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Was the Last Supper Celebrated
on the Feast of Pasch?

Dear TIA,

I realize you are busy and I don’t want to abuse your valuable time, but I trust you to provide me with the authentic, before Vatican II, traditional Catholic answer.

I was reading in the Gospels Jesus’ passion, and His desire to eat the Pasch (Luk 22:15 DRV). In other scriptures, Jesus tells Peter and John to “Go, and prepare for us the Pasch, that we may eat” (Luk 22:8 DRV).

Since my youth, which was some time ago, it’s been my understanding that this Pasch was the “Last Supper.”

But upon further reading, in John 13:1 “Before the festival day of the Pasch, Jesus knowing that His hour was come, that He should pass out of this world to the Father: having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them unto the end.” (John 13:1, emphasis added) This seems to indicate that this meal was before the Pasch, but since the Jewish day began at sunset, the Pasch had begun.

In John we read: “Then they [High Priest, ruling Jews] led Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor’s hall. And it was morning; and they went not into the hall, that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the Pasch.” (18:28) It seems the Jewish rulers would not go into Pilate’s Court because they did not want to be defiled so they could eat the Pasch, (emphasis added). This suggests that the Pasch began at sunset, not the sunset of the Last Supper.

If Jesus and His Disciples ate the traditional Jewish Pasch, why were the Jewish rulers concerned about being defiled so they could eat the Pasch?

Since Jesus is God in the flesh I believe Jesus and his Disciples ate the Pasch on the correct night.

I’m confused, why were the Jewish leaders afraid of being defiled if the Pash supper was already eaten?

Can you please explain this?

     Dominus vobiscum – the Lord be with you


TIA responds:

Dear R.T.,

There are some presuppositions to be considered in order to evaluate well the feast of the Pasch or Passover:
  1. This feast was established to celebrate the liberation of the Jews from the captivity of Egypt. Those episodes did not take place in a single day, but rather during a larger period of time as described in Exodus (11-15). This started with the sacrifice of the lamb whose blood was used by the Jews to mark the doors of their houses; the meal that was taken by the Jews standing in preparation for their flight; the passage of the Angel killing the first-born sons of the Egyptian families; the beginning of the Exodus until the passage of the Red Sea. After the Jews had crossed the Red Sea and the army of the Pharaoh was drowned, this series of events ended with the Canticle that Moses sang in thanksgiving.

    If those original historic episodes took place in a succession of days, it is not unreasonable that the commemoration of them could take place in more than one day as well.

  2. Those historic facts were symbols prefiguring the Redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was the true Lamb sacrificed to redeem the offense made against God. He shed His blood for Him and for us to liberate us from the captivity of the Devil – symbolized by the Pharaoh – in which we were imprisoned since the sin of Adam. The immensity of His sufferings and the shedding of His blood to the last drop in the Passion were symbolized by the Red Sea.

    The conclusion is that the reality that was symbolized in those events – the Passion of Christ – is much more than the symbols that preceded it. Thus, whatever happened in the reality is the model for the symbol, and not vice-versa. In other words, what Our Lord did is the model to interpret those symbols.

  3. You also have a personal presupposition, which is that there was just one day for the celebration of the Pasch. By reading this answer, you will realize that it is not the case.
With these presuppositions in mind, we go on to discuss the adequacy of the descriptions of the feast of the Pasch at the time of Our Lord either in the Gospels or among the Jews.

The apparent discordance between the Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke compared to that of St. John has been the subject of much debate. The former indicate that the Last Supper took place at the same time that it was made by the rest of the Jews, while the latter suggests that the Last Supper took place beforehand. It does not seem that there is an official pronouncement of the Church on this subject for us to rely upon, so we turn to the realm of exegetical and scholarly opinions. As many scholars and theologians have studied the issue in depth, several explanations have been offered to reconcile the supposed discordances.

An important point regarding the date of the Pasch at the time of Our Lord involves the different calendars that were in use among the Jews. Even excluding the Greek and Roman calendars, there was division among the Jews on how to officially calculate their own lunar calendar. As a result, different Jewish groups would place feast days at different times.

The situation was still more confused when the feast of Pasch would fall near the Sabbath (Saturday), as it happened in the year of Our Lord’s death. For practical reasons, in order to avoid having together two days where no servile work was permitted (Friday and Saturday), some Jewish groups moved the Pasch to coincide with the Sabbath. In this case, Friday would be referred to as “the day of preparation,” even if some other Jews had celebrated their meal the night before, as in the case of Our Lord who celebrated the Last Supper on Thursday evening.

Another practical justification to move the feast day was the limited time the Jews had to make sacrifices in the Temple, given the large number of families present. If all the Paschal lambs were sacrificed during the proper time of the Pasch, it would require a disproportionately large number of lambs to be slaughtered at the same time. Thus, most likely some arrangements were made among the Jewish religious authorities to move certain rituals to different times. Jews travelling to Jerusalem from other provinces also seemed to frequently celebrate their sacrifice the day before.

When one analyzes the practical reasons to move the date of the Pasch that prevailed at the time, it becomes easy to understand that three Evangelists would refer to one date and St. John to another. Even if Our Lord celebrated the Pasch one day before some of the Jews, it could still be written by St. John that other Jews were preoccupied with the Pasch festival one day later.

The fact that we must retain, as you said, is that Our Lord, who as the Son of God, made it on the correct date.

We hope these considerations will be of help to you.


     TIA correspondence desk

Source: F. Vigouroux, entry Cène in Dictionnaire de la Bible, Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1926, vol. II, cols 408-413.

Posted October 18, 2016


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