The Time of Passover in the Gospels

Here's the issue, and for the Synoptics, I'll just report what Mark 14:12-16 says; Matthew and Luke give less detail, but otherwise read the same:

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? And he sendeth forth two of his disciples, and saith unto them, Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him. And wheresoever he shall go in, say ye to the goodman of the house, The Master saith, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he will show you a large upper room furnished and prepared: there make ready for us. And his disciples went forth, and came into the city, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover.

The problem? Coordinating with the other known historical data we have the Synoptics would seem to indicate that the timetable was that:

  1. lambs (the passover, and the first day of the longer feast of Unleavened Bread) were killed (Thursday afternoon)
  2. the Last Supper was eaten at the beginning of the Passover holiday (Thursday evening, until early Friday morning; in accord with the Jewish reckoning which started a day at 6 PM)
  3. Jesus was crucified (Friday morning and afternoon)

But, the critics point to John's Gospel and see a contradictory schedule which has the Last Supper on a Wednesday evening -- and the rest is modified from there.

To say the least, I found this to be a tangled issue with opinions running the gamut and no connection to whether a commentator was liberal or conservative. Some proposed that John shifted the chronology purposely to have Jesus killed at the same time the Passover lambs were killed. Others argued that the Last Supper was not a Passover seder but a special meal. Yet another faction supposed that Jesus followed a special calendar used by the Essenes and some of the Sadducees, and that the Last Supper was on a Tuesday.

But the solution that shaves best with Occam's razor and coordinated best with the data laid in reading John with a more nuanced eye. Let's run over the verses in John that are the "culprits"...and at the same time, we'll look at some other verses that drop strong hints that John is following the same schedule as the Synoptics.

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him... (John 13:1-2)

This verse is sometimes seen as a problem because it is is read as saying that the supper and betrayal occurred "before the feast of the passover," and the Supper, if held (by our reckoning) late Thursday, would have been during the feast of the passover.

But most recognize rather that the only thing being said to be "before" the feast of the passover is Jesus' knowledge and love (which has no time limit on it), and that verse 2 starts a new train of thought. (This fits in with the understanding as well of John as a supplement to the Synoptics.)

At worst it is admitted that the "vague expression makes it impossible to extract an exact chronology of Passion week" [Mich.Jn, 245]

Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover. (John 18:28)

Here the thought is, Caiaphas and his cohorts have yet to eat the passover; so the Last Supper wasn't eaten at the normal time, or else someone is making a mistake. Some even suggest that Caiaphas ate the Passover late.

That's actually very close to the solution. The key here is in knowing that in the popular jargon, and as evidenced by supporting literature, "Passover" was used to refer to the entire feast which was also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. During this feast, there were still sacrifices being offered that the priests might temporarily disqualify themselves from by being in the place of a Gentile. Evidence of this loose association is found [Smith.CLS]:

One pushback to this idea is that John uses the same phrase ("to eat the Passover") as the Synoptics do when they are clearly referring to the "standard" Passover meal on Thursday (Mark 14:12, Luke 22:15, Matt. 26:17). And admittedly, this is the only place where the exact phrase "to eat the Passover" would supposedly be used to refer to a meal that is a later part of the Passover/Unleavened Bread complex, without referring to the "actual" Passover as well.

However, though there is no exact parallel, the data above showing the loose association of the holidays, combined with corollary data showing that John does indeed follow the Synoptic chronology, weigh in great favor of arguing that John is using the phrase in a different way than the Synoptics.

Similarly, in the view championed by Alfred Edersheim, the "Passover" that the Jews were afraid to miss eating was the obligatory Chagigah offering. This was a required "peace-type" offering on the 15th which required Levitical purity to offer and to eat. The meal made of this offering was a joyous occasion. Lest anyone object that there would be no reason to refer to this sacrifice as "the Passover," Edersheim notes:

One of the most learned Jewish writers, Dr.Saalschutz, is not of his opinion [that there is nothing "Paschal" about the Chagigah]. He writes as follows: The whole feast and all its festive meals were designated as the Passover. See Deuteronomy 16:2, comp. 2 Chronicles 30:24, and 35:8, 9; Sebach. 99, b, Rosh ha Sh. 5, a, where it is expressly said, "What is the meaning of the term Passover?" (Answer) The peace-offerings of the Passover. SOURCE: A. Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services

The "why" of the defilement is another matter, which we may as well cover here: nearly all agree that what is in view is the perceived danger of defilement for seven days by being in contact with a corpse. There was a Jewish belief that Gentile dwellings were unclean because Gentiles buried aborted fetuses in their houses or washed them down drains. Under the rubric of Lev. 7:19-21, the priests could not eat of any sacrifice while unclean. However, Carson adds that even the one-day defilement of yeast in the house [cf. Ex. 12:19] would make for a tremendous inconvenience for the priests in their public functions. [Cars.GJ, 588]

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! (John 19:14)

Some point out that John has specified the hour to coordinate with the paschal sacrifice and is making a theological point. But there are two problems with this.

Contradiction is sometimes alleged in that Mark reports the crucifixion at the third hour (Mark 15:25) while John says the sixth. The basic reply is that Mark and the other synoptics are using Jewish time (sunset to sunset; third hour = 9 AM); John is using some form of Roman time, which is like ours (sixth hour = 6 AM - note that John says about the sixth hour; he's estimating). The former method is still used in the Middle East, and we and other Western nations use the latter.

We know from the Synoptics that the crucifixion took over 6 hours. If John's sixth hour is really the Jewish sixth hour - noon, as unfortunately, even the Living Bible says - then the crucifixion lasted past the time when the Sabbath started. John 19:31 says that the Jews didn't want the bodies left up over the Sabbath, which obviously means that the Sabbath hadn't started yet.

So either John is giving us an extraordinarily short crucifixion, or he is giving us the time in some Roman mode. Since crucifixions were usually extended affairs, the latter assumption is more valid.

But there is an even more clear indication that John is using some form of Roman time. In John 1:39 we are told that Andrew and Peter met Jesus and "spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour." If this were Jewish time, that would make it 4 PM - too late to spend the "day" with someone (or maybe 4 AM, as some suggest, which at any rate is not usual visiting hours).

But by the other chronology, it is 10 AM - ample time to spend the day. This is a pretty clear indication of how John is reckoning things. (But again, the LIV gets it wrong here. John 4:6 is a time reference that would fit either paradigm as well.)

Objection: The Romans actually used the same sort of time as the Jews, that is, sunset to sunset.

This is not entirely true. Many Romans did use this sort of time, but others did not. The time like ours (midnight to midnight) was known to be used in legal matters, and there is some evidence from martyrdom accounts in the area that this sort of time was used in Asia Minor, where John did his evangelism. Pliny the Elder also notes that various professions varied in their reckoning of time. It is our contention that the evidence does point to John using a "midnight to midnight" model.

The Roman time measurement, at any rate, means that the time is nowhere near the sacrifice time, indeed, is over half a day off. Moreover, our second point: if John wanted to make this point, he could have done so quite obviously (as Mark mentioned the exact day the lambs were killed), and John is clearly the sort who would make significant mention of it (as the one who called Jesus the "lamb of God" -- Cars.GJ, 457).

The main point made here is to say that this "preparation of the passover" refers to the preparing of it on Thursday. [Mich.Jn, 324] But the word "preparation" here refers to the day of preparation for the Sabbath -- i.e., Friday. In other words, John is saying that it was the Friday, the Sabbath preparation day, of the Passover. The word "preparation" (paraskeue) is never used anywhere else in coordination with the word "Passover" like this, and elsewhere it always refers to Friday before a Sabbath -- in Josephus, and in second-century patristic sources. [Cars.GJ, 604]

Note as well that John goes on to refer to the preparation by itself in 19:42, which all agree refers to a Friday.

Next up is John 19:31: "The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation [Friday], that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day [Saturday]..." This helps us with 19:14 above, for it makes no sense unless the days are consecutive and the "preparation" of the Passover referred to is a Friday. John goes on to say that "sabbath day was an high day," which some take to mean that he regarded this sabbath as the Passover day itself, but "even by the Synoptic reckoning the description would be suitable, as the Sabbath in the week of Unleavened Bread had the special observance of the offering of a sheaf of barley (Lev. 23.11)." [Lind.GJ, 584]

Now to seal this interpretation, we can also point to a few places where John "shows an awareness" that he is in with the Synoptic chronology:

Objection: Jews counted part of a day as an entire day. If this is so, then it seems that there's no reason why the fragment of day remaining from 4:00 PM to the end of the day couldn't have been counted as one day.

This is true in practical terms but the language would still be inappropriate. It stands to reason that their engagement would last longer than only 2 hours on such important topics as would be discussed, regarding Jesus' messiahship. Thus it would have to say, "They spent the day with him and into of the next day."

Objection: When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water, he was exhausted from his journey, and it was about the sixth hour. If John was using Roman time, then it would have been 6 AM. How could he be exhausted from traveling if it was only 6 AM?

It was not unusual for people to travel at night when it was cooler and travel was less exerting. The objector apparently has never lived in a place where air conditioning was not available.

So we conclude that the data weighs heavily in favor of John being in full accord with the Synoptic chronology.

A reader has helpfully submitted some supporting evidence for this article which we have used in a response to Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted. To see that material, please subscribe to the Tekton E-Block and request that issue in a separate email.

-JPH

Sources

  1. Cars.GJ -- Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John IVP, 1991.
  2. Lind.GJ -- Lindars, Barnabas. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans, 1972.
  3. Mich.Jn -- Michaels J. Ramsey. John. Hendrickson: 1989.
  4. Smit.CLS -- Smith, Barry. "The Chronology of the Last Supper." Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), 29-45.