Many people have wondered whether Jesus ate what is called the "Last Supper" on the evening when the Jews ate the Passover lambs, or if he ate his "Passover" meal on the evening before. The question arises because there seems to be a contradiction between what Matthew, Mark and Luke say, and what the Gospel of John tells us.
For example, Matthew 26:17 says: "On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ " The first three Gospels seem to indicate that Jesus and his disciples ate the "Last Supper" meal on the evening beginning Nisan 15. That is when the Jews would have been eating their Passover meal—on the beginning of the first day of Unleavened Bread. (See also Mark 14:12-16 and Luke 22:1, 7-8.)
However, John clearly states that the Jews had not eaten the Passover meal, even though it was the morning after Jesus’ arrest. John 18:28 says: "Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover." John 19:14 says that the day during which Jesus was crucified was only the "Preparation [day] of Passover Week." By John’s reckoning, Jesus ate the Last Supper meal one day earlier than the Jews ate the Passover meal.
Because of this seeming contradiction between the first three Gospels and John, scholars continue to wrestle with the issue of when Jesus actually ate his final meal. Of course, the term "Passover" was often applied to the entire Festival of Unleavened Bread, not just Passover day, so Jesus’ eating of a "Passover meal" could have occurred at any time during the festival season. However, it does seem that the time of the traditional eating of the Jewish Passover—on the evening of the beginning of the first day of Unleavened Bread—occurred just as Jesus was being put in the tomb. Hence, the chronological question about Jesus’ eating the Last Supper remains.
Various explanations have been offered to solve the puzzle, which are beyond the scope of this article to consider. The interested reader can peruse several commentaries, such as the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Matthew, for a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions that have been put forth. The author of one such commentary on Matthew in the Tyndale New Testament series, R. T. France, presents a practical approach to the problem:
The simplest solution, and the one assumed in this commentary, is that Jesus, knowing that he would be dead before the regular time for the meal, deliberately held it in secret one day early. . . .Of course it was strictly incorrect to hold a "Passover" at any time other than the evening of Nisan 14/15 [that is, at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th], but Jesus was not one to be bound by formal regulations in an emergency situation! . . . .It was therefore a Passover meal in intention, but without a lamb [page 365].
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This would mean that Jesus and the disciples, strictly speaking, did not eat the Passover meal at the Last Supper. It’s interesting that lamb is not mentioned as being part of the meal. If Jesus ate the "Passover meal" one day earlier than the Jews did, he simply disregarded tradition. That in itself would be instructive, indicating that his meal represented a break with old covenant institutions.
Such a reconstruction takes into account the Scriptures in all four Gospels. If what France says happened as he says it did, then Jesus died about the time when the lambs were being sacrificed for the Jewish Passover meal at the beginning of Nisan 15. What we have, then, is an interesting parallel between Jesus’ crucifixion and the killing of the lambs. The reality of Christ’s sacrificial death was "shadowed" in the simultaneous slaughter of the Passover lambs.