Christ and the Passover

Was the Last Supper, a Passover?

In Three Parts

It is beyond doubt that Passover day is the 14th of the first Hebraic month, Aviv/Abib (Nisan after Babylonian exile)[Lev. 23:5; Num. 9:2-3,5; Num. 28:16]. However, if you look at any modern Jewish calendar, it will show that Passover falls on the Fifteenth of Nisan. So why the difference? We will discuss this at more length later on. One thing that will make all this easier for the reader, is understanding how the Jewish day was configured. The Jewish or Hebraic day always began at sunset. The day ended at the next sunset. So the day ran from sunset to sunset. This is very basic knowledge for most Bible students. However, if you don't keep it in mind, you can get lost rather quickly.

One other fact that should be mentioned, is within the seven days of the feast of Unleavened Bread, were two days counted as sabbaths, or called holy convocations. The first day of the feast and the seventh day were both counted as a day of rest, or a sabbath [Lev. 23:4-8]. This proves to play a very important role in Christ's passion chronology.

Passover day, the Fourteenth of the first Hebraic month, is then followed by the seven days of the feast of Unleavened Bread. So what we have, is a period of eight days(14-21) consisting of two feasts. These two feasts, in time and practice, became fused together into one feast of eight days. This feast of eight days was known as Passover or Unleavened Bread. That these two names were used interchangeably in the first century is evidenced by its use in Luke 22:1, which says, “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover.” Also, Mark combines the two, when he records, "And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?" [Mark 14:12]. The passover was to be killed on the Fourteenth, thus making it the "first day of unleavend bread, when they killed the passover."

Josephus also refers to Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, as being interchangeable:

Now the king was so pleased herewith, that he feasted with the people, and returned thanks to God; but as the feast of unleavened bread was now come, when they had offered that sacrifice which is called the passover, they after that offered other sacrifices for seven days.[Ant. 9.13.3]
And when he had thus purged all the country, he called the people to Jerusalem, and there celebrated the feast of unleavened bread, and that (they) called the passover.[Ant. 10.4.5]
As this happened at the time when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, which we call the passover, the principal men among the Jews left the country, and fled into Egypt.[Ant. 14.2.2]
Now, upon the approach of that feast of unleavened bread, which the law of their fathers had appointed for the Jews at this time, which feast is called the Passover and is a memorial of their deliverance out of Egypt [Ant. 17.9.3]. See also [Ant. 18.2.2]

Josephus also notes this time of the feast was eight days, even though the feast of Unleavened Bread is specifically noted as being only seven days [Lev. 23:6]. Hence, the eighth day must be that of Passover.

Whence it is 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.[Ant. 2.15.1]

Was the Passover Sacrificed at the Beginning or End of the 14th of Nisan?

This question lies at the heart of the timing of Passover observance. If the passover lamb was to be killed at sunset, beginning the 14th, then the Passover meal would be eaten on the night of the 14th. This appears to be the custom followed by Jesus and His disciples.

However, the Pharisees of Jesus' day seemed to hold that the passover lamb was to be killed on the late afternoon of the 14th, and the meal was taken in the night of the 15th. This is the heart of the controversy. What was the practice according to the instructions of Scripture, as opposed to the rabbinic tradition and practice?

The First Passover

Before we address this question, we should establish what the instructions were concerning the killing of the passover lamb in the Scriptures. Exodus 12 is where we find the first mention and instructions about the keeping of Passover. The passover animal was to be chosen on the Tenth of the first month and kept until the Fourteenth.

Exodus 12:5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:
Exodus 12:6 And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.

The two most relevant phrases in verse 6, which will determine its meaning, are the phrases, "up until " and "in the evening".
Up until: This is the Hebrew word ‘ad,’ which operates as either a preposition or a conjunction. According to Strong's Hebrew Concordance (#5704), it means, as far as, even to, up to, until, while. This word operates to mark the limit of a thing, either time or space.

In this context it was to mark the limit of how long the lamb was to be kept. The lamb was to be kept as far as, or up to the fourteenth day, but not through the fourteenth. That is, the fourteenth day marked the limit of how long the sacrifice was to be kept. Then they were instructed to kill the sacrifice in the evening. Since a new day begins at evening, this can only mean the evening that begins the Fourteenth.

In the evening: The meaning of "evening" has been debated for a long while. The main reason for this debate is due to the difference in the Biblical definition and the rabbinic definition. The Biblical definition is from sunset to complete darkness. The rabbinic definition is from the time the sun begins to decline (just after high noon) to sunset.

However, we must go with the Biblical definition, as the rabbinic traditions hold no weight here. Deut. 16:6 defines the evening or what is literally, between the evenings, as the time of the going down of the sun. Hence, between the evenings is from the time of sunset to complete darkness, or what we would call dusk or twilght.

However, the Pharisees had a different take on what the Scriptures said, which they usually do. They believed that the term between the evenings referred not to the evening beginning the Fourteenth, but meant the afternoon, ending the Fourteenth. They counted this between the evenings as being just after the sun began to decline to its setting. This declining of the sun, they referred to as the 'casting of the evening shadows.’ Typically this was understood as from about 3pm to sunset. However, they could move the start of the first evening as far back as 1:30.

Between the Evenings

The phrase “even” or “evening” in the Scripture has long been the source of debate. You would think that such a simple concept as evening, should not be so hard to understand or define.

The reason it has been the topic of such debate, is due to the pharisaic redefinition of it. The Pharisaic Rabbis have their own definition of “evening,” which is different from the Bible’s definition and use of it. This should be no big surprise, due to the fact that the Pharisees have pretty much always defined things according to their own tradition, in opposition to God’s. This was of course, one of the great areas of contention between them and Jesus.

Two evenings

What has added to the confusion, is that there are two different phrases that are translated as “even” or “evening” in the Bible. These two phrases actually are signifying two different times or portions of the evening, but are translated in the same way. The two phrases are ba’erev and ben ha’arbayim.

These two phrases are usually both translated as “even” or “evening” in the Old Testament, but they mean different things. What adds to the confusion to those studying the Bible, is that they both come from the same root Hebrew word. So Strong’s treats them as having the same basic meaning. This is where the trouble starts.

ba erev

This aspect of evening signifies the time of sunset, the actual time of the sun going down below the horizon. It is the time when one day ends and the next day begins. The best example we have of this is found in Leviticus 23. God gave instructions concerning the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. This was to be observed on the tenth day of the seventh month. In verse 32, He says this,

It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest, and ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye celebrate your sabbath.

All of God’s people were to observe this day. They were to afflict their souls and do no kind of work. If they transgressed these prohibitions, the penalty was to be cut off from the people of God, i.e., killed. Now this is some very serious stuff. God told them exactly when to begin the observance of this day, and when to end it. He told them that the beginning of Yom Kippur was on the ninth day at even, or ba’erev. This time of ba’erev points to the time of sunset, i.e., from the time the sun touches the horizon to the time it sinks or disappears below it.

The Schocken Bible actually gives us the precise meaning of ba’erev in this passage of Leviticus 23:32. “it is Sabbath, a Sabbath-ceasing for you, you are to afflict your selves; on the ninth (day) after the New-Moon, at sunset [ba’erev], from sunset[ba’erev] to sunset[ba’erev], you are to make-a-ceasing of your ceasing!”

Knowing that according to the Bible/Hebraic usage, each day begins and ends at sunset. Hence when the Israelites are commanded to observe the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month, they are told specifically when it begins and when it ends. It begins at sunset on the ninth day, i.e., when the ninth day ends and when the tenth day begins. They are also told specifically when it ends, at sunset on the tenth day, i.e., when the tenth day ends and the eleventh day begins.

behn ha arbayim

This phrase, although translated in the KJV as “even”, is understood to mean between the evenings. This is where the confusion for many set in. This is where the pharisaic infusion of their own meaning, muddies the clean, clear water of the Living Word.

The Pharisees, according to their own tradition, taught that this between the evenings signified from the afternoon of the daytime portion of the 14th until sunset on the 14th/15th. This automatically places the observance of the Passover on the night of the 15th, which is in direct opposition to the Biblical account of Exodus. It is the tradition to this very day to follow the pharisaic/rabbinic tradition of holding the Passover meal/seder on the night of the 15th. As already stated, this is in direct violation of the instructions of Mighty One of Israel, found in Exodus 12.

I can do no better than to quote the significant and thorough research found in the book, The Christian Passover by Fred Coulter.

“Authorities in early Hebrew culture, Hebrew syntax and the etymology of Hebrew words, as well as other Semitic languages of ancient times, define behn ha arbayim as “time between day and night”(Waltke, An Introduction to Biblical hebrew Syntax, p. 118).

This description limits behn ha’arbayim to the time of twilight, which ends with the coming of darkness. The literal meaning of behn ha’arbayim is “time between the two enterings.” Waltke describes these two “enterings” as entering of sunset and entering dark (Ibid. p. 200). This definition of the two “enterings” (arbayim) is confirmed by the command for the slaying the lambs (Ex.12:6), which designates the arrival of the 14th as the beginning of behn ha’arbayim. The whole congregation of Israel was commanded to slay the lambs at this time—immediately after sunset—not any time of their choosing during the next twenty-four hours.

There is no basis in the Hebrew text for the claim that behn ha’arbayim extends through the entire day, from sunset to sunset. The ordinances of God required not only the killing of the lambs but the entire Passover observance to be completed before the night of Nisan 14 ended (Ex. 12:6, 8, 10, 12-13). And if, as some erroneously claim, behn ha’arbayim did not end until the coming of dawn, this reasoning would still not allow an extension of behn ha’arbayim into the afternoon.”