Passover and the Last Supper, Part 3

sederWhat are we to make of the seeming contradiction between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Fourth Gospel regarding the nature of the Last Supper and the timing of Yeshua’s crucifixion? The synoptics clearly regard the Last Supper as a Passover Seder (Luke 22:15, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”). Yet John appears to believe Yeshua crucified before the time when the temple officials held their Seder. Yeshua is depicted as the Passover lamb and some details suggest he was crucified when the Passover lambs were slaughtered, on the afternoon of Nisan 14, before the Seder.

As I see it, we have four options:

1. Assume that the synoptics are right and John, written much later, is in error (this is more logical than option 2).

2. Assume that John is right and the synoptics are in error.

3. Solve the conundrum by assuming that Yeshua followed a different calendar than the temple officials (the Essene calendar has often been suggested, though that solution has numerous problems on close examination).

4. Read John, whose account is less clear in terms of timing, in harmony with the synoptics.

Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple: Its Ministry and Services

Edersheim, who lived from 1825 to 1889, is one of the predecessors of Messianic Judaism. He was a Jewish scholar who came to faith in Christ. His knowledge of rabbinic literature was vast though he did not remain faithful to Judaism after placing his faith in Jesus. Edersheim’s writings at once appreciate and disparage the rabbis, perhaps reflecting an internal conflict between the value he found in the rabbis and the Christian milieu which encouraged anti-Judaism.

In his book on the temple, Edersheim has an appendix called, “Did the Lord Institute His Supper on the Paschal Night?” Writing in the nineteenth century, Edersheim saw what many in the twenty-first apparently cannot. He saw that John, like the synoptics, portrayed the death of Yeshua as occurring on Nisan 15, the afternoon after the Seder.

I formed many of my thoughts on the subject from the happy coincidence of having read Edersheim long before I considered these questions in detail. On this matter I am convinced that Edersheim did not lead me astray. I encourage those who wish to know more to turn to Edersheim’s book and his appendix. I will not quote him at length though my interpretations are mostly the same as his.

Resolving the Apparent Conflicts Between John and the Synoptics

In Part 2 of this article I detailed a number of reasons it seems apparent that John believed Yeshua to have died on Nisan 14, on the afternoon before the Seder. I will in this section attempt to resolve those issues and then in the next section give positive evidence from John that the crucifixion took place on Nisan 15, the afternoon after the Seder and the same day as indicated in the synoptics.

The first resolution is the most important and the key to understanding the whole issue. I understand that pastors and Bible students often do not study the Torah of Israel in depth and so I am not surprised many of them miss out on this. Yet I have to wonder about the scholars who should do their homework and know better. I cannot comprehend why some of my colleagues in Messianic Judaism and why the scholars whose books I read seem ignorant of one simple fact: there is more than one kind of sacrifice that could be called the Passover.

Not only did families and havurah groups or ten to twenty people line up at the temple on Nisan 14 to slaughter lambs for their Seder (Josephus claims 250,000 were slain at Passover each year), but there are other sacrifices of Passover as well. On the first day of Unleavened Bread there was an additional sacrifice to be offered (Num. 28:18-22).

This special offering for the first day of Passover (Nisan 15, the day I am saying Yeshua was crucified in agreement with the synoptics) included 11 extra animals in addition to the morning and evening lamb offered year round. Ten of the eleven animals were for a burnt offering: two bulls, a ram, and seven lambs. The eleventh was a sin offering of a male goat.

How important was this offering on the temple calendar? It was of immense importance. There were only a limited number of feasts in ancient Israel and a limited number of days when extra offerings were made. The rabbis gave a name to these sacrifices (not found in the Bible): the chagigah or festal offerings. They are commemorated today on our Seder plate. The Passover lambs of Nisan 14 are commemorated with a shankbone on the Seder plate and the chagigah offerings of Passover (Nisan 15) are commemorated with a roasted egg.

How does the monumentally important offering of Nisan 15 relate to the timing of the death of Yeshua in John? It is the key.

The priests were not worried about being unable to eat the Seder, but being unable to eat the priestly portion of the sin offering of the chagigah (I will show below that this is one of the strongest positive evidences that John is in agreement with the synoptics).

All of the rest of the problems in John fall in line once this one fact is realized.

What did it mean that Pilate wanted to release Yeshua as was a custom at the Passover? It meant that on Nisan 15, the first day of Passover, Pilate would release one prisoner. It makes less sense to assume that Pilate would hold such a ceremony on Nisan 14 while massive crowds were busy preparing for their Seder by slaughtering and flaying their lambs.

What did it mean that it was the day of preparation for the Passover? Two meanings suggest themselves: it was a Friday and preparations had to be made before sundown and/or the chief priests were preparing for the chagigah offering they were about to make in a matter of hours.

What did it mean that the coming Sabbath was a high day? Again, two meanings stand out: the Sabbath during Passover week was a special Sabbath and/or this could possibly be the day the firstfruits were offered in the temple (this is debatable and involves a controversy between the Pharisees and Sadducees).

How could John make a midrash on the unbroken bones of Yeshua comparing him to the Passover lamb if he was not killed at the same time as the Passover lambs? This is not difficult. It is merely an assumption that Yeshua would have to die at the same time as the Passover lambs for John’s midrash to work. That is an assumption based on an overly literal view of midrashic interpretation. Yeshua died on the first day of Passover, a full day after the Passover lambs were slaughtered. That is more than close enough a connection to warrant John’s midrash. Yeshua died during the chagigah offering, not the slaughtering of Passover lambs. But it is nonetheless worth noting that his bones remained unbroken like the Passover lambs just slain the day before. He is our Passover lamb because his death brings redemption from the curse of death just as the Passover lambs did for Israel so long ago.

Evidence that John Knew Yeshua Died After the Seder

1. The story of the Upper Room (John 13-17) could easily be seen as the Last Supper and a Passover Seder, though it lacks many of the Seder details spelled out in the synoptics.

2. The priests’ decision not to enter Pilate’s fortress lest they be unable (due to impurity) to eat the Passover, makes more sense if “Passover” here means the chagigah offering of Nisan 15 and not the Seder which comes earlier. Most types of impurity were cleared up at sundown. If the priests were approaching Pilate’s fortress on Nisan 14, they need not fear as much that they would miss the Seder after sundown as they would fear being unfit to eat the chagigah if the day was Nisan 15 and they were only hours away from making that offering. In other words, their reticence makes more sense if we read John in harmony with the synoptics.

3. Pilate wanted to release Yeshua because it was Passover and he also says it was “the feast.” Nisan 15 is the first day of Passover and the feast. Pilate’s desire to release Yeshua according to a Passover custom makes more sense in harmony with the synoptics than if we assume it was Nisan 14 and the masses were gathered to slaughter lambs for the Seder. It is less likely that Nisan 14 would be called Passover and certainly not “the feast.”

4. The Talmud (b. RH 5a) says that all the sacrifices of the week of Passover are called “the Passover.”

Conclusion

The Last Supper of Yeshua was a Passover Seder. We should be no more surprised that John does not make this clear than we should be surprised that John is the only gospel which does not mention the bread and wine which Yeshua called his body and blood. It is difficult as well to find fault with the synoptics for omitting any reference to a Passover lamb when John omits any reference to what may be regarded as the most potent symbol in the history of Yeshua-faith: the bread and wine that form for various Christian groups the Eucharist or Communion Service or Lord’s Supper.

Yeshua was crucified on Nisan 15, the afternoon following the Seder. He was not crucified at the same time as the numerous lambs to be eaten in homes. He was crucified at the same time as the chagigah, or festal offering of Passover.

It is my desire to put to rest, for as many readers as possible, any talk of Yeshua following a sectarian calendar which differed from that of the temple. I also hope to discredit any concerns that either John or the synoptic evangelists did not know on what day Yeshua died or what the nature of the Last Supper was. It was the Passover that Yeshua eagerly desired to eat with his disciples before his death.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Passover, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Passover and the Last Supper, Part 3

  1. judeoxian says:

    Wow Derek. You don’t know how much grief this issue has given me. Your case here is beautifully simple. What a great piece of context (that all sacrifices that week are called “Pesach”). It makes so much more sense with the priests and their concern about impurity.

    I’m going to mull this over a bit more, but it seems you’ve covered all the bases.

    If no one else is putting this idea forward, you need to write this up and get it published somewhere.

  2. ahavah007 says:

    So I got ahead of myself yesterday did I? It has taken me several months and lots of paper and graphs to arrive at the same conclusions as you…. but we got there in the end.

    It didn’t help that I’d lost the name of the temple writer – Edersheim, – but definately one on my list to read.

    The bit I was missing was:

    “He was crucified at the same time as the chagigah, or festal offering of Passover.”

    I agree with Judeoxian – this needs writing up as a pdf…. it is too valuable to lose……

  3. judeoxian says:

    Derek,

    I’ve found two difficulties to this proposal (not insurmountable, but significant). If Yeshua did indeed observe the seder in concert with the rest of Judaism (meaning no variant calendars in place, everyone following the Sadducean/priestly calendar), this obviously means that the day he was crucified was Pesach 1, a festival Sabbath.

    That this was an annual Sabbath poses two difficulties:

    1. The chief priests and scribes are out and about all night, conducting a pseudo-trial, pressuring Pilate in the morning, and calling for a crucifixion on the festival Sabbath. Though not impossible, it seems unlikely that they would be engaged in these activities if it is indeed 15 Nisan. It also seems odd that this would all be done on a festival Sabbath, yet that they would specifically request that the bodies be taken off of the crucifixes for the weekly Sabbath. Again, not impossible, since the weekly Sabbath carries a higher degree of stringency or weight halachically, but still odd in my mind.

    2. Second and more pressing in my mind is the actions of Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramathea. Sadducees are sadducees, they are more of the politically compromising camp than of the piety camp. But Nicodemus and Joseph are clearly men of piety. At least in modern halachah, burying a body does not take precedence over either a festival or seventh-day Sabbath. How then do they transport and bury the body, purchase a burial shroud (Mark 15:46), and obtain over 100 pounds of ointments (John 19:39)?

    The second one in my mind is the weightier difficulty for a 15 Nisan seder and crucifixion. Nonetheless, I still feel that a 15 Nisan Good Friday is the most plausible explanation for the events of the Passion.

    Your thoughts?

    • Good observations. Edersheim deals with these questions in his appendix which I mentioned. History is often like this. People do unexpected things. And the halakhah was not yet fixed regarding many matters. If modern halakhah says that burial should be postponed for a Yom Tov (I haven’t checked, but will take your word for it), this does not mean that in Yeshua’s time burial had to be postponed.

      Derek

    • adebruijn says:

      Judeoxian, just some thoughts:

      ad 1.
      -Jesus was handed over to the gentiles, as He prophecied. Nisan 15 rituals do not apply to gentiles.

      -it was not only a pseudo-trial (though with official judgement and outcome); the chief priests and the scribes show in their behavior their religious attitude was hypocritical: they accused Jesus of violating the Torah, but they themselves…..? I don’t think their main concern was the Troah on Nisan 15. Although

      ad2. Nicodemus and Joseph:
      -Deut.21:22-23
      And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and you hang him on a tree:
      His body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that your land be not defiled, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.

      This seems very meaningful to me; the Messiah hanged as a crimminal, taken down from the cross to be burried before sundown, so the land would not be defiled (!), because a hanged man is cursed of God. He really suffered to the end.

      Aad

  4. judeoxian says:

    Thanks Derek, Edersheim does indeed deal with these issues explicitly. Sadducees were bent on murder, so to expect them to adhere to any semblance of halachah is ridiculous. He also quotes y.Berachot 5b that expressly allows for burial and mourning rites on Sabbaths and festival days. Though not the modern standard, it was an opinion according to the Palestinian sages.

    This is good stuff…thanks for posting it! You’ve helped me tremendously.

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  6. adebruijn says:

    Thank you Derek for your article on Passover. Your arguments, I noticed, can also be found at the expository of the bible by John Gill (18th century), to be found on the internet.
    Now I was discussing these problems with countermissionaries (at messiahtruth) and a professor stated the following:
    “Nisan 15th cannot fall on a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Friday, together with the calendric reasons for these restrictions. This means that Pesah never begins on a Sunday evening, a Tuesday evening, or a Thursday evening.”
    He relates it to Sukkot and Rosh Hashanah.
    I wonder if this is true and was also the case in the first century. Have you ever heard of this calendar data?

    Greetings
    Aad

  7. judeoxian says:

    Aad,

    I have heard of this as well. I think this is the scenario due to the pre-calculated calendar. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we got.

    Without having a pre-calculated calendar in the first century though, I would assume that 15 Nisan could have fallen on a Thursday night.

    But, if one doubles the Yom Tov, as in the diaspora, one could have a seder on Thursday night, but that’s another issue…

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