By: Adela Yarbro Collins
Professor at Yale Divinity School
We actually know very little about how the Passover was celebrated at the time of Jesus. According to the Mishnah, the Hallel (Psalms 113–118) was sung by the Levites at the sacrifices in the temple on important festival days. It was taken over early into the domestic Passover meal, but it is not clear whether such was already the case during the lifetime of Jesus.[i] In fact, the Passover did not truly become a family meal until it ceased to be a festival involving a pilgrimage to Jerusalem after 70 C.E.[ii]
All four canonical Gospels and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians associate the death of Jesus with the Passover. In a context of ethical exhortation, Paul declares, “For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7 New Revised Standard Version). Since the Passover was identified with the feast of unleavened bread, Paul urges his audience in the same verse to “Clean out the old yeast, so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.” Yeast symbolizes “malice and evil,” whereas unleavened bread is associated with “sincerity and truth” (5:8).
The oldest of the four Gospels, Mark, introduces the last supper of Jesus with his disciples as a Passover meal (14:12–16). In the actual account of the meal, however, there is no indication that it is a Passover (14:17–25). Only bread and wine are mentioned (14:22, 25). The bread is not said to be unleavened. No lamb or bitter herb is mentioned.
The Gospel of Matthew introduces the passion narrative by having Jesus say to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matthew 26:2). He introduces the last supper as a Passover meal in a way similar to Mark (Matthew 26:17–19). Also like Mark, Matthew nevertheless does not describe the meal itself in terms characteristic of a Passover meal. Both Mark and Matthew indicate that the meal concluded with a hymn, which seems to pick up the earlier introduction of the meal as a Passover (Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30). Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish exegete and philosopher roughly contemporary with Jesus and the authors of Mark and Matthew, says that the Passover meal included prayers and hymns (Special Laws 2.27 §148).
Unlike the author of Matthew, the author of the Gospel according to Luke, tries to smooth out the discrepancy in Mark between the introduction to the meal and the account of the meal itself. Like Matthew, he introduces the passion narrative with an allusion to Passover, but with the voice of the narrator, “Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near” (Luke 22:1). After a short account of the betrayal of Judas, the narrator elaborates the original mention of Passover, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (22:7). Then follows an account similar to those in Mark and Matthew of how the disciples found a place to celebrate the feast and prepared the Passover meal (22:8–13).
Both Mark and Matthew have a saying near the end of the meal in which Jesus declares solemnly that he will never again eat of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25; Matthew 26:29). Luke includes this saying but composes a companion to it in order to make clear in the actual account of the meal that it is a Passover. As soon as Jesus takes his place, he says to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover [or Passover lamb] with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (22:15–16). Paul (1 Corinthians 11:24–26), Mark, and Matthew describe Jesus as taking bread and a single cup. Luke, in contrast, speaks about a cup during the meal and another afterward (22:17, 20). This doubling of the cup may indicate that Luke is aware that more than one cup of wine was drunk at the Passover meal. The Mishnah states that four cups of wine must be drunk at the Passover meal (Pesach 10.1). Luke also rewrites the account of the last supper by adding short dialogues and discourses of Jesus, apparently to characterize the meal as a symposium.
The Gospel of John differs from the other canonical Gospels by not portraying the last supper as a Passover meal. It does, however, associate the Passover festival with the passion narrative in general (11:55). Just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus visits Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. The account of that visit is introduced with the words, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (12:1).
The account of the last supper, however, begins with the words, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1). John lacks the words over the bread and the cup found in Paul, Mark, Matthew, and Luke (1 Corinthians 11:23–25; Mark 14:22–24; Matthew 26:26–28; Luke 22:19–20) but has a version of these sayings in the discourse about the bread from heaven (John 6:53–57). Like Luke, John expands the account of the meal with brief dialogues and even more discourse material (John 13:31–17:26).
Furthermore, the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate occurs before the Passover meal (John 18:28). Pilate’s decision to have Jesus crucified is strikingly placed at noon on the day of preparation, perhaps to associate his death with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (19:14–16; cf. 19:42). In post-biblical Jewish texts, the Passover was associated with the hope for redemption.[iii] The Gospel of John seems to interpret the death of Jesus, in the context of his entire earthly activity, as the fulfillment of this hope. The connection of his death with the sacrifice of the lambs in chapter 19 recalls the testimony of John the Baptist near the beginning of the Gospel, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’” (1:29). Although the Passover lamb was not normally connected with the removal of sin, John makes the connection as a way of interpreting the death of Jesus, as analogous to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, as well as to the offerings for the forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 4:20 LXX).
Although Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the Gospels do not give us a clear picture of the Passover liturgy in the time of Jesus, they testify to the importance of that festival by adapting it in a positive way to interpret the last supper and the death of Jesus.
Adela Yarbro Collins is Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.
[i] Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 23.
[ii] Bradshaw, Origins, 51.
[iii] Baruch M. Bokser, “Unleavened Bread and Passover, Feasts of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 6 (1992) 755-65, especially 764.
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