At Trinity Cambridge Church, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, because we believe that it is an indispensable aspect of the church’s ministry. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how deficient my understanding of it was. Perhaps others are in the same boat. The series will include four posts:
- The Lord’s Supper: Was It a Passover Meal? (1 of 4)
- The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean? (2 of 4)
- The Lord’s Supper: What Actually Happens? (3 of 4)
- The Lord’s Supper: How Should We Do It? (4 of 4)
Not a Foregone Conclusion
The Lord’s Supper has historically been understood as a Passover meal, due to its depiction as such in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew writes that “on the first day of Unleavened Bread,” the disciples asked Jesus, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover” (Matt. 26:17-18)? Mark and Luke include similar accounts in their Gospels (Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), leaving little doubt that the ensuing Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal.
But recently, scholars have begun to challenge the connection primarily on the basis of Johannine chronology. For example, Scot McKnight (Jesus and His Death), Robert Letham (The Lord’s Supper), and Jonathan Klawans (“Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?”) all argue that the Lord’s Supper was not the Passover meal, but an ordinary Jewish meal imbued with spiritual significance, one day before the Passover. This is a significant debate, because it not only affects modern-day practice (e.g. Christian-Jewish interfaith Seder/Last Supper), but also our doctrine of Scripture (e.g. does John’s account contradict the Synoptic Gospels?).
Their arguments can be classified broadly as exegetical and historical.
Exegetical Arguments against the Passover View
John 18:28 records that the Jews who led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” Since, the Passover meal had not been eaten yet at the time of Jesus’s trial, the argument goes, the Last Supper could not have been a Passover Meal.
John further dates the crucifixion to the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), that is, on the day before Passover (i.e. Thursday), which would mean that the Last Supper took place on the Wednesday night of Passion Week, full day before the official Passover meal.
John 13:1 seems to corroborate this, since, Jesus is said to have washed the feet of his disciples and had the Last Supper, “before the Feast of the Passover.” Since the Last Supper took place before the Passover, it clearly cannot be a Passover meal.
Robert Letham argues that the Lord’s Supper is connected not to the Old Testament Passover, but to the covenant meal eaten by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11). In this view, Moses’s sprinkling of the blood of the burnt offerings on the altar and on the people is what Jesus has in mind, when he says, “This is my blood of the new covenant.” (The Lord’s Supper, p. 5).
Historical Arguments against the Passover View
Moreover, if Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper during a Passover meal, which is an annual event, it is curious why the early church celebrated it on a daily or weekly basis (Acts 2:46-47).
And if the Last Supper was indeed during Passover, as the Synoptic Gospels indicate, then why is there no mention of the lamb, the main dish laden with pertinent symbolism? They seem to be eating only the bread and wine.
These are strong arguments, but the arguments for the Last Supper’s connection to the Passover are even stronger.
The Chronology of the Synoptic Gospels
First, the Synoptic Gospels are unequivocal in their testimony that the Last Supper took place “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrifice the Passover lamb,” and the disciples are explicitly told “to go and prepare the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16; cf. Matt. 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-13; Josephus, Ant. 16.6.2 §§163–64).
Johannine Chronology Can Be Reconciled
Second, it is possible to explain the seeming aberrations in John’s Gospel. John notes that Jesus was crucified on the “day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14), this needs not be interpreted as a day of Preparation for the Passover, but the day of preparation for the Sabbath on the week of the Passover. The fact that the “day of Preparation” (παρασκευὴ) is used throughout all four of the Gospels to refer to the day of preparation for the Sabbath lends credence to this interpretation (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54).
Even in John, the Jews ask Pilate to break the legs of those who were crucified in order to hasten their death, “since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)” (John 19:31; cf. Deut. 21:22-23). The “day of Preparation of the Passover,” then, refers to the “day of Preparation (for the Sabbath) of the Passover week.” The crucifixion, then, falls on a Friday, which fits the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels.
John 18:28 poses no greater difficulty. The Jews who led Jesus to Pilate for trial “did not enter the [Gentile] governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” The “Passover” here does not refer to the Passover meal, but to the Passover feast, which lasted seven days. The Jews, then, are saying that they would like to continue to partake in the feast.
A quick word study on “Passover” (πάσχα) confirms this. Matthew and Mark use the word “Passover” exclusively to refer to the day the Passover meal is eaten or to the actual meal itself (Matt. 26:2, 17, 18-19; Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16), and they prefer the designation “Unleavened Bread” (ἄζυμος), when referring to the entire feast.
Luke uses the term more interchangeably, referring to the “Feast of the Passover” (τῇ ἑορτῇ τοῦ πάσχα) (Luke 2:41), and even explaining that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1), thus proving that the word “Passover” can be used synecdochically to represent the entire feast. But even Luke generally uses the word “Passover” to refer to the meal (Luke 22:7, 8, 11, 13, 15), and when he wants to use the word “Passover” to refer to the Feast, he always clarifies it by pairing it with the word for “feast” (ἑορτῇ) (Luke 2:41; 22:1).
John, however, is an anomaly. He significantly never uses the term, “Unleavened Bread,” and consequently uses the word “Passover” interchangeably to refer to the meal, day, and the feast (John 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1). He sometimes pairs it with the word “feast” (John 2:23; 6:4; 13:1) to make the meaning clear, but most of the time he uses the word by itself (John 2:13; 11:55; 12:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14). In John 6:4, he states, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand,” demonstrating that “Passover” can again be used synecdochically to refer to the entire feast. With this usage in John established, it is not difficult to accept the suggestion that “the Passover” in John 18:28 refers to the entire feast and not to the Passover meal, in which case they were probably concerned with eating the feast-offering that was brought on Friday morning (cf. Num. 28:18-19).
Finally, John 13:1 does not prove that the Last Supper took place “before the Feast of the Passover.” The statement applies to the foot-washing, which immediately follows the statement, and not to the Last Supper. What about the part of the passage that says that Jesus “rose from supper” (John 13:4) to wash the disciples’ feet? Jews typically ate two meals during the day, one around 10 or 11 in the morning, and another in the late afternoon. On special occasions (like the Passover meal), the late afternoon meals lasted into the night, and therefore onto the next day (in Jewish understanding the day begins at sundown) (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23) (Thomas Schreiner, The Lord’s Supper, p. 20). This means that supper began on Thursday, but lasted into Friday, when Passover officially began. Hence, Jesus could have risen from supper to wash his disciples’ feet before the official commencement of Passover.
It is specious to claim that the Lord’s Supper’s primary Old Testament connection is the covenant meal on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1-11), when the Lord’s Supper ostensibly takes place in the context of the Feast of the Passover and not during the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), which celebrates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The Lord’s Supper Was a Passover Meal
Scot McKnight insists that if it the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, it would have made more theological sense for Jesus to say, “this lamb is my body” as opposed to “this bread is my body,” but this argument overlooks three important facts: (1) the bread, which is readily broken, lends itself quite well to representing the broken body of Christ. (2) In fact, Jesus’s use of bread, rather than lamb, in the institution of the Lord’s Supper may explain the early church’s rationale in celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently. (3) There is a very good theological explanation for why the Gospels do not mention the paschal lamb, because the focus is on Jesus, who is the ultimate Paschal Lamb about to be sacrificed.
Moreover, regardless of whether or not the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal, both the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel agree that Christ fulfills the typology of the Passover lamb. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), and this is what we remember and celebrate in the Lord’s Supper.
This is the first of a four-part series on the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned next week for my second post, The Lord’s Supper: What Does It All Mean?