Technically, there are three Feasts in the spring month of Nisan, as bracketed in the slide above; but because they are contiguous (even overlapping) and so closely related, it became traditional practice to lump them together as a single Feast, which was called Passover (Heb. Pesach). I will present details of each component Feast in future posts, but for now I want to provide, in narrative form, a description of the events that preceded a typical Passover week, with notes about Jesus’ last Passover.
Since all bar mitzvah (Son of Commandment) Jewish males, age 13 and over, were required to be in Jerusalem for this Feast, nearby roads, bridges, wells and mikvoth (ritual baths, baptistries) were repaired well in advance and the city cleaned up for hordes of out-of-town visitors. Groups of roughly 7 to 12 people would share one lamb or kid, sized so that no meat would be left over after the upcoming Seder. Usually these groups were families, so that’s how I will refer to them here, but frequently small families or more loosely related groups would combine.
Selection of the animals had to be done no later than Nisan 10, so that was the date that most families would begin arriving. Jesus arrived that day (which we now refer to as “Palm Sunday”) on a donkey colt, with Peter and John who appear to have shared the preparation duties in the following days.
Though the Passover Week would not start until the Seder meal during the period of dusk between Nisan 14 and 15, the sacrifices had to be completed during the day on Nisan 14. This day was also called “the first day of unleavened bread”, because all leaven had to be consumed, sold to Gentiles or destroyed before the Seder and the following week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread.
There were usually as many as a million people in Jerusalem for Passover, so around a hundred thousand animals had to be sacrificed in a single day! All 12 courses (rotations) of priests and as many Levites as possible would be on duty. Typically, one or two representatives from each family, with their animal, would gather around the Temple Mount, on its top, and in the outer courts and the Court of Prayer (also known as the Court of Women, or the Treasury). As quickly as possible, these worshippers would be led in groups through the Nicanor Gate separating the Court of Prayer from the Court of Israel. Two lines of priests would be stationed in the slaying area on the north side of the altar, each priest holding a gold or silver bowl as shown below.
The function of the family representatives in this ceremony was to bring the animal and the slaying knife, to kneel in front of one of the priests, and to tenderly hold the animal as a way of identifying with it, emotionally and spiritually. The representative, not the priest, would then slit its throat quickly and humanely. The blood would be drained into the priest’s bowl and passed down the line of priests to be splashed at the base of the altar, near a drain that would channel much of it down into the Kidron Valley, below. After finishing with the slaying, the representatives would carry their dead animals to an adjacent area where they would hang it from one of several posts provided for the purpose and quickly cut out portions of meat dedicated to the temple personnel, and parts forbidden for consumption. The forbidden parts would be carried by priests up a ramp onto the altar and tossed into a fire. The representatives would skin the rest of the offering and cut it up for cooking. The meat would be wrapped in the skins and taken back into the city to be roasted on a spit in ovens constructed for that purpose.
The reason I spent so much energy describing the above process is that it can’t be understood from the Bible alone, and probably 98% of what you read on the Internet is flawed. Many Christians say that there had to have been two Seders, or the Last Supper must have been some other meal. There are three main reasons for this confusion:
- First, many believe that Jesus was crucified “on Passover”, at the same time the lamb (singular) was sacrificed. For historical and theological reasons that I will go into in future posts, the Crucifixion absolutely could not have been on Passover, and it could not have been on the same day as the sacrifices (plural). Jesus was crucified during traditional Passover week, but not until after the Biblical Passover Feast, the one and only Seder. There were not two Seders.
- There is also confusion about terminology–the Preparation Day was on the first day of unleavened bread, but that is the day before the first day of The Feast of Unleavened Bread.
- Also, in John 18:28, when the Pharisees refused to go into Pilate’s headquarters with Jesus in the morning lest they be defiled and unable to “eat the Passover” (ESV), the meal they were concerned about could not have been the Seder, because defilement from entering a Gentile home only lasted until sundown! Instead, it had to refer to the important chagigah meal at noon following the Seder. More on all these issues later.
Table of Contents: The Jewish Feasts
Start of Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 1, Chapter Introduction
Previous in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 3, An Overview
Next in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 5, Passover