Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

181. Did Jesus eat the Passover?*

It is a question on which the highest experts differ. Some are emphatic that the Last Supper was a true Passover meal. Others are just as confident that it was an ordinary supper, taken twenty-four hours before the Passover celebrations. One of these two must be correct.

The compromise suggested by some, that Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover twenty-four hours earlier than normal, simply will not do. The lambs must be slain at the temple (Dt.16 :5,6), and the blood poured out at the base of the altar by a priest-but no priest in Israel would be willing to do this except at the time recognized by the temple authorities, the afternoon of the 14th Nisan. It would have been an outrage against all Jewish sentiment to have asked for the slaying of the lamb before the proper time, or to have killed it privately elsewhere. So this desperate expedient of an explanation must be disallowed.

At first sight, there appears to be strong evidence in the gospels for both of the other points of view. Here is a summary: Evidence that the last Supper was a Passover meal:

(Here, for convenience, the words of Luke's Gospel are used, but most of the points have parallels in Matthew and Mark):

Luke 22 :7,8: "Then came the day of unleavened bread when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat." The most natural way of reading this is with reference to preparation, on the morning of the 14th,of a Passover meal to be eaten the same evening, the beginning of the 15th-the usual Passover pattern.
v.13: "And they made ready the passover."
v.15: "With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer."
Mention of two cups by Luke (v.17,20) ' suggests the ritual Passover, which actually included four.

Evidence that the last Supper took place on thenight before Passover:

John introduces his account with the words: "Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come . . ." (ch.13 ;1); and v.2 continues: "and supper being ready" (not "ended", as in AV; the Greek participle, and also v.26, both prove AV to be in error here); see Study 184.
John 13 :29: "For some of them thought . . . that Jesus had said unto him (Judas), Buy those things that we have need of against the feast: or that he should give something to the poor." But immediately after the slaying of the lambs in the temple court, the Passover sabbath began (Lev. 2 3 :6,7); so if this was the Passover celebration, no shops would be open at that time. And the needs of the poor for the feast, would have been dealt with long before.
Joseph of Arimathea "bought fine linen" for the interment of Jesus (Mk.15 :46). This goes along with (b), and is a useful corrective to the claim that the synoptic gospels are solid in their evidence that the Last Supper was a Passover. (See also paragraphs g and h on this).
"For that sabbath (the day after the crucifixion) was an high day" (Jn.19 :31)can only mean that it was the Passover sabbath, in the early hours of which (about 8 p.m.?) the Passover meal was eaten.
The chief priests "went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover" (J n . 1 8 :2 8) . This seems to be decisive enough, unless the suggestion (not too convincing) be accepted that the word "passover" here covers the ensuing celebration which seven days of unleavened bread involved.
"And it (the day of crucifixion) was the preparation of the passover" (Jn.19 :14) ). The word "preparation" was normally used for Friday, as the day on which preparation was made for the sabbath. Edersheim ("Temple/' p. 188) makes the point that the rabbinic writings never use the name "preparation" for the day preceding the Passover sabbath, but commonly use it as a synonym for Friday. This "preparation", then, was the Friday preceding an ordinary sabbath which in this year coincided with the Passover sabbath.
Mark 15 :42 and Matthew 27 :62 say the something.
The citation of the foregoing details is hardly necessary, since if Jesus did actually partake of the Passover, then all the irreligious and blasphemous transactions associated with his arrest and interrogation, the convening of the Sanhedrin and his trial, the rousing of the mob and the release of Barabbas, the crucifixion itself and the subsequent deriding of Jesus—all of these took place on the Passover sabbath which should have been given over to holiness and special religious observance.
A different kind of fact which will carry special weight with those who are impressed with the accuracy of Old Testament prophecy: If Jesus did not keep the Passover, then his death on the cross at the ninth hour coincided precisely with the time when the Passover lambs began to be slain in the temple court—"the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." And, further, his resurrection would then be at approximately the same time as the special offering in the temple of another identical lamb along with the wave-sheaf of first fruits barley on the morning after the Passover sabbath (Lev.23 :11,12), for all the world as though the Passover lamb had come to life again and was being re-consecrated to God!
For the first three hundred years after the apostles all the early Christian writers who comment on this question say that the Last Supper was not a Jewish Passover. Chrysostom (350-400) was the first to teach that it was. And until the 9th century the church uniformly used leavened bread at the Eucharist. The change to unleavened bread was a Roman Catholic institution.
Jewish tradition preserved in the Talmud says that Jesus died on the 14th Nisan.
If Jesus had actually eaten the Jewish Passover, would not this have provided a powerful argument for the Judaisers in the first century church that Christians should do the same?
The walk of Jesus and the eleven to Gethsemane was an infringement of Exodus 12 :22. It may be argued, of course, that this commandment was regarded as being in abeyance at that time. But would not the Law of Moses be more mandatory upon Jesus than current tradition?
In the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, there is no mention, not even the slightest hint, of the lamb which was the main feature of the Passover meal. Plummer, on the one hand, regards this as decisive. On the other, Jeremias, the chief modern advocate that the Last Supper was a Passover, dismisses this with the observation that "this silence is no longer surprising, when we reflect that Mark 14 :22-24 is a cultic formula, not purporting to give a description of the Last Supper, but recording the constituent elements of the celebrations of the primitive church." A typical modernist way of evading an uncomfortable fact! And what about the other three records?
It is very clear from John 13 :5 that the group betook themselves to the supper table without any foot-washing taking place first. Because of the high-festival character of the Passover it is very difficult to believe that the disciples would contemplate beginning their Passover meal without prior attention to this detail.

Resolving the "contradiction"

The enigma presented by this assembly of facts has met with several different "solutions"; e.g.

John, writing last of the four, is quietly trying to correct the chronology of the others. (But this won't do because items c.g.h. belong to the Synoptics also. Mark, for example, appears not only to contradict John, but also to contradict himself; contrast 14:12ff with 14:26).
Errors of fact are to be expected in tk« gospels. They were written many years after the events, memories had become blurred, and in any case the writers were men untrained in the accurate observation and recording of detail. For most readers of this study, who have not so learned Christ, such a solution is utterly unacceptable.
One set of facts must be explicable in harmony with the other set. This should be possible. The rest of this study aims at showing that it is possible.

In brief, the case presented by the first set of passages is not as clear-cut as it seems at first, whereas the evidence of the second set is irrefutable: Jesus did not eat the Passover.

A re-examination of A, B, C, D is called for.

The Passover lambs were to be slain "between the two evenings" (Ex.12 :6mg), i.e. in the late afternoon (this is demonstrated by Matthew 14 :15,23—the previous passover!), and eaten, according to custom, soon after sunset. So when the western reader comes to the words: "Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John saying, Go and prepare us the passover", he naturally thinks of this instruction being given in the morning for the preparation of a passover meal which took place later the same evening.

This almost instinctive interpretation overlooks the fact that for the Jew the day of the 14th Nisan, when the lambs were slain in the late afternoon, actually began at sunset on the preceding day ("the evening and the morning were the first day")

So when the disciples approached Jesus (Mt.26 :17) with the enquiry as to their Passover observance, it was probably on the evening before, in the very first hour of 14th Nisan. It is difficult to imagine that they would take no thought for the keeping of the feast until less than twelve hours before its actual celebration. Indeed, considering the elaborate nature of the preparations to be made, it is remarkable that they did not raise the matter with their Master several days before this. "

It should be understood, then, that it was in the early evening of the Thursday that the disciples went into the city to make arrangements for the keeping of the Passover by Jesus and the twelve some twenty-four hours later. But Jesus and the rest followed them to the house that same evening and there partook of an ordinary supper in the upper room where, in the normal course of things, the Passover would be eaten on the Friday night.

On this view the chronology of the last hours of Jesus works out thus:

The 14th Nisan

Peter and John go ahead to make arrangements for a Passover meal.
Jesus and the rest follow to the same - room. The last Supper, an ordinary meal, takes place.
Arrest in Gethsemane.
Illegal trial during the night.
Formal condemnation by Sanhedrin. Trial and condemnation by Pilate.

Death of Jesus. Slaying of the Passover lambs begins. His burial.

Passover meal eaten by the nation.

So far as one can tell there is no chronological detail in the gospels which goes against such a reading of the facts. But what of the other evidence?—the mention of two cups, and the words of Jesus: "With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer?" These call for separate detailed consideration in a later study (188).

Meantime it is worthwhile to consider why Passover language should be so closely associated with the gospel narrative of the Last Supper.

"Christ our passover is sacrificed for us," wrote Paul (1 Cor.5 :7). At a very early time the believers appropriated to the sacrifice of Jesus the language of the Jewish Passover. When all the instances of this are assembled, they become quite impressive.

"The cup of blessing" (1 Cor. 10 :16) was the name given by the Jews to one of the four cups of wine at the Passover feast,

"Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat . . . Where is the guest chamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?" To the disciples these words meant one thing, but in the mind of Jesus they had a different connotation. For him it was to be the memorial feast of a greater deliverance than that from Egypt. And it is this sense, doubtless, that the author of the gospel meant when he wrote significantly: "Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed'—for in retrospect he could see that it not only behoved the Christ to suffer, but to suffer then. No other time was fitting.

"And when the hour was come" (Lk.22 :14) reads as though with reference to the Jewish Passover, but equally certainly was meant for the hour of the Lord's tribulation and glory: "The hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify Thee." A quite superb double entendre!

Compare also the intensely dramatic force of: "The feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him (the Lamb of God)" (Lk.22 :2). To the student who reads with his eyes open, the gospels abound in delicate touches of this kind—nuances which so easily lose their flavour when one attempts to explain them.

"This is my body'—compare the Mishna's reference to the roasted lamb as "the body of the Passover."

"He broke it and gave it to the disciples;" the action was very similar to a certain part of the Passover ritual. The Mishna also has the comment: "the poor have not whole cakes, but broken pieces."

"Ye do show forth the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor.ll :26) is a clear allusion to Exodus 13 :8: "Thou shalt show thy son in that day . . . ", a part of the Passover ritual called Haggadah, the showing forth. The verbal connection is very marked.

The sop given to Judas probably came to be compared with the bitter herbs dipped in the sauce and shared by all participants at the Passover table.

It may be possible to go further and see in the searching of the hearts of the disciples counterpart to the searching of the house for leaven (Ex.12 :19).

"Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup" (1 Cor.ll :27,28). The warning is a direct and more searching counterpart to the responsibility laid upon every Jew to be purified for the Passover (Jn.11:55).

Peter's allusions in his First Epistle appropriate Passover language in a quite systematic fashion:

"Redeemed ... with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1:19).

"Obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Christ" (v.2; Ex.12 :22).

"Not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold" (v.18; with reference to Ex.12 :35).

"Gird up the loins of your mind" (v.13) similarly looks back to Ex.12 :11

These four are not the only instances in this chapter.

The words of Jesus appear to be explicit: "With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you. . .", until they are read again with a special emphasis on the word "this". He was speaking about the New Passover which he was now about to institute, and not the Jewish passover which all the nation was making preparation for.

The words that follow completely establish the truth of this view: "For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God."

What is it which will be fulfilled in the kingdom of God?—the Passover celebrating deliverance from Egypt by the hand of Moses, or the Passover celebrating deliverance from sin by the hand of Jesus?

What is it which Jesus will himself partake of, again, in the Kingdom?-the roasted lamb of the Passover, or the Bread and Wine symbolic of his own sacrifice? And, in any case, why should Jesus be consumed with eagerness to eat a Jewish Passover with the twelve?

To ask such questions is to answer them. Undoubtedly Jesus was speaking of his new and better Passover.

Note: The next Study, although chronologically displaced, deals with a problem closely related to what has just been discussed.

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