Wednesday, February 9, 2011

JI: On What Day Was Jesus Crucified?

The first major Bible contradiction Ehrman covers in Jesus, Interrupted is on pages 23–28. He starts by reminding readers that for the Jews, each new day began at sundown, around 6pm. So here's the contradiction: The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) say the Last Supper was the Passover meal, and Jesus was crucified the next morning (still Passover). But John says the Last Supper was eaten the day before Passover, called the Day of Preparation, and Jesus was crucified the next afternoon (still the Day of Preparation).

Here's what Mark 14:12, 17-18 says:
"Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, 'Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?' ... In the evening He came with the twelve. Now as they sat and ate, Jesus said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, one of you who eats with Me will betray Me.' "
The disciples killed the lamb on the Day of Preparation. After the sun went down in the evening, it became Passover and they ate the Passover meal. Matthew 26:17-21 and Luke 22:7-16 confirm this view, but John is a different story altogether. First, here's Ehrman's commentary about what what John doesn't say:
"But it is striking that in John, at the beginning of the account, in contrast to [the synoptics], the disciples do not ask Jesus where they are 'to prepare the Passover.' Consequently, he gives them no instructions for preparing the meal."
So all three synoptic gospels have Jesus and the disciples explicitly stating that this is the Passover meal, while they do no such thing in John. Already something's a little fishy; John may have purposely left out this part, for reasons I'll cover later. Now let's look at the other evidence. John 13:1-2 is ambiguous: the phrase "before the Feast of the Passover" could easily refer to the "supper," but it's also plausible that it doesn't. But other verses show that in John's view, this is not the Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation:
"Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered into him [Judas]. Then Jesus said to him, 'What you do, do quickly.' But no one at the table knew for what reason He had said this to him. For some thought, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus said to him, 'Buy those things we need for the feast,' or that he should give something to the poor." (John 13:27-29)
Here the disciples have just finished the Last Supper, and some of them think Jesus is sending Judas to buy food for the Passover feast.
"Then they led Jesus from Caiaphus to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover." (John 18:28)
Here it is the next morning (in the same Jewish day), Jesus is being led to Pilate's residence to be judged, and the priests have not yet eaten the Passover.
"Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he [Pilate] said to the Jews, 'Behold your King!' " (John 19:14)
This verse makes the problem abundantly clear. Matthew, Mark and Luke say that Jesus had the Last Supper on Passover. It's now "the sixth hour" (i.e. noon) later in the same Jewish day, Jesus is being judged, and John is telling us that it's the Day of Preparation! However, there's still one more piece of evidence that I think seals the deal for this contradiction. Here's what Ehrman has to say about it:
"John is the only Gospel that indicates that Jesus is 'the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.' This is declared by John the Baptist [in John 1:29, 36]. Why, then did John—our latest Gospel—change the day and time when Jesus died? It may be because in John's Gospel, Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose sacrifice brings salvation from sins. Exactly like the Passover Lamb, Jesus has to die on the day (the Day of Preparation) and time (sometime after noon) when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.
"In other words, John has changed a historical datum in order to make a theological point: Jesus is the sacrificial lamb."
Is it just coincidence that John perfectly times Jesus' death to coincide with the slaughter of the Passover lambs? It's possible, but I think that's quite unlikely, especially in light of the other evidence. Speaking of which, let's review:
  1. All three synoptics have Jesus and the disciples referring to the Last Supper as the Passover meal. John does not.
  2. John has three passages after the Last Supper indicating that the Passover meal had not yet occurred.
  3. John places Jesus' crucifixion at the same day and time as Passover lambs were being killed, implying he fudged the facts to create a metaphor.
Remarkably, Christians can't even agree among themselves on the right solution to this problem. Some claim the Last Supper and crucifixion fell on the Day of Preparation (as in John). Others claim the Last Supper was the Passover meal, and Jesus was crucified on Passover (as in the synoptics). Both sides believe they are obviously right. One would think the Holy Spirit that supposedly dwells in them would help them all interpret things the right way, but apparently not. In the end, their arguments largely cancel each other out, and I must conclude that this is a very real contradiction.


  1. I believe the passover was not prescribed as a feast, but is actually a day of preparation for the feast (and holy convocation) which is the following day, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (see Leviticus 23:4-8). The people ate the passover lamb, along with unleavened bread, at the beginning of the day of Passover (which begins at 6:00 in the evening). Then, after they slept, they had the following period of daylight to prepare for the feast (and holy convocation), by removing all leaven from their homes and preparing the meal for the coming evening.

  2. I'd like to clarify my earlier point: the passover wasn't prescribed as a feast in the sense of a high holy day when work wasn't permitted; it also wasn't eaten in a group (convocation) setting - each lamb was probably eaten in the family's house, as was done originally (Exodus 12:3-12).
    And I believe the last supper was a Passover meal, which also was eaten on the day of preparation for the following day's feast and convocation, as I explained in my earlier post.