Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal?

Q: Was the Last Supper — the first Mass — a Passover meal? John’s Gospel says Jesus was crucified on “the day of Preparation of the Passover” (19:14) and that the Jewish leaders “did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (18:28) and that the Last Supper took place “just before the Passover Feast” (13:1).

A: The Last Supper was a Passover meal. This is very clear from the synoptics. Jesus tells his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15), and the gospels tell us that “they prepared the Passover” (Luke 22:13) at the house where Jesus had sent them, instructing them “tell the householder, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (Luke 22:11), following their own question, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (Mark 14:12), after Jesus had directed them, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:8), for it was “the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (Luke 22:7). This sequence of events with the repeated emphasis on the fact it was a Passover meal is repeated in all three synoptic gospels.

Also, when one looks at the structure of the meal — when they ate, when they drank, when they prayed, when they sang a hymn -it is very clear that they were following a Passover seder.

Because of the three statements from John mentioned above, however, some have speculated that Jesus was using a different calendar, such as the one used by the Qumran community, so he was celebrating Passover a day differently than other Jews. This, however, is an unnecessary speculation.

Equally unnecessary would be the speculation that he simply held Passover a day early because he knew he was going to die. This would contradict Luke 22:7, where it emphasizes that “the day of Unleavened Bread” had come — that is, 14 Nisan, when the Jews took the yeast out of their homes in preparation for the following seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread (the first century Jewish historian Josephus said they did around noon). This day was also the day of Passover proper “on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.”

The real problem in understanding the time references in John’s Gospel comes from not knowing enough about they way events were referred to in the first century. Concening John 19:14, “the day of Preparation” does not mean the day of preparing for the Passover. In the first century “the day of Preparation” meant “the day to prepare for the Sabbath” — in other words, Friday.

“The Passover” could refer to at least four things: (1) it could refer to the two chagigah lambs which were slaughtered and eaten, one on the evening of 15 Nisan, during the Passover seder, and one on the following day of 15 Nisan (Jews at the time reckoned the day as beginning at sundown, so the evening of the day preceded the morning of the day), (2) it could refer to the Passover meal itself, (3) it could refer to the day on which the Passover meal was eaten, and (4) it could refer to the eight day festal cycle including both Passover day and the following seven day feast of Unleavened Bread. We see this latter usage in the gospels themselves. Luke 22:1 tells us: “Now the feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”

It is this usage which is relevant in John 19:14. Thus “the day of Preparation of the Passover” means “the Friday of Passover week.” Thus the New International Version renders John 19:14, “It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week …”

Regarding John 18:28, if the term “Passover” is again taken as a reference to the whole festal cycle, then the Jewish leaders’ fear that they would not be able to “eat the Passover” could be a reference to being unable to participate in the continuing festivities of that day. However, there is a more probable alternative. As we noted, there were two lambs, known as chagigah, which were killed and eaten. The first lamb was killed on the afternoon of 14 Nisan and eaten that night (15 Nisan) as the lamb of the Passover seder. However, the second lamb was eaten during the day of 15 Nisan and, like the first one, was also called a Passover. Thus the leaders were afraid they would not be able to eat the second Passover — the lamb eaten during the day of the 15th.

We can be certain, however, that the Jewish leaders were not afraid that they would be unable to eat the Passover seder proper because the defilement caused by entering a Gentile’s dwelling required a ritual bath and then ceased at sundown. Since the Passover seder was held after sundown, the leaders would have been able to eat it with no problem if this were occurring on the 14th of Nisan. However, if it were occurring during the daytime on the 15th of Nisan, they would not have been able to eat the second Passover, the second chagigah because they would be unclean until the evening of that day, and it was eaten during the daytime.

Finally, John 13:1 does not say that the Last Supper took place “just before the Passover Feast.” The time clause states that something was just before the Passover, but it does not state what. This could be a concluding reference to the preceding discourse in chapter 12, telling us when Jesus gave the discourse. It could also be a setup for the next thing mentioned — the footwashing service — which took place just before the Passover seder. Thus “just before the Passover feast” may mean “just before the Passover meal.” The phrase could also be a time cue to tell us when Jesus was thinking about things. Thus the Revised Standard Version (like the New King James Version) of this verse reads: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

It is also unclear exactly how the time clause is to be grouped syntactically. The Revised Standard Version has the whole verse as a single sentence, but the New International Version breaks it up: “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.”

In any event, it is clear from what John writes that he too understood the Last Supper to be a Passover meal. In John 13:27-30, we read:

“As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. ‘What you are about to do, do quickly,’ Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” (NIV)

This would make no sense if it were not a Passover meal. One normally would not go out into the streets to give money to the poor on an ordinary night. However, on Passover night the doors of the Temple were opened at midnight (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18:29f) and a crowd of poor people gathered to receive alms. Thus it was a custom to give alms to the poor at night on Passover, but night time alms were in no way customary at other times, meaning Jesus’s direction to Judas would not have been so understood by the apostles if it were given at any time other than Passover evening. The fact that the apostles had this in mind is reinforced by the fact that the other explanation they thought of — that Judas was being sent out to buy something for the Feast — is also focused on special customs connected with the Passover (/Unleavened Bread) feast.

Thus John also understands the meal to be a Passover seder. Confusion suggesting otherwise is simply due to lack of understanding of the Jewish customs and terms of the time.

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