Fidelity to the Word
Our Lord and His Holy Apostles at the Last Supper

A blog dedicated to Christ Jesus our Lord and His True Presence in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist

The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord, alleluia: by the word of the Lord were the heavens made.

Psalm 32:5,6

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Was the Last Supper a Passover meal?

(Image from the Closed Cafeteria)

From the Internet Question Box, in the Nazareth Resource Library, on the Catholic Information Network:

Q: Was the Last Supper -- the first Mass -- a Passover meal? John's Gospel says Jesus was crucified on "the day of Preparation of the Passover" (19:14) and that the Jewish leaders "did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover" (18:28) and that the Last Supper took place "just before the Passover Feast" (13:1).

A: The Last Supper was a Passover meal. This is very clear from the synoptics. Jesus tells his disciples, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15), and the gospels tell us that "they prepared the Passover" (Luke 22:13) at the house where Jesus had sent them, instructing them "tell the householder, 'The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?'" (Luke 22:11), following their own question, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?" (Mark 14:12), after Jesus had directed them, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it." (Luke 22:8), for it was "the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed" (Luke 22:7). This sequence of events with the repeated emphasis on the fact it was a Passover meal is repeated in all three synoptic gospels.

Also, when one looks at the structure of the meal -- when they ate, when they drank, when they prayed, when they sang a hymn -it is very clear that they were following a Passover seder.

Because of the three statements from John mentioned above, however, some have speculated that Jesus was using a different calendar, such as the one used by the Qumran community, so he was celebrating Passover a day differently than other Jews. This, however, is an unnecessary speculation.

Equally unnecessary would be the speculation that he simply held Passover a day early because he knew he was going to die. This would contradict Luke 22:7, where it emphasizes that "the day of Unleavened Bread" had come -- that is, 14 Nisan, when the Jews took the yeast out of their homes in preparation for the following seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread (the first century Jewish historian Josephus said they did around noon). This day was also the day of Passover proper "on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed."

The real problem in understanding the time references in John's Gospel comes from not knowing enough about they way events were referred to in the first century. Concening John 19:14, "the day of Preparation" does not mean the day of preparing for the Passover. In the first century "the day of Preparation" meant "the day to prepare for the Sabbath" -- in other words, Friday.

"The Passover" could refer to at least four things: (1) it could refer to the two chagigah lambs which were slaughtered and eaten, one on the evening of 15 Nisan, during the Passover seder, and one on the following day of 15 Nisan (Jews at the time reckoned the day as beginning at sundown, so the evening of the day preceded the morning of the day), (2) it could refer to the Passover meal itself, (3) it could refer to the day on which the Passover meal was eaten, and (4) it could refer to the eight day festal cycle including both Passover day and the following seven day feast of Unleavened Bread. We see this latter usage in the gospels themselves. Luke 22:1 tells us: "Now the feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover."

It is this usage which is relevant in John 19:14. Thus "the day of Preparation of the Passover" means "the Friday of Passover week." Thus the New International Version renders John 19:14, "It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week ..."

Regarding John 18:28, if the term "Passover" is again taken as a reference to the whole festal cycle, then the Jewish leaders' fear that they would not be able to "eat the Passover" could be a reference to being unable to participate in the continuing festivities of that day. However, there is a more probable alternative. As we noted, there were two lambs, known as chagigah, which were killed and eaten. The first lamb was killed on the afternoon of 14 Nisan and eaten that night (15 Nisan) as the lamb of the Passover seder. However, the second lamb was eaten during the day of 15 Nisan and, like the first one, was also called a Passover. Thus the leaders were afraid they would not be able to eat the second Passover -- the lamb eaten during the day of the 15th.

We can be certain, however, that the Jewish leaders were not afraid that they would be unable to eat the Passover seder proper because the defilement caused by entering a Gentile's dwelling required a ritual bath and then ceased at sundown. Since the Passover seder was held after sundown, the leaders would have been able to eat it with no problem if this were occurring on the 14th of Nisan. However, if it were occurring during the daytime on the 15th of Nisan, they would not have been able to eat the second Passover, the second chagigah because they would be unclean until the evening of that day, and it was eaten during the daytime.

Finally, John 13:1 does not say that the Last Supper took place "just before the Passover Feast." The time clause states that something was just before the Passover, but it does not state what. This could be a concluding reference to the preceding discourse in chapter 12, telling us when Jesus gave the discourse. It could also be a setup for the next thing mentioned -- the footwashing service -- which took place just before the Passover seder. Thus "just before the Passover feast" may mean "just before the Passover meal." The phrase could also be a time cue to tell us when Jesus was thinking about things. Thus the Revised Standard Version (like the New King James Version) of this verse reads: "Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end."

It is also unclear exactly how the time clause is to be grouped syntactically. The Revised Standard Version has the whole verse as a single sentence, but the New International Version breaks it up: "It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love."

In any event, it is clear from what John writes that he too understood the Last Supper to be a Passover meal. In John 13:27-30, we read:

"As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. 'What you are about to do, do quickly,' Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night." (NIV)

This would make no sense if it were not a Passover meal. One normally would not go out into the streets to give money to the poor on an ordinary night. However, on Passover night the doors of the Temple were opened at midnight (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18:29f) and a crowd of poor people gathered to receive alms. Thus it was a custom to give alms to the poor at night on Passover, but night time alms were in no way customary at other times, meaning Jesus's direction to Judas would not have been so understood by the apostles if it were given at any time other than Passover evening. The fact that the apostles had this in mind is reinforced by the fact that the other explanation they thought of -- that Judas was being sent out to buy something for the Feast -- is also focused on special customs connected with the Passover (/Unleavened Bread) feast.

Thus John also understands the meal to be a Passover seder. Confusion suggesting otherwise is simply due to lack of understanding of the Jewish customs and terms of the time.


From the Catholic Encyclopedia:


The Evangelists and critics generally agree that the Last Supper was on a Thursday, that Christ suffered and died on Friday, and that He arose from the dead on Sunday. As to the day of the month there seems a difference between the record of the synoptic Gospels and that of St. John. In consequence some critics have rejected the authenticity of either account or of both. Since Christians, accepting the inspiration of the Scriptures, cannot admit contradictions in the sacred writers, various attempts have been made to reconcile the statements. Matthew 26:17 says, "And on the first day of the Azymes"; Mark 14:12, "Now on the first day of the unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the pasch"; Luke 22:7, "And the day of the unleavened bread came, on which it was necessary that the pasch should be killed". From these passages it seems to follow that Jesus and his disciples conformed to the ordinary custom, that the Last Supper took place on the 14th of Nisan, and that the Crucifixion was on the l5th, the great festival of the Jews. This opinion, held by Tolet, Cornelius a Lapide, Patrizi, Corluy, Hengstenberg, Ohlshausen, and Tholuck, is confirmed by the custom of the early Eastern Church which, looking to the day of the month, celebrated the commemoration of the Lord's Last Supper on the 14th of Nisan, without paying any attention to the day of the week. This was done in conformity with the teaching of St. John the Evangelist. But in his Gospel, St. John seems to indicate that Friday was the 14th of Nisan, for (18:28) on the morning of this day the Jews "went not into the hall, that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the pasch". Various things were done on this Friday which could not be done on a feast, viz., Christ is arrested, tried, crucified; His body is taken down" (because it was the parasceve) that the bodies might not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day (for that was a great sabbath day)"; the shroud and ointments are bought, and so on.

The defenders of this opinion claim that there is only an apparent contradiction and that the differing statements may be reconciled. For the Jews calculated their festivals and Sabbaths from sunset to sunset: thus the Sabbath began after sunset on Friday and ended at sunset on Saturday. This style is employed by the synoptic Gospels, while St. John, writing about twenty-six years after the destruction of Jerusalem, when Jewish law and customs no longer prevailed, may well have used the Roman method of computing time from midnight to midnight. The word pasch does not exclusively apply to the paschal lamb on the eve of the feast, but is used in the Scriptures and in the Talmud in a wider sense for the entire festivity, including the chagigah; any legal defilement could have been removed by the evening ablutions; trials, and even executions and many servile works, though forbidden on the Sabbath, were not forbidden on feasts (Numbers 28:16; Deuteronomy 16:23). The word parasceve may denote the preparation for any Sabbath and may be the common designation for any Friday, and its connexion with pasch need not mean preparation for the Passover but Friday of the Passover season and hence this Sabbath was a great Sabbath. Moreover it seems quite certain that if St. John intended to give a different date from that given by the Synoptics and sanctioned by the custom of his own Church at Ephesus, he would have said so expressly. Others accept the apparent statement of St. John that the Last Supper was on the 13th of Nisan and try to reconcile the account of the Synoptics. To this class belong Paul of Burgos, Maldonatus, Petau, Hardouin, Tillemont, and others. Peter of Alexandria (P.G., XCII, 78) says: "In previous years Jesus had kept the Passover and eaten the paschal lamb, but on the day before He suffered as the true Paschal Lamb He taught His disciples the mystery of the type." Others say: Since the Pasch, falling that year on a Friday, was reckoned as a Sabbath, the Jews, to avoid the inconvenience of two successive Sabbaths, had postponed the Passover for a day, and Jesus adhered to the day fixed by law; others think that Jesus anticipated the celebration, knowing that the proper time He would be in the grave.


The owner of the house in which was the upper room of the Last Supper is not mentioned in Scripture; but he must have been one of the disciples, since Christ bids Peter and John say, "The Master says". Some say it was Nicodemus, or Joseph of Arimathea, or the mother of John Mark. The hall was large and furnished as a dining-room. In it Christ showed Himself after His Resurrection; here took place the election of Matthias to the Apostolate and the sending of the Holy Ghost; here the first Christians assembled for the breaking of bread; hither Peter and John came when they had given testimony after the cure of the man born lame, and Peter after his liberation from prison; here perhaps was the council of the Apostles held. It was for awhile the only church in Jerusalem, the mother of all churches, known as the Church of the Apostles or of Sion. It was visited in 404 by St. Paula of Rome. In the eleventh century it was destroyed by the Saracens, later rebuilt and given to the care of the Augustinians. Restored after a second destruction, it was placed in charge of the Franciscans, who were driven out in 1561. At present it is a Moslem mosque.


Some critics give the following harmonized order: washing of the feet of the Apostles, prediction of the betrayal and departure of Judas, institution of the Holy Eucharist. Others, believing that Judas made a sacrilegious communion, place the institution of the sacrament before the departure of Judas.


From a protestant source:

Just when was Jesus crucified? To answer this question we need to inquire: (1) What day of the week, (2) What day of the month of Nisan, and (3) What year? These subjects are controversial, but I'll try to simply lay out the issues, and explain what I believe is the most probably. Fortunately, the exact day or date of the crucifixion is not an article of faith. :-)

1. Day of the Week

Several times the Gospels mention that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath, the Jewish Day of Preparation (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42), that is, on Friday.

Some object on the basis of Matthew 12:40: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." They argue that this requires three 24-hour days. Some argue that since he was raised on a Sunday, he must have been crucified on a Thursday.

However, the NT repeatedly refers to Jesus' resurrection as occurring on the third day, not the fourth day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; Luke 9:22; 18:33; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4). And the Jews reckoned a part of day as a whole day. So there is no problem with the death of Jesus on Friday, being in the tomb on Saturday, and being raised on Sunday constituting three days in Jewish reckoning.[1]

Here is a brief chronology of Holy Week:


Arrived at Bethany

John 12:1


Crowd came to see Jesus

John 12:9-11


Triumphal Entry

Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-44


Cursed Fig Tree

Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:12-14

Cleansed Temple

Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46


Fig Tree Withered

Matthew 21:20-22; Mark 11:20-26

Temple Controversy

Matthew 21:23-23:39; Mark 11:27-12:44; Luke 20:1-21:4

Olivet Discourse

Matthew 24:1-25:46; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36


Last Supper

Matthew 26:20-30; Mark 14:17-26; Luke 22:14-30

Betrayed and Arrested

Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12

Tried by Annas and Caiaphas

Matthew 26:57-75; Mark 14:53-72; Luke 22:54-65: John 18:13-27


Tried by Sanhedrin

Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66

Tried by Pilate, Herod

Matthew 27:2-30; Mark 15:2-19; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16

Crucified and Buried

Matthew 27:31-60; Mark 15:20-46; Luke 23:26-54; John 19:16-42


Dead in Tomb



Matthew 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-35

According to Harold W. Hoehner, "Chronology," Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 1992, pp. 120.

2. Day of the Month of Nisan

The next question is: Did Jesus die on the Day of Passover (Nisan 14) or the day after Passover (i.e. on Nisan 15). It's pretty clear from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that Jesus ate the actual Passover meal (Matthew 26:2, 17-19; Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16; Luke 22:1, 7-8, 13, 15) with his disciples on Thursday night. But John's Gospel seems to indicate that Jesus was crucified right before the Jews would partake of Passover (John 13:28; 19:14).

There have been several attempts to harmonize the accounts. One theory is that two calendars are being used at the same time during the period. The Synoptic Gospels use the method of the Galileans and the Pharisees to reckon the day from sunrise to sunrise, while John's gospels uses the Judean method of reckoning the day from sunset to sunset.[2] However, I'm inclined to adopt the Synoptic chronology. We won't know for sure in this life.

3. Year of Jesus' Crucifixion

Finally, some have attempted to determine the likely year in which Jesus was crucified. We can date the reign of three officials involved in Jesus' trial: Caiaphas, the High Priest (AD 18 to 37), Pilate, prefect of Judea (AD 26 to 36), and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC to AD 39). Thus Jesus trial must have occurred between AD 26 and AD 36.[3]

If Jesus was crucified on Friday, Nisan 14 or 15, sometime between AD 26 and AD 36, astronomic evidence limits the possibilities to AD 27,30, 33, and 36. AD 27 is the least likely. The most likely dates are (1) Friday, Nisan 14 (April 3), AD 33 or Friday, Nisan 14 (April 7), AD 30.[4] John's chronology "removes many of the historical difficulties associated with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus," says I. Howard Marshall.[5] In addition, a date of AD 33 seems to fit a ministry of three years, using the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 29) as a starting point for John the Baptist's ministry (Luke 3:1-3).


  1. Harold W. Hoehner, "Chronology," DJG, pp. 120-121.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hoehner, DJG, pp. 120-121; G. Ogg, "Chronology of the New Testament," New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition; Tyndale House, 1962), p. 202. W.P. Armstrong and J. Finegan, "Chronology of the NT," ISBE 1:688-689. FF Bruce, NT History, p. 201, note 20, sees AD 30 as the most likely date. I Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord's Supper (Eerdmans, 1980), discusses the chonology in some detail, pp.67-75 and Table 4, and concludes "Jesus held a Passover meal earlier than the offical Jewish date, and that he was able to do so as the result of calendar differences among the Jews."
  5. Marshall, p. 790.

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Blogger Michael said...

Another discussion of the Passion chronology can be found here.

2/21/2015 07:57:00 PM  

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