Was the Last Supper a Passover Meal or Not?

Small_Last_Supper_1998_nathan_simpson_australiaYou could be forgiven if you struggle to reconcile the Gospel of Mark with the Gospel of John, especially over the question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover Meal or not. But if that resonates with you I recommend you read Phil Schomber’s exploration of the question in his article, Isn’t the Bible Full of Contradictions? I have quoted it extensively below.

All the gospels agree Jesus was crucified on a Friday. But, did that Friday fall on the day of Passover or the day before? Some argue Mark and John give contradictory answers to that question.

The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread together represented a week long commemoration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites during the Exodus. Although the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread were technically different celebrations, they were together often simply referred to as Passover (Carson 1991 604).

In Jesus’ day, the people would go to the temple in Jerusalem the afternoon before the Passover to have a lamb sacrificed by the priests. The lamb would then be eaten later that night as part of the Passover meal. Because of the way we divide up a day, we would say the sacrifice of the lambs and the Passover meal happen on the same day. But, that’s not true by Jewish reckoning. According to Jewish custom, a new day starts at sunset.

That’s important because Mark tells us that on the day the lambs were sacrificed (the day before the Passover) Jesus sends the disciples into the city to get ready for the Passover (Mark 14:12-15). That evening (the next day according to Jewish custom) Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Last Supper. Jesus is then betrayed by Judas that night, tried in the morning, and ultimately crucified. So, according to Mark’s timeline, Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover.

But, some claim John has a different timeline. They believe John contradicts Mark because he says Jesus was crucified on the “day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). They argue that means Jesus died the day before the Passover in John’s gospel. According to them, John changed to day to draw a parallel between Jesus and the lambs that were sacrificed; for John Jesus is the preeminent sacrificial lamb. Scholar Bart Ehrman calls the difference between Mark and John’s timeline a “textbook case” of a contradiction that can’t be reconciled (Ehrman 2009 23, 27).

But, when we dig deeper we see Mark and John don’t really contradict each other. “Day of preparation” in John 19:14 is the translation of the Greek word paraskeue. “Paraskeue” was typically used as a designation for Friday. That might seem strange to us, but we have to remember the Old Testament required a Sabbath day of rest every Saturday. No work was to be done on that day. In order to honor that, they had to make preparations the day before to ensure all necessary work was done ahead of time. “Since Friday was always the Preparation Day for the Sabbath (Saturday), it came to be called by that day…” (Blomberg 2007 224). So, in all likelihood, John is not saying Jesus died the day before Passover. He is simply saying Jesus died on the Friday of Passover week (Blomberg 2007 224). That in no way contradicts Mark’s account.

Several factors support this interpretation. John 19:31, for example, specifically says, “it was the day of preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath” (emphasis added). “Day of preparation” here obviously refers to Friday because the next day was the Sabbath. That’s why the Jewish leaders want Jesus’ legs to be broken. They want to ensure he dies quickly enough so he can be taken off the cross before the Sabbath starts. In a similar way, John says Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a nearby garden tomb because it was the “day of preparation” (John 19:42) – that is Friday. The Sabbath, which was a day of rest, would begin shortly at sundown. That meant they had to finish their work quickly (Blomberg 2007 224-225).

Taking “day of preparation of Passover” to refer to the Friday of Passover week rather than the day before the Passover is, therefore, consistent with how John uses the phrase “day of preparation” throughout his account of Jesus’ death. It also makes sense of something that happens at the Last Supper. According to John, when Judas gets up and leaves, some of the disciples think Jesus might have sent him to give money to the poor (John 18:29). Why would they think that? Couldn’t that have waited until the morning? Normally, it could have waited. But, giving to the poor was a requirement on the first night of Passover. So, the disciples’ belief makes the most sense if the Last Supper occurs on the night of Passover. Of course, if the Last Supper takes place on the night of Passover, Jesus couldn’t have been crucified the day before Passover (Blomberg 2007 223-224).

So, when we take a closer a look, John’s account can easily be reconciled with Mark’s. Admittedly, there’s some ambiguity in John’s language. But, ambiguity is not the same as contradiction. In fact, ambiguity is a reality in all communication; we’re never as clear as we could be. That ambiguity is magnified the further removed we are from the author’s culture. In any event, the weight of the evidence suggests John places Jesus’ death on the day of Passover just as Mark does.

Now, obviously, simply resolving one alleged contradiction doesn’t prove there are no contradictions in the Bible. But, the other alleged contradictions have been amply addressed by various scholars over the years. We haven’t had a chance examine each proposed resolution here. But, given we’ve seen how a “textbook” contradiction can be resolved in a straight forward manner, we shouldn’t be surprise that the other alleged contradictions can be resolved as well.

References

Blomberg, Craig L. 2007. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Carson, D.A. 1991. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Ehrman, Bart D. 2009. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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