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WAS THE "LAST SUPPER" THE PASSOVER MEAL?

From The Here a Little, There a Little website (http://www.aristotle.net/~bhuie/index.shtml)

Several conflicting opinions exist regarding the meal that took place on the last night of Christ's life. Many people believe that Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples, as the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear to indicate. Others disagree, pointing to John's Gospel, which clearly shows that this "last supper" occurred before the Passover feast. Is there a way to reconcile the two differing accounts? Can both accounts be correct?

To fully understand this topic, let's examine the Gospel reports of Christ's final meal. First, we'll look at John's account of the "last supper." Many scholars believe that John wrote his Gospel late in the first century, long after the Synoptic Gospels had been written. By the time John wrote, Gentiles likely composed a significant portion of the Church.

Probably because of the number of Gentile converts in the Church and the anti-Jewish bias that had begun to take root, John's Gospel is different from the Synoptic Gospels. John went to great lengths to emphasize Jesus' heritage. He stressed that Jesus was a Jew who routinely kept Jewish customs, including the observance of the feast days. John refers to at least three Passovers during the ministry of Christ, including his final one. He also mentions the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2), the Last Great Day (John 7:37), and Hanukkah (John 10:22).

Let's review the beginning of John's account of the "last supper," which is found in chapter thirteen.

JOHN 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God, and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. 5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (NASB)

John shows that the "last supper" took place on the same night Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ. The first verse plainly states that this was "before the feast of the Passover." John is obviously referring to the same night described by the other three Gospel writers (Matt. 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). John goes on to reiterate several times that the Passover had not yet occurred.

JOHN 18:28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover. (NKJV)
JOHN 19:14 Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he [Pilate] said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" (NKJV)
JOHN 19:31 Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (NKJV) JOHN 19:42 So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews' Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby. (NKJV)

The Jews reckoned days from sunset to sunset. As you can see, John points out repeatedly that the "last supper," the betrayal by Judas, and Jesus' trial and crucifixion all occurred before the Passover, on the Preparation Day. But exactly when was the Preparation Day?

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary says that the Preparation Day for the Passover was from the evening (end) of Nisan 13 until the evening (end) of Nisan 14 (p. 411). E.W. Bullinger, in Appendix 156 to The Companion Bible, states: "Wednesday, Nisan 14th (commencing on Tuesday at sunset), was 'the preparation day', on which the crucifixion took place" (p. 180).

As shown in John 19:31 above, the day following the Preparation Day was an annual high Sabbath, the First Day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15). God commanded the Israelites to observe this high Sabbath every year (Exo. 12:16-17; Lev. 23:6-7).

EXODUS 12:16 "On the first day there shall be a holy convocation, and on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation for you. No manner of work shall be done on them; but that which everyone must eat; that only may be prepared by you. 17 So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance." (NKJV)
LEVITICUS 23:6 "And on the fifteenth day of the same month [Abib, later called Nisan] is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it." (NKJV)

Now let's examine the accounts of this event recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Synoptic Gospels and compare them with John's version.

MATTHEW 26:17 Now on the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?" 18 And He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, "My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples."' 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover. 20 When evening had come, He sat down with the twelve. 21 Now as they were eating, He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me." (NKJV)
MARK 14:12 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?" 13 And He sent out two of His disciples and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him. 14 Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, "Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' 15 Then he will show you a large upper room, furnished and prepared; there make ready for us." 16 So His disciples went out, and came into the city, and found it just as He had said to them; and they prepared the Passover. 17 In the evening He came with the twelve. 18 Now as they sat and ate, Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, one of you who eats with Me will betray Me." (NKJV)
LUKE 22:7 Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. 8 And He sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat." 9 So they said to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare?" 10 And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. 11 Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' 12 Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready." 13 So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover. 14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." (NKJV)

First, let's note the timing of these events. Matthew says it was "the first of Unleavened Bread." On the surface, this appears to contradict John's account, which plainly states that the "last supper" occurred before the Feast of Passover. However, Mark and Luke add an additional detail that helps clarify the time. Mark says it was "the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover"; Luke states it was "the day of Unleavened Bread when the Passover must be killed."

The Bible tells us in Exodus 12:6 that the Passover lambs were to be killed "between the evenings" on the 14th of Abib. The Jews have traditionally interpreted "between the evenings" to mean "in the afternoon." For an in-depth discussion of this phrase, refer to "What Does 'Between the Evenings' Mean?" and "Exodus 12 - When Was the First Passover?"

The Jews at the time of Christ killed the Passover lambs on the afternoon of Nisan 14. In The Wars of the Jews, Josephus records that in the first century, the Passover lambs were slaughtered "from the ninth hour till the eleventh" (bk. 6, ch. 9, sec. 3), which corresponds to our 3:00-5:00 p.m.

Obviously, the day Matthew and Mark call the "first day of Unleavened Bread" is the same day that John calls the "the Preparation Day of the Passover." The New Unger's Bible Dictionary says that the 14th of Nisan was "called until the evening the preparation for the Passover" (p. 411). As shown below, all three Synoptic Gospels confirm that Christ was crucified on Nisan 14, the "Preparation Day."

MATTHEW 27:62 On the next day [Nisan 15], which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate. (NKJV)
MARK 15:42 Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the [high] Sabbath, 15 Joseph of Arimathea . . . went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (NKJV)
LUKE 23:54 That day was the Preparation, and the [high] Sabbath drew near. (NKJV)

Going back to the Synoptic accounts of the meal, Matthew and Mark show that the disciples came to Christ just as the Preparation Day (Nisan 14) was beginning, which would have been at sunset. They asked him where he wanted them to prepare to eat the Passover meal, which would occur the next night (see John 18:28 above). Luke records that in response to their question, Jesus instructed Peter and John how to find the place where they would eat the Passover on the night of Nisan 15. He told them the owner of the house would show them a large furnished upper room. Mark and Luke both state that it was there, in that room, that they were to prepare for the Passover (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12).

As you can see from all three accounts (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7-9), the disciples waited until the beginning of Nisan 14 to ask Christ where to prepare the Passover. If the time between sunset and dark on the 14th was the correct time to slay the Passover lambs, as some erroneously teach, why would they have waited so very late to question Christ about preparing for the meal? Or if the Passover meal would not take place for at least another 24 hours, why would they prepare for it that evening?

In Jacob Neusner's translation of the Jewish Mishnah, we can see why the disciples would have been concerned with preparing for the Passover that evening, even though it wouldn't be eaten until the next night.

Pesahim 1:3 A. R. Judah says, "They seek out [leaven] (1) on the night of the fourteenth, (2) on the fourteenth in the morning, and (3) at the time of removal." B. And sages say, "[If] one did not seek out [leaven] on the night of the fourteenth, he may seek it out (1) on the fourteenth. C. "If he did not seek it out on the fourteenth, let him seek it out (2) at the appointed time [11 a.m. to 12 noon on the fourteenth]. D. "[If] he did not seek it out at the appointed time, let him seek it out (3) after the appointed time [to nightfall]." (The Mishnah: A New Translation, p. 230)

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary confirms how the Jews prepared for the observance of the Passover:

On the evening of the 13th Nisan [as the 13th ended and the 14th began], which, until that of the 14th, was called the "preparation for the Passover" (John 19:14), every head of a family searched for and collected by the light of a candle all the leaven. Before beginning the search he pronounced the following benediction: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with thy commandments, and hast enjoined us to remove the leaven.' After the search he said, 'Whatever leaven remains in my possession which I cannot see, behold, it is null, and accounted as the dust of the earth'" ("Festivals," p. 411).

Clearly, the reason the disciples questioned Jesus about where they were going to eat the Passover meal was because Jewish custom required that the location be deleavened on the night of the 14th. The Jews ate the Passover meal on the night of Nisan 15, which was the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Exodus 12:15 commands the Israelites to remove all leaven from their dwellings and prescribes the penalty for eating leavened bread during this feast.

EXODUS 12:15 "For a seven-day period shall you eat matzos [unleavened bread], but on the previous day [the Preparation Day] you shall nullify the leaven from your homes; for anyone who eats leavened food - that soul shall be cut off from Israel, from the first day [Abib 15] to the seventh day [Abib 21]." (Stone Edition Tanach)

When the disciples questioned Christ about where they were going to eat the Passover meal the next night, they still did not fully understand that he would be dead then! Christ would not be able to eat the Passover because he was destined to be sacrificed as our Passover (I Cor. 5:7). But instead of explaining then that he would be in the grave when the time came to eat the Passover lamb, he simply told them where to prepare to eat the Passover meal. After Peter and John had deleavened the room and made ready for the upcoming feast, Christ used their final meal together on the night of the 14th to instruct his disciples one last time before his death.

Luke 22:15 has been used to support the assertion that Christ and his disciples ate the Passover meal. In this Scripture, Jesus says "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." The Greek phrase translated "with fervent desire I have desired" is epithumia epethumesa. It literally means "with desire I desired."

The first word of this phrase, epithumia, is a noun. According to the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, usually this word " has the ambivalent sense, desire, strive for, long to have/do/be something." It can also be "used for (forbidden) desire " (vol. 2, p. 27). Christ uses epithumia in this sense in Luke 22:15.

In the article "The Lord's Supper," the New Bible Dictionary says that ". . . Lk. 22:15 may be read as an unfulfilled wish" (p. 707). Christ truly longed to eat that coming Passover with his disciples, but his desire could not be realized! It was forbidden because it would have destroyed the plan of God, since Christ was destined to be sacrificed as our Passover the next afternoon.

In his translation entitled The Holy Bible in Modern English, Ferrar Fenton accurately captures the meaning of Christ's words in these verses.

LUKE 22:15 "And He said to them: 'I have longingly desired to eat this Passover with you before My suffering; 16 however, I tell you that I shall not eat of it, until it can be administered in the Kingdom of God.'" (Fenton Translation)

The meal that Jesus and the disciples ate was obviously a prepatory meal, not the Passover meal itself. Jewish scholar David H. Stern writes of this meal:

The Last Supper is considered by most scholars to have been a Passover meal or Seder. Many Pesach themes are deepened, reinforced and given new levels of meaning by events in the life of Yeshua the Messiah and by his words on this night. However, Joseph Shulam has suggested that it may not have been the Seder but a se'udat-mitzvah, the celebratory banquet accompanying performance of a commandment such as a wedding or b'rit-milah.
Here is the background for his argument. When a rabbi and his students finish studying a tractate of the Talmud, they celebrate with a se'udat-mitzvah (also called a se'udat-siyum, 'banquet of completion,' i.e., graduation). The Fast of the Firstborn, expressing gratitude for the saving of Israel's firstborn sons from the tenth plague, has been prescribed for the day before Pesach, Nisan 14, at least since Mishnaic times. When it is necessary to eat a se'udat-mitzvah, this takes precedence over a fast. With a modicum of foresight a rabbi can plan to complete a tractate on Nisan 14 and thus avoid having to fast; doing so is not construed as cheating, and in fact it has become the custom.
The tradition of the Fast of the Firstborn dates at least from Mishnaic times. But, Shulam reasons, if it goes back a couple of centuries more to the time of Yeshua, and if the si'udat-siyum custom applied in the first century to the completing of any course of study, then Yeshua might have arranged to have himself and his talmidim finish reading a book of the Tanakh on Nisan 14. Or, since Yeshua knew he was going to die, he may have regarded it as appropriate to complete his disciples' earthly "course of study" with a banquet. This solution would also resolve the perceived conflict between Yochanan [John] and the Synoptic Gospels over the timing of the Last Supper (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 77).

In The Companion Bible comment on Luke 22:15, Bullinger states that the last supper Christ and the disciples ate was "not the eating of the Lamb, but the Chagigah or feast which preceded it . . ." (p. 1500). He goes on to explain that "it follows, therefore, that the Lord being crucified on 'the preparation day' could not have eaten of the Passover lamb, which was not slain until the evening of the 14th of Nisan (i.e. afternoon). . . . Thus it is clear, that . . . no 'Passover lamb' could have been eaten at the 'last supper' on the previous evening" (Appendix 156, p. 180). None of the four Gospels mentions a lamb being eaten at the "last supper." The time had not yet come to slay the Passover when Christ and his disciples ate their last meal together.

In addition, Deuteronomy 16:2, 5-6 shows that the disciples would have also had a problem with where to slay a Passover lamb, had they desired to kill one.

DEUTERONOMY 16:2 Thou shalt therefore sacrifice the passover unto the Lord thy God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the Lord shall choose to place his name there. 5 Thou mayest not sacrifice the passover within any of thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee: 6 But at the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name in, there thou shalt sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season [Abib, see Deu. 16:1] that thou camest forth out of Egypt. (KJV)

God, through Moses, gives instructions regarding the proper place to sacrifice the Passover in this Scripture. As shown above, God did not allow that the Israelites to sacrifice the Passover anywhere they wanted, but only at the place where He chose to put His name. During Christ's life, the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where God had placed His name, and that's where the Jews slew the Passover lambs in accordance with this command.

Raymond F. McNair of the Global Church of God writes in his article "When Should the True Passover Be Observed?" that Christ's disciples ". . . certainly could not have gone into the Temple at the beginning of the 14th of Abib to have the priests and Levites assist them in the sacrifice of their Passover lambs. Why not? Simply because the Jews (who then controlled the Temple ritual) would not have permitted anyone to kill their Passover lambs approximately 21 hours before they allowed, and supervised, the killing of Passover lambs in the court of the Temple!" (Global Church News, March-April 1996, p. 11).

Christ and his disciples obviously could not have eaten a Passover lamb with their meal that night. The Scriptures clearly state that Christ was our Passover (I Cor. 5:7). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that Christ died at the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.). This is the same time that Josephus records the slaughter of the Passover lambs commenced. Christ fulfilled the symbolism of the Passover lambs exactly by giving his life just as the unblemished Passover lambs began to be slain on the 14th of Nisan!

CONCLUSION

We can see that the Synoptic Gospels do not conflict with John's account when understood correctly. A careful study of the "last supper" from all four Gospels shows that Christ and the disciples did not eat the Passover meal. There was no way they could have, since the time had not yet come to sacrifice the Passover lambs. They simply ate some type of celebratory or prepatory meal. At this supper, Jesus instituted the new covenant symbols of the bread and wine. When approached with an open mind and the belief that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35), we can reconcile these accounts.

Bryan T. Huie Updated: August 22, 1997