Sergey E. Rysev
The Last Supper in the Light of the Book of Daniel
In the study of the New Testament there still exists a serious problem that
comes to the following. According to the synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper of
Jesus took place ‘on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb
was being sacrificed’ (Mk 14:12, see also Mt 26:17, Lk 22:7) but the Gospel of
John claims the Supper was on the day before the Passover (13:1-2). Attempts
that were taken to eliminate this contradiction, including the ones that tried
to do it by means of the calendar found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, haven’t
brought convincing results.
At first, let us refer to the Old Testament legislation and see what it says
about the beginning and duration of the Passover festival. ‘In the first month,
on the 14th day of the month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. Then on the
15th day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord;
for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a
holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work’ (Lev 23:5-7). And about
the order of offering of the Passover sacrifice, it says this: ‘On the 10th of
this month they are each one to take a lamb for themselves, according to their
fathers’ households... You shall keep it until the 14th day of the same month,
then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight’
Now it’s useful to compare the Old Testament’s instructions about the Passover
with information given by Josephus in his Antiquities: ‘In the month of
Xanthicus, which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year, on the
14th day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries... the law ordained that
we should every year slay that sacrifice...which was called the Passover; and so
we do celebrate this passover in companies, leaving nothing of what we sacrifice
till the day following. The feast of unleavened bread succeeds that of the
passover, and falls on the 15th day of the month, and continues seven days...’ (Ant
In Josephus’ explanation, two important details should be taken into account.
Firstly, he counts up the days of a month from the new moon. Secondly, he equals
the Jewish calendar with Macedonian one. Moreover, such an equation is found
constantly in his works. For example, in ‘The Wars of the Jews’, Romans seize
the Galilean town of Jotapata on the first day of the Macedonian month Panemus
(3,7,36), the Jerusalem temple is consumed by fire on the 10th day of the month
Lous (6,4,5) and so on. This shows that, in 1st century AD, Jews in their daily
life followed the lunisolar Graeco-Macedonian calendar. Using a foreign calendar
in Judaea in the period discussed is supported by the Dead Sea Scrolls one of
which hurls the following reproach at Jewish authorities: ‘They fix all
celebrations in agreement with the celebrations of the nations’ (Commentary on
Hosea, 4Q167 2,16 – DSS, p. 330-331).
It can be maintained with sufficient confidence that the official celebration of
the Passover, i. e. the calendar day of Nisan, 14, on which the paschal
sacrifice was offered, fell on Friday that year, just because the evangelist
John repeatedly directs readers’ attention to this point. Let us examine all
significant references to the Passover in his gospel.
The first one is given in the verse 12:1: ‘Jesus, therefore, six days before the
Passover, came to Bethany’. If the Passover fell on Friday it means Jesus came
to Bethany on the previous Saturday, which corresponds with the data of the
Synoptists since Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem in the Gospel of John takes place
on the next day – an episode described by all the evangelists without exclusion
(Jn 12:12-15, Mt 21:1-11, Mk 11:1-10, Lk 19:29-38).
The second reference to the Passover in John is directly connected with the Last
Supper: ‘Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had
come that He would depart out of this world... And during supper...’ (13:1-2).
John doesn’t say that this supper was the Passover meal (Hebrew seder) while the
Synoptists unequivocally point to this circumstance, for example: ‘The disciples
went out and came to the city... and they prepared the Passover’ (Mk 14:16).
Then John recalls the Passover when he describes the events that followed Jesus’
arrest: ‘...and they themselves did not enter into the praetorium so that they
would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover’ (18:28). Next, the Passover is
mentioned when the sentence was passed on Jesus: ‘Now it was the day of
preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour’ (19:14).
Finally, the last, indirect reference to the Passover in the Gospel of John is
linked with details of the execution: ‘Then the Jews, because it was the day of
preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for
that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and
that they might be taken away’ (19:31). The Sabbath is, most probably, called
‘high’ because it coincided with the first day of Unleavened Bread owing to
which Jews had double ground for resting.
Thus, if the Passover (the 14th of Nisan) occurred on Friday that year what
impelled Jesus and his disciples to eat the Passover meal the day before? And
that the Last Supper took place on Thursday is of no doubt. This is supported
not only by the fact that the next day, on which Jesus was crucified, was
exactly Friday according to all the Gospels, but also by the counting of days if
it is done from the previous Saturday. Here we will rely on the story of Mark
who adds one day to the narrative of Matthew, most probably in order to make it
more accurate (cf. Mt 21:1-23 and Mk 11:1-27).
On Sunday, as was already mentioned, Jesus solemnly entered Jerusalem and viewed
the temple (Mk 21:1-11). The night he spent in Bethany (11:11). He returned to
the city on Monday morning, again visited the temple and drove merchants out of
it (21:12-19). For comparison, according to Matthew, driving out ‘all those who
were buying and selling in the temple’ took place on the day before (Mt 21:12).
On Tuesday Jesus spent all the day in the temple and on the mount of Olives,
arguing with the Pharisees and Sadducees and instructing his disciples (Mt
21:23-25:46, Mk 11:27-13:37). Having described the events of Tuesday, Mark
indicates that the festival of ‘the Passover and Unleavened Bread were two days
away’ (14:1), and Matthew even cites the words of Jesus in this connection: ‘You
know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be
handed over for crucifixion’ (26:2). Our attention is drawn to the words ‘you
know’ suggesting an idea that not everyone at all knew when the Passover should
be properly celebrated. In any case, counting the days from the previous
Saturday supports the fact that Jesus ate the lamb a day before the official
Sometimes the commentators try to explain the discrepancy discussed by
differences in calendar issues between two Jewish parties, Pharisees and
Sadducees. It is supposed that the Pharisees might celebrate the Passover on one
day and the Sadducees on another. But this view can be objected by the following
argument: the far less authoritative party of Sadducees would hardly dare to act
counter to the Pharisees who dominated in Jewish social and political life of
the time. For instance, Josephus reports that whatever the Pharisees ‘do about
Divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they [ordinary people] perform them
according to their direction’ and when the Sadducees ‘become magistrates... they
addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would
not otherwise bear them’ (Ant 18,1,3-4). This balance of power corresponds to
the situation pictured in the New Testament where the Pharisees are mentioned
much more often than the Sadducees.
However the Pharisees had more decisive opponents among Jews. It is quite
probable that when Jesus heaped severe reproaches on them (‘Woe to you, scribes
and Pharisees, hypocrites... You blind guides...’ – Mt 23:23-24) he expressed
not only his own opinion. It is curious that, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a similar
bitter criticism is cast upon the influential antagonistic group, ‘dwrshi
ha-halaqwt’, members of which ‘walk in treachery and lies’ (Commentary on Nahum,
4Q169 2,2 – DSS, p. 338-339). Most of the researchers reasonably see the
Pharisees behind the above definition although they experience serious
difficulties in understanding the meaning of the term itself. ‘Dwrshi ha-halaqwt’
is most often translated as ‘seekers after smooth things’. That is behind this
designation there loom out people who are usually called conciliators or
conformists – those who are ready to make any concessions to sustain their
The word ‘halaqwt’ is present in the Old Testament, in particular in chapter 11
of the book of Daniel fragments of which were found in Qumran. In verses
11:32-33, ‘halaqwt’ is used together with the contrary term ‘maskylym’ (Heb.
wise, insightful ones): ‘By smooth words [Heb. ba-halaqwt] he [the king] will
turn to godlessness those who act wickedly toward the covenant, but the people
who know their God will display strength and take action. Those who have insight
among the people [Heb. maskyley am] will give understanding to the many...’
‘Insightful ones’ are mentioned also in the Dead Sea Scrolls: in the sectarian
community, a ‘maskyl’ fulfilled the duties of an instructor who ‘should instruct
and teach all the sons of light about the nature of all the sons of man’ (Rule
of the Community, 1QS 3,13 – DSS, p. 74-75).
If we look attentively at the book of Daniel it is seen that chapters 10-12 (dated
by ‘the third year of Cyrus, king of Persia’ – 10:1) form a single whole in this
book. They themselves belong to a group of chapters that include prophesies
about world events and four kingdoms (chap. 2, 7-12). The fourth kingdom, in
which the commentators most often see either the kingdom of Seleucids or the
Roman Empire, is doubtlessly... Israel. The ten horns, or kings (7:7,24),
correspond to the royal dynasty of Hasmoneans, and the three ones ‘pulled out by
the roots’ (7:8) are its last representatives perished after Romans’ invasion of
Palestine. The horn that became ‘larger in appearance than its associates’
(7:20) and is ‘different from the previous ones’ (7:24) is the king Herod. It
can be also noticed that the beast which personifies the fourth kingdom is
already slain (7:11) whereas the other ones are allowed to live ‘for an
appointed period of time’ (7:12). This indicates that chapter 7 of Daniel was
written when Jews lost all hopes for revival of Hasmonean dynasty. The king
‘insolent and skilled in intrigue’ (8:23) whose ‘power will be mighty but not by
his own power’ (8:24) is the same Herod. As to chapter 11, in which successive
rulers feature, it speaks about kings from Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties, and
about Roman emperors.
We have finally arrived at a curious passage in chapter 10 of Daniel that
directly relates to the considered problem of the Last Supper. Verses 10:2-4 say
that Daniel fasted for three entire weeks and on the 24th of the first month [Nisan]
he was on the bank of the river Tigris. Since Jews count weeks from Sabbath to
Sabbath it means 23th and 16th of Nisan were Sabbaths. It follows that the 14th
of Nisan was Thursday. According to the apocryphal books of Enoch (14,74) and
Jubilees that were also present among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the calendar year
should consist of 364 days. For example, the book of Jubilees (6,30-32)
indicates: ‘And all the days of the commandment will be 52 weeks of days, and
these will make the entire year complete... And command thou [Moses] the
children of Israel that they observe the years according to this reckoning – 364
days, and these will constitute a complete year’. As a result, any Jewish
festival had to fall annually on the same day of the week. As a matter of fact,
this is seen from the calendar documents of the Qumran community (4Q320-330).
However in them the Passover occurs on Tuesday each year. But the calendar of
the Qumran community should be considered as a project of a ‘perfect’ calendar
elaborated after the death of Jesus, most probably with assistance of the
Pharisees a part of whom joined the community (‘But some of the sect of the
Pharisees who had believed...’ – Acts 15:5).
Thus, a contingent dating of the Passover in the book of Daniel obviously
written by Sadducees was used by the sectarians, i. e. the Essenes, as a kind of
temporary guidance. And high regard of this book’s prophesies by the sectarians
is seen from its mention by Jesus at the moment when he uttered his own
predictions (‘Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was
spoken of through Daniel the prophet...’ – Mt 24:15). Before the Essenes formed
a solid organization they presented separate groups of people who disappointed
in social life and followed ascetic soothsayers (see Ant 13,11,2; 15,10,5;
17,13,3). Such a view helps to clear up the still debated etymology of the word
‘essaioi’ or ‘essenoi’ as it usually written by ancient authors. The answer can
be found again in a Josephus’ work: ‘But in the void place of this garment [the
ephod of a high priest] there was inserted a piece of the bigness of a span...
called Essen [the breastplate; Heb. hoshen], which in the Greek language
signifies the oracle [Greek logion]’ (Ant 3,7,5).
The initial stage of consolidation of Essenes is reflected in short in chapter 9
of Daniel that speaks about 70 seven-year periods (‘And one seven-year period [Heb.
shavua] will strengthen the covenant for the many...’ – 9:27). It is also
described in the above cited passage from chapter 11: ‘Those who have insight
among the people will give understanding to the many...’ (11:33), and in the
introduction to the so-called Damascus Document: ‘...they were like blind
persons and like those who grope for a path over 20 years. And God appraised
their deeds... and raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness...’ (CD 1,9-11
– DSS, p. 550-551; cf. ‘For John came to you in the way of righteousness’ – Mt
21:32). Subsequent events inside the sect, first of all its split, are described,
from the position of followers of the Teacher of Righteousness, in the number of
texts that were called the Commentaries (1QpHab, 4Q169, 4Q171, etc.).
The Sadducees played a part of educated teachers of the community, which is seen
from yet another Qumran text, the Instruction: ‘...you will be exceedingly
understanding. And from all your teachers [Heb. maskylichah] get more
understanding...’ (4Q418 frag. 81,17 – DSS, p. 872-873). Working as enlighteners,
they simultaneously incited the Essenes preparing them for a rebellion against
Roman authorities, which required conspiracy. As a result, we have the allegoric
language of the book of Daniel, numerous pseudonyms in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and
seemingly strange instructions of Jesus before the ‘alternative’ Passover meal:
‘...when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of
water; follow him into the house that he enters’ (Lk 22:10). So the Last Supper
can be rightfully called the mystical or secret (as it is done in the Eastern
Orthodox Church) not only because of the mystery of Eucharist established in it.
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Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (transl. by W. Whiston).
Josephus, The Wars of the Jews (transl. by W. Whiston).
New American Standard Bible.