Was Jesus’ Last Supper the “Real” Passover?

When Jesus ate his last supper with his disciples he did so on the night before the Passover lambs were slain. It is well attested that Jesus had asked the disciples to go ahead to prepare the Passover meal (Mat. 23:17-20; Mk 14:12-17; Lk. 22:7-14). He also prefaced his “last supper” with the statement, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the Kingdom of God.”

Because Jesus appears to call his last supper a “Passover,” many who followed the teachings of the late Herbert W. Armstrong believe that Jesus kept the “real” Passover, while the entire Jewish people of Jesus’ day slew the Passover lamb at the wrong part of the day.

God gave the Israelites the following instructions in Ex. 12: 6 “You shall keep [the lamb] until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight [literally: between the evenings].”

Herbert Armstrong believed, as many modern Christian translators do, that “between the evenings” means that twilight portion of the day between sunset and dark. The belief comes from the idea that Jewish people believe that the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sunset.

They then interpret Jesus’ last meal with his disciples at the beginning of Nisan 14 as the proper time for Passover and project that onto Moses’ Passover before the Exodus. Meanwhile the Jewish people killed the Passover lamb toward the end of the 14th of Nisan.

Attempts to make the slaying of the original Passover lamb happen in the very brief period between sundown and dark at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th run into problems for the following reasons:

1) God gives this command in Ex. 12: 11 “This is how you will eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. ” Why eat it in a hurry and dressed for travel if they don’t leave until after sundown on the 15th, about 20 hours later?

2) The unleavened bread that the festival is named after reflects the speed with which all of the events took place. Notice what is explained in Ex. 12: 33-34.  “The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.” They literally did not have time to make their bread before leaving Egypt. That makes it hard to argue that they spent 12 hours despoiling the Egyptians before leaving.

3) Not only is the night they eat the Passover meal the night the death angel passes over the Israelites, it is also the first day of Unleavened Bread, according to Ex. 12:12-17. You can only make the meal the day before if you stop reading between verses 14 and 15.

Notice that the first day of unleavened bread is the actual day that they left Egypt. They dressed to leave in a hurry. The destroyer killed the firstborn at midnight, while the blood on the doorposts protects the Israelites. They are dressed and ready for travel. God also tells them that the Egyptians will push them out of the country so fast that they won’t have time to cook bread …

4) Verses 24-27 indicate that Passover is both the day of the deliverance from the destroyer and also deliverance from Egypt.

5) Verses 29-34 indicate that Moses and Aaron are called upon that same night to roust the people out of Egypt. They do not have time to provision themselves with bread, but are packed and ready to move.

6) Exodus 12:18-19 uses the expression “on the fourteenth day of the month at even” to indicate when the days of unleavened bread begin. That is why the Passover meal is to be eaten without leaven.

Exo 12:18  In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.

Exo 12:19  Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land.

7) Nisan 14 does not begin at sunset. It begins when the day turns to night – at dark. Where the confusion comes in is that Jewish people do begin the observance of Sabbath at sunset on Friday. Christians then make the completely natural assumption that Jews believe that days begin at sunset.

What Christians are not generally aware of is that Jews understand every other day to begin at dark. Only the Sabbath is considered to begin at sunset. Because they do not want to inadvertently work on the Sabbath they give themselves the few minutes between sunset and dark as a “hedge” around the actual Sabbath, which actually begins at dark (apparently when you can see at least three stars in the sky).

When you clear up the misunderstanding about when days actually begin, you understand that eating the Passover lamb during the night of Nisan 14th would require the sacrifice to take place before dark on Nisan 13, not Nisan 14.

8) According to the Paleo Times website Jewish interpreters do not share this confusion about when the Passover lamb is slaughtered and eaten. “Between the evenings” is a term that has only one meaning to Israelites and Jews. It refers to the late afternoon period between about 3 pm and nightfall. That is precisely why we know Jesus was killed at the time of the Passover sacrifice. The link above provides the most reasonable and complete explanation I have seen about the meaning of the Hebrew expression “between the evenings” that is usually translated as “twilight” or “dusk” by modern Christian translators.

It is apparently known that the Samaritans kept Passover the day before the Judean Jews. Some Christian scholars have speculated that Sadducees agreed with the Samaritans, but they do not have proof that the priesthood actually performed the sacrifice a day early. Why we should prefer the timing of the dissident Samaritan sect over that of the people who passed the Old Testament on to us is a mystery to me.

9) Jesus is no shrinking violet when it comes to telling the Scribes, Phariseees and Sadducees when they are in the wrong. At no point is it recorded that he tells them they missed the date of Passover by one day when they eat the meal on the 15th of Abib/Nisan instead of the 14th.

10) Jesus did ask his disciples to prepare a place for them to eat the Passover meal and did eat a meal with them the night before the Passover that the rest of his countrymen ate. He did tell them that he desired to eat “this Passover with them before” he “suffered.” What is not certain is that the meal they were eating was actually called a Passover meal. He may well have been referring to the following night’s meal as the Passover he had desired to eat with them before he suffered.

For example, we are given no specifics about what the meal consisted of. Was it lamb? Was the bread they ate unleavened? Had they cast leaven out of the room?

Jesus’ closest disciples refused to violate the Sabbath even to anoint him for burial. Would they not have said something or at least have inquired if Jesus were asking them to observe a Passover on a day that violated the sensibilities of their upbringing?

As per point 7 above, the lamb certainly would have been sacrificed on the wrong day to be a Passover meal. It would be safest to just consider it Jesus’ Last Supper.

Conclusion: The Passover lamb was killed and cooked in the late afternoon on Nisan 14 and  eaten after dark on the 15th. In other words, the Israelites left Egypt on the same day as the Passover meal was eaten, the 15th a Abib (the month later renamed Nisan).

Finally, the image of Jesus as the Passover lamb works much better if he was killed at the same time as the lambs were killed on Nisan 14. The Gospel writers agree that Jesus was killed at “the ninth hour, or midafternoon on Nisan 14. This agrees with the traditional time the Passover lambs were sacrificed for the Passover meal to be eaten that night.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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