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March 7, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

As we approach the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus there are details that enrich the story of Passion Week that may not be obvious in the text of the Gospels.  They are discovered in the context and the setting of first century Judaism and the practices connected with the celebration of Passover.

It may not have occurred to the casual reader of the Gospel accounts, but we might wonder why Jesus and his Disciples did not celebrate Passover at Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.  Their home was his usual residence when visiting Jerusalem and it is not far from the city, just on the east side of the Mount of Olives.

The answer to that question is that the Passover meal had to be eaten, according to Jewish law, within the city itself.  This required the Disciples to find a home within the city which could accommodate the comparatively large group of thirteen.  The Passover meal was likely eaten at the home of Mary of Jerusalem, the mother of John Mark who was young at the time.  In his Gospel John Mark leaves a personal recollection of his witness to the arrest of Jesus.  He had followed the party to the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night (Mark 14:51).

There was a slightly different reason for the plan of the Disciples to spend the evening of Passover in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than travel to the Home of Lazarus.  Passover was considered a Sabbath and travel on a Sabbath was restricted to only a short distance.  Bethany was beyond what was allowed.  Jesus and his followers were strict adherents to Jewish law, in spite of his debates with the Pharisees as to the interpretation of certain prohibitions.

The Passover meal itself was eaten in Roman style at a table shaped like a U.  The diners would use couches which were positioned around the outside of the U.  The table in this arrangement was called a “triclinium,” indicating a table with couches on three sides.

The Disciple John was positioned next to Jesus on his right.  He was the youngest of the group and would ask the key questions that introduce the discussion of the history of the exodus from Egypt.  The first was, “Why is this night different than any other night?”

The Gospel of Luke is the clearest description of the Passover ritual, although the Gospels are brief accounts and the Passover ritual is long.  We know that the unleavened bread Jesus used to initiate the Eucharist was the Afikomen, a portion of the bread set aside at the beginning of the feast to serve as a kind of final reminded of the haste of Passover.  “Afikomen” is a Greek word which translates to “I came.”  The Rabbis understood it as a kind of dessert to the Passover meal.

The cup used by Jesus to indicate his coming sacrifice on a Roman cross was the cup of Redemption, the third of four cups used in the Passover ritual.  The final cup at the end of the meal is the cup of Praise, after which the Hallel Psalms are sung.  The cup of redemption was drunk following the meal as indicated in Luke 22:20.

Matthew tells us that after they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives (26:30).  It is clear why the earliest Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus as “Passover.”

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at  END-whs