Extra-biblical Sources About the Christian Passover

There are many sources that can be used to support what is said in the Bible about the Passover. All of the following sources corroborate the fact that the Jews have shown unity and consistency in keeping the Passover at the end of the 14th day and the beginning of the 15th day of Nisan.

Inner-testament Records

Jewish Colony at Elephantine (5th century B.C.)

The earliest reference to the Passover outside the Old Testament seems to be a letter written in the Persian period. This fragmentary letter does not specifically mention the Passover, but there are several indications that this is the subject.

The essential parts of the letter are as follows (translated from the restored Aramaic text given by B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine p. 311):

"Count fourteen days from Nisan 1 and keep the Passover and from the 15th to the 21st of Nisan, keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And any type of leaven do not eat. Eat unleavened bread from the 14th of Nisan at the going down of the sun until the 21st of Nisan at the going down of the sun."

The exact time of the Passover is not mentioned in these surviving fragments. However, it is clear that only the seven days of unleavened bread were observed. This also shows that this term 'evening' in the Aramaic language was still used to denote the evening at the end of a day.

The Book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.)

This early Jewish writing describes the Passover in some detail, including a contemporary definition of the phrase 'between the evenings.' The following quotation is from chapter 49 of R.H. Charles' translation in his Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English:

"Remember the commandment which the Lord commanded thee concerning the Passover, that thou should celebrate it in its season on the fourteenth of the first month, that thou should kill it before it is evening, and that they should eat it by night on the evening of the fifteenth from the time of the setting of the sun.

"Let the children of Israel come and observe the Passover on the day of its fixed time, on the fourteenth day of the first month, between the evenings, from the third part of the day to the third part of the night, for two portions of the day are given to the light, and a third part to the evening.

"This is that which the Lord commanded thee that thou should observe it between the evenings. And it is not permissible to slay it during any period of the light, but during the period bordering on the evening, and let them eat it at the time of the evening until the third part of the night, and whatever is left over of all its flesh from the third part of the night and onwards, let them burn it with fire" (Each 'part' was approximately 4 hours long).

This shows that, approximately two centuries before Jesus, some Jews believed that the Passover should be sacrificed in the time from about 2 p.m. to about 6 p.m. and it could be eaten until about 2 a.m. after which any of the sacrifice that remained uneaten must be burned.

Philo (early 1st century A.D.)

Philo wrote from about 20 B.C. to 45 A.D.. He lived most of his life in Alexandria and was a leading figure in the Jewish community there. He visited Jerusalem on at least one occasion and was well-versed in the Law. Therefore, his description of the Passover celebration at the Temple during his day could be accurate. Here is what he states in De Spec. Leg. 2, 145, 149 (translation is F. Colson's in the Loeb edition):

"After the New Moon comes the fourth feast, called the Crossingfeast, which the Hebrews in their native tongue call Pascha. In this festival many myriads of victims from noon till eventide are offered by the whole people The day on which this national festivity

occurs may very properly be noted. It is the 14th of the month. "

Note that the sacrifice was done at the end of the 14th in the afternoon, not on the 13th/14th. Philo says elsewhere that the Passover could not be offered before 3 p.m. ('the ninth hour;' see his Quaes. Ex.1:9-11).

Josephus (late 1st century A.D.)

Josephus wrote the following toward the end of the 1st century A.D.:

"Accordingly, on the occasion of the feast called Passover, at which they sacrifice from the ninth to the eleventh hour, [3 p.m. to 5 p.m.], and a little fraternity, as it were, gather round each sacrifice, of not fewer than ten persons" (War [This shows the Passover was slaughtered from 3 to 5 p.m. on Nisan 14.] ." . . we keep for eight days a feast called the feast of unleavened bread" (Antiquities.

Here, Josephus includes the 14th as part of the festival because of the slaughtering of the lambs and the custom of the Jews to put out leavened products on the 14th day. The latter is indicated by War "when the day of unleavened bread came round on the fourteenth of the month Xanthicus. . ."[Note: Xanthicus = Nisan].

Pre-Rabbinic Sources Septuagint (3rd century B.C.)

The Pentateuch is generally considered by Septuagint scholars to have been translated into Greek about 275 B.C. It is extremely valuable, in that it often shows how the biblical text was understood almost three hundred years before Christ.

In Leviticus 23:5, the Septuagint seems to give a literal translation of the Hebrew word 'beyn ha-arbayim' (Greek: ana meson ton hesperinon), which means 'at or between the evenings.'

However, in Exodus 12:6 and Numbers 9:3, 11, beyn ha-arbayim is translated as 'toward evening' (pros hesperan). This indicated that the Hebrew phrase was taken to mean the evening at the end of the day. (A similar Greek expression to 'deilinon', which means 'in the afternoon' or 'toward evening', is used in Exodus 29:39, 41).

Rabbinic Literature

The Mishnah places the slaughter of the Passover lambs between about 3 and 5 p.m. on the 14th, which is in harmony with a number of earlier sources. This indicates an interpretation of "beyn ha-arbayim", which includes much of the afternoon.

The Mekhilta, a midrash on Exodus, states that the time of slaughter is any time after noon (5.113ff on Ex.12:6; Lauterbach edition). The Siphra, a midrash on Leviticus agrees that 'between the two evenings' includes the time after noon (Emor Pereq 11, 100b; Weiss edition).

The Samaritans and Karaites:

The practice of the Samaritans and the Karaite Jews of keeping the Passover on the beginning of the 14th is a practice that did not belong to the mainstream Jewish/Israelite history of the Passover observance. The Samaritans were not associated with the Jerusalem cult.

The Karaite movement did not exist until the eighth century A.D. Therefore, their practices are irrelevant to the subject of this study.

Summary of Jewish Practice

The usage of various Jewish historical sources in this work does not imply an endorsement of these sources as authoritative. They are used simply as evidence of practices associated with the Passover during and after Jesus' lifetime.

It is obvious from the scriptures that Jesus celebrated the Passover as both a child and an adult. It is also obvious that as a child, Jesus observed the Passover with his parents (Lk.2:40-52) who were Jews and followed the practices of the Priests and Rabbis of the day.

For Jesus to have partaken of these various practices and observances (such as the Passover), each would have had to have been legal and proper according to the law. This is especially important concerning the Passover, because the Passover lamb was the central element of the Passover observance and had to be brought to the Temple and prepared at a specified time (which these sources substantiate) and in a specific manner, according to the law.

In such a context, these sources provide some illumination in certain cases, but they are by no means to be taken as the primary source of information presented in this paper.

We have examined a number of excellent sources that explain how the Jews kept the Passover down through history. Not a single one of these sources ever suggests that the Passover was ever offered at the beginning of the 14th. They are all completely unified in seeing the Passover as belonging to the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th.

An important point is the fact that, even though there were sometimes disagreements as to the correctness of their calendar calculations, they all kept the Passover at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th.


J. Jeremias wrote the following:

"Again and again we find dilettantes maintaining that in the time of Jesus the Passover meal was eaten in the evening of Nisan 13/14 . . . In fact, it is absolutely indubitable that from ancient times right down to the present the Jewish Passover meal has never been celebrated at any other time than the night of Nisan 14/15" (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, p.16, no. 3 and p.38, no.1).


Modern scholars must depend on the same original sources that are available to anyone who wants to diligently search for the exact time of the Passover observance. With the exception of a few who have done only a superficial study of this subject, all agree that when the term 'between the evenings' is used with the Passover, it refers to the slaughter of the Passover lamb being at the end of the 14th day and not at the beginning of the 14th day.

Any attempt to make the phrase 'beyn ha-arbayim' ('between the two evenings') refer to the beginning of the 14th is contrary to all ancient and modern scholarship.

By B.L. Cocherell b5w45