Sukkot in the New Testament: From Lulav and Hoshana to Palm Sunday
Most of what we know about Sukkot derives from rabbinic descriptions of the holiday. The Mishnah tractate Sukkah, in addition to discussing the laws of the sukkah (chs. 1-2) and the four species (chs. 3-4), turns to other rituals, none of which are mentioned in the Bible:
- The lulav and willow processions (4:4-6).
- The recitation of Hallel (4:8) with accompanying shaking of the lulav (נענועים, 3:9).
- The water libations (ניסוך המים, 4:9-10), with the concomitant rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing (שמחת בית השואבה, 5:1-4).
The Mishnah is ostensibly describing the festival as it was observed in the late Second Temple period, but it is not an eye-witness account since, by the time of the redacting of the Mishnah (~200 C.E.), the Temple had been gone for over a century. Nevertheless, we have earlier material which either references or alludes to the Sukkot practices in the Temple during this period. Three of these sources are in the New Testament—two in the Gospel of John and one in Revelation—where these Sukkot rituals play a vital theological role.
The Jewish Background of the New Testament
As it now stands, the New Testament is a collection of texts that is scripture for Christians. Nevertheless, these texts were composed in a predominantly Jewish milieu. In fact, most of the authors of the New Testament texts were Jews who accepted the Torah as authoritative, worshipped at the Jewish Temple, and also believed that Jesus was a Jewish messiah.
Sukkot in the Gospel of John
The early Jesus movement—before it was called Christianity—was a small Jewish movement that considered Jesus the Davidic messiah and the harbinger of the kingdom of God. The New Testament has four depictions of Jesus’s life, focusing on his ministry, all of them called gospels.
The Gospels of Matthew (~80-90 C.E.), Mark (~70 C.E.), and Luke (~85–95 C.E.) are very similar to each other and are usually read together, and therefore, called the synoptic gospels. The Gospel of John (also called the Fourth Gospel, ~90–100 C.E.), is read apart from the other gospels, as it is very different from them both in describing Jesus’ itinerary and the length of his ministry (three years instead of one). Most scholarship on John, in comparison to the synoptics, considers this gospel’s Jesus to be less human and more divine (called “high Christology”).
1. Jesus Teaches in the Temple on Sukkot
Unlike the other gospels, John has Jesus coming to Jerusalem numerous times, and specifically for the holiday Sukkot. In John 7, Jesus is encouraged to go to Jerusalem for the holiday, since it is a major event where he could make his debut (John 7:2-4):
Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”
Nevertheless, Jesus insists on staying behind in the Galilee because he expects that he would be in danger in the city because of his controversial teachings. Nevertheless (v. 10):
…after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.
Jesus then teaches at the Temple throughout the holiday, causing dissent among those who believe he is a prophet (7:40), those who believe he is a messiah (7:41), and others who think he is a fraud altogether (7:44–52).
Jesus’ Hoshana Rabbah
Jesus appears on Sukkot because this festival, already in the Second Temple period, was associated with messianic tropes. For example, the eschatological vision of Zechariah 14, which is one of the haftarah readings for Sukkot, culminates in the prophecy that all nations will eventually come to the Temple yearly, to worship YHWH, specifically on Sukkot:
זכריה יד:טז וְהָיָה כָּל הַנּוֹתָר מִכָּל הַגּוֹיִם הַבָּאִים עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְעָלוּ מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְמֶלֶךְ יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת וְלָחֹג אֶת חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת.
Zech 14:16 All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King YHWH of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths.
This lies in the background of Jesus’ speech at the end of the festival (John 7:37–39):
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
While some scholars identify “the great day” with Shemini Atzeret, the festival of the eighth day which follows Sukkot, it is more likely that it refers to Hoshanah Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot), which is specifically referred to as “great” (rabbah). Additionally, Jesus’ reference to the living waters is almost certainly meant as a play on the water libation ritual that, according to the Mishnah, took place in the Temple on each of the second through seventh days of Sukkot, culminating on Hoshana Rabbah.
Jesus’ Coming is the Real Water Libation
By referring to “living waters” flowing from the believers’ hearts, Jesus also alludes to the eschatological (end time) waters that will flow from the Temple, described at length in one of Ezekiel’s final visions (Ezek 47:1-12):
יחזקאל מז:א וַיְשִׁבֵנִי אֶל פֶּתַח הַבַּיִת וְהִנֵּה מַיִם יֹצְאִים מִתַּחַת מִפְתַּן הַבַּיִת קָדִימָה כִּי פְנֵי הַבַּיִת קָדִים וְהַמַּיִם יֹרְדִים מִתַּחַת מִכֶּתֶף הַבַּיִת הַיְמָנִית מִנֶּגֶב לַמִּזְבֵּחַ…
Ezek 47:1 He led me back to the entrance of the Temple, and I found that water was issuing from below the platform of the Temple — eastward, since the Temple faced east — but the water was running out at the south of the altar, under the south wall of the Temple….
These waters will become a powerful stream that will make brackish waters wholesome and give rise to fruit trees. More specifically, Jesus’ term “living waters” echoes the term used in Zechariah for this eschatological stream, described as flowing out of Jerusalem:
זכריה יד:ח וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יֵצְאוּ מַיִם חַיִּים מִירוּשָׁלִַם חֶצְיָם אֶל הַיָּם הַקַּדְמוֹנִי וְחֶצְיָם אֶל הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן בַּקַּיִץ וּבָחֹרֶף יִהְיֶה. יד:טוְהָיָה יְ-הוָה לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה יְ-הוָה אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד.
Zech 14:8 In that day, fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter. 14:9And YHWH shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one YHWH with one name.
This verse is part of the same eschatological vision from Zechariah 14, quoted above, which culminates in the yearly pilgrimage of gentiles to the Temple on Sukkot.
Putting all this together, Jesus may be hinting that his appearance at the water libation ceremony on Hoshana Rabbah, the “great” and “last” day of Sukkot, presages his future coming on the great day at the end of days, when water will flow from the Temple in a freshwater stream.
By referring to himself as the living waters from which the believers must drink, Jesus makes the potent claim that the living waters will come from him, rather than the Temple. The idea that Jesus will replace the Temple is, according to Raymond Brown, a common theme in the Gospel of John; in this case Jesus replaces the Sukkot water libation ritual and the future Temple stream with his own “living waters.”
2. Jesus’ Final Entry Before His Arrest
Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, an event which leads up to his arrest and crucifixion by Roman authorities, is usually associated with the Passover (John 12:1; cf. Mark 14:1, Matt 26:2, and Luke 22:1–2) and with Jesus’ last supper—often misunderstood as a Passover Seder. And indeed, John 12 begins his account, by mentioning Passover:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
Verses 12–15, however, in describing the crowd going out to meet Jesus, suggest that the holiday is not Passover, but Sukkot:
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Ps 118:26)—the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion” (Zeph 3:16). “Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (Zech 9:9).
Jeffrey Rubenstein notes that palm trees were not abundant in Jerusalem, and so the taking of them meant they had to be intentionally prepared and transported to Jerusalem ahead of time. As there is no ritual purpose for palm branches (lulavim) on Passover, it seems most likely that this trip of Jesus was at least initially associated with Sukkot.
Further support for this possibility is the people’s cry of “Hosanna” (Greek: ὡσαννά) and the quote from Psalm 118, part of the Hallel psalms associated with Sukkot. While Hallel is also associated with the first day of Passover, it was recited on all seven days of Sukkot according to the Mishnah, thus making the Hallel reference a better fit with Sukkot than with Passover.
Apparently, the account in the Gospel of John, which originally described events transpiring during Sukkot, was edited to fit the more familiar timeline in which Jesus is arrested and dies on Passover. Eventually, the presentation of a Sukkot story as taking place on Passover led to the development of Palm Sunday, which is celebrated in the spring, as marking beginning of the Christian Holy Week, culminating in Easter which commemorates Jesus’ resurrection.
But if this reconstruction is correct, then the tradition which undergirds the account of Jesus’ appearance on a donkey colt in John 14, symbolizing his role as the future messiah, was originally associated with Sukkot, a holiday with messianic overtones, as we saw above in Zechariah 14.
3. Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John (a different John than the John whose name is associated with the Gospel of John), is the last book in the New Testament canon. The Book of Revelation is an apocalypse, a genre that was common in the Second Temple period and found in such books as Daniel in the Hebrew Bible and other non-canonical Jewish texts such as Enoch.
Revelation, likely written in the last two decades of the first century C.E., purports to contain knowledge revealed by a divine figure to a human recipient, in this case, John of Patmos, who is a Jew likely from Judaea who has been exiled to the island called Patmos for preaching his belief in Jesus as messiah (1:9). 
Revelation contains Sukkot imagery in 7:9–17, although in this text the liturgical rituals transpire not on earth, in the Temple, but in the heavenly realm as part of an eschatological revelation to John of Patmos:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9–10)
In this passage, the people gathered before Jesus (the Lamb) are carrying palm branches (lulavim) and calling out “salvation” (Greek: ἡ σωτηρία), which translates to the same as thehoshana mentioned above.
The text continues:
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:11–12)
Rubenstein notes that the prostrating before God is reminiscent of Temple worship, while the list of seven praises (blessings, glory, etc.) connected with the same word “and” (Greek: kai) suggests that the praises could go on indefinitely. While there is no direct Hebrew parallel for the phrases found here, the language is similar to certain Psalms, including in those that make up Hallel (e.g. Psalm 113, 116, 118), which is recited during the holiday of Sukkot.
The text continues:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his Temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.” (7:13–15)
Here, those who have been killed for their belief in Jesus are worshipping before God’s throne, protected and sheltered by God (Greek: σκηνώσει). This word in Greek is the same word that is used for tabernacle/tent/booth in Greek.
The passage next moves to the eschatological water of life:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:16–17).
As explored above in relation to the Fourth Gospel, the reference to water in conjunction with the holiday of Sukkot is reminiscent of the water libation which took place during Temple worship on Sukkot. Like in the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation implies that the regular water libation and prayers for rain would no longer be required since the water of life would be available to all who believed.
Early Christian Interpretation of Sukkot Rituals
The parallels between the eschatological worship ritual in the Book of Revelation and Sukkot as described in the Gospel of John are clear. For both authors, the rituals around the holiday of Sukkot are essential for understanding the portrayal of Jesus’ salvation. The standard Temple ritual during Sukkot during the Second Temple period, such as praising God and offering water libations and prayers for rain, was altered by these early Jewish followers of Jesus who understood Jesus to be the Jewish messiah who replaced the Temple and offered access to eternal life.
This language and these ideas were picked up as the Jesus movement shifted to a predominantly Gentile movement, and combined with the understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial pascal lamb. Thus, the original connection to Sukkot has been subsumed by the connection to Passover, but elements of Sukkot are still present in the New Testament, if we just know where to look. The New Testament is an important post-biblical, and pre-rabbinic source for the eschatological nature and significance of Sukkot in Second Temple times.
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September 26, 2018
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Dr. Shayna Sheinfeld is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She received her Ph.D. in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism from McGill University. Sheinfeld has published articles on the pseudepigrapha, apocalypses, and the reception of Jewish scripture in early Rabbinic and Christian circles. Her latest article, “The Euphrates as Temporal Marker in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch” is available in the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Dr. Sheinfeld also writes extensively on pedagogical practices in the classroom.
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