Some readers of my earlier essay, “Strange and Glorious New Rites,” have written to object that I have strained a gnat and swallowed a camel. I have strained out the gnat of a possible link to the memorial bread of the minchah (Lev. 2), while overlooking the camel that the Last Supper was a Passover meal.
Actually, I did not deal with the Passover aspect because, to be frank, Jesus almost certainly was not eating a Passover meal at the Last Supper. More on that below.
Let’s assume, however, that the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal. At the Passover, lambs and kids (by Jesus’ time, only lambs) were taken to the Temple, slaughtered according to the rites of the Thanksgiving Peace offering, roasted by the priests and Levites, and distributed back to the people. (Deuteronomy 16:1-8; 2 Chronicles 30 and 35.) The Passover had to be eaten in one day, and this is the same as the rule of the Thanksgiving (Lev. 7:11-14). We notice here also that various items of bread were offered as part of the Thanksgiving.
Beyond this, Numbers 15:1-15 specifies the precise Minchah that was to be offered with offerings at “appointed times” (v. 2). The revised Minchah consists of wine as well as semolina.
Also, the passages in 2 Chronicles affirm that Ascensions consisting of bulls were brought near at the same time as the Thanksgiving Passover lambs and kids. The Ascensions also required the Minchah.
So, if indeed the Last Supper took place as a Passover meal, and Jesus was crucified the following day, then there is plenty of foundation for the disciples to have regarded His actions with the bread and wine as a new form of the Minchah. They were quite well aware that at Passover bread was given to God and then eaten by the priests, while wine was poured out. They understood fully that for Jesus to break off the first piece of bread for Himself and then say, “Do this as a memorial TO ME,” Jesus was putting himself in the place of God. It was enough to send Judas over the edge, and he left almost immediately.
All the same, this Last Supper was not a Passover meal. Paul wrote, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7), indicating that Jesus died at the time the Passover lambs were being killed.
In Luke 22:15-16 we read “And he said to them: ‘I have longingly desired to eat this Passover with you before my suffering; however, I tell you that I shall not eat of it, until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.’” This indicates that Jesus wanted to rejoice in the feast with them, but that He would not be able to until the Kingdom had fully come. (Moreover, if this were a Passover meal, where were the wives and children?)
John’s gospel stresses that the Last Supper was eaten before the Feast of Passover. See 13:1, 21; 18:18; 19:14, 31, 42. John refers to this as the Preparation Day of the Passover. What does this mean? It means the 14th of Nisan, starting in the evening and continuing until around 3:00 pm the following afternoon, when the Passover lambs began to be slaughtered. The following day was a special sabbath (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:6-7). So, let us consider: If Jesus had eaten a Passover meal, the next day would have been a High Sabbath. The Jews could not have brought Him before Pilate on that day. And in fact, the gospels stress that it was the day after the crucifixion, beginning around 6:00 pm Friday evening, that was the High Sabbath (John 19:31).
Now let us consider the chronology:
Thursday afternoon: Around sunset right at the beginning of Nisan 14, Jesus allows some disciples to find a room to prepare for the Passover (Mt. 26:17-21; Mk. 14:12-18; Lk. 22:7-16). Preparing for the Passover means getting rid of the leaven (Ex. 12:15). According to the gospels, this was the Preparation Day, and the first day of Unleavened Bread.
Note: Let us be clear: The Day of Preparation is the same Day as Passover, but Passover happens at the end of this day, in the afternoon, while the day begins the previous evening.
Thursday evening: Having prepared the room, the disciples have the Last Supper with Jesus. After a long conversation (John 13ff.), they walk out into the full-moonlit night to the garden of Gethsemane. Three hours later Jesus is arrested. (I calculate this as around midnight, so that Jesus’ arrest corresponds to God’s killing the sons of Egypt in the days of Moses.) Throughout the rest of the night and into the morning, Jesus is conveyed from one trial to another, all on Nisan 14.
Friday afternoon: By noon, Jesus is being crucified. He suffers for our sins for three hours, and then dies around 3:00 pm, which is exactly when the Passover lambs begin to be slaughtered.
Friday night: Starting at 6:00 pm or so is the High Sabbath, Nisan 15, and by this time people have their Passover lambs roasted by the priests and a feast can begin. But the disciples don’t enjoy any Passover feast. They weep and mourn apart.
So, what shall we say? Is the tradition that the Last Supper is some kind of Passover meal totally wrong? I do not think so. Remember that the Passover kid/lamb was to be set apart on the 10th of the month for observation. This begins a larger “Passover time.” The Last Supper was a meal at Passover Time. And indeed it happened on the same day as Passover, only at the beginning of that day rather than at the end when the lambs were sacrificed.
There was no Temple-roasted Passover lamb at the Last Supper. Jesus was the Lamb at that Supper, and the food He gave was his own flesh, in bread, and blood, in drink.