Passover Becomes about Matzah when the Paschal Lamb Becomes Associated with Jesus
Since the rabbinic period, the holiday of Passover has been celebrated as a seven-day holiday – or eight-day, in the diaspora – that begins on the eve of the fifteenth of Nissan, and commemorates the miraculous exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. But as late as the Second Temple period, following texts such as Leviticus 23:5-8, Passover was comprised of two separate holidays: the Holiday of the Paschal Lamb, celebrated at the end of the fourteenth day of Nissan, and the Holiday of Unleavened Bread, celebrated from the eve of the fifteenth day of Nissan through the twenty-first.
The Passover Papyrus
Our earliest extrabiblical source regarding the observance of Passover is a letter found on the island of Elephantine, Egypt, dated to 419 B.C.E.; it assumes the separateness of the holidays. A man named Hananiah instructs Jews to observe the Passover holiday on the 14th of Nissan, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread on the following seven days:
[To my brothers, Ye]daniah and his colleagues the Jewish ga[rrison,] your brother Hanan[i]ah. May God/the gods [seek after] the welfare of my brothers [at all times.] And now, this year, year 5 of King Darius, it has been sent from the king to Arsa[mes ……… …]
Now, you thus count four[teen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight ob]serve [the Passover] and from the 15th day until the 21st day of [Nisan observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now,] be pure and take heed. [Do] n[ot do] work [on the 15th day and on the 21st day of Nisan.] Do not drink [any fermented drink. And do] not [eat] anything of leaven [nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at] sunset until the 21st day of Nisa[n at sunset. And b]ring into your chambers [any leaven which you have in your houses] and seal (them) up during [these] days. …
[To] my brothers, Yedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah s[on of ??].
Other Jewish sources that were written a few centuries afterward also attest to the separateness of these two holidays.
Book of Jubilees
The 2nd century B.C.E. Book of Jubilees devotes an entire chapter to the holiday of Passover, and repeatedly specifies that the holiday of Passover is a single day, which extends to the evening of the fifteenth of Nissan:
And you, remember this day all of the days of your life and observe it from year to year all the days of your life, once per year on its day according to all of its law and you will not delay one (day) from (its) day or from (one) month to (another) month. 
Later in the same chapter, Jubilees acknowledges the Feast of Unleavened Bread as a separate holiday:
And you, Moses, command the children of Israel so that they shall keep the ordinance of the Passover just as it was commanded to you so that you might relate to them its annual (occurrence) each year, both its period of days and the feast of unleavened bread so that they might eat unleavened bread for seven days so that they might observe its feast, and that they might bring its gift, day by day, during those seven days to rejoice before the Lord upon the altar of your God.
According to Jubilees, sacrifices should be brought on each day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but these sacrifices function as gifts to God, not as a commemoration of the paschal lamb sacrificed by the Israelites on the cusp of their departure from Egypt. That historical event is memorialized on the fourteenth of Nissan, on the Passover holiday.
About two centuries after the composition of Jubilees, additional texts emerged that indicate that these two holidays were juxtaposed, but retained their separate identities. One such text is Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities, which is generally dated to the first century C.E. and is considered among the texts known as the Pseudepigrapha. Pseudo-Philo notes that Penina harassed Hannah, the woman who would become the mother of the prophet Samuel, on “the holy day of Passover,” implying that the Passover holiday is just one day.
Similarly, the first-century historian Josephus explicitly separates between Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread:
[Moses] got the Hebrews ready for their departure, and having sorted the people into tribes, he kept them together in one place; but when the fourteenth day was come, and all were ready to depart, they offered the sacrifice, and purified their houses with the blood, using bunches of hyssop for that purpose; and when they had supped, they burnt the remained of the flesh, as just ready to depart. When it is that we do still offer this sacrifice in like manner to this day, and call this festival Pascha, which signifies the feast of the feast of the Passover; because on that day God passed us over, and sent the plague upon the Egyptians.
A paragraph later, Josephus describes the origins of a separate holiday, the holiday of unleavened bread:
On the third day [the Israelites] came to a place called Baalzephon, on the Red Sea; and when they had no food out of the land, because it was a desert, they ate of loaves kneaded of flour, only warmed by a gentle heat; and this food they made use of for thirty days; for what they brought with them out of Egypt would not suffice them any longer time….when it is that, in memory of the want we were then in, we keep a feast for eight days, which is called the feast of unleavened bread. 
Finally, Philo, in his Special Laws (book 2) describes the holidays as being separate:
XI. (41) Now there are ten festivals in number, as the law sets them down… The fourth is that of the passover which is called the Passover. The fifth is the first fruits of the corn–the sacred sheaf (Omer). The sixth is the feast of unleavened bread…
XXVII. (145) And after the feast of the new moon comes the fourth festival, that of the Passover, which the Hebrews call pascha, on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening…. (149) And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month, which consists of two periods of seven, in order that nothing which is accounted worthy of honor may be separated from the number seven. But this number is the beginning of brilliancy and dignity to everything…
XXVIII. (150) And there is another festival combined with the feast of the Passover, having a use of food different from the usual one, and not customary; the use, namely, of unleavened bread, from which it derives its name.
Although he recognizes that the holidays are, “combined” Philo still lists them as two separate holidays (with the Omer being yet a third holiday, though combined with Chag HaMatzot.)
These sources indicate that throughout the Second Temple period, Passover and Chag HaMatzot were celebrated by most Jews as two separate holidays. By the rabbinic period, however, they appear to be one and the same. Already eight centuries ago, R. Isaiah of Trani the Elder (Rid), observed that although the holidays are two, the Rabbis treat them as one. Commenting on the opening Mishna in the tenth chapter of Pesachim (a tractate that deals with the Pesach sacrifice as well as the issues of chametz and matzah) in his Talmudic novelae (Tosafot Rid), Rid observes:
אף על פי שיום י”ד הוא הנקרא פסח כדכתיב ובארבעה עשר לחדש הזה פסח לה’ אינו נמנע התנא מלקרא לכל חג המצות פסח
Even though the fourteenth [of Nissan] is called Pesach, as it is written (Lev. 23:5), ‘On the fourteenth day of this month is a Pesach for the Lord,’ the Tanna [of the Mishnah] does not avoid referring to the entire holiday ofMatzot as Pesach.
What happened during the second century C.E. that brought about this change? In all likelihood, multiple factors contributed to the definitive fusion of these holidays.
First, there is in fact biblical precedent that at least some Jews viewed these holidays as one combined holiday. Deuteronomy 16:1-8 links these holidays in a way that seems to bind them together. Likewise, Ezekiel 45:21-23 does not seem to distinguish between the two holidays. However, the existence of postbiblical sources that take the separation of these holidays for granted indicates that, for many Jews, these holidays were still separated from one another.
It is possible that the fusion of these two holidays was concretized in the second century. By this time, Jesus’ association with the paschal lamb, particularly as it is presented in the Gospel of John, was well known. This association may have resulted in a gradual de-emphasis on the holiday of the Paschal Lamb in the rabbinic community, which culminated in the final synthesis of the holiday of the Paschal Lamb and the Feast of Unleavened Bread into a single holiday.
The Last Supper
According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus’ last supper was on the evening of the fourteenth of Nissan. According to these sources, Jesus was crucified on the following day, the fifteenth of Nissan. The timeline is different than the one found in the later Gospel of John, written sometime towards the end of the first century. In John’s version, Jesus is crucified on the fourteenth day of Nissan, and his last supper occurred on the night before, on the 13th of Nissan.
By moving Jesus’ crucifixion back one day, John is turning Jesus not only into a sacrifice but into the sacrifice – the Passover lamb has now been replaced by Jesus himself. Considering the immense popularity and centrality of Passover in Second Temple times and in Judaism as a whole, this move would place Jesus imagery in the spotlight of a core Jewish practice.
The rabbinic community reacted against this replacement, by making the Feast of Unleavened Bread more central than the paschal lamb, and indeed called the entire new festival Passover, thereby blurring the distinction between the seven-day festival and the day of the paschal offering.
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April 9, 2014
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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