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The “Problem” of the Last Supper

By March 13, 2020No Comments
Image: The Last Supper, Juan de Juanes [public domain]

“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him… they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” —Dei Verbum 11

As Catholics we believe that all of Scripture is divinely inspired and without error (Catechism of the Catholic Church 105–108). This means that when we come up against passages in Scripture which appear to contradict each other, we have two options. Either we throw the whole thing out—because if it’s truly contradictory then how can it be divinely inspired?—or we dig a little deeper and find that the apparent contradiction was merely a misunderstanding occasioned by a poor translation or a faulty assumption.

The accounts of the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John are precisely such a case. All four gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The Synoptics clearly present the Last Supper as a Passover meal occurring before the Crucifixion (see Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 11:15). But John tells us that when the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, they did not enter the praetorium “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (John 18:28, RSV). A few verses later he tells us that the day on which Jesus was crucified was “the day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). These verses have led many to conclude that John places the Passover meal after the Crucifixion, and therefore his account of the Last Supper contradicts the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And given the historical claims of the gospels, that’s a problem.

What are we to do with this apparent discrepancy?

The Passover

The difficulty disappears when we understand the word “Passover” in its first-century Jewish context. “Passover”—pesach in Hebrew and pascha in Greek—was used to refer to more than just the Passover Seder meal. It could refer to the entire week of Passover and Unleavened Bread, the sacrificial Passover lamb, the Passover Seder meal, or the additional peace offerings sacrificed and eaten during the week of Passover (see Leviticus 23:4–8).

So when John tells us that the Jewish officials wanted to remain ritually clean so that they could “eat the Passover,” he’s not necessarily referring to the Passover Seder meal. “Eating the Passover” could also refer to partaking of the peace offerings sacrificed throughout the week of Passover.

In the same way, when John identifies Good Friday as “the day of Preparation of the Passover,” he is simply telling us that it is Friday of the week of Passover, not necessarily the day of preparation for the Passover meal. The Greek word paraskene, “day of preparation,” is the word commonly used for Friday, because Friday is always the day of preparation for the Sabbath.

John is merely referring to the various elements of the week-long feast of Passover in simple and common terms for a first-century Jew. He is not necessarily setting up a timeline where the Passover Seder occurs on Friday night of Holy Week rather than Thursday.

Another explanation, commonly referred to as the Calendar Proposal, suggests that when Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder at the Last Supper he was following an alternative Jewish calendar which placed the Passover meal on Tuesday of Holy Week, while the mainstream calendar followed by the Jewish leaders placed it on Friday night. This way, the gospels are correct in calling the Last Supper a Passover meal, even if John really does mean “the Passover Seder” when he refers to “the Passover” in 18:28 and 19:14.

There is evidence that Judaism was divided over the liturgical calendar in the first century. There are also a few early Christian texts which state that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and was arrested on Tuesday night. However, the clear sense of all four gospels is that the arrest, trials, and condemnation of Jesus take place in the span of a single night and the following morning. The Calendar Proposal requires that we assume a different timeline between the Last Supper and Crucifixion than the gospels seem to present.

Lamb of God

But why would John’s gospel be different at all? Well, some scholars have suggested that John deliberately manipulates the historical timing of the Last Supper, Passover, and Crucifixion in his narrative in order to present the sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Temple and the Crucifixion of our Lord as happening at the same time. Scripture clearly presents Jesus as the new Passover lamb, and wouldn’t it be fitting for the sacrifice of the old lambs and the new Lamb to occur at exactly the same time?

This reading of John certainly has some appeal, but it is problematic in light of John’s multiple claims to be giving trustworthy, eye-witness testimony to these events (see John 19:35, 21:24). And there is no reason to falsify the timeline to highlight the significance of Jesus’ death on the Cross: for the Jews the new day starts at sundown, therefore the Last Supper and the Crucifixion occur on the same day, the feast of Passover

Additionally, the Passover is not the only sacrifice replaced by the Lamb of God.

The forgotten sacrifice

When we hear “sacrificial lamb” most of us probably think of the Passover. But twice a day, every single morning and evening, the priests in the Temple sacrificed a lamb for the Tamid (continual or daily) offering. The unblemished, one-year-old male lambs were sacrificed along with an offering of bread and wine (see Exodus 29:38–43 and Numbers 28:1–8). Josephus, the first-century Jewish priest and historian, tells us that the Tamid sacrifices were offered “in the morning and about the ninth hour” every day (Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.3).

Does that time sound familiar? It should. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include the detail that Jesus died at about the ninth hour (3pm; Matthew 27:46–50, Mark 15:33-37, Luke 23:44–46). Mark even tells us twice. Mark’s is the shortest gospel—he doesn’t waste words on any unnecessary descriptions or details. So why the precision and the repetition?

Because Jesus breathed his last as the evening Tamid was offered.

And that’s not all. Particular prayers accompanied the Tamid sacrifice every morning and evening. While the evening lamb was being sacrificed—and while the Lamb of God was offering himself for the salvation of the world—the Jews were praying for God’s redemption, the forgiveness of sins, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead (see this article by Dr. Brant Pitre for more detail). On the Cross Christ completes the Passover meal he began with his Apostles at the Last Supper and fulfills both that sacrifice and the Tamid offering.

Want to go deeper? If you want an in-depth analysis of the question of the Last Supper in John and the synoptics, there is an entire chapter on it in Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper. If you’re looking for something a little lighter, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible has a great essay comparing the various solutions to the “problem” of the timing of Passover (the essay is located at John 13).

Ashley Crane

Ashley has been with the Lay Division since 2012, teaching for both the Biblical and Catechetical Schools, and also serving as the Blog and Social Media Coordinator. She has a B.A. in Psychology and International Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.A. in Sacred Scripture from the Augustine Institute. In addition to teaching and writing for the Lay Division, Ashley has contributed to several spiritual formation resources published by the Augustine Institute, including the LECTIO series and the Signs of Grace sacrament preparation series. A life-long lover of stories, Ashley is living out her own adventure--equal parts comedy, drama, and farce--with her husband and five children in Denver, Colorado.

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