Two weeks from today, Jews around the world will celebrate the springtime festival of Passover. The numerous laws of Passover observed today mostly have their basis in the biblical account. For example, the prohibition against consuming leaven (Exod. 12:15) and the requirement to tell the story of the Exodus to one’s children (Exod. 12:27). But there are many features of the biblical account of Passover no longer practiced today, most notably the central ritual: the sacrifice of the paschal lamb. In the Torah the Israelites are instructed to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doors with its blood:
The phrase “put a mark” in Hebrew is התוית תו, literally: “entav a tav”. The final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tav, looks like this today: ת. But in ancient Hebrew it was an X. So the mark that Ezekiel is commanded to place on the foreheads of those who are to be spared is a simple X. In the Greek alphabet - which like the Hebrew alphabet is derived from Phoenician – the final letter is known as tau and looks like this: T, an X turned on its side with one arm removed. The verse from Ezekiel was quoted by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) as part of his proclamation of the Fifth Crusade.
St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan monastic order, was apparently present, and from this point on he used the letter tau as his personal signature. Today the tau cross is a popular Franciscan symbol worn by many Catholics.
This is interesting because when one walks around Israel today, one sees many taus but none of them belong to the Franciscans. The letter tau (together with phi) is the distinctive symbol of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate all over the Holy Land. It stands for φύλακες τάφου – the guardians of the tomb – the name of the fraternal order of priests who administer the sacred sites owned by the Greeks in the holy land. And there are many! The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest private landowner in the State of Israel. Large portions of the modern city of Jerusalem, including the upscale neighborhoods of Talbiyeh and Rehavia, are still owned by the Greek Orthodox and have been leased to State of Israel long-term. A major question on the minds of many is what will happen once these leases expire.
The Roman Catholic Church is the second largest private owner of property in the holy land. Almost all of this is administered by the Franciscans, who have served as the Custodia Terrae Sanctae ("caretakers of the Holy Land") since 1342. The symbols most often seen on Catholic buildings in the holy land are:
These two orders (the Latin C.T.S. and the Greek Τ.Φ.) responsible for overseeing the pilgrimage sites in the holy land both regard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as their most essential responsibility. I would like to suggest that in choosing these names, both were informed by the scene of the guards at the tomb in Matthew 27:62-65. Following the burial of Jesus, the Jewish authorities are worried that his body will be stolen by his followers, who will then tell everyone that he has risen from the dead. Pilate tells them: "you have a guard of soldiers; go make [the tomb] as secure as you know how." In this passage the tomb of Jesus is naturally called a τάφος, the very word which appears in the name of the Greek brotherhood. The guard is referred to as a κουστωδία. This is not really a Greek word, but a loanword from the Latin custodia. Presumably, Matthew did not use the Greek φύλαξ in order to give the passage a more authentic Roman feel since Pilate is speaking about Roman soldiers. Incidentally, some of the Greek manuscripts, including Codex Bezae, contain the word φύλακας, but this is not the accepted reading. Perhaps this is the reason that Pope Clement VI chose the title Custodia Terrae Sanctae for the Franciscans in the 14th century.
The important point is that both of these fraternal orders of guardians see themselves as a corrective to the shoddy guardianship exemplified by the Roman soldiers in the gospel account. The Roman soldiers are both weak (in Mt 28:5 they shake with fear and become "like dead men") and corrupt (in Mt 28:11 they accept a bribe from the Jewish authorities to claim that the body of Jesus was stolen). Today, these Greek and Latin priests are trained to be proper guardians. Representatives of both of these orders are constantly present in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre making sure that nothing happens their respective property. This sense of constant vigilance also links us back to the Passover narrative with which we began. In Exodus 12:42 the night of 15th of Nissan is referred to as "a night of vigil (ליל שמורים) to bring them out of the land of Egypt," which the LXX translates this as προφυλακή. Would it be an overstatement to say that in such a contested site as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, every night is a night of vigil?
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.