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Yom Kippur: WWJD?

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Around sunset this coming Tuesday (Sept. 25th) begins the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Now given over to intensive self-reflection and repentance, Yom Kippur is "a day of atonement ... a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings" (Leviticus 23.27-31). Tradition holds it as a complete fast (no distractions of food or even of water) for the whole of its 28-hour period. Its long synagogue service leaves plenty of opportunity for critical self-reckoning.

The modern Yom Kippur service is liturgical marathon, paced by the sounding ram's horn ("the voice of the shofar"); by group affirmations of God's compassion and patience ("The Lord, the Lord is a merciful God..."); by long silences and beautiful prayers (Aveinu malkenu, "Our Father, our King, fill our hands with your blessings..."). But the Yom Kippur liturgy is also a time machine. The prayer book whips its reader back and forth between the distant biblical past and the immediate personal present, filling the imaginary meanwhile with recitations of mysterious long-gone rituals. Things have changed radically since these rituals were last enacted. No longer can sins be put upon the head of a goat. For that, one needed a high priest and, eventually, the temple in Jerusalem.

All of which brings me to my topic: What would Jesus do on Yom Kippur?

Most of the writings in the New Testament cannot help us directly with this question. They offer us theological reflections on the Risen Christ, not first-order historical information about Jesus of Nazareth. Our earliest author, Jesus' contemporary, Paul, argued mid-century that Christ was himself a kind of sin sacrifice. Another NT writing, the Epistle to the Hebrews, presents Christ both as the perfect celestial high priest and as the perfect eternal sacrifice: in this condensed image, Christ perpetually both effects and embodies a blood offering. In John's Gospel, Jesus is the Lamb of God; in Revelation, weirdly, a lamb with seven eyes and seven heads. Some 20 centuries of Christian liturgy have developed these images further, celebrating the Eucharist itself as a blood sacrifice, wherein the bread/"Christ" stands in for the animals favored in Leviticus. The longer that later, Gentile Christian theology developed, the higher, more perfect and more divine the figure of Christ grew until, by the fourth century, with ideas about the Trinity, Christ became God. Were this Trinitarian theology our starting point, our question would be nonsensical: Why would someone both perfect and sinless -- indeed, fully divine -- have bothered with Yom Kippur?

Only when we look at the New Testament's synoptic gospels -- in order of their composition, first Mark, then Matthew, then Luke -- can we begin to piece together a picture of a human, indeed of a Jewish, Jesus. True, these gospels are themselves belated. Jesus of Nazareth died around the year 30 A.D.; the evangelists, however, wrote between c. 70 and c. 100 -- significantly, only after the Jewish revolt against Rome and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. And the Gospels, no less than the other writings of the New Testament, are first of all works of theology, not of history. But their stories refract historical traditions nonetheless, traditions reaching back in time behind the Christian movement's Diaspora setting to its Jewish homeland, behind its Gentile future to its Jewish past, behind its written Greek record to its oral Aramaic matrix, back to the days, pre-70, when the temple stood. Winnowed carefully, both for what they say and for what they do not say, these stories can tell us quite a bit about Jesus.

The earliest Gospel, for example, the Gospel of Mark, lacks any story about Jesus' miraculous birth. Its action begins instead with a fully adult Jesus who encounters John the Baptizer by the Jordan River. In that place, John enacts a ritual of purification, immersing fellow Jews "for the remission of sins." In Mark, without apology, John likewise immerses Jesus. The later Gospel of Matthew seems a bit embarrassed by this episode. Matthew edits Mark's story, explaining Jesus' behavior: Matthew's Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from immersing, Matthew's Jesus insists on proceeding "in order to fulfill all righteousness." But according to Mark, Jesus simply immerses -- like the other Jews gathered around John, for the remission of his sins.

The Gospel stories continue, recounting a later challenge to Jesus and his disciples: John and his followers fast, say his questioners, but Jesus and his followers do not. The "fasts" that this scene refers to are the voluntary, extra-biblical fasts that came to punctuate the Jewish year. (Some modern Jews, for example, fast before the holiday of Purim, in memory of Queen Esther; or on the 9th of Av, in late summer, to commemorate the destruction of the temple.) The Fast, however, hardwired into biblical narrative, is the Fast of Yom Kippur: no one challenges Jesus about this. Had Jesus and his followers not kept Yom Kippur, they would have been notorious in their native culture; and no such charge stands in these texts. Indeed, even those Jews most alienated from traditional practices nonetheless seem to have kept the holy day of Yom Kippur. As Philo of Alexandria, Jesus' contemporary, observed:

On the 10th day of the seventh month, the Fast takes place which [the Jews] take seriously -- not only those who are zealous for piety and holiness, but even those who do nothing religious for the rest of the year ... For all are overcome by its sacredness. In fact, at that time the worse compete with the better in self-control and virtue ... For amnesty from sin [on that day] has been granted by the favor of the gracious God, who has assigned the same honor to repentant sinners as he has to those who do not commit a single sin.

While the temple stood, Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora kept the Fast of Yom Kippur, while in Jerusalem, the high priest enacted its special sacrifices. Would Jesus ever have been among those gathered in Jerusalem for this day? It is certainly possible. True, the synoptic gospels depict the adult Jesus in Jerusalem only once, for his final Passover. In the Gospel of John, however, Jesus worships in Jerusalem at many points throughout the year. This Gospel names several pilgrimage holidays: at least two Passovers; the fall holiday of Sukkot; and even the festival of the cleansing the temple, the root of the modern holiday of Hanukkah. The Acts of the Apostles, a New Testament writing that picks up the story of Jesus' followers post-crucifixion, depicts the early community as continuing to worship in the temple even as they spread the Gospel. Temple and Gospel, in this telling, flourish together. If these writings, composed decades after the temple's destruction, still depict this symbiosis, we might suppose that they rest upon traditions pre-dating the destruction as well. For all we know, Jesus may have journeyed to Jerusalem to keep the Fast there. Nothing in the New Testament conclusively rules against this conjecture.

But bracket out Jerusalem: Jews kept Yom Kippur wherever they were -- in Rome, in Alexandria and certainly in Jesus' native Galilee. The Fast involved the whole community. And while historians do not know the details of what occurred in Roman-period synagogues -- the lion's share of our evidence comes from later, rabbinic traditions -- we can imagine that those biblical verses describing the holy day might have been recited or read aloud, interpreted, discussed. Perhaps, too, the wail of the ram's horn, the ancient shofar, punctuated the long day. And the fasting itself would have worked its singular transformation: hunger and light-headedness yielding, as the sun declined, to a special and energizing clarity.

On Yom Kippur, then, what did Jesus do? We cannot know, of course; but within these historical parameters, we can guess. Jesus fasted and he prayed, together with his community. He took his own measure, mingling regret and resolve. He reflected on the year just past, and looked ahead to the year forthcoming. And as so many of his parables say -- indeed as Philo, his contemporary, also said -- Jesus took comfort in a gracious god, who welcomed not only the "perfect" but also the penitent.