When Did Jesus Eat His Last Supper and Die?

I finished up volume 1 of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.  In this post, I will talk about a biblical contradiction that Meier and many other scholars have highlighted.  The contradiction concerns when Jesus died: Was it on the Passover, or on the day before the Passover (when the Passover lamb was being slaughtered)? 

On page 390, Meier specifies the nature of the contradiction between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John:

“For the Synoptics, the Last Supper on Thursday was a Passover meal and so Jesus died on a Friday that was Passover day (the fifteenth of Nisan).  For John, the Last Supper was not a Passover meal.  Jesus died on a Friday that was the fourteenth of Nisan, which in that year was the Preparation Day both for Passover and for the Sabbath.”

I realize that some of my readers will take issue with Meier’s statement that Jesus died on a Friday, for Armstrongites have argued that Jesus died on a Wednesday and that the Day of Preparation on which Jesus died was the day before the First Day of Unleavened Bread (which itself is a sabbath), not Friday, the day before the weekly Sabbath.  They base this argument on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40 that he would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, and the time from Friday sunset to Sunday morning does not amount to three days and three nights.

I won’t be debating that issue in this post.  Rather, my focus here will be on what Meier highlights as the contradiction between the Synoptics and John.  In Mark 14:12 (in the KJV), we read: “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?”  Here, on the day when the Passover lamb is being killed, Jesus is making preparations so that he can eat the Passover with his disciples on that night.  In the Gospel of John, by contrast, Jesus is being crucified on the very day when the Passover lamb is being killed. 

When I was growing up in the Armstrongite tradition, I heard two ways to harmonize this contradiction.  One way was to assert that Mark 14:12 was not talking about the exact day when Jesus was preparing to eat the Passover with his disciples, but rather that its point was that the Passover season was coming up.  My problem with this interpretation is that Mark 14:1 says that the scribes and chief priests were conspiring against Jesus two days before the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.  That tells me that Mark 14 is dealing with a specific chronology, not merely the general season.  (At the same time, it is puzzling to me that the chief priests and scribes say in v 2 that they do not want to arrest Jesus on the feast day because that could result in an uproar, and yet they end up doing precisely that in Mark.  Are there different authors in Mark 14?)

Another way to harmonize the contradiction was to assert that there were different dates for the Passover in first century Judaism—-that the Pharisees disagreed with the Sadducean Boethuseans, and that the Essenes had their own calculations.  That way, Jesus could be keeping the Passover on a day when other Jews were not keeping the Passover.  Meier talks about such arguments, but he does not buy into them.  His reason is that both the Synoptics and John presume that they are dealing with the calendar that was officially used in Jerusalem.  In the Synoptics, Jesus prepares the Passover meal on the day when the lambs are being slaughtered.  In John, Jesus has to be taken off of the cross because the high day (which is the Passover and the First Day of Unleavened Bread) is coming up (John 19:31), meaning that Jesus is crucified on the day before the high day.

My impression of Meier is that he prefers John’s chronology to that of the Synoptics, for he does not think it plausible that the chief priests arrested and tried Jesus “within the night and early day hours of Passover day, the fifteenth of Nisan” (page 396).  But Meier also refers (favorably, it appears) to the view that the Synoptic application of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples to the Passover was late and redactional, meaning that, at an earlier stage of the Synoptic tradition, Jesus’ last meal was not a Passover—-which agrees with John.  Meier seems to conclude that, historically-speaking, Jesus had his last meal with his disciples on the beginning of the fourteenth of Nisan, rather than the end of the fourteenth, when many Jews were eating the Passover.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Church, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.