There is supposedly a problem with the dating of the Last Supper. If you hadn’t heard, don’t worry. But since someone might mention it someday in that way people do when they think they’ve got Christianity down for the count, here is the issue in a nutshell.
The Gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke indicate that the Last Supper was a Jewish Passover meal. But when we turn to the Gospel of John, we find three texts that seem to indicate the Last Supper took place before the Passover lambs were sacrificed.
John 13:1-2 says: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come … having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper ….”
John 18:28 says that, after the arrest of Jesus, the Jewish authorities would not enter the praetorium, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.”
And finally, in John 19:13-14, we read that the day Pilate came out and sat on the judgment seat where he presented Jesus to the crowd was “the day of Preparation of the Passover.”
So what is it? Was the Last Supper a Passover meal or some sort of pre-Passover “farewell” meal? Does John have the story right, or do Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
I was privileged to hear a lecture recently by Prof. Brant Pitre, in whose book Jesus and the Last Supper (Eerdmans, 2017), one can find a more detailed exposition of the argument I am about to set forth. The book is large, by the way — over 500 pages — but it is extremely clearly written and one of the best things you will read on the Last Supper. Be forewarned, however, Pitre is a scholar of the first-rank, and he knows he has to address the arguments of the majority of scholars who simply dismiss any attempt to rectify the two accounts, so he necessarily gets into the academic weeds.
Pitre’s solution is to show that the word “Passover” could have any one of four different meanings at the time of Jesus. It could refer:
First, to the Passover lamb, as in “And they killed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month”).
Second, to the Passover meal, as in, “I will eat the Passover with you.”
Third, to the Passover peace offering eaten during the weeklong feast of Unleavened Bread that coincided with Passover, as in Dt 16:1-3 which says: “And you shall sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God … You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat it with the unleavened bread, the bread of affliction.” And,
Fourth, to the Passover Week, which is also called the Festival of Unleavened Bread, as in Luke 22:1, which says “Now the fest of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.” So too the Jewish historian Josephus writes: “When the feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, was going on ….”
We can understand the possible confusion if we consider our own use of the word “Easter.” When someone says, “We need flowers for Easter,” does he mean flowers for the Easter Vigil, Easter day, Easter week (the Octave of Easter), or the “Easter Season,” which liturgically extends to Pentecost, but which many people simply associate with “the spring”?
With this in mind, we can re-read John’s Gospel in a new light and see that we need not interpret his account differently from the one in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. When John 13:1 says “before the feast of the Passover,” this does not mean “just before 14 Nisan,” the night the Passover lambs were slain; it means “just before 15 Nisan,” the night the Passover lambs were eaten. Recall that preparations for the meal had to be made before nightfall, since the Jewish tradition counts the evening of the day as the beginning of the next. This would have been Thursday afternoon or evening.
When in John 18:28, it says that, after the arrest of Jesus, the Jewish authorities would not enter the praetorium, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover,” this refers to eating the Passover peace offerings, which were eaten between 15-21 Nisan and had to be consumed in a state of ritual purity. And it was for this reason that on that particular Friday morning, the Jewish authorities did not wish to enter the praetorium so as not to be defiled.
And finally, in John 19:13-14, when the text speaks of “the day of Preparation of the Passover,” the “Day of Preparation” is shorthand for the “preparation for the Sabbath of Passover week,” or in other words, the Friday of Passover week. And this was the day Jesus was crucified. The Jewish authorities did not want Jesus and the two others crucified with him hanging on the cross on the Sabbath — particularly during the Sabbath of the holy week of the feast of Unleavened Bread — so they ordered their legs to be broken so that they would die before the Sabbath began at sunset on Friday. When they came to Jesus, he was already dead, which was strange because victims could suffer on the cross for days, so they did not break his legs, but they did stick a spear in his side just to be sure he was dead.
Joseph of Arimathea had secretly asked for his body, which was taken down from the cross and put in a newly-hewn tomb with the spices for burial. But since sunset was coming, the women did not have time to perform the customary burial rituals. So they rested, as required, on Friday evening and Saturday until sunset, choosing to come early the next morning, “on the third day,” “the first day of the week,” Sunday, to finish anointing his body for burial.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Salvation history. So now we can forget any possible confusions and get back to pure wonder at the gift of the cross and resurrection.
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