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Jesus' Passover Meal
The last communal act accomplished by Jesus before being arrested in Gethsemane was a particularly solemn meal. Some call it “a farewell meal”, others “a Passover meal”. However, we wonder if it would not be right to keep both aspects, since at that meeting the Passover assumed the nature of a farewell meal, Jesus purposely wishing to use the Passover meal for his farewell. It seems to me that the rather problematic testimonies of the Gospels allow us to reach this conclusion.
The ‘Passover” in the New Testament
All the evangelists [i] set the account of Jesus' passion against the background of the celebration of the Passover to explain how the chief priests and scribes sought to arrest Jesus (Mk. 14:1 and Lk. 22:1 - “It was the Passover...and the chief preists and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick”) or to suggest the motivation for what was to happen (Mt. 26:1 and especially Jn. 13:1 - “It was before the festival of the Passover, and Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”). For the final event of Jesus' life the feast of the Passover is undoubtedly a most significant hermeneutic criterion. We cannot understand Jesus' life, and even less his passion, without the Passover which is an essential component of both. [ii]
The New Testament use of the term “Passover” is the first proof of this. Present only in the passion account of Matthew and Mark, it is alluded to in Luke (2:41) which tells of the twelve-year-old Jesus' pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In John it is one of the mechanisms marking the cadence. John's two references in chapter 2 (Jn. 3:13 and 23) probably are to the same feast; 6:4 makes us think of the following year with the multiplication of the loaves and the discourse that followed; from 11:55 to 19:14 John speaks of the same Passover feast which sees the conclusion of Jesus' earthly life. In the four gospels we meet the expression “the Passover of the Jews” twice (Jn. 2:13 and Jn. 11:55), but I do not think it can be explained with the intention of contrasting it with the Passover of Jesus or - even less - of Christians. It simply refers to the Passover customs (in particular to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem) that Jesus observed along with his co-religionists.
In Acts 2:4, the reference is still to the traditional Passover feasts, as also in Heb. 11:28 which recalls the institution of the Passover by Moses, the fruit of Moses' faith. It is only in 1 Cor. 5:7 that the term is applied to Christ, “our Passover”, who was immolated. But here also there is no contrast between “our” Passover and another, except the affirmation that Christ has a unique relation with the Passover, achieving to the highest degree the economy of salvation. [iii]
In this climate of organic continuity it is understandable that the supreme moment of the achievement of Jesus' mission is described as a paschal moment. But all this still does not allow precise conclusions about the last supper. [iv]
Complementary Data in the Gospel Accounts [v]
The meal which marks the high point of the close relationship between Jesus and his disciples is chosen, according to the synoptics, to be a Passover supper: “Where do you want us to prepare the Passover?” (Mt. 26:17ff, same as Mk. 14:12-16 and Lk. 22:11, 13,15). [vi] Thus, when in a brief “eucharistic” intervention Jesus calls the wine “my blood, the blood of the covenant” (Mt. 26:28, same as Mk. 14:24; somewhat different in Lk. 22:20 and 1 Cor. 11:28), thought may turn to the moment of the establishment of the Sinai covenant (Ex. 24:8: “This is the blood of the Covenant”), and also to the blood of the Passover lamb which preserved the children of Israel from extermination and which was to become “the sacrifice of the Passover of the Lord” (Ex. 12:22-27).
In this setting, the blessing or thanksgiving during which Jesus pronounced the words of his body and blood as well as the “memorial” that he asks those present to make when they repeat his act (Mt. 26:26ff, same as Lk. 22:19, same as 1 Cor. 11:24), have a paschal resonance. The blessing, containing the thanksgiving, certainly has a broad meaning and application, but it refers particularly to the prayer of the most worthy personage of the paschal supper over the unleavened bread and the wine. The order to “do this in memory” covers the whole concept of the Passover as the “memorial” of the exodus, the great event when God revealed himself as the liberator and savior.
Not many details are given about the last supper as the Passover, but that is because the account is very selective. Here also, as usual, the evangelists narrate only what relates to their obvjective and systematically renounce any concern for an exhaustive account. The synoptic supper highlights the relation between the past and the future of Jesus and the believers, giving an overview of the episodic completeness. But it is narrated and qualified in the setting of the Passover. The eschatological perspective is not an exception (present in all the evangelists and particularly in Luke). The Passover of Jesus, in continuity with that of his people, celebrates a salvation which is cause and anticipation of the final salvation. “The waiting to drink wine in the Kingdom of God is linked to the idea of the banquet of the fulfillment.” [vii]
A different perspective is encountered when attention focuses on John's account. We can accept the fact that the fourth evangelist was familiar with a “long” account of the passion, including the events he reports in chapters 12 and 13. The macro structure of this sequence, which continues in chapters 18 ff, is also based on a reference to the Passover, but only as an anticipation of the “great Sabbath” that will follow the crucifixion. Therefore the account of the supper begins with the temporal indication: “before the feast of the Passover” (13:1) and it never speaks of the preparation for the Passover nor of eating the Passover. Moreover, it mentions two specific details: those who led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the Praetorium “did not go into the Praetorium themselves or they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover” (18:28); his discussion of “preparation of the Passover” at the conclusion of Pilate's interrogation (“toward midday”: 19:14) as well as confirmation of the time of the death of Jesus (a particularly solemn preparation day for the Sabbath: 19:31). Therefore, for John the Passover begins only on the evening of the day when Jesus was crucified and so the last supper could not have been the Passover supper.
However, in John there also emerge details which do not seem to agree with the previous setting, at least according to many commentators: the participants are reclining for the banquet (18:25); Jesus dips a piece of bread and offers it to Judas (18:26); the disciples think that Judas has to “give something to the poor” (18:29). It would seem that such a festive and solemn arrangement for a meal was reserved for the Passover. The piece of bread can be explained as the bitter herbs of the Passover, dipped in the sauce by the presider and offered to the others; the giving of alms is one of the works of mercy that Jewish piety recommended during Passover.
The synoptics also do not seem to be totally free of apparently contradictory aspects, because a number of actions were imposed - or forbidden - by the religious leaders of Israel. They wanted to avoid any violation of the great feast day, but failed completely: they undertook a whole judicial process, a capital execution, a deposition from the cross and a burial during a sacred time which would have forbidden such actions.
Discussion on the Date of the Last Supper [viii]
The specifics are easily outlined: there is no doubt that the Passover was celebrated on the 15 of Nisan; [ix] there is no doubt that Jesus died on a Friday and was buried hastily before the Sabbath, that is, shortly before sunset of the same day. But what day was that Friday: 15 or 14 of Nisan? And on what day was the last supper with his disciples eaten: Tuesday or Thursday? If it was Thursday, was it the conclusion of 13 or 14 Nisan?
Apparently the texts would lead us to say: for John as well as for the Synoptics, Jesus ate the last supper on Thursday, was crucified and buried on Friday, and rose on the first day after the Sabbath. But for John the supper occurred on 13 (or better, at the beginning of 14) Nisan and was not the Passover; it was still in the pre-Passover time that everything that put an end to Jesus' earthly existence occurred. In the Synoptics, howver, the supper was Passover and the crucifixion occurred on 15 Nisan. To what is this difference attributed? To the difference in tradition or to a different editorial tendency? Are the different traditions incompatible?
Summarized (and simplified) answers can be presented as follows: a) The synoptics anticipate the Passover because they want to make the institution of the Eucharist, the seal of the new covenant, coincide with the feast of the old covenant; b) John postpones the Passover because he wants to show that Jesus dies as the new Passover lamb at the time when the lambs of his people were immolated. [x] Both of these answers imply the notion of “tendency” (and basically it is the same tendency even if the aspectr that is interpreted in a “paschal” manner varies.) This does not affect the historical evaluation. In fact, the study continues to be divided between two perceptions: one holds that the New Testament clearly attests to two parallel readings of the circumstances of the supper in the setting of the final events of Jesus' life, without allowing a precise reconstruction of those circumstances; the other maintains that in the information it provides, the New Testament also gives the circumstances, and that with adequate research, it should not be impossible to discover them. This second orientation is often concretized in the preference given to the Synoptic version (that the supper was really the Passover). But there are other possible hypotheses: c) What is important in the gospel account of the supper is not the interpretation but the fact, which is followed by interpretation. Then the fact can be perceived in either of the versions, or d) The fact is portrayed accurately in both versions because it is read in the setting of two different calendars.
My preference is to link my reading to this series of hypotheses since I seek to start from the basic source of the events. Jesus and his disciples lived the event of the last meal aware of the moment in which it was happening: near the Passover or during the Passover itself. Jesus' awareness extended to the meaning that the events were assuming (and which he attributed to them) at that precise moment; the disiciples' awareness was more limited, but it grew as they remembered the events. There is no reason to think that with time (not too long a time before the establishment of the specific traditions) they preserved only the memory of the interpretations rather than that of the circumstances such as the date. There are not enough signs to lead us to think that, in the span of time between the account of the synoptics and that of John,.there was an interpretative alteration of memory.
If these premises are justified, a concordant reading is no longer just an option but an obligation. [xi] There is a suggestion that John's account follows the calendar of the Sadducees for whom, in the year of Jesus' death, the Passover fell on the day after that of the calendar of the Pharisees and to which the synoptics hold. This leaves open the problem of the calendar followed by Jesus himself. We hear more often that it was the calendar of the Pharisees and therefore he really wanted to insert his “Eucharistic” intervention in the ritual of the Hebrew Passover. [xii] This reading is confirmed by the details in John which are explained as vestiges of Passover recollections.
In the recent past the suggestion of Annie Jaubert has been found of interest. It holds that Jesus' meal was the Passover, but that he anticipated it on Tuesday evening, according to the indications of the ancient calendar found in the documents of Qumran. [xiii] The first month of the year always began in mid-week, on Wednesday.. Consequently, the events of the passion would have unfolded in a span of three days: Wednesday, Jesus' first hearing in the Hebrew tribunal; Thursday, the second hearing and condemnation (and perhaps the beginning of the Roman trial); Friday, sentence by the Roman tribunal and capital execution.
This last hypothesis which has been set aside in recent years would need to be studied, given the difficulty in making it agree with the “concentrated” schemas of the gospel narrations which make some think of a shortened trial. The hypothesis which contrasts the usages of the Pharisees with those of the Sadducees would be simpler, but it is not based on authentic documentation and does not explain how Jesus could have taken initiatives which were prohibited on a feast day. Nevertheless, the testimonial value of the narration is so univocally concentrated on the Passover that there is no sense in trying to cast doubt on it. More simply, we recognize that in this account there are many particulars that escape us which are passed over in silence.
Notes[i] All the commentaries, in some manner, make reference to this fact.
[ii] Very enlightening on this topic is the work of N. Fuglister, Il valore salifico della pasqua (Suppl. GLNT, 2), Paideia, Brescia 1976 (tran slated from the German Die Heilsbedeutung des Pascha, Kosel, Munchen, 1963).
[iii] A well-known illustration of this meaning is found in A. Schenker, Das Abendmahl Jesu als Brennpunkt des Alten Testaments. Begegnung Zwischen den beiden Testamenten - eine bibeltheologische Skizze (Biblische Beiträge 13), Schweizerisches Katholisches Bibelwerk, Freiburg 1977.
[iv] A different position seems to be that of X. Leon-Dufour, Le partage du pain eucharistique selon le Nouveau Testament, Du Seuil, Paris 1982, 186-187 and 292, which insists on the tendency of the New Testament authors, especially of the synoptics, to show that the last events of Jesus' life “highlight the Passover of Jesus” and therefore that we are passing from “the rites of the person to the ritual of the personal” (187). The confirmation of this is seen in the absence of allusion to the paschal lamb, the bitter herbs, or other particulars of the Hebrew Passover. But I think that this reading - however enlightening - does not respect enough the intentional continuity of Jesus' work with that of the Hebrew rite.
[v] The most abundant discussion and documentation is offered by J. Jeremias, Le parole dell'ultima cena (Bibliotea di cultura religiosa, 23), Paideia, Brescia 1973 (translation from the fourth German edition Die Abendmahlsword Jesu, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen 1967). See also, Die Chronologie des Letzten Mahles und des Leidens Jesu (Schweizerische Katholische Bibelbewegung, 4) Benziger, Einsiedeln 1963. We begin this presentation with the conviction that “the tradition of a supper taken by Jesus with his disciples the evening before his passion has historical value.” The matter is less obvious than we might think, given the discussion of X. Leon-Dufour, op. cit., 160 (the source of the quotation - 162).
[vi] For Luke in particular cf. the three great volumes by H. Schurmann on the account of the last supper in Lk. 22:7-38 (Munster 1952, 1955, 1957); W. Bosen, Jesusmahl, Eucharistisches Mahl, Endzeitmahl. Ein Beitrag zur Theologie des Lukas (Stuttgarter Bibelstudien, 97) Katholisches Bibelwerk, Stuttgart 1980 (especially 26-29).
[vii] R. Pesch, Il vangelo di Marco (Theological Commentary on the New Testament), II, Paideia, Brescia 1982, 534, a comment on Mk. 14:25 (translated from the German Das Markusevangelium, II. Teil, Herder, Freiburg 1980).
[viii] X. Leon-Dufour, op. cit., 290-292, summarizes the history of the discussion (starting in 1720) and the orientations of the present exegetical schools, with a summary of the argument by J. Jeremias and his reserves concerning them.
[ix] The question deals only with the day and month. It does not consider the year, which does not directly affect the question of the Passover even if, knowing the exact year of Jesus' death, it would be possible to establish the day of the week on which the 14 and 15 of Nisan fell. J. Jeremias, op. cit., 37-43, and J. Blinzler deal with this question in Il processo di Gesu (Biblioteca di cultura religiosa, 6), Paidia, Brescia 1966 (translated from the German Der Prozess Jesu, Pusted, Regensburt 1960). According to Jeremias (p. 43), the 14 and 15 of Nisan could certainly not fall on Friday in the years 28, 29 and 32 (which therefore cannot be held as the years of Jesus' death), while the years 30 and 31 seem more favorable to John's chronology (Friday, April 7 or 27 fell on the 14 of Nisan), even if we cannot exclude totally the synoptic chronolgy (that that Friday was the 15). Thus Jeremias concludes: “The astronomic chronology does not lead to a sure conclusion” (p. 42). Blinzler leans toward the 14 of Nisan (p. 95).
[x] Cf. A.J.B. Higgins, The Lord's Supper in the New Testament (Studies in Biblical Theology), SCM Press, London 1964, 13-23. “While the fourth evangelist, for theological reasons, antedates the chronology by twenty-four hours, he depends on a tradition (or traditions) which agrees with the Synoptics regarding the Last Supper as a Passover, and in placing the crucifixion on Nisan 15th” (p. 22-23).
[xi] A simple and well directed explanation of the whole problem is offered by E. Galbiati, L'Eucaristia nella Bibbia, I.P.L., Milano 1982, 46-48. He adds the hypothesis that “Jesus may have anticipated the Passover supper, following the ancient rites, but without the lamb immolated in the temple...Jesus would have acted on his own authority, replacing the lamb with the Eucharist” (p. 47). But he admits that there are no sure testimonies of cases when the Passover was celebrated without the lamb at that time.
[xii] The existence of several calendars is attested to in writings found in Qumran. How they were differentiated among themselves is less clear; it will be seen in the proposals of A. Jaubert.
[xiii] La date de la Cene, Gabalda, Paris 1957; A. Giglioli, Il giorno dell'ultima Cena e l'anno della morte di Gesu, in R. Biblt 10 (1962) 156-181; E. Ruckstuhl, op. cit.; A. Moda, La date de la Cene: sur la these de Mlle Annie Jaubert, in Nicolaus 3 (1975) 53-116.
* Don Giuseppe Ghiberti is a member of the Pontifical Commission and President of the Turin section of the theological faculty of Northern Italy where he also teaches New Testament Exegesis. He also teaches New Testament Philology at the Catholic University A. Gemelli in Milan. His publications include: La sepoltura di Gesu, ed. Piemme 1982; La risurrezione di Gesu, ed. Paideia 1982; Spirito e vita in Giovanni, ed. Paideia 1989. This article has been translated from the Italian.
For a general view of the discussion, cf. H. Feld, Das Verständnis des Abendmahls (Erträge der Forschung, 50), Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1976. I highly recommend the readings referred to in this working document.