The Last Supper and the Passover (Matthew 26)

Exodus 12 records the deaths of all firstborn in Egypt, except for those born to the Israelites whom God spared or “passed over” when the avenging angel saw the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. Passover is the annual festival commemorating God’s miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Every year thousands of first-century Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate this holy day (the fourteenth day of the first month). The Passover celebration involved  a sacrifice on behalf of each family present, followed by a sacrificial meal consisting of unleavened bread, bitter herbs and wine. The following day (the fifteenth) was the first day of the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread. During the eight days of these two festivals no one was permitted to eat bread with leaven; this was commemorative of the need to prepare to leave Egypt in haste at the time of the exodus (there being no time to wait for the dough to rise).

There has been a good deal of debate over whether the Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover meal. It certainly appears that Jesus understood it to be such (Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:15). Arguments against it being a Passover meal include the following:

  • John 19:14 indicates that Jesus was crucified on the day of the preparation for the Passover; thus the previous evening could not have been that of the Passover
  • The Passover is traditionally eaten with one’s family, whereas the Last Supper was shared among a group of men, some of whom (such as Simon Peter) were married but who for the most part were unrelated to one another.
  • The Gospel accounts of the Last Supper do not mention the lamb or the bitter herbs of the Passover, nor do they use the normal Greek word for “unleavened bread”, speaking instead of ordinary bread.
  • Passover wine was consumed using individual cups, but the wine of the Last Supper was drunk from a common cup

On the other hand, many elements associated with the Passover were present at the Last Supper:

  • The meal was consumed at night, which was the time for the celebration of Passover.
  • The drinking of wine was obligatory at Passover, and wine was central to the Last Supper.
  • During New Testament times Jews ordinarily sat when taking meals, but Jesus and the disciples habitually reclined while taking the Passover. At the Last Supper they reclined.
  • At Passover, a dish of hors d’oeuvres preceded the brealing of bread; such a dish is mentioned in Matthew 26:23.
  • A hymn was sung at Passover, as in Matthew 26:30.

Some of the arguments against the Last Supper having been a Passover meal probably indicate that Jesus was transforming the Passover and creating a new institution for the new covenant:

  • Jesus’ taking the meal with His disciples implies that the church is the family of God (see Mark 3:31-34).
  • Jesus may well have used unleavened bread at the Last Supper, but the evangelists may have used the ordinary word for bread to avoid the implication that it is essential that the Lord’s Supper be taken with unleavened bread.
  • The lack of mention of a lamb is probably significant. Jesus was presenting Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of the new covenant, and the mention of a literal lamb would have been a misleading distraction in the narrative.

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