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Last Supper: Unleavened Bread or Leavened?

Last Supper: Unleavened Bread or Leavened?

Recently, I was asked an intriguing question, “Did Jesus use bread or Matzah on Passover?” I was a bit puzzled at first. Because in my mind, of course, he used Matzah (מַצָּה), the unleavened bread. So I had to clarify, what exactly gave my questioner an impression that Jesus would eat anything besides Matzah during the festival week in ancient Jerusalem. And as we discussed the topic further, it became clear that this was a really well-informed question. I am aware that some churches use regular bread for communion: sourdough, ciabatta, baguette and etc. So my conversational partner was not alone in supposing that Yeshua used regular bread during the “holy week”.

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”  (Matt 26:26 NASB)

The Gospels literally say that “Jesus broke bread” and use Greek word ἄρτος (artos). That is a direct equivalent of Hebrew לֶחֶם (lechem) and the word indeed means “bread”. The confusion comes from the fact that  “unleavened bread” is a special term in the Greek language – ἄζυμος (asumos) and gospels do not say that this is what the Messiah broke and distributed to his disciples. So this is when it dawned on me that this is a simple misunderstanding based on the ambiguity of language and lack of cultural knowledge. What was a mundane and implicit fact to me was not at all obvious to my questioner.

So here is my answer… Jesus did brake ἄρτος (artos) “bread” in the gospel story, but it was during the week of Unleavened Bread (Mat 16:17). The story does not have to specify that this was “unleavened bread” because that was the only kind of bread that would have been available that week.

Many people do not know this, but traditionally, all leaven is physically destroyed one day before Passover, on purpose. Every housewife, every baker would have made sure they had no leaven in their possession. Yeshua’s disciples would have had to make some special arrangements to have leavened bread available to them at a time when no leaven is found anywhere in Jerusalem.

It should be noted that ἄρτος (artos) is a generic word for bread. In fact, ἄρτος (artos) can be used idiomatically for food in general (Give us this day our daily bread – Matt 6:11). It is a food category that can describe all sorts of breads and ἄζυμος (asumos) or מַצָּה (matzah) as a specific variety of bread can fall under this broad definition. The ancient Greek translation of Exodus 23:15 (LXX) instructs to offer God ἄρτους ἀζύμους (artus asumus) “unleavened breads”. And even manna that fell from heaven in the wilderness was called ἄρτος (artos) “bread” in John 6:31. Bread does not have to contain “leaven” (ζυμωτός; zumotos, חָמֵץ; hametz) in order to be classified as “bread”. That is a cultural assumption based on our modern culinary practices.

In addition, thinking theologically, “leaven” (חָמֵץ; hametz) is expressly forbidden by Torah (Ex 12:15, 20) during the feast Jesus celebrated. Eating leavened bread during the feast would turn the rabbi and his disciples into deliberate transgressors of the Law. This is very unlikely based on Yeshua’s emphasis on holiness and respect of Torah. So the kind of bread that Jesus broke and ate during his Last Supper was indeed unleavened.

Pinchas

I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.


Reader Comments

  1. shalom Professor Pinchas, thank you for explaining this. I have studied this so much, but have had much confusion about the Greek words for bread. Now, with your explanation clearing that up; My main confusion is, shouldn’t Jesus have died that afternoon to perform the prophecy of being the Lord’s Passover? Isn’t that why He stated, “I so ‘wanted’ to observe THIS Passover with you?” It seems this meal should have been he night before for it to fit the perfect timing of His death- when the Passover Lamb was killed. Tank you for your help. Clara Ruth

    1. This is a tough one to sort out. Mat, Mark, Luke all say it was Passover, but John says it was a day of preparation. Thus we have conflicting records. What adds even more to the complexity of the understanding the exact timing is that different Jewish groups were not in agreement on the calendar exactly. So we depending on whose calendar you use, you can arrive at a different conclusion. Sorry if you were looking for a straightforward answer… we have several options it seems.

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