Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, by Dan Rogers
The Nature and Significance of the Topic
The purpose of this investigation is to examine the possible allusions to the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, the Triumphal Entry, and the presence of Jesus at the Feast in Jn. 7 – 9. We will attempt to determine if the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles is present in these pericopes. If it can be determined that the imagery of the festival is present in these accounts, we will examine how it may function in each account. This will be done in order to form a more comprehensive assessment of the role of the festival’s imagery as a source of theological inspiration for the early Christians. A comprehensive study or exegesis of each pericope is beyond the scope of this investigation. However, it is hoped that our examination of how imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles functions in these Gospel accounts might be helpful for further studies.
It is commonly accepted among scholars that the language and symbols of the Gospels have been influenced by liturgical elements in their Jewish background. As the NT texts and the Christian calendar show, Passover and, to a lesser extent, Pentecost have played roles as sources of theological inspiration for the early Christians. Has the third of the three great pilgrimage festivals, the Feast of Tabernacles, played any role or had any influence in Christian discussion? It is mentioned explicitly only once in the NT, Jn. 7:2. This seems strange as the Feast of Tabernacles was extremely popular and important to the Jews before the destruction of the Temple. Tabernacles was apparently the most popular of the pilgrimage festivals, so much so that the Hebrew Scriptures often refer to it as simply “the feast” (1 Kings 8:2, 65; 12:32) or “the feast of the Lord” (Lev. 23:39, 41).1 The popularity of Tabernacles was probably due to several factors. It was celebrated in the fall after the harvest when the agricultural work was finished and the farmers could travel to Jerusalem for a week-long festival. The major ceremonies of Tabernacles involved lights, music, singing, dancing, processions, large numbers of sacrificial animals, and feasting. These activities were very popular and, according to Rylaarsdam, gave the feast an atmosphere of “carnival-like indulgence” (456). As a result of the joyous atmosphere of Tabernacles, more pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for its observance than for any other festival (Rubenstein:7). Even after the destruction of the Temple, the memory of its observance persisted as some of its ceremonies were moved to the synagogue (Burrows:396).2 Stories about the history of the feast, details of its rituals, and interpretations of its significance, persisted in the rabbinical literature. Imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles is found on coins, on tombs, and on other archaeological remains from the first century (Goodenough:I, 277; X, 146), When one considers the festival’s persistence in the synagogue, in rabbinical literature, and in art work, it seems improbable that it left so little mark upon the NT. Is it possible that evidence of its mark has escaped widespread notice? Is there any evidence that this feast, which was so significant for the Jewish ethos, played a part in the formation of the Christian tradition from either a literary or liturgical point of view? Did the Feast of Tabernacles and its imagery disappear from Christian consciousness or did it remain in the background? Smith claims that there is in the background of the production of the Gospels a tendency to associate events and teachings of Jesus with the Jewish festivals (1962:144). The imagery of Passover seems explicit. Did the imagery of Passover dominate the Christian consciousness or can the imagery of Tabernacles be seen in the background of the Gospels? If it can be seen, what is its function? What role does it play as a source for theological inspiration and insight for early Christians? Is the presence of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles more pervasive and powerful in the Gospels than has been recognized generally? In our examination we will seek to answer these questions.
Method of Research
In order to determine the role that imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles may have played in the background of the Gospels, we must first determine what was the imagery of the festival that would have been extant in and around the NT period. By the term “imagery” we mean primarily images of something that strikingly represent something else (e.g. a crèche can be seen as imagery associated with Christmas). We will also allow the term “imagery” to encompass symbols, ideas, concepts, themes, and language. In order to be able to recognize any imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Gospels, we will examine the literary evidence of the celebration of the feast for descriptions of the ceremonies and traditions of the festival as they could have been understood in and around the NT period. We will examine also the archaeological evidence of this festival from this period in order to discover what was being done in association with the feast and how it was being interpreted. From these examinations we will draw conclusions as to what seems to have constituted imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in and around the NT period.
Our next step will be to examine the accounts of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels, the Triumphal Entry in all four Gospels, and the presence of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jn. 7 – 9. We will examine these accounts because they appear to have large clusters of imagery associated with the Feast of Tabernacles and therefore appear to give a fuller picture of how the festival’s imagery may function for each Gospel writer.
1 See also Judg. 21:19; Ps. 118:27; Ezek. 45:25; Hos. 9:5; 12:9. de Vaux argues that the title, “the feast,” barring any other explicit information, should generally be understood to mean the Feast of Tabernacles (II, 495).
2 For examples of references to the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles in the “Eighteen Benedictions” see Burrows:396.