Having concluded that the synoptics clearly and without equivocation represent the Last Supper as a Passover Seder, we turn our attention to the Passion narrative in John. If it were not for John’s account there would be no debate and the matter would be simple. What are the elements in John’s account that cast doubt on the nature of the Last Supper and the timing of Yeshua’s crucifixion?
Keeping Themselves Undefiled to Eat the Passover
Yeshua was held prisoner in the house of Caiphas, likely the house known today as St. Peter’s Gallicanto located southwest of the temple mount. The temple guards and the chief priests made a procession down into the Valley of Absalom and up into the city, to the Praetorium, the fortress of the Romans. They brought their prisoner to stand before the secular authority of Judea, the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate.
The chief priests did not wish to enter the Praetorium, but waited outside and forced Pilate to come out and have audience with them. John tells us their reason:
John 18:28, They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover.
It was a danger of the priesthood that they might incur ritual contamination too close to an important ceremony to be able to purify themselves again and preside over the ceremony. Most types of impurity required waiting until sundown to return to purity. It would seem the chief priests were concerned about entering a Gentile barracks where they might encounter a number of causes of impurity, possibly even a corpse.
The time was in the morning and the priests would be offering “the passover” that afternoon. There would be no intervening sundown to give time for a return to purity. And should the cause of impurity be contamination by a corpse, the period to wait for purity would be seven days, even if there was no direct contact but only proximity under the same roof (Num. 19).
The problem this causes for the idea of the Last Supper being a Passover Seder is obvious. The apparent meaning of John 18:28 is that the lambs for the Passover Seder had not yet been slaughtered and that the priests wanted to keep themselves pure for the Seder (but see Part 3 in which I explain this conundrum). If that is the meaning of John 18:28, then the Last Supper either could not be a Passover Seder or Yeshua and the disciples had to be on a different calendar than the temple officials.
Releasing a Prisoner
Yet another problem, potentially, comes from John 18:39, where Pilate said:
But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?
Remember this scene takes place the morning after Yeshua’s Last Supper and yet Pilate regards Passover as either as still going on or yet to come. This is not a serious difficulty for a number of reasons. Jewish days begin at sundown and so the morning after the Seder would still be Passover, not to mention that the whole seven (or even eight) days could be called Passover.
The Day of Preparation
Pilate wanted to release Yeshua after several interviews with the prisoner. Yet the small gathering of Jewish leaders on the Pavement (the Gabbatha) were adamant. They would even have Pilate release a revolutionary (or bandit) named Barabbas than Yeshua. They were more concerned about the dangers (politically, perhaps) of Yeshua remaining at large. This Messianic movement needed to be put down before it gathered a large following (possibly diluting the authority of the priests and/or provoking a response from Rome).
After making their demand clear to Pilate, Yeshua’s fate is sealed. And John notes what time and what day it was in John 19:14:
Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour.
In other words the time was noon (the sixth hour on a sundial is always noon). The day was was one of preparation for the Passover. How could the previous night have been the time for Seder if the morning of Yeshua’s last trial was the day of preparing for Passover?
A High Day
Yeshua is on the cross and his life has just ended. He has entrusted care of his mother to the disciple John and has said, “It is finished.” The soldiers do not know he has died and they are speeding up the death of the three victims by breaking their legs. They decide they do not have to do this to Yeshua, who appears dead already when they inspect him. To be certain, one impales him with a spear so that Yeshua’s bodily fluids run out.
What was the soldiers’ motivation for speeding up the death of their victims? John 19:31 gives us an answer:
Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining 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.
Not only does John repeat that is was a day of preparation, but also says this Sabbath was a high day. What could this mean? One possibility is that this was the day of preparation for the Seder and the day coming with the sundown was the first day of Passover (Unleavened Bread). The first day of Unleavened Bread was a special Sabbath, separate from the weekly Sabbath. It was what Judaism today calls a Yom Tov. Were the soldiers removing the victims before sundown so as not to violate the Yom Tov of Passover? If so, the Last Supper of Yeshua was one day too early to be a Passover Seder.
Not a Bone of Him Shall Be Broken
The last problem raised by the Johannine account is a matter of symbolism. The soldiers did not have to break Yeshua’s legs to speed his death. John saw in this event a connection to the Torah of Israel and John made a midrash on it in John 19:36:
For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of him shall be broken.”
This is a reference possibly to Psalm 34:20, a general promise that God protects his holy ones so that their bones are not broken.
Yet more clearly this is a reference to Exodus 12:46, that the Passover lambs should be eaten in every household without any of the bones being broken.
John is equating Yeshua with the Passover lambs. If Yeshua is a Passover lamb, it might follow that he was crucified in the afternoon before the Passover Seder, when the Passover lambs were slain. If that is the case, the Last Supper of Yeshua was, again, one night too early to be a Seder.
Coming in Part 3: Reading John’s Passion Narrative in Harmony with the Synoptics.