The observance of the “Last Supper” by Jesus and his disciple appears in all four gospels, though John does not give details of the meal itself (Matt. 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19, 20). The particular elements of the meal mentioned in the gospel records (and repeated later in 1 Corinthians) each become significant for the development of the observance later by the early church. First, Jesus “blessed” (Matt 26:26, Mark 14:22) or “gave thanks” (from eucharistéō, Luke 22:19) for the bread, which he then “broke” and gave to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Likewise, “he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt 26:27–28; cf. Mark 14:23–24, Luke 22:20). Finally, Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn” to conclude the meal (Matt 26:30, Mark 14:26). Both Matthew and Mark use the verb form of the word “hymn” here, but what they sang was likely one of the Hallel psalms (Pss 113–118), traditionally sung after the concluding prayer of the Passover meal.
There is some debate concerning whether or not the “Last Supper” Jesus shared with his disciples was a Passover meal. Each of the synoptic gospels seem to indicate this, but John’s gospel appears to contradict the timing apparent in the others. In Leviticus 23, God had 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.” Each of the synoptic gospels (Matt 26:17–20, Mark 14:12–17, Luke 22:7–16) 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, Jewish historian Josephus likewise equates the Feast of Unleavened Bread with Passover, so it is likely that this was a common, although technically incorrect, way to refer to the day.
John’s gospel, however, creates an additional problem. While the synoptics each associate the Last Supper with the Passover supper, John records the supper as occurring “before the Feast of Passover” (John 13:1). 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. Finally, 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 cannot be true, can they?
Some suggest that the Last Supper was not a Passover feast, since the gospels make no mention of the Passover lamb as part of the supper, the word used for “bread” (artos) designated leavened bread, and the traditional four cups of the Passover celebration are not mentioned. Others theorize 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 than 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 the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) on Friday.
What is particularly important about this meal is Jesus’s statement that the cup “is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” indicating that his death would inaugurate the New Covenant promised to Israel by OT prophets (Isa 54, 60; Jer 31–3;, Ezek 36–37). This New Covenant, combined with God’s promises to Abraham that in his all the nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3), will form the New Covenant Church. And like the Passover meal was for First Covenant Israel, so the Lord’s Supper will become for the church a memorial—a covenant renewal ceremony.