The Memorial Date
All therefore whatsoever they [scribes and Pharisees] bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.—Matthew 23:3
Among Bible Students, there is general agreement that the celebration of the .Lord’s Supper should be carried out on an annual basis, as a remembrance of the fulfillment of the Paschal sacrifice. The term “Memorial” Supper has been adopted as a reminder that the primary emphasis of the occasion is to commemorate the death of Christ as the atoning sacrifice on behalf of all mankind. There is also general agreement that the proper date for holding this special ceremony is on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which occurs in the spring. It was on this date that the Passover lambs were slain in the type, and it was on this day, according to John’s gospel, that our Lord Jesus died as the antitypical “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Determining the Date
But on which date does Nisan 14 fall in our own era? Differing methods of calculation yield dates which can vary by as much as a month from each other, resulting in Memorial celebrations that are held at different times by various groups instead of upon one uniformly established date.
Three approaches commend themselves in considering how to properly ascertain the dates for Nisan 14:
Pursuing these approaches, we find first that the Bible itself is silent as to the exact procedure used in ancient times to establish the date of Nisan 14. The Bible, of course, highlights the special significance that was attached to the month of Nisan: it was the first month of the religious year and it marked the occurrence of the Passover celebration, the most important of all the annual feasts of the Israelites. Nevertheless, because the Scriptures do not detail how the beginning of the Hebrew year was reckoned, it is necessary to consult other historical sources for this information.
The Ancient Custom
The Hebrew Mishna is much concerned with matters of the calendar and its reckoning. It specifies that the earliest custom was to begin the month Nisan with the first appearance of the new moon nearest the spring equinox. This was determined by visual sighting or, in the event of a cloud cover, by calculation. The responsibility for announcing the beginning of Nisan eventually fell upon three members of the Sanhedrin, the seventy-man ruling council of the Jews, in Jerusalem. These three members were the president of the council (who was the high priest) and two others to assist him. Sometimes witnesses were used to confirm the exact time of the sightings.
For most years in the calendar cycle, this method sufficed and would have been simple enough, were it not for one major complication. Starting with the first harvest in the land of Canaan, God instructed the Israelites to offer the firstfruits of the grain in a special wave offering before the Lord. This was to be carried out, according to Leviticus 23:9-11, on the “morrow after the sabbath.” This sabbath day was interpreted by the Pharisees and orthodox Jews to be the one occasioned by the fifteenth day of Nisan, the feast day of the Passover, rather than the regular weekly sabbath. The “morrow after the sabbath” would be the sixteenth day of Nisan. Thus the Passover festival became inseparably linked with the wave offering of the firstfruits, a seasonal agricultural ceremony.
The grain used for this ceremony was barley because it was the first to appear and began to ripen toward the end of March and the early part of April. This was the normal harvesting schedule, which fit in nicely with the requirement that the firstfruits be waved before the Lord on the sixteenth day of Nisan. But occasionally there was a problem if the warm weather of spring was delayed and the Passover season fell before the barley was ripe. In such years, unless an adjustment was made to delay the Passover, there would not be any ripe grain to offer as firstfruits.
To eliminate such a possibility, the Jewish authorities rendered a preliminary judgment regarding the state of the spring season. If necessary, a thirteenth month called V-Adar would be interposed immediately before Nisan, which had the effect of postponing the Passover for a month and ensuring that the grain would be ripe. Without such a ruling body to render this judgment, the smooth functioning of the Passover and related wave offering ceremony could not have been carried out successfully.
In contrast to this, a practice in current use by some is to establish the Nisan 14 date by a straight astronomical calculation based solely on the new moon nearest the spring equinox. This is featured as the “true biblical” method as opposed to the “Jewish” method just enumerated. Since there is no provision for adjusting the date if its falls early in the season, such a practice obviously does not coincide with the ancient custom. Further, it can hardly be considered as the true biblical method because the appearance of the new moon in relation to the spring equinox is nowhere stated in the sacred records, as already mentioned.
On the other hand, the Scriptures do specifically mention the waving of the firstfruits in connection with the Passover ceremony. This tie-in is actually the only direct Scriptural basis for confirming the season of the year because the spring equinox is not referenced. To ignore the tie-in with the first grain harvest would seem to do violence to the original requirement, which becomes significant as a type of Christ’s resurrection on Nisan 16 in 33 A.D. Its omission might seem to seriously undermine the Scriptural support for the timing of the Passover celebration.
Value of the Jewish Calendar
Here is where the modern Jewish calendar makes a notable contribution. It is so constructed that on those years in the nineteen-year cycle (third, eighth, eleventh, and nineteenth years) when the Passover would have fallen sufficiently early in the season to necessitate rendering a judgment as to the state of the crops, the festival is automatically delayed by the intercalation of the month of V-Adar. Thus the calendar does away with the need for human judgment on the lateness of the season and standardizes all the dates according to fixed rules.
The Jewish calendar in use today is termed “modern” to distinguish it from the “ancient” calendar, which goes back to early Old Testament times. But the “modern” Jewish calendar was already in use in early centuries of the Christian era. Originally the rules governing its calculation were kept secret to maintain the dependency of scattered tribes upon the ruling hierarchy. But in 359 A.D. the rules were finally published by Rabbi Hillel II and made available to all Jews in the dispersion. This made it possible for the calendar to be calculated centuries in advance, and it eliminated all confusion regarding occurrences of the holy days.
This is precisely why we believe it is still useful for Christians today to base the calculation of the Memorial date upon the Jewish calendar. It comes closest to approximating the ancient Jewish custom. Its use is certainly advantageous in arriving at a uniform date and eliminates the need for independent calculations. And it is universally available. But all this leads to one important question: Is it proper for us as Christians to accept Jewish authority and the Jewish calendar in fixing our Memorial dates?
In seeking guidance in any matter, it is always well to look to the example and teaching of our Lord. In this instance, we believe his words and actions provide a direct answer to our query. Jesus made it quite clear that he was willing to accept the interpretations of those who sat in Moses’ seat when such did not conflict with truth or principle. Of the scribes and Pharisees he specifically said, “Whatsoever therefore they bid you observe, that observe and do” (Matthew 23:2,3). His followers were not, however, to follow their example in hypocrisy and religious show.
The arrangements and adjustments of the Jewish calendar, particularly as they governed the religious festivities of the people, properly fell under the jurisdiction of these leaders. Jesus was quite content to accept their rulings on such matters. Hence it would seem reasonable that an acceptance of the dates produced by the Jewish calendar for the Passover-Memorial service in our day would be expressing an attitude similar to that of our Lord: not one of subservience, but of recognition of the convenience and utility of the arrangement, all under the providences of our God.
The Memorial Date vs. the Jewish Passover Date
Because Bible Students link the celebration of the Memorial to the Passover observance, and use the Jewish calendar to determine the date for the fourteenth of Nisan, it may be surprising to see that our Memorial date is consistently two days before the published Passover date. For example, Sunday, April 24, 2005, is listed as the Passover on Jewish calendars, but our Memorial will be held on Friday evening, April 22.
The term “Passover” is appropriately used to describe the events of either the fourteenth day of Nisan on which the lamb was originally slain, or the fifteenth day of Nisan on which the feast was begun. In modern times, a lamb is no longer slaughtered by the Jews so that less emphasis is placed upon the fourteenth day and the current Jewish calendar does not give it any significance. It is the fifteenth day which is now exclusively emphasized, commemorating the feast and the exodus from the land of Egypt. This explains why the Jewish calendar marks only the fifteenth day of Nisan as the “Passover” (the major portion of the day, but not its actual beginning). The previous day is the fourteenth of Nisan, and it is this day that concerns us as Bible Students.
Further, because the Jewish day commences at six o’clock in the evening, Nisan 14 actually begins on the day marked Nisan 13 on the Jewish calendar. After six p.m. on the day shown as Nisan 13 is the appropriate time for our Memorial celebration. Thus, the Memorial consistently falls two days prior to the published Jewish calendar date for Passover (Nisan 15).
It is interesting to note that the Memorial date never falls on Monday, Wednesday, or Saturday. This is because there are certain regulations which govern the days that the Passover Feast (Nisan 15) may not be held. There is a fixed relationship between the first (or feast) day of Passover (Nisan 15) and the first day of the new year that follows (Tishri 1), amounting to exactly 163 days. This in turn affects the days on which Yom Kippur (Tishri 10) and Hoshana Rabba (Tishri 21) occur: it is required that the first holiday never fall on the day preceding or following a regular Saturday Sabbath (which would result in two consecutive days of complete rest and interfere with meal preparations); and that the second holiday never fall on a Saturday (which would violate the Sabbath because of the physical activity connected with the Hoshana ritual).
To satisfy these special holiday requirements, the calendar is regulated by the Jews so that the feast day of Passover (Nisan 15) never occurs on Wednesday, Friday, or Monday. (See G. Zinberg, Jewish Calendar Mystery Dispelled, pp. 41, 42.) This being so, it becomes evident that Nisan 13 cannot fall on Monday, Wednesday, or Saturday. Hence our Memorial service, which is held on the calendar day marked Nisan 13 (and which becomes Nisan 14 after six p.m.), never occurs on these days.
It seems fitting to remember the Scriptural admonition, “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” How desirable and advantageous it would be if all who appreciate the Memorial could agree on a single date for its proper observance. Nevertheless, in those years when it is difficult for consecrated Christians to do so, we believe that the heart attitude of those partaking of the emblems is by far the most important consideration. The oneness of spirit of all the members of the body, their entering into the Memorial season by a thorough searching of their own hearts and evaluating their relationship with the Lord, and the feeding by faith upon the spiritual truths represented in this most solemn ritual, surely supersede the choosing of the date.
Dates Projected for the next Thirty Years
* Nisan 13 is shown because it is the calendar day on which the Memorial is held. At 6:00 p.m. on this calendar day Nisan 14 begins, and shortly after our Memorial service takes place.