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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 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."

10 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.)

  4. There is no contradiction among the 4 gospels. One must understand Jewish tradition and the requirements for celebrating Pesach (Passover) with a standing Temple. In Jewish and Biblical narrative, the new day begins at sundown. So Pesach began after dusk on Thursday. Pesach was from Thursday evening through Friday evening. The Last Seder (Passover Meal), Gethsemane, Trial, Crucifixion, Death and Burial all occurred on Pesach. Pesach is not a sabbath day (of rest). The day after Pesach is the 7-day Feast of Unleavened bread (Hag HaMatzot), where the 1st and 7th days are Sabbath (mandatory rest) Days regardless on which day of the week they fall on. The year that Jesus was crucified Hag HaMatzot fell on Saturday and John accounts for this in John 19:31 “Since it was the day of Preparation (Friday) which was also Pesach, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (Saturday) for that Sabbath was a high day (Hag HaMatzot).”

    I hope this helps explain the account. All 4 gospels are referring to the same account that occurred on the 6th day of the Jewish week. Also, keep in mind that when it says “the day before Passover) it was daytime on Thursday, but Passover began at sundown (a new day in Jewish tradition)

    Also, according to the Torah, all Jews had to go up to Jerusalem on Pesach and have their lamb sacrificed at the Temple on Passover (between the two twilights). This would occur during the daytime, even though Pesach would have started the night before. So when Jesus was being crucified, the Jewish people where at the same time taking their lambs to be sacrificed. If they could afford a lamb, the poor could not afford one, so they celebrated without a lamb and simple used unleavened bread as a substitute for lamb. This is what occurred during the Passover Seder that Jesus celebrated with his 12 disciples.

  5. I’ll try to answer your questions here:

    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. Answer: The actual Day of Rest for the Feast is the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread. Passover is not a day of rest. If it were a day of rest they could not cook the Passover Meal.

    (2) A crowd came to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. It’s hard to imagine this happening on the biggest feast (night) of the year. Answer: The feast is a 24-hour feast and the sacrifice of the lambs would take place during daytime when they was a standing and functioning Temple. Nowadays there is no Temple and no lamb is ever sacrificed, therefore it has become customary among the Jews to celebrate Passover on the eve of Passover. It would be impossible for the Priests to sacrifice the all the lambs being brought to them on the Eve of Passover. The remembrance of Passover in Israel was different that the actual Passover in Egypt with Moses.

    (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). Answer: The Misha & the Tosefta were not written until 200 CE (200 AD). Also, it is known that the Sanhedrin violated their own procedure to hold this meeting at nighttime.

    (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. ANSWER: There is no basis for this statement.

    (5) They let Barabbas go. Under Passover rules, no leftovers would have remained from the night before. Why then was Barabbas released? Answer: You are confusing the 1st Passover in Egypt which required to leave no leftovers. In Israel, they had to take the lamb to the priests in the Temple to be sacrificed, that is what the Torah commanded once they entered the land of Israel. They was no eating of a sacrificed lamb on the Eve of Passover. The eating occurred during daytime in Israel when the had a standing Temple

    (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. Answer: Passover is not a day of rest, the first day of unleavened bread is. There is no such custom that you mentioned.

    (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. Answer: The lamb had to be sacrificed on Passover between the two twilights, that is in the Torah. There was go “going to pick up their slaughter lamb”, they would bring it have it slaughter and then take it home. That was done during the daytime on Passover, which was from Thursday night through Friday night the year that Jesus was crucified.

    (8) Burial spices and a linen cloth seem to have been bought that day. The stores would have been closed on Passover. Answer: Passover is not a day of rest, besides there is no proof the spices and linen where bought on Passover, and even if they were, Passover is not a day of rest.

    (9) The Babylonian Talmud explicitly says Jesus died on Passover eve. ANSWER: Jesus died around 3 PM (the 9th hour) which was daytime. The Babiloniam Talmud is mistaken or is being misquoted. The Bavli (Babilonian Talmud) was not completed until the year 600 CE (600 AD), that is the Gemara portion. Rabbi’s commentaries after the Gemara kept on being added until about the 15th Century.

    (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? ANSWER: Passover is a 24-Day, Jesus celebrated it without a lamb on the Eve of Passover (Thursday night) they did observe the custom as they were poor and could not afford a lamb for Passover.

  6. The one thing that seems abundantly clear, is that there is a lot of confusion here. Namely, everyone is using the word “Passover” to mean something different – the Last Supper and the death of Christ – both of these moments are considered “Passover”, and yet these two moments occurred on different days. Which really just serves to illustrate and further prove the author’s point that the word “Passover” meant different things in Jesus’ day. It still does.

    The Passover of Jesus (ie death) occurred on Friday afternoon at the same hour that the lambs were being sacrificed in the temple, which is important because it points to the fact that Jesus himself is The Passover Lamb (ie Lamb of God). So, the Passover meal of Jesus (ie Last Supper) occurred before Friday afternoon, ie before the rest of Jews celebrated their Passover meal. But that doesn’t mean the Last Supper wasn’t still a Passover meal, and it also doesn’t mean it happened on what we think of as Thursday evening.

    Because Jewish custom holds that each day begins at sundown – not midnight – what we now call “Thursday evening/night” was actually the beginning of Friday for the Jewish people (which includes Jesus and the Apostles). So what we now call “Wednesday evening/night” would technically be the beginning of Jesus’ Thursday. So today to say Jesus instituted the Last Supper on “Thursday” is not as straightforward as it sounds – is “Thursday” intended to mean our/now Thursday evening/night (ie Jewish Friday beginning)? Or should it actually be taken to mean Jesus’/Jewish Thursday (ie our Wednesday evening/night)? In considering the practical amount of time needed for the many trials he endured between his Supper and Crucifixion, the latter interpretation, our Wednesday eve/night = Jesus’ Thursday, actually seems more plausible (rather than the common assumption of our Thu eve = Jesus’ Fri). Or possibly even a day sooner…

    Regardless, does any of this mean that Jesus’ Passover meal (ie Last Supper) was not a Passover meal after all? By no means!!! It very clearly followed the customs of a traditional Jewish Passover seder meal, with a few important (and deliberate!) distinctions. One difference was the day on which it occurred – a day or so early – but this was necessary in order for him to die at the exact hour the lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. And, notably, the timing of the Supper was still during the Passover week which, as the author points out, the whole week was often referred to as “Passover”, not just one certain moment of that week. (Therefore the so-called discrepancy in the Gospels is not a discrepancy at all – it’s much like what has happened within this very thread – different people using the same word “Passover” to mean different things/moments!)

    One may also say “but Jesus didn’t say all/exactly the right words for a traditional seder Passover meal” – right, that’s deliberate! Because he needed to institute the very important words and actions which we still remember and echo today. His words and actions were still clearly Passover in essence and priestly, temple language in substance, mirroring the old Passover ritual in many recognizable ways, but at the same time inaugurating a NEW Passover, Jesus’ Passover. Therefore there MUST be some important, deliberate, and meaningful differences from the old Passover, yet that still doesn’t mean the Last Supper was not a Passover meal.

    One might say “but there wasn’t a lamb mentioned at the Last Supper so how could it have been a true Passover meal?” – well that’s on purpose! It’s not an oversight, it’s an important message – because Jesus himself is The Lamb that will be sacrificed.

    One may say “but doesn’t a traditional seder Passover meal have 4 cups of wine – where’s the 4th cup called the cup of consummation?” – yes!! Again, in the brilliance of the Divine Mind this is on purpose! He mentions it at Supper, again in his Agony, and then finally the 4th cup is the sour wine that Jesus drinks while on the cross just moments before he dies – the moment he consummates his love and sacrifice for us! The moment the New Passover meal is completed, the sacred covenant is sealed. The moment he dies for his bride, the Church. Us.

    So, Jesus himself is showing us that “Passover” is more than just one certain moment of Holy Week – it’s a series of moments from Supper to Death to Resurrection, it’s each of those moments individually and all of them as a whole. And more…

    • A practical argument advanced in favor of Wednesday evening (that is, the beginning of Thursday) is that the resulting two calendar days (rather than one) more realistically allow for the crowded succession of recorded events that took place between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

      This debated expression of duration might also remind us of the “three days” that then preceded the Resurrection–actually only a late and small fragment of Friday, then Saturday, and then only an early and small fragment of Sunday. Much less than two complete days as understood in our era of clocks and desk calendars.

  7. No, no, no.

    The Mass commemorates when Jesus, Lamb of God identified by John the Baptist, instituted Holy Eucharist, on the night He was betrayed.

    Jesus said of it, “I will not partake of it again until there is fulfillment in the Kingdom” – Lk. 22:16. The house master told the disciples how to prepare – Lk. 22:13.

    Jesus also gave us a share of what it meant for Him, “I have eagerly desired to share this Passover with you” – Lk. 22:15.

    You have to approach the matter with faith otherwise your understanding will never settle down, viz., 4 cups, seder meal, Passover, who said this, who said that, etc.

    It helps to keep some facts in mind and to acquire missing ones, for eg., for Jews that whole week was sharings of common meals, in groups.

    All the 4 evangelists agree on the procession of time, from the Last Supper into the Garden of Temptation on the Mount of Olives.

    The same Luke 22 indicates the imminent arrival of the day of sacrificial lambs, which means the Thursday before the sacrificial Friday.

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