by Fred R. Coulter
In counting to Pentecost, it is crucial to first determine the correct day on which to begin the fifty-day count. According to Scripture, we are to count “from the morrow after the Sabbath”—the weekly Sabbath. In certain years, however, Nisan 14 (the Passover day) falls on a weekly Sabbath, resulting in no weekly Sabbath between the first holy day (Sunday) and the last holy day (Saturday) of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Thus, there has been confusion as to which Sabbath should be used in determining the “morrow after the Sabbath” from which to begin counting. This booklet reveals the biblical answer to this dilemma and explains how to properly begin the fifty-day count to Pentecost.
The Scriptural Count to Pentecost
The scriptural instructions for counting to the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Firstfruits, are recorded in Leviticus 23: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, ‘When you be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest: and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.... And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you number fifty days.... And you shall proclaim on the selfsame day, that it may be an holy convocation unto you’ ” (verses 10-11, 15-16, 21, KJV).
From The Holy Bible In Its Original Order, these verses read: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘When you have come into the land which I give to you, and shall reap the harvest of it, then you shall bring the premier sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD to be accepted for you. On the next day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.... And you shall count to you beginning with the next day after the Sabbath, beginning with the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete; even unto the day after the seventh Sabbath you shall number fifty days. And you shall proclaim on the same day that it may be a holy convocation’ ” (Lev. 23:10-11, 15-16).
God’s instructions in Leviticus 23 make it clear that the weeks of counting must be seven full weeks, each ending with the weekly Sabbath day. The seventh weekly Sabbath will always be the forty-ninth day in the count. No other method of counting can fit the biblical command to count exactly fifty days from the day after the first Sabbath to the day after the seventh Sabbath. The only day after the weekly Sabbath is the first day of the week: “Even unto the day after the seventh Sabbath you shall number fifty days.” This command shows that the count is not only seven complete weeks—49 days—but includes one additional day, making a total of fifty days. The fiftieth day is to be proclaimed as a holy convocation. In Old Testament times, this annual holy day was called the Feast of Weeks, or the Feast of Firstfruits. In New Testament times, the name was changed to the day of Pentecost. The English word Pentecost is transliterated from the Greek word penteekostee, which means “the fiftieth.”
The instructions in Leviticus 23 show that the count to Pentecost, or the Feast of Firstfruits, begins with the Wave Sheaf Day. On this day, the wave sheaf was reaped and offered to God as the first of the firstfruits, marking the beginning of the spring barley harvest. Deuteronomy 16 confirms that the beginning of the harvest was also the beginning of the seven-week count to Pentecost: “You shall count seven weeks to yourselves. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time you first began to put the sickle to the grain. And you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God...” (Deut. 16:9-10).
The Wave Sheaf Day is clearly defined in Leviticus 23 as “the day after the Sabbath,” showing that it is always the first day of the week. The Hebrew ha Shabbat always means the weekly seventh-day Sabbath. On the other hand, all holy days are called Shabbat—without the definite article ha. God commands us to count “from the morrow after the Sabbath,” which in the Hebrew specifically means “beginning with the day after the [weekly] Sabbath.” (See A True Understanding of Acts 2:1 by Fred R. Coulter.)
The count does not include this weekly Sabbath. Rather, the first day in the count to Pentecost is the “day after the Sabbath”—the first day of the week (commonly called Sunday). In other words, the weekly Sabbath is the day before “the day after the Sabbath.” If a number were to be assigned to the weekly Sabbath, it would have to be numbered as day zero. As soon as this weekly Sabbath ends at sunset, the first day of the week begins—and that whole day is counted. Thus, the first day of the week, the Wave Sheaf Day, is the first day in the fifty-day count to Pentecost.
The commands in Leviticus 23 concerning the offering of the wave sheaf, and the scriptural record of the original fulfillment of these commands in Joshua five, make it clear that the Wave Sheaf Day is always the first day of the week during the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (See Understanding God’s Command for the Wave Sheaf by Dwight Blevins.) Remember that the wave sheaf was the first, or premiere sheaf of the firstfruits of the spring barley harvest. It was critically important that this first sheaf of the barley harvest be offered during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In fact, if the barley was not sufficiently ripe by the end of the year, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were postponed one full month so that the barley could ripen. To accomplish this, a thirteenth month—called Adar II— was added to the year. Miamonides explains this required practice:
“And why is just this month added? Because of the season of the barley harvest—that is, in order that Passover be celebrated in that season. For it is said: ‘Heed the month of ripening ears [Abib] (Deut. 16:1),’ which means give heed that this month (of Nisan [as it is also called]) fall in the season of ripening ears. Without the addition of this month (of Adar [II]), however, Passover [Miamonides uses the term “Passover” in reference to the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread] would fall sometimes in the summer and sometimes in the winter.... Similarly, if the court [calendar court of the Second Temple era in Jerusalem] found that the barley crop was not yet ripe, being retarded, and that such tree fruits as usually sprout during the Passover season had not yet produced buds, it took these two conditions as a criterion and preceded to intercalate the year [by adding the month Adar II] ... in order that the barley crop might be available for the offering of the Sheaf of Waving on the 16th of Nisan [the Pharisaic Jews waved the sheaf on the morrow after the high Sabbath of Nisan 15], and in order that the fruits might sprout as usual during the season of barley harvest” (Sanctification of the New Moon, pp. 16-17, bold emphasis added).
The intercalary month of Adar II serves to fulfill God’s instructions that His feast days be observed each year “in their seasons” (Lev. 23:4). In order to obey this command of God, it is absolutely necessary to adjust the Hebrew calendar in some years by adding an extra month. Postponing the annual feasts of God in order to observe them in their proper seasons is fully scriptural and is based on the direct commands of God—and should never be condemned as an unscriptural tradition of Pharisaic Judaism.
While the Pharisaic Jews understood the necessity to observe God’s feasts in their appointed seasons, they were not faithful to all of God’s instructions concerning His feast days. Their failure is most evident in their departure from the biblical command to keep the Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14, and in their adoption of the Seder meal at the beginning of Nisan 15 as the traditional Jewish Passover. Based on this Pharisaic tradition, the Jews observe only the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which they have renamed Passover. They have rejected God’s original command for the observance of Nisan 14 as the Passover day—an additional feast day at the beginning of the spring festival season. In Leviticus 23, the Scriptures clearly reveal that the Passover is one day, not seven days. It is the 14th day of the first month, called Abib, or Nisan (verse 5). The one-day Passover observance is followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins on the 15th day of the first month and continues until the end of the 21st day (verses 6-8). The entire observance of the two feasts lasts a total of eight days—not seven, as practiced by Judaism today (Lev. 23:5 -8; Ex. 12:18-20).
Although the entire spring festival originally lasted a total of eight days, the Jews reduced their observance of the combined feasts to only seven days by shifting the Passover to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Their deviation from God’s commands for the Passover led to even further error. As a result of shortening the spring festival observance, they found themselves in a quandary over determining the Wave Sheaf Day. They chose to resolve their problem by reinterpreting God’s command for the wave sheaf offering. As we will see, this second deviation from the commands of God resulted in a change in the Jews’ observance of Pentecost.
The Pharisaic Method of Counting to Pentecost
When the Pharisaic Jews reinterpreted God’s commands for the wave sheaf offering, they began the count to Pentecost from the day after the annual Sabbath of Nisan 15, which may fall on any day of the week, instead of counting from the first day of the week—the day after the weekly Sabbath—during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This change was apparently made to solve the problem caused by the elimination of Nisan 14 as the Passover day. Since the Pharisaic Jews had ceased to observe Nisan 14 as part of the spring festival season, they could not use that day in determining the correct day for the wave sheaf offering. Thus, when Nisan 14 fell on a weekly Sabbath, the only weekly Sabbath they could use was the following weekly Sabbath which fell on Nisan 21, the annual holy day which ends the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But if the wave sheaf were offered “on the day after” the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Wave Sheaf Day would fall on the first day of the week outside the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Wave Sheaf Day must always fall within the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is contrary to Scripture to place the Wave Sheaf Day outside of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
To solve this problem, the Pharisaic Jews decided to reinterpret the meaning of “the morrow after the Sabbath.” They transferred the meaning of the word ha shabbat—“the Sabbath” in Leviticus 23:11— from the weekly Sabbath to the first holy day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Nisan 15. Nisan 15 is an annual Sabbath, but ha shabbat always refers to the weekly Sabbath. According to this Jewish interpretation, Nisan 16 is “the morrow after the Sabbath.” As a result, the Pharisaic Jews always begin their count to Pentecost with Nisan 16—regardless of the day of the week on which it falls.
This Pharisaic practice is contrary to God’s instructions in Leviticus 23, which reveal that the offering of the first of the firstfruits was to be waved on the day after the weekly Sabbath. The command to count “seven Sabbaths” beginning with “the day after the Sabbath” clearly shows that all of these Sabbaths are weekly Sabbath days. Only the weekly Sabbath can fit God’s command to count seven Sabbaths within a period of fifty days. Then “the day after the seventh Sabbath” will always be the first day of the week, so “the day after the Sabbath”—the Wave Sheaf Day—can only be the first day of the week. Any who doubt this fact need only to count fifty days backward on the calendar, beginning with the first day of the week.
Those who follow Pharisaic Judaism no longer count to Pentecost as God originally instructed. Instead, they begin their count with Nisan 16. Since Nisan 16 is a fixed date, their Pentecost always falls on the sixth day of the third month—Sivan 6—regardless of the day of the week upon which it falls. While professing to follow the scriptural instructions in Leviticus 23, the Pharisaic Jews have in reality deviated from God’s clear commands. Their first error was to proclaim that the Passover begins on the 15th day of the first month and continues for seven days. This in turn led to a reinterpretation designating the holy day of Nisan 15 as the Sabbath from which “the day after the Sabbath” should be calculated. Adopting Nisan 16 as the Wave Sheaf Day led in turn to their third error—setting the fixed date of Sivan 6 for Pentecost. In the end, the commands of God to count fifty days beginning with the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread were completely circumvented.
With this brief summary, we can understand the errors of the Pharisaic Jews in counting to Pentecost. Because their count is based on the annual holy day of Nisan 15, the Pharisaic method of counting is correct only when this first holy day falls on the weekly Sabbath. When Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, falls on a weekly Sabbath, then Nisan 16 is in fact the Wave Sheaf Day. But only in those years when Nisan 15 is a weekly Sabbath is Nisan 16 truly “the day after the Sabbath”—and thus, the correct Wave Sheaf Day. This occurs approximately three times in every decade.
In ancient times, not all Jews followed the Pharisaical method of counting to Pentecost. The Jewish sects known as the Essenes and the Sadducees used different methods. The Essenes were an ascetic sect that combined Judaism with pagan sun worship and lived in monastic religious communities. Because of this strange mixture of sun worship and Torah law, they always counted Pentecost improperly. They reckoned the last holy day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Nisan 21, as the Sabbath for beginning the count. As a result, the first day of their count was always Nisan 22—the morrow after the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Because they began their count on Nisan 22, their Pentecost always fell on the fixed date of Sivan 13.
While the Pharisees and the Essenes based their counts on the holy days, which were annual Sabbaths, the Sadducees followed the biblical injunction to begin counting to Pentecost from the day after the weekly Sabbath. The priests and the high priests who were in charge of the temple during Jesus’ physical life were Sadducees. They did not set a fixed date for Pentecost because they based their count on the weekly cycle, as God had commanded. When a weekly Sabbath fell on any of the first six days of Unleavened Bread, they began counting to Pentecost from the day after that weekly Sabbath—the first day of the week. But a problem arose in years when the weekly Sabbath fell on the last day of Unleavened Bread. In the following chapter, we will examine this problem and learn why “the day after the Sabbath” is always the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
An Additional Problem in Counting to Pentecost
Like the Jewish sects of old, Christians today hold differing interpretations of God’s instructions for counting to Pentecost. While most follow the scriptural injunction to count from the morrow after the weekly Sabbath, sometimes there is disagreement as to WHICH weekly Sabbath is the correct Sabbath. This conflict of opinion is greatest in years when the Passover day—Nisan 14—falls on the weekly Sabbath. When this occurs, the first holy day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread— Nisan 15—falls on Sunday, the first day of the week. When the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread falls on Sunday, the seventh day of the feast falls on the weekly Sabbath. In this sequence of days, the only weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread is the last day of the feast—which causes “the day after the Sabbath,” which is also the Wave Sheaf Day, to fall outside the feast. Therefore, the critical connection that God established between the Wave Sheaf Day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread will be severed. Yet some Christians follow this practice because they believe that the Wave Sheaf Day must always follow the weekly Sabbath which falls during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
This problem in determining the Wave Sheaf Day has arisen because the focus of God’s command has been misunderstood, which has resulted in greater emphasis being placed on the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread than on “the morrow [or day] after the Sabbath.” The command to count “beginning with the day after the Sabbath” tells us most specifically that the Sabbath is excluded from the count. The count begins on the first day of the week, not on the Sabbath. The truth is that it is “the morrow after the Sabbath”—not the Sabbath itself—which always falls within the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This is the true meaning of God’s instructions, as confirmed by the scriptural record of the original fulfillment of the Wave Sheaf Day when the children of Israel entered the promised land. (See Understanding God’s Command for the Wave Sheaf by Dwight Blevins.)
When we understand the full meaning of the wave sheaf offering, all confusion concerning the determination of the Wave Sheaf Day is eliminated. The offering of the wave sheaf in Old Testament times on the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread foreshadowed the acceptance of Jesus Christ by God the Father as the first of the firstfruits after His resurrection from the dead. In order to understand the ultimate fulfillment of the wave sheaf offering, we must go to the New Testament.
What the Wave Sheaf Offering Foreshadowed
When He began His ministry, Jesus Christ proclaimed that He had come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17-18). He made that fact abundantly clear when He opened the minds of the apostles to understand the Scriptures concerning Himself (Luke 24:44-48). These teachings are preserved for us in the books of the New Testament. The New Testament reveals the fulfillment of the things pertaining to Jesus Christ which were prophesied in the Old Testament. When we understand the New Testament fulfillment of the wave sheaf offering by Jesus Christ, we can understand why God commanded that the first of the firstfruits must be waved and accepted during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Before He could fulfill the wave sheaf offering, Jesus Christ first had to lay down His life for the sins of all mankind. As the perfect Lamb of God, He fulfilled the Passover sacrifice for all time through His crucifixion and death. In the year of His crucifixion, the Passover day—the 14th of Nisan—was on a Wednesday, in the middle of the week. He died on the Passover day and was put into the tomb just before the Passover day ended and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—Nisan 15—began. He remained in the tomb for three days and three nights. As the weekly Sabbath was ending at sunset, He was resurrected from the dead. Early on the following morning—the day after the weekly Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread—He appeared to Mary Magdalene. Later that morning, He ascended into heaven to God the Father to be accepted as the first of the firstfruits. That day was the Wave Sheaf Day—the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The following New Testament passages record the prophesied fulfillment of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread by Jesus Christ:
- Jesus Christ is the “Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; I John 2:1-2).
- “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us” (I Cor. 5:7).
- We “are unleavened” in Christ because He takes away our sins (I Cor. 5:7).
- We are commanded to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread because Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us! “Therefore, let us keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, not with the old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (I Cor. 5:8).
- Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life from heaven (John 6:35-58). Since He is the sinless offering of God, to eat that Bread of Life is to partake of the “unleavenedness” of Jesus Christ. We symbolically eat His flesh by eating unleavened bread for the Passover and each day during the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
- Jesus was crucified as our Passover sacrifice on the Passover day (Luke 22:8-16). He died and was buried for three complete days and three complete nights (Matt. 12:39-40). Because Christ was raised from the dead, we are able to stand before God the Father in a “sinless, unleavened” condition through the gift of righteousness by His grace (Rom. 5:17; I Cor. 15:12-20).
- Jesus Christ was resurrected as the weekly Sabbath was ending at sunset and was accepted by God the Father on the morning of the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On the Wave Sheaf Day, “the morrow after the Sabbath,” Jesus Christ ascended to God the Father and was accepted as the first of the firstfruits, the ultimate fulfillment of the wave sheaf offering (John 20:17-19; I Cor. 15:20; Lev. 23:10-11).
The divinely-planned fulfillment of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread by Jesus Christ makes it absolutely clear why God commanded that the wave sheaf be offered during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The wave sheaf is inseparably linked with the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread through the death of Jesus Christ as our Passover and His acceptance by God the Father as the first of the firstfruits on the Wave Sheaf Day. The apostle Paul emphatically commands us to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread because “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” He has power to take away our sins and give us eternal life because He was accepted as the living Wave Sheaf, the first of the firstfruits raised from the dead during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Those who place the Wave Sheaf Day outside the Feast of Unleavened Bread are ignoring its original prophetic meaning and its vital spiritual fulfillment by Jesus Christ. The scriptural instructions for the offering of the wave sheaf were specifically given by God to ensure that the Wave Sheaf Day always falls on the first day of the week during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. When we accept this biblical truth, we are acknowledging the true Wave Sheaf, Jesus Christ, Who ascended to God the Father and was accepted on that day. No other day can commemorate His fulfillment of the offering of the wave sheaf.
Some Christians have not understood this truth because they were taught that the Wave Sheaf Day must follow the weekly Sabbath which falls during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This teaching is based on the Jewish view of God’s instructions—a view which does not recognize the true Passover day, Nisan 14, as having any bearing on the Wave Sheaf Day. Since the Jews ignore the significance of Nisan 14, they exclude the weekly Sabbath which may fall on this day from their determination of the wave sheaf. This method of determining the Wave Sheaf Day is a denial of God’s original Passover commands, which are clearly recorded in Scripture.
Rejecting the true Passover day, modern Jews observe their Passover exclusively on Nisan 15—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But it has not always been so. The New Testament reveals that in the days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, many Jews in Judea and Galilee were observing the Passover on Nisan 14, as God had commanded. At that time in history, the original Passover day—Nisan 14— was openly recognized by the Jews as part of the entire eight-day festival of unleavened bread. As we will see in the following chapter, Nisan 14 is referred to in the Gospels as “the first of the unleaveneds.” A study of these Gospel records will verify that Nisan 14—the true Passover day—should not be excluded in determining the Wave Sheaf Day.
What the Gospel Records Reveal About “the Unleaveneds”
We know from the commands of God in the Old Testament that the Passover day is the 14th day of the first month, called Abib or Nisan. We also know that the 15th day of the first month is the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. There is no question concerning the proper sequence of these days as recorded in Leviticus 23:5-6.
The account of the original Passover in the book of Exodus makes it clear that the Passover was both killed and eaten on the 14th day of the month. God commanded the children of Israel to kill the Passover lambs on the 14th at ben ha arbayim, or “between the two evenings” (Ex. 12:6). Other passages make it absolutely clear that this Hebrew term refers to the beginning of the 14th—after ba erev, or the sunset of the 13th. The lambs were roasted and eaten that same night, and any remains were burned before the morning of the 14th day. The Scriptures leave no doubt about the proper time for killing and eating the Passover lambs. (See The Christian Passover by Fred R. Coulter, pp. 31-89.)
In the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’s last Passover observance with His apostles, we are given additional information about the Passover day. In these passages, there are some verses pertaining to the observance of the Passover and the sacrifice of the Passover lambs which are difficult to understand. These verses have caused much confusion in the minds of Bible students and scholars due to the manner in which they have been translated. Most translations of the Bible, including the KJV, do not translate these verses correctly.
One verse which has caused much confusion is Matthew 26:17. In the KJV, as in most other translations, this verse is translated as follows: “Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto Him, ‘Where will You that we prepare for You to eat the Passover?’ ”
Notice that the words “day” and “feast of” in this verse are italicized. The use of italic letters in the KJV indicates that these words are not found in the original Greek text. Such italicized words have been inserted by the translators in an effort to clarify the meaning of the text. In some cases, these additions are helpful. However, in this verse, the inserted words cause confusion because they alter the true meaning.
The words which have been inserted in this verse indicate that it was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread when the disciples asked Jesus where they should prepare the Passover. If this translation were correct, the disciples would have been nearly two days late when they asked Jesus this question. We know that the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is the 15th day of the first month, following the Passover day on the 14th. From the context of the verse, it was apparently late in the day when the disciples asked Jesus where they should prepare the Passover. If that day was actually the 15th, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, then we are confronted with serious problems:
1) If they had killed the lamb late on the 15th, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus and His disciples would consequently have eaten the Passover lamb on the night of the 16th, the second day of the feast. That would mean that Jesus did not keep the Passover on the 14th, as commanded by God. If Jesus had not kept the Passover on the correct day, in the correct manner, He would have sinned.
2) If Jesus had eaten the Passover on the night of the 16th, He would have been crucified on the 16th, the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jesus could not have been our Passover sacrifice, because He would not have been crucified on the Passover day, the 14th day of the first month!
3) The priests and religious leaders, who ate their Passover the night after Jesus and the disciples did, would consequently have killed their lambs late on the day portion of the 16th and would have eaten their Passover on the night of the 17th. This sequence would place their Passover on the third day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
THIS IMAGINARY SCENARIO COULD NOT POSSIBLY BE TRUE! We can be absolutely positive that Jesus and His disciples did not keep the Passover in the manner just described. Nor did the Jews keep their Passover in this manner. Such an unworkable scenario exposes the folly of this mistranslation. The same holds true for the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke.
In Mark 14:12 we have a similar problem, but the wording is somewhat different from Matthew 26:17. Here is Mark’s account: “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover, His disciples said unto Him, ‘Where will You that we go and prepare that You may eat the Passover?’ ” (KJV). In this case, the translators did not insert the words “the feast of” before “unleavened bread.” Nevertheless, this translation still gives the impression that the day they killed the lamb was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Again, we have the same problems as outlined above.
When we examine Luke’s account, we find similar wording. Luke 22:7: “Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed” (KJV).
If this verse actually means that the lambs were killed on the 15th, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, then no one would have eaten the Passover until the 16th. Obviously that cannot be the meaning in this account by Luke, or in the parallel accounts by Matthew and Mark.
What Is the True Meaning of These Gospel Accounts?
In order to find the answer, we must understand the original Greek words that were used by the Gospel writers. Let’s begin with Matthew 26:17: “Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread...” (KJV). Remember, the italicized words day and feast of do not appear in the original text. They were added because the translators apparently felt that the exact meaning of the Greek was difficult to understand and needed to be clarified. Unfortunately, their attempt at clarification actually resulted in additional confusion.
Spelled in English, the original Greek of this passage would read: “Tee de protee toon azumoon....” Literally translated, it reads: “Now on the first of the unleaveneds....”
What does this phrase “the first of the unleaveneds” mean? As we have seen, the context of the verse conclusively shows that it cannot mean the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Furthermore, we have seen that the Greek text does not support the translation, “the first day of the feast of unleavened bread,” as found in the KJV, etc.
The term toon azumoon, “the unleaveneds,” is the plural of ta azuma, which means “the unleavened.” By implication, ta azuma, “the unleavened,” includes the meaning of the word “bread.” After all, it is bread which is leavened or unleavened. However, the plural form, toon azumoon, “the unleaveneds,” includes more than the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Let’s examine the scriptural instructions for observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread, from the 15th day of the month through the 21st day. These commands of God will help us understand why the term “the unleaveneds” includes the Passover day itself, and does not exclusively mean the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Here are the commands that God gave to the children of Israel:
- Before the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, all leaven and leavened bread was to have been put out of their homes (Ex. 12:15, 19). Verse 15 should have been translated, “shall have put out leaven.” The JPSA translation is “shall put away,” but the Hebrew text uses the past tense. This tense shows a completed action—before the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Even as it is practiced today, cleaning the home and removing leaven may have begun several days before the Passover day and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. All leaven had to be completely removed before the beginning of the 15th day of the first month. Thus the 14th of Nisan—the Passover day—was the first day that the houses became completely unleavened.
- No leaven was to be found in their houses during the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:19).
- They were not to have any leaven or leavened bread within any of their borders, which included the entire country (Ex. 13:7).
- On the Passover day and during the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, unleavened bread was commanded to be eaten (Ex. 12:8, 15; 13:6; Lev. 23:6).
The Scriptures make it clear that the Passover day, the 14th day of the first month, was the day of entering a completely unleavened state and eating the first unleavened bread, beginning with the Passover meal. In the New Testament, the Passover day is specifically designated by Matthew, Mark and Luke as “the first day of the unleaveneds.”
By including the Passover day as a separate day of “unleavenedness” in addition to the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Gospel writers were following the common practice of that time. The “first of the unleaveneds” did not refer to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Nisan 15. Rather, as we will see, it refers to the Passover day itself. It is an acknowledged fact that in these biblical passages “the corresponding Greek has no word for ‘feast,’ and speaks only of the ‘first of the unleavened bread’—a common expression for the Jewish 14th with practically all first century writers” (Amadon, “The Crucifixion Calendar,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. LXIII, 1944, p. 189).
Additionally, when we study the procedures that the Jews followed in putting out leaven, it is easy to understand why the Passover day was designated as “the first day of the unleaveneds.” The common Jewish practice was to burn all leaven by 10 AM on the morning of the 14th. This practice may have been passed down from the time of the original Passover in Egypt, as no leavened bread was baked on the Passover day. The book of Exodus records that the children of Israel carried only unleavened bread as they left their houses on the day portion of Nisan 14, the Passover day (Ex. 12:39). They had bound their dough in their kneading troughs, which kept the dough from being exposed to the air so that it could not be leavened by natural fermentation (Ex. 12:34).
As we examine the Scriptures in Exodus 12, there is no record of eating any leavened bread during any part of the first Passover day. Furthermore, it is specifically recorded that they ate only unleavened bread for the Passover on the night of the 14th. Since they left their houses at the crack of dawn and took only unleavened bread with them, they could only have eaten unleavened bread on the day portion of the Passover day. While God’s commands did not expressly forbid the eating of leavened bread on the 14th, the events which took place on that first Passover day allowed only unleavened bread to be eaten. So by practice, the first Passover was “an unleavened bread” day.
It is clear that the 14th day of the first month was historically an entire day of eating unleavened bread. There is no indication that leavened bread was eaten at any time during the first Passover day. Although by New Testament times some Jews no longer observed the 14th as the Passover, they understood that Nisan 14 was “the first day of the unleaveneds”—because on the morning of that day they entered a state of “unleavenedness” by removing and destroying all remaining leaven from their homes.
The procedures which were followed for collecting and removing leaven are described in the writings of the Jews. These procedures were the common practice in New Testament times, and clearly illustrate why Nisan 14 was referred to as “the first of the unleaveneds.”
The Practice of Removing Leaven
In order to “de-leaven” an entire nation, a great deal of preparation was required. To remove all leavening agents and all leavened bread from every household and every business in the city of Jerusalem and the entire nation of Judea was a mammoth undertaking. Not only did all leaven have to be removed, but unleavened bread had to be prepared for every household.
The Mishnah and other rabbinical writings are the only historical records which describe the removal of leaven and the baking of unleavened bread. While these descriptions are related to a temple-centered 15th Passover observance, these same procedures were also followed by those who ate the 14th Passover, with some variation in timing. As documented in the book The Christian Passover, the majority of the Jews of New Testament times kept a domestically-observed Passover at the beginning of the 14th day of the first month—Nisan 14. As we have seen, that day was commonly known as “the first day of the unleaveneds.” Although leaven was not completely removed from every house until Nisan 14, the following records reveal that leaven was primarily collected on the preceding day:
“The 13th of Nisan. On the evening of the 13th, which, until that of the 14th, was called the ‘preparation of the Passover’ [John 19:14], every head of a family searched for and collected by the light of a candle all the leaven. Before beginning the search he pronounced the following benediction: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast enjoined us to remove the leaven.’ After the search he said, ‘Whatever leaven remains in my possession which I cannot see, behold, it is null, and accounted as the dust of the earth’ ” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Festivals,” p. 354).
The rabbinical writings reveal that the Jews burned all leaven by 10 AM on the morning of the 14th. No one was to eat leavened bread after 11 AM on the 14th. Unleavened bread was baked and was ready by 3 PM for those Jews who ate their temple-sacrificed Passover on the 15th. Those Jews who observed the domestic Passover at the beginning of the 14th, as commanded by God, followed the same procedures on the 13th—a day earlier—so that by the time Nisan 14 arrived at sunset, all leaven would be removed and unleavened bread would be baked for the domestic Passover. Regardless of which Passover the Jews observed, the 14th of Nisan was known to them all as “the first day of the unleaveneds.”
The fact that “the first of the unleaveneds” refers to the 14th, the Passover day, and not to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is unmistakably evident when we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last Passover. Let’s take another look at Matthew’s account. “Now on the first of the unleaveneds [the first day requiring unleavened bread, so that the Passover could be eaten], the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Where do You desire that we prepare for You to eat the Passover?’ ” (Matt. 26:17).
A correct understanding of the terminology used in this verse and in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke puts an end to the confusion caused by wrong translations. The problem is solved by studying the original Greek words and by letting the Scriptures interpret the Scriptures. By applying these rules for Bible study, we know that “the first of the unleaveneds” can only mean the Passover day—Nisan 14. That is the day in which Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover—at the beginning of the 14th. The Gospel writers were clearly referring to this day. As has been said, “Truth agrees with truth, but error does not agree with truth.
When we examine Luke’s account, we find that he gives some additional insight: “Then came the day of the unleaveneds in which it was obligatory to kill the Passover lambs” (Luke 22:7). Luke specifically calls the day “the day of the unleaveneds.” Luke then tells us that this day was specified for killing the Passover lambs which were to be eaten for the domestically-observed Passover at the beginning of Nisan 14. When the definite article the is used in the Greek text, the meaning is stronger and more emphatic. The fact that Luke uses the definite article in this verse places stronger emphasis on this particular day as “the day of the unleaveneds,” which was expressly designated as the day for killing the lambs for the domestic Passover.
The KJV translates the latter part of this verse, “when the Passover must be killed”—but the author has more accurately translated it “in which it was obligatory to kill the Passover lambs.” The Greek word translated “obligatory” is dei, which means “mandatory, compulsory, obligatory, one must, or has to, is required to, compulsion of duty, and compulsion of law” (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). In Luke 22:7, the express meaning of dei is “under compulsion of law.” In other words, Luke is showing us that the killing of the Passover lambs was required by compulsion of the law to be completed at that express time. We know that the time commanded by God in Exodus 12 for the killing of the lambs was ben ha arbayim, or “between the two evenings”—the beginning of the 14just after the sun had set. That was the obligatory time when the lambs were to be killed according to God’s law.
According to God’s instructions in Exodus 12, the lambs were to be kept until the 14th day of the first month. The specific point at which the 14th began was at sunset, or ba erev, on the 13th. We can therefore conclude that the time Luke was writing about was at the beginning of the 14th day, immediately after the sun had set, when Jesus’ disciples asked Him where they should prepare the Passover meal. The Greek words used in Luke’s account show that the expression “the day of the unleaveneds” is specifically referring to the 14th day of the first month, which was the day commanded by God for killing the Passover lambs. This fact is further verified by Mark’s account of Jesus last Passover in his Gospel, which we will examine in the following chapter.