In Part 1, we talked about the discrepancy between Mark and John regarding the day on which Yeshua was crucified and whether the Last Supper was a Passover Seder or not. I will explain this again briefly below a different way. I should repeat that this problem is well-known in New Testament studies and if it is new to you, please don’t think I made it up or “discovered” it.
I said there we have three basic options: (1) decide Mark’s dating is right and John’s is not (Maurice Casey does this in Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel), (2) decide John’s dating is right and Mark’s is not (McKnight in Jesus and His Death and Brown in The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2), or (3) harmonize them in some way (I used to follow Edersheim’s harmonization but never gave much weight to the two calendars theory of Jaubert). The problem with judging the gospels “right” or “wrong” on a point is that things that are terribly important to us, like dates, were not so important to them comparatively.
In this post, I want to clarify matters a bit and discuss why I opt for (2). The Last Supper was not exactly a Passover Seder, though it was a Passover-like festal meal held one night before. Mark erred in his account. John did not err. But theologically, the Last Supper is filled with Passover meaning. Mark may have erred, but he wasn’t completely wrong. Yeshua put a lot of Passover into his not-quite-Passover meal.
The Discrepancy Between John and Mark
Mark 14:12 says it was the first day of Unleavened Bread “when they were sacrificing the Passover lamb.” But John 13:1 says it was “before the feast of Passover.”
Mark 14:14 and 16 say the meal was “Passover.” But John 19:14, 31, and 42 the crucifixion was on “the day of preparation,” and 19:14 specifies “of the Passover.”
Mark 14:17-18 say that Yeshua and the twelve ate what was prepared, which had been called Passover in vss. 14 and 16. But John 18:28 says that the chief priests, the next morning, did not enter Pilate’s hall in order to remain pure “so that they might eat the Passover.”
Arguments in Favor of Last-Supper-Equals-Passover vs. Weaknesses
The wording here is mine but much of what I say is found in Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death and Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2.
Mark calls the meal the night before Yeshua died “Passover.” But John says Passover was the next night after Yeshua died.
The meal took place after dark while normal meals happened earlier. A meal on the festal days of purification and preparation before Passover (pilgrims arrived early says Josephus) could just as well be at night.
Yeshua broke bread in the middle of the meal, whereas at normal meals this is at the beginning. In anticipation of Passover, it may not have been uncommon for people to have festal meals with symbolic portions and perhaps multiple breakings of bread.
In John 13, some thought Judas was sent away to give money to the poor (a concern in Passover haggadahs now and perhaps then). They may have thought this about any night leading up to Passover as well, since Yeshua would have been sensitive to this issue at all times, and the festal season lent itself to such almsgiving even before Passover.
They sang a hymn after, possibly the Hallel (Psalm 113-118). A hymn, possibly the Hallel, could have been sung at a festal meal in anticipation of Passover and in the enthusiasm of the pilgrims gathered.
In John 13:23 and 25, the Beloved Disciple was lying at Yeshua’s breast (reclining is a Passover custom). The reclining posture of the symposium meal, a Greco-Roman custom brought into the Passover, would fit well with any festal or significant meal.
Arguments Against Last-Supper-Equals-Passover
There is no mention of lamb at the meal. Mark 14:12 may possibly mean that Yeshua and disciples slaughtered a lamb, but even if so, it is never mentioned again.
A Jewish trial is much less likely on Passover than it is on the day of preparation for Passover.
Early Christianity had a weekly celebration of remembrance of the body and blood (1 Cor 11; Didache), not an annual celebration.
It seems (Maurice Casey argues otherwise) that only the Twelve were present at the Last Supper, but Passover would include everyone and women too.
What Probably Happened
On the night before Passover, Yeshua had a festal meal with the Twelve. They reclined and Yeshua taught them. They sang Hallel after supper. Yeshua evoked strong Passover themes such as blood atonement, covenant, and coming into the kingdom.
Mark erred in relating what he read in his sources. He thought the Last Supper was a Passover. He had some justification for his mistake. Yeshua made the meal like Passover in some ways.
Theologically, the Last Supper was a sort of “renewed Passover” looking ahead to the Passover the disciples expected to celebrate the next night. Yeshua explained his death as a sacrifice re-constituting the people of Israel in a new covenant (and including the nations, as understood later). The atonement theology of Yeshua is nowhere more explicit than here. The Last Supper is not a Passover-replacement. Jewish thinking is so much more “both-and” and not “either-or.” The Last Supper is a reinterpretation of and reapplication of Passover, adding a new Exodus theme to the existing Exodus theme.
In many ways, it is true that the Last Supper is and isn’t a Passover. It is a Passover without a lamb. It is part of a larger set of rituals and stories about redemption. It is about Passover finding its goal in Yeshua without ceasing to be relevant in its progress from Egypt to the history of Israel in the land to the coming of the Lamb of God to inaugurate final redemption.