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Passover and the Last Supper


Old Testament background

The Jewish feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits were grouped together in one week. Scripture speaks about them in Ex. 12, Lev. 23, Num. 9 and 28, and Deut. 16.

Ancient Israel marked a day from sunset to sunset. Passover lambs were killed before sunset (the end) of the 14th of Abib (Nisan), and eaten after this sunset (the beginning) of the 15th of Abib (pronounced Aviv). The weeklong feast of Unleavened Bread also started after sunset on the 15th of Abib (so unleavened bread was used at the Passover meal). First Fruits took place on the Sunday in the week of Unleavened Bread.

On the first and seventh day of Unleavened Bread (the 15th and 21st Abib) no regular work should be done – except for the concession to prepare food (Ex. 12:16) – but these days are not called Sabbath in the books of Moses. Both feasts were linked to a date, not a day of week; therefore, they could take place on any day of the week.

Converting the solar Gregorian Calendar (the one we use) back to the lunar Jewish Calendar of the first century is an exercise riddled with uncertainties. Date calculators may differ due to different programming. It seems best to stick to biblical data and avoid debate about theories two millennia after the fact. 

New Testament

a. Date and time

In the vernacular, Passover and (the week of) Unleavened Bread were used as synonyms (Matt. 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). Mark says, “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and prepare, that you may eat the Passover?’” Because Passover and Unleavened Bread meant the same thing, John 18:28 may indicate that the accusers of Jesus protected their ritual purity so that they may partake of the rest of the weeklong feast, and John 19:14 (“Now it was preparation of the Passover”) may likewise refer to the whole Passover week. When John referred to “the feast,” he meant the whole feast (John 2:23, 4:45, 7:14, 37, and 13:29).

John 19:31 says that the day following Jesus` crucifixion was a “great” (or special) Sabbath. This mean that the weekly Sabbath was special for being part of the feast. The synoptic gospels confirm that Jesus was buried shortly before the Sabbath began at sunset, without specifying what kind of Sabbath it was. If it was not the weekly Sabbath they probably would have said so.

The gospels recorded:

(a)      that the disciples prepared the Passover for the first day of Unleavened Bread, after sunset on the 15th of Abib (Matt. 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7);

(b)      that Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation (Matt. 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31, 42). Because no cooking could be done on the weekly Sabbath, people had to prepare food on Friday, which became known as the day of Preparation.

Some think that the day of Preparation refers to the day before Unleavened Bread started. Jews had to clean out all leaven from their homes before this feast. This scenario places Jesus' early Passover meal on Wednesday night, and his crucifixion on Thursday. Thus his prophecy to be 3 days and 3 nights in the earth (Matt. 12:40) could be literally fulfilled.

Matthew, Mark and Luke recorded that Jesus predicted three times his death, followed by his resurrection on THE THIRD DAY. According to Luke, Jesus repeated this phrase after he was raised from the dead (Luke 24:45). So, 10 verses speak about the third day, and one of "three days and three nights." This is ample evidence that part of a day was counted as a day: Friday evening was Day 1, Saturday was Day 2, and Sunday (starting after sunset on Saturday) was Day 3.

Moses was 80 years old at the Exodus, and 120 when he died (Ex. 7:7, Deut. 34:7). Thus, the entire sojourn in the wilderness was 40 years. However, they were already about two years away from Egypt, when the Lord said they will wander for another forty years as punishment for their disobedience (Numbers 14:34). So, eventually, God shortened their sentence by two years. Why would he not have done the same for his Son? He died after 6 hours on the cross; the bones of the robbers had to be broken to hasten their death. The 3 days and nights in the tomb were shortened to 1.5 days. God is sovereign and merciful. We can't fault him for that.

However, it is impossible that Jesus was first crucified (on Preparation day before Passover) and then ate Passover with his disciples (when his body was in the tomb). The gospels describe the Passover meal in the upper room first, and then the trial and crucifixion on the day of Preparation. Let’s maintain this biblical sequence. In this context, day of Preparation means the day before the weekly Sabbath. The women rested on this weekly Sabbath, and went to the tomb on the first day of the week (Luke 23:56 – 24:1). They rested on the Sabbath “according to the commandment,” referring to the 4th of the Ten Commandments, namely to observe the weekly Sabbath.

The synoptic gospels used Jewish time (starting at sunrise): Jesus was crucified on the 3rd hour (9 am), and died at the 9th hour (3 pm). John used Roman time (starting at midnight and noon). Jesus was sentenced to death on the 6th hour (6 am). John 1:39 and 4:6 should be interpreted accordingly.

b. Similarities

The synoptic gospels agree that Jesus told Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal in a secretly designated house; then the synoptic gospels describe what happened at that meal. Luke quotes Jesus saying at this meal, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).

During or after the Passover meal, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. “Before the feast of the Passover” in John 13:1 only mean “before the weeklong feast of Passover started with the Passover meal.” The gospel of John agrees with the synoptic gospels on what happened at that meal: 1. the issue about true greatness was addressed; 2. the traitor was identified, and 3. Peter was warned about his denial.

There are other indications that they indeed celebrated the Passover when Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper) was instituted. Jesus gave new meaning to elements used at the Passover meal. Although there is no direct reference to the Passover lamb, Jesus’ referral to his blood that would be shed can be linked to the blood of the lamb that was applied to the doorposts with the first Passover in Egypt. Jesus said that the unleavened bread symbolized his body. Judas dipped bread in the same dish as Jesus – a referral to the bitter sauce used at the Passover. To identify the traitor to John, Jesus dipped a piece of bread in the dish and gave it to Judas.

c. Conclusion

Jesus and the disciples ate Passover (like all Jews) after sunset on the 15th Abib. During or after the Passover meal, he instituted the Lord’s Supper. He was crucified the next day, the day of Preparation for the weekly Sabbath, which was special for being part of the feast. All the arguments for moving the Passover meal to Wednesday, and the crucifixion to Thursday have no biblical foundation.