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A Paragraph That Changed History?

We know that, historically, Jesus’ Last Supper could not possibly have been a seder (see my companion article, “Was Jesus' Last Supper a Passover Seder?”)

But a compelling case can be made that Jesus' Last Supper was not even a pre-70 C.E. type of Passover meal—because Jesus was arrested before Passover arrived.

How is this possible? Let’s look, in Mark 14, at the source of the “Last Supper = Passover meal” connection: a single compact paragraph, verses 12-16 (titled, below, "second paragraph" and italicized for emphasis)."

First Paragraph 1–2: It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and…scribes were seeking how to arrest him…and kill him; for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people….” 10–11: Then Judas Iscariot…went to the chief priests…to betray him to them…and he sought an opportunity….

Second Paragraph 12-16: And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the PassoverLamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us...prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples:… “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you;…wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples...went to the city and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.

Third Paragraph 17–20: …When it was evening [Jesus] came with the twelve. And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “…one of you will betray me, one...dipping [ordinary leavened] bread in the same dish with me….” 22–25: …as they were eating, he took [ordinary leavened] bread,…blessed…broke it, and gave it to them…. “Take; this is my body....” He took a cup, and…gave it to them, and they all drank….He said…, “This is my blood of the covenant…poured out for many….” 26: And…they went out to the Mount of Olives.

There are an extraordinary number of anomalies embedded in this ostensibly simple text. Let us spotlight only five. As we'll see, each of them seems caused by the second, italicized paragraph. 

Anomaly 1: Unexplained Rupture of the Story Line

In verse 2—within the first paragraph—the authorities intend to dispose of Jesus before the feast. If in fact they arrest Jesus before the feast, Jesus' Last Supper would have to have happened before the date of the Passover meal—and therefore could not have been a Passover observance even of the prescribed pre-70 type.

Yet, abruptly, verse 12—opening the second paragraph—presents the feast as somehow having already arrived. This means that the plan to arrest him early somehow failed, yet Mark neglects to tell us that any such problem ensued. Why is such an important component of the storyline left unexplained?

Mark never reconciles these two conflicting chronologies, as we find them, respectively, in the first and second paragraphs.

Anomaly 2: Unnatural Concentration of All “Passover” Material

Nothing outside the second paragraph hints that the Passover feast has yet arrived (and this is true even of material surrounding the mere three paragraphs reproduced above). Why is it that allusions to Passover’s arrival never surface randomly throughout the longer surrounding narrative? Why does the claim that Passover has indeed arrived seem so artificially compressed into only this one short second paragraph?

Anomaly 3: Telltale Omissions

Curiously absent from Mark’s account is allusion to four core elements of Passover observance: i.e., mention of the Exodus, lamb (the main food), bitter herbs, and matzah. Moreover, not simply is the Greek word for matzah (azyma) absent, but the Greek word for regular leavened bread (artos) is present instead (the same is true in Mark 14:22 as well as Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians 11:23).

Anomaly 4: A Subtraction Error?

In the all important second paragraph, Jesus sends two disciples from Bethany to Jerusalem to prepare the Passover meal. Later, when Jesus himself comes, only 10 disciples remain available to accompany him (12 minus 2 = 10). Yet in the third paragraph, verse 17, Jesus “came with the twelve”—even though there is no mention of the two whom he sent to Jerusalem as having rejoined the group!

Anomaly 5: Jesus’ Trial on a Festival?

Mark, in 14:55-65, times Jesus’ Sanhedrin trial to coincide with the night of a Jewish festival, summoning Jewish councilors to sit in court shortly after their own (presumed) Passover meals. This is peculiar literarytiming: A Sanhedrin trial assigned to the evening of a festival appears odd because it might be intrusive into the holy day celebration or otherwise elicit resistance and cause unrest. (We need not press the matter beyond the literary, as the very nature of this Sanhedrin—whether it was Greco-Roman or rabbinic—and the very historicity of the trial itself are widely debated by New Testament scholars.)

Explaining the Anomalies

There is only one way of solving, simply and simultaneously, all five of these anomalies: by positing that Mark himself crafted and inserted the second paragraph (verses 12–16) into an original (and quite logical) timeline he had inherited.

Note that Gospel manuscripts originally lacked verse numbers, so what now appears as “verse 17” (the first sentence in the third paragraph) could originally have followed what is presently designated “verse 11” (the last sentence in the first paragraph).

If the second paragraph is deleted—a probable reversal of what Mark didwe no longer need to wonder why the plan to arrest Jesus before the feast failed because, without these verses, the plan would have succeeded! In other words, the first paragraph conveys the cogent reasoning why the authorities intended to arrest Jesus before Passover, and once the troublesome second paragraph (Passover's arrival) is removed, we naturally infer that Jesus was successfully apprehended as planned.

The other four anomalies can similarly be resolved in short order.

  • The unnatural concentration of Passover material in the second paragraph can now be readily accounted for: Mark folded his own second paragraph into an earlier story line in which Jesus’ Last Supper was already over before Passover arrived. In other words, the second paragraph, artificially accelerating Passover's arrival, is the only section of Mark 14 that makes the false identification of the Last Supper with the Passover meal. The insertion of this one paragraph readily explains why there isn't any other text referencing Passover's earlier arrival.
  • In trying to transform the Last Supper into a Passover meal, Mark forgot, or did not know, to include the key components that we have a right to expect (lamb, matzah, bitter herbs). When we delete the second paragraph—and thereby leave the Last Supper an ordinary meal—we see that this oddity vanishes. 
  • As for the mathematical mistake, while it is possible that “came with the twelve” could be but a formula for whatever members of Jesus’ inner circle were present, it is telling that both Matthew (ca. 85) and Luke (ca. 95) assume that Mark made a subtraction error. Instead of simply copying him (here their only narrative source), they correct him: Matthew adjusts Jesus “came with the twelve” to “Jesus sat at table with the twelve” (26:20); and Luke substitutes for “he came” instead “the hour came” (22:14). If the second paragraph is removed, however, there is no Passover meal to prepare, and hence no sending of two disciples ahead to do so. When Jesus arrived for his Last Supper (now only a regular meal), he naturally could come “with the [literal] twelve,” as per verse 17 (third paragraph). Without the second paragraph, Matthew and Luke would have found nothing here in Mark to correct.
  • And with the Last Supper no longer a Passover dinner, the problem of a Sanhedrin trial—oddly convening on the night soon after the Passover meal—would vanish. For the night of the Last Supper would not have coincided with the night of the Passover meal but would have occurred before that time.

In short, the only explanation that addresses all five anomalies is that Mark superimposed a new timeline upon an underlying tradition at variance with it. Most likely Mark did so in order to correlate Passover, the festival of physical and political freedom for the Jews, with Jesus' death, which in his view brought spiritual freedom, even salvation, for humanity.

The earlier tradition—that would ordinarily have prevailed—was that Jesus was successfully arrested, exactly as planned, before the Passover meal arrived. But instead a different tradition deviated because of Mark's insertion of the second paragraph. And the five anomalies arose simply because, editorially speaking, Mark didn’t do a sufficiently polished job in crafting his inserted paragraph.

Accordingly, if we carefully and closely examine the earliest Gospel, Mark, a tell-tale underlying chronology is clearly discernible, and the case for the Last Supper even as a prototypical Passover meal crumbles altogether. Jesus would actually have been arrested before the feast arrived—so his Last Supper could not have been a Passover meal, even of the pre-70 C.E. prototype.

Michael J. Cook is the HUC-JIR Bronstein Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies and author of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 3rd printing 2012). For a more detailed and hence more air-tight presentation of these proofs, and confirmatory solutions to still additional anomalies not here noted, see Chapter 10 of the book.