The Last Supper

My dear readers, since I’ve received a number of  questions regarding the Last Supper, I’ve decided, once again, to address the issue on these pages. The precise nature of the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, as well as the day and the date of His crucifixion, have been among the most debated topics throughout the history of the New Testament. Was Jesus crucified on that specific day, and at the specific time when the Passover lambs were slain in the Temple Court? If so, then the Last Supper could not be a Seder—the festive meal that marks the beginning of the Passover.  However, if it was  the first night of the Passover, when Jesus and His disciples had the Last Supper,  in this case, it was Seder indeed. So,  what was this supper?

This question has been the subject of much discussion for a long time. Many respected scholars have commented on this topic over the years, and of course, I don’t expect you to accept my view. The purpose of these articles is not to prove anything or to give the final answers: I merely want to show that there are various possibilities to present the final days of Jesus as a solid and non-controversial story. Towards this end, I would like to bring some Hebrew insights into the discussion. Without knowing the Passover customs that existed at the time of Jesus, we can really miss a lot, – and this is precisely where many answers and explanations of the discrepancies in Scripture (for instance between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John) should be sought.

Let us first discuss the traditional view: Jesus was crucified on Friday, 15th of Nisan, and the Last Supper was indeed a Passover Seder. According to this traditional view, the Passover meal takes place on Thursday night. The day of Thursday was 14th of Nisan, but at sundown it became the 15th of Nisan. At sundown, at the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, at the time of the Passover meal, Jesus and His disciples gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast. After the meal, very late that night or sometime after midnight, Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives. At dawn, when the first lamb of the daily sacrifice is tied to the altar, Jesus is condemned by the Jewish court and sent to the Roman governor, Pilate. It should be noted that the word Pesach does not exclusively apply to the Passover lamb on the eve of the Feast, but is used in scripture and in the Talmud in a wider sense for the entire festival, including the chagigah sacrifices which were offered on the 15th of Nisan. Thus, at 9 am (the 3rd hour) when Jesus is crucified on the cross, the first lamb of the daily Chagigah sacrifice is offered up on the altar in the Temple. At the 9th hour, or 3pm, the hour of the second daily sacrifice, Jesus dies on the cross.

This view seems to be supported by the Synoptic Gospels. However, we are all aware of the difficulties bound up with this traditional approach. First of all, there is a well-known problem of discrepancy between the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, which apparently dates all these events a day earlier than the Synoptics. Numerous attempts were made to harmonize all the Gospels, 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 the Passover and the Saduccean date a day earlier, which might lie behind the Gospel of John. Even more promising is 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.

There are several other problems connected to this approach. Personally, I have always been perplexed by the fact that when Judah left, some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus had said to him, “Buy those things we need for the feast[2]. In today’s Israel, everything would be closed during the Feast, but even if something was open, no pious Jew would think of doing something with the money, if it indeed was the Feast. However, the main question of course is: where is the sign of Jonah? How can we make three days and three nights if He died on Friday and was resurrected on Sunday? Hardly 40 hours have passed between his death and resurrection – where is the sign of Jonah?

 

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Personally, I don’t think it was the traditional Passover meal. Why? We read  in the Mishnah:

A paschal lamb is invalid if it was slaughtered for those who will not eat it… [3]

The paschal lamb had to be eaten during the Passover meal! The eating of the paschal sacrifice was the principal part of  Seder, and therefore the meal that happened BEFORE the sacrifice, by definition, could have not been Seder.

However, if it was not Seder, what was it? What was the nature of this meal? Before we actually start our discourse, let me share with you some additional quotations from Mishna, from the same tractate Pesachim:

… 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.

Where it is customary to work until noon on the day before Passover, people may work; where it is not customary to do so, people may not… 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…[4]

We see that there were different festival traditions in different places – and if people travel, the more severe restrictions would apply. As we all know, Jesus and his disciples were Galileans – and the most important difference between Judean and Galilean Passover observance was a special fast – the Fast of the Firstborn, in remembrance of the firstborn Israelites who were saved from death (that is why we read in Mishna that “in the Galilee, they didn’t work at all” on Passover day). The Galilean fast took place on Nisan 14, on the day of Passover[5].

In Hebrew, the last meal before the fast is called seudah maphsehket  (if you have ever been in Israel for Yom Kippur, you know that seudah maphsehket, the last meal before Yom Kippur fast, is a very 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. After this meal, there would be a whole day fast – and the next meal would be the Passover meal, the Seder. In this sense, this meal was indeed the Last Supper[6].

 

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  . My last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and  Jewish Background insights   into NT,  is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

[1] Mark 14:13

[2] John 13:29

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

[4] Mishna, Pesachim, Chapter 4, Mishna 1

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

[6] Initially, I am indebted to Tom Bradford from TorahClass.com for this idea.

 

 

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. DAVID CESAR

    (Croatian language) – Please translete google.
    Moja pitanja:
    1) Ako je Herod Veliki progonio Jeshua kao dijete, a Herod umire u Proljeće -4.B.C. kada je onda Jeshua rođen?
    2) Koje godine u A.C. je Jeshua razapet?
    Pilat je pisao pisam 31.g.A.C. za Seneku a u tim pismima piše o Rabbi Jeshuai (Jshva -aramaic) kojeg su razapeli prije nekoliko godina. Prema tim pismima Pilata – Jeshua Meshia razapet je prije 31.g.A.C. (!?!?!)

    1. DAVID CESAR

      JULIA BLUM – molim za odgovor na komentar gore iznad. hvala.

      1. Julia Blum

        Hi David, the reason I haven’t answered so far, is very simple: I wouldn’t be able to say anything new here, you probably know all the possible answers as well as I do. Maybe, the only detail I can add here is that I personally think that Yeshua might have been 37 years old and not 33 as traditionally believed (it’s a separate topic, there are several things in the Bible that point out to this age); in this case he might well be born before 4 BC. and crucified after 31 AD. But again, it’s just my personal belief.

  2. Stephen Funck

    Ms Blum, Shalom. As always excellent. I save and share your teachings. I have a principle that God does not want us to know some things too well. He obscures them by having multiple accounts. For example two versions of the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, four of the words of institution. Not to mention the four Gospels diverge at the arrest of Jesus. We would think there should be one clear affirmation. God knows best. That does not mean we should not search out the hidden things for God’s meaning. His hiding is an invitation to searching, finding.
    Some Scholars endeavor to prove the Scriptures are in error to demonstrate their superior mastery. Which is not the same as turning rocks over to discover what may be beneath. A pet complaint I have is when scholars today seek to prove that the people of the scriptures did not know the meaning of what they said. Example. If the scriptures call Jesus’ Last Supper a passover meal and we do not think it fits our definition today. We must adjust our opinion to their assertion. At least accept that they are reinterpreting the meaning of passover meal to be something new by the force of God’s inspiration.
    Since this is a “new covenant – testament” that fulfills the “old”, it is appropriate to re-imagine the symbols of the old in new ways. The annual Passover recalling the victory over slavery is now the weekly recalling of Jesus victory over all darkness, while it still connects the second greater deliverer Moses to the first.
    I have at http://thesignofconcord.com/uploads/Bk_3_Ch_4_Last_Supper__1_.pdf a fictional account of the Last Supper that attempts to be faithful to both Scripture and early traditions.

  3. Luis

    Thank you for your article. I am still somewhat confused, though. You end your article with the following sentence, ” In this sense, this meal was indeed the Last Supper.” I’m not sure which meal you mean by this “this meal”. The last paragraph talks about the seudah maphsehket and the seder. Which of the two do you refer to as “this meal”?

    Thank you.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Luis, here is the timeline for this scenario: on Wednesday Nisan 13, the disciples prepared this special meal that we call the Last Supper and that was, in fact, seudah maphsehket – the last meal before the Galilean Fast of the Firstborns. Jesus and the disciples ate this meal on Wednesday night, as the day changed to Nisan 14. Then Jesus was arrested at night, tried and convicted early on the Thursday morning, and then crucified during the day – and all this happened on Nisan 14, Thursday, the day of “Pesach”, the day of the slaughtering of the paschal lamb. Thus, on Thursday, Nisan 14, Jesus died on the cross – and the Passover meal (seder ) would be only on that night , as the day would change to Nisan 15. So, according to this approach, the Last Supper was seudah mafseket and not Seder.

      1. Luis

        Thank you. It”s clear now.
        God bless you!

  4. Rachel

    Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Since Jesus is the anti-type (the reality and fulfillment) of the Leviticus 23:5 Passover Lamb which is the type that foreshadows or points to Him. Jesus our Passover Lamb dies on the Cross at 3 pm ( Matthew 27:50/Luke 23:46) on the 14th day of Nisan (the Passover) when the lambs are slaughtered in the Temple courtyard. According to Josephus, the lambs were slaughtered beginning at 3 pm on the 14th of Nisan: (Jewish Wars: Book 6, Chapter 9, Verse 3). Why the 14th day of Nisan? Because Leviticus 23:5 and Exodus 12:6 say the 14th of Abib/Nisan.

    Jesus did not eat a Passover Lamb at His Last Supper, His Supper was not a Traditional Jewish Seder nor Passover Meal. It simply started out as a regular normal supper and then Jesus instituted Himself as the New Covenant, the bread and wine, and He clearly said: Do this in Remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19-20)

    Jesus changed the reason for the Passover from a memorial of what the Lord God had done for Israel in the land of Egypt, to a memorial about Himself, about what He was about to suffer! This is a Passover for the Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the Promised Messiah of the Law and the Prophets. This is not the Traditional Jewish (Israeli) Passover that Jesus held that last night before dying for the sin of the world on the Cross on the daylight portion of the 14th day of Nisan at 3 pm.

  5. Nick

    Dear Julia,
    Thank you for this candid examination of The Last Supper. I think there are also several ways of understanding the Jesus story, as well as the risen Christ story. Maybe some things aren’t meant to have a single irrefutable scientific proof!
    Nick

  6. Brian Parker

    Greetings Julia,
    First thank you for tackling this issue. I look forward to your further comments. At this point, I still hold with the Thursday being Pesach day one. Our present day calendar and the Jewish calendar slide back and forth ‘over’ each other year by year and so could have matched easily for this event. My studies have shown that the list of seven Moedim plus Shabbat in v’Yikra 23 are all set to create a schedule for the 8 major historical events (4 still yet to come) and for us to learn God’s plan for future humanity. It dictates that the pesach meal foretells the sacrifice of Y’shua as THE Paschal Lamb. God would have chosen the year in which the days would have lined up so that both Jew and Gentile could identify. Finally, in relation to the three day period, the scriptures don’t say that it was 72 hours that passed, but follows the concept in Jewish thought that a part of a day can be considered a full day by terminology – thus from, let’s say 3 pm Friday to 6 am Sunday COULD be considered “three days”. In fact, according to ALL FOUR Gospels, the one sure thing in all of this is that the resurrection was discovered early on the day after Shabbat, or on the first day of the week. Having said all this, I look forward to reading the rest of your reasoning. I am open to learn from you and your sources. Blessings.

  7. Bruce

    I understand that the calculation of Passover in the first century was visual and not a formula as today. The observer would see the first sliver of a new moon and Passover would be 15 days latter. If it was cloudy then they would estimate the new moon based on the previous month. Also, the extra month inserted so often was not calculated but decreed since the months were 29 days. This makes any dating mechanism we try to use to line up a Friday in a given year useless. When we look at Acts and the letters of Paul it appears that the events that meant the most to the first century church was Pentecost (Paul wanted to get back to Jerusalem for that not Passover) and the Lord’s supper. Seems like the 2nd century was the beginning of the date controversy in the early church.

    1. Julia Blum

      I agree Bruce, any dating mechanism we try to use here, might be erroneous, if not completely useless. The secret things belong to the Lord… The purpose of my article is not to prove anything or to give the final answers, the purpose is, first of all, to make it clear that the exact dating of this story should not be a stumbling stone. I wanted to show that there are various possibilities to present the final days of Jesus as a very solid and non-controversial story.