by Alfred Edersheim

The question, whether or not the Savior instituted His Supper during the meal of the Paschal night, although not strictly belonging to the subject treated in this volume, is too important, and too nearly connected with it, to be cursorily passed over. The balance of learned opinion, especially in England, has of late inclined against this view. The point has been so often and so learnedly discussed that I do not presume proposing to myself more than the task of explaining my reasons for the belief that the Lord instituted His ‘Supper’ on the very night of the Paschal Feast, and that consequently His crucifixion took place on the first day of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan.

From the writers on the other side, it may here be convenient to select Dr. Farrar, as alike the latest and one of the ablest expositors of the contrary position. His arguments are stated in a special Excursus appended to his Life of Christ. At the outset it is admitted on both sides, ‘that our Lord was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday;’ and, further, that our Lord could not have held a sort of anticipatory Paschal Supper in advance of all the other Jews, a Paschal Supper being only possible on the evening of the 14th Nisan, with which, according to Jewish reckoning, the 15th Nisan began. Hence it follows that the Last Supper which Christ celebrated with His disciples must have either been the Paschal:Feast, or an ordinary supper, at which He afterwards instituted His own special ordinance. Now, the conclusions at which Dr. Farrar arrives are thus summed up by him’ ‘That Jesus ate His last supper with the disciples on the evening of Thursday, Nisan 13, i.e. at the time when, according to Jewish reckoning, the 14th of Nisan began; that this supper was not, and was not intended to be, the actual Paschal meal, which neither was nor could be legally eaten till the following evening; but by a perfectly natural identification, and one which would have been regarded as unimportant, the Last Supper, which was a quasi-Passover, a new and Christian Passover, and one in which, as in its antitype, memories of joy and sorrow were strangely blended, got to be identified, even in the memory of the Synoptists, with the Jewish Passover, and that St. john silently but deliberately corrected this erroneous impression, which, even in his time, had come to be generally prevalent.’ Before entering into the discussion, I must confess myself unable to agree with the a priori reasoning by which Dr. Farrar accounts for the supposed mistake of the Synoptists. Passing over the expression, that ‘the Last Supper was a quasi-Passover,’ which does not convey to me a sufficiently definite meaning, I should rather have expected that, in order to realize the obvious ‘antitype,’ the tendency of the Synoptists would have been to place the death of Christ on the evening of the 14th Nisan, when the Paschal lamb was actually slain, rather than on the 15th Nisan, twenty-four hours after that sacrifice had taken place. In other words, the typical predilections of the Synoptists would, I imagine, have led them to identify the death of Christ with the slaying of the lamb; and it seems, a priori, difficult to believe that, if Christ really died at that time, and His last supper was on the previous evening — -that of the 13th Nisan, — they should have fallen into the mistake of identifying that supper, not with His death, but with the Paschal meal. I repeat: a priori, if error there was, I should have rather expected it in the opposite direction. Indeed, the main dogmatic strength of the argument on the other side lies in the consideration that the anti-type (Christ) should have died at the same time as the type (the Paschal lamb). Dr. Farrar himself feels the force of this, and one of his strongest arguments against the view that the Last Supper took place at the Paschal meal is: ‘The sense of inherent and symbolical fitness in the dispensation which ordained that Christ should be slain on the day and at the hour appointed for the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb.’ Of all persons, would not the Synoptists have been alive: to this consideration? And, if so, is it likely that they would have fallen into the mistake with which they are charged? Would not all their tendencies have lain in the opposite direction?

But to pass to the argument itself. For the sake of clearness it will here be convenient to treat the question under three aspects: — How does the supposition that the Last Supper did not take place on the Paschal night agree with the general bearing of the whole history? What, fairly speaking, is the inference from the Synoptical Gospels? Lastly, does the account of St. John, in this matter, contradict those of the Synoptists, or is it harmonious indeed with theirs, but incomplete?

How Does The Supposition That The Last Supper Did Not Take Place On The Paschal Night Agree With The General Bearing Of The Whole History?

1. The language of the first three Evangelists, taken in its natural sense, seems dearly irreconcilable with this view. Even Dr. Farrar admits: ‘If we construe the language for the Evangelists in its plain, straightforward, simple sense, and without reference to any preconceived theories, or supposed necessities for harmonizing the different narratives, we should be led to conclude from the Synoptists that the Last Supper was the ordinary Paschal meal.’ On this point further remarks will be made in the sequel.

2. The account of the meal as given, not only by the Synoptists but also by St. John, so far as he describes it, seems to me utterly inconsistent with the idea of an ordinary supper. It is not merely one trait or another which here influences us, but the general impression produced by the whole. The preparations for the meal; the allusions to it; in short, so to speak, the whole raise mise, en scene is not that of a common supper. Only the necessities of a preconceived theory would lead one to such a conclusion. On the other hand, all is just what might have been expected, if the Evangelists had meant to describe the Paschal meal.

3. Though I do not regard such considerations as decisive, there are, to my mind, difficulties in the way of adopting the view that Jesus died while the Paschal lamb was being slain, far greater than those which can attach to the other theory. On the supposition of Dr. Farrar, the crucifixion took place on the 14th Nisan, ‘between the evenings’ of which the Paschal lamb was slain. Being a Friday, the ordinary evening service would have commenced at 1:30 P.M., and the evening sacrifice offered, say, at 1:30, after which the services connected with the Paschal lamb would immediately begin. Now it seems to me almost inconceivable, that under such circumstances, and on so busy an afternoon, there should have been, at the time when they must have been most engaged, around the cross that multitude of reviling Jews, ‘likewise also the chief priests, mocking Him, with the scribes,’ which all the four Evangelists record. (Matthew 27:39, 41; Mark 15:29, 31; Luke 23:35; John 21:20) Even more difficult does it seem to me to believe, that after the Paschal lamb had been slain, and while the preparations for the Paschal Supper were going on, as St. John reports, (John 20:39-39) an ‘honorable councillor,’ like Joseph of Arimathaea, and a Sanhedrist, like Nicodemus, should have gone to beg of Pilate the body of Jesus, or been able to busy themselves with His burial. I proceed now to the second question:

What, Fairly Speaking, Is The Inference From The Synoptical Gospels?

1.To this, I should say, there can be only one reply: — The Synoptical Gospels, undoubtedly, place the Last Supper in the Paschal night. A bare quotation of their statements will establish this: ‘Ye know that after two days is the Passover’; (Matthew 26:19) ‘Now the first day of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto Him, Where wilt Thou that we prepare for Thee to eat the Passover?” (Matthew 26:17) “I will keep the Passover at thy house” (Matthew 26:18). ‘They made ready the Passover. (Matthew 26:19) Similarly, in the Gospel by St. Mark (Mark 14:12-17) ‘And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover, the disciples said unto Him, Where wilt Thou that we go and prepare, that Thou mayest eat the Passover?’ ‘The Master saith, Where is the guest-chamber, where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples? ‘There make ready for us.’ ‘And they made ready the Passover. And in the evening He cometh with the twelve. And as they sat and did eat. . .’ And in the Gospel by St. Luke (Luke 22:7-15) Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed;’ ‘Go and prepare us the Passover, that we may eat;’ ‘Where is the guest-chamber where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples?’ ‘There make ready;’ ‘And they made ready the Passover.’ ‘And when the hour was come He sat down;’ ‘With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you BEFORE I SUFFER.’ It is not easy to understand how even a ‘preconceived theory’ could weaken the obvious import of such expressions, especially when taken in connection with the description of the meal that follows.

2. Assuming, then, the testimony of the Synoptical Gospels to be unequivocally in our favor, it appears to me extremely improbable that, in such a matter, they should have been mistaken, or that such an ‘erroneous impression’ could — and this even ‘in the time of St. John’ have ‘come to be generally prevalent.’ On the contrary, I have shown that if mistake there was, it would most likely have been rather in the opposite: direction.

3. We have now to consider what Dr. Farrar calls ‘the incidental notices preserved in the Synoptists,’ which seem to militate against their general statement. Selecting those which are of greatest force, we have: — (a) The fact’ that the disciples (John 13:22) suppose Judas to have left the room in order to buy what things they had need of against the feast.’ But the disciples only suppose this; and in the confusion and excitement of the scene such a mistake was not unintelligible. Besides, though servile work was forbidden on the first Paschal day, the preparation of all needful provision for the feast was allowed, and must have been the more necessary, as, on our supposition, it was followed by a Sabbath. Indeed, the Talmudical law distinctly allowed the continuance of such preparation of provisions as had been commenced on the ‘preparation day’ (Arnheim, Gebeth. d. Isr., p. 500, note 69, a). In general, we here refer to our remarks at p. 247, only adding, that even now Rabbinical ingenuity can find many a way of evading the rigor of the Sabbath-law.

(b) As for the meeting of the Sanhedrim, and the violent arrest of Christ on such a night of peculiar solemnity, the fanatical hatred of the chief priests, and the supposed necessities of the case, would sufficiently account for them. On any supposition we have to admit the operation of these causes, since the Sanhedrim confessedly violated, in the trial of Jesus, every principle and form of their own criminal jurisprudence.

Lastly, We Have To Inquire: Does The Account Of St. John Contradict Those Of The Synoptists, Or Is It Harmonious, Indeed, With Them, But Incomplete?

1. Probably few would commit themselves to the statement, that the account of St. John necessarily contradicts those of the Synoptists. But the following are the principal reasons urged by Dr. Farrar for the inference that, according to St. John, the Last Supper took place the evening before the Paschal night: —

(a) Judas goes, as is supposed, to buy the things that they have need of against the feast. This has already been explained.

(b) The Pharisees ‘went not into the judgment-hall, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.’ And in answer to the common explanation that ‘the Passover’ here means the 15th day, Chaigigah, he adds, in a footnote, that ‘there was nothing specifically Paschal’ about this Chaigigah. Dr. Farrar should have paused before committing himself to such a statement. One of the most learned Jewish writers, Dr. Saalschutz, is not of his opinion. He writes as follows’: The whole feast and all its festive meals were designated as the Passover. See Deuteronomy 16:2, comp. 2 Chronicles 30:24, and 35:8, 9; Sebach. 99, b, Rosh ha Sh. 5, a, where it is expressly said “What is the meaning of the term Passover?” (Answer) “The peace-offerings of the Passover.”’ Illustrative Rabbinical passages are also quoted by Lightfoot:and by Schottgen. As a rule the Chagigah was always brought on the 15th Nisan, and it required Levitical purity. Lastly, Dr. Farrar himself admits that the statement of St. John (John 18:28) must not be too closely pressed, ‘for that some Jews must have even gone into the judgment-hall without noticing “the defilement” is clear.’

(c) According to St. John, (John 19:31) the following Sabbath was ‘a high day,’ or ‘a great day;’ on which Dr. Farrar comments: ‘Evidently because it was at once; a Sabbath, and the first day of the Paschal Feast.’ Why not the second day of the feast, when the first omer was presented in the Temple? To these may be added the following among the other arguments advanced by Dr. Farrar: —

(d) The various engagements recorded in the Gospels on the day of Christ’s crucifixion are incompatible with a festive day of rest, such as the 15th Nisan. The reference to ‘Simon the Cyrenian coming out of the country’ seems to me scarcely to deserve special notice. But then Joseph of Arimathaea bought on that day the ‘line linen’ (Mark 15:46) for Christ’s burial, and the women ‘prepared spices and ointments.’ (Luke 23:56) Here, however, it should be remembered, that the rigor of the festive was not like that of the Sabbatic rest; that there were means of really buying such a cloth without doing it in express terms (an evasion known to Rabbinical law). Lastly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber. 5, b) expressly declares it lawful on Sabbaths and feast-days to bring a coffin, graveclothes, and even mourning flutes — in short, to attend to the offices for the dead — just as on ordinary days. This passage, though, as far as I know, never before quoted in this controversy, is of the greatest importance.

(e) Dr. Farrar attaches importance to the fact that Jewish tradition fixes the death of Christ on the 14th Nisan. But these Jewish traditions, to which an appeal is made, are not only of a late date, but wholly unhistorical and valueless. Indeed, as Dr. Farrar himself shows, they are full of the grossest absurdities. I cannot here do better than simply quote the words of the great Jewish historian, Dr. Jost: ‘Whatever attempts may be made to plead in favor of these Talmudic stories, and to try and discover some historical basis in them, the Rabbis of the third and fourth centuries are quite at sea about the early Christians, and deal in legends for which there is no foundation of any kind.’

(f) Dr. Farrar’s objection that ‘after supper’ Jesus and His disciples went out, which seems to him inconsistent with the injunction of Exodus 12:22, and that in the account of the meal there is an absence of that hurry which, according to the law, should have characterized the supper, arises from not distinguishing the ordinances of the so-called ‘Egyptian’ from those of ‘the permanent Passover.’ On this and kindred points the reader is referred to Chapters 11., 12.

(g) The only other argument requiring notice is that in their accounts the three Synoptists ‘give not the remotest hint which could show that a lamb formed the most remarkable portion of the feast.’ Now, this is an objection which answers itself. For, according to Dr. Farrar, these Synoptists had, in writing their accounts, been under the mistaken impression that they were describing the Paschal Supper. As for their silence on the subject, it seems to me ,capable of an interpretation the opposite of that which Dr. Farrar has put upon it. Considering the purpose of all which they had in view — the fulfillment of the type of the Paschal Supper, and the substitution for it of the Lord’s Supper — their silence seems not only natural, but what might have been expected. For their object was to describe the Paschal Supper only in so far as it bore upon the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Lastly, it is a curious coincidence that throughout the whole Mishnic account of the Paschal Supper there is only one isolated reference to the lamb — a circumstance so striking, that, for example, Caspari has argued from it that ordinarily this meal was what he calls ‘a meal of unleavened bread,’ and that in the majority of cases there was no Passover lamb at all! I state the inference drawn by Dr. Caspari, but there can scarcely be any occasion for replying to it.

On the other hand, I have now to add two arguments taken from the masterly disquisition of the whole question by Wieseler, to show that St. John, like the Synoptists, places the date of the crucifixion on the 15th Nisan, and hence that of the Last Supper on the evening of the 14th

(a) Not only the Synoptists, but St. John (John 18:39) refers to the custom of releasing a prisoner at ‘the feast,’ or, as St. John expressly calls it, ‘at the Passover.’ Hence the release of Barabbas, and with it the crucifixion of Jesus, could not have taken place (as Dr. Farrar supposes) on the 14th of Nisan, the morning of which could not have been designated as ‘the feast,’ and still less as ‘the Passover.’

(b) When St. John mentions (John 18:28) that the accusers of Jesus went not into Pilate’s judgment-hall ‘lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the Passover,’ he could not have referred to their eating the Paschal Supper. For the defilement thus incurred would only have lasted to the evening of that day, whereas the Paschal Supper was eaten after the evening had commenced, so that the defilement of Pilate’s judgement-hall in the morning would in no way have interfered with their eating the Paschal Lamb. But it would have interfered with their either offering or partaking of the Chagigah on the 15th Nisan.

2. Hitherto I have chiefly endeavored to show that the account of St. John is harmonious with that of the Synoptists in reference to the time of the Last Supper. But, on the other hand, I am free to confess that, if it had stood alone, I should not have been able to draw the same clear inference from it as from the narratives of the first three Gospels. My difficulty here arises, not from what St. John says, but from what he does not say. His words, indeed, are quite consistent with those of the Synoptists, but, taken alone, they would not have been sufficient to convey, at least to my mind, the same clear impression. And here I have to observe that St. John’s account must in this respect seem equally incomplete, whichever theory of the time of the Last Supper be adopted. If the Gospel of St. John stood alone, it would, I think, be equally difficult for Dr. Farrar to prove from it his, as for me to establish my view. He might reason from certain expressions, and so might I; but there are no such clear, unmistakable statements as those in which the Synoptists describe the Passover night as that of the Last Supper. And yet we should have expected most fullness and distinctness from St. John! Is not the inference suggested that the account in the Gospel of St. John, in the form in which we at present possess it, may be incomplete? I do not here venture to construct a hypothesis, far less to offer a matured explanation, but rather to make a suggestion of what possibly may have been, and to put it as a question to scholars. But once admit the idea, and there are, if not many, yet weighty reasons, to confirm it.

It would account for all the difficulties felt by those who have adopted the same view as Dr. Farrar, and explain, not, indeed, the supposed difference — for such I deny — but the incompleteness of St. John’s narrative, as compared with those of the Synoptists.

It explains what otherwise seems almost unaccountable. I agree with Dr. Farrar that St. John’s ‘accounts of the Last Supper are incomparably more full than those of the other Evangelists,’ and that he ‘was more immediately and completely identified with every act ill those last trying scenes than any one of the apostles.’ And yet, strange to say, on this important point St. John’s information is not only more scanty than that of the Synoptists, but so indefinite that, of alone, no certain inference could be drawn from it. The circumstance is all the more inexplicable if, as on Dr. Farrar’s theory, ‘the error’ of the Synoptists was at the time ‘generally prevalent,’ and St. John silently but deliberately,’ had set himself to correct it.

Strangest of all, the Gospel of St. John is the only one which does not contain any account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and yet, if anywhere; we would have expected to find it here. 4. The account in John 13, begins with a circumstantially which leads us to expect great fulness of detail. And yet, while maintaining throughout that characteristic, so far as the teaching of Jesus in that night is concerned, it almost suddenly and abruptly breaks off (about ver. 31) in the account of what He and they who sat with Him did at the Supper.

Of such a possible hiatus there seems, on closer examination, some internal confirmation, of which I shall here only adduce this one instance — that chapter 14: concludes by, ‘Arise, let us go hence;’ which, however, is followed by other three chapters of precious teaching and intercessory prayer, when the narrative is abruptly resumed, by a strange repetition, as compared with 14:31, in these words (18:1): ‘When Jesus had spoken these words, He went forth with His disciples over the brook Cedron.’ Further discussion would lead beyond the necessary limits of the present Excursus. Those who know how bitterly the Quartodeciman controversy raged in the early Church, and what strong things were put forth by the so-called ‘disciples of John’ in defense of their view, that the Last Supper did not take place on the Paschal night, may see grounds to account for such a hiatus. In conclusion, I would only say that, to my mind, the suggestion above made would in no way be inconsistent with the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Holy Scripture.


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