It is probably safe to say that when most people think about the Last Supper, they naturally assume that it was an observance of the Passover feast. This makes sense since each of the synoptic gospels seem to indicate this. However, John’s gospel appears to contradict the timing apparent in the synoptics, so this is far from a settled matter. So was the Last Supper a Passover meal or not?
First, a little review of the timing of the festival itself. In Leviticus 23 God commanded Moses, “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” The day after the Sabbath following Pentecost is called the Feast of Firstfruits.
With this in mind, let’s see what each of the gospel accounts record:
Matthew 26:17-20: Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover. When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve.
Mark 14:12-17: And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. And when it was evening, he came with the twelve.
Luke 22:7-16: Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover. And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
John 13:1-4: Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper.
The synoptics all record the day of the Last Supper as “the first day of Unleavened Bread.” Already this is a bit confusing and does not appear to correspond to the timing in the Law. However, when we remember that unleavened bread was also eaten during the Passover meal (for that is what was eaten on the eve of the original Passover), it is plausible that Passover itself was also considered part of the seven-day period of eating unleavened bread even though the Feast of Unleavened Bread was technically not until the day following Passover. In fact, Josephus likewise calls this day the first day of Unleavened Bread, so it is likely that this was a common, although not technically correct, way to refer to the day.
But that’s not even the most puzzling part. While the synoptics each associate the Last Supper with the Passover supper, John records the supper as occurring “before the Feast of the Passover.” Further, John 18:28 indicates that when the Jewish leaders took Jesus to Caiaphas’s headquarters (early Friday morning), they did not go in “so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” This seems to indicate that the Passover meal had not yet occurred, even after the Last Supper. Further, John 19:31 clearly indicates that the day on which Jesus died (Friday) was the “day of Preparation” for Passover.
So the synoptics seem to indicate that the Last Supper was the Passover Feast, but John appears as if Jesus died during the time of preparation for Passover. Both can’t be true, can they?
Some argue that the Last Supper was not the Passover feast. Reasons include the following:
Others suggest that Jesus and his disciples ate the meal a day early since Jesus knew he was going to die the next day.
However, one additional alternative exists. Some scholars note that Jews from Galilee measured days differently than Jews from Judea. Galileans measured their day from sunrise to sunrise, while Judeans measured their day from sunset to sunset (similarly to how we do it today). This being the case, Galilean Jews would have slaughtered their Passover animals during the afternoon of Thursday (the day they considered Nisan 14) and eaten their Passover meal later that evening. Judean Jews would have waited another half day, killing their animals Friday afternoon and eating the meal Friday evening.
Jesus and his disciples, being Galileans, would have naturally celebrated Passover on Thursday. The Jewish leaders and others in Jerusalem, and indeed any formal celebrations in the Temple itself, would have occurred on Friday.
Thus Jesus could have both celebrated the Passover Feast on Thursday in Galilean fashion and been killed as our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) on Friday.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.