What is meant by “Passover” (in the Bible)?
A number of people are confused by the use of the word 'Passover'. The question is often asked, “When is Passover?” And often it is answered with a simple date. However, the biblical use of the word suggests a more complex meaning, and a single date is therefore an inadequate answer. Understanding the proper use of this word is essential in the study to know whether Jesus ate the Passover on the night before he was killed.
In the early verses of Exodus 12, God introduces the Passover. I have reproduced the King James text here, but I've added back the noun for all the pronouns used, to help indicate what God is telling us throughout this passage.
The Passover as the Lamb
Exodus 12:3-11 –
¶Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth
day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according
to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: 4 And if the
household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next
unto his house take it [the lamb] according to the number of the
souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the
lamb. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year:
ye shall take it [the lamb] out from the sheep, or from the goats: 6
And ye shall keep it [the lamb] up until the fourteenth day of the
same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall
kill it [the lamb] in the evening [between the two evenings]. 7 And
they shall take of the blood, and strike it [the blood of the lamb] on
the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein
they shall eat it [the lamb]. 8 And they shall eat the flesh [of the
lamb] in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with
bitter herbs they shall eat it [the lamb]. 9 Eat not of it [the lamb]
raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his [the
lamb's] head with his [the lamb's] legs, and with the purtenance
thereof. 10 And ye shall let nothing of it [the lamb] remain until
the morning; and that which remaineth of it [the lamb] until the
morning ye shall burn with fire. 11 ¶And thus shall ye eat it [the
lamb]; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff
in your hand; and ye shall eat it [the lamb] in haste: it [the lamb]
is the Lord's passover.
As we can see, the last line clearly defines what the Passover is—“it [the lamb] is the Lord's passover.” That definition is reinforced later in the chapter:
Exodus 12:21 – ¶Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and
said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your
families, and kill the passover.
The lamb, selected and sacrificed at the specified time, is the Passover.
The Passover as a Period of Time (“Between the Evenings”)
However, this definition does not hold in all uses of the word. The following verses seem to include the rites of the Passover meal and the sacrifice, but is still emphasizing the lamb which is sacrificed.
Exodus 12:26-27 – And it shall come to pass, when your children shall
say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is
the sacrifice of the Lord's passover, who passed over the houses of
the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and
delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped.
But yet again, when God specifies the Passover to the priesthood, he says:
Leviticus 23:5 – In the first month, on the fourteenth of the month,
between the evenings is the Passover to Jehovah.
Here, it is the specific time period that is referred to as the Passover.
The Passover as a Seven Day Feast
And it seems that the Feast of Unleavened Bread is also referred to as “The Passover”:
Exodus 34:25 – Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with
leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be
left unto the morning.
Ezekiel 45:21 – In the first month, in the fourteenth day of the
month, ye shall have the passover, a feast of seven days; unleavened
bread shall be eaten.
Luke verifies this, when he states:
Luke 22:1 – Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is
called the Passover.
Many Bible scholars claim that this identity between the Passover (proper) and the Feast of Unleavened Bread came about over the years. Thus the several references in the New Testament:
Matthew 26:2 – Ye know that after two days is the feast of the
passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.
Mark 14:1 – After two days was the feast of the passover, and of
unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how
they might take him by craft, and put him to death.
Luke 2:41 – Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast
of the passover.
John 6:4 – And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.
John 13:1 – Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that
his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the
Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them
unto the end.
However, let's read Exodus 12 a little more carefully.
Exodus 12:14 – This day shall be to you for a memorial, …
God seems to start out talking about the Passover as a day, but then switches to the seven day feast:
14 – … and you shall keep it a feast to Yahweh: throughout your
generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever.
15 – “‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; even the first day
you shall put away yeast out of your houses, for whoever eats leavened
bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut
off from Israel.
16 – In the first day there shall be to you a holy convocation, and in
the seventh day a holy convocation; no kind of work shall be done in
them, except that which every man must eat, that only may be done by
17 – You shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; …
And then switches back to talking about the day:
… for in this same day have I brought your armies out of the land of
Egypt: therefore you shall observe this day throughout your
generations by an ordinance forever.
Then back to the feast again:
18 – In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at
evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of
the month at evening.
19 – There shall be no yeast found in your houses for seven days, for
whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from
the congregation of Israel, whether he be a foreigner, or one who is
born in the land.
20 – You shall eat nothing leavened. In all your habitations you shall
eat unleavened bread.’”
So, where do the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover first get intertwined and identified together? It is from God's own words! God himself shows that the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are intimately connected.
Contrary to scholarly opinion (which is primarily based upon an ungodly and faulty premise of higher biblical criticism), the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were not two separate feasts (the merging of two cultural celebrations). Unfortunately, some have been led astray by this faulty premise, and thus read Leviticus 23:5-6 as if the 14th day is the Passover “feast” and the 15th day begins a separate feast. The Word of God simply does not support that interpretation. Rather, Leviticus 23:6 should be read as the festival portion of the Passover, the beginning of the Feast of the Passover.
Thus, and once again, “the Passover” refers to a period of time, but one more extended than the few hours during which the lamb is to be sacrificed, as first suggested.
The Passover as a Complete Package
Numbers 9:3 (LITV) – In the fourteenth day of this month, between the
evenings, you shall prepare it according to all its statutes, and
according to all its ordinances.
Thus, when God says, “keep it in its appointed season—according to all its statutes, and according to all its ordinances” (Numbers 9:3), included in those ordinances is: the selection on the 10 th day, the sacrifice on the 14th day, the meal on the night of the 15th, and the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread with its Sabbaths (High Days) from the 15th to the 21st inclusive. That is why we see in II Chronicles 30:13 the Feast was kept in the second month along with the Passover on the 14th day.
II Chronicles 30:13 (LITV) – And many people gathered to Jerusalem, to
keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the second month, a very great
It should be noted that the fourteenth day (as a whole) is never referred to as “the Passover”. However, in the New Testament, the Apostle John explicitly refers to the 14th day as “the Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). The other evangelists simply abbreviate it to “the Preparation [Day]” (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54).
The word 'passover' has several meanings in the Bible. We see that it initially meant the selected, unblemished lamb that was to be sacrificed at the appointed time. Its meaning also has the extended meaning of the time period in which the lamb is to be sacrificed ('between the evenings', which is between the ninth hour and sunset on the fourteenth day of the first month). It also referred to the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread. The specific meaning is usually evident from the context.
Most of the time the context is clear enough that we can determine which meaning is intended. However, there are some crucial places where it is still rather vague. Such as, what exactly did Jesus mean when he told Peter and John to “Go and prepare us the passover” (Luke 22:8)? Was he referring to preparing the lamb? Or the meal? Or the Feast of Unleavened Bread? Or something else?
What is the Meaning of Mark 14:12 & Luke 22:7-8?
Mark 14:12 – And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?
Luke 22:7-8 – Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat.
What are Mark and Luke referring to here?
“the first day of unleavened bread”, “the day of unleavened bread” –
Strictly speaking, the first day of unleavened bread (Mark 14:12) would be Nisan/Abib 15 (Leviticus 23:6). By extension, some have considered the day on which the Passover lamb is killed (the 14th day) to be the first day, and was also included as a day of unleavened bread (even though there was no requirement for the bread eaten on the 14th to be unleavened, only from the 15th through the 21st). But depending upon the meaning of Matthew 26:20, this day could either still be the 13th or the beginning of the 14th. But there is no way it could be the 15th.
However, claiming this time to be on the 14th also doesn't work, as it leads to a number of conflicts with other Gospel record evidence (examples: they could not be preparing the Passover at the same time that they were to eat it, nor could it be eaten beyond morning).
The Law is clear about when the Passover lamb was to be killed:
Exodus 12:6 (LITV) – And it shall be for you to keep until the
fourteenth day of this month. And all the assembly of the congregation
of Israel shall kill it between the evenings.
Leviticus 23:5 (LITV) – in the first month, on the fourteenth of the
month, between the evenings, is the passover to Jehovah;
Numbers 9:3 (LITV) – Also the sons of Israel shall prepare the
Passover in its appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this
month, between the evenings, you shall prepare it according to all its
statutes, and according to all its ordinances. And Moses spoke to the
sons of Israel to prepare the Passover. And they prepared the
Passover in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month,
between the evenings, in the wilderness of Sinai, according to all
that Jehovah had commanded Moses, so the sons of Israel did.
“when they killed the passover”, “when the passover must be killed” –
Some have interpreted this to indicate that the Passover lambs were being killed at that very moment by others. However, as per above, it was not yet time to kill the Passover.
Kenneth S. Wuest, in his “The Gospels: An Expanded Translation”, has: “at which time it was the custom to kill the passover” (Mark XIV, 12-15, p. 156). Introducing the notion of 'custom' helps clarify the meaning. It was not referring to actions that were taking place at that moment, but to the continuing custom (annual event) of killing the Passover at its appointed time. Though the time for killing the Passover had not yet arrived, it was imminent and it was time to make other preparations (such as, ready the room). Also:
Luke 22:7 (The Peschito Syriac New Testament by J.W. Etheridge) – And
the day of unleavened bread came, on which it was the custom to slay
The Passover was to be killed at its customary time—on the 14th day, between the evenings (between the ninth hour and sunset)—which would not arrive until Jesus was dying on the cross.