Episode 4: Passover and Easter, pt. 2


Em and Jesse continue their discussion of Passover and Easter, including the Venerable Bede’s take on Easter’s pagan origins, blood libel, and some long digressions about monasteries, Pope Francis, Saint Francis, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Annotations, Citations, and Corrections

1/ [1:44] Miriam: We actually didn’t talk about her at all in the first part. She was the sister of Aaron and Moses, and she is quite an interesting figure in her own right–a prophet and leader. She had powers over water. Her cup is called the kos Miriam and I believe it is generally filled with water. [Yes, in the Old Testament or Torah–specifically Numbers 20:1–2–we are told that Miriam died and was buried, and there was no water for the congregation. Tradition–i.e., the Talmud–tells us that during the 40 years in the desert, Miriam had a well (Moses was given manna, the food, and Miriam the well, for water). When Miriam died, the well dried up. There is also a midrash about Miriam’s well, so modern feminism has simply chosen to highlight an old symbol with a new tradition (Miriam’s cup at the Seder). Miriam is also sometimes seen as the leader and teacher of the women (as Moses and Aaron were for the men). In Exodus 15:20–21, Miriam is described as a prophet who led the women in singing and dancing for the Lord (with timbrels!). This imagery is extremely important not only to modern feminists but also to female mystics in the Middle Ages.–JN]

Jesse: The bread/orange section isn’t particularly clear. Miriam’s cup is OLD symbolism (see note above), but its inclusion in the Seder (usually next to Elijah’s cup) is fairly new (a few decades). Another fairly recent addition (same time frame, a few decades) is the orange, which now sits proudly on many Seder plates. The orange is completely new, and stems from Dr. Susannah Heschel speaking at the Oberlin College Hillel in the early 1980s. There are a lot of urban legends about this story, and the real version can be found here and in the book The Women’s Passover Companion. Essentially, Dr. Heschel was looking for a way to be inclusive not only of women but also of the LGBTQ+ community–Passover is a story about conquering exclusion and finding community. She came across a phrase in a written story (it was not yelled at her, as many believe) that said a lesbian has as much place in Judaism as a crust of bread on a Seder plate. Some people have chosen to put bread on their Seder plates as defiant symbolism, but bread is forbidden at Passover, and its inclusion essentially taints everything else at the table. Dr. Heschel rightly decided that including bread on a Seder plate did not symbolize inclusion; rather, it compared the LGBTQ+ community to impurity. So, Dr. Heschel chose an orange, which has now come to symbolize all who feel excluded from the community. The orange represents the fruitful and colorful contributions of all who may feel unnoticed, unimportant, or unwanted (but especially the LGBTQ+ community, who are the origin and foundation of the practice!).

2/ For an interesting fictionalized retelling of the story of the creation of Superman, see Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay (Random House, 2000).

3/ [3:11] ” ‘El’ meaning G-d…for some reason the name of G-d is always plural.” This is the same syllable you see in many modern Hebrew-derived names. Daniel = G-d is my judge. Nathaniel = G-d has given. Yisrael = G-d contends. [Jacob is given the name Israel after struggling with the angel in Genesis 32:24–28. The Israelite are the descendants of Jacob.–JN]

The suffix “im” in “Elohim” is a plural marker in Hebrew. Why “Elohim” is always used rather than “Eloha” (which would be the singular) is a more complex question than I would have thought, and I really fell down a rabbit hole trying to answer it. So: it may be related to a previous pantheon (in an earlier tribal religion) in which one deity became more important than all the others; there are some theories that the creation story in the book of Genesis comes from the Enûma Eliš, which is the Babylonian creation myth, but retold to have one deity instead of many. If your interest is piqued by this, you may enjoy this Wikipedia page, and here is Chabad’s explanation (this particular page makes reference to a couple of more esoteric bits of Jewish mysticism we will have to discuss in the future. Also, note that in Hebrew there are a lot of different names for G-d. If you are now thinking that Judaism has a fascination with words, you are right).–Em

Jesse: Yes, Elohim is presumably plural because gods had been plural–there had been pantheons. A singular deity with pluralistic traits (and a plural referent) makes a lot of sense–it’s what people were used to. Also, the opening of Genesis is definitely the Enûma Eliš (or similar) rewritten (quite brilliantly) with one god. It’s the creation story that people knew. It’s also worth pointing out that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) include “You shall have no other gods before me,” which is a fascinating commandment from a monotheistic deity.

4/ Aziraphael: Made up. Per Terry Pratchett, “It was made up but… er… from real ingredients. [The name] Aziraphale could be shoved in a list of ‘real’ angels and would fit right in…” (source).

5/ Catholics and the accusation that the Virgin Mary is somewhat conflated with God–interestingly, there is a female aspect to G-d in Judaism called Shekhina. But that’s Kabbalah, and thus a story for another time.

6/ [6:19] The most famous Pietà.

A photo of Michaelangelo's Pieta.
Stolen from Wikipedia: Source.

Things that in person live up to the hype when seen in person, a short but mostly complete list:

  • Michaelangelo’s Pietà
  • Winged Victory (the one in the Louvre)
  • The Sistine Chapel
  • The Great Wall
  • Most dinosaur skeletons [Oooo, yes, especially the new Sue exhibit at the Field Museum.–JN]

Jesse: I’m adding the city of Venice, the Acropolis in Athens, and Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (aka The Woman in Gold–if you haven’t seen it in person, you haven’t seen it).

7/ Jesse: There’s actually a lot more to this. First, gaps in manuscripts are called lacunae (that’s plural). The 11th- or 12th-century Christus Patiens is a Greek verse poem of Christ’s Passion. The manuscript attributes the poem to Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), but the poem is far more likely from the 11th or 12th century. The CP incorporates a lot of Classical works, and the Virgin Mary’s text includes lines from a number of Euripides’s works including Hecuba (Alexopoulou, 127). Hecuba is essentially the dramatized lament of Hecuba over her husband, children, and ultimately her grandson–we’ll probably have an episode on Laments, and maybe we’ll work in some Classical references! It’s a very, very, very, very veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery loooooooooooooooong tradition. At any rate, in the grand tradition of laments, the CP is largely about the Virgin Mary. The lines that the CP borrows from Euripides’s Bacchae connect Christ to both Dionysus (fertility god) and Pentheus (who dies horribly as a sacrifice to Dionysus). Mary is connected to Pentheus’s mother, Agave. My point here is that Mary’s lament includes lines from Agave’s lament that are now lost in any manuscript we have of The Bacchae (Alexopoulou, 132). In William Arrowsmith’s translation of The Bacchae, he includes an appendix discussing how he used lines from CP to fill the gaps in the text–mostly for Agave (from Mary), but also including a couple from Christ (for Dionysus). See:

Em: We did talk about the guy who gets ripped apart (Pentheus) last time (in the notes, anyway [episode 3, note 24]). The story reminds me a bit of Krishna and the Gopis (told in another Middle Ages story, the Gita Govinda, by Jayadeva ), but the Krishna story is a lot less violent and usually just involves a lot of dancing. The gopis do love Krishna and want to merge with the deity, it’s just…less bloody, I guess.

Jesse: Tearing apart a sacrifice is called sparagmos. Definitely check out the Wikipedia article linked there if…this is something you want to read more about!

8/ Jesse: Here is Vivaldi’s Stabat mater. The Latin text of the Stabat mater is from the 13th century, so there’s a long history of music behind this hymn. As I also note, the Flagellants sang this hymn in some cases. I know this is Ask a Medievalist, but really–why not listen to Vivaldi?

9/ [15:40ish] “…a priest indoctrination ceremony, where they make you a priest.” The word I [Em] am groping for here is ordination. A frocking ceremony would also be technically correct, (if you are laicized in the Catholic Church, you are defrocked, so frocking makes sense linguistically), but in general it looks like only the military uses the term “frocking ceremony.” Anyway, before this correction goes totally off the rails, I will just note that there is a Charismatic Catholic movement in the US (and elsewhere), and one of its first starting points was Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The cloth given to the mother during the Catholic ordination ceremony is called a manutergium. When the mother dies, she is buried holding it in her hands; according to tradition, when she gets to heaven and is judged by God, she can present it to him as proof that she gave her son to be his priest on Earth, and this entitles her to entry into heaven. Here’s an article on it.

Compare this to the Buddhist practice of having friends and family help shave the head of a newly ordained monk, a process that is felt to bring great karma on those who participate; additionally, in several Theravada societies, it is the responsibility “of every parent to see that his son is initiated, so that he may reap the rewards of Buddhist initiation; [and on the other hand it is the responsibility] of every child to be initiated, so that his parents may reap the merit accruing from the sponsorship of the ceremony” (Melford E. Sprio, Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2nd expanded ed., University of California Press, 1982, p. 236). (Note that ordination as a Theravada monk is often a short-term [or shorter term, anyway] thing, rather than the [Catholic] priesthood, which in general these men are expecting to enter for life I’m guessing. In addition, other than poverty and chastity, there’s not that much in common between the vows the two groups of monks take. But the overall point is that both religions feel a need for sons to in some way repay a debt to their parents.) The comparison of the two groups comes from S.J. Tambiah, World Conquerer & World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background, Cambridge University Press, 1976: p. 360 and on (appendix to ch. 15). This has been another edition of Em Recommends Her Grad School Reading.

10/ [20:06] “Aliyah” has a number of meanings in Judaism, but here it refers to an honor given to people during the reading of the Torah, which typically happens on Saturday mornings or holidays–they call you up and you get to read the blessings before the Rabbi reads the Torah portion. (Actually, unlike your Jewishness, which famously descends matrilineally, your…tribe(?) usually descends patrilineally, so Em and Jesse are (from an Orthodox standpoint) technically Bat Yisroel. See this Wikipedia page for a really probably overly long summary.) TL;DR if you like Star Trek (the OG), you have seen the Kohenic blessing hand gesture in the Vulcans, which of course came from Leonard Nimoy being a Jewish kid and seeing it at Synagogue.

Jesse: To continue with our feminism from the beginning of the episode, progressive Judaism allows matrilineal descent of tribe as well (which makes sense!) which is what makes Em and Jesse both Bat Kohen (Bat Kohanim).

20:00–26:00: Quick digression on monastic orders and St. Francis (whose stigmata bring us back to Easter). The section on Francis lasts until 34:00, but since Francis was an alter Christus (another Christ) this actually makes sense in an Easter episode.

11/ “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who.

12/ A very informative book (and one that will have to be, as always, a story for another time) is Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, The Key to “The Name of the Rose”: Including Translations of All Non-English Passages, University of Michigan Press, 1999. Yes, it is aimed at readers of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but it offers a good discussion (readable and not too long) of various 10th–12th (approximately) century orders and the heresies it was felt they had committed.

Jesse: Again, there will definitely be episodes dedicated to monastic life in the Middle Ages (which was actually quite interesting).

13/ Jesse: Chaucer’s Prioress is an amazing character, and we’ll deal with her when we talk about anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism in the Middle Ages. The Prioress should not to be confused with the lowly Nun in her retinue (a retinue which also includes three priests–the Prioress has a lot of servants). [Her prologue and tale are here.]

14/ The Rule of St. Francis as the Order of Friars Minor now consider it can be read here. And some of the previous versions can be compared on Wikipedia.

Jesse: We will definitely have a St. Francis episode!

15/ Stigmata of St. Francis.

Jesse: I simplified all this a bit in the discussion. Innocent III endorsed St. Francis’s order in 1210 (after the revision of the early 1209 Rule that was simply a list of Jesus’s commands to the apostles). A second Rule was approved by Honorius III in 1223.  One important early supporter was Cardinal Ugolino di Conti, who was made protector of the Franciscan Order by Honorius III in 1220 and who luckily became Pope Gregory IX in 1227. Francis died in 1226, and Pope Gregory IX made him a saint in 1228. In 1237, Pope Gregory IX issued three(!) bulls explicitly endorsing Francis’s stigmata (which are not mentioned in Francis’s canonization). Nine papal bulls endorsing St. Francis’s stigmata were published between 1237–1291, demonstrating how controversial they continued to be–and explaining why St. Francis continues to be the only person whose stigmata are officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Gregory’s three bulls are all from April (possibly March 31–April 12, the dating is a little unclear): Usque ad terminos, Non minus dolentes, and Confessor Domini. The best article on this is in French: André Vauchez, “Les stigmates de saint Francois et leurs detracteurs dans les derniers siecles du moyen age,” Melanges d’archeologie et d’histoire Vol. 80 (1968): 595–625; 601–2. For the timeline questions, see Rosalind B. Brooke, The Image of St Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 167 nt. 14.

16/ Brother Sun/Sister Moon. [Here is the actual text of the “Canticle of the Sun” with a translation.–JN]

17/ We are talking about this Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli outside of Assisi, which encloses the Porziuncola or Portiuncola (the little “pig sty” church that St. Francis started his order in), not the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome, which was built around the same time but happens to have been designed by Michelangelo. [Also, the Porziuncola is not an actual pig sty–it’s a little stone chapel built before 1045. St Francis restored it (along with a few other churches) when it was falling into ruin, and it became his home base. I call it a pig sty to illustrate its small size–not to imply that it is (or was) some how “less than” or dirty! I could just call it a small, hut-sized stone chapel, but…St. Francis and animals, etc.–JN]

Jesse: Also, Saint Francis never became a priest.

18/ [33:30] I hear that train a rollin’. It’s comin’ round the bend.

19/ Apparently, there was previously a distinction within monasteries drawn between choir monks, who were ordained as priests, and lay brothers, who weren’t. Also, I think you can be a Jesuit and not be a priest, so Em is a little wrong here. [We’ll have a whole episode on things including lay brothers and priests marrying, etc.–JN]

20/ [37:05] Specifically, the term “venerable” is used in the Catholic church to indicate someone who has a certain level of sanctity (level three, I guess?), but is not yet a saint. However, in the case of Bede, the title was miraculously supplied by angels to a guy who was writing an epitaph for Bede and found himself with writer’s block. He’s also a doctor of the Church (this is like the Church awarding you a PhD–it means he did a lot of scholarship) and a saint, but it’s sort of telling that those are–I don’t know, they kind of feel like footnotes compared to the rest of his work, which was pretty considerable.

21/ Specifically, Henry Percy (the best part in Henry IV pt 1) is from Northumbria.

22/ Wikipedia article about Eostre/Ostara. [Eostre didn’t exist!–JN]

23/ I [Em] would be remiss if I didn’t include a theory put forward by a friend that I have only heard since we recorded this episode, which is that egg searching/collecting was invented as a way to get toddlers involved in the upkeep of the tribe. Toddlers love to help with things but don’t have very good motor skills. This seems entirely credible to me.

24/ Jesse: Paschal sacrifice! The yearly sacrifice of the Paschal lamb was one of many Temple traditions that did not survive the destruction of the Temple and thus occurs in modern Judaism in a different (usually figurative) manner–frequently through the verbal recounting of the original ritual. Another Temple ritual that is now figurative is that of the so-called scapegoat. We’ve had a question on scapegoats (our first podcast question!), but we already detoured into monastic history during this episode. Scapegoats were part of the Temple ritual on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a ritual that is now fulfilled by reciting the original ritual practice. We’ll definitely return to this practice and to the concept of scapegoats in the future, but we didn’t have time for another detour.

25/[47:08] For those who were, like me [Em] confused: Strictly speaking, Easter is the first Sunday after “the Paschal full moon,” meaning the full moon following the spring equinox (i.e., March 21; this dating was adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which was before the schism between what is now the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church). Passover is the evening of the 14th day of Nisan (aka the 15th day–the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and so a “day” goes from sunset to sunset rather than sunrise to sunrise or midnight to midnight), which is generally the full moon following the vernal equinox. However, if there’s a leap month,* Passover is the second full moon instead. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, some people use the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one (which is named for another Pope Gregory–in this case, number 13). The Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582; prior to that, on the Julian calendar the equinoxes would move because they don’t have a leap day. So both the Orthodox Church and the Catholic/Protestant ones are using the same calculation, basically, they’re just on different calendars (and even this is an overstatement–some Orthodox churches do use the Gregorian calendar and some don’t).

* Extra note: Both the Jewish and Muslim calendars are lunar and thus get out of step with the solar calendar because the cycle from new moon to full moon to old moon is less than the 30-31 days of a typical solar month. To fix this, Jews occasionally deploy a leap month. Muslims don’t, which is why if you pay attention from year to year Ramadan seems to wander around the secular calendar.

26/ Pentecost: The Jewish holiday is Shavuot. It is the holiday that celebrates the Israelites being given the Torah, but it is also technically a harvest festival, and as Jesse notes it is traditional among Ashkenazic Jews to eat, e.g., cheesecake, cheese blintzes, and cheese kreplach (other types of Jews have their own specific cheese-containing foods, such as cheese sambusak [a type of samosa] and kahee that they traditionally eat for the holiday; Wikipedia notes that Yemenite Jews don’t eat dairy products for Shavuot). Why this is tradition: I have no idea. Also, by the way it’s 49 days between Easter and Pentecost and between Passover and Shavuot. [As it should be! Shavuot is the 50th day, hence the term “Pentecost,” which is Greek (the language from which Christianity received its textual beginnings). Also, the two main interpretations of the dairy foods are: 1) the reception of the Torah is also the beginning of Jewish dietary laws, which include not mixing meat and milk, and 2) the Torah is the milk from the land of milk and honey. We talk more about milk symbolism in the discussion–JN]

Jesse: I’m using synecdoche here: Ten Commandments=the Torah in this conversation.

27/ Doubting Thomas: Another episode with an excellent Caravaggio painting to accompany it.

28/ Islam, for reference, was founded in the early 7th century CE. Muhammed (PBUH) was born in 570 and died in 632; the Islamic calendar takes 622 CE as its starting point. (However, Jesse means “physically far away” here.)

29/ [55:45] In case you haven’t noticed, Jesse sometimes claps to herself to emphasize her points. Here is a Jesse clap I was unable to edit out.–Em [Argh! This works well in lectures, to surprise students. It works less well on a microphone.–JN]

30/ For those interested, blood of all sorts is not considered Kosher, and neither is cannibalism considered okay (i.e., halachically acceptable). However, it is considered acceptable to have a blood transfusion if you need it–that is considered different than consuming.

Jesse: Fourth Lateran Council 1215.

31/ [1:00:08] If you were wondering why it’s the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, there actually was a lance found in Antioch in 1098 that was claimed to be the Holy Lance (of Antioch). However there have been a bunch of holy lances found, so who knows. Also, I was WITH Jesse when she learned this fact in Italy in 2003.–Em

Also, Longinus appears to have been a very Medieval creation, appearing initially (with a name) in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which was written in the mid-4th century CE. His legend grew (including I guess some real Prometheus-inspired torments for poking Jesus with his spear, like getting mauled by a lion every night and then magically healing), until eventually his body was “recovered” in 1304, along with a “Holy Sponge” that suggested Longinus had helped cleanse Jesus’ body after he was taken down from the cross. [The Middle Ages has the best stuff! All of this started with John 19:34, when an unnamed Roman soldier pierces Jesus’s side and blood and water flows out (water for baptism and blood for communion). The Middle Ages created Longinus as a character, including all the stories above and also the story that Longinus was blind but was cured by Jesus’s blood. Any modern stories that mention a “Spear of Destiny” are talking about the Holy Lance, aka Longinus’s spear.–JN]

32/ Jesse: We return to scapegoats (see note 26). On Yom Kippur, the sins of the community would be placed on a goat who would be sent into the wilderness. Jesus IS a scapegoat as well as the Paschal lamb–he takes the sins of the community (all humanity) upon himself. We now use the term essentially to mean “unfairly blaming an individual or group who are in no way guilty or even connected to the problem” (my definition). Originally, the scapegoat was actually more of a symbolic sacrifice. Again, this deserves a much longer discussion, and we will return to it! I used up all the time on other digressions.

33/ Also, per the “blaming Jews has persisted until this day” thing, I have definitely seen signs blaming Jews for COVID-19 at protests. However, I don’t think I want to put any up on the blog… That is definitely not a crowd I want to attract attention from.

34/ Jewish law requires being what we would probably call modest, but in Judaism is called “frum.” The specific laws are called tznuit, and they include things like long sleeves, below-the-knee skirts, head coverings for married women (typically a wig or headscarf called a tichel), no open-toe shoes, etc. Men wear specific garments (a yamulkah, a talit katan), cover the knees/elbows, and they grow the edges of their hair long (peyes), but in general they have fewer requirements (as with many religions, male sexuality is largely not considered the problematic one). In my opinion, it’s basically the same as observing Muslim hijab rules, but with clothing that looks more familiar to the Western eye. (However, I feel many authorities on both sides would probably disagree with me…but since that kind of person is very unlikely to be talking to me in the first place, I will make this assertion.)–Em

Jesse: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic purity laws and traditions (including those of diet and dress) are absolutely connected (and frequently the same, or have the same roots). I’m sure we’ll talk more about the yellow badge in the future (and probably sumptuary laws as well). There have been some great memes recently comparing the Western Islamophobic attitude toward the hijab to the usually reverential Western attitude toward a traditional Catholic nun’s habit (for example). I think Hasidic women (Jewish) and Mennonite women (Christian) probably find themselves on a precarious line, balanced between being accepted (since they wear fairly Western style clothing, even though it’s clearly old) and being ostracized and Othered.

35/ At one point when I was still thinking about getting a PhD, one topic I considered would have been Jews in East and Southeast Asia. Mostly I wanted to write about Morris “Two Gun” Cohen. Ah well. This lack of seriousness would probably have held me back in academia. [Depends entirely on the program you might have picked! Medievalists obviously embrace humor.–JN]

36/ Jesse: We might have an episode on The Merchant of Venice. It’s so amazing, and it ties in to so many medieval ideas….

37/ Conversos: Jews that converted to Christianity under threat of the Spanish Inquisition. They were suspected of retaining their old religion covertly.

38/ Type/Antitype–did I put a note in about this in a previous episode? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typology_(theology). Anyway, this is a Christian thing where the events in the Old Testament prefigure events in the New Testament. So the flood/rainbow in the story of Noah prefigure the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the ram that Abraham eventually sacrifices is–of course–a prefiguring of the “lamb of God” (i.e., Jesus).

39/ Jesse: Let’s end on the music! Nothing is better than Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Em: Also, from Handel’s Messiah.