the one who is in the feeder.

We can add to this that pasco is not a very commonly used word in the Latin NT, but it used after the Resurrection by Jesus in his words to Peter (over a meal!):

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. (pasce agnos meos)

He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (pasce oves meas)

-John 21:15-17

It is actually the case that pasco denotes feeding and shepherding, not merely eating. It is the providing of food, something that Jesus claimed he could do and what he commanded Peter to do. The Greek text of John has the verb ποιμαίνω (to shepherd). Again we have a strange coincidence, in that Jesus was called the Good Shepherd, killed as the Passover lamb, identified as the Lamb of God and the Firstborn of God, born in a feeding trough for sheep, and identified as the food for his own flock. As we can see in the Latin translation above, the word for feed/shepherd is pasce, which is virtually identical in sound to Pascha! (the only difference being in the ending vowel)

Tying the Threads

The feast of Pascha (Passover/Resurrection) follows immediately after Pasco (the Last Supper) and Pascha (the Passover), and is followed by Jesus telling Peter to shepherd/feed (Pasco) his sheep.

The feast of Passover, where the passing over of Israel by the Angel of Death is commemorated, is the feast of Pascha (suffering), the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus who suffered on Passover (Pascha), which is also the feast of Pasco (feeding/eating), the commemoration of the Last Supper where Jesus offered bread and wine to his Apostles in anticipation of his Pascha (suffering) which occurred on Pascha (Passover).

Passover is celebrated by eating symbolic food, and Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a Passover meal, suffering the next day during Passover.

Jesus takes the place of the sinners (the Egyptians) and is killed by the Angel of Death so that Israel may be freed. Israel (Jesus’s followers) is passed over (they are not crucified), and yet this does them no good until they accept his salvation by eating with him after the Resurrection, and thereafter celebrating the Eucharist with others as the symbol of who Jesus and who they now are. Israel, after being passed over, went into the wilderness to commune with God and eat with him, as we see in Exodus 10:8-10, 18:10-12, and 24:3-12 below:

And Moses and Aaron were brought again unto Pharaoh: and he said unto them, Go, serve the LORD your God: but who are they that shall go?

And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast unto the LORD.

And he said unto them, Let the LORD be so with you, as I will let you go, and your little ones: look to it; for evil is before you.

 

And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.

And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.

 

And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.

And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.

And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD.

And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient.

And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words.

Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel:

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink.

And the LORD said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.

Back to the Manger

This all explains why Jesus was laid in a manger (φάτνη, feeder) after being born. It was not merely because there was nowhere else to stash him: it was because he was born to be eaten (manger). He was the Pascha, the One who would make the Angel of Death pass over Israel, the one who would suffer, and the one who would tell his disciples to eat (manger) him in remembrance of his Passover/Pascha, and to shepherd/feed (pasco) his sheep/lambs just as he had.

One last note is in order. The Hebrew term for “manger” or “crib” is ebuwc (“to feed, to fatten”). It is used only 3 times in the OT, the last being Isaiah 1:3

The ox knows its owner
And the donkey its master’s crib; (ὄνος τὴν φάτνην τοῦ κυρίου αὐτοῦ)
But Israel does not know,
My people do not consider.”

This chapter of Isaiah was cited widely by early Christians (see Romans 9:29 for a NT example, and note that Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian all cite 1:3 in particular), and as the opening chapter of one of their favorite books it was very important.

One cannot help but see the new significance that the second clause takes on in light of Luke’s nativity story: the donkey (the lowly Gentiles and faithful remnant of verse 9 as opposed to unfaithful Israel) now knows the crib/manger of the Lord (note that κυρίου was the Greek rendering of Yahweh (see v.2 as well as meaning “master”). It is the manger of Jesus, the Passover lamb who was to suffer and be eaten. We can even add to this that the Passover lambs were literally put on crosses to support their carcasses, as Justin Martyr points out. Jews were used to seeing Passover lambs sacrificed and cooked on wooden crosses every year! These were to be taken home and eaten for the sacred Passover meal.

 

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