Houston Graduate School of Theology


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The Last Supper—a New Covenant Passover


by Dr. Doug Kennard, Professor of Christian Scriptures, Houston Graduate School of Theology Jesus begins His ministry at His baptism around 28 AD.[1] His ministry is at least two years long on the basis of the mention of a Passover early in His ministry (Jn 2:13, 23), a Passover close to the feeding of the 5000 (Jn 6:4), and a Passover as the Last Supper. So, the earliest the Last Supper could be is 30 AD. There are no other Passovers mentioned during Jesus’s ministry but neither does any account claim that all festivals are mentioned. Historically, Jesus was crucified between 30-34 AD because after this Pilate became too entangled with a rebellion in Samaria and then was removed by the Roman Senate.[2] So, this is the same range of when the Last Supper might have occurred 30-34 AD.

The Last Supper is likely located a day early so that they could obtain an available upper room in Jerusalem before the more expensive renting of upper rooms for Passover, for most celebrated on Friday night.[3] It may be the case that there is actually a disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees over the date of the new moon, which disagreement did occur occasionally in the first century, thus prompting the Pharisees to celebrate Passover Thursday evening and Sadducean Temple priests celebrating Friday night, since Simeon ben Bathyra includes a discussion of this condition in which Hillel permits both traditions to occur on rival dates.[4] Mk 14:12 and Lk 22:7 can be read that the disciples eat on the same day that the lambs were sacrificed, which, in a Jewish calendar day, begins at sundown, meaning they eat Thursday night before the lambs are sacrificed on Friday 3 pm until sundown. Or these texts can be read as the conversation of disciples with Jesus actually occurring when the lambs were sacrificed—Thursday or Friday afternoon. However, beginning the preparation so late with only a couple of hours to make arrangements would be condemned by both Hillel and Shammai Pharisaic schools.[5]

A 3rd-century Christian conjecture to explain Christians fasting on Wednesday proposed that Passover was moved up to Tuesday,[6] but this view appears late with no consistent Jewish rationale. Usually, Jews would celebrate Passover on Friday evening.[7] Some conjecture conflicts in calendars but most of these are because Jerusalem used a lunar calendar and Qumran utilized a solar calendar[8] and these calendar differences would make Qumran’s celebration occur later by a couple of weeks, not earlier than Jerusalem.[9] Jubilees 49.10-12 is partial toward the solar calendar but permits both celebrations to be legitimate Passover celebrations. However, the primary text to fund this calendar conjecture exhorts its readers to follow the lunar calendar in the Temple.[10]

The Passover celebration had a liturgical pattern beginning with blessing and passing the first cup.[11] This is followed by bitter herbs and fruit puree. Then there would be some discussion about the meaning of the commemoration with the singing of psalms 113-14 and the drinking of the second cup. Usually, a meal of roasted lamb and the breaking of the unleavened bread with more bitter herbs and fruit puree, concluding with the third cup and singing psalms 115-18. The Last Supper probably occurred as a meatless Passover, since no meat is mentioned and unleavened bread is emphasized. Jesus identified that the bread symbolizes His body broken in death for His disciples benefit (Lk 22:19).

Perhaps this third cup is utilized by Jesus to identify that His death “blood” is the new covenant for forgiveness of sins of the many (Mt 26:27-28; Mk 14:24; 1 Cor 11:25; Lk 22:20 maybe hints at libation pouring). The new covenant benefit provided in Jesus’s death and initiated in this celebration indicates an internal transformation to becoming a kingdom-oriented disciple (Jer 31:31-34). Perhaps Jesus did not drink the fourth cup because it identifies kingdom or salvation, so the cup is reserved for when Jesus can drink this cup with His disciples in kingdom (Mt 26:29; Mk 14:25; Lk 22:16, 30). Jesus’s celebration ended with singing a hymn and going out (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26).

Although many of us don’t celebrate Passover, Paul reminds Christians that Eucharist proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor 11:26). Perhaps during this Lenten season, we present-day disciples will be reminded to join in the proclamation of the New Covenant that Jesus established at that Last Supper, while we too go forth singing the praises of the Lamb of God—the Savior of the world.

[1] Lk 3:1-2; Tacitus, Ann. 1

[2] Josephus, Ant. 18.85

[3] Mt 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7-15; in the 70s there was mention of a day early celebration of Passover to avoid the rush (T. Pes. 4.8); Jesus was crucified on the afternoon before Passover (Mt 26:4-5; Jn 11:55-57; 13:1-2; b. Sanh. 43a0.

[4] m. Pes. 4.5; t. Pes. 4.13-14; Z 4.11.

[5] m. Pes. 4.5b

[6] Didascalia Apostolorum 14.1-9, 18-21; Epiphanius, De Fide 22; Panarion 51.2; Victorinus, De Fabrica Mundi 3

[7] m. Šabb. 23.1; m. Pes. 4.5; t. Šabb. 1.19

[8] Jub. 6.32-38; CD 3.13-15; 6.18-19; 16.1-5; 1QS 1.15-16; 10.5-7

[9] 4Q320 frag. 4, col 3.1-9; 1 En. 72.6-9; Colin Humphreys, Mystery of the Last Supper, 107; Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Last Supper, 279

[10] Did. Apost. 17.2, 6-7

[11] m. Pes. 10.1-9; t. Pes. 2.22; Z 2.15