Case for Placing the Crucifixion on Passover
As we noted earlier, the Jewish calendar was similar to the Babylonian. Each was made up of lunar months, and the names for the months were nearly the same. The main difference was that by the first century AD, the Babylonian calendar had become standardized. The duration of each month and the addition of extra months followed a fixed plan. But the Jews still made decisions as they went along. They did not begin a new month until after they actually sighted a new moon. At the end of each year, the Sanhedrin decided whether to insert a thirteenth month based on the state of crops and the readiness of lambs for sacrifice at Passover (1).
The Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died in the month Nisan, the first month of the year, which started in March or April. The law of Moses prescribed three festivals during this month. The third need not concern us here. The first was Passover, which came on the fourteenth, and the second was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which came on the fifteenth and lasted to the twenty-first (Lev. 23:5–6). The main event celebrating Passover was a meal that small companies of Jews shared in the evening. In preparation for it, many thousands of lambs were slaughtered in the Temple during the preceding afternoon. These sacrifices were, by law, performed on Nisan the fourteenth. But since the Jews reckoned sundown as the beginning of a new day, the Passover meal itself was observed at the outset of Nisan the fifteenth.
The fourth Gospel places Jesus’ trial in the early hours of the morning before the Passover meal.
Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover.
Since Jesus died about the ninth hour (3 P.M.) on the day of His trial (Mark 15:1–37), John’s disclosure that the trial fell on the fourteenth of Nisan implies the same date for the Crucifixion. We may view John’s account as early testimony to what happened, for in the opinion of the renowned scholar John A. T. Robinson, John’s was the first Gospel written (2).
Another source of early testimony is Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, commonly dated about AD 55 (3). Paul said,
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
1 Corinthians 5:7
The connection between Passover and Christ’s death would be tenuous unless they fell at the same time. Thus, Paul’s words seem to proceed from common knowledge that Jesus died on Passover, the fourteenth of Nisan.
The same calendar day is attested by the Babylonian Talmud, a vast collection of rabbinical teachings and traditions reduced to writing in about AD 600 (4). This source hostile to Christianity says that Jesus "was hanged on the eve of Passover" (5). The surrounding discussion clarifies exactly which day is intended. It shows that the rabbis viewed the eight days of Passover and Unleavened Bread as a single festival. The last seven days were called Passover, and the preceding day, when the sacrifices were made, was called Passover eve (6).
As far as the Jews were concerned, Passover memorialized an event about 1500 years earlier, at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Exod. 12:1–30). The last plague which God sent upon Egypt to persuade Pharaoh that he should release Israel from bondage was the death of all the firstborn. God promised each family in Israel that they could escape this plague merely by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on the door posts and lintel of their house.
But God’s main purpose in Passover was prophetic. Just as the lambs of the first Passover bled and died so that those who believed God might escape death, so the coming Messiah would shed His blood and die so that all who believed in Him might escape death. The Messiah’s role as a dying lamb is foretold most clearly by the prophet Isaiah.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
By calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John the Baptist revealed that His death would be the redemptive act prefigured by the Passover ritual (John 1:29). Jesus was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8).
It was therefore not by chance that the Crucifixion fell on Passover. More precisely, Jesus died during the very afternoon and at the very time when droves of lambs were being slain in the Temple. God orchestrated the coincidence to underscore that Jesus was the promised Redeemer.
In reply to our conclusion that Jesus died on Nisan the fourteenth, many Bible scholars would contend that we have overlooked evidence to the contrary. We will therefore proceed to examine it.
Testimony of the Synoptics
Our conclusion that Jesus died on Passover would be firmly settled except for the testimony of the Synoptic Gospels. They treat the Last Supper as a Passover meal.
The Gospel of Mark, for example, states,
And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?
The lambs were slain in the afternoon of the fourteenth between three and five o’clock (7), shortly before they were eaten at the Passover meal in the evening. Since Mark identifies the Last Supper as a Passover meal, the implication lying on the surface is that Jesus died a whole day after the ritual sacrifices. In other words, a cursory reading of Mark and the other Synoptics suggests that Nisan the fifteenth, not the fourteenth, was the date of the Crucifixion.
Yet Mark’s actual wording prods us to look deeper. The first day of Unleavened Bread was the fifteenth of Nisan, beginning at sundown after the afternoon when the lambs were slain. Why then does Mark place the sacrifices on the first day of Unleavened Bread?
The First Day of Unleavened Bread
Some scholars urge an answer that is plausible but unacceptable. They say that Mark’s reckoning is based not on the official Jewish calendar in his day, but on a much older calendar. Building their case on the handful of Old Testament passages that speak of "day and night" (such as Gen. 8:22) or that view the day after a certain night as the next day (such as Gen. 19:34), these scholars claim that it was customary in pre-exilic Israel to treat the calendar day as sunrise to sunrise rather than as sundown to sundown (8). Appealing to evidence that we can only describe as even more slender, they claim further that the same practice survived in Jesus’ day among Galileans and other groups (9). They conclude that from the perspective of first-century Jews clinging to the old ways, the Passover sacrifices and the Passover meal fell on the same day; moreover, that since the law governing the feast prohibited leavened bread for seven days beginning with the Passover meal, the same traditionalists considered the day of the meal as the first of Unleavened Bread (10). On a calendar divergent from the official one only to the extent of delaying each day’s start from sundown to the following sunrise, the date would have been the fourteenth of Nisan. According to the same scholars, this was the calendar followed by Matthew and Luke as well as Mark (11).
Against the foregoing interpretation of Mark’s reckoning, we raise three objections.
If such a calendar was truly customary in pre-exilic Israel, we should find some trace of it in the law governing the feasts. But this law unambiguously marks the fifteenth as the first day of Unleavened Bread.
5 In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover.
6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread.
7 In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.
8 But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.
16 And in the fourteenth day of the first month is the passover of the LORD.
17 And in the fifteenth day of this month is the feast: seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten.
18 In the first day shall be an holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work therein: . . .
25 And on the seventh day ye shall have an holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work.
Numbers 28:16–18, 25
Humphreys alleged that "according to the book of Exodus, the Feast of Unleavened Bread started on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exod. 12:17–19). However Leviticus and Numbers have the Feast starting on the fifteenth day of the first month (Lev. 23:6; Num. 28:17), whereas in Ezekiel it is back on the fourteenth day (Ezek. 45:21)" (12). An adequate reply requires that we look more closely at the passages claimed to be at variance with those already cited. The first we will consider is Exodus 12.
15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. . . .
17 And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.
19 Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land.
Exodus 12:15, 17–19
Verse 18 indeed sets the Passover meal at "even" of the fourteenth; that is, at the end of the fourteenth, after the sacrifices also on the fourteenth (Exod. 12:6) but before the actual start of the fifteenth later the same evening. Yet verses 15 and 19 agree with Leviticus 23:6 and Numbers 28:17 in mandating unleavened bread for seven days. Moreover, verse 18 straightforwardly defines the terminal point of the feast as the meal at "even" (that is, likewise at the end) of the twenty-first. If the twenty-first is the seventh day, it is evident by simple calculation that the first day (by implication, the first when daylong abstinence from leaven is required) is the fifteenth. On a sunrise-to-sunrise calendar, however, a feast starting on the fourteenth and lasting to "even" on the twenty-first would have been eight days in duration, from sunrise of the fourteenth until sunrise of the twenty-second.
Also deserving of closer examination is Ezekiel 45:21.
In the first month, in the fourteenth day of the month, ye shall have the passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten.
Here is a problematic text which no version reproduces exactly. For a clear picture of the original, we must look at a literal rendering: "In the first [month], on the fourteenth day of the month, ye shall have the Passover, a feast of weeks of days; unleavened bread shall be eaten" (13). The word "seven" appears in plural form as "weeks," producing the phrase "feast of weeks," the exact technical term for the later feast also known as Pentecost. All versions view this plural form as a defect in the Masoretic text and substitute the singular form, which is the basis of the more familiar translation (14).
G. A. Cooke suggested that a copyist altered the text because he was troubled by Ezekiel’s omission of Pentecost from the calendar of feasts which the future prince would remember (Ezek. 45:21–25); also that, to suit his revision, the copyist adjusted the original word order conveying a very different sense: "In the first [month], on the fourteenth day of the month, ye shall have the feast of the Passover; seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten" (15). In other words, the seven days describe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, not Passover. Among the versions that agree with this emendation is the RSV, which says, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall celebrate the feast of the passover, and for seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten." This and similar renderings based on reasonable textual criticism are preferable because they recognize that the writer’s thought was strongly shaped by the exact language and ordinances of the Pentateuch.
There is no direct evidence that any group of first-century Jews treated sunrise of the fourteenth as the starting point for the first day of Unleavened Bread (16).
Although the hypothesis that the Synoptic writers use a sunrise-to-sunrise calendar addresses their puzzling placement of the first day of Unleavened Bread on the fourteenth, it leaves untouched the seeming contradiction between their account and John’s. It appears that he sets the Crucifixion on Passover; they, on the next day. Since both issues arise from the same brief Synoptic wording, we may view as dubious any explanation that fails to resolve both.
Day of the Last Supper
The attempt to achieve harmony between the Synoptics and John has produced a welter of unconvincing solutions sharing the same thesis; namely, that Jesus and His disciples celebrated Passover before the proper time on the official calendar.
Various scholars, including D. Chwolson and Josef Pickl, have suggested that the authorities found the law’s requirements impossible to satisfy. They could not slaughter all the Passover lambs in one day and then hold enough Passover meals in Jerusalem during the following evening to allow consumption of all the sacrifices, so they spread the ceremonies over two days. In the year of Jesus’ death, the other day besides the fourteenth had to be the thirteenth, since the fifteenth was a Sabbath. Jesus and His disciples were among the multitude who kept the feast on the thirteenth, before Jesus was crucified on the fourteenth (17).
But it is hard to imagine that any group of Jews would have meekly submitted to an arrangement that made them second-class citizens, deprived of joining others in obeying the law’s actual requirement to celebrate Passover on the fourteenth. Moreover, Mark double dates the Last Supper, setting it not only on the day of sacrifices but also on the first of Unleavened Bread. As we will see later, the second time marker might describe the fourteenth, but under no circumstances could it describe any day earlier.
Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck proposed that in the year of Jesus’ death, a dispute arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the priestly party) as to which day should be reckoned the first of Nisan. As a result, the Pharisees celebrated Passover on Thursday and the Sadducees on Friday, both claiming that their chosen day was the fourteenth. Jesus and His disciples, agreeing with the Pharisees, sacrificed a lamb and partook of the Passover meal on Thursday, one day ahead of the Sadduceean Passover, acknowledged by John but not by the Synoptics (18).
But Jesus never failed to teach or practice submission to God-given authority (Matt. 22:21). The priests were not overstepping their assigned role when they declared which day was the proper time for sacrifices, so it is unthinkable that Jesus would have abetted the Pharisees in their rejection of a legitimate ruling.
Annie Jaubert argued that Jesus and His followers celebrated Passover in keeping with the solar calendar used at Qumran, headquarters of a reclusive sect of Judaism; that its numbering in the year of Jesus’ death ran three days ahead of the official calendar; and that the Last Supper, intended as a true Passover meal, was therefore observed on Tuesday evening, nearly three full days before the Crucifixion (19).
But there is no evidence of any ties between Jesus and the Qumran community (20). Also, Humphreys demonstrated that Jaubert’s reconstruction is impossible. In AD 33, the fourteenth of Nisan on the Qumran calendar fell, depending on exactly how it was computed, either in the week following the general celebration of Passover or in a different month altogether (21).
Another solution was offered by Harold Hoehner. He built on two assumptions: (1) that the Galileans, including Jesus’ band, measured the day from sunrise to sunrise and (2) that their calendar day started twelve hours ahead of the official calendar day rather than twelve hours behind. It follows that Jesus celebrated Passover a day before the customary time, thus treating the Last Supper before His death as a true Passover meal (22).
But how did any group accustomed to sunrise-to-sunrise reckoning know which day to consider as the first of the month? The easiest course would have been to take their cue from standard reckoning. Yet the practice in Jerusalem was to start a month on the same evening when a new moon was first sighted (23). Thus, for any adherents of an alternative calendar, the following morning was the soonest they could start a new month if they waited for the month to change in Jerusalem, and their numbering of days would have lagged twelve hours behind the official calendar (24).
After weighing all previous solutions, Humphreys decided that the Synoptics and John are best harmonized by supposing that the Synoptics depended upon a sunrise-to-sunrise lunar calendar figuring a new month from an earlier starting point: not the first evening when a new moon became visible, but the first day after an old moon became invisible, known as the day of conjunction. He maintained that this was a more ancient calendar preserved by several groups in Jesus’ day, including the Samaritans and perhaps the Galileans. Although the Qumran community as a whole probably followed the solar calendar described by Jaubert, their writings allude to a lunar calendar based on the day of conjunction, raising the possibility that some of the Essenes employed it (25). In AD 33, Nisan started two days sooner on this alternative calendar than on the one favored by the authorities. Humphreys offered the following scenario. Because Jesus and His disciples preferred the sunrise-to-sunrise lunar calendar, deeming it their own true heritage, they followed it in their observance of Passover. They offered a lamb for sacrifice on Wednesday afternoon, which they regarded as the fourteenth although it was officially the twelfth, and ate the Passover meal on Wednesday evening (26).
One merit in Humphrey’s theory is that both in Samaria and in Qumran a ruling body was in place who might have determined when a new month should begin. But it is extremely doubtful that the Galileans would have relied on either source. To whom did they look for guidance? Most people had better things to do than watch the sky, and sometimes, when the moon’s visibility was borderline due to either its position or atmospheric conditions, the sky gave uncertain information. Therefore, the Sanhedrin, custodians of the official calendar, declared a new month only when multiple observers reported sighting a new moon (27). But historical records reveal no body that might have managed a different calendar for the Galileans.
Summary of our evaluation
All these solutions founder on the same two fallacies.
- They all amount to mere speculation resting on remote possibilities. There is no historical evidence that Passover lambs were ever sacrificed on any day but the fourteenth by official reckoning.
- Reconsider Mark’s choice of words in Mark 14:12. He states that the Last Supper was held on the day "when they killed the passover." The words "they killed" translate a single word, a verb variously described as "indefinite plural and imperfect" (28) and "customary imperfect" (29). Authorities agree that the most appropriate translation of the whole phrase in question is, "when it was customary to kill the passover" (30). The day Mark intends cannot therefore be any sooner than the fourteenth on the official calendar, since only that day could be described as the customary time for Passover sacrifices.
Inconsistency of Popular Usage
The correct explanation for the apparent contradiction between John and the Synoptics is a simple one recommended by many prominent scholars, such as James Morison in the nineteenth century; Judah Benzion Segal, Roger Beckwith, and J. Dwight Pentecost in the twentieth century; and R. T. France in the twenty-first century (31).
In Jesus’ time, even among the majority who reckoned the day as sundown to sundown, many Jews regarded the fourteenth of Nisan as the first day of Unleavened Bread. By this term they did not mean the first day when leavened bread was forbidden—they knew that the prohibition started at the Passover meal—but the first day of the entire festival. The meaning of Mark 14:12 and of the corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke is that the Last Supper was prepared and eaten in the evening at the beginning of the fourteenth. Thus, by implication, the Synoptics place the Crucifixion on Nisan the fourteenth, not the fifteenth.
Technically, as the law prescribed, Passover was limited to one day, the fourteenth, and Unleavened Bread lasted seven days, from the fifteenth to the twenty-first (Lev. 23:5–8; Num. 28:16–25). But it was natural and inevitable that consecutive feasts celebrated by the nation during the same break from daily life would have become known by a single name. Both in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 22:1) and in the Book of Acts (Acts 12:3–4), the whole festival bears the name "Passover." In the Babylonian Talmud, the last seven days are called Passover, and the day when the lambs were sacrificed is called Passover eve (32).
Another name for the whole festival was Unleavened Bread. Of decisive importance is the testimony of Josephus, a Judean and national leader of priestly descent who doubtless adhered to the calendar considered official in Jesus’ day. In several passages, he treats "Passover" and "Feast of Unleavened Bread" as synonymous terms, both referring to the whole feast.
Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passover, and is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt, . . . (33).
As the Jews were celebrating the feast of unleavened bread, which we call the Passover, it was customary for the priests to open the temple-gates just after midnight (34).
When that feast which is called the passover was at hand, at which time our custom is to use unleavened bread, and a great multitude was gathered together from all parts to that feast, Cumanus was afraid lest some attempt of innovation should then be made by them; . . . (35).
Someone might rejoin that although these passages certainly establish that the Feast of Unleavened Bread was also known as Passover, they do not show conclusively that Passover, the fourteenth, was considered a day of Unleavened Bread. Josephus himself provides our answer. In his Wars, he said,
As now the war abroad ceased for a while, the sedition within was revived; and on the feast of unleavened bread, which was now come, it being the fourteenth day of the month Xanthicus, [Nisan,] when it is believed the Jews were first freed from the Egyptians, Eleazar and his party opened the gates of this [inmost court of the] temple, and admitted such of the people as were desirous to worship God into it (36).
Humphreys countered that the Zealots who controlled the Temple at this time did not accept the official calendar; that they viewed the fourteenth as the first day of Unleavened Bread only because they preferred the older calendar with sunrise-to-sunrise reckoning; and that Josephus in his account takes their point of view simply to explain why they opened the Temple gates (37). Yet we might have expected him to distance himself from their mode of reckoning if he followed another.
In Antiquities, without any constraint from the story he is telling, he affirms as his own outlook that the whole festival—all eight days from the fourteenth to the twenty-first inclusive—is properly called Unleavened Bread.
Hence, in memory of the scarcity at that time, we observe for eight days the festival, as it is called, of unleavened bread (38).
Yet elsewhere in Antiquities, he seems to contradict himself.
On the fifteenth the festival of unleavened bread, which lasts seven days, follows the pascha: during it they feed on unleavened bread, and on each day two bulls and one ram and seven lambs are slaughtered. These are sacrificed as whole burnt-offerings, with a goat also being added to them all for sins, as a feast each day for the priests. On the second day of the unleavened bread—this is the sixteenth—they partake of the crops that they have reaped, for they had not been touched before that time; and considering that it is proper first to honor God, from whom they chanced upon the abundance of these, they bring the first fruits of the barley to Him in the following manner (39).
We must consider the context, however. This passage is taken from Josephus’s lengthy survey of Mosaic law. Throughout, he hews close to the language of Scripture. Here, his obvious sources are the two ordinances that clearly define the fifteenth as the first of Unleavened Bread: Leviticus 23:5–8 and Numbers 28:16–25.
So what may we conclude? We conclude that in the delightful manner of all humankind, the Jews in Jesus’ day were inconsistent in their use of terms. They spoke one way when they were seeking to follow the language of Scripture. They lapsed into less formal language whenever it was convenient. We likewise may refer to the holidays at the end of December as Christmas, or we may distinguish Christmas and New Year’s.
We must still explain why the Synoptic writers chose informal reckoning to pinpoint the day of the Last Supper. Why, as authors of Holy Writ, did they not identify the day in a manner more attentive to the usages of Holy Writ from the era of Moses? We gain insight on this perplexing question by setting the parallel passages side-by-side.
|Matthew 26:17||Mark 14:12||Luke 22:7-8|
|Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?||And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?||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 striking correspondence of these passages, and of the surrounding narrative as well, suggests both a common meaning and a common source. To the basic information we find in Matthew, both Mark and Luke add comments that seem intended as clarification, lest we misunderstand which day was the first of Unleavened Bread. It appears, then, that Matthew’s account was either the source of the others or closest to their source. This is exactly what we would expect, given that Matthew was the only one of the three who was a member of the Twelve and a participant in the recorded conversation, given also that he was, according to tradition, the Twelve’s secretary (40). But who was Matthew? Formerly a pious Pharisee steeped in the law? No, formerly a despised publican, a marginal Jew steeped in the popular culture of his day. He reckoned time like the man on the street. His Gospel shows that undoubtedly as one benefit of sitting under Jesus’ instruction, he became an expert on Messianic prophecy, but he likely never forsook old habits of language that were of no moral significance.
Jeremias's Attempt to Draw Evidence from John that the Last Supper Was after Passover Sacrifices
The scholar who has assembled the strongest case against placing the Last Supper on the fourteenth is Joachim Jeremias (41). His three main arguments are these:
- The Synoptics assign the Last Supper to the first day of Unleavened Bread. We have already answered this argument at some length.
- The Synoptics treat the Last Supper as a Passover meal, normally held on the fifteenth. We accept that it was indeed a Passover meal, and later we will explain why Jesus held it on the fourteenth.
- Even John furnishes two significant clues that the Last Supper fell not on the eve of the fourteenth, but on the eve of the fifteenth. Both clues appear when John tells how the disciples explained Judas’s departure from their midst while the meal was underway (John 13:29) (42).
Their second guess as to Judas’s purpose was that he left to distribute money to the poor. Jeremias contended that almsgiving was customary on the eve of the fifteenth (43). Yet the supporting evidence is exceedingly slim (44). Segal counted the same speculation in the minds of the other men as evidence for placing the Last Supper on the eve of the fourteenth. He argued that on the eve of the fifteenth, when most everyone in the city was involved in private celebration of Passover, it was highly improbable that Judas would venture out to distribute money or that the disciples would surmise such a mission (45).
It would be a mistake to suppose that Jesus’ disciples needed the prompting of custom to make them generous. In their spiritually zealous milieu, under the guidance of the man who taught, "Sell that ye have, and give alms" (Luke 12:33–34), giving to the poor was not a gesture now and then, but a way of life. It is probable that after a day of mingling with the festival crowds in Jerusalem, they tallied whatever contributions had come to them from sympathizers, set aside an amount sufficient to meet their own needs, and immediately distributed the rest to the poor. The disciples assumed that Judas left on a mission of charity simply because that was usually the reason he went away after supper.
The first guess of the disciples as to why Judas slipped out was that Jesus sent him to buy necessary provisions. Jeremias asserted that last-minute purchases would have been unnecessary on the eve of the fourteenth, since the marketplace was open the next day (46). But he failed to demonstrate that Judas would have found the shops open on the eve of the fifteenth, a day when all work was forbidden. The Mishnah states that Judeans ceased work at noon of the fourteenth (47). During the limited hours of business on the fourteenth, the marketplace was undoubtedly thronged with people seeking adequate provisions until the shops and stalls were reopened on the sixteenth. Judas might well have gone to the marketplace on the eve of the fourteenth in order to avoid the crowds he would meet the following morning.
John’s Gospel does not therefore offer any credible support for Jeremias’s view that the Crucifixion fell on the fifteenth.
The Last Supper as a Passover Meal
Yet against our harmonization of John and the Synoptics, someone might protest that the Synoptics explicitly identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:8–15). Especially informative is Luke’s account. He says that on the day of the Last Supper, Jesus sent Peter and John into the city "to prepare us the passover, that we may eat" (Luke 22:8). They were instructed how to find the right house and what to tell the house owner: "Where is the guest chamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?" (Luke 22:11). In obedience, "they made ready the passover" (Luke 22:13). The obvious question is, why would the Synoptic writers call it a Passover meal if it were held a whole day before the proper time?
Matthew and Mark record that the disciples themselves initiated preparations for the meal (Matt. 26:17 Mark 14:12). On Thursday evening by our reading of the evidence, they approached Jesus and asked for instructions. No doubt they supposed that they would be getting ready for a meal together in the following evening, the scheduled time for Passover. Their desire to make arrangements one day early probably rested on the assumption that everyone would be too busy to make them on Passover day itself. So, with Jesus’ encouragement and according to His directions, they procured a meeting place. Probably also they assured provision of all necessary furnishings and foods, excepting the lamb itself, which they expected to obtain the following day. No mention of a lamb anywhere in the account of the Last Supper is further evidence, incidentally, that it took place in the evening before Passover (48). When the disciples had everything in order, imagine their surprise when Jesus took them to share the meal right away.
After sitting down with them at the table, He said,
With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof until the kingdom of God shall come.
No explanation for eating the Passover with His disciples was necessary if the meal was being celebrated at the usual time and in the usual manner. Something out of the ordinary is clearly indicated (49). It is helpful to remember that the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8) is also Lord of the Passover. Thus, Jesus had every right to change the day of the meal so that He might share it once more with His beloved disciples.
Yet the Gospel writers say nothing to contradict the casual reader’s impression that the Last Supper was no different from other Passover meals. Why not? Probably for the simple reason that they do not want anyone to think that Jesus was breaking the law. In fact, the Last Supper did not satisfy the law’s requirements for a Passover meal. But it was hardly unlawful to gather at another time for a meal of the same kind. Far from flouting the law, the meal on Thursday night actually protected the disciples from breaking it. Jesus knew that on the next day they would be in no state to observe Passover in the customary fashion, as the law required. Therefore, He let them know that they were fulfilling their duty by eating with Him the night before. By His divine authority He was designating it a true Passover meal.
Jeremias has detailed the many ways that their meal together conformed to the annual rite (50).
- In obedience to the law (Deut. 16:5–7), it was eaten in the city of the Temple, in Jerusalem.
- It was eaten after sundown, whereas the usual time for the last meal of the day was in the late afternoon.
- The number who joined in a Passover meal was usually at least ten, but seldom many more than ten. Thirteen gathered for the Last Supper.
- The participants reclined at the table. Among the Jews, this practice of Greco-Roman culture was reserved for special occasions.
- The Jews began an ordinary meal with the breaking of bread. But at the Last Supper, as at the Passover meal, the breaking of bread was postponed until after another dish had been served.
- The Last Supper was accompanied by wine. Yet wine was absent from Jewish meals except on special occasions, such as Passover.
- Although red, white, and black wines were available in Palestine, the drink chosen for the Last Supper was red wine, like the wine used in the Passover meal.
- The one who presided over a Passover meal explained the meaning of each food. This custom is seemingly reflected in Jesus’ comments on the bread and wine, identifying them as symbols of His body and blood.
- Before departing from the table, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn. It was customary at the end of the Passover meal to sing Psalms 115 through 118.
Some might wonder how Jesus and the disciples could have construed the Last Supper as a Passover meal if it was missing the most essential food—a lamb slain hours before at the Temple. But the main point Jesus was making at the Last Supper was that He is the Paschal lamb. He is the fulfillment of all the pictures engraved upon Mosaic ceremonial law. What need did they have for the type when the antitype was in their midst? He wanted them to understand, moreover, that they were in a profound sense complying even with the law’s requirement to feast on the Paschal lamb, for when they partook of the bread, they were eating His body, and when they sipped the wine, they were drinking His blood.