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Pope Benedict XVI: the Last Supper

Here we print an extract from the Pope’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth Part II

By on Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Last Supper as imagined by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper as imagined by Leonardo da Vinci

The problem of dating Jesus’s Last Supper arises from the contradiction on this point between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand and St John’s Gospel on the other. Mark, whom Matthew and Luke follow in essentials, gives us a precise dating: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?’ … when it was evening, he came with the Twelve” (14:12, 17). The evening of the first day of unleavened bread, on which the Paschal lambs are slaughtered in the Temple, is the vigil of the Passover feast. According to the chronology of the Synoptics, this was a Thursday.

After sunset, the Passover began, and then the Passover Meal was taken – by Jesus and his disciples, as indeed by all the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem. On the night leading into Friday, then – still according to the Synoptic chronology – Jesus was arrested and brought before the court, on Friday morning he was condemned to death by Pilate and subsequently “around the third hour” (c 9am) he was led to the Cross. Jesus died at the ninth hour (c 3pm). “And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea … took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mk 15:42f). The burial had to take place before sunset, because then the Sabbath would begin. The Sabbath is the day when Jesus rested in the tomb. The resurrection took place on the morning of the “first day of the week”, on Sunday.

This chronology suffers from the problem that Jesus’s trial and crucifixion would have taken place on the day of the Passover feast, which that year fell on a Friday. True, many scholars have tried to show that the trial and crucifixion were compatible with the prescriptions of the Passover. But despite all academic arguments, it seems questionable whether the trial before Pilate and the crucifixion would have been permissible and possible on such an important Jewish feast day. Moreover, there is a comment reported by Mark that militates against this hypothesis. He tells us that two days before the feast of unleavened bread, the chief priests and scribes were looking for an opportunity to trick Jesus into their power and kill him, but in this regard they declared: “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people” (14:1f). According to the Synoptic chronology, the execution of Jesus would indeed have taken place on the very day of the feast.

Let us now turn to John’s chronology. John goes to great lengths to indicate that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. On the contrary: the Jewish authorities who led Jesus before Pilate’s court avoided entering the praetorium, “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (18:28). The Passover therefore began only in the evening, and at the time of the trial the Passover meal had not yet taken place; the trial and crucifixion took place on the day before the Passover, on the “day of preparation”, not on the feast day itself. The Passover feast in the year in question accordingly ran from Friday evening until Saturday evening, not from Thursday evening until Friday evening.

Otherwise the sequence of events remains the same: Thursday evening – Jesus’s Last Supper with the disciples, but not a Passover meal; Friday, the vigil of the feast, not the feast itself – trial and execution; Saturday – rest in the tomb; Sunday – resurrection. According to this chronology, Jesus dies at the moment when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Jesus dies as the real lamb, merely prefigured by those slain in the Temple.

This theologically significant connection, that Jesus’s death coincides with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, has led many scholars to dismiss John’s presentation as a theological chronology. John, they claim, altered the chronology in order to create this theological connection, which admittedly is not made explicit in the Gospel. Today, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that John’s chronology is more probable historically than the Synoptic chronology. For as mentioned earlier: trial and execution on the feast seem scarcely conceivable. On the other hand, Jesus’s Last Supper seems so closely tied to the Passover tradition, that to deny its Passover character is problematic.

Frequent attempts have been made, therefore, to reconcile the two chronologies with one another. A most important and indeed fascinating attempt to harmonise the two traditions was made by the French scholar Annie Jaubert, who developed her theory in a series of publications starting in 1953. We need not go into the details of this proposal here; let us confine ourselves to the essentials.

Ms Jaubert bases herself primarily on two early texts, which seem to suggest a solution to the problem. First, she refers to an ancient priestly calendar handed down in the Book of Jubilees, which was a Hebrew text produced in the second half of the second century before Christ. This calendar leaves the cycles of the moon out of consideration and bases itself upon a year of 364 days, divided into four seasons each consisting of three months, two of them 30 days long and one 31 days long. Each quarter year, then, has 91 days, which is exactly 13 weeks, and each year has exactly 52 weeks. Accordingly, the liturgical feasts fall on the same weekday every year. For the Passover, this means that the 15th day of Nisan is always a Wednesday and the Passover meal is held after sunset on Tuesday evening. According to Jaubert, Jesus celebrated the Passover following this calendar, ie on Tuesday evening, and was arrested during the night leading into Wednesday.

Jaubert sees here the solution to two problems: first, Jesus celebrated a real Passover meal, as the Synoptic tradition maintains; yet John is also right, in that the Jewish authorities, following their own calendar, did not celebrate the Passover until after Jesus’s trial, and Jesus was therefore executed on the vigil of the real Passover, not on the feast itself. Both the Synoptic and the Johannine traditions thus appear to be correct on the basis of the discrepancy between two different calendars.

The second advantage emphasised by Annie Jaubert shows at the same time the weakness of this attempted solution. She points out that the traditional chronologies (Synoptic and Johannine) have to compress a whole series of events into a few hours: the hearing before the Sanhedrin, Jesus being sent over to Pilate, Pilate’s wife’s dream, Jesus being handed over to Herod, his return to Pilate, the scourging, the condemnation to death, the way of the Cross and the crucifixion. To accomplish all this in the space of a few hours seems scarcely possible, according to Jaubert. Her solution, though, provides a time scale from the night leading into Wednesday through to the morning of Good Friday.

She also argues that Mark gives a precise sequence of events for “Palm Sunday”, Monday and Tuesday, but then leaps directly to the Passover meal. According to the traditional dating, then, two days remain of which nothing is recounted. Finally, Jaubert reminds us that, if her theory is correct, the Jewish authorities could have succeeded in their plan to kill Jesus in good time before the feast. Pilate then delayed the crucifixion until Friday, so the theory goes, through his hesitations.

One argument against this redating of the Last Supper to Tuesday, of course, is the long tradition assigning it to the Thursday, which we find clearly established as early as the second century. Ms Jaubert responds by pointing to the second text on which her theory is based: the so-called Didascalia Apostolorum, a text from the early third century which places the Last Supper on Tuesday. She tries to show that this book preserved an old tradition, traces of which are also found in other texts.

In reply it must be said that the traces of tradition to which she refers are too weak to be convincing. The other difficulty is that Jesus is unlikely to have used a calendar associated principally with Qumran. Jesus went to the Temple for the great feasts. Even if he prophesied its demise and confirmed this with a dramatic symbolic action, he still followed the Jewish festal calendar, as is evident from John’s Gospel in particular. True, one can agree with Jaubert that the Jubilees calendar was not strictly limited to Qumran and the Essenes. Yet this is not sufficient to justify applying it to Jesus’s Passover. Thus it is understandable that Annie Jaubert’s theory – so fascinating on first sight – is rejected by the majority of exegetes.

I have presented it in some detail because it offers an insight into the complexity of the Jewish world at the time of Jesus, a world that we can reconstruct only to a limited degree, despite all the source knowledge now available to us. So while I would not reject this theory outright, it cannot simply be accepted at face value, in view of the various problems that remain unresolved.

So what are we to say? The most meticulous evaluation I have come across of all the solutions proposed so far is found in the Jesus book by John P Meier, who at the end of his first volume presents a comprehensive study of the chronology of Jesus’s life. He concludes that one has to choose between the Synoptic and Johannine chronologies, and he argues, on the basis of the whole range of source material, that the weight of evidence favours John.

John is right when he says that at the time of Jesus’s trial before Pilate the Jewish authorities had not yet eaten the Passover, and thus had to keep themselves ritually pure. He is right that the crucifixion did not take place on the feast, but on the day before the feast. This means that Jesus died at the hour when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. That Christians later saw this as no coincidence, that they recognised Jesus as the true lamb, that in this way they came to see the true meaning of the ritual of the lambs – all this seems to follow naturally.

The question remains: why did the Synoptics speak of a Passover meal? What is the basis for this strand of tradition? Not even Meier can give a truly convincing answer to this question. He makes an attempt – like many other exegetes – through redaction criticism and literary criticism. He argues that Mk 14:1a and 14:12-16 – the only passages in which Mark mentions the Passover – were later additions. In the actual account of the Last Supper itself, he claims, there is no reference to the Passover.

This argument, however many major figures have come out in support of it, is artificial. Yet Meier is right to point out that in the description of the meal itself, the Synoptics recount as little of the Passover ritual as John. Thus with certain reservations, one can agree with his conclusion: “The entire Johannine tradition, from early to late, agrees perfectly with the primitive Synoptic tradition on the non-Passover character of the meal” (A Marginal Jew, i, p398).

We have to ask, though, what Jesus’s Last Supper actually was. And how did it acquire its undoubtedly early attribution of Passover character? The answer given by Meier is astonishingly simple and in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, that followed no specific Jewish ritual, but constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new, he gave them himself as the true lamb and thereby instituted his Passover.

In all the Synoptic gospels the prophecy of Jesus’s death and resurrection form part of this meal. Luke presents it in an especially solemn and mysterious form: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (22:15f). The saying is ambiguous. It can mean that Jesus is eating the usual Passover meal with his disciples for the last time. But it can also mean that he is eating it no longer, but is on his way to the new Passover.

One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’s death and resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’s Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out – when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished, it was simply brought to its full meaning.

The earliest evidence for this unified view of the new and the old, providing a new explanation of the Passover character of Jesus’s meal in terms of his death and resurrection, is found in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (5:7; cf Meier, A Marginal Jew, i, pp429f). As in Mk 14:1, so here the first day of unleavened bread and the Passover follow in rapid succession, but the older ritual understanding is transformed into a Christological and existential interpretation. Unleavened bread must now refer to Christians themselves, who are freed from sin by the addition of yeast. But the sacrificial lamb is Christ. Here Paul is in complete harmony with John’s presentation of events. For him the death and resurrection of Christ have become the Passover that endures.

On this basis one can understand how it was that very early on, Jesus’s Last Supper – including not only a prophecy, but a real anticipation of the Cross and resurrection in the eucharistic gifts – was regarded as a Passover: as his Passover. And so it was.

Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection by Pope Benedict XVI is available from the Catholic Truth Society, priced £14.95

  • Jane Mossendew

    It would have been reassuring to know that the Vatican has given permission for you to print this extract.
    CTS blog has another extract and states that they have the required permission to break the pre-publication embargo.
    Apologies if you have given the information elswhere.

  • The Catholic Herald

    Jane Mossendew –
    Thank you for raising the point. Just to reassure you, we do have permission to print this extract, along with many other outlets around the world. We hope you enjoy reading it.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Fair Damsel – maybe you’ll grant the Herald permission to print an extract from your next [bloody wonderful I may add] book?

  • Anonymous

    …at least you at the Herald had the courtesy to print the Pope as author : Austen Ivereigh over at America puts his name at the top!

  • Linda

    The last supper was one of many stories Christians borrowed from Mithraism.

  • Anonymous

    er no Linda – most of the alleged Mithras ‘tie-ins’ with Christianity are actually inventions of Joseph Campbell. e.g. 25th Dec is not Mithras’ Birthday [born of a virgin etc] – Mithras appeared fully-adult from a rock!. Also, ironically – and believe it or not most Catholics think this and most people studying it in higher education are told this as if it’s a historical fact – rather than Christianity adopting the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus Est festival from Pagans – the Pagan rite actually came nearly a century AFTER Christians were recorded as celebrating 25th December as Christ’s birthday [1st record is in Hippolytus]
    Mithras’ Birthday was not 25th december but rather the end of the post-solstice festival which could be as early as the 16th Dec and as late as the 8th january depending upon the julian/lunar calendars

    Mithras slew the Bull as a redemptive blood sacrifice on the spring equinox then dined upon it with the Sun God before ascending to the Heavens in the Sun God’s Chariot….

    Nothing remotely like each other – nor in practice – Mithraists were an all-male dualist nationalist militarist cult whose members were reborn in the drenching of sacrificial bull’s blood – Mithras was a protectionist God who rewarded the brave and generous – Love had very little to do with any of it….

  • Anonymous

    The pope’s text provides a balanced analysis of the many difficulties associated with this perplexing chronological problem. John seems to preserve accurately many geographical and chronological facts that have been substantiated by later scholarship. Certainly the dates of key events in Holy Week that John’s Gospel provides are to be preferred over the Synoptics. A careful reconstruction of the normative Hebrew calendar was carried out by Colin Humphreys and W. G. Waddington in 1983 and published in the science magazine Nature. Their analysis supported the Johannine dating and reinforced the contention first advanced by the British astronomer J.K. Fotheringham that the two most likely dates for the crucifixion were both Fridays, April 7, AD 30 and April 3, AD 33. For various technical reasons, both analyses preferred the later date, although that late date presents a number of problems with regard to the birth narratives.

    The major problem with the otherwise attractive Jaubert hypothesis is the lack of evidence that Passover in the Essene calendar would have occurred within the same week as the normative Hebrew calendar. What evidence we do have would suggest that this was highly unlikely. The Essene solar calendar began at a still unknown point in the first century B.C. If it was intercalated at all is hotly debated, but it clearly would not track the seasons as closely as the luni-solar Hebrew calendar. For Essene Passover to coincide closely with the Hebrew Passover in A.D. 30 or 33 would be a complete accident. This does not rule it out as occurring but obviously makes it much less likely.

  • DBMcGinnity

    The Pope my be infallible, but his assertion in his new book Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection that the Sanhedrin had been responsible for the death of Jesus is maliciously untrue. The Jews would never have allowed a trial or execution during Passover. Even though there are tons of literature to support that the trial of Jesus probably did not happen at all. The Pope continues to insist that not all the Jews, but the Jews nevertheless were responsible for the death of Jesus.

    Pontius Pilate and the Romans continue to be exonerated, as Constantine dictated. It is important to realize that Tiberius the Roman Emperor specifically sent Pontius Pilate who was the Roman equivalent of the Nazi Catholic: Reinhard Heydrich to control Judea and Palestine. There is general agreement that he was merciless and flogged and killed any opposition to Roman control and the idea of him washing his hands is laughable.

    If Jesus did throw his weight about in the temple, he would have been summarily flogged by the Romans and thrown out of town, and that is probably what happened. Imagine the Roman Governor like a British Viceroy conducting trial for an eccentric homeless tramp, moreover, imagine his wife being bothered because of a bad dream and warning him. Imagine Lina Mathilde Heydrich, being worried about the actions of the Schutzstaffel or (SS) and imploring her husband to show mercy. This is a similar situation
    Finally, there is not absolute proof that Jesus as documented even existed. He could have been a fictitious figure. And if he did exist, everything he allegedly said could be written down on an A5 page and everything he allegedly said could be spoken a ten minutes maximum.

  • DBMcGinnity

    I do very much accept the teaching of the prophet Jesus that are synonymous with those in Buddhism. The paradox for me is this: If the language of Jesus and the early Christians was Aramaic and there is clear evidence that it probably was, then why does the Christian Church teach Latin? Well we all know that it was because of the intervention of Roman Emperor Constantine, who hijacked Christianity and made it to his own liking: hence Regal attire, blood rituals and autocracy. The Roman Catholic Church has virtually nothing in common with the benign, loving, forgiving, caring and sharing philosophy of Jesus Christ as shown by their perversion and barbarity towards the children of Ireland.

    I attended Mass recently in Dublin and the priest was dressed in garments that was more in keeping with a night at the Oscars.The choir was a quartet of wriggling girls showing cleavage and emanating the scent of strong perfume. The ladies who distributed the communion was dressed like fashion models, and there was not one iota of Christ-like reference or solemnity. I felt like dancing and singing “Joy to the Lord”. Would it not be better if people danced in the isles like some Pentecostal churches?

    At the last supper, Jesus reputedly said:- “Do this in memory of Me”. What were they doing? They were eating!. He told them to feed the poor, that was Jesus Christ‘s message to the apostles. This concept makes more sense to me than the history of greed, cruelty and sex abuse within the Catholic Church. Modern technology has not helped, because it was never envisaged that the illiterate poor would ever catch on to their scam, but now they have, thanks to the Internet.

    The Mass has nothing to do with the Last Supper but is an enactment of the perverted symbolism of Constantine’s pagan worship of Mithraism, the Light of the World, where children, mainly young girls were sacrificed, hence the churches preoccupation child abuse, virginity and human sacrifice. Marcus Aurelia made Sol Invictus official cult along with other traditional Roman cults ceremonial rape of virgins of widespread child abuse. During benediction (exposition of the Blessed Sacrament) the host is in shown in a Sun Like device, The Monstrance. With Sol Invictus it was usually the heart or genitals of the victim that was exposed in the Monstrance. .

    Sol Invictus was the religion of Constantine and remained the official religion of Rome until the 5th century. That is why Roman Catholics are so cruel, perverted and sadistic. Little has changed since the time of Caligula, and the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is an outrage and a disgrace with the Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries and corporal punishment. It has always been a paradox to me how the benignity of Jesus was associated with child abuse and corporal punishment What on earth had this to do with the sermon on the mount, the beatitudes or for that matter with Jesus Christ himself?

  • Anonymous

    Where would one start?
    At present I simply have not the time, energy or inclination.
    DBMcGinnity your cup of ignorance truly runneth over….

  • Tadviv

    It’s amazing that the truth is now coming out about all the gospels that were destroyed by the bishops, both secular and non secular.
    It would pay the Catholic Church to OPEN up the Vatican Library for the World to see what they have.
    I know they would lose control over the flock, the money would dry up and this would be the last POPE.
    But at least, the truth would set them free.

  • Sean

    The Jaubert hypothesis is a good one. The missing link that the Holy Father and others are looking for is that there is archaelogical evidence that the Upper Room, where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, was found to be in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem! The fact that Jesus might have followed the Essene calendar for Passover makes all the sense in light of the fact that Jesus wanted to be slaughtered as the New Passover Lamb in direct conjunction with the Old Rite in the Temple. The other theologically significant aspect is that Jesus knew the corruption of the temple and the priesthood, which was precisely why the Essenes fled to Qumran, and why it is quite possible that Jesus knew them well, was simpathetic to their plight and even may have had disciples that were part of the Qumran community. Now, pair that with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem and the mysterious disappearance of the Qumran community (could they have been incorporated into the new Messianic Christian community?).

  • A Lopez

    Tadviv, what you say is simply all wrong.

    For example, the Vatican library is open to scholars wishing to further their research. You are allowed to go there, if you can provide your credentials.

    I would suggest not wallowing in misconceptions and lies. the Catholic Church is simply hiding nothing, which is the only reason it has been standing for the last 2000 years.

  • DBMcGinnity

    To Paul priest
    One would start at the beginning, and I am waiting for you to start with some logical discourse and academic references to back up your assertion about my “cup full of ignorance”. If you have something worthwhile to express, then I am eager to learn. Is it not your job as a committed Catholic to teach me and lead me away from my ignorance so that I can understand. Would Jesus have dismissed my point of view with cursory ignorance. Surely you are not one of those witless armchair philosopher Smart Alec’s who engages in disparaging and petty fault finding comments when he does not possess a cogent answer.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Hi Fair Damsel sounds very chauvinistic, misogynistic and disrespectful. That sort of brazen sobriquet is not consistent with polite, good manners and would be considered by many to be insulting as well as politically incorrect.

  • Aging Papist

    And if he did exist, everything he allegedly said could be written down on an A5 page and everything he allegedly said could be spoken a ten minutes maximum.
    An argument advanced by a number of “Jesus Seminar” members. Dominic Crossan, I believe, hold to this view. Based upon the use of linguistic images typical of what Jesus himself would use in describing himself, as opposed to what Paul or Luke might write in describing Jesus–Aramaic expressions versus neo-Platonic “god hero” language intended for Greek-speaking gentiles.

    The idea of Paul and Luke manufacturing the Jesus as deity cannot be easily dismissed. Amongst early “Jews for Jesus”, the idea of a man being divine was still considered blasphemy. We simply don’t know enough about the historical Jesus to be making “infallible” statements or otherwise.

  • James H


    Might I suggest you start by actually reading the text?

    Just as a start, you say ‘The Jews would never have allowed a trial or execution during Passover.’
    The extract says, ‘It was Jesus’s Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out – when their time came, Jesus had already died.’

    That’s just the start; but you cap it off by saying, ‘there is not absolute proof that Jesus as documented even existed.’ That was a trendy thing to say in the early-mid 20th Century, but no genuine historical researcher believes it now. A good article to read is here: