The original Passover instructions clearly stipulate that Passover is a single day—Abib 14—followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, beginning on Abib 15 (Exodus 12:6-20; Leviticus 23:5-8; Numbers 9:2-5). These original instructions also direct the Israelites to keep the Passover in individual homes rather than at the Tabernacle or Temple—to catch the blood of the lamb in a basin and smear it on the doorposts and lintel of the house (Exodus 12:22).
Over time, though, the children of Israel moved farther from God and His instructions. During the reigns of the kings, Israel and Judah, now separate nations, adopted many practices from the pagan cultures surrounding them, with the kings often leading the way. However, a few kings of Judah, such as Hezekiah and Josiah, stand out for their dedication to God. Under these zealous monarchs, various religious reforms were instituted to try to bring Judah back to God's way. Among other reforms, they reinstated the commanded observance of the Passover, which the people were not keeping to any significant degree, if at all.
However, these well-meaning reforms also contained a subtle change: Under both Hezekiah and Josiah—at the king's command rather than God's—the people observed the Passover at the Temple rather than in individual homes (II Chronicles 30 and 35). The kings may have done this to ensure that the people actually kept the Passover, and did so without mixing in the Baalism that was so prevalent in the land. These kings' examples introduced a second way of observing the Passover. Now the Jews had both God's original Passover instructions as well as the kings' reforms to draw on when determining how to observe the festival.
While God intended the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread to be separate (though adjacent) observances, the Jews ended up combining the two during the Babylonian exile, as the Encyclopaedia Judaica confirms: "The feast of Passover consists of two parts: The Passover ceremony and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Originally, both parts existed separately; but at the beginning of the [Babylonian] exile they were combined" (vol. 13, p. 169). This careless and unscriptural merging of festivals resulted in the Jews observing Passover late on Abib 14, just hours before the Feast of Unleavened Bread began. Thus, a third variation of Passover observance was added to the mix.
At the time of Jesus Christ, this mixture was on full display. Philo of Alexandria, in De Vita Mosis, notes that in the early first century, the Passover was not strictly a Temple-kept event, but one in which people also killed their own lambs without help from the priests. In his Wars of the Jews, Flavius Josephus records that in 4 BC over 250,000 lambs were sacrificed for Passover. However, given the limited space of the Temple environs and the fact that Jewish tradition (not the Word of God) held that the lambs were to be slain within a two-hour time slot (from the ninth to the eleventh hour, or 3:00-5:00 pm), it is readily apparent that not all of those lambs could have been sacrificed at the Temple. In fact, Joachim Jeremias, in Jerusalem in the Times of Jesus, calculates that the three courses of priests on duty could slay only 18,000 lambs during those two hours. Josephus records that the rest of the lambs—a far greater number—were slain by individuals at their own homes.
Another critical point is that, despite Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread being distinct festivals, they were commonly grouped together and simply called "Passover." Thus, when the gospel writers mention "Passover," it can sometimes refer to the Passover sacrifice itself (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12), the day when the sacrifice was made (Mark 14:1), or the whole eight-day period of Abib 14-21 (Passover plus Unleavened Bread; Luke 22:1).
In actuality, then, there were really two Passover observances happening at the time of Jesus: one led by the priests at the Temple and the other observed by the people in their homes. These separate observances were also at different times: The Temple-kept Passover was observed late in the afternoon of Abib 14, while the home-kept Passover was kept at the beginning of Abib 14. As the gospels show, Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover in a home rather than at the Temple, observing it the evening before the priests did at the Temple. In other words, Jesus kept it as Abib 14 began, while the priests kept it as Abib 14 ended.
David C. Grabbe
Historically, the church of God has observed the Passover just after sunset as the 14th day of Abib begins, as commanded in Exodus 12:1-14 (see also Leviticus 23:4-5; Numbers 9:2-5). However, it is also plain from Scripture that Jesus Christ was not sacrificed at that time—His trial and crucifixion took place during the daylight portion of the 14th, and He died around 3:00 pm on the preparation day for the first day of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:33-37; Luke 23:44-46; John 19:30-31). Since He is our Passover (I Corinthians 5:7), why did His death not occur at the time the Passover lambs were to be slain—at the beginning of the 14th day? Or should His death set the standard for understanding the instructions given to Israel?
To add to the complexity, the gospel accounts show Jesus observing the Passover with His disciples at the beginning of the 14th. Which of His actions should we use as our guide for observing Passover: the time when He observed it or when He died? And why are those events at different times?
When the time of Jesus' death is chosen above all else, the typical result is a change in the observance of Passover from the beginning of the 14th day of Abib, just after sunset, to the afternoon of the 14th or even into the 15th. Further, those who make this change must then find a different explanation for when the Israelites killed the lambs and later left Egypt, which frequently involves leaning on Jewish tradition for support—for those Jewish sects that follow Talmudic traditions promote this divergent perspective.
David C. Grabbe
Why Was Jesus Not Crucified as Passover Began? (Part One)
God told each Israelite family to choose an unblemished lamb on the 10th day of the month Abib. On the 14th day at twilight (just after sundown as the 14th began), they killed the lamb, putting its blood on the doorpost and lintel of their homes. Then they roasted and ate the lamb.
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Holy Days: Passover
Notice in verse 3 that on the tenth day each person was to take a lamb for himself. In verse 5, the lamb must be without blemish and a male of the first year.
Think of Jesus in reference to these instructions. The meat could be either from the sheep or the goats. Jesus is a type of both sheep and goat.
Verses 6-8 show that the innocent lamb bled to death. Scripture also says that the bones were not to be broken, and it must be roasted whole. Jesus' bones were not broken either.
Through these verses, we see that Jesus was the perfect antitype of this lamb that was slain at the Passover service. By means of the blood that was smeared on the lintel and the doorposts, Israel was saved from the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn. The blood of the lamb redeemed, bought back, the firstborn of Israel. Otherwise, they too would have been killed.
Jesus' ghastly death and the terrible scourging He endured do the same for us; it redeems us, buys us back. Some Protestants say He died of a broken heart, but that is not true. Like the Passover lamb, He bled to death; His blood spilled onto the earth, and He expired an innocent and pure man. He had never sinned, just like the lamb without blemish and without spot.
Therefore, we call Him our Savior and Redeemer. Once we accept Him as our Savior, because He was sinless and He died for us, His blood covers our sins. He redeems us from the second death—from the death angel.
He is the firstborn among many brethren, and we are called the firstfruits. We are the firstfruits of spiritual Israel that are protected from that death angel, the second death.
God often works in dual stages, as shown here. The first is the type of the lamb slain at Passover, and the second is the antitype or the perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ. For the type of the Passover lamb to be fulfilled perfectly and completely in the antitype of Jesus Christ, His crucifixion and death had to occur on Nisan 14. There is no other day in which the type would have been fulfilled because that is the day of the Passover.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Christ's Death, Resurrection, and Ascension
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Exodus 12:11: