Jesus’ Last Week Against Jewish Background

Originally, I was going to continue to discuss today “the tough questions of Passover”: why “his own received him not” and what the place of Israel is in this script written by God. Especially on days such as the one on which I am now writing – Yom HaShoah,  Holocaust Remembrance Day – the last sentence of my previous post begs to be continued: “Knowing that He came not only for His own suffering but also for the suffering of His own people – chosen not to recognize and thus to become “enemies for your sake” – Jesus weeps openly over all the torment to be unleashed on Israel in His name…”  However, once again, questions from the comments have changed my plans. We will definitely talk more about the Israel and Jesus dynamic – but today, we will try to figure out the events of the Last Week.

The day and date of Jesus’ crucifixion have been among the most debated topics throughout the history of the New Testament. I have also addressed this issue here before, however, I’ve never had all the ‘Jewish’ arguments brought together, and this is what I will try to do today. As always, I would like to add a disclaimer:  I don’t claim to have the final answers—nobody can be one hundred percent certain exactly how and when these events took place. Moreover, even though I will share some Hebrew insights with you here, I still want us to remember that there is always the possibility that we are missing something—“The secret things belong to the Lord”. My point is that we don’t have to stumble over this story: there are several plausible scenarios presenting the final days of Jesus.

We all know the traditional concept: The Last Supper was the Passover meal (Seder) that took place on Thursday night, and on Friday, Jesus was crucified. This view seems to be supported by the synoptic gospels. However, there is a well-known problem of discrepancy between the synoptic gospels and the Gospel of John, which seem to date all these events a day earlier than the synoptics do.  Numerous attempts were made to harmonize all the gospel accounts, in particular with the help of the ‘different calendars’ concept: If different calendars were in use, then the feast days were calculated differently by different groups. First, the scholars distinguished between the Pharisaic date of Passover and the Sadducean date a day earlier, which might lie behind the Gospel of John. Even more evidence points to the fact that the Essenes also used their own calendar. The famous story of the man with a water jar[1] is based on that—a man carrying water could only have been an Essene; Essenes had their communities in various towns, and also in Jerusalem, and since they used a different calendar, their guest rooms were still available. That’s why Jesus knew that a room would be available for the Last Supper—and He may have followed their calendar as well.

Personally, I don’t accept this concept. I don’t think the Last Supper was the traditional Passover meal. Why?  First of all, I have always been perplexed by the fact that when Judah left in the middle of the Last Supper,  “some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus had said to him, “Buy those things we need for the feast”. In today’s Israel, everything would be closed during the Feast, but even if something was open, no pious Jew would think of buying something with money on the Feast day.

There is another and much more important argument, however: the Jewish texts say explicitly that the paschal lamb had to be eaten during the Passover meal:

A paschal lamb is invalid if it was slaughtered for those who will not eat it…[2]

The eating of the paschal sacrifice was the principal part of the Seder – therefore the meal that happened BEFORE the sacrifice, by definition, could have not be perceived as a Seder.

If the Last Supper was not a Seder, what was it? What was the nature of this meal? Let me share with you some additional quotations from the Pesachim tractate of the Mishnah:

… The sages say that in Judah they would work on the day before Pesacĥ until noon, whereas in the Galilee they did not work at all…. When someone goes from a place where they do work to a place where they do not (or from a place where they do not to a place where they do) we apply the more severe restrictions of both the place where he comes from and the place he is going to…[3]

We see that there were different festival traditions in different places. As we all know, Jesus and his disciples were Galileans, therefore, they would have observed the Galilean traditions. There were several differences between Judean and Galilean Passover observance, but the most important one was a special fast – the Fast of the Firstborns, in remembrance of the firstborn Israelites who were saved from death (that is why we read in the Mishnah that “in the Galilee, they didn’t work at all” on Passover day). The fast took place on Nisan 14, on the day of Passover[4].

In Hebrew, the last meal before the fast is called seudah maphsehket  (if you have ever been in Israel for Yom Kippur, you would know that seudah maphsehket, the last meal before Yom Kippur fast, is a very important and special event indeed). Thus, in the Galilean tradition, there had to be this special meal at the beginning of Passover (Nisan 14th) called seudah maphsehket—the Last Meal before the whole day fast. The next meal would be the Passover meal, the Seder.

Let us now try to figure out the events of Jesus’ last week, starting from His resurrection on the early hours of Yom Rishon (Sunday) – because Sunday is a given. To make it simple, we will just count three nights back and arrive at Thursday, and then everything else falls into place. It was on Wednesday Nisan 13 that the disciples prepared this special meal that we call the Last Supper and that was, in fact, seudah maphsehket – the last meal before the Fast of the Firstborns. Jesus and the disciples ate this meal on Wednesday night, at the beginning of the Passover, as the day changed to Nisan 14; then Jesus was arrested that night, tried and convicted early on Thursday morning, and then crucified during the day – and all this happened during Passover day, Nisan 14, Thursday.

Some people ask: why Thursday, and not Wednesday? First, if Jesus died on the cross on Wednesday, he had to enter Jerusalem four days before, the very same day when the perfect lamb was to be set apart in Exodus 12 – and in this case, it would be Shabbat, a highly unlikely time for entering Jerusalem. Second, the Greek of John 20:1 suggests the early hours of the morning, dawn, the day-break watch: “Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”. This means that the night from Motzey Shabbat (the exit of Shabbat) through Sunday morning, was one of three nights. In this sense, only Thursday seems to “work” both backward and forward: both Palm Sunday and the sign of Jonah make sense then. Thus, on Thursday, Nisan 14, Jesus died on the cross; and on Sunday, Nisan 17, He was resurrected!

 

[1] Mark 14:13

[2] Mishna, Tractate Pesachim, Chapter 5 Mishna 3

[3] Ibid., Chapter 4, Mishna 1

[4] You can read more about it in:  David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, ­ Jewish New Testament Publications, 1995, p. 77

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you can get them here Also, I  would like to remind you, dear friends,  that eTeacher offers a wonderful course for those interested in the Jewish Background of the New Testament. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information (juliab@eteachergroup.com).  

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Lorenz Gadient

    Sehr geehrte Frau Blum,

    Ihr Beitrag zur Datierungsfrage der Passion Jesu enthält neue Aspekte, die ich sehr interessant finde. Schön ist zu sehen, wie selbstverständlich Sie von der Auferstehung Jesu am Morgen des Sonntages sprechen. Neu sind für mich viele Datails, besonders die von Ihnen erwähnte Tatsache, dass das sadduzäische Pessach-Datum einen Tag vor dem pharisäischen Datum angesetzt war.
    Interessant finde ich auch Ihren Hinweis, dass der einen Wasserkrug tragende Mann (Mk 14,13) mit den Essenern in Verbindung zu bringen sei.

    Sie legen den 14. Nissan (den “Rüsttag” vor Pessach) auf den Donnerstag. Das steht in Spannung zur johanneischen Datierung der Kreuzigung (19.14) und des Begräbnisses Jesu (19,31). Nach Johannes starb Jesu am “Rüsttag” vor dem “Sabbat, der ein großer Feiertag” (=Pessach) war; er wurde gekreuzigt “um die sechste Stunde”: zur Zeit der rituellen Schlachtung der Pessach-Lämmer im Tempel.
    Dass Jesus am “Rüsttag”, also am 14. Nissan, begraben wurde, erwähnen auch alle Synoptiker! Wenn Jesus nach den Synoptikern das letzte Abendmahl als Sedermahl gefeiert hat, dann kann das nicht am Abend des 14. Nissan gemäß der Tempelordnung angesetzt gewesen sein. Dann musste er und seine Jünger einem anderen Kalender gefolgt sein. Was spricht gegen die Annahme, dass er bei der Terminierung des Pessachmahles der Essener-Ordnung gefolgt ist?

    Mit herzlichen Grüßen
    Lorenz Gadient

  2. Troy McClure

    Based on this statement: “A paschal lamb is invalid if it was slaughtered for those who will not eat it…”, It is then not concievable to me that Jesus, being the paschal lamb himself and sinless, would eat of the paschal lamb before the crucifixion.

    1. Julia Blum

      I agree, Troy, that’s why I don’t think the Last Supper was the Passover Seder.

  3. Mark Stevens

    Dear Julia, You convinced me to abandon my adherence to the traditional timeline of Jesus’ last week. Your presentation from a Jewish perspective was very clear, concise, and reasonable – well thought out! Thank you for your passion for the Word!
    Many blessings,
    Mark Stevens

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Mark, thank you for your generous words. However, once again, I don’t claim to have the final answer, I may be wrong, of course. It was important for me to present the events of Jesus’ last week against Jewish background – and I am very glad to hear that this presentation was “clear, concise and reasonable”. Thanks and blessings!

  4. Stephen Funck

    As always excellent. I prefer the Essene suggestion and note the “Jewish” Gospel writers call this “Last Supper” the Passover. They were there and they knew the meaning of the words. I defer to their on site terminology. We overlook the reading of the Valley of the Dry Bones on the Sabbath and few know of the great parade of offerings for the First Fruits. I would love too hear your comments on the relevant chapters in my book on the Website.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, Stephen. I’ve tried to find these chapters in your book on the website, but couldn’t find them. Could you please help me? Maybe, you can send them to my email? Thanks!

  5. Scott Barrett

    Doesn’t Nisan 14 begin on the previous evening? Wouldn’t the lamb then be sacrificed on the preparation day in the afternoon of Nisan 13 and eaten that evening at the beginning of Nisan 14?

    1. Jony

      Shalom Julia, si tomamos los tiempos que ud. Indica y si Yeshua murió el jueves a la hora novena tuvo que resucitar el domingo a la misma hora. Con eso en mente ya no me cuadran los tiempos.

    2. Julia Blum

      No, Scott, Nisan 13 is the preparation day, but the Passover lambs have to be sacrificed on Nisan 14.