Problem: The Last Supper was or wasn't the Passover meal
Verses: Mark 14:12-18, John 19:14-15, others; Status: Serious

According to the synoptics, the Last Supper appears to have been the Passover meal. On the other hand, John's gospel seems to tell us that Jesus died before the Passover meal.

Synoptics: the Last Supper was the Passover meal

It's necessary to quote Mark at some length to show that, for him, the Last Supper was the Passover. This is Mark 14:12-18:

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?" And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us." And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." (ESV)

These verses certainly give the impression that the meal being eaten is the Passover meal. The disciples ask where the Passover meal is to be eaten; they go there; they prepare; later Jesus arrives; and they do indeed eat a meal. The meaning seems obvious.

Matthew 26:17-21 is almost identical. Meanwhile, Luke 22:8 is even more explicit that Jesus fully expected to eat the Passover meal:

So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it." (ESV)

It's mysterious why Jesus would say this if he was fully aware that he was going to die before the Passover meal.

John: the Passover meal was still to come

John says that, as the Last Supper was getting started, Jesus sent Judas Iscariot away. This is John 13:27-30:

Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly." Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast," or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. (ESV)

This seems to imply that the group did not yet have what they needed for the Passover feast, which would mean the feast was yet to come. Further evidence for this is provided by John 18:28, where Jesus' accusers were delivering him to Pilate:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. (ESV)

Finally, John seems to explicitly say that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover. This is Pilate handing over Jesus, at John 19:14-15:

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." (ESV)

First response: reinterpret the synoptics

Inerrantists can either say that, contrary to first appearances, the synoptics actually do not make the Last Supper the Passover meal, or they can say that John actually does make the Last Supper the Passover meal. Both views seem to have their adherents.

For those who wish to reinterpret the synoptics, there are some important verses that support their position. This is Luke 22:15-16:

And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." (ESV)

This seems to suggest that Jesus did not actually eat the Passover, and therefore, that the Last Supper was not the Passover. However, other manuscripts for this verse read "I will never eat it again", so the textual evidence is divided. Furthermore, it's not much of a stretch to read an implied "again" in the text. The NET Bible translates it in this way.

There are other important verses in the synoptics, which tell us that Jesus was crucified on a "day of preparation". For example, see Matthew 27:62-63. However, this does not mean preparation for the Passover, as Mark 15:42-43 shows:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (ESV)

From Mark's version, it's clear enough that the "day of preparation" here means preparation for the Sabbath, rather than the Passover.

Second response: reinterpret John

The other possibility is to interpret John to make his gospel consistent with the Last Supper being the Passover meal. John 19:14 is the biggest problem here. In any normal translation (see above) the verse indicates that Jesus was crucified on the day of "Preparation of the Passover". However, the 1984 NIV translates the verse as follows:

It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. "Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews. (NIV)

This translation implies that - although it was the day of preparation for the sabbath, and was during Passover week - it was not actually the day of preparation for the Passover. According to the NIV Study Bible:

Normally Friday was the day people prepared for the Sabbath. [Therefore] here the meaning is Friday of Passover week.

However, as far as I can tell, the original Greek does not contain the word "week". But I don't read Greek, and a number of authors have argued for this way of understanding the text: for example, J. H. Bernhard's Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John and William Hendriksen's The Gospel of John both agree with the NIV.

Naturally, the other verses in John are also troublesome, though there are ingenious ways to read them that might resolve them.

Third response: have two Passovers

A reader, Patrick Foster, contacts me to note that a third resolution has been suggested. It is alleged that two groups of Jews, the Pharisees and Sadducees, celebrated the Passover on different days, at least on some occasions. Thus the synoptic gospels are correct that the Last Supper was the Passover meal, but John is correct when he says there was still a Passover meal to come in the future.

A problem with this solution is that in the synoptics, the disciples regard the Last Supper as the Passover meal, whereas in John they seem to think it is still to come, as we see by their interpretation of what Jesus said to Judas: Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast." In both cases the authors have the disciples agreeing with their own view on which day the "real" Passover feast was.

In place of a conclusion

As should be clear, there are a lot of difficult issues here. However, I feel that the natural readings of the various texts are clear enough in their (contradictory) meanings for this problem to be Serious.

It's interesting that inerrantists can't agree on what the correct resolution is. Of course, that doesn't mean that all sides are wrong. It's just interesting.

Updated: 2011-04-14

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