One of the reasons to “study” Scripture is to realize the gospels are not newspaper reports, historic documentation (although it sometimes does just that), or even eye-witness accounts. Most often the gospels are the writing down, under divine inspiration, the oral accounts of the early Christian community about Jesus the Christ. This is worth noting because, when asked about the Last Supper, most Christians will reply that it was the traditional Passover meal. But when asked, “Well, where does it say that in Scripture” many are less clear.
The Last Supper as Passover. A new temporal reference (On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) introduces a cycle of tradition centering in the meal commonly designated the Last Supper. The “first day of Unleavened Bread” would ordinarily denote the 15th of Nisan following the celebration of the Passover the previous evening. There is some evidence in the rabbinical literature, however, that the day on which the paschal lambs were sacrificed (the 14th of Nisan) was sometimes loosely designated “the first day of Unleavened Bread.” It is necessary, therefore, to interpret the temporal clause in v.12 in terms of the precision given to it by reference to the slaughter of the passover lambs on the afternoon of Nisan 14.
The chronological note in verse 12 clearly implies that the meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples was the Passover and that the day of his arrest, condemnation and crucifixion was the 15th of Nisan. The Fourth Gospel (The Gospel according to John), however, appears to situate Jesus’ death in the framework of the preparation for the Passover on the 14th of Nisan (John 18:28; 19:14, 31, 42), which would mean that the meal could not have been the Passover. The resolution of this difficulty is one of the most difficult issues in the Passion chronology.
There are a number of positive elements in the Marcan narrative which substantiate that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. The return to Jerusalem in the evening for the meal (Ch. 14:17) is significant, for the paschal meal had to be eaten within the city walls (Mishnah Pesachim VII. 9). An ordinary meal was taken in the late afternoon, but a meal which begins in the evening and continues into the night reflects Passover practice (Exod. 12:8; Jubilees 49:12). The reference to reclining (Ch. 14:18) satisfies a requirement of the Passover feast in the first century when custom demanded that even the poorest man recline for the festive meal (Mishnah Pesachim X. 1). While a normal meal began with the breaking of bread, on this occasion Jesus broke the bread during the meal and following the serving of a dish (Ch. 14:18–20, 22). The Passover meal was the one occasion when the serving of a dish preceded the breaking of bread. The use of wine was generally reserved for festive occasions and was characteristic of the Passover (Mishnah Pesachim X. 1). Finally, the interpretation of the elements of the meal conforms to Passover custom where the haggadah (or interpretation) is an integral part of the meal. The cumulative evidence supports the claim made in verses 12, 14 and 16 that the disciples prepared a Passover meal and that the external forms of the Passover were observed at the meal itself.
There are indications that the Fourth Evangelist also regarded the meal which Jesus shared with his disciples as a Passover. The feast takes place within Jerusalem even though the city was thronged with pilgrims (John 12:12, 18, 20; 13:2; 18:1; cf. Mark 14:17). The supper is held in the evening and lasts into the night (John 13:30; cf. Mark 14:17). The meal was ceremonial in character and the participants reclined at table (John 13:12, 23, 25, 28; cf. Mark 14:18). Finally, the walk to Gethsemane followed by the betrayal conforms to the Marcan sequence of events (John 18:1ff.; Mark 14:26ff.). In this light it seems that the concern of the priests expressed in John 18:28, that they should not become defiled and so be prohibited from eating “the pesach,” has reference not to the paschal lamb (which would have been eaten the evening before) but to the chagigah, the paschal sacrifices (lambs, kids, bulls) which were offered throughout the festival week. These paschal sacrifices are designated by the term pesach in Deut. 16:2 and 2 Chron. 35:7. If this understanding informed the tradition John has transmitted, the apparent contradiction with the evidence of Mark is removed.
Preparing the Passover Meal. The episode of the preparation of the paschal meal is parallel in structure with Ch. 11:1–7 – in fact the first eleven words in Greek are identical. The commissioning of two disciples for the performance of a task, the precise knowledge of what they would encounter, and the exact response to be given to the responsible party are features familiar from the earlier account. The two incidents are entirely independent, but they have been described according to a common scheme.
Both incidents are often thought of as examples of Jesus’ divine foresight. In other words, Jesus knew what would happen and simply informed the disciples sent ahead to take care of the final arrangements and details. One Marcan scholar, William Lane, takes a different view to the usual understanding of vv.12b-15 (and several other noted scholars also speculate along the same lines.). What follows is offered simply as a good example of how to consider alternative understandings of the stories with which we are all too familiar.
Making Advanced Arrangements…. While in v.12 the disciples took the initiative to ask where they should prepare the meal, it is evident that Jesus had made careful advance arrangements. The reference to a man carrying a jar of water who was to be followed to a house suggests a prearranged signal, for ordinarily only women carried water in jars. It would be normal to find a man carrying a wineskin. A sufficient reason for resorting to a means of recognition which would require no exchange of words in the street may be found in the determined search for Jesus and the issuance of a warrant for his arrest implied in John 11:57. Jesus, therefore, commissioned two of the disciples to make the necessary preparations, having engaged an upstairs room where he could celebrate the Passover with his disciples undisturbed.
It may be assumed that the owner of the house was a man of courage who had determined to shelter the “heretic” Galilean and his outlawed company of followers. He may have been the one who arranged for the lamb to be sacrificed and who secured the other requirements for the meal. The upstairs rooms would probably be furnished with carpets or couches for the guests to recline on as they ate the meal.
When the disciples entered the city, they found that Jesus’ instructions were precise, and they prepared the meal. This would include the setting out of the unleavened bread and the wine, the preparation of the bitter herbs and sauce consisting of dried fruit, spices and wine, and presumably the roasting of the passover lamb.
The Passover Meal. Since the Jewish day was reckoned from sunset to sunset, the evening marked the beginning of the 15th of Nisan. The Passover meal, which in distinction from ordinary meals began only after sunset and could last until midnight, had to be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem. Jesus therefore returned to the city after sundown to share the paschal feast commemorating God’s deliverance of his people from bondage with the Twelve. The celebration of the Passover was always marked by excitement and the high hope that it would be fulfilled by God’s intervention once more. It was observed as “a night of watching unto the Lord” (Exod. 12:42) in the conviction that “in that night they were redeemed and in that night they will be redeemed in the future.” Jesus came to the city fully aware that he was to accomplish the Passover in his own person.
The meal was framed within a liturgy whose core was the Passover prayer of the family head and the recitation of the Hallel psalms (Ps. 113–118). When those participating had taken their places, the head of the house began the celebration by pronouncing a blessing, first of the festival and then of the wine (Mishna Pesachim X.2). Then the paschal company drank the first cup of wine. After this the food was brought in, consisting of unleavened bread, bitter herbs, greens, stewed fruit and roast lamb (Mishna Pesachim X. 3). The son then asked why this night, with its special customs and food, was distinguished from all other nights (Mishna Pesachim X. 4). The family head responded by recalling the biblical account of the redemption from Egypt. This instruction led naturally into the praise of God for the salvation he had provided and the anticipation of future redemption: “So may the Lord, our God, and the God of our fathers, cause us to enjoy the feasts that come in peace, glad of heart at the upbuilding of your city and rejoicing in your service … and we shall thank you with a new song for our redemption” (Mishna Pesachim X. 4–6). The new song was the first part of the ancient Hallel (Ps. 113–115), after which a second cup of wine was drunk. Then the head of the house took bread and pronounced over it the blessing of “the Lord our God, Sovereign of the world, who has caused bread to come forth out of the earth” (Mishna Berachoth VI. 1). He then broke the bread in pieces and handed it to those who were at the table, who ate it with the bitter herbs and stewed fruit. Only then did the meal really begin with the eating of the roasted lamb, and this was not to extend beyond midnight (Mishna Pesachim X. 9). When the meal had been completed, the head of the family blessed the third cup with a prayer of thanksgiving. There followed the singing of the second part of the Hallel (Ps. 116–118) and the drinking of the fourth cup, which concluded the Passover (Mishna Pesachim X. 7).