Preparation for the Passover
Pp Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13
The Lord has need of them
The Biblical Timetable for Passover and Unleavened Bread
The Passion Timetable
The last passage - which describes the visit of Judas to the chief priests in order that he might finalise the price for his betrayal of Jesus - has concluded with the solemn words (Mtw 26:16 Pp Mark 14:11, Luke 22:6) that
‘...from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Him’
This event has been placed as occurring sometime during the daylight period of the Wednesday when it would appear as if Jesus and the disciples stayed in or around Bethany where they were lodging that year (Mtw 21:17, 26:6).
The event described in this short passage, however, moves on to the day following, the Thursday, which, as Luke notes (Luke 22:7 Cp Mark 14:12) was
‘...the day of Unleavened Bread on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed’
a time which would correspond with our Wednesday evening to Thursday at the same time, the Jewish day beginning at sundown. The Jewish evening always preceded the day (Hullin 5:5). The Jews taught that the night began when three stars were visible in the sky at sunset and, therefore, also the new 24-hour cycle as we know it. The principle goes back to the very beginning of the world for, when God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:5)
‘...there was evening and there was morning, one day’
not ‘morning and evening’ but ‘evening and morning’. The day, then, always began with the evening. Note also that each day period and night period was always twelve hours long (that is, twelve divisions of the time which elapsed). Therefore, a six hour daylight period would have twelve hours each of a modern day length of thirty minutes duration whereas an eighteen hour daylight period would have twelve hours of ninety minutes.
Seasonal variations in the length of both the daylight and darkness periods resulted in differing lengths of the hour. It’s only in recent times that an ‘hour’ has become fixed to a period of sixty minutes as we know it.
Whether we’re to think of the disciples as coming to Jesus during that evening period on the 14th Nisan and then hastily travelling to the city during the early part of the day (the first part of the night) to make preparation is difficult to be sure about and it seems the more logical that preparation waited until the following daylight period before those entrusted with the Passover’s preparation made their way to where they’d been directed.
The directions given by Jesus to Peter and John (Luke 22:8) aren’t mentioned by Matthew who summarises His instructions with the words (Mtw 26:18)
‘Go into the city to a certain one...’
whereas both Mark and Luke speak of the meeting of a man carrying a water jar who would enter a household at which they were to request a room to be shown to them where Jesus would celebrate the festive meal. One can’t help but see the miraculous in this event even though I noted in a similar incident in Mtw 21:2-3 that some sort of pre-arrangement may have been made in the procurement of the animals upon which Jesus rode towards Jerusalem.
Here, though, even if it had been previously agreed by Jesus that the householder would provide a room in which the meal could be prepared (and Mattask comments that the Greek phrase from which we get ‘a certain one’ ‘...implies that the person in question, though unnamed, is not unknown’), the appearance of the man with the water jar (presumably an unusual occurrence for it was women who were normally entrusted with such work - Matmor comments that while a man might carry a waterskin, it was the woman’s role to carry a pot) was the means whereby they were directed to the specific location. It would be unlikely an assumption - though not impossible - that a male servant had been instructed specifically by a householder to wait by the north gate to the city that morning (armed only with a water flask) in preparation for the disciples’ approach. But, in fact, the more I actually think about this possibility, the more plausible it becomes! It still reads like a page from an espionage thriller, however.
The reason for such a direction may have been not that Jesus wanted to perform the miraculous for their own edification but that there was a very serious risk that Judas, if he knew the location ahead of time, would have sought an opportunity to have returned to the religious leaders and give them the whereabouts. To keep the location secret, therefore, was to restrict Judas’ betrayal until at least the Passover meal had almost finished and, as it transpired, until well after the event.
Jesus seems to have known where the room was situated for we read nowhere of the disciples’ return to Bethany to bring Him to the place they’d been directed to. In this way, Jesus and the band of remaining disciples (and, probably, a fair number of followers and friends who weren’t part of the band of twelve) would have made their way from the village towards the late part of the day to arrive in good time at the place being prepared.
The problems with chronology are detailed below in the final two sections where I’ve dealt with both the Jewish calendar which was being used in the first century - that is, ‘when’ certain events took place - and the alleged discrepancies in the Scriptural accounts of the four Gospels which have a very straightforward reconciliation which seems to have escaped the notice of most commentators who cover all sorts of possibilities which are little more than guesswork. I’ve reproduced the charts which are found there at the end of this web page but without the supporting explanatory text.
I hate to say too much at this point about the failings of commentators (being myself one!) but I find it almost incomprehensible how scholars who are much better than myself could so unanimously miss the clear evidence contained in the Jewish records and so try to defend the certain discrepancies between the first three Gospels and that of John. When I was a very young christian, I was also told by a Bible student who was attending a well respected denominational college (no, I’m not saying which one) that John had simply changed the days around because it suited him to make Jesus die on the same day as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple. The implication of that for the rest of Scripture is truly frightening if it was the case, I hasten to add!
For the remaining space, we’ll look at the preparations for the Passover which the disciples, sent to the city of Jerusalem, must have undertaken - these have been redeveloped from the previously cited web page which deals with Passover.
Preparation for the Passover
I’ve noted above that the ‘logic’ of the question and answer which took place on the first day of Unleavened Bread, 14th of Nisan (Mtw 26:17-19), is such that would suggest that the selected disciples made their way to the city of Jerusalem during the daylight period of the Thursday and possibly very early on in the morning.
This is by no means certain, however, and our interpretation will be dependent upon the statement in Pesahim 1:1 which reads that
‘...on the night of the fourteenth [of Nisan] the hametz [all leaven] must be searched for by the light of a lamp...’
and whether Jesus and the disciples felt it obligatory from the Law that such an interpretation was valid. The Mosaic regulations are vague enough not to insist upon a removal of leaven from all the households on the evening of 14th Nisan (Ex 12:15, 12:19, 13:7, Deut 16:4) but it’s certainly the case (according to how I read the Scriptures) that all leaven had to have been removed from the houses by the time that the sun went down on the 14th - that the beginning of the feast of Unleavened Bread which began on the 15th (Lev 23:6) was to signal the time when (Ex 13:7)
‘...no leavened bread shall be seen with you and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory’
It’s certainly true, however, that the Pharisees had developed the ceremony to take place the night before the day of the 14th by the compiling of the Mishnah (c.200AD - a full description of what was considered to have taken place during Temple times can be found in the tractate Pesahim) and it may be that such instructions were already the generally considered procedure for the Jew to observe. It doesn’t appear that the time of the observance were obligatory upon the Jew from the Law, however, so Jesus may not have chosen to observe them, relying on the disciples the following morning to prepare all that needed doing for the following evening as night fell and the 15th began.
As the day of the 14th began, though, the collected leaven from the night before would have been burnt by the observers of the Pharisaic tradition, Pesahim 1:4 noting that it took place at about the sixth hour which corresponds somewhere around our midday. Edersheim in ‘The Temple’ notes that leavened bread was forbidden to be eaten on the 14th anytime from between 10 or 11am, the leaven therefore being destroyed after the time at which it could still be allowed to be eaten. It’s easily possible, then, that the day was also regarded as the first day on which unleavened bread was eaten even though, strictly speaking, the festival of that name didn’t take place until the day which followed it (Mark 14:12). Josephus (Antiquities 2.15.1) also comments concerning the very first Passover and Unleavened Bread in Egypt that
‘...in memory of the want we were then in, we keep a feast for eight days, which is called the feast of unleavened bread’
so that it is demonstrably certain that Unleavened Bread could be thought of as beginning with Passover day, 14th Nisan.
The disciples would have busied themselves with the preparation of the meal in the room by obtaining such things as bitter herbs and spices, unleavened bread, wine and, most essential of all, a lamb. There remains a fair degree of speculation required here for it would be more natural to think of the disciples as taking some of the women with them to make their own bread and to prepare the food mixes which were used during the meal - alternatively, the disciples themselves may have performed the cooking necessary ahead of Jesus’ coming to the place but it certainly would be in keeping with the normal order of the Passover that some of the women would have travelled with them to perform such duties.
The main role of the disciples, however, would be in taking the sacrificial lamb to the Temple to have it killed for the festive meal. It would be questionable whether there were many lambs left in the city by the time the 14th came should they attempt to purchase one locally and, besides, Ex 12:3’s clear instruction that
‘...on the tenth day of this month [each household] shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household’
seem to make it plain that the lamb would already have been purchased and brought with them as they journeyed from the village of Bethany that morning. The exact procedure followed in the Temple is outlined in Pesahim 5:5-10 where it can be seen that the volume of people present in the city was such that three groups of people had to be sectioned off to pass through the court, the first two having the gates closed behind them when sufficient numbers were gathered to prevent overcrowding.
Bowls were held by the officiating priests while the Jews killed their own lambs and allowed the blood to flow into the receptacles which were then passed behind them in exchange for an empty bowl while the blood was taken to the altar where it was thrown against the base.
Throughout this time, the Hallel (Ps 113-118) was sung by the levites who repeated the entire set of songs until all was completed. Pesahim 5:7 states that
‘...it never happened that they thrice completed it’
and this gives us some indication of the time period involved to deal with all the lambs brought. There still had to be performed the hanging up of the carcasses and the flaying of the flesh (Pesahim 5:9) and the removal of the sacrificial portions which were to be burnt on the altar (Pesahim 5:10).
The third group of people is recorded as being of only a few persons (Edersheim in ‘The Temple’ notes that it was not allowed to be less than thirty in number) and that the court of the Temple was never filled to capacity. Josephus in War 6.9.3 notes that, during the Passover which was to be the last before the destruction of the city and the one at which there was a sudden uprising which trapped the pilgrims in the city itself, the sacrifices were numbered at
‘...two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred [256,500 - though some manuscripts declare it to be 255,600]; which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two millions seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons that were pure and holy’
Jeremias, however, sees the number of sacrifices in the time of Christ (about forty years previous to Josephus’ record) as approaching 18,000 through a series of mathematical suppositions and calculations (pages 77-84) and, depending on the reader’s acceptance or rejection of his assessment, this may be more accurate a figure than the later one. Even Jeremias, however, states that the figure could need to be increased or reduced by half, showing that it can only be considered as the most general of estimates.
According to Josephus, the slaying of the lamb took place (War 6.9.3)
‘...from the ninth hour till the eleventh...’
(about 3-5pm our time) shortly before sundown on the 14th and, with the descent of darkness, the 15th began along with the Passover meal. It’s tempting to picture Jesus arriving at the place where the meal was to be eaten almost at the same time as the disciples returned from the Temple carrying with them the lamb for the meal (Mark 14:17) and certainly by the time night began to fall, even finding themselves being accompanied by numerous Jews who had the same intention of getting to the place where they knew their Passover would take place - none of this is more than supposition and speculation but it would have had the advantage of keeping the place secret to which Jesus was going and of preventing Judas from meeting with the chief priests before He was ready to be arrested.
Trying to determine the numbers present at the Passover meal with Jesus is impossible to determine but it may have been larger than the thirteen that we often presume even though Mark 14:17 seems to infer that there would have been just those present. The upper limit of those present is put at a number which can all eat at least an olive-bulk of the lamb in Pesahim 8:7 which is numbered as a hundred and goes on to comment that a group could not be made up of
‘...women, slaves and minors’
which presumably means that men had to be present so that it doesn’t exclude their presence. Therefore, there may have been women there who were known to the band and who had been with them since their departure from Galilee (Mtw 20:20, Luke 23:55), Simon the leper (Mtw 26:6) and even Lazarus, Martha and Mary (John 12:1-3). All that’s necessary to the plot, however, is the presence of Jesus and the disciples and we might be justified in surmising that Jesus wanted to share the meal only with His inner twelve disciples (Luke 22:15).
The Lord has need of them
In a similar way to Mtw 21:1-3, the upper room was used only once at the specific time when
‘the Lord had need of them’
The owners both of the ass (Luke 19:33) and the room (Luke 22:11) rendered service to Jesus at the most appropriate time of His life when, without their voluntary self-sacrifice and ministry, what He intended could not have come to pass.
Some believers, likewise, may render what seems to be a very small service to Jesus - maybe only once in their entire lives - but the importance of their willingness to yield what they have at their disposal when ‘the Lord has need of them’ is all that He requires.
Through two simple acts of devoted service, what seemed like such a small sacrifice took on profound proportions in the outworkings of the will of God. The donation of the ass fulfilled Scripture prophesied about the Messiah hundreds of years before (Zech 9:9) while it was in the upper room that the institution of the Lord’s Supper took place which figures prominently in the life and worship of the Church. As Markcole notes
‘The Lord must have had many unknown disciples upon whom He could rely at such moments to render unquestioning service. This in itself is an encouragement to those with small or prosaic gifts; the Lord has need of them, too. We have but one record in the Gospel story of the use of either ass or room; but that was strategic, essential at the moment to God’s whole plan’
At every moment of every day, therefore, the disciple shouldn’t just be concerned that he’s ready for the return of Jesus Christ (Mtw 24:44, 25:13) but prepared to be used in service in a way that no one else, perhaps, can be. Service to God is never about ability but about availability, is less about having sufficient resources as it is about being willing.
The Biblical Timetable for Passover and Unleavened Bread
See Chart One below
One of the first things to get straight in our own minds as we approach the final Passover in the life of Jesus Christ is just when the lamb was supposed to be both killed and eaten. Due to the strange way (to us, that is) the Jewish day is calculated (beginning when three stars are visible in the night sky - roughly corresponding to our ‘dusk’) we often misunderstand Biblical passages, thinking that it’s still ‘today’ when it has, in fact, turned into ‘tomorrow’!
There’s no doubt that the lamb was to be sacrificed on the 14th of Nisan ‘between the two evenings’ (that is, between the descent of the sun after midday and the evening of the actual day before it became night [or, perhaps, of the night part of the next day?] - Ex 12:6). But the commandment in Ex 12:8 specifically says that the lamb was to be eaten ‘that night’ which is the beginning of the following day, the 15th, when three stars have already become visible.
Therefore, though the lamb is sacrificed on the 14th of Nisan, it’s eaten on the 15th - that’s just the consequence of the original Biblical instructions.
The Rabbis debated to some lengths as to what time period was meant by the ordinances contained in the Law - they set themselves to answer such questions as
‘Was the first day of Passover the 14th when the lamb was slain or the 15th when it was eaten?’
That is, is it
Passover (1) + Unleavened Bread (7) = 8 day festival
Passover and first day of Unleavened Bread (1) + 2nd-7th days Unleavened Bread (6) = 7 day festival
They eventually decided that Passover should be reckoned to be the 15th so that the Rabbinic practice was that Passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread were regarded as the same. When exactly they came to this conclusion is uncertain so we cann’t be sure what the practise was in the time of Jesus (there may even have been a number of varying calendars in use but about this we can’t be sure, either) - though, when we consider the Scriptural command, it’s very difficult to see how they came to their conclusion!
A study of the Biblical ordinances, then, seems to give the timetable laid out below as being required of Israel. Notice that the first horizontal line divides the day up into an evening and a day (in accordance with the Jewish understanding of time), the second gives the dates of the month Nisan and the third gives the names of the day as they appear in the Scriptural account. The numbers 1-7 indicate the days of Unleavened Bread that are contained within the seven day festival.
Note also that Ex 12:18 under the 14th ‘day’ column could have an alternative meaning. The ‘eve’ referred to could, perhaps, refer to the night of the 14th of Nisan which would bring it back some twenty hours or so to the start of the day.
In similar manner, Ex 12:18 cited under the 21st ‘day’ column is possible of this alternative interpretation and the ending of the period of eating unleavened bread could be interpreted as ending, again, some twenty hours earlier.
The Passion Timetable
See Chart Two below
Many have sought to harmonise the accounts of the few days around the cross using the four Gospel narratives, so the following chart is by no means a ‘new work’. But what previous attempts have not always achieved is to adequately explain the apparent discrepancies in the Gospel of John with the traditional Synoptic timetable.
It’s often been stated that John placed Jesus’ death on the day that the Passover lamb was slain in the Temple (14 Nisan) whereas the Synoptics show Him as being crucified the day after (15th), a theory that I actually heard from a Bible College student who once attended a fundamentalist denomination’s courses.
The problem lies in a number of texts in John that, on face value, appear to teach this different chronology but, upon closer inspection, it can be seen that, far from contradicting the Synoptics, they confirm and uphold them. It perplexed me for a number of years also after I’d first discovered the ‘problem’ but it wasn’t until I got a copy of the Mishnah that I could see the solution.
1. John 13:1
‘Now before the feast of the Passover...’
implies that the day of Passover had not yet arrived, even though the following event occurs, according to the Synoptics, during the evening of the 15th when the lamb was eaten.
If this phrase means that the festival had not yet begun, then John most definitely has a different chronology to the Synoptic authors (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but the phrase can refer quite legitimately to the footwashing ‘ceremony’ which took place before the Passover meal.
Even though it was a short time before, nevertheless, it was still ‘before the feast of [that is, the eating of] the Passover’.
2. John 18:28
This is, on the face of it, the most difficult. The Jewish leaders
‘...did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover’
Again, it appears as if the Passover meal is a future event whereas the Synoptics definitely have the festival well and truly eaten and finished by this time.
However, Pesahim 9:5 states that
‘the Passover of the generations [that followed after the original generation that celebrated it in Egypt] continued throughout seven days’
and Deut 16:3 also confirms this point when it records for us that
‘...seven days you shall eat [the Passover sacrifice] with unleavened bread’
As can be seen, ‘eating the Passover’ was considered to be a seven day event, even though the lamb that remained had to be burnt on the 16th (Pesahim 7:10).
The statement in John need mean no more, therefore, than that the Jewish leaders were concerned that they might continue in the Passover festivities for the remaining six days and so didn’t enter the praetorium in case they became defiled through contact with the Gentile people and their ways.
3. John 19:14
This verse reads
‘Now it was the day of preparation of the Passover...’
This could be taken to mean that the day on which they prepared for the Passover meal was the day of crucifixion. I recently (within the last two years) discussed with a Jew on a newsgroup this precise point on which he was quite unwilling to accept the following explanation. Though he remained adamant that it showed a discrepancy in the Gospel narrative, it is, perhaps, the easiest to see the explanation for!
By reading Mark 15:42, it can be plainly seen that ‘the day of preparation’ was the name given to the Friday on which they would prepare for the sabbath (Saturday).
John’s statement only means that it was the day of preparation of the sabbath of the Passover. As John 19:31 says
‘Since it was the day of preparation...for that Sabbath was a high day [that is, it was the one natural Sabbath that fell during the seven day period]...’
and the crucifixion took place on the day immediately prior to it - that is, Friday 15th Nisan.
The English translation can be twisted to yield both contradictory meanings and, to try and put it more simply than I have above, it depends where you want to put the bracket as to what meaning you’ll get out of it. If you read it as
‘the day of (the preparation of the Passover)’
then it sounds as if it was the day on which they prepared for the Passover. But, if you read it as
‘(the day of preparation) of the Passover’
then it naturally refers to the day before the sabbath that fell in the seven day festival period.
But, more than this, if John had intended by his phrase to refer to the day before the Passover was eaten, then he would have followed the normal phraseology of the Jewish language (after all, he was a Jew) and have spoken of the ‘eve’ of the Passover (see, for instance, Pesahim 10:1, which is typed out on the following web page).
As far as I can determine, ‘eve’ is used exclusively for the day before a festival and never of the day before a sabbath, while ‘day of preparation’ is only used of the day before a sabbath and never of the day before a festival. Both original words are used in a wide variety of other meanings in different contexts, but the overlap between sabbath and festival day never occurs to my knowledge in the ancient literature available to us.
4. John 19:14
One final problem with regard to time (though not with regard to which day of the week it was) occurs in John 19:14 where the writer speaks of Jesus being brought out to the Jewish crowds at ‘the sixth hour’.
The only explanation possible here (in my opinion) is that John, the disciple who was predominantly linked with the churches of Asia Minor, is here using the time frame of that culture and people who counted the start of the day from midnight.
There seems to be no logical reason for John to have done this but it certainly does appear to be the only explanation possible to bring it in line with the Synoptics.
The solution for the timetable of the last few days of Jesus’ earthwalk is laid out in the following chart. The first horizontal line is, like the first chart, divided up into the evening and day of Jewish daily time and the second into the dates of the month Nisan. The third line gives the differing names for the days according to the authorities prevalent at the time but also with reference to the Biblical narrative.
The fourth row gives the names of the days of the week (though I have deliberately chosen to call Saturday ‘sabbath’ to try and remove any confusion that may exist in one’s mind as to taking Sunday as the ‘sabbath’.
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