Jesus' Last Passover

"Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?"--Matthew 26:17

In this study, my intention is to closely examine the events of the last Passover of Jesus of Nazareth. Though I searched a number of books and a great many websites, I was not able to discover indisputable evidence to precisely determine when Jesus was nailed to the Roman cross. Unfortunately, we have no means to accurately and positively do this. There is a multitude of scholarly websites that offer theological, scientific, and "it-seems-to-me" support for the dates/years when Christ's earthly life began and ended; unfortunately there appears to be no consensus. To get an idea of the difficulty, I invite readers to visit these two links and read the brief comments at each one: Birth and Death, before reading any farther on this page.

Is knowing the exact day/date of Christ's birth or death really important? Is one's eternal fate to be determined by his ability to correctly name these dates? Of course it isn't. Since there are no date/time stamps on the canonical books, scholars attempt to link events in them to historical events that we are better able to date -- but the results are often little more than best guesses. The Catholic Church has given the world answers to a profusion of religious questions, but there seem to be more reasons to reject them than to hold them as truth. The facts are that Bible scholars are not able even to pinpoint the moments in time when the inspired books were written. And does it matter? No! In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Apostle and Hebrew scholar Paul spelled out all anyone needs to know and believe if he is to be saved:

1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve . . .
-- 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, KJV

I believe that Christians would do better to study the spiritual lessons in the Scriptures than to argue over how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.

For the purposes of this study, I have arbitrarily chosen to describe events as they might have occured in the year 30 AD, which would have been 3790 in the Jewish reckoning. Readers who do not agree with this choice are free to select one of the other suggested years for Christ's immolation. Those who do so, will need to use a converter to re-arrange the dates and days. Bear in mind that choosing a different year could mean that Passover came on some other day of the week, which would have the result of making the "first day of the week" way more or way less than 72 hours after He was placed in Joseph's tomb.

A cautionary note: Converting from today's date back to the era of Christ's active ministry is a complicated affair. One must remember to convert from today's Gregorian calendar to its predecessor, the Julian calendar, which was in effect in Palestine 2000 years ago. In converting the Julian date to a date on the Hebrew calendar it is necessary to make adjustments for Jewish leap months, added years, etc. Converters help in the process, but I still find it confusing.

Because Passover is a Jewish feast, I shall draw on Jewish sources as my 'expert witnesses.'

Israel was a religious nation. From birth, Jewish children were steeped in the prayers, beliefs and practices of their religion. The public and private prayers of the family, the domestic rites, whether of the weekly Sabbath or of the festive seasons, would be impressed upon their minds from their earliest days

The principle feast is the week of Pesach, or Passover – Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12, 13). Pesach is the first of the three feasts on which all males in Israel were required to present themselves before the Lord in a place of His choosing. The others are the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and Tabernacles (Exodus 23:14; 34:18-23; Leviticus 23:4-22; Deuteronomy 16:16)

It is during the Feast of Passover that the Jewish home was carefully purged of all leaven. Throughout that week, every morsel of food, because it was different from what he usually ate, would demonstrate to the child that this was a special time. Instead of the usual bread, flat bread, or matzoh, is eaten. At the special Passover meal called the Seder, the Haggadah –an account of the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt -- is read.

As the Jewish child grew older and was able to receive instruction and participate in the services, the fullness of his religion must have been impressed into his very being. Imagine, if you will, worshipping in the Temple in the heart of Jerusalem during Pesach. Could anyone ever forget standing in that magnificent building, watching in solemn awe as the white-robed priests rushed about and the smoke of the sacrifice rose from the altar of the burnt offering.

At the time of incense, the crowd would fall down to worship in silence. The priests, standing on the steps that led up to the Holy of Holies, would lift their hands and pronounce the words of blessing. Then, while the drink-offering was poured out, the Levites would chant Psalms, the sound of their voices rising and swelling into a mighty volume.

The words of many of the Psalms would be familiar to the Jewish child. He would remember them as the earliest songs he had heard as a baby. Now, however, in those white-marble, gilded halls, he must have had the impression they were coming from another world. Perhaps the child's father would explain that what he was seeing and hearing was the exact pattern of heavenly things that God had shown to Moses on Mount Sinai. The words had been spoken by Jehovah Himself through His servant David and the other singers of Israel. This Temple with its services was heaven on earth!

Equally impressive would have been the child's first Paschal supper. Loaded with symbolism and service, the Passover Seder appeals to every emotion. Jewish Law requires that full instruction be a part of every rite and service and that the great event being recalled be fully taught. At the Seder, the youngest person at the table will rise and ask the meaning of all this service and why this night is different from all others. The father then replies, in language a child might understand, recounting the whole national history of Israel from Abraham's call to the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the Law. The Jewish philosopher Philo wrote that the Jews:

"were from their swaddling clothes, even before being taught either the sacred laws or the unwritten customs, trained by their parents, teachers, and instructors to recognize God as Father and as the Maker of the world" (Legat. ad Cajum, sec. 16); and that, "having been taught the knowledge (of the laws) from earliest youth, they bore in their souls the image of the commandments"--ibid. sec. 31.

Jesus' last Passover began, as do all Passovers, with the appearance of the first three stars on the evening of Nisan 13, which fell on Monday/Tuesday that year. When the first three stars could be discerned on Tuesday evening, Nisan 14 began and would continue until the appearance of the three stars on Wednesday evening, which would mark the beginning of Nisan 15.

Pesach would have been on everyone's mind. For a month or so, it would have been the principle subject discussed in the academies and synagogues. Everyone who was able would have been travelling to Jerusalem. This was, after all, the celebration of the birth of Israel as a nation. It would be a time for meeting old friends and making new ones, for bringing overdue offerings and for obtaining long overdue purification. It would be a time of worship, with gorgeous ritual, in the Temple.

Jesus and his band were in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26:6), when Judas Iscariot went off to Jerusalem to make his deal with the high priest (Mark 14:10).

The first preparations for the feast probably began shortly after the traitor rejoined the band. The head of every Jewish household must ensure the home is absolutely cleansed of all leaven. He began with a prayer: "Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and commanded us to remove the leaven."

Then, using a lighted candle, he must conduct a solemn search of the entire house, looking for any leaven that might be hidden or may have fallen aside by accident. This search must be conducted in absolute silence. When it is concluded, he prays again; "All the leaven that is in my possession, that which I have seen and that which I have not seen, be it null, be it accounted as the dust of the earth." Jewish tradition sees a reference to this search with candles in Zephaniah 1:12. "And it shall come to pass at that time that I will search Jerusalem with candles."

The Paschal lamb, which must be free of any blemish, and not less than eight days, nor more than exactly one year old would have been selected on 10 Nisan, according to Scripture. Each Paschal lamb was to serve for a "company," which was to consist of not less than ten, nor more than twenty persons

Maimonides, in his introduction to the "Laws of the Passover Sacrifice," enumerates no less than sixteen positive and negative commandments that are to be fulfilled at the time the Passover sacrifice is offered and eaten. Some examples: It must be slaughtered on time, after noon on the fourteenth day; it must be eaten at night, together with matza and marror; it must be eaten roasted and not cooked or boiled. It must be eaten in a band, and may not be removed from the band; its bones may not be broken, and it is forbidden to leave over from the meat of the sacrifice until morning. -- The Festival of Passover: "Time of Our Freedom", ©1991-2008, Rabbi Chaim Richman & The Temple Institute.

An important side note is that Nisan 10 that year fell on a Sabbath. This was the day of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey colt. This was the day He was received with high royal honors by the multitude. This was the day He was selected as the perfect Paschal Lamb. This is the day He cleaned out the Temple. It should be noted that many of the events reported in the Scriptural account would have violated laws of the Sabbath. This raises the question of whether Jesus, Who certainly was an observant Jew would have done these things. On the other hand, He may have been making a point that the times were changing. Perhaps we'll understand when we reach Heaven.

Jesus likely began preparations for the Paschal supper shortly after the early meal on Wednesday morning (Nisan 14), when the eating of leaven had ceased. He sent Peter and John, saying "Go and prepare the Passover, that we may eat it." (Luke 22:8)

It was just the standard Jewish Passover Supper that Jesus sent Peter and John to prepare. As an interesting and informative sidelight, consider the relationship between Jesus and the Apostles as evidenced by their question, "Where do You want us to prepare it?" (Verse 9)

Even when they were alone, talking of everyday matters, He still was Master and only would tell them what to do when it was time to do it. The Apostles were in complete submission in all things. Their confidence in Him was such that they did not presume to ask beforehand, much less propose or interfere.

Apparently, Jesus had not wanted to make known either the location of the house where He would celebrate the Passover Seder, nor even the name of its owner, in the presence of Judas Iscariot. It was necessary that the Holy Supper not be interrupted nor its location betrayed until all had been said and done – even to His last agonized prayer at Gethsemane. He waited until the last minute.

What was involved in preparing the Passover meal? First, of course, was the need to locate a room, but this had been arranged (Luke 22:10-13). We don't know for certain what the room actually looked like, but we can get an idea from Jewish sources. The average dining space was about 15 feet square, furnished with couches or cushions around three sides of the table. Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting notwithstanding, the Last Supper was eaten while the participants reclined at the table. Jewish canon required even the very poorest to eat the Paschal supper while reclining, to indicate rest, safety and liberty. The Talmud points out that slaves in those days usually took their meals standing, so reclining illustrated how Israel had passed from slavery to freedom.

Perhaps the owner of the house, who surely must have been one of Christ's disciples, had provided all that was needed for the supper. This would have included wine for the four Cups, the cakes of unleavened bread and the 'bitter herbs', which were to be dipped in salt water or vinegar, and then, perhaps, in 'charoseth' (a mixture of nuts, raisins, apples, etc.). The wine would have been the usual local red variety, mixed with water in the proportion of one part wine to two parts water. Even the size and shape of the Paschal cup was specified: 2 fingers long, two fingers wide, and its height was to be 1 finger plus ½ finger plus 1/3 finger. Each of the four Cups must contain at least the fourth of a quarter of a hin, or about 10 ounces. There was no 'dessert'.

Since it was religious practice to fast from the end of the morning sacrifice until the Paschal Supper, in order that it might be eaten with genuine relish, and given the puny size of Middle Eastern lambs, the host often provided an additional festive sacrifice called the Chagigah to be added to the meal.

According to the Rabbis, three things were implied in the festive command to "appear before the Lord" - "Presence," the "Chagigah," and "Joyousness." As specially applied to the Passover, 'joyousness' meant that every one was to come up to Jerusalem and to offer a burnt-offering, if possible on the first, but certainly on one of the other six days of the feast. This burnt-offering was to be taken only from "Cholin" (or profane substance), that is, from such as did not otherwise belong to the Lord, either as tithes, firstlings, or things devoted, etc.

The Chagigah, which was strictly a peace-offering, might be twofold. The first Chagigah was offered on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Paschal sacrifice, and formed afterwards part of the Paschal Supper.

The second Chagigah was offered on the 15th of Nisan, or the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. It is this second Chagigah that is referred to in John 18:28.

In reference to the first Chagigah, the Mishnah lays down the rule, that it was only to be offered if the Paschal day fell on a week-day, not on a Sabbath, and if the Paschal lamb alone would not have been sufficient to give a satisfying supper to the company which gathered around it. As in the case of all other peace-offerings, part of this Chagigah might be kept, though not for longer than one night and two days from its sacrifice. Being a voluntary offering, it was lawful to bring it from sacred things (such as tithes of the flock). But the Chagigah for the 15th of Nisan was obligatory, and had therefore to be brought from "Cholin."

So Peter and John would have made their way to the Temple at about 1:30 that afternoon. Normally, the evening sacrifice began at 2:30, with the actual offering being made about an hour later. Because of the Feast, however, the service would have been moved forward an hour.

On 14 Nisan every Israelite male who was physically able, not in a state of Levitical uncleanness, nor farther than fifteen miles from the city, was required to make his way to Jerusalem. Women were not obliged to go, but we know from Scripture, (1 Samuel 1:3-7; Luke 2:41, 42) and from rules established by Jewish authorities, that many did. This was a happy time for all Israel. Pilgrims would arrive in groups – from all over Palestine and from distant lands -- singing their pilgrim psalms, and bringing their burnt- and peace-offerings, according as the Lord had blessed them; for no one could appear before Him empty-handed. (Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 16:16,17)

Josephus provides an idea of how many worshippers would gather for Pesach. He records that Cestius, wishing to convince Nero of the importance of Jerusalem and of the Jewish nation, requested the high- priest to make a census of the number of lambs slain during the Passover sacrifice. The number was found to be 256,500, which, at the lowest computation of ten persons per sacrificial lamb, would give a population of 2,565,000, or, as Josephus himself puts it, 2,700,200 persons. Of course, many of these pilgrims must have camped outside the city walls. (Josephus, "The Wars of the Jews," vi. 9,3; ii. 14, 3)

Imagine the scene. The Temple courts would have been jam-packed with worshippers from all over the known world. The Priests' Court would have been crowded also, for on that day, all 24 courses of priests were on duty, and all would be kept busy, though only the course scheduled for that week would participate in the ordinary service, which preceded the Paschal service.

Everything Jesus had told Peter and John would happen had come to pass. They had seen the man with the water jug and followed him, and he had shown them to the room where their Paschal Supper would be held. Do you reckon they also remembered He had told them His time had come? What thoughts must have run through their minds as they listened to the Levites chant Psalm 81, interrupted three times by a triple blast from the silver horns of the priests.

The Paschal Lambs were killed before the incense for the evening sacrifice was burned or the lamps on the Golden Candlestick were trimmed for the night. Because of the great multitude, worshippers were admitted into the Court of Priests in three groups. Once the first group had come in through the great Nicanor Gates, all the other gates to the Court of the Priests were closed. Then, the Priests blew three blasts from their silver horns to indicate that the lambs were to be killed.

Each Israelite killed his own lamb. The officiating Priests would be lined up in a double row up to the Altar of Burnt-Offering. As one caught the blood from the dying lamb in a golden bowl, he handed it to another, who would hand him an empty bowl. In this way, the blood was passed to the Great Altar, where it was thrown with a single movement at the base of the altar. All the while, the Levites would have been chanting the Egyptian 'Hallel' (Psalms 113 to 118) (Mishnah, Tractate Pesahim 5,5-8). The assembled multitude would join in chanting the first line of every Psalm, and then would respond with a 'Hallelujah!' at the end of every other line until they reached the end of Psalm 118, when all joined in chanting the final three lines.

If 14 Nisan happened to fall on Shabbat, things were done a bit differently. The three divisions would not have gone into the Court of the Priests. Rather, the first would have waited in the Court of the Gentiles, the second on the Chel, and the third in the Great Court. This was done in order to prevent needless carrying of the Passover lambs on the Sabbath.

When the sacrifices were concluded in the Temple, the priests washed the Great Court, where so much sacrificial blood had been spilled.

After that, all Peter and John had to do was roast the lamb. Even the manner of roasting was specified. It was to be cooked on a pomegranite spit that passed through the creature from mouth to vent. Special care had to be taken that the animal did not anywhere make contact with the oven.

For the meal, they would have placed everything on a table that could easily be carried in and moved. The Talmud tells us (B. Bathr 57 b) that the table of the disciples of sages is to be 2/3 covered with a cloth; the other 1/3 being left uncovered for the dishes to rest on. On that table would be the Chagigah, if used, the unleavened cakes, the bitter herbs, the bowl of vinegar and the bowl of Charoseth. The final preparation would have been to light the lamps.

Jesus and the other ten Apostles most likely came down from the Mount of Olives and entered Jerusalem just before sunset.

As far as we know or can adduce from Scripture, this Passover was the only sacrifice Jesus ever personally offered.

It seems reasonable to imagine that everyone showed up for the Supper dressed in their best, as prescribed by Jewish law. Also, in accordance with that law, they would have reclined on pillows around a low table, each resting on his left hand. Now, Scriptures provide no details of the seating arrangements, but we can gain a good idea of where the principle players sat in relation to one another from the Bible account.

It appears that Judas managed to get the seat of honor, to Christ's left. Since the Gospel is clear that John reclined on Jesus' breast (John 13:23), that would have placed him at the Master's right hand. This trio would have formed the head of the table. When thinking of the Last Supper, forget about the usual Western arrangements for such an affair.

Now, with John, Jesus and Judas at one end of the horseshoe of pillows, some things in the narrative become easier to understand. It explains, for example, how Jesus could have whispered to John about how to recognize the traitor without anyone else hearing. And it explains how Jesus could first hand Judas the bit of bread dipped in wine – a part of the Paschal ritual – without anyone making a big deal of it. It also explains how Judas, wondering whether his treachery had been discovered, was able to ask whether it was he and, when Jesus answered in the affirmative no one reacted. (Matt. 26:25)

We can pretty well place Peter's location at the table. Perhaps still smarting from Christ's rebuke of their self-seeking, and being the precipitous person he was, he probably would have rushed to grab the lowest ranking seat at the table – on the other end of the horseshoe, opposite John. This would explain how he was able to gesture to John and ask him who the traitor was (John 13:24). We have no idea how the other Apostles arranged themselves around the table.

The Apostles had been arguing among themselves as to who was the most important. At that, Jesus lovingly rebuked them, explaining that he who served, not he who was served, would be the greater. True humility, not glory, would determine who was to be called great in the Kingdom. (Luke 22:24-30)

Wine is an important component of the Paschal Supper. Although not mentioned in the Law, was strictly required by tradition. The Jerusalem Talmud says it was intended to express Israel's joy on the Paschal night, adding that even the poorest must have "at least four cups, though he were to receive the money for it from the poor's box. If he cannot otherwise obtain it, the Talmud adds, "he must sell or pawn his coat, or hire himself out for these four cups of wine." (Mishnah, Tractate Pesahim, x.1)

Jesus commenced the Paschal Supper, which was a symbol of everything He had just said. The Supper began, as it always did, with the host taking the first Cup and speaking over it a thanksgiving. The blessing over the wine, used for so many centuries, is a simple one: "Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, Who hast created the fruit of the vine." Messiah then told His disciples that He would be drinking no more wine until the Kingdom arrives (Luke 22:17,18)

After the first Cup had been passed around, the ritual then required the host to rise and wash his hands. In the Paschal Supper, there are two hand washings, one involving the host only, which was done immediately after the passing of the first Cup. The second hand washing, involving all present, came much later – just before the meal was eaten.

It seems reasonable that it was at this time that Jesus chose to wash the Apostles' feet. Had He waited until the second hand washing, the others would have risen with Him, making the foot washing difficult.

If indeed Jesus at this time chose to wash the Apostles' feet, it would have come close on the heels of the dispute as to who would be the greatest. The foot washing was both a lesson and an example of humility and service (John 13:4-16). What must the Apostles have thought as they watched Him rise, remove His outer garment, wrap a towel around His waist and pour water into a basin – like a slave!

Peter, so quick to respond, was shocked that his Master should wash his feet and protested, only to be rebuked by the Lord (John 13:6,7). Christ then continued His solemn service in silence. Surely no one else dared protest or raise a question.

After He had finished and was again fully dressed, He took His place at the head of the table and explained the practical application of what He had just done. It was at this time that He first fully accepted the high titles of 'Teacher' and 'Lord.' (John 13:14)

What followed next was yet another fulfillment of ancient prophecy, a proof that Judas' treachery was foreknown in eons past. Look at John 13:18,19, where the Lord says "I know those I chose; but that the Scripture might be fulfilled, he that eateh My bread lifteth up his heel against Me." That reference is from Psalm 41:9.

After the washing, the dishes were to be brought to the table. The host would then dip some of the bitter herbs into the salt water or vinegar, say a blessing and eat a bit before passing them to each person at the table. Then, he would break one of the three unleavened cakes, setting half aside as the 'aphigomon' or after-dish. The dish which held the broken piece of bread or cake (not the aphigomon) was raised high as the host said, "This is the bread of misery which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All that are hungry, come and eat; all that are needy, come, keep the Pascha."

At this point, the second Cup is filled, and the youngest person at the table makes a formal inquiry as to the meaning of the night's observance. The Paschal liturgy provided a full response concerning the feast, its occasion and the ritual. The Talmud requires that, as this account is given, the table be removed in order that those present might become more curious.

After this, the Cup is raised once, and then again as certain prayers were spoken. This portion of the Paschal Supper concludes with the first two Psalms of the Hallel (Psalms 113,114). Then, the Cup is raised a third time, another prayer is spoken, and the cup is drunk. This ends the first part of the Paschal Supper.

After this, the Paschal dishes were brought back on the table. Jesus, the perfect Man Who fulfilled God's Law, now would have taken up in succession the dish with the Passover lamb, that with the bitter herbs, and that with the unleavened bread, and briefly explained the import of each. As Rabbi Gamaliel explained: "From generation to generation every man is bound to look upon himself not otherwise than if he had himself come forth out of Egypt. For so it is written, (Exodus 8:8) "And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which Jehovah did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt."

It is at this point that all rise and wash their hands, after which the Paschal Supper is eaten. In current practice, the meal begins with the eating of a piece of unleavened bread, followed by the bitter herbs dipped in Charoseth. Finally, two pieces of the matzoh with a slice of bitter radish between, are eaten. According to direct testimony, at the time of Christ, the 'sop' that was handed around consisted of some meat from the Paschal Lamb, bread and bitter herbs (Jer. Chall. 57 b) This must have been the 'sop' that Jesus first dipped in the dish and then passed to Judas (John 13:26). Judas, who now knew that his treachery was known, took the 'sop' from Christ's hand. Satan then again entered Judas and Christ said to him, "What you do, do quickly." (John 13:27) Judas left.

The party cleansed of the traitor, the meal continued and the Lord's Supper was instituted (Luke 22:19,20). The Synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Lord's Supper, and to their account must be added the supplemental account in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:23-26. The institution of the Lord's Supper is not mentioned in the Gospel of John.

After Judas left, no doubt the meal continued. According to the Jewish ritual, the third Cup was filled at the close of the Supper. A special blessing was said over this Cup, which Paul called "the Cup of Blessing." (1 Corinthians 10:10). In the Jewish tradition, this is one of the ten essential elements of the Paschal Supper. The next event was the speaking of the 'grace after meat,' following which came the 'washing of hands.'

There can be little doubt that it was with this third Cup that the Lord instituted the Cup of the Lord's Supper. It is when we try to discover what part of the Paschal Supper corresponds to the 'Breaking of Bread' in the Lord's Supper that we must be particularly wary of the possibility of eisegesis. Jewish Law forbade eating anything else after the meat of the Paschal Lamb had been eaten. However, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the Paschal and all other sacrifices ceased. Since there no longer can be a Paschal Lamb, modern Jewish custom after the meal is to break and eat as an after-dish that broken part of the unleavened cake that had been set aside at the beginning of the meal.

It would appear that Christ anticipated the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of all sacrifices and connected the breaking of the bread at the end of the meal with the new institution of the Lord's Supper.

The institution of the Lord's Supper did not signal the end of the Supper. Jewish ritual required the Cup be filled a fourth time, and that the remaining part of the 'Hallel' (Psalms 115-118) be repeated. This was followed by Psalm 136 and a series of prayers and hymns. However, it seems likely that, in this instance, Jesus uttered the discourse recorded in John 14 before the 'Hallel' was sung and the finishing prayers repeated. At this point, Christ would have risen from the table. His words that follow, in John 16 and 17, must have been spoken while Christ was still in the house, however, for it is difficult to imagine such words and such a prayer being repeated while the band wandered through the narrow streets of the city on their way to Kidron.

At last, Jesus left the house and made his way out of the city, through the gate north of the Temple. His path descended through a lonely part of the valley of Kidron, which would have been in torrent, swollen by the seasonal rains. After crossing the stream, He would have turned left on the road leading to Olivet. Just a few steps would have taken Him to Gethsemane, the 'Oil Press,' a quiet spot He was accustomed to visit.

When they reached Gethsemane, He told the disciples to "Sit here until I have prayed." He withdrew from them to pray, bidding Peter, James and John to accompany Him. He then told the three that He was "grieved to the point of death," and told them remain where they were and keep watch while He went off a little ways and began to pray. (Mark 14:32-34)

And such prayers He must have prayed, for an angel from Heaven appeared to Him, and strengthened Him. How great must have been His agony, for He prayed with such fervor that His sweat "became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.." (Luke 22:41-44)

When He had prayed, He returned to the three and found them sleeping. He rebuked them and went away to continue praying. After a time, He again came back to find the three asleep. Once again, He rebuked them before going off to continue His prayers. He came back a third time and once again they were asleep. This time, He told them to rise, for His betrayer was at hand. (Mark 14:37-42)

They rejoined with the eight who had been left behind and, at that moment, He must have heard the sound of the many people and seen the light of their lanterns as Judas and his band approached the Garden. The men Judas brought to arrest Jesus would not have been Jewish Temple guards, who merely kept order and were neither armed nor trained. Under Rome's thumb, it would not have been possible for a regular armed force of Jews to exist in Jerusalem or anywhere else in Palestine. Those who came for Jesus must have been Roman soldiers.

The Roman garrison in Jerusalem was billeted in the Fortress of Antonia, which was very near the Temple and connected to it by two stairways. (Josephus, "Wars of the Jews," v.5,8) During Pesach, an armed cohort, numbering between 400 and 600 men guarded the Temple itself, with the purpose of preventing or putting down any trouble such a large gathering of pilgrims might engender. (Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews" xxv. 5,3). It must have been to the commander of this force that the chief Priests and Pharisees would have appealed for troops to effect the arrest of Jesus, no doubt arguing that His arrest could lead to a riot.

Judas delivered up our Lord with a treacherous kiss (Mark 14:45) And it still was the evening of Nisan 15, which had begun when the first three stars became discernable on Wednesday evening.

The soldiers bound Jesus and closed ranks around Him. None of His followers dared approach the Lord, for fear they, too, would be seized. (Mark 14:50)

Jesus was taken to the home of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was High Priest that year. (John 18:13) We have no account of what happened there, only that Annas "sent Him bound to Caiaphas the High Priest." (John 18:24)

John records what seems to have been a private interview between Jesus and the High Priest, with only a few of Caiaphas' attendants present (John 18:19-23) Then, in Luke's account, we learn that Christ was subjected to the examination of the leading members of the Sanhedrin at about dawn on Thursday, which was still Nisan 15. (Luke 22:66-71). All four Gospels indicate that all the proceedings of that night took place in the Palace of Caiaphas, and that during that night no formal death sentence was handed down.

From Caiaphas' courtyard, Jesus was taken to the Praetorium, not as a prisoner condemned to death, but as one against whom they had laid charges worthy of death. Pilate seemed to have no interest in their squabbles and told the Sanhedrin to try Him according to Jewish Law. Their response was that they had no authority to try capital cases. (John 18:31)

"It was early" on the 15th day of Nisan when the Lord was delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. (John 18:28) On the previous evening He and His disciples had partaken of the Paschal Supper.

And so in that gray morning light of the first day of unleavened bread the saddest and strangest scene in Jewish history was enacted. The chief priests and elders, and the most fanatical of the people were gathered in Fort Antonia. From where they stood outside the Praetorium they would, in all probability, have a full view of the Temple buildings, just below the rocky fort; they could see the morning sacrifice offered, and the column of sacrificial smoke and of incense rise from the great altar towards heaven.

Once the ordinary morning service had ended, it would be time to offer the festive sacrifices. It only remained to bring the private burnt-offerings, and to sacrifice the Chagigah, which must be offered undefiled, if they were to bring it at all, or to share in the festive meal that would follow.

What hypocrits they were. Those who had shown no reluctance to break every law of God's and of their own making, would not enter the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled and prevented from the eating the second Chagigah, or Passover! What a perfect example of observing the letter and violating the spirit of the law. The evidence that the expression in John 18:28, "They went not into the judgment-hall. . . that they might eat the Passover," refers not to the Paschal lamb, but to the Chagigah, is so overwhelming that even eminent Jewish writers such as Saalschutz are convinced (Mos. Recht, p. 414). It seems strange that it either is unknown to, or ignored by, "Christian" writers.

"The real problem in understanding the time references in John's Gospel comes from not knowing enough about they way events were referred to in the first century. Concerning John 19:14, "the day of Preparation" does not mean the day of preparing for the Passover. In the first century "the day of Preparation" meant "the day to prepare for the Sabbath" -- in other words, Friday.

"The Passover" could refer to at least four things: (1) it could refer to the two chagigah lambs which were slaughtered and eaten, one on the evening of 15 Nisan, during the Passover seder, and one on the following day of 15 Nisan (Jews at the time reckoned the day as beginning at sundown, so the evening of the day preceded the morning of the day), (2) it could refer to the Passover meal itself, (3) it could refer to the day on which the Passover meal was eaten, and (4) it could refer to the eight day festal cycle including both Passover day and the following seven day feast of Unleavened Bread. We see this latter usage in the gospels themselves. Luke 22:1 tells us: "Now the feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover."

"It is this usage which is relevant in John 19:14. Thus "the day of Preparation of the Passover" means "the Friday of Passover week." Thus the New International Version renders John 19:14, "It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week ..."--James Akin, Nazareth Resource Library, Question 060 (1997)

But Pilate was not really interested in trying Jesus. This was, after all, an internal Jewish affair. So the Sanhedrinists had to come up with a capital charge that would force his hand. What they came up with was that Jesus had declared Himself to be Christ the King (Luke 23:2,3). To this, they added the trumped up charge that he had forbidden the Jews from paying tribute to Caesar.

Pilate, upon learning Jesus was from the Galilee, passed the buck to Herod, who was in Jerusalem for Pesach and staying in the old Maccabean Palace. As He had not defended Himself before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin and Pilate, so did He remain silent before Herod. (Luke 23:6-12). This was no fun, so Herod sent Him back to the Praetorium.

Pilate recalled the Sanhedrinists and a crowd soon gathered. After making a half-hearted attempt to free Jesus according to a Jewish tradition, Pilate yielded to popular pressure and condemned Jesus, washing his hands of responsibility. (Matthew 27:24,25).

Jesus was handed over to the soldiers for scourging and crucifying, though the formal sentence of death had not yet been pronounced. I shall not go into the details of the scourging. Suffice it to repeat that it was a horrific experience that Cicero described as an introduction to crucifixion – "the intermediate death."

The scourging complete, Pilate again presented Jesus to the crowd, with the words "Ecce Homo" – Behold the Man. Perhaps he entertained the hope that the Jews would be satisfied at this point. We cannot know. What we do know is that the crowd did not relent.

Pilate again tried to talk with Jesus, but the Christ remained silent. Pilate once again presented Him to the throng, this time saying, "Behold your King." (John 19:13,14)

That same afternoon of Nisan 15, "when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?… And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the Temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom." (Mark 15:33-34, 37-38). This, just about the time when the evening sacrifice had been offered, so that the incensing priest standing in the Holy Place must have witnessed the awful sight.

John wrote that in His trial before Pilate Christ was being sentenced at the sixth hour (John 19:14), yet Mark says He was nailed to the cross at the third hour (Mark 15:25). How could He have been nailed to the cross before He was sentenced?

From the context, we can see that John's time reference was based on the Roman system of calculating days and hours. After all, when he wrote his Gospel, he was living in Ephesus, which was the capital of the Roman province of Asia. It seems likely he would use terms familiar to Gentiles. In the Roman method, the day began at midnight, so the sixth hour would have been six in the morning on the sixth day (Friday).

Mark's account, on the other hand, clearly is using the Jewish method, in which the beginning of the day is at sundown and marking time from sundown and sunrise. The third hour mentioned here would have been the third hour after sunrise, or about nine o'clock in the morning. It requires no stretch to consider the sentencing, scourging and mocking, the painful walk to Golgotha and the nailing to the cross to have taken up some three hours.

According to John's report, Jesus was hauled before Pilate at the sixth hour or about dawn (Roman reckoning) on the Day of Preparation of the Passover. And here is another point of confusion for those who do not consider the Jewish culture and tradition when trying to calculate the date of Christ's crucifixion and death. This is something I shall endeavor to make clear here.

Starting with the basics:

The word 'Shabbat' means "cessation." The Bible tells us that God created the world over seven days, and that He ceased His creative work on the seventh day.

It commonly refers to Saturday. Observant Jews, guided by the Oral Torah, which specifies how the Written Torah is to be read, understood and interpreted, demonstrate their faith that God created the world by ceasing from doing specific acts of creativity every seven days Shabbat.

In Scriptures, the word 'Shabbat' is used to denote a cycle of seven. A week is called a 'Shabbat.' A unit of seven years is called a 'Shabbat.'

Yom Kippur is called a 'Shabbat' because observant Jews cease to eat on that day.

Per the Oral Torah, the holiday of Passover is denoted 'Shabbat' (Leviticus 23:15) because Jews cease to eat leavened bread during Passover. The first day of the Feast of Unleaved Bread (Nisan 15) is a holy day of convocation, a Shabbat when no servile work may be done (Leviticus 23:7)

Did you notice that? All the days of Passover-Unleavened Bread are referred to as a Shabbat, yet I doubt anyone would believe that observant Jews did no creative work throughout the entire eight day feast. In fact, the Paschal Lamb, or Passover, must be carried live to the Temple, sacrificed, and then carried to where it will be cooked. Yet both the carrying and the cooking are acts prohibited in the seven day Shabbat. The Passover table must be carried away during part of the Seder, yet carrying a table is work that is prohibited on the seven day Shabbat. And so on.

Now, 15 and 21 Nisan are days of holy convocation, during which no servile work may be performed.. But, as a general rule, the religious services of the Passover, like all positive religious injunctions, "made void the Sabbath." In other respects the Passover, or rather the 15th of Nisan, was to be observed like a Sabbath, no manner of work being allowed. There was, however, one most important exception to this rule. It was permitted to prepare the necessary articles of food on the 15th of Nisan.

The Lord's Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month the Lord's Feast of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.--Lev. 23:5-7

Notice the difference in wording concerning the seven day Sabbath:

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your god. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your man- servant and maidservant may rest, as you do.--Deut 5:12-14.

What about the "Day of Preparation of the Passover" mentioned in John 18:28?

There are those who suggest that, in that year, the Sanhedrin had postponed the Paschal Supper from Thursday evening (the 14th of Nisan) to Friday evening (15th of Nisan) in order to avoid the weekly Shabbat falling on the first day of the feast. According to this argument, the Paschal Lamb that year was eaten on Friday, the evening of the day on which Jesus supposedly was crucified. This is an assumption which absolutely cannot be supported historically. In any case, it would be, to the Jews, a reprehensible violation of their tradition.

An equally unsupportable view is that Christ had held His Paschal Supper a day before the rest of the Jewish world. In strained effort to accommodate their eisegesis, some writers have suggested the priests and Levites performed a 'practice' Passover sacrifice on 13 Nisan, just to make sure they got everything right on the big day. This is not only completely out of synch with the plain words of the Synoptic Gospels, but an absolute impossibility. There is no way the high priest would have permitted a 'special' paschal sacrifice outside the appointed time.

Now why did the early church decide it [the crucifixion] was Friday? Read the following verse:

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (Mark 15:42-43 NKJV)

They assumed since it was the day before the sabbath, it meant Friday. Here is where our background on the sabbath sheds some light. We know that since the crucifixion was on the Passover, it was automatically the day before a sabbath, no matter what day it was on, because the high sabbath day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was the next day (Again, no matter what day Passover was on, the next day was automatically a sabbath). -- After the Crucifixion, (C) Blue Letter Bible

The above scenario has Jesus arrested, tried, crucified and buried on Nisan 15, which in the year 30AD was a Thursday. It does not support the Catholic Chruch's celebration of "Good Friday" except for those years when Nisan 15 began on Thursday evening. It also supports the figure of speech hypothesis, but only for some years.

I do not doubt that many who attempt to calculate the day/date when Christ was nailed to the cross can attribute at least some of their confusion to the difference between the ways that Jews and Gentiles understood the nature of a day. For many first-century Gentiles, the new day began and ended at midnight. For Jews, the new day began and ended at twilight, when three stars could be seen in the evening sky.

In his account of the Last Supper (Chapter 22), Luke appears to have wanted to make it crystal clear that Jesus was about to celebrate the ordinary Jewish Paschal Supper. In Verse 7, he writes, "And the Day of Unleavened Bread came, on which the Passover must be sacrificed." Twilight on Tuesday evening marked the beginning of Nisan 14, the day that Pesach began, Everything that follows is in exact concordance with Jewish traditional practice.

Let me first give you a simple summary of the schedule for Passover:

Nisan 14 in the afternoon — the lambs for Passover are slaughtered.
At sundown, Nisan 14 ends and Nisan 15 begins (Jewish days start at sundown, based on Genesis).
Nisan 15, just after sundown — the Passover Seder is eaten.

Let me make sure I am saying this clearly, so all can understand: by our way of thinking the lambs for Passover are slain in the afternoon and that same evening the Passover Seder is eaten. On the Jewish calendar, however, sundown begins a new day. -- Derek Leman, Passover, Last Supper, and the Calendar, Pt. 2, (C) February 5, 2007

How long was Christ buried?

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.--Matthew 28:1

Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.--(Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1

Some theologians and scholars disagree with the literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40's "three days and three nights" time frame:

12:40 three days and three nights. Quoted from Jon. 1:17. This sort of expression was a common way of underscoring the prophetic significance of a period of time. An expression like "forty days and forty nights" (see note on 4:2) may in some cases simply refer to a period of time longer than a month. "Three days and three nights" was an emphatic way of saying "three days," and by Jewish reckoning this would be an apt way of expressing a period of time that includes parts of 3 days. Thus, if Christ was crucified on a Friday, and His resurrection occurred on the first day of the week, by Hebrew reckoning this would qualify as 3 days and 3 nights. All sorts of elaborate schemes have been devised to suggest that Christ might have died on a Wednesday or Thursday, just to accommodate the extreme literal meaning of these words. But the original meaning would not have required that sort of wooden interpretation.--John F. MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible, (c) 1997 Word Publishing

To [the Israelites] a twenty-four-hour day consisted of a night followed by a day ("evenings and mornings," Dan. 8:14; "a night and a day," 2C Cor. 11:25)…Twice the Old Testament reckons a certain day as part of the preceding day; the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan is considered the fourteenth (Exod. 12:18), and the tenth of the month the ninth (Lev. 23:32). The three days of Jesus' burial were actually one full day, Saturday, the Sabbath), and two partial days, (Friday and Sunday) (Mark 15:42; 16:1,2)--Eerdman's Bible Dictionary, Op. cit., p.266

This scenario, which does support Catholicism's "Good Friday" invention -- if He indeed was crucified that year, but would only work for years that Nisan 14 fell on Wednesday.

1) Nisan 14 -- Passover -- in the year of Christ's substitutionary atonement fell on Wednesday/

2) Nisan 15 – first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a day of holy convocation – fell onThursday.

3) Jesus and the disciples ate their Passover Seder in the evening of Nisan 15. (Thursday)

4) Jesus was taken in the garden, brought before Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod and Pilate again during the evening and very early morning of Nisan 15 (Friday).

5) Jesus was scourged, mocked and crucified and buried during the daylight hours of Friday (part of 1 day in the tomb)

7) Nisan 16 began at twilight on Friday and ended at twilight on Saturday (1 night and 1 day in the tomb)

8) Nisan 17 began at twilight on Saturday and ended at twilight on Sunday, (1 night and part of 1 day in the tomb)

9) Jesus rose from the grave on the third day -- which was Nisan 17 – after being in the tomb part of a day, a day, and part of a day which, according to Jewish reckoning of the times, would have been counted as three days.

In other words, "three days and three nights" is a figure of speech in common use during the biblical era. It was not understood by Jews then as it is understood by Westerners now. Think about it. The disciples boldly proclaimed Christ had risen from the grave on the third day (Acts 10:40) and no one seems to have challenged them.

Literal/historical/grammatical hermeneutics requires that a statement be understood as it would have been by those to whom it was originally delivered. The question to be asked is: Did those to whom Christ spoke the "three days and three nights" words to understand them literally or as figures of speech? There are passionate advocates supporting both possibilities.

For a very detailed and very scholarly examination of each possible day of Christ's crucifixion, I invite readers to spend a few minutes reading the Chronological Table of Christ's Life, in The Words and Works of Jesus Christ: A Study of the Life of Christ By J. Dwight Pentecost. The study runs to about six pages and at the end, on page 572, one might read Pentecost's opinion of the day and date of the crucifixion, which is different from mine. Is he right? Let the reader reach his own opinion.

Which of the positions linked to or discussed above is the correct one? I don't know. I don't believe that having precise dates/times of Christ's death and resurrection has any soteriological importance. I am quite content simply to know in my heart that He died for our sins according to prophecy; was buried, and arose from the grave according to prophecy. I shall leave it to others to count the dancing angels.

Home | Doctrine | Catholic Stuff | PTG Forum
(C) 1994-2008 Ron Loeffler