The Lamb at the Supper

At Jesus’ last supper he ate the Passover with his disciples, lamb, wine, bread, bitter herbs—the whole kit and caboodle. Which might seem like an obvious statement but is important for our understanding of how Jesus was inhabiting and renewing the Old Covenant Feast.

Before we get into the details it might be worth noticing that even suggesting that the Last Supper was the Passover is mildly controversial. There’s a seeming disconnect between John’s account and that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all depict the Supper as the Passover (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22). John, however, has Jesus die as the Passover lambs are slain (John 19), replete with imagery but giving us a chronological problem. If the lambs hadn’t been slain, clearly the meal isn’t the Passover.

In my undergraduate degree my survey of the gospels class was taught by an academic who had written a book called Is John’s Gospel True? The answer he gave was “no,” so you can imagine the hay he made of these seeming discrepancies. There are others, though I think this is one of the tougher ones.

Assuming we don’t want to simply dismiss John as fiction, what are our options?

Literary Form

We could simply say that John is using literary license to draw out the theological significance, but I think that’s a weak argument. John does use a lot of literary devices, but so do Matthew, Mark and Luke. They use them to make points, but if these texts have a relationship to the actual history—and I’m a firm believer that the texts are literary to make literary points, and those beautifully composed literary points also actually happened in history—then we need to do something with this sort of contradiction.

Early Passover

We could suggest that the meal that Jesus ate was a Passover he ate early, not on the right day, because he was going to die. Which is an odd thing for an observant Jew to do, especially without explanation.

I’ve heard people teach that the disciples didn’t eat lamb at the Last Supper, which would fit this view of the timing. They argue this because the text doesn’t mention it, which is a bizarre sort of argument from silence. It doesn’t mention a whole bunch of other Passover traditions, did Jesus skip these too? No one would assume there was no lamb without being told there wasn’t. Nor would the disciples have understood what was going on.

The argument as I’ve heard it goes that the lamb wasn’t served because the Lamb was at the table. That’s a neat rhetorical flourish, that impressed me the first time I heard it, I’m ashamed to say. But it’s a weird suggestion. Typology doesn’t really work like that, it has rules and patterns it follows, and it’s a bit much to have expected the disciples to understand or comprehend that sort of typological move prior to the cross and the resurrection. If it were the case, there would be textual clues in at least one of the gospels to encourage us to look for the Lamb other than on the table being eaten. We can safely discard that as the sort of preacher’s rhetoric that ends up discrediting the text.

Passover on a Tuesday

In the Qumran community (where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls) they celebrated Passover on the Tuesday, before the official Jewish calendar. Which could work, but there’s honestly no evidence—despite the efforts of some modern critical scholars—to clearly connect Jesus to the Qumran community. It would be a strange move for him to make.

Not the Passover

Perhaps instead the Last Supper is the start of the feast of unleavened bread (Leviticus 23), or another part of that weeklong festival. While the synoptic gospels do very clearly identify this meal as the Passover, suggesting that its another sacrifice that John is alluding to is plausible, though I think it weakens the theological point he wanted to make.

Two dates for Passover

I find this solution the most plausible. There’s some evidence that the Pharisees celebrated Passover on the Thursday/Friday, while the Sadducees celebrated the Passover on the Friday/Saturday.

This means that if Jesus ate the Passover in line with the Pharisees’ calendar (which, since they were his frequent opponents might seem odd to us, but he was much closer theologically to them than to the resurrection-denying modernists the Sadducees) then he was slain as the Sadducees’ lambs were.

This difference could also be a Galilean-Judean difference, and amounts to whether the day is reckoned from sunrise to sunrise, as we do, or sunset to sunset as Genesis 1 does.

It also makes some practical sense: the sheer numbers of Jews entering Jerusalem on pilgrimage and all needing lambs slain in the temple by the priests at the right time would have presented some logistical challenges.

Why did the lamb matter

That might seem oddly technical to some, but I said we would return to why it mattered that Jesus ate the lamb at the Passover meal. Following James Jordan’s work in From Bread to Wine it seemed to work in this threefold sequence.

Jesus eats the Passover

In order to sum up the Old Creation, Jesus eats the Passover with his disciples. He partakes in this recapitulation of Exodus with all the Jewish people. He only drinks some of the wine and makes his vow to not drink it.

Jesus is the Passover

Fulfilling all prophecy, Jesus ‘partakes’ in the Passover alone, by becoming the Paschal lamb slain for us. He recapitulates the Exodus himself, leading his people out of slavery to the promised land. He drinks wine on the cross to show his vow is completed.

We eat the Passover

The New Creation breaks into history at the Lord’s Supper. Jesus eats the Lord’s Supper with all his disciples—the new Israel of faith. He ‘drinks’ wine with us week by week.

Typological reading

So, it matters that Jesus ate lamb, because it completed the old creation, the old ‘covenant’ so that he becomes the lamb in the new creation in his blood.

This might seem esoteric, and perhaps it is, but hopefully it shows us that Jesus carefully fulfilled all righteousness for us, did everything required to complete the stories God had started, and that all stories find their culmination at the cross.

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