by Robert C. Brow
Cross and Passover
Our next example of model theology illustrates how the use of two different models of the timing of the crucifixion suggest very different ways of arranging our services during Holy Week.
It is usually assumed that Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples was a Passover meal. This model was developed in great detail by Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (orig. ed. 1883, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971-77), p.481. The model is built around what seems to be the plain statement that "On the first day of Unleavened Bread when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" (Mark 14:12)
But this model has serious problems. The Jewish Passover from its institution to the present day has always been a family meal. In a Jewish Seder the mother has duties and the children ask questions about the meaning of the event. A gathering of thirteen males apart from their families could never be viewed as a Passover meal.
A second serious problem is that the high priest and other religious leaders clearly wanted Jesus crucified and out of the way before the Passover celebration began (Mark 14:1,2, Matthew 26:3-5). And all four of the Gospels say that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation ( Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31, 42).
John's Gospel says specifically that the Last Supper was "before the festival of the Passover" (13:1) and the trial of Jesus before Pilate was before the Passover began (18:28). That means that Jesus was being crucified at the same time as the Passover lambs were being killed on the Day of Preparation in the temple area.
There are various models that historians can adopt to deal with these apparent discrepancies. One is that the timing of the Synoptic Gospels is correct, and John's Gospel has changed the timing for theological purposes. Another is that the writer of John's Gospel reflects on the correct timing. Another is that Jesus could not have been crucified during the passover period, and Paul's statement that "our pachal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed" influenced the writing of the Gospels.
So we try out a model that might explain the various statements in the Gospels. Is it possible that the Last Supper was the kind of meal Rabbis sometimes ate with their closest disciples the evening before a major festival? This was to rehearse every detail of what the disciples would teach their own families the next day. In The Jewish Background of the Christian Liturgy, (1925), pp.156-193, W.O.E.Oesterley describes the practice of chaburah meals when a group of friends gathered for such religious purposes.
Now if we try out this model for the timing of the Last Supper and Crucifixion this is the picture we get. Jesus wanted to teach his disciples how the Passover related to his own death as Passover Lamb the next day. They would all understand that eating the Passover with their Rabbi was a teaching preparation for the actual Passover meal with their own family the next day.
After the meal Jesus and the disciples went out to the Garden of Gethsemane, which would have been an unthinkable thing to do on Passover night. The next day was the Day of Preparation, and during the day thousands of lambs would have ritually killed by the priests in the temple area. These would have been for each of the families who normally lived in Jerusalem and nearby villages like Bethany. But in addition hundreds of families would have come up from Galilee and other parts of the Mediterranean and they would each rent a place for their family Passover.
So while Jesus was on the cross each of the disciples would have needed to go and have their own Passover lamb killed so it it could be cooked in time for the celebration that evening. This might explain why they did not stay at the cross. Not to have a lamb for their family Passover would have been totally humiliating.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who together took the body of Jesus down from the cross and buried him in Joseph's tomb, would have been defiled by contact with a dead body. According to the rule in Numbers 9:9-13 their own family Passover would have had to be cancelled, and they would have met with their families for a Passover meal a month later.
Then after Jesus' body had been taken down and put in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb the Passover celebration would begin at sundown. Each of the disciples would have gathered with their own families. John would have taken Mary, Jesus' mother, to join his family for the Passover meal (John 19:26, 27). We can imagine the sense of horror and awe as it began to dawn on the disciples that the one John the Baptist had said was the Lamb of God had bled and died at the same time as their own Passover lamb was killed. As Paul later explained, the early Christians now understood that "Our paschal Lamb Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival" (1 Cor. 5:7,8).
Having set out the two models as possible explanations of the timing of the events, we should study carefully the accounts of the Passover in the OT, and every verse that relates the events of the crucifixion on the Day of Preparation. Finally as preachers we have to decide which of these two explanatory models, or some other explanation, we are going to use in our preaching and our Holy Week services. We know that our preaching will not be convincing if our model is confused.
As an Anglican minister I do not have the luxury of not choosing a model, either to preach the events of the crucifixion or to celebrate those events in Holy Week serices. So having developed the model which we have outlined, we tried it out for seven or eight years at St. James' Church, Kingston, Ontario from 1981 to 1989. We had a Last Supper teaching service on Maundy Thursday and then about a hundred of us joined in a Seder Supper with all the proper trimmings on Good Friday evening. It was rather big and unwieldy compared with an intimate Jewish family celebration, but we interspersed with joyful charismatic songs, and it certainly helped us to enter into the meaning of Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.
Similarly ministers and those in positions of leadership in any congregation have to settle on one explanatory model another if they are going to arrange services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And a Seder Supper is meaningless for Christians unless we can explain how it relates to the Passover when Jesus was crucified.