This is the time of year that I think mostly about Passover. I study the Haggadah, its history of development and the meaning of its parts, and prepare to lead a Seder in my home and then one for my congregation on the second night. I also speak in churches every Sunday this season, teaching them about connections between the Passover and the Last Supper and the meaning of Yeshua’s death.
Anyone who puts in a little time into studying the traditional texts in the gospels and correlating to the Passover texts in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, should notice that there are questions, problems, issues. What was the last meal of Jesus and his disciples together before he died? Was Yeshua crucified during the slaughtering of the Passover lambs? Is Good Friday a misnomer — was Yeshua crucified on a Thursday or a Wednesday? Are the gospel writers in agreement with one another or do the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have it wrong? Or perhaps John has it wrong?
The Passover-Last Supper Problem
In brief, the biggest problem in understanding the accounts of Yeshua’s last days and crucifixion is what appears to be contradictory information. The synoptic gospels seem to say that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder while John seems to say that Yeshua was crucified on the afternoon before Passover, as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple courts.
I commonly read New Testament scholars saying that the Last Supper was not a Passover Seder. The frequent argument is that these stories do not mention a lamb. Therefore, the Last Supper could be seen as a ceremonial Jewish meal for any occasion and not specifically a Passover (or so some say, but see below).
Interestingly, though the Fourth Gospel is regarded by nearly everyone as late and usually by critical scholars as the least historically accurate, on the question of the Last Supper and Passover, John seems to get the preference. I am not sure what the bias in favor of John has as its basis. I can’t help but wonder if some interpreters simply want to deny that the Last Supper was a Passover for some reason. Maybe the Jewish-Christian connection here either seems to good to be true or it is troubling to those who want to keep the two realms separate.
But as I will show below, the synoptics are clear: the Last Supper was a Passover Seder.
The Synoptics, the Last Supper, and Passover
It should be immediately obvious that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke of the Last Supper point to a Passover Seder and not a formal meal for any other occasion. The relevant texts are:
I will start building my case with the most obvious and lucid statements equating the Last Supper with a Passover Seder and then show the pattern of the Last Supper as it relates to the Seder of ancient times.
First, the synoptics again and again refer to the Last Supper as a Passover Seder:
Mark 14:12, …on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?”
Mark 14:14, Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?
Mark 14:16, …the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover.
In case there is any doubt, since some might say the disciples were preparing early but Jesus died before the day of the Seder, Luke 22:15 should put all doubts to rest. Here is what Yeshua said while he was dining in that famous Upper Room:
Luke 22:15, And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.”
There are a number of features in the Last Supper that fit the pattern of a Passover Seder as described in the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.). Admittedly, some of these features would also apply to any ceremonial Jewish meal:
–Blessings over bread and wine (a feature at any Jewish meal, but emphasized at Passover).
–A cup after the meal (which could be an older custom during Grace After Meals but also fits with Passover as the third cup).
–Reclining at the table (a feature from Roman customs, but emphasized at Passover).
–Dipping into a bowl (a common feature of ancient meals, but at Passover with symbolic significance of dipping into the bitter herbs and the charoset).
–“This is…,” as in “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” sounds like a ceremonial liturgy being reinterpreted (the ceremonial liturgy of the Passover is a good guess).
–Finally, going out after the meal to sing a hymn is a Passover custom and does not fit with a ceremonial meal for any occasion. The hymn would be Psalm 115-118, the Hallel, which is part of the Passover Seder.
Passover customs were still developing in Yeshua’s time. The Temple was still standing and many features of the modern Seder are adaptations from post-Temple days. Nonetheless, in the other earliest account we have of the Passover Seder (Mishnah Pesahim 10:1-9, from 200 C.E.) we read about a Seder with these requirements:
–Four cups of wine
–Matzah, lettuce, charoset
–Questions and midrash
–Hallel Psalms, Part 1 (Ps. 113-114)
–Grace After Meals
–Hallel Psalms, Part 2 (Ps. 115-118, 136).
Problems With Synoptics, Last Supper, and Passover
There are issues often raised which could be evidence that the Last Supper was not a Passover Seder.
First, the New Testament word for unleavened bread is azumos, and is used for example in Mark 14:1. The common New Testament word for bread is artos. And during the Last Supper, Yeshua and the disciples are said to eat artos and not azumos. See, for example, Mark 14:22, “…as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it…”
This could be evidence that the Last Supper was not a Passover. Or it could be evidence that the common word for bread could be used in context to be understood as Passover bread. Just as we call the matzah of Passover bread without always qualifying that it is unleavened, so might the gospel writers.
Second, the Last Supper story says nothing about a lamb. The answer to this, of course, is that for whatever reason, the gospel writers did not feel it pertinent to the story. Omission is not evidence of absence.
Coming in Part 2: Understanding the Problem of Correlating the Synoptics and John. Coming in Part 3: Reading John’s Passion Narrative in Harmony with the Synoptics.