As many Church of God members are preparing for the fall Holy Days, I thought it might be interesting to investigate how first century Christians might have done the same. Several things are similar but others are unique with cultural differences.
Determining the dates
Most people interested in observing the Holy Days listed in Leviticus 23, and evidenced in the New Testament as well, have access to a yearly or multi-year calendar marking the various Holy Days, either in a hard copy—perhaps a wallet-size calendar—or by accessing any of several websites.
The ancients did not have it so easy. The new moon indicated the beginning of a new month, a necessary component in determining when to keep each festival. One source says this occurrence was determined when two designated witnesses agreed as to the sighting, thereby setting in motion a chain of signal fires, which spread throughout all Judea. Later the process evolved into a new system. After the confirmed sighting, messengers were dispersed throughout the land seven times, signaling the approach of the seven holy day periods. (I am unclear as to whether there were added refinements to this method by the time Jesus was born, but suffice it to say, no one had pocket calendars.)
As I look at an artist’s representation of worshippers approaching Jerusalem during a festival season, I see a road filled with people and animals. There is a man with a lamb across his shoulders, and a woman balancing a basket of fruit on her head, walking hand in hand with a small child. Another woman rides a donkey—is she pregnant? Perhaps. A man wearing the familiar headdress carries a basket of bread and baked goods, and a camel, laden with rider and provisions, plods ahead. Herod’s magnificent temple looms in the near distance—the obvious focal point and destination of these travelers, most of whom traveled on foot. (Jesus and His Times, Reader’s Digest, pages 118-119).
Who are they, I wonder. The accompanying text answers: “From all over Palestine they came, indeed from every corner of the Roman world, crowding the four major roads that led to Jerusalem and swelling the city’s population several times over” (page 119).
Alfred Edersheim adds, speaking specifically of the Feast of Tabernacles: “For this was pre-eminently the Feast for foreign pilgrims, coming from the farthest distance,” wearing the strange costumes of their native lands, and speaking languages and dialects which revealed their countries of origin. (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Hendrickson Publishing, 1993, page 576).
Jerusalem anticipated the three annual pilgrimages. Regarding the Feast of Tabernacles, Edersheim writes, “It [Jerusalem] was indeed a scene of bustle and activity. Hospitality had to be sought and found; guests to be welcomed and entertained; all things required for the feast to be got ready. Above all, booths must be erected everywhere—in court and on housetop, in street and square, for the lodgment and entertainment of that vast multitude; leafy dwellings everywhere….” (page 577).
Regarding the Passover, “the most popular and crowded of the pilgrim festivals,” Jesus and His Times mentions most of the pilgrims carried their provisions with them, stopping at caravansaries for the night, or setting up informal camps and stationing guards against brigands and highwaymen (page 120).
Luke 2:41 informs us that Joseph and Mary made this trip every year from their own city, Nazareth, in Galilee. The distance they traveled was over 60 miles, and could have taken up to four days, depending on the circumstances. (Today that same trip takes just under two hours by car.) The scripture says at age twelve Jesus went with them. It is unclear whether He had gone before, but God’s instruction was that all males would appear before Him (Exodus 23:14-17). According to one source, the injunction began as soon as a boy could walk alone. (See Manners and Customs of the Bible, James M. Freeman, 1972, page 70.)
The Feast of Tabernacles
Succoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, was possibly the most joyous occasion of the year. Solomon’s Temple was dedicated during this feast, and every seven years saw the public reading of the Torah (Jesus and His Times, page 138). Feasting, dancing, singing, and the offering of numerous sacrifices before the Lord were hallmarks of a truly festive occasion.
A quick view
This has been a quick view of a couple of the festivals of God, particularly in the New Testament, and the local activities surrounding them. The word pictures presented by some of the sources cited were real-life experiences for Jesus and His siblings. Was it so different from what we experience today? Perhaps in technology, at least for most parts of the world, but not in the spirit which makes these festivals highlights of our year.