Monday, March 29, 2010

The Last Supper and the Passover Lamb

Each year when Christians celebrate Easter week, Thursday is of particular importance because this is the day Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples. It was after this evening meal that Jesus was arrested and put on trial before the Jewish authorities. Depending on one’s particular theological background, this day may be called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday.

During the last week of his life, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. Passover was, and is, the Jewish holiday celebrating when the Angel of the Lord passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt, sparing their children’s lives during the 10th plague, prior to the Exodus. In antiquity, Jews from all over the Jewish homeland made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. In the last year of his life, Jesus also made this pilgrimage, together with his companions.

Part of the ritual of Passover was the slaughter of a perfect, unblemished lamb. This not only hearkened back to the story of the Exodus, when the Jews used the blood of slaughtered lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of the Lord would know which houses to bypass, but it also symbolized corporate atonement for sin. The sins of the Jews were, in effect, atoned for by the blood of the lamb offered as sacrifice to God. The lamb itself was then eaten by faithful Jews as part of a ritual meal that inaugurated the Passover festivities.

According to Mosaic Law, Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the 1st month of the Jewish calendar. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and thus different from our Western calendars, this is why Passover, and therefore Easter, falls on a different day each year.

In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, (collectively called the “Synoptic Gospels”) Jesus’ Thursday meal with his companions was not only their last meal together, but it was also the ritual Passover meal. After the meal, Judas Iscariot leads the authorities to where Jesus is praying. Jesus is arrested, put on trial, and finally crucified the following day, Friday. Thus, Jesus’ execution and death happen during the Passover celebration. For these gospel writers, Passover began on Thursday evening and lasted until Friday evening. On Friday evening, the weekly Sabbath began, as it does every week in the Jewish calendar.

Here, it is important to understand how ancient Jews conceived of a day. In the modern world, we understand a day to be a 24-hour period beginning at 12:00 a.m. and ending at 11:59 p.m. In the ancient world, centuries before modern calendars and concepts of time had been formulated, the concept was different. For the Jews, a day simply ended at sundown. Since the “day” ended at sundown, the next day began at sundown. Thus, where we conceive of a day lasting from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., the ancient Jews conceived of a day lasting from sundown to sundown. In modern terms, we might say the Jewish day lasts from 7:00 p.m. to 6:59 p.m. Thus, the Passover meal – a meal eaten at the beginning of Passover – is eaten in the evening at the start of the day of Passover. It is an inaugural meal, not an adjourning meal.

For the authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Passover began on Thursday evening. Thus, Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was the Passover meal. Jesus was executed the following day, in the middle of Passover, and was taken down prior to sundown, before Passover ended.

This is important to note, because the Gospel of John pushes everything back a day. For the author of John’s gospel, Passover begins on Friday night, not Thursday night, meaning that Jesus is executed prior to Passover, not during Passover. This also means that for the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, but simply the evening meal on the day before Passover.

Consider the language from Mark:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” … So the disciples set out and went to the city…and they prepared the Passover meal (Mark 14:12, 16).

Luke and Matthew also call this final meal the Passover meal.

Now compare John:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father…And during supper, Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself (John 13:1-4).

At first glance, this passage may not seem at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. John notes simply that it is “before” Passover, and that Jesus is eating “supper” with his disciples. Couldn’t this be the Passover meal?

John’s chronology becomes clearer when you look at what he writes after this Last Supper scene (which, incidentally, takes up the next five chapters of John’s gospel). In chapter 18, after Jesus has been arrested, John writes:

Then [the Jewish authorities] took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover (verse 28).

It is now the following morning (Friday morning), and John tells us explicitly that the Passover meal is set to be eaten that evening. In the following chapter, John again reinforces this chronology: “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’” (John 19:14).

The day of Preparation for the Passover was the day before Passover. It was the day, mentioned above, when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the evening meal. For John, this preparation day was Friday (or, more specifically, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday), and the Passover itself began at sundown Friday.

All this, of course, brings up an obvious question: Why the discrepancy? Someone must be wrong; it can’t be both ways. Jesus can’t have been executed on Friday, during Passover, and on Friday, before Passover. The Last Supper can’t have been both a Passover meal and a meal on the day before Passover.

My interest here is not to focus on the discrepancy itself. Rather than arguing about which account is historically accurate, or harping on the fact that the Bible is not inerrant, I’m far more interested in why John might have altered the chronology of previous traditions.

For anyone familiar with the Gospel of John, that his chronology of Passover week differs from the other gospels should come as no surprise. Much of John’s chronology is at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. The cleansing of the Temple, for instance, happens early in Jesus’ ministry in John, but happens during the last week of his life in the Synoptic gospels. In the Synoptics, the Triumphal Entry occurs on Sunday (thus “Palm Sunday”), but in John it happens on Monday. In the Synoptics, Jesus’ anointing in Bethany occurs on Wednesday evening before his execution on Friday, but in John it happens on the previous Sunday.

What could have been John’s reason for changing the chronology of the Passover? Why was it important for John to move the festival back a day? Surely it wasn’t a decision made willy-nilly.

Over the years, historians have tended to agree that the change occurred to fit John’s particular theological purposes. More than any other gospel in the New Testament, John focuses on Jesus’ symbolic representation as the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. Most Christians are familiar with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. This is a phrase that is used twice in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus – with both occurrences happening on the lips of John the Baptizer. It doesn’t occur in any other gospel, or in any other text of the New Testament. Anyone familiar with what we might call Christian Theology 101 recognizes that Christians believe Jesus’ blood atoned for the sins of humanity. Thus, “Jesus died for our sins.” For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate atoning sacrifice. This is a theology that is explicit and rife throughout John’s gospel in particular. For John, Jesus became the ultimate sacrificial lamb of the Passover, spilling his blood to save humankind from its sins.

This “lamb of God” theology is fairly unique to John’s Gospel. For Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ death wasn’t necessarily about becoming the sacrificial lamb of the Passover, but was instead part of the Suffering Servant model from Isaiah. Jesus would suffer and die, and through that suffering, bring salvation to the world. For Luke, Jesus died so that human beings would have an opportunity to recognize their sinfulness (which put Jesus on the cross) and thus seek repentance. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus’ death function explicitly as atonement – a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity, like the sacrificial lamb of the Passover.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why John may have changed the chronology of Passover. Recall the discussion above about the festival of the Passover. It was inaugurated by a ritual meal wherein Jews would offer a blood sacrifice from an unblemished lamb, then consume the meat of the lamb. On the day before Passover, called the Day of Preparation, ordinary Jews would purchase an unblemished lamb, take it to the Temple, and have it ritually slaughtered by the priests. The blood would be offered on the altar, and the remaining meat would be cooked in preparation for the evening meal. All of this took place during the late morning and afternoon on the day before Passover. At sundown, Passover would officially begin, and the ritual Passover meal would be eaten.

By changing the chronology of Passover and moving it to Friday evening, John is effectively having Jesus crucified on the afternoon of the Day of Preparation. In other words, while the priests in the Temple are busy slaughtering the sacrificial lambs in preparation for the evening Passover meal, Jesus is at Golgotha being crucified. Jesus, then, is functioning as a human sacrificial lamb; his blood is being spilled for the atonement of humanity’s sins.

This is why John changed the chronology we find in the Synoptic gospels. John, more than any other gospel writer, wanted to show that Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb. He was crucified so that his blood could atone for the sins of humanity. For that reason, he was executed at the same time that the priests were slaughtering the ritual Passover lambs.

As a result, in the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, as it is in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Instead, it is simply an evening meal on the day before Passover. This is of particular interest in light of a recent study about depictions of the Last Supper in art over the centuries. Researchers have found that the portions depicted on the table have steadily increased over the years, reflecting the increase in our collective dietary habits (particularly in the West). Some folks have noted that the portions would likely have been large anyway, since it was a Passover meal, and thus a veritable “feast.”

In John’s gospel, however, it was not the Passover meal at all, and would instead have been a modest meal of bread, fish, and wine.


the Rev'd C. Allen Colwell said...

Well, first of all, I missed your blogs, so glad to see you back! Second, you are dead on, and I don't think you came out and said it, but I like John's version in this case, because it connects John the Baptist's introduction of Jesus to his disciples, "Behold the Lamb of God" in chapter one, to Jesus' final role in the Gospel.

Caveat alert: So how do you feel about churches doing Passover seders? I was approached by some in my congregation about doing one this year, and my stance was "Not without a rabbi to lead us." Found a rabbi, but too late, so maybe next year.

Scott said...

I think the idea of a church doing a true Passover seder is great, but I agree fully that it should be led by a rabbi.

Scott said...

I'd actually love to attend one myself!

the Rev'd C. Allen Colwell said...

Next Lent, I should know one you could go to, led by a rabbi.

Fred said...

Thanks Scott,
I find Johns account of the last supper interesting and illuminating on the early Johannine community in many ways. On one hand, it seems like John may not have been familiar with the Eucharistic tradition, or he is avoiding it for some reason.

One thing I do think however is that John was familiar with the tradition from the synoptic that Jesus was executed on the day of Passover rather than the day of preparation but he has deliberately chosen to ignore this for his own theological purposes.

John includes the cleansing of the temple pericope at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus but in his account, the event ends without any significant incident. I think that it is more likely that the commotion caused by Jesus around the temple precinct at Passover time was partly, if not primarily responsible for the arrest of Jesus and John must have been aware of this too. In order to include this pericope however, John has had to place Jesus in Jerusalem at an earlier Passover and avoid any repercussions. He can’t place it during the final days because the money changing is taking place in the temple precinct on the day of preparation at the same time as the execution of Jesus according to John.

I think it is an example of how freely the evangelists may have manipulated history, or ignored it to suit their own theological needs ( or those of their community) . John wanted Jesus executed on the day of preparation because he was the paschal lamb. If it was well known that Jesus was brewing up a storm around the temple at a time that conflicted with John’s storey, too bad.

In all, I think that John’s Gospel is quite a beautiful account with its high Christology and stirring passion narrative. The scene where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and Mary fails to recognize him until she turned toward Jesus (a lot of people think that this means to turn around to face the other way physically, but it should be translated to say “changed” is in change of heart rather than “turn” which is a bit ambiguous) is one of the most moving and beautiful images in the new testament. It represent the transformation that we all must undergo if we want to recognize Christ properly and for mine, this is the message in a nutshell.

The point is, Johns Gospel speaks to me, but not in the language of history. Recording history is simply not the objective or even a concern of John. I know that many people are inclined to read it as such (in a strict way) but to do so is to miss the point.

Scott said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Fred. John's gospel is a favorite of mine, but I don't read it as though it is giving me a historically-accurate account of Jesus' life. It's is profoundly moving when understood for what it was meant to be - a spiritual treatise about a person who moved people in ways that they could not express without using imagery and metaphor.

I also think you are exactly right about John's reasons for moving the cleansing of the Temple. Since John's theological purpose was to show Jesus as the new and final paschal lamb, and since John understood that to be God's purpose for Jesus from the beginning of time, the incident in the Temple presented a problem.

The Synoptics tell us explicitly that the incident in the Temple led to Jesus' arrest and execution. This implied that Jesus was arrested because of his own actions - he was a rabble rouser. John wanted to show that this had nothing to do with Jesus' arrest. Instead, for John, Jesus was arrested and executed in order to fulfill God's will for Jesus as the paschal lamb - not because Jesus had caused a commotion in the Temple.

Michael Gormley said...

Dear Scott,

Do you understand the 4th Cup?

After the beginning of Jesus' Last Passover Supper (Seder) Judas Iscariot left to do what he had to do. The twelve left in the room were at the point where the second of four traditional cups was about to be drunk.

(The first is at the beginning of the Seder meal.) Jesus took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them and said, "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes."

More of the lamb meal was consumed. During that He took a loaf of unleavened bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, "This IS my body given for you; do this to recall me." ("Recall" is a better translation of the Greek "anamnesis" than "remember".)

After the supper He took the third cup saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This IS my blood of the NEW and everlasting covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

A hymn was sung, which is a combination of several psalms called The Great Hillel, and they went out to the Mount of Olives.

What happened? The Passover ceremony and ritual was not complete. There was no fourth cup. There was no announcement that it was finished. Could it be that Jesus was so upset with what He knew was about to happen that He forgot? Doubtful!

Not only Jesus, but also the 11 others had participated in the Passover Seder every year of their lives. No, this was done on purpose. The last supper of Jesus was not over.

On the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples slept while Jesus prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done."

He prayed that three times. Then Jesus was arrested, illegally put on trial by the Sanhedrin, then by Pontius Pilate, sentenced and crucified.

While on the cross He wept. Jesus, who was in excruciating agony, was so merciful that He prayed for the forgiveness of His executioners. He was offered some wine with a pain killer, myrrh, in it. He refused it.

"Later, knowing that all was now complete, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled and the kingdom established, Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.'" A man dipped a sponge into sour wine; he placed it on a hyssop branch and lifted it up to Jesus lips.

He drank. (We recall that it was the hyssop branch which was used to paint lambs blood around the Hebrew's door for the Passover of the angel of death.)

It was then that Jesus said, "It is finished." He then bowed His head and gave up the spirit to His Father.

The fourth cup now represented the lamb’s blood of the first Passover, a saving signal to the angel of death.

The Lamb of God was now sacrificed. The last Passover supper of Jesus Christ was now complete with the fourth cup. It was finished.

The tie in with the Passover is unmistakable.

The Lamb of God was sacrifice and death was about to be passed over come Easter day.

The promise of eternal life for many was about to be fulfilled.

Christ’s Passover was finished, but His mission was not until he rose from the dead.

Scott said...

Thanks for posting, Michael. I am familiar with this evangelical fairy tale.

To begin with, only in Luke does Jesus take the cup twice, once before the bread and once after the bread. In Matthew and Mark, he takes it only once - after the bread.

Furthermore, the "first cup" is never mentioned in any Last Supper text. Neither, of course, is the "fourth cup," which your story claims was replaced by Jesus. In Gethsemane, when Jesus asks for "this cup" to be removed from him, that is simply a common Aramaic euphemism, used much the same way that modern people might talk about a hard task as a "trial." He wasn't talking about the ritual fourth cup of the Passover.

Additionally, as I showed in this essay, only John focuses on Jesus as the atoning passover lamb, and in John's gospel, the Last Supper was NOT a passover seder! Which means the "Four cups" theory is completely impossible in the context of that gospel.

Finally, and most importantly, the Four cups passover ritual did not exist during the time of Jesus.

This ritual was established in the Jerusalem Talmud, written during the 4th and 5th centuries, C.E. It contains oral teachings from rabbis of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, C.E. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest this ritual existed in the early 1st century C.E. when Jesus was alive.

If you believe that Jesus's death was an atoning sacrifice, that's a perfectly legitimate metaphysical thing to have faith in. But trying to back up that metaphysical faith proclamation with pseudo-scholarship is just dishonest and a bit insidious.