The Last Passover and its Harmonies

By E. P. Gray, Baltimore, Md.


The Harmony of the four Evangelists in regard to the time of the Last Passover and of the Lord’s Supper is a subject of serious difficulty, which has caused some to despair of reconciling the statements of St. John with those of the other Evangelists. The cause of this difficulty seems to the present writer to lie in the too implicit credit given to certain rabbinical traditions concerning the reckoning of the feasts of the Passover and the Pentecost, and the consequent misinterpretation of terms. An exact and correct definition of terms, according to the uniform usage of Scripture, I believe, would greatly relieve the subject of its difficulties, and lead to a clear solution.

I.—The Morrow Of The Sabbath.

The rule for the reckoning of the Passover and the Pentecost is laid down in Lev. 23:5–22. On the 14th of the first month at even was the Passover (ver. 5), when the Passover lamb was to be killed (Ex. 12:6). On the 15th day began the feast of Unleavened Bread, which alone was to be eaten for seven days, and the first and seventh days were days of holy convocation, on which no servile work was to be done (ver. 6–8). In verses 10-11, occur these instructions: “When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest unto the priest; and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it.” In verses 15-16, the reckoning for the Pentecost is given: “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meal offering unto the Lord.” Already in the third verse, the Sabbath was spoken of in these terms: “Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.” The natural interpretation, therefore, of “the morrow after the sabbath “in this connection, since no other Sabbath has been mentioned, is the next day after the weekly Sabbath falling within the seven days of Unleavened Bread, that is, on the first day of the week. But the rabbinical interpretation, adopted by Dr. Lightfoot, the learned Hebraist, and followed by most commentators since, makes “the sabbath” in verse 11 to mean the first day of Unleavened Bread, and the morrow therefore to be the 16th day of the first month; and in verse 16 the Pentecost to he the morrow after the seventh week, that is, the 6th day of the third month, Sivan, invariably. But if this were the true meaning, why was not the date given by the day of the month as in the case of all the other annual feasts mentioned in this chapter, rather than by such a misleading expression?

But, further, the Hebrew word for Sabbath (shabbath) is never applied to any other holy-day except the weekly Sabbath and the Day of Atonement, each of which is emphatically said to be a “sabbath of rest,” on which NO work, or “NO manner of work,” was to be done (ver. 3, 28, 31). On certain other festival days, as the first and seventh of Unleavened Bread, and the feast of First-fruits, it is distinctively specified that “no servile work “was to be done (ver. 7, 8, 21, 25, 35-36). Some of these feasts are designated by the Hebrew word shabbathon, derived from shabbath, represented in Greek by ἀνάπαυσις, in the Authorized Version usually “rest.” But in these instances it has been rendered misleadingly “sabbath”; Lev. 23:24, 39 twice: where the Revised Version has uniformly “solemn rest.”

On the weekly Sabbath it was unlawful even to kindle a fire, or to gather sticks (Ex. 35:2, 3; Num. 15:32–36): thus prohibiting the preparation of food on that day. But on the feast of Unleavened Bread, on the contrary, it is said: “In the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you: no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you “(Ex. 12:16). Thus the first day of Unleavened Bread is never called a shabbath, or even a shabbailion; but is classed with those secondary days of rest on which “no servile work” can be done.

But the rabbinical interpretation, embodied in the Tar gums and the Talmud some time after the Christian era, is thought to be sustained in the Greek version of the Septuagint, made in the third century B. c. In this version, the directions for waving the sheaf of first-fruits are given as follows, in verse 11. “On the morrow of the first (day) (τῆς πρώτης), the priest shall wave it”: supposed to mean the first day of Unleavened Bread. But in verse 15 the same expression is rendered more literally: “Ye shall number from the morrow of” the sabbath (τῶν σαββάτων) … seven weeks complete.” In verse 16 the expression is again changed: “Until the morrow” of the last seventh (day), (ἐοχάτης ἐβδὁμης. ye shall number fifty days.” In this verse the Roman edition reads ἑβδομάδος, the last week, instead of ἑβδόμης. But the Vatican codex B* first hand has the barbarous ἑβδομάδης, evidently an attempt to correct ἑβδόμαδος to ἑβδόμης, neglecting to strike out the superfluous letters αδ. The correctors a b have given ἑβδόμης in the margin, which is the reading of Codex Alexandrinus, of the Aldine and Grabe’s editions, and of the admirable edition of Field. A various reading of Origen’s Hexapla gives the sense more literally “the morrow of the seventh sabbath “ (τοῦ σαββάτου (τοῦ) ἑβο͂όμου). But the text of verse 11 is thus inconsistent with verses 15-16, both in rendering and computation; for fifty days from “the morrow of the first (day),’”or 16th day of the first month, will seldom coincide with “the morrow after the sabbath” or “seventh day “of the week. In verse 16 “the last seventh day “implies a first seventh day, from which the reckoning starts. So, if we supply ἑβδόμης in verse 2, and read, “On the morrow τῆς πρώτης ἑβδόμης, of the first seventh (day),” the text will be made consistent at once with the Hebrew and with the whole context of the version. In confirmation of this, it should be remembered that ἑβδόμη is elsewhere used to render the Hebrew shabbath, as in the fourth commandment itself (Ex. 20:2), “the Lord blessed the seventh day,” the rendering still retained in the Prayer-book. (So also Ex. 31:14.) A various reading in Origen’s Hexapla (ver. 11), with codex X, gives the sense, “the (day) after the sabbath,” τῇ̈̀ μετὰ τὸ σάββατον. The Septuagint, therefore, as the text now stands, being inconsistent with itself as well as with the Hebrew, and probably defective in verse 2, cannot be held to sustain the rabbinical interpretation.1

Again, if we tabulate the calendar of feasts contained in Leviticus 23. we shall the more distinctly see the reason for the peculiar terms used in the reckoning of the pentecostal season. The table in the order of the text stands thus :—

Here it is clearly seen that all the feast-days except the Sabbath, the Sheaf day, and the Pentecost, are dated by the days of the month in order. But the series is abruptly broken for the Sheaf day and the Pentecost, when they might have been dated, like the rest, by the day and month, if the rabbinical interpretation is correct. The only assignable reason for the actual method followed is that these feasts must fall on a certain day of the week, and so could not be assigned to a certain day of any month. That day of the week, be it noted, was “the morrow after the sabbath,” in New Testament phrase “the first day of the week,” on which Christ arose “the First-fruits from the dead,” and fifty days after, on the day of Pentecost, sent down his Holy Spirit upon the apostles, and gathered in the first-fruits of the complete harvest of his church. Thus was the Lord’s day of the gospel dispensation shadowed forth in the very midst of the law. But after the first Christian Pentecost, the rabbinical Jews would naturally seek to avoid the telling coincidence, and avail themselves of the defective text of the Septuagint to uphold another reckoning. But in this they have constantly been opposed by the Samaritans and the Karaite Jews, or Scripturists, as well as the Sadducees and the Boethusians, who have continuously maintained the strict and natural interpretation of the law.2

II.—Preparation Day.

This term also, as used by the Evangelists, needs to be carefully defined; for rabbinical tradition has dealt with this as with the word Sabbath. It is said to denote the day before a festival as a Sabbath, as well as before the weekly Sabbath, as a preparation for it. In the Old Testament there is no mention or occasion for such a day. But in regard to the weekly Sabbath, it was expressly ordered that the manna for that day’s sustenance should be gathered on the sixth day (Ex. 16:5, 22); and afterward it was commanded, “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day” (Ex. 35:3); so that the preparation of food was necessarily to be made the day before. No such law applied to the Passover, but on the contrary it was clearly provided that such needful work might be done on the first and seventh days of Unleavened Bread, though “no servile work “was permitted (Ex. 12:16, as quoted above). So when we read of the Preparation Day in the Gospels, we have good reason to understand it of the sixth day of the week. And this is made certain by what the Evangelists themselves say. For St. Luke, after relating the Burial of Christ, adds: “And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on” (23:54). Now as it has been shown that the Sabbath can be no other than the weekly Sabbath, the Preparation must needs be the sixth day of the week. So, in the next verse but one, he relates that the women “rested the sabbath day, according to the commandment” (56). The reference is clearly to the fourth commandment. The very next words bring us to the first day of the week: “But upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre” (24:1).

The testimony of St. Mark is the same, and very explicit. Introducing his account of the Burial, he says, “And even being already come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, προσάββατον” (15:42). And immediately after the account of the Burial, he continues: “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre” (16:1-2. Here is the same inseparable linking together of the Preparation and the Sabbath and the First Day of the week as in St. Luke. The word προσάββατον is used twice in the Septuagint: where it can have no other meaning than the eve of the Sabbath (Judith 8:6; Ps. 93:1).

In St. Matthew there is the same close order; for after relating the Burial, he proceeds: “And on the morrow which was after the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees were gathered together unto Pilate” (27:62). Having stated the result of the interview, in the sealing of the sepulchre, he immediately adds: “And in the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre” (28:1). Whatever be the special meaning of these words, it is clear that the Preparation was the same as the day of Burial, and that the Sabbath is set between the Preparation and the First Day of the week, without any break, so that the Preparation can be none other than the sixth day of the week.

St. John also links the Preparation with the Sabbath. Having related the Death of Christ, he continues: “The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day (for that sabbath was an high day), besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (19:31). Then having told how Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body of Jesus for burial in a new sepulchre, he goes on: “There laid they Jesus therefore, because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand. But (δέ) on the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre” (19:42; 20:1). Here it is evident that this Sabbath day (called “an high day,” μεγάλη, since it was the Sabbath which fell in Passover week, and from which were reckoned the Sheaf day and the Pentecost), was a weekly Sabbath, next before the first day of the week, as in the other Gospels, and the Preparation was the sixth day.

Now it was a few hours earlier than the Burial, just before Pilate delivered up Jesus to be crucified, that St. John says: “And it was the preparation day of the Passover: it was about the sixth hour “(19:14). This verse is often quoted as if it proved the Preparation day to be the day before the Passover. But this cannot be, since it would make St. John irreconcilable with himself, as well as with the other Evangelists. For he evidently makes the delivery of Christ to be crucified (14), and the breaking of the legs of the malefactors (31), and the Burial (42) to be on the same Preparation before the Sabbath (31), which can only be the weekly Sabbath; and it is “the preparation of the Jews,” as the only such known to him. Grammatically, “the preparation of the Passover” does not necessarily mean preparation for the Passover or before it, as has been assumed. The genitive in Greek has a much wider scope. It simply means the Preparation day belonging to the Passover season (Winer’s Gram., p. 189). This is the only meaning consistent with the context.

III. Alleged Discrepancies

Certain passages in St. John have been urged as irreconcilable with the other Evangelists, and as proving that our Lord did not keep the Jewish Passover, but instituted the Lord’s Supper on the day before it.

1. The first of these is John 13, 1, 2: “Now before the feast of the pass-over Jesus knowing that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being come, … knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God and went to God, he riseth from the supper.” The note of time in the first verse has been thought to determine the time of the supper in the second; whereas the serving of the supper is itself made another note of time for what follows. Jesus is represented as beforehand deliberately contemplating his separation from his disciples, and determining to give them a further token of his continued love. Then when the time of the supper actually arrives, he carries his determination into effect. And this supper, from the context, naturally means the Passover supper. And this is made certain by the 38th verse, relating to the same evening, when the Lord says to Peter, “Verily, verily, I say to thee, The cock shall not crow till thou hast denied me thrice.” This can be no other than the night before the Crucifixion, as related in the other Evangelists for the 15th of the month.

2. But, because in the 29th verse the disciples understood Jesus to say to Judas, “Buy those things that we have need of against (for) the feast,” it is inferred that the Passover supper was yet to be provided for. But if this was the night of the 13th, there was no occasion for such orders; for the necessary instructions were given to Peter and John the next day (Luke 22, 8–13), and the Iamb could not be offered earlier. Judas wks present at the institution of the Lord’s Supper; for St. Mark expressly says of the cup, “They all drank of it” (14:23); when he had just spoken of the Twelve being present (17, 20). What remained to be provided were the special offerings for the morrow.

3. So again, when on the day of the trial it is said the Jews “went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover” (18:28), this is thought to prove conclusively that the Passover lamb was not yet sacrificed. But St. John has already made certain that the time of Passover supper was past, as shown above. But though the Jews had eaten that supper, there were further festivities of the Passover season, from which they would not be debarred by defiling themselves.

It is thus sufficiently evident that there is no discrepancy between St. John and the other Evangelists as to the time of the Passover and the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

IV.—Harmony of the Accounts.

But the harmony of the Evangelists can be proved to a demonstration by tabulating all the notes of time from the Passover to the Pentecost, beginning with the definite note of time, “when the passover must be killed,” on the 14th of the first month.

1. This table clearly shows, by the consentient testimony of all the Evangelists, that the Passover supper took place on the night beginning the sixth. day of the week and the 15th of the month; and that during its celebration the Lord’s Supper was instituted as a memorial of his impending Death and Sacrifice on the same day.

2. It also shows incontrovertibly that his Burial took place on the same 15th day before sunset; and his Resurrection on the third day after, according to his own prediction, that is, on the first day of the week at early dawn. The contention of some, therefore, that the Burial was on Wednesday the 14th, and his Resurrection on Saturday the 17th, is utterly untenable.3

3. It further shows incontestably, in connection with the former argument, that the Levitical rule of reckoning “the morrow after the sabbath “as referring to the weekly Sabbath was the only reckoning known to the Evangelists or the Jews in our Lord’s time. For the Pentecost, or 50th day from “the morrow of the sabbath,” must inevitably be another “morrow after the sabbath”; that is, the first day of the week, according to the universal tradition of the church. But on the rabbinical reckoning from the 16th of Nisan (Saturday), as “the morrow of the sabbath,” the 50th day must also have been a Saturday, the 6th of Si van, as the Jews maintain. Some Christian commentators have incautiously said it would fall on Sunday.

One can easily satisfy himself on this point by making a calendar of Sundays from Sunday, the 17th of first month, for seven weeks, the first month having thirty days, and the second twenty-nine days. The rabbinical rule makes Pentecost to fall uniformly on the 6th Si van (3d month). The change in the reckoning must have been made between A. D. 30 and the time of Philo, who first mentions it, about A. D. 40–50. But the Samaritans had no reason to change it, as they had no hand in procuring the death of Christ, and did not share the bitter enmity of the Jews against Christianity. And so the old reckoning was continued by them, and also maintained by the Sadducees, the Karaites, and the Boethusians.

Mo. Sun.
1 17
3 7


1) This reckoning furnishes a satisfactory explanation to the reading in Luke 6:1, σαββάτῳ δευτεροπρώτῳ, which must be rightly considered genuine, since it is contained in the vast majority of all manuscripts; and such an unusual term could not have been interpolated and generally received before the fourth century. (So Tischendorf & Scrivener.) The term implies a first or chief Sabbath, and a second Sabbath, which was also in some respect first. According to the Levitical rule, the Passover Sabbath was the starting-point for reckoning to the Pentecost, but was itself excluded from the count of “seven sabbaths,” and the next Sabbath was the first of the seven to be counted, while itself secondary and dependent on the chief Passover Sabbath. And so it was fitly called “second-first sabbath”; analogous to our “Sunday after Easter,” to which the same term was applied in the sixth century δευτεροπρώτην κυριακήν (Sophocles, Lexicon).

2) In this they have been followed, among others, by Archbishop Usher (Patrick’s Com. Lev. 23.), Bonar (Com. ibid.), Fuerst (Heb. Lex. Skabbath), Jarvis (Introd. Hist. Ch., pp. 478-480), McClellan (Four Gospels, pp. 477-478), Birks (Horse Evangelicę, p. 93).

3) Church Review, 1885, October, p. 484.