On Passover and the Passion Narrative
One of the most certain traditions regarding the Passion Narrative is that the arrest and death of Jesus occurred around the time of the Passover festival. This is confirmed by multiple lines of tradition—in both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John, as well as in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., the Talmudic baraitha in b. Sanhedrin 43a). However, there is a distinct difference between John and the Synoptics in the precise dating and relationship to the day of Passover (Nisan 15).
According to the Synoptic Tradition, the “Last Supper” shared by Jesus and his disciples was a Passover meal which took place on the evening (after sundown) which begins the day of Passover (Nisan 15). This is stated explicitly in Mark 14:1, 12, 14, 16 par. The dating makes clear that we are dealing with the day of 14/15 Nisan—prior to the feast after sundown, on the daytime eve (of the 14th), the Passover lambs would be sacrificed (Mk 14:12; Luke 22:7).
However, according to the Gospel of John, the Last Supper (Jn 13:1-17ff) occurred some time before the day of Passover proper. This is indicated specifically by:
- The introduction to the Passion narrative and the Last Supper scene in 13:1:
“And before the festival of Pesah [i.e. Passover]…”
- Jn 18:28 and 19:14 make clear that the trial and crucifixion of Jesus both took place on the day of Passover eve (Nisan 14), before sundown and the start of Passover. On the 15th of Nisan Jesus was already dead (and buried).
This creates an obvious chronological discrepancy between John and the Synoptics. Commentators have tried to solve the issue in a number of ways, none of which are entirely satisfactory. Many critical scholars would simply admit that two different (variant) traditions regarding the precise dating, in relation to Passover, have been preserved. For those interested in determining the “correct” historical tradition, or in harmonizing the two lines of Gospel tradition, there are several possibilities which must be considered:
- Either John or the Synoptics record the “correct” dating, while the other has adapted and interpreted it, giving the association with Passover a special theological or Christological application.
- Both traditions, in their own way, are giving a specific interpretation (or application) to the original historical tradition which generally recorded Jesus’ death as occurring around the time of Passover.
- Each tradition is following a different way of dating Passover—i.e. is using a different calendar.
The last of these has been a favored way of solving the problem, especially for traditional-conservative commentators eager to harmonize John and the Synoptics. The idea is that two different calendars were in use in Palestine at the time of Jesus—for example, a 364-day solar calendar, along with a lunar (or lunar-solar) calendar. According to this theory, popularized by the work of A. Jaubert (accessible in English as The Date of the Last Supper [Alba House: 1965]), the Synoptics, along with Jesus and his disciples, are following the solar calendar, by which the Last Supper was celebrated, as a Passover meal, the evening beginning Nisan 15, while Jesus would have been crucified and buried on Nisan 17/18. John, by contrast, is following the official lunar-solar calendar, whereby the Last Supper occurred on Nisan 12. Evidence for use of an alternate (solar) calendar has been found in the Qumran writings (Dead Sea Scrolls)—e.g. 1QpHab 11:4ff and 11QPsa 27—as well as in other Jewish writings such as the book of Jubilees. Nevertheless, despite its attractiveness and convenience, this theory has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent decades, largely because commentators do not see any real evidence (apart from our desire to harmonize the accounts) that there are two different calendars used in the Gospels.
Options 1 and 2 above posit the alternative view that either John or the Synoptics (or both) have made the dating specific so as to bring out a particular theological/Christological connection with Passover:
- In making the Last Supper unquestionably a Passover meal, the Synoptic tradition, which records Jesus’ words of institution (of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper), associates the impending sacrificial death of Jesus with the sacrificial offering(s) drawn from the Exodus narratives (Exod 24:8), by which the Covenant with God’s people was established. Jesus’ own body and blood (i.e. his death) will similarly establish a (new) Covenant with believers.
- John identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb (19:31, cf. also 1:29, 36), which is why the Gospel writer dates the crucifixion to Nisan 14, when the lambs are prepared for slaughter (19:14). The mention of “hyssop” (19:29 MT) may also be an allusion to the ancient Passover tradition (Exod 12:22). Paul offers a similar identification of Jesus with the Paschal Lamb in 1 Cor 5:7 (and cf. also 1 Pet 1:19).
We should perhaps consider a fourth option, which, while it does not solve all of the chronological problems, may offer a simpler way of harmonizing the two lines of tradition. It is possible that Jesus and his disciples observed the Passover meal—or a meal with Passover characteristics—ahead of time, i.e. on Nisan 14, or even earlier. Several details in the Gospels could be cited in favor of this solution:
- The dating of the Last Supper in John 13:1ff.
- The Synoptic tradition which records that the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) did not wish to have Jesus arrested on the feast of Passover, indicating that they would have done this before sundown on Nisan 14/15 (cf. Mark 14:1-2 par).
- It has always seemed somewhat implausible that the Sanhedrin would have met to interrogate Jesus on Passover. This removes the difficulty, preserving the (accurate) information in John 18:28, 39—i.e., that the trial and execution of Jesus took place prior to sundown Nisan 14/15.
- The language and wording of Luke 22:15 could be taken to indicate that the meal is prior to Passover.
The main argument against this view is the specific dating indicated by Mark 14:1, 12. It would end up as a variation of option 1 above, implying that the Synoptic Gospels redated the historical tradition in order to make the Last Supper more clearly a celebration of Passover.