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The Last Supper

According to the synoptic gospels the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples was a passover eve and was thus a formal passover meal. In order to better appreciate the events that follow it is important for us to obtain a brief understanding of just what the passover festival is.

  • We note that there is a serious discrepancy in the dating of the last supper. John said that the last supper was a normal meal before the night of the passover meal while the synoptics says the last supper was a passover meal.
  • As both the synoptic and Johanine chronologies fulfil separate theological imperatives which cannot be fitted together gives us reason to believe that the whole relationship between the last supper and the passover meal was a later creation and is not historical.

The Jewish Passover Festival

The passover is the most important of the Jewish feast. It is an eight day festival held from the 14th to the 21st day of the Jewish month of Nisan. The Jewish calender is a lunar one which actually allows the passover to fall anywhere in March or April. [1] The traditional Jewish belief is that this festival is observed to commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The myth is told in Exodus chapters one through thirteen.

Many of the passover observations and indeed the name of the festival itself can be traced to this story in second book of the Pentateuch. When the pharaoh refused to allow Moses and the Israelites to leave Egypt, ten plagues were sent by God to force the Egyptian monarch to change his mind. The last of this ten plagues was the slaughter of all the first born children of the Egyptians. To ensure that the angel of death does not mistake the Israelite households for the Egyptian ones, Moses ordered his people to slaughter a lamb. With the blood of this lamb, they were told to daub their doorposts. seeing these sign will ensure that the angel of death would passover the household. Later in their hurried escape from Egypt, the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise, so they ate unleavened bread. [2]

On the first evening of the passover on the 14th of Nisan (technically it is the 15th of Nisan for by Jewish reckoning the new day starts after 6pm) the celebration of the Seder takes place. The seder is a special domestic religious service which includes a ritual meal. This meal contains food which symbolizes the events during the exodus: the paschal lamb which was slain earlier in the evening and the matzoth or unleavened bread. [3]

The rules governing the celebration of the passover are very explicit. They are laid down in the Torah with additional details being codified in the Talmudic tractate Pesachim. Given below are some of the rules:

On the length of the festival
Numbers 28:16-17 (Exodus 12:18)
On the fourteenth day of the first month is the Lord's passover. And on the fifteenth day of this month is a feast, seven days shall unleavened days be eaten.

The selection of the paschal lamb
Exodus 12:5-8
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old, you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening.

The prohibition of leaving one's house on passover night
Exodus 12:22,25
...none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning...you shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and your sons forever and ever.

The prohibition of doing any kind of work on the passover
Numbers 28:18
On the first day there shall be convocation; you shall do no laborious work...

Here rabbinical elaboration had extended the prohibition of work to the afternoon of the previous day (Pesachim 4:2). [4] The ritual observation of the passover, like those for the Sabbath, are very strict and explicit.

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The Chronological Discrepancy Between John and the Synoptics

All the three synoptic gospels explicitly state that the last meal Jesus had with his disciples was a passover meal:

Mark 14:12-17 (Matthew 26:17-20; Luke 22:7-14)
And on the first day of the unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples...went to the city...and they prepared the passover. And when it was evening he came with the twelve and they were at the table eating.

Thus according to the synoptics, Thursday [a] was the 14th of Nisan. However in the gospel of John, the last supper was just a normal evening meal on the 13th of Nisan, the day before passover eve:

John 13:1-2
It was just before passover feast...the evening meal was served.

According to John Jesus died while the paschal lamb was being slaughtered (John 19:31). As John agreed that this meal also took place on a Thursday [b], we have a serious discrepancy in our hands. To John Thursday was the 13th of Nisan while the Synoptics said that it was the 14th. This discrepancy can be seen clearly from the table below:

DateSynoptic's ChronologyJohn's Chronology
13 Nisan-Thursday: Last Supper (normal meal)
14 NisanThursday: Last Supper (passover meal)Friday: Crucifixion
15 NisanFriday: Passover & CrucifixionSaturday: Passover
16 NisanSaturdaySunday: Resurrection
17 NisanSunday: Resurrection-

Synopticís & Johnís Chronology [5]

The discrepancy is also seen in the actual date of Jesusí death. As Jesus was crucified the day after the last supper, this made his death fall on the 15th of Nisan according to the synoptics and the 14th of Nisan according to John. [c]

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The Theological Underpinnings of the Chronologies of Synoptics and John

If the last supper was an actual historical event why was it that the simple fact whether it occurred on passover eve or the day before that cannot be agreed upon by the early Christians? Our suspicion as to the historicity of the whole account is further aroused by the fact that both the synoptics and the gospel of John had theological reasons for their dating of the events.

For John, Jesus was the new paschal lamb (the lamb of God) and it was fitting that he was sacrificed at the precise moment of the slaughter of the passover lamb. We will study John's reasons in greater detail later. The synoptics' idea was to connect the passover meal to the institution of the Eucharist: [d]

Mark 14:22-25 (Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:17-20)
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, "Take it; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. "This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many." he said. "I tell you the truth, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the day I drink it anew in the kingdom of God."

It is worth noting that the gospel of John does not contain the above passage. Both accounts of the last supper has different cathechistical-liturgical functions. [7] It should be mentioned that based on Luke 3:1 and the synoptic chronology the most likely year of Jesus' death should be between AD29 to 32. In none of these years, based on astronomical calculations of the full moon of Nisan, does 15th of Nisan fall on a Friday (On AD29 it fell on a Sunday; AD30, Saturday; AD31 Wednesday; and AD32 Tuesday). [8]

The synoptics add that after the passover meal Jesus and his disciples left the house and went to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26 (Matthew 26:30, Luke 22:39). This is in direct violation of Exodus 12:22 which specifically prohibits leaving the house on a passover night! [9] This makes the whole episode even less believable. For if Jesus and his disciples had wanted to celebrate the passover, as doubtless the synoptic gospels tell us that they did (Mark 14:12-15; Matthew 26:17-19; Luke 22:7-11), it would have been pointless for them to cavalierly observe some rules and ignore others.

In short the whole relationship of the last supper to the Passover meal, as depicted in the synoptics, is historically suspect. John's chronology for the last supper is also not without its problems, for he obviously wanted to portray Jesus as the new sacrificial lamb, and by moving the last supper a day back (compared to the synoptics) he could then have Jesus' death coincide exactly with the slaughter of the Passover lamb (see the next chapter). Thus, while John's chronology actually gives less problems than the synoptics', its blatantly theological base makes it historicity extremely doubtful.

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Notes

a.The synoptics are all agreed that Jesus died on a Friday (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; Matthew 27:62) and that the last supper was held on the day before he died.
b.For John too said that Jesus died on the day of the preparation for Sabbath (i.e. Friday)-John 19:42.
c.In the first centuries of Christianity, there was a controversy regarding when to commemorate the actual date of Jesus' crucifixion (and by association his resurrection). The eastern Asiatic churches observed it, according to John's chronology, on the 14th of Nisan. The western churches however decreed that, based on the Synoptic time table, Jesus was crucified on the 15th of Nisan. The controversy was called the "Quartodeciman" (fourteenth day) controversy. The issue was never fully resolved but in AD325, the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the first full moon that appears after the vernal equinox (March 21st). [6]
d.The Eucharist (literally, Thanksgiving) was from a very early date a regular and central part of Christian worship. Partaking of the bread and wine symbolizes the body and blood of the messiah was called the eucharistic feast. We know that it is early because it is mentioned in St.Paul's epistle to the Corinthians which predates the gospels by at least two decades (I Corinthians 12:23-25)

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References

1.Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p449
2.Riedel et.al., The Book of the Bible: p296
Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p934
3.Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia: p740
Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p934
4.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p361
Guignebert, Jesus: p429-430
5.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p404
6.ibid: p404
Guignebert, Jesus: p426
7.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p361-405
Guignebert, Jesus: p424
Howell-Smith, In Search of the Real Bible: p21
8.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p405
9.Guignebert, Jesus: p430

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