The Last Supper and the Passover--Do John and the Synoptics Agree?

John and the Synoptic Gospels give a consistent chronologoy. The Last Supper is the Passover Seder, occurring before the crucifixion. Jesus is not crucified at the same time the Passover lambs are sacrificed; he dies as the evening Tamid sacrifice is offered.

We have at least a dozen children's storybook Bibles in our house. Some of them are fantastic. Some of them I don't read to the kids--I let them look at the pictures while I tell them the story. Most of them are pretty good in general, but have a couple problem spots.

The Last Supper tends to be one of those problem spots. In fact, one of our (otherwise favorite) children's Bibles actually separates the washing of the disciples' feet and the Last Supper into two separate meals. In the first story they "all got together for dinner" and in the second they were just "eating supper together."

Well. That's problematic on several accounts. Didn't Jesus wash his disciples' feet at the Last Supper? And what about the Last Supper being a Passover meal?

As it turns out, this kind of interpretation isn't limited to overly-creative retellings in storybook Bibles. The accounts of the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John are commonly understood to contradict each other.

John's "Passover problem"

All four gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The Synoptics clearly present the Last Supper as a Passover meal occurring before the crucifixion (see Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 11:15). But at first glance, John's gospel seems to propose a somewhat different set of events.

John tells us that when the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, they did not enter the praetorium "so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover" (John 18:28, RSV-2CE). A few verses later he tells us that the day on which Jesus was crucified was "the day of Preparation of the Passover" (John 19:14). These verses have led many to conclude that John places the Passover meal after the crucifixion, and therefore his account of the Last Supper contradicts the accounts in  Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Considering the historical claims of the gospels--not to mention the Church's teaching that all of Scripture is divinely inspired and without error (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 105-108)--this apparent discrepancy is disconcerting, to say the least. So what are we to do with it?

What does John mean by "the Passover"?

The word "Passover"--pesach in Hebrew and pascha in Greek--was used to refer to more than just the Passover Seder meal. It could refer to the entire week of Passover and Unleavened Bread, the sacrificial Passover lamb, the Seder, as well as the additional peace offerings sacrificed and eaten during the week of Passover (see Leviticus 23:4-8).

So when John tells us that the Jewish officials wanted to remain ritually clean so that they could "eat the Passover," he's not necessarily referring to the Passover Seder meal. "Eating the Passover" could also refer to partaking of the peace offerings sacrificed throughout the week of Passover.

In the same way, when John identifies Good Friday as "the day of Preparation of the Passover," he is simply telling us that it is Friday of the week of Passover, not necessarily the day of preparation for the Passover meal. The Greek word paraskene, "day of preparation," is the word commonly used for Friday because Friday is always the day of preparation for the Sabbath.

John is merely referring to the various elements of the week-long feast of Passover in simple and common terms for a first-century Jew. He is not necessarily setting up a timeline where the Passover Seder occurs on Friday night of Holy Week rather than Thursday.

Is this the only explanation?

No, but it's the simplest and the most compelling. 

Another explanation, commonly referred to as the Calendar Proposal, suggests that when Jesus celebrated the Passover Seder at the Last Supper he was following an alternative Jewish calendar which placed the Passover meal on Tuesday of Holy Week, while the mainstream calendar followed by the Jewish leaders placed it on Friday night. This way, the gospels are correct in calling the Last Supper a Passover meal, even if John really does mean "the Passover Seder" when he refers to "the Passover" in 18:28 and 19:14.

This theory is certainly plausible. There is evidence that Judaism was divided over the liturgical calendar in the first century. There are also a few early Christian texts which state that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and was arrested on Tuesday night. However, the clear sense of all four gospels is that the arrest, trials, and condemnation of Jesus take place in the span of a single night and the following morning. This solution requires that we assume a different timeline than the gospels seem to present.

But wait! I thought John depicted Jesus as being crucified at the same time the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple?

Some people suggest that John deliberately manipulates the historical timing of the Last Supper/Passover/crucifixion in order to present the sacrifice of the Passover lambs and the crucifixion as happening at the same time. Scripture clearly presents Jesus as the new Passover lamb, and wouldn't it be fitting for the sacrifice of the old lambs and the new Lamb to occur at exactly the same time? 

Although this reading of John certainly has some appeal, it's more than a little problematic in light of John's multiple claims to be giving trustworthy, eye-witness testimony (see John 19:35, 21:24).

But the Passover is not the only sacrifice replaced by the Lamb of God. 

The forgotten sacrifice

When we hear "sacrificial lamb" most of us probably think of the Passover. But every single day, morning and evening, the Jews sacrificed a lamb for the Tamid (continual or daily) offering. These unblemished, one-year-old male lambs were sacrificed along with an offering of bread and wine (see Exodus 29:38-43 and Numbers 28:1-8).

Josephus, the first-century Jewish priest and historian, tells us that the evening Tamid sacrifice was offered at the ninth hour (3pm) every day (Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.3).

Does that time sound familiar? It should. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include the detail that Jesus died at about the ninth hour (Matthew 27:46-50, Mark 15:33-37, Luke 23:44-46). Mark even tells us twice. Mark's is the shortest gospel--he doesn't waste words on any unnecessary descriptions or details. So why the precision and the repetition?

Because Jesus breathed his last as the evening Tamid was offered.

But wait, it gets even better!

Every morning and evening the Tamid sacrifice was accompanied by particular prayers. While the lambs were being sacrificed--and while the Lamb of God was offering himself for our salvation--the Jews were praying for God's redemption, the forgiveness of sins, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead. Check out this article by Dr. Brant Pitre for more detail.


Want to go deeper? If you want an in-depth analysis, there is an entire chapter on it in Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper. If you're looking for something a little lighter, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible has a great essay comparing the various solutions to the "problem" of the timing of Passover (the essay is located at John 13).

Comments

  1. Informative reflections, excellent writing and great timing to read during Holy Week. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Wow! That was packed with tons of good info! Thank you for writing this :)

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  3. Thank you so much for this new blog!! I am so excited to get back to this kind of deeper Scripture reading again.

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