Palestine Calling
by
W. M. Christie

Chapter XXI

Did Christ Eat the Passover with His Disciples?
or, The Synoptics versus John's Gospel


Was the Supper at which the Lord Jesus instituted, our Communion Service, the actual Passover, celebrated on the 15th of Nisan, or was it a semi-paschal meal, eaten in anticipation on the 14th of that month? That is the question simply stated. To us with our frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper, and with our use of a calendar, that is out of touch with the Jewish, this may seem a matter of little significance; but at different periods in the past this question has convulsed the Church, and at the present moment it is one of the most important points connected with New Testament Criticism.

About the year 155 A.D. Polycarp of Smyrna, visited Rome, and there came into touch with Anicetus. Their association with one another brought into prominence that there was a difference between them in the date of their celebration of the Memorial of Christ's death at the Passover season. The practice in Asia Minor was that the Supper be observed on the eve of the 14th of Nisan, that is, after the sunset of the 13th, at which time the new day began, according to Jewish and Old Testament usage. Polycarp maintained that he had so kept the Feast with the Apostle John. Irenaeus, an Asiatic, and disciple of Polycarp, followed his teacher.

On the other hand, the Roman practice was that the celebration take place one day later, that is, on the evening with which the 15th Nisan commenced, and in support of this, Anicetus appealed to the unbroken Roman practice since Apostolic times. From the date of observance the two parties were named the Quartodecimans and Quintodecimans. Disputation went on till the year 325 A.D., after which the Roman practice prevailed throughout the Empire.

The same controversy appears once again in the sixth and seventh centuries between the representatives of the Culdee and the Roman Churches. To settle the dispute a Synod was held at Streoneshalch, now Whitby in England, in the year 662 A.D. In favour of the 15th of the month the Roman clergy urged the authority of Peter; but Bishop Colman, and the Culdee presbyters, good simple men, reason as if the authority of John the apostle had been of as much weight as the other. No agreement was then reached, but the Culdees were forced into conformity in 717.

The problem has been approached in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is quite frankly stated that the documents are irreconcilable, and that either the Synoptics or John has made a mistake. Other attempts at solution generally seek to maintain the credit of Scripture, and with this end in view they try to harmonise the conflicting statements. Sometimes we are told, as indicated above, that the Synoptic position is that Christ, anticipating the true Passover, simply ate a Paschal meal with His disciples, that in this sense the language of the Passover is applied to the table, and to the incidents connected with it, and that accordingly John, too, is correct in placing the real Passover on the following evening. On the other hand we are occasionally reminded that the designation "Passover" was applied to the whole feast, and all its meals in the Talmud (Rosh. 5 a; Zebach. 99 b), and that John's references might well apply to much beyond the Passover itself. Here, too, we have another effort to make both positions defensible.

Still, in spite of all harmonising, apparent contradictions remain; the difficulty is felt to be a real one, and there is a lurking suspicion that something is wrong. Let us examine the situation, and consider the leading evidences. At the close of the 13th day of Nisan, after the sunset, at which time the 14th commenced, there was the "purging out of the old leaven." On the following afternoon, still the 14th, the Passover lambs were sacrificed. That evening after sunset, when the 15th began, the Passover Supper was eaten. Now there can be no question that Christ ate His Supper on the Thursday night, and was crucified on the Friday, and the matter accordingly resolves itself into this: Was that day, beginning on Thursday at sunset, and closing on Friday at sunset, the 15th Nisan, and consequently the first day of the Passover Feast, or was it only the 14th?

On neither side is there any lack of evidence. Let us consider the Synoptics. We read: "And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover, His disciples said unto Him, Where wilt Thou that we go and prepare, that Thou mayest eat the Passover?" (Mark 14:12; cf. Matt. 26:17). In the same connection Luke 22:7 reads: "Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed." With a view to securing the room, Christ instructs His messengers to say: "I will keep the Passover at thy house with My disciples" (Matt. 26:18); "Where is the guest chamber, where I shall eat the Passover with My disciples?" (Luke 22:11). Then the three Synoptists are unanimous in the statement: "They made ready the Passover" (Matt. 26:19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13). In addition, the Lord Himself speaks of the meal on the table as "This Passover" (Luke 22:15). And, with one remarkable exception to be later explained, there was on the table everything connected with the Passover Supper--the wine, the unleavened bread, the mortar or "sop," and evidently the Great Hallel was sung, according to custom (Matt. 26:30). The statement as to the day, when the preparation was made, being the first day of unleavened bread definitely excludes anything like an anticipated supper, even if that had been legal, which it was not. Clearly to Christ Himself, and to the twelve, as well as to the Synoptic writers, the meal of which they partook was in the fullest sense the Passover Supper.

On the other hand, John is equally clear and definite. He places the whole matter "Before the feast of the Passover" (John 13:1). Judas is supposed to have gone to buy something for the feast, or to give something to the poor (13:29), while the temple guards went to Gethsemane with lanterns and torches and weapons (18:3). Now these things could not have taken place had the Passover feast begun. Judas would have found it impossible to buy anything, and the action of the guards was clearly illegal, since the Passover was a Sabbath, and the carrying of arms was forbidden on such a day (M. Shab. VI. 4). Then we are told that the accusers of Christ "went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover" (18:28). Later John declares in three separate verses (19:14, 31, 32) that the day of the Crucifixion was the preparation of the Passover, and that can mean nothing but the 14th of Nisan. In agreement with John, we have the statement made in the Babylonian Talmud to the effect that Christ was crucified on "the evening of the Passover" or the 14th of Nisan (Sanhedrin 43 a; Amsterdam Edition).

The whole action of the Jewish authorities, too, seems more in agreement with John than with the Synoptics, and the same facts are set forth also by the Synoptics. The first day of the Feast was officially a Sabbath (Lev. 23:11, 15) and many things are recorded as being done that were absolutely forbidden on such a day. We have already indicated the carrying of arms. But, even if the precautions necessary to secure a dangerous leader were offered as an excuse, the holding of Courts of Law on the Passover Day would be altogether unjustifiable (M. Betzah V. 2; B. Sanh, 63 a). Annas and Caiaphas and their associated priests were evidently anxious too to preserve at least a semblance of legality, as appears from their waiting for the day (M. Sanh. IV. 1) before pronouncing sentence. A Crucifixion, too, on the 15th of Nisan would be a breach of the Sabbath law (Sanh. 35 a), and although fanaticism and hatred against the Lord Jesus might perhaps explain the haste in carrying out the sentence against Him, it fails to account for the case of the two thieves.

Further support is given to the Johannine position by the apparent laxity or indifference to Sabbath Law of such as we might expect to be strict in such a matter, and the Synoptics themselves record this without note or comment. Joseph of Arimathea actually bought fine linen (Mark 15:46), and the women returning from the burial prepared spices and ointments (Luke 23:56) and rested the Sabbath Day according to the commandment. There was evidently a distinction for them between the Friday and the Saturday, and both were equally Sabbaths, if Friday were the first day of the Passover. Another point in favour of John is the regulation in connection with the Jewish Calendar, usually designated. LO.B.D.O. This is a mnemonic indicating that the first day of the Passover can never happen on the second, fourth, or sixth day of the week, consequently never on Friday.

We have now reached the stage where we can sum up. The evidences for each side are clear and definite, and they seem equally balanced. They leave us in no doubt that Friday then was the 15th of Nisan to Christ and the Apostles, and the Synoptics present it as such; but that same day was equally the 14th Nisan to all the active enemies of Christ, and as such John sets it down in his Gospel. Has either of them made a mistake, as we are often told, or is there any explanation?

Let us, in the first place, consider the Jewish rule that the Passover could never fall on Friday. Such has been the case since the Calendar was fixed in the year 358 A.D., and probably for a considerable time before that event. But we have the clearest evidence that at the beginning of the Christian era there was no such restriction. According to Exodus 12:10 what remained of the Passover until the morning of the 16th of Nisan had to be burned with fire. In the Mishnah (Pes. VII. 10) the direction is, however, given, that if the 16th fell on the weekly Sabbath, the burning was to find place on the 17th. In such a case the Passover Day, or 15th of Nisan, fell on the Friday, and the supper would then be eaten on the Thursday evening as set forth by the Synoptics.

Another suggestion has been made, through which it was hoped to find a solution of our difficulty, and this also is connected with the arranging of the Calendar before it was finally fixed. We have to remember that all Jewish dates, including, of course, those of the feasts, were determined by observation of the New Moons at the beginning of the months. Now, the new moon was not visible till from eighteen to thirty-six hours after its "birth." Two days might in some cases actually elapse before it was seen. Witnesses were examined, and the evidences were weighed, after which the new moon was announced. The uncertainty attendant on all this procedure has been urged as a ground for thinking this perhaps an explanation of the two days may lie here, but still there is no certainty.

But, in connection with these reckonings on the new moons and the Feasts, the Jewish authorities seem to come to our help. In the Mishnah (Chagigah II. 4) we learn that there was a section of the people that reckoned the Feast of Pentecost as always falling on the first day of the week. This meant that the first day of Passover fell on the seventh of the week, or the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), and accordingly the Omer or Sheaf had to be presented on the first day of the week. This was the contention of the same party, and it is set forth in the Mishnah, Rosh. II. 1; Bab, Rosh. 22 b; Jer, Rosh. II. 1, or 10 b, in Shit. Edition. The position assumed by this party was based on a false interpretation of the expression "the morrow after the Sabbath" in Lev. 23:11 and 15, in which the weekly Sabbath was understood instead of the first day of the Feast, which in Scripture is also named a Sabbath. Now we can well understand that if such a regulation were to prevail, the first day of the Passover would not in the majority of instances fall on the 15th of the month if correctly reckoned.

Accordingly we learn that this party (who are named Minim, Boethusians and Tzadukim, all of which are designations of the Sadducean Sect) sought to introduce confusion in the reckonings (M. Rosh. II. 1), and that this was for the purpose of deceiving the Chachamim, or rabbis of the Pharasaic Party. The whole position is made very clear in the Tosephta parallel to the Mishnah passage quoted, as also in the Gemara comments in both Talmuds, on the pages already cited. All three passages give a full account of the bribing of two witnesses to give false testimony regarding the new moon for this very purpose, and the payment of two hundred Zuz or Denars to each of them. One of these, belonging to the Pharisaic Sect, revealed the whole matter, and gave details as to his evidence of having seen the new moon from the neighbourhood of the Good Samaritan Inn (Ma'ale Adummim).

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us in conclusion that the deception in connection with the reckonings "was known to the rabbis," and that the outcome of the matter was that "these were sitting down (reclining) to-day, and those were sitting down on the morrow" (Jer., Rosh. 10 b).

This exactly agrees with the whole situation in the year of the Crucifixion. In the year 30 A.D. the new moon of Nisan fell on the 22nd of March, at 8h. 8m. p.m. (Wurm's calculation); or 6 minutes earlier according to Oudeman's. According to the moon's phase, or new moon as fixed by observation, the month of Nisan began on Friday, the 24th of March, and so the 15th of Nisan fell on Friday, the 7th April, commencing at sunset the previous evening. Thus the Passover, according to the natural reckoning, ought to have been celebrated on Thursday night, but the Sadducean Party, in virtue of their own interpretation, forced it forward to the Friday evening. They ate the Passover after the Crucifixion, as set forth in John's Gospel, while Christ and His associates, who would be mainly of the Pharisaic Party, kept the Feast at the true time, on the Thursday evening, as stated by the Synoptics.

We can thus understand the want of conformity to the demands of a strict Passover, with all its regulations enforced. Confusion and uncertainty in matters of religion invariably brings in laxity, both in public observance, and in the practice of individuals. The Sadducees were in authority, and the multitude would follow them. The markets to a great extent would be open, and purchases could be made till late on the Friday afternoon. In virtue of the disputable date the action of the temple guards, and the sitting of the Law Courts would remain unchallenged. In the light that the rabbis give us most of the difficulties of the situation vanish. And if Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus in connection with the burial, and the women in their preparation of the spices, did seem to violate the Sabbath Law, we must remember that the later Rabbinical regulations were only in process of formation. To the persons concerned there were two Sabbaths, one after the other, and the things connected with the burial had to be carried through. It was with the design of meeting such cases as two Sabbaths coming together, that the regulation of LO.B.D.O. was invented. Further, may we not see in what they did an initial recognition that Christ was Lord of the Sabbath, and that for them He took precedence in all things.

And when these matters are definitely understood, we get a good deal of illumination on various points connected with the narratives. We are informed in Luke 23:51 that Joseph of Arimathea "had not consented to the counsel and deed of them." The words do not suggest, and there is no reason to believe, that he was present at the meeting of the Sanhedrin at all. Any number over twenty-three formed a full quorum, and the Sadducean priests would see to it that to this exceptional meeting men of doubtful attitude were left unsummoned. The verdict, too, "a man of death" seems to have been by acclamation, "they ALL condemned Him to be guilty of death" (Mark 14:64). Joseph of Arimathea, as also Nicodemus, as members of the Pharisaic Party, would be in their own homes keeping their own Passover.

Then on that Thursday night, when Judas left the table in the midst of the Passover meal, and went out, he thereby cut himself off from the true Israel, and cast in his lot with the opposing party; while the Sadducees on their part, were plotting against the Lord Jesus, and planning His arrest and death, at the very time when, according to their own reckoning, they ought to have been "purging out the old leaven" in their own homes. Think of the comment we have on such deeds in "the viper hissings of the House of Annas," in Bab. Pesach. 57 a.

We have mentioned that there was one thing notably absent from the table at our Lord's celebration of the Feast. Nothing whatever is said about the lamb. It was evidently not there, but this is now quite intelligible. The Sadducees were in control of the Temple, and, according to the reckoning current with them, the day for sacrificing the lambs had not yet come. The lamb could not be got, and accordingly the feast had to be kept without it. But the Jew had, especially in Maccabean times, learned to keep the feast without the lamb, when temple and altar were not available; and when the feast was kept away from Jerusalem, as Christ had kept that of the previous year at Capernaum, it had to be observed without the lamb.

And in the Gospels themselves we seem to have an indication that the offering of the lambs had not taken place. In Mark 14:12, the imperfect tense is used and the natural meaning is "when they usually or habitually sacrificed the Passover." In Luke 22:7, the translation ought to be, "when it was necessary to sacrifice the Passover." In each case the phrase quoted is given in explanation of the "first day of unleavened bread" and in neither case is the assertion made that the lambs were actually offered.

On one other occasion at least in the life of Christ there was a notable absence of the lamb. On His presentation in the temple, Mary's sacrifice was (Luke 2:24) "a pair of turtle doves and two young pigeons." We are generally given to understand that this was an indication of the poverty of the family. It may have been so, but even in that it may well have been an arrangement of Divine Providence, for in each case Christ Himself was present, and consequently the lamb was superfluous.

Another point of interest in connection with the lamb is the fact that the technical designation given to it was "guph" or "body" (M. Pesach. v. 3). May it not have been in response to the felt absence of the body, that Christ gave expression to the words (Matt. 26:26): "This is My body," in the institution of His own supper? On other occasions during His ministry He presented Himself as supplying a felt or expressed need.

But why did John follow the Sadducean reckoning, instead of writing in harmony with the already published Synoptics? That he meant to contradict them is hardly credible. The long recognised explanation is evidently the true one. He had a special purpose in view, and that was to emphasise that Christ died at the very time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed--on the afternoon of the Friday. The contrast was not so apparent in the Synoptics, and so John sets it before us in his Gospel. Paul also grasped the same idea, and in 1 Cor. 5:7, clearly announces, "Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us."

But the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 43 a), a Pharisaic work, declares that Christ was put to death on "the evening of the Passover," or the 14th of Nisan, thus agreeing with John, and this has been considered a difficulty. But in the Talmud, the product of many writers, throughout many centuries, there are a good many cases of chronological confusion. In the second century disputation was pretty keen between Jew and Christian, and as the opinion based on John's narrative was current in the east, the Jews might very well have been willing to accept that position rather than admit that their Law had been so flagrantly violated in the Crucifixion.

John and also Paul emphasise the contrast between Christ, the true Lamb, and the false lambs that were being sacrificed the same hour, but the contrast does not end here, for on the morning of the first day of the week the priests had to prepare and offer the Omer or Sheaf, as the first fruits of the coming harvest. It was at that very time that the Risen Lord presented Himself, "the first-fruits from the dead." But here again it was the contrast between the false and the true.

Nor is this all. At the very time that Christ arose from the garden tomb, the remains of the bygone Passover feasts were being burned and disposed of. This applies to the Passover as held on the Thursday night, as the remains of that supper could not be burned on either the Friday or the Saturday (M. Pes. VII, 10) both of these days being Sabbaths. It applies equally to the remains of the Sadducean Passover, eaten on the Friday night, and from which the remains had also to be burned on the Sunday morning. The very fragments of the old and the shadowy, true and false alike, were passing away at the very moment when the Real and Everlasting came to His own. On the Resurrection morn type and symbol vanish, and Christ is all in all.

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