Jesus and the Shape of the Passover Sacrifice

If you were to ask most American Christians, “What were the Jewish people waiting for at the time of Jesus?” the answer would likely be something to the effect of, “In the first century A.D., the Jewish people were waiting for an earthly, political Messiah to come and set them free from the Roman Empire and return the land of Israel to its rightful owners.” [1] As Brant Pitre noted in his book, Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist, “the notion of a purely political Messiah with purely political aims has become remarkably widespread, even among people who are not very familiar with either the Bible or ancient Judaism… [A]lthough many [American] Christians admit to knowing very little about ancient Jewish practice and belief, the one thing they all seem to have heard is the idea that the Jewish people were waiting for only a military Messiah – a warrior king who would bring victory by defeating the empire of Caesar and reestablishing the earthly dominion of Israel.” [2]

However, this erroneously homogenizes first century Jewish belief. First century Jews were not as homogeneous as we tend to believe. For example, in Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus (37 –  100 AD) described a variety of first century Jewish groups and their beliefs: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. In fact, if you examine Jewish writings – the Old Testament, the Mishna, the Targums, and the Talmud – you will find that many Jews at the time of Christ were awaiting a new Moses, a new exodus (deliverance), and a new Passover. Moses himself told the Israelites:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren – him you shall heed… and the LORD said to me, ‘They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak all that I command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-18)

“[W]hile Moses performed a whole series of signs and plagues leading up to the Exodus from Egypt, ultimately it was the Passover that set in motion the Exodus of Israel.” [3] Today, we will look at the new Passover, especially the shape of the first century Passover sacrifice. (You can read more about the new Moses HERE.)

“The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb”
By Marc Chagall

Often overlooked in the Biblical account of the Passover in Egypt is the last step of the Passover sacrifice: “After the lamb had been killed and its blood poured out and spread upon the entries of the homes, the Israelites would then eat the lamb.” [4] According to the Exodus, “the Passover was not an ‘open table’ but a covenant feast.” [5] In the account of the original Passover, “the lambs were sacrificed and eaten in the homes of the Israelites in Egypt. At the time of Jesus, the lambs had to be sacrificed in the Temple… [and] only the Levitical priests could pour out the blood of the lambs on the altar,” a restriction given by God in the Torah. [6]

The Last Supper was a Passover meal, but it was by no means an ordinary one. “On that night, Jesus was not just celebrating one more memorial of the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, he was establishing a new Passover, the long-awaited Passover of the Messiah [the new Moses]. By means of this sacrifice, Jesus would inaugurate the new exodus, which the prophets had foretold and for which the Jewish people had been waiting.” [7]  

“The ultimate goal of the Passover sacrifice – as well as its ultimate effect – was deliverance from death through the blood of the lamb. It was not just any kind of sacrifice; it was a sacrifice that had the power to save you from death.” [8] Of importance is that “the Passover lamb [was] explicitly required to be a male in its prime… and ‘unblemished.’ This last characteristic meant that it could not be just any lamb. It had to be free of defects. It had to be perfect.” [9] As described in Exodus, it was extremely important that, during the sacrifice of the lamb, no bones of the lamb were to be broken: “…and you shall not break any of its bones” (Exodus 12:46).

“The Sacrificial Lamb”
By Josefa de Ayala

Saint John the Baptist identified Christ with the paschal lamb: “The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). In the Gospel of Saint John the Evangelist, we read: 

“So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. . . For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.'” (John 19:32-34, 36).

At the time of Christ, “the Passover lambs in the temple were not only sacrificed; they were, so to speak, crucified. As the Israeli scholar Joseph Tabor has shown, according to the Mishnah, at the time when the Temple still stood, after the sacrifice of the lamb, the Jews would drive ‘thin smooth staves’ of wood through the shoulders of the lamb… As Tabory  concludes, ‘An examination of the  Rabbinic evidence seems to show that in Jerusalem the Jewish paschal lamb was offered in a manner which resembled a crucifixion.’” [10] Saint Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165) described this as well (emphasis mine) [11]:

“For the lamb… is roasted and dressed up in the form of a cross.

Artist Unknown

Wood, blood, hyssop – all part of the ritual preparation of the paschal lamb – would reappear at Christ’s crucifixion. Regarding hyssop, for example, the Jews of the original Passover were to “Select lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin ; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.” (EXODUS 12:21–23). In the New Testament account of Christ’s crucifixion, hyssop reappears and the blood of the Passover lamb is connected with wine:

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’ A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28-30).

Artist Unknown

At the time of Christ, “the Passover was not just a sacrifice; it was also a ‘memorial’ and ‘remembrance’ (Exodus 12:14) by which the Jewish people would both remember and somehow make present the deliverance that had been won for their ancestors in the Exodus from Egypt. [12] The Jews “not only looked back to the original experience of deliverance but somehow made it present [13]:

In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written… ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (Exod 13:8).” (MISHNAH, PESAHIM 10:5)

In the above words we can “see quite clearly that for ancient Jews, the Passover feast was not just a remembrance of what God had done for their ancestors. In some mysterious way, they saw each Passover, ‘in every generation,’ as a way of sharing in the original act of redemption.” [14]

In some Jewish traditions, the Passover feast was tied to “the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the age of salvation. For example, in one ancient Jewish commentary on the Book of Exodus, rabbi Joshua, son of Hananiah, who was one of priestly descent and had served in the Temple before it was destroyed, says: ‘In the night they were redeemed and in that night they will be redeemed’ (Mekilta on Exodus 12:42).” [15]

One of the greatest biblical scholars and historians in the early Church was Saint Jerome (c. 342-347 – 30 September 420). In Commentary on Matthew IV, Saint Jerome wrote [16]:

“It is a tradition of the Jews that the Messiah will come at midnight according to the manner of the time in Egypt when the Passover was (first) celebrated.”

Many typological details of the Passover point to Christ as being the new Passover [17]:

  1. The Passover lamb, whose blood was smeared by the Hebrews on their doorposts in the sign of the Cross, was a male without blemish; Jesus was a male without blemish who died on the Cross. 
  2. The blood of the Passover lamb saved the first-born of the Hebrews from death; the blood of Christ saves all those believing in Him from eternal death (Rom 5:8-10; 1Pt 1:17-19).
  3. The Passover lamb had none of its bones broken (Ex 12:10, 46); Jesus also had no bones broken as He was sacrificed (Jn 19:31-36).
  4. The Hebrews escaped from the burden of slavery in Egypt by passing through the Red Sea; Christians pass “from Egypt, from the burden of sin,” being “set free and saved” through the waters of Holy Baptism [Gregory of Nyssa]. For in the waters of Baptism, we are “baptized into His death,” “crucified with Him,” and raised up “in the likeness of His resurrection” to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-11).

“The Last Supper”
By Leonardo da Vinci

On the night Christ was handed over, He identified His suffering to come with that of the paschal lamb: “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). With Christ’s words to His disciples that night, at the Last Supper, He instituted the new Passover. As the liturgy recounts [18]:

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

“By means of his words over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms, ‘I am the new Passover Lamb of the new exodus. This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice.’” [19]

As St. Paul said, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the feast!” (1 CORINTHIANS 5:7–8).


[1] Pitre, B. J. (2016). The Jewish Hope for a New Exodus. In Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the secrets of the Last Supper (Kindle ed., p. 36-37). New York: NY.

[2] Ibid. 1

[3] Pitre, B. J. (2016). The New Passover. In Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the secrets of the Last Supper (Kindle ed., p. 62-63). New York: NY.

[4] Ibid. 3, P. 69

[5] Ibid. 3, P. 70

[6] Ibid. 3, P. 72

[7] Ibid. 3

[8] Ibid. 3, P. 69

[9] Ibid. 3, P. 65

[10] Ibid. 3, P. 77

[11] Tabory, J. (1996). The Crucifixion of the Paschal Lamb. The Jewish Quarterly Review, 86(3/4), 395-406. doi:10.2307/1454912

[12] Pitre, B. J. (2016). The New Passover. In Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the secrets of the Last Supper (Kindle ed., p. 78). New York: NY.

[13] Ibid. 12, P. 79

[14] Ibid. 12, P. 79

[15] Ibid. 12, P. 80

[16] The luminous mysteries. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2021, from

[17] Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology (2008). Christ Our Passover. In The Orthodox study Bible (p. 146). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[18] Episcopal Church. (1979). The Holy Eucharist. In The Book of common prayer: And administration of the sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: Together with the psalter, or, Psalms of David (pp. 362-363). New York, NY: Church Publishing Incorporated.

[19] Pitre, B. J. (2016). The New Passover. In Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the secrets of the Last Supper (Kindle ed., p. 87). New York: NY.

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