Did Jesus Eat the Passover Supper?

By Wayne Jackson

“Did Jesus eat the Passover supper on the night before he was crucified? If so, was he eating it at the right time? If he was, how do you explain the fact that, on the following day, the Jewish leaders were fearful of defiling themselves, which circumstance would have cancelled their right “to eat the Passover” (John 18:28)? This seems to suggest that the Passover occurred the day after Jesus ate with the disciples."

It appears clear that Jesus and his disciples did eat the Passover supper. Two things make this apparent.

First, the Lord promised the disciples that he would “keep the passover” (Mt. 26:18), which is the equivalent of “eat the passover” (Mk. 14:14). He appointed the place for that event and gave instructions for the preparation (Mk. 14:12ff). The Synoptic texts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) then harmoniously flow toward the evening of that very day, and depict Jesus as “eating” with the disciples (Mt. 26:21; Mk. 14:18).

Additionally, the law of Moses was still binding at this time, and the Lord was very careful to do all that the law commanded (Mt. 5:17-18; Jn. 8:29). Since the Passover was a part of the law’s requirement, the Lord obviously partook of that feast.

The testimony of the Synoptics is clear and decisive that Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover.

The Problem

While John 18:28 seems to be problematic, there are possible solutions which relieve the narrative of conflict. The passage reads as follows:

“Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was early. They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover.”

On the surface, this seems to suggest that the Passover had not been celebrated as yet. What shall be said of this confusing situation?

Possible Solutions

Several solutions have been proposed to this problem by respectable scholars.

First, some have contended that the meal Jesus ate with the disciples, commonly called the “last supper” was another sort of meal, but not the Passover. Burton Coffman, based upon his view of John 18:28, says there is “no way” this could have been the Passover1.

Unfortunately, this view conflicts with the testimony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (see above). As one prominent scholar has observed, “hardly a single Bible expositor of note today” agrees with this opinion2.

Second, some have argued that Jesus ate the Passover supper a day earlier than the Jews normally did. Sadler contends, for example, that Christ had the authority to do this because he was “greater than” the Law, the Sabbath, and the Temple3.

Moreover, there was Old Testament authority for changing the Passover time under appropriate circumstances. The feast could be observed on the 14th day of the second month (instead of the first) by those who had been away on a trip, or those who had been ceremonially unclean, at the regular time (cf. Num. 9:9-12).

The problem with this view, however, is that it appears to conflict with other explicit New Testament information that indicates the Lord and his disciples ate the Passover on the first day of unleavened bread (Mt. 26:17; Mk. 14:12), the normal day for the supper.

Third, it is possible that the Jews at large had eaten the Passover meal already (i.e., on the assigned day), but that these Hebrew leaders (Jn. 18:12), due to their frenzied activity in attempting to deal with Jesus, had postponed eating the supper. William Hendriksen seems inclined to this view, and he believes that H. Mulder has argued the case in convincing fashion4.

Fourth, a few scholars have contended that John’s record, versus that of the Synoptics, reflects the use of two slightly different calendars. Leon Morris sees this as the most likely solution to the enigma. He writes:

The most natural reading of the Synoptists shows the meal there to be the Passover. The most natural reading of John shows Jesus as crucified at the very time the Passover victims were slain in the temple. While it is undoubtedly possible so to interpret the evidence as to make both tell the same story it seems preferable to see them as following different calendars. According to the calendar Jesus was following the meal was the Passover. But the temple authorities followed another, according to which the sacrificial victims were slain the next day5.

This theory appears to have few supporters6.

Fifth, the Greek word for Passover is pascha. The term is used in three different senses in the Bible.

Sometimes the word stands for the Passover sacrifice, the lamb itself (Mk. 14:12; Lk. 22:7; 1 Cor. 5:7).

On other occasions pascha can denote the meal that was eaten on the 14th of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Mt. 26:18-19; Lk. 22:8, 13; Heb. 11:28).

But it is also the case that the term pascha can refer to the entire eight-day period which included the feast of unleavened bread — thus from the 14th of Nisan to the 21st. Note this passage:

In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall observe the Passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened bread shall be eaten" (Ezek: 45:21; cf. Lk. 22:1, 7; Acts 12:3-4).

F.W. Danker7 notes: “Popular usage merged the two festivals and treated them as a unity, as they were for all practical purposes.”

There were several “feasts” during this period (see 2 Chron. 30:22); the one mentioned in John 18:28 may have been on the day following the main Passover supper. It was called the Chagigah (sacrificial meal). This view is defended by many respectable scholars, e.g., Lenski and Edersheim. Edward Robinson has a clear and detailed explanation of this position that is worthy of serious consideration, and, in this writer’s judgment, this argument carries the greatest weight of evidence8.

In conclusion we must say that we may not be able to determine the precise situation alluded to in John 18:28. Nonetheless, there are sufficient possibilities to establish the fact that no insuperable difficulty exists to challenge our confidence in the sacred text.

Sources/Footnotes
  • 1 Coffman, Commentary on John, Abilene: ACU Press, 1974, p. 425.

  • 2 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951, p. 654.

  • 3 M.F. Sadler, The Gospel of Matthew, London: George Bell & Sons, 1908, 400.

  • 4 Hendriksen, Commentary on John, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953, II, 403.

  • 5 The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, p. 785.

  • 6 Yet see: Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977, pp. 76-90. For a contrary statement, see: Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982, p. 376, and Geldenhuys, pp. 654ff.

  • 7 Greek-English Lexicon, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 784.

  • 8 Harmony of the Gospels, London: Religious Tract Society, 1879, pp. 135ff; see also Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, n.d., pp. 296-98; Geldenhuys, pp. 656ff.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.