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.