What Kind of Bread did Jesus Use to Institute the Last Supper?
As one of the three major Jewish feasts, the Passover came complete from God with strict regulations regarding the proper rituals to be observed. Exodus 12:1-28 detailed specifically that the Passover lamb was to be killed at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month (12:6). Furthermore, its blood was to be sprinkled upon the lintels of the houses in which the Israelites ate the meal (12:7), and the flesh of the lamb was to be roasted—not eaten boiled or raw (12:8-9).
Numerous additional regulations pertaining to the lamb’s preparation, the length of the feast, and various other such facets of the festival could be cited. The one other injunction most specifically pertaining to this discussion is found in verses 15, and 18-20. These verses explicitly state that no leavened bread should be eaten from the 14th day of the month to the 21st day of the month. Verse 15 explains that any person eating leavened bread would be “cut off from Israel” (a phase often implying the death penalty). Verses 18-20 read as follows:
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a sojourner, or one that is born in the land. Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.
Simply put, God directly commanded Moses to warn the children of Israel that anyone caught eating leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread would be punished severely, possibly with death.
As we move approximately 1,500 years from the initial institution of the feast, we find the Jews of Jesus’ day bound to the same regulations and specificities as those ancient compatriots of Moses. In fact, we find Jesus—as a faithful Jew “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and abiding without sin under that same law (1 Peter 2:22)—adhering to the proper commands of the Law of Moses. On occasion, upon healing leprous people, Jesus instructed those individuals to present themselves to the priest as the Law of Moses commanded (Matthew 8:4; Luke 17:12-14). The Pharisees’ accusations of Jesus’ breaking the Sabbath notwithstanding, Jesus lived perfectly under the Law of Moses. Since He obeyed the Law consistently, when Jesus ate the Passover feast and celebrated the ensuing Feast of Unleavened bread, it is a fact that He would not have used any leaven from the 14th day of Nisan [originally, the first Jewish month was called Abib (see Deuteronomy 16:1-10), but its name eventually was changed to Nisan (Esther 3:7)] to the 21st day of that same month, as commanded in Exodus 12:15,18-20.
Therefore, it can be determined beyond any doubt that Jesus would have used unleavened bread during the Passover meal. This fact is of utmost importance, since the Last Supper (at which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper) often is thought to have occurred on the 14th day of Nisan during the evening of the Passover, marking the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened bread. If Jesus did not institute the Lord’s Supper on the actual Passover, then there remains no biblical basis to insist upon the use of unleavened bread during the Lord’s Supper.
The original language provides no assistance in ascertaining whether the bread was leavened or not. The Greek word used to identify the bread distributed by Christ at the Last Supper is artos (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), which is the general word for any kind of bread (Arndt and Gingrich, 1967, p. 110). The use of this word does not exclude the possibility that it was unleavened bread, since the Septuagint translators the word artos to refer to unleavened bread (Leviticus 8:2,26). At the same time, use of the term does not demand that it was unleavened bread. In fact, another Greek word, azumos, could have been used to mean strictly unleavened bread (Arndt and Gingrich, p. 19). Therefore, from the word used to describe the bread eaten by Jesus at the Last Supper, we can deduce only that it could have been either leavened or unleavened. As noted earlier, the only way to prove from the Bible that the bread was unleavened is to verify that Jesus ate the Last Supper on the 14th of Nisan—the actual Passover.
This may, at first, seem quite easy to establish. Matthew’s account explicitly states: “Now on the first day of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where wilt thou that we make ready for thee to eat the passover?’ ” (26:17). And also, “Now when even was come, he was sitting at meat with the twelve disciples” (26:20). According to Matthew, then, Jesus instituted the Last Supper “on the first day of unleavened bread.” Mark’s account is equally specific and descriptive: “And on the first day of unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the passover, his disciples say unto him, ‘Where wilt thou that we go and make ready that thou mayest eat the passover?’ ” (14:12). And, as in Matthew, Mark states: “[W]hen it was evening he cometh with the twelve” (14:17). Mark clearly declared that the Last Supper was instituted on the first day of unleavened bread. He further defined that day as the day when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, which would have been the evening of the 14th of Nisan according to Exodus 12. Furthermore, Luke’s account is equally definitive when it states: “And the day of unleavened bread came, on which the passover must be sacrificed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and make ready for us the passover, that we may eat’ ” (22:7).
Were the discussion to end at this point, it would be crystal clear that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the evening of the first day of Unleavened Bread when the Passover lamb was sacrificed. But when John’s account is consulted, the picture seems to get a little fuzzy. John’s record certainly is not as specific as the other three. In John 13:1-4, we read:
Now before the feast of the passover, Jesus knowing that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto his Father, having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all the things into his hands, and that he came forth from God, and goeth unto God, riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments; and he took a towel, and girded himself.
Apparently, the thoughts of Jesus recorded in John 13:1 occurred sometime before the Feast of the Passover. How long before the feast is unknown, but some assume it means at least a day. That time frame is based upon other statements found in the book of John. In John 18:28, the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews “led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium: and it was early; and they themselves entered not into the Praetorium, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover.” If “the passover” in this verse means the Feast of the Passover lamb, which was eaten on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened bread, then that would mean the Last Supper Jesus celebrated with His disciples occurred about 24 hours earlier. Furthermore, John 19:14-18 states:
Now it was the Preparation of the passover: it was about the sixth hour. And he saith unto the Jews, “Behold, your King!” They therefore cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate saith unto them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Then therefore he delivered him unto them to be crucified. They took Jesus therefore: and he went out, bearing the cross for himself, unto the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha: where they crucified him, and with him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst (emp. added).
Those who believe that the events of John 13 happened at least a day before the Passover generally base that belief on the idea that John 19:14-18 seems to indicate that Jesus was crucified before the actual Passover, since it was the “preparation of the passover.”
Several of the early church fathers held to the belief that Jesus was crucified on the Passover, which would mean that the Last Supper occurred before the Feast of Unleavened bread. Tertullian (An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 8) and Clement of Alexandria (Paschal Chronicle Fragment) both took this view. Furthermore, in the Talmud, early Jewish rabbis concluded that Jesus was “hanged on Passover Eve for heresy and misleading the people” (Bruce, 1960, p. 101). In more recent times, many have advocated this view. The editors of the Pulpit Commentary wrote: “It appears that our Lord was crucified on the 14th of Nisan, on the very day of the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, a few hours before the time of the Paschal Supper, and that his own Last Supper was eaten the night before, that is, twenty-four hours before the general time of eating the Passover Supper” (Spence and Exell, n.d., pp. 196-197, emp. in orig.).
In his book, Radical Restoration, F. LaGard Smith mentioned some things that, in his opinion, seem to conflict with the idea that Jesus ate the Passover on the actual first day of unleavened bread. He commented:
The emerging picture tends to suggest that we may have misinterpreted the words with which Jesus began the Last Supper. It may well be that Jesus was not expressing his eagerness to eat the actual Passover, but his desire to eat the only “Passover” he could share with his disciples before he suffered. Which is to say, ahead of time. The day before. On the only evening left before his crucifixion. (2001, p. 280, emp. in orig.).
To further bolster the idea that the Last Supper might not have been taken during the Feast of Unleavened bread, Smith cited The Crux of the Matter by Childers, Foster, and Reese, who suggested that “from the ninth century, the common bread, leavened bread, was replaced by unleavened bread. Using regular table bread had been the practice of the churches for centuries of Christian worship from very early days” (2001, p. 38). McClintock and Strong observed:
At the institution of the Lord’s Supper Christ used unleavened bread. The primitive Christians carried with them the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, and took the bread which was used at common meals, which was leavened bread. When this custom ceased, together with the Agapè, the Greeks retained the leavened bread, while in the Latin Church the unleavened bread became common since the 8th century. Out of this difference a dogmatic controversy in the 11th century arose, the Greek Church reproaching the Latin for the use of unleavened bread, making it heresy. At the Council of Florence, in 1439, which attempted to unite both churches, it was agreed that either might be used… (1969, 5:514, emp. in orig.).
Even though McClintock and Strong stated that Christ used unleavened bread, they also documented that many of those in the early period of the church did not use unleavened bread—a fact that could be used to add credence to the possibility that Christ also did not use unleavened bread.
Obviously, the battle over which type of bread Christ used when He instituted the Last Supper has been going on for centuries. Is there any way to reconcile the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke with that of John? Can it be established, from the biblical text, on what day Christ and His disciples ate their final meal before His death? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper on the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lamb was to be killed—exactly as Matthew, Mark, and Luke plainly state.
THE PREPARATION DAY
In order to maintain that Christ ate the Last Supper on the first day of unleavened bread, a response must be formulated to the passage in John 19:14-18, which seems to indicate that Christ was crucified on the “Preparation of the Passover.” First, it must be noted that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each state that Christ was crucified on the “day of preparation.” Matthew, in speaking of the day after Jesus’ crucifixion, affirmed: “Now on the morrow, which is the day after the Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees were gathered together unto Pilate, saying, ‘Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, After three days I rise again’ ” (Matthew 27:62-63). Mark’s account, in dealing with the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, observed: “And when even was now come, because it was the Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, there came Joseph of Arimathaea, a councillor of honorable estate, who also himself was looking for the kingdom of God; and he boldly went in unto Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (15:42-43). Not only did Mark specify the day of Jesus’ crucifixion as “the Preparation,” but he also defined that day for his readers as “the day before the Sabbath.” Finally, Luke related virtually the same facts in 23:50-54:
And behold, a man named Joseph, who was a councillor, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their counsel and deed), a man of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews, who was looking for the kingdom of God: this man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And he took it down, and wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb that was hewn in stone, where never man had yet lain. And it was the day of the Preparation, and the sabbath drew on.
Observe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the day of Jesus’ death as the day of preparation of the Sabbath. Even John, in 19:31, stated: “The Jews therefore, because it was the Preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross upon the sabbath (for the day of that sabbath was a high day), asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.” Because the Jews could do no work on the Sabbath, the day before provided them with the only opportunity to prepare for the following day’s meals. In Exodus 16, the Lord, through Moses, instructed the Israelites regarding how and when they should gather the manna that He was sending from heaven. In verses 4 and 5 of that chapter, the Lord stated:
Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or not. And it shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.
The “Preparation Day” was a well-known description used to speak of the day before the Sabbath. However, it was not used to describe a day before a festival or feast. Lenski accurately recorded:
Equally decisive is the fact that paraskeua [preparation—KB] is never used in the sense of “the preparation” or of “the day of preparation” for a festival but only in the sense of the preparation for the Sabbath. The law provided complete rest from work only on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5); all preparation of food had to be made on the day before; but the law provided nothing of the kind for the great festival days, for on these days (save as one might occur on the Sabbath) food could be cooked as on any other day. The attempt to show that the festival days also had a paraskeua has failed completely (1998, p. 1272).
What, then, shall we make of John’s statement that Jesus was crucified on “the Preparation of the Passover?” At first glance, we assume that John means that the “preparation” concerns the actual Passover lamb. However, that assumption is not correct. The “preparation” described by John simply was the day before the Sabbath that fell during the Passover festival. Lenski noted: “When John uses the exceptional combination paraskuea tou pascha, ‘Preparation of the Passover,’ he simply has in mind the Friday of the Passover festival, the one that occurs during the festival week. The Sabbath of this great week was considered especially holy, and preparation was made accordingly” (p. 1271).
In fact, the translators of the NIV were so confident of this meaning that they rendered the verse: “It was the day of Preparation of Passover week, about the sixth hour.” In their commentary on the NIV passage, Bryant and Krause remarked:
The force of the NIV’s interpretation is that this is “Friday of Passover Week.” While this may be what John intends (and I believe he does), it is possible to interpret this as “Preparation for the Passover,” i.e., Thursday. This is the translation of the NRSV and others, but this is every bit as guilty as the NIV of overtranslation…. Actually, the text is ambiguous and cannot answer the day of the week by itself. It is from other considerations that we should conclude that this is Friday… (1998, p. 376).
If John 19:14-18 could mean simply the preparation day during the Passover feast, then John’s timetable would match perfectly with that of the other three Gospels—almost.
THAT THEY “MIGHT EAT THE PASSOVER”
In order to match John’s timetable perfectly with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the passage in John 18:28 must be clarified. It states: “They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium: and it was early; and they themselves entered not into the Praetorium, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover.” If this reference to eating “the passover” refers to the actual Passover lamb that was sacrificed on the 14th day of Nisan, then John’s account would stand in direct opposition to those of the other three gospel writers. It can be shown conclusively, however, that John did not necessarily mean the actual Passover lamb, and that his statement can refer instead to the Feast of Unleavened bread directly following the Passover.
First, it should be noted that John was not nearly as specific as the other the gospel writers. As was discussed earlier, they defined the day of the Last Supper as the first day of unleavened bread on which the passover must be sacrificed. [It is interesting to observe that Luke 22:7 uses the Greek word dei, which the ASV translators render as must. Arndt and Gingrich noted that the word means “of compulsion of law or custom,” and then used Luke 22:7 to illustrate this usage. They translated the pertinent part of the verse under discussion: “when the paschal lamb had to be sacrificed” (1967, p. 172). Which law or custom compelled the Jews to sacrifice the Passover lamb on this particular day? The obvious answer is: the law set forth in Exodus 12.] John’s reference to the Jewish leaders’ eating the Passover certainly does not detail an exact day on which the Passover lamb “must” be sacrificed.
As further evidence that John’s reference does not necessarily mean the 14th day of Nisan, the term “Passover” sometimes was used to refer to the entire Feast of Unleavened bread, not just the eating of the Passover lamb. Luke 22:1 is an obvious and clear example of such usage: “Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover.” Other passages that support this usage are John 2:13,23, 5:4, 11:55, and Acts 12:1-4. Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews, wrote about an event happening “at the time when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, which we call the Passover” (14:2:1). Thus, the term “Passover” often had a more relaxed meaning, and could refer to the “feast of unleavened bread.” To add support to this conclusion, Lenski made an interesting observation:
In the present connection it is impossible to make the eating of the Passover mean the eating of the Paschal lamb. For the defilement which these Jews feared would not have debarred them from eating the Paschal lamb if this lamb was to be eaten on Friday evening. Defilement of this type lasted only until sundown and could then be removed by a bath. The Paschal Lamb was not eaten until some time after sundown (1998, p. 1213).
With a quick look back into the Old Testament, we find that many of the things that “defiled” people, or caused them to be “unclean,” lasted only until evening (see Leviticus chapters 11 and 15). From reading Numbers 9:10,13, it seems that, according to the Law of Moses, the only two reasons a man might be unable to keep the feast would be because he had touched a dead body or was away on a journey. Since neither of those two situations seems to apply to John 18:28, the passage certainly allows for the phrase “eat the passover” to mean something other than the Paschal lamb. In his concluding comments on John 18:28, Lenski summarized remarks from Zahn’s Introduction to the New Testament by stating:
It is quite incredible to believe that with an entirely incidental expression, not at all connected with the Passover as such or with the actions of Jesus but solely with the scruples of the Jews, John should wish to overthrow a view of his readers which he has left entirely undisturbed throughout all of his preceding chapters (p. 1214).
What, then, were the Jewish leaders specifically desiring to eat? Zahn observed: “Moreover, it is probable that the members of the Sanhedrin had specifically in mind the so-called Chagigah, the sacrificial meal of the 15th of Nisan, which, unlike the Passover meal, was held during the course of the day and not after sundown” (1953, 3:283). Thus, there remains nothing to require that the phrase “might eat the passover” in John 18:28 must mean the actual Passover lamb.
TWO MINOR DISAGREEMENTS ANSWERED
In concluding the discussion as to the actual time of the Passover, John 13:1 needs to be revisited. In the verse, John wrote, “Now before the feast of the Passover….” It already has been established that certain schools of thought take this verse to mean at least 24 hours before the Passover. This time frame often is based on assumptions regarding John 18:28 and 19:31—assumptions that I have shown to be incorrect. Therefore, based on the textual evidence of the actual verse, can the phrase “before the feast of the passover” mean only a few minutes before the actual feast, or must it mean several hours? Morris concisely commented: “It is not impossible to understand this as meaning that Jesus knew certain things long before the feast. But it can also be understood to mean that the events now to be described took place before the feast began” (1971, p. 776). Bryant and Krause further clarified the situation:
John notes the time of the next event as just before the Passover Feast. According to ancient Jewish reckoning, the Passover Feast day would have run from sundown Thursday until sundown on Friday. This has caused some scholars to take the position that John understands the “Last Supper” to have taken place on Wednesday evening, just before Passover. This cannot be reconciled with the Synoptic accounts, which clearly identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal (e.g., Luke 22:15). But this is an easily explained contradiction. John does not say “the day before Passover” but “just before.” The episode he relates next, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, is done immediately before the meal really begins (1998, p. 285, emp. in orig.).
“Before the Passover” could mean months, days, hours, or seconds before the meal took place. Considering all the evidence, John 13:1 makes reference to only a few minutes before the actual Passover lamb was eaten.
The second minor disagreement that needs to be answered suggests that John placed Jesus’ death on the 14th of Nisan, the evening when the Passover lamb was to be killed, in order to symbolize the death of Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Other New Testament verses linking Christ to the Passover lamb often are used in support of this view. For instance, 1 Corinthians 5:7 states: “Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, even as ye are unleavened. For our passover also hath been sacrificed, even Christ.“
While it is true that various New Testament writers refer to Christ as our Passover Lamb, it is not true that the power of His atoning blood was conditioned on the actual day that it was shed. As Zahn stated:
The conception of Christ as the Paschal Lamb which is found throughout the N.T. is in no way based upon this alleged coincidence of the hour of Jesus’ death with the time of the slaying of the Passover lamb, but was involved in the view that redemption under the new covenant was the counterpart of the deliverance from Egypt, and found merely a natural point of connection in the fact that Jesus died at the time of the Jewish Passover, and not, for example, during the feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2-10) [1953, 3:276].
Furthermore, to suppose that there is a clash between John and the synoptics—based upon what a person assumes John was attempting to symbolize—is a less than desirable conclusion and fails to give John the benefit of the doubt.
A DISTANT POSSIBILITY MENTIONED,
BUT NOT DISCUSSED IN DETAIL
In an attempt to “help” John agree with the three other gospel writers, some have suggested that a difference in calendars might have caused the apparent confusion. In summarizing this view, Carson wrote:
These difficulties have led to a number of suggested resolutions that turn on calendrical disputes in the first century. The most important of these reconstructions, that of Jaubert, argues that Jesus and his disciples followed a solar calendar…. But the “official” calendar followed by the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Jerusalem establishment was lunar... (1991, p. 457).
After he summarized the main issues, Carson further noted: “these calendrical theories all involve delicate historical judgments or a paucity of hard evidence” (457). He concluded his section on the alleged calendar differences by saying:
More seriously, it is altogether unlikely that the Jewish authorities in the time of Jesus sanctioned the slaughter of paschal lambs on any day other than the official lunar day. Thus even if Jesus and his disciples followed a sectarian calendar—a very doubtful suggestion—they would not have been able to eat an early paschal meal, since the paschal lamb had to be slaughtered at the temple, and the priestly classes were not noted for affable flexibility (p. 457).
Furthermore, once the full meanings of the phrases “eat the Passover” in John 18:28 and “the Preparation of the Passover” in John 19:14 are explored, it becomes evident that the statements can be reconciled with the time table set forth in the other three gospels, without resorting to “calendrical theories.”
The exact day on which the Lord instituted the Last Supper is of utmost importance for two reasons: (1) If it was not on the 14th day of Nisan, when the Passover lamb was to be killed (marking the first day of the Feast of Unleavened bread), then very little (if any) textual evidence exists that would demand the use of unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper; and (2) the failure to reconcile adequately the time frame given by Matthew, Mark, and Luke with that given by John would indicate that there might be a contradiction in the Bible, which would leave the door open for skeptics to attack the reliability of the New Testament.
Yet, when the arguments are laid bare, it is evident that Jesus and the disciples did eat the Last Supper on the 14th day of Nisan, when the Passover lamb was to be killed. Once this fact is established, no one can legitimately deny that Jesus broke unleavened bread for His disciples. Nor can anyone claim that a contradiction exists between John’s timetable and that of the other gospel writers.
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Bruce, F.F. (1960), The New Testament Documents—Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), fifth edition.
Bryant, Beauford H. and Mark S. Krause (1998), John, The College Press NIV Commentary, ed. Jack Cottrell and Tony Ash (Joplin, MO: College Press).
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Childers, Jeff W., Douglas A. Foster, and Jack R. Reese (2001), The Crux of the Matter (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
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Josephus, Flavius (1987 edition), The Works of Josephus, transl. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
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Smith, F. LaGard (2001), Radical Restoration (Nashville, TN: Cotswold).
Spence, H.D.M. and J.S. Exell, eds. (no date), “Mark/Luke,” The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
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Zahn, Theodor (1953), Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel).