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A question of chronology arises among theologians in connection with issues concerning the traditionally assigned dating of the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Mark identifies it as such, and the synoptic (‘look-alike’) evangelists Matthew and Luke follow this version, but John is equally adamant in stating that Jesus died before the Passover meal was eaten (John 18.28; 19.14) and it is probable that Luke 22.15 is intended to convey Jesus’ unfulfilled desire to eat the Passover with his disciples before he suffers which might support John’s beforehand dating. Because of this there are essentially two schools of thought: J. Jeremias thinks that the Last Supper took place at the time that the Passover meal was celebrated, but G. Theissen thinks it took place the preceding evening.
Particular aspects of the evangelists’ telling of the Last Supper and the events to follow can quite easily be associated with typical components of the Passover festival. For one, the Supper was held in Jerusalem at a late hour. Jews would make it their duty to be in Jerusalem for the Passover, which began after sunset. The Greek verb in 14.18 translated as ‘sat at table’ (“aeµ”) literally means were reclining- Jews reclined Roman-style at the Passover as a sign of their freedom. Words of interpretation were spoken over the bread and cup (14.22-5 in Mark; though figuring out which gospel account is closest to Jesus’ original words of interpretation is extremely complex.) Red wine was consumed, which is central to the tradition — four glasses were drunk throughout the meal — and which Jesus refers to as ‘my blood’ (red wine is an obvious image for blood and this link was certainly made by Paul at an early stage in 1 Cor. 10.16.) So too does Paul reflect traditional passover elements when he says that Jesus took the wine ‘after supper’ (1 Cor. 11.25; also Luke 22.20) as ‘the cup of blessing’ (1 Cor. 10.16). Jesus broke bread during the meal. The breaking of bread was an essential component of the passover meal and the fact that Jesus distributes the bread while the disciples were already eating, is indicative of the belief that this was a Passover meal. Also the hymn sung at the end of the meal (which will be discussed in more detail in a following paragraph) indicates the possibility of a passover dating.
Nonetheless, there is a daunting amount of support leveled against the claim that the Last Supper was a passover meal. Central aspects of the traditional Passover meal such as the bitter herbs, Passover lamb, and the explanation of the ritual as a reenactment of the Exodus, is not mentioned anywhere in the Markan text. Also, interestingly enough, though references to the symbol of bread almost certainly go back to the Last Supper, the interpretation of wine (which as was discussed is another central feature of the passover meal), could have perhaps been added later on in the tradition. There are a number of references to eucharistic meals (eucharists are meals eaten together by Christians as a celebration of the Last Supper), where bread is broken, yet wine is not always drunk (Acts 2.42; Acts of Peter 555, Acts of John 109f. and Acts of Thomas 27 all just refer to the breaking of bread as a eucharist.) If we are to go ahead and make the assumption that the Last Supper as described by Mark was in fact a passover meal, then we would have to pass over what has been omitted of the tradition as simply not emphasized because it was less important than the details that have been included that correspond to the traditional ceremony and highlight just how distinct and different this particular Supper was. It also makes sense for him to have added elements consistent with the meal being a Passover, if he in fact believed that this is what it was. If this was a Passover meal, then it would mean that the events that were said to take place in the synoptic passion narratives –the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus– all landed on the 15th Nisan, which is a holy day and thereby this was a blatant violation of the Jewish Law (and anyways timing proceedings against Jesus by the religious authorities on the night of passover –which is the holiest night of the year– is impractical.) J Jeremias explains these discrepancies as simply permissible exceptions to typical adherence to Jewish Law. Though this makes a little sense; even if we consider how Mark likely intentionally exaggerated the corrupt inclinations of the Jewish authorities, there are still far too many anomalies for this argument to be truly compelling.
As J. Jeremias has also brought up in defense of his case, during the time of Jesus, Jews conventionally made their way as pilgrims into Jerusalem by the tens of thousands to visit the Temple mount and witness the sacrifice of the Passover lamb to Hashem to prepare for the passover meal. During this meal the story of the first Passover –which recalls the ‘passing-over’ of the angel of death, (who brought forth the last of ten plagues on Egypt,the killing of the first born) because the Jew’s daubed their doorposts with blood– is enacted with symbolic food and ceremony. The crowd who exalts Jesus on the road to Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to the Last Supper is customarily explained as made up of festival pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem for Passover. If the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and the events leading to his passion on the cross (one event of great significance was the Last Supper), are to be considered unquestionably sequential as Mark has assigned, it would mean that these pilgrims were arriving suspiciously early for a festival which would only truly begin on the 15th Nisan, which is the following Friday (regardless of if the timespan following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ending in his inevitable crucifixion is probably far greater than the five days assigned to it by the Christian Church’s calendar.)
Also, details of the story of the triumphal entry are reminiscent of the Feast of Sukkot ( Tabernacles) as T.W. Manson brings to light. The festival’s autumn-based dating calls forth an inconsistency in the story of the cursing of the fig tree on the day following Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem and days before the Last Supper meal. Difficulties arise because Jesus expects to find fruit on a fig tree he sees in the distance, subsequently cursing the tree when he finds nothing but leafs. But as Mark explicitly states, it was not the season for figs. A possible solution to this story is that the events took place, not in spring (when Passover is held), but in autumn, when some fruit might possibly still be left on the tree. This solves the issue concerning the dating of this incident, while consequently making it impossible to accept the Passover dating of the Last Supper if we assume both stories are meant to be grouped into the same visit and interpreted as claims of historicity. Though there are numerous other explanations for this contradiction such as that Mark could have included that it was not the season for figs as a deliberate hint for readers to take the story purely symbolically; the fig tree’s failure to bear fruit has come to be understood by William Telford (and agreed upon most commonly) as a symbol for Israel, which should’ve borne fruit in the messianic era. According to the Talmud, during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jews would wave branches of greenery at the word ‘Hosanna’ as a part of the recitation of the Egyptian Hallel (which is taken from Psalms 113-8) to recall the Exodus. However, the second part of the hymn (Pss. 114/5-118; there was disagreement between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about whether Psalm 114 was encompassed in the first or second part) –which is also an essential aspect of the ceremony inclusive of the Passover meal– is also sung by Jesus and his disciples immediately following the Last Supper, before going out to the Mount of Olives, which fell within the boundary of greater Jerusalem, in which passover night had to spent. These details are compatible with Mark’s belief that the meal was a Passover, but this still by no means make his claims undisputable by a long shot.
Another identical ceremony was held during winter: the Feast of Chanukah (, Dedication), which celebrates the cleansing of the temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165 BC. This is a festival of great nationalistic importance and would provide a very fitting setting for Jesus’ own violent act of temple cleansing leading up to the Last Supper as F.C. Burkitt evaluates. One possibility is that Mark has telescoped two visits into one in order to correspond to the Church’s calendar and heighten dramatic tension, and that the triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple belong to the first visit and the cursing of the fig tree and Last Supper to the second. It is important to note, however, that John, who (unlike Mark) claims Jesus has visited Jerusalem prior to his triumphal entry, places both the entry and the cleansing of the temple around the period leading up to Passover (John 12.12; 2.13) but still does not technically place the Last Supper during the actual Passover festival. Instead he places it on the 14th Nisan, which by Jewish calendrical reckoning (each new Jewish day began at sunset) is the day before the beginning of the festival, which is when the lamb is sacrificed for the Passover meal.
Also, while Mark places the cleansing of the temple at the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, John puts it towards the beginning. According to the Mishnah Tractate Berakhot (9.5), Each year for a few days following the 1st Nisan money-changers would set up their tables in order to exchange Greek or Roman currency into a special Tyrian currency in which the temple-tax and tzedakah (charity) was mandatorily paid. It seems likely that this two week period before passover was the only time of the year that these tables were set up, which may well support the Markan dating if we accept that Mark amalgamated numerous incidents into a temporal time-scheme to correspond with the Church’s dating. Moreover, since Mark records just the one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem, he could not choose another setting to assign this incident in the framework which he uses. Still, the chronology that Mark so rigidly adopts places the Feast of Passover on a Friday. Joseph of Arimathea goes to collect Jesus’ body in the evening, which as Mark states was Preparation– that is, the day before the sabbath–(15.42) but the fact that it was evening would mean that the sabbath had technically already begun by Jewish reckoning. Though the entire point of the hasty burial that was so coveted was to dispose of Jesus’ body before dusk, since burials would take place on the day of death whenever possible and the following day at latest, so that a death on Friday required instant action especially because burial on the sabbath breaks Jewish Law. This leads many commentators to point out that this conflicts with Mark’s Friday chronology. It doesn’t make much sense for Joseph to avoid desecration of Jewish Law concerning the Sabbath by burying Jesus on Preparation, which is another holy day. Nonetheless, since John is typically regarded as the theologian among the evangelists, scholars tend to defend the Markan dating of the cleansing or they suppose that each of them placed the incident where he thought it was appropriate, meaning that perhaps neither of them are correct.
However, more importantly to the Last Supper, scholars tend to lean towards Thiessen’s school of thought supporting John’s view that Jesus was dead and buried before the feast even began. In fact, their is a great amount of evidence suggesting the historical accuracy of this dating. Mark places the chief priests and the scribes’ plot against Jesus two days before the Festival of Passover and Unleavened bread (the Feast of Unleavened Bread, while originally an entirely separate festival was celebrated at the same time as the Passover from the 15th Nisan to 21st Nisan, resulting in the effectual merging together of the two into one grand festival; 2 Chron. 35.17 and Josephus discuss this.) This unfortunately gives rise to complex problems of dating. Mark, who is probably counting his days in the inclusive Jewish way (as 8.31 justifies) could have avoided problematic features if he had instead dated the plot to stealthily seize and kill Jesus to the day before the Festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread. This is because he has dated the crucifixion of Jesus on Friday, the day prior to the sabbath (15.42), yet he claim that the Last Supper meal was held on the day of Passover, which he dates to that Thursday. It is likely he has in mind that the plot was articulated on the day before official Passover (Wednesday). It is possible that Mark, in hopes of decreasing Roman opposition to the Christian Church and increasing its appeal (or perhaps for some other unbeknownst reason), chose to date in the Roman manner. By this reckoning, two days on from Wednesday would indeed come to the day of Jesus’ passion on the cross. Some commentators then argue that this supports the dating found in the Fourth Gospel and that therefore both the synoptic and Johannine traditions are correct. But this conclusion is faulty because ‘two days before the Festival of Passover’ could also just as easily refer to our modern gregorian dating of Tuesday two days before Thursday, and the suggestion that Jesus might have celebrated the Passover 24 hours in advance –without a lamb– cannot be supported. Still, the justification to this theory that is given by A. Jaubert is compelling. She suggests that Jesus and his disciples did indeed celebrate the Passover on the 14th Nisan but calculated that date according to an ancient calendar that was set out in the book of Jubilees followed by the community living at Qumran. This theory has numerous advantages. Most importantly, it allows her to maintain accurately that John was correct in speaking of the day of crucifixion as the day of preparation for the Passover, and that Mark was also right in saying that the Last Supper was a passover meal (though she argued that the meal was held on Tuesday, not Thursday evening.) Another advantage of this brilliant solution is that it allows far more time to pass between the arrest and crucifixion and for properly composed judicial procedures to take place. Unfortunately it still does not explain John’s wishes to rigidly follow the official Jewish calendar, or exactly how or why Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal in Jerusalem three days before the actual celebration was said to begin. It makes little sense that Jesus and his twelve would wish to follow the Qumran calendar, as that community had reclusively disassociated itself from the happenings in Jerusalem. This theory also says nothing about the true character of the meal.
Moreover, by stating that the first day of Unleavened Bread (which was held on the 15th Nisan, like the Passover meal) was the same day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered (this occurred on 14th Nisan), Mark makes more trouble for himself. Though if Jewish reckoning is translated into non-Jewish calendrical reckoning, then this could follow, since the 15th Nisan would begin at sunset of the 14th Nisan of what we should regard as the same day, and their is always the possibility that this statement is a mistranslation from the Aramaic or that Mark bunches together two temporal clauses (as he tends to do often) in a way that means well, but is unintentionally less than clear. Another alternative justification is that the 14th Nisan (this is when the leaven of the household was removed) had simply come to be known by the majority as the official first day of the festival.
Overall, as we have already seen, the Johannine dating is more likely to be correct than the Markan, which means that the Last Supper was probably not a Passover meal. Even so, we must keep in mind that just as the Jews, when celebrating the Passover, identify themselves with their forefathers fleeing from slavery in Egypt. So too did the early Christian Community that Mark belonged to, in enacting the eucharist liturgy, come to view the words and actions of Jesus on the Last Supper as almost a new Passover rite, even if the original setting was likely not a Passover meal.
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