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When was the Last Supper?

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?

Detail from "The Last Supper" (1308-11) by Duccio [WikiArt.org]

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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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 24 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

4 Comments

  1. Benedict XVI in “Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. II, explains in detail how the “Last Supper” was indeed not on the traditional Passover day but that it was the new Passover instituted by Christ.

  2. A good account of a mystery. I’ve often thought that no mention of a lamb at the Last Supper was purposeful to indicate Christ is the Lamb. Author Smith’s explains the material reason there wan’t a lamb. And verifies the formal spiritual cause that accounts for the true Lamb.

  3. With all due respect to Dr. Smith and the good Brant Petrie, I think they overreach in saying Passover was Thursday night. Church Fathers and scholars have been divided on this issue from the beginning and Fr. Raymond Brown in his monumental work, The Death of the Messiah, canvasses the arguments pro and con in considerable detail. And Pope Benedict XVI leans toward the con in his Jesus of Nazareth (Part II). And with good reason .

    At least ten reasons explain why it is more probable that Passover was on Friday night, and not on Thursday night, even apart from four explicit references in the Gospel of John:
    (1) The Sanhedrin had declared two days before that it wanted to arrest Jesus, “but not on the feast.” The Gospels never say anything about whether the arrest plan had gone awry.
    (2) A crowd came to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. It’s hard to imagine this happening on the biggest feast (night) of the year.
    (3) The Sanhedrin convened a meeting, and under the Mishna, it was not allowed to do so during Passover (although, admittedly, we don’t know if this rule applied 150 years earlier at the time of Jesus).
    (4) The Sanhedrin and crowds went to see Pilate. Normally, they wouldn’t do anything on a Feast, much less promote a Roman trial and go riot at it.
    (5) They let Barabbas go. Under Passover rules, no leftovers would have remained from the night before. Why then was Barabbas released?
    (6) Simon of Cyrene was coming in from the fields (the “augros”), suggesting he was just getting off work, as was customarily done at noon on Passover Eve.
    (7) Many passerby came by Golgotha, something they’d have time to do before the feast, not afterwards, especially if they were headed to the nearby Temple to pick up their butchered lambs for dinner.
    (8) Burial spices and a linen cloth seem to have been bought that day. The stores would have been closed on Passover.
    (9) The Babylonian Talmud explicitly says Jesus died on Passover eve.
    (10) Can we imagine Mary and the Disciples after the horror of the Crucifixion, heading back to the Upper Room to prepare and eat the Passover Feast, as good observant Jews they still were?

    These reasons also explain why Scott Hahn’s “Fourth Cup” analysis makes sense and works well with Passover being Friday night. (I cover these and other details in a seven-part podcast series on the Trial of Jesus at http://www.onecatholiclawyer.com.)

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