Reconciling the Eyewitness accounts
Chronology for the Passion of the Christ
1. The Jewish Calendar
The festivals of Judaism at the time of Christ were celebrated in accordance with the Jewish lunar calendar. This lunar calendar consisted of twelve lunar months, each containing twenty-nine or thirty days[a], and each commencing and ending with the phase of “new” moon. Our modern calendar, based upon the Roman model, requires that twelve months contain 365 days. A year based upon the Jewish calendar averaged 354 days. In order to account for the time difference between twelve lunar cycles and a year containing 365 days, an additional month was added to the Jewish calendar roughly seven times every nineteen years. This way each month and festival would continue to occur in the appropriate season, (i.e. spring, summer, harvest, planting, etc). Any attempt to reconcile a chronology of events dating to the time of Christ must account for differences between the various calendars.
2. The Jewish Day
The Jewish day begins at sunset rather than midnight, in accordance with the principle:
5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day. - Genesis 1:5
So, to a Jew of Jesus’ day, Saturday would begin at roughly 7:00 P.M. (sunset) on what we call Friday night. All that evening and night would be the early part of Saturday, and the daylight portion of Saturday would continue until sunset on Saturday night. As soon as the sun sets on Saturday night, Sunday would begin.
In addition, the daylight portion of each day was divided into twelve equal “hours”. The length of these “hours” would vary depending upon the time of year. In summer, the days are longer, and so the hours are longer.
3. The Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread
The Passover was observed on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month, the month of Aviv or Nisan, at sunset:
4 ” ‘These are the LORD’s appointed feasts, the sacred assemblies you are to proclaim at their appointed times: 5 The LORD’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. 6 On the fifteenth day of that month the LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. 7 On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. 8 For seven days present an offering made to the LORD by fire. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.’ ” -Leviticus 23:4-8[b]
The LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread (v 6) was observed from the fifteenth to the twenty-first of the same month. The first (v 7) and last (v 8) days of this feast are sacred days on which no work is to be performed, similar in this regard to the regular weekly Sabbath:
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of the LORD, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.
3 ” ‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the LORD. -Leviticus 23:1-3
And the Passover may not be observed anywhere except the Temple at Jerusalem, hence the migration of pilgrims to the Holy City recorded through scripture[c]:
5 You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the LORD your God gives you 6 except in the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt. 7 Roast it and eat it at the place the LORD your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents. 8 For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the LORD your God and do no work. -Deuteronomy 16:5-8
The scriptural requirements for Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread have not changed since the time of Moses, who according to tradition received these instructions directly from G-d. But the practical application of scripture and the practices associated with Passover have varied as a consequence of earthly limitations. In modern Judaism no lamb is sacrificed, because there is no priest to perform the sacrifice, and no Temple at which to sacrifice. Therefore today’s Passover is no guide to the practices of the Second Temple period. For the purposes of any chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion, which occurred at the time when many had come to Jerusalem to observe the Passover, we must have knowledge of the procedures followed in Roman occupied Judea under Tiberius Caesar.
4. The Passover during the Time of the Crucifixion of Christ
Philo Judaeus was an influential Jew who lived in Alexandria, Egypt from about 20 BC to about 50 AD. Philo risked his life to plead for the Jewish way of life before Gaius (Caligula), so his commitment to truth and personal conviction seem assured[d]. Since Philo was born before Christ’s nativity and lived nearly twenty years after the crucifixion, his testimony concerning the customs observed at Passover should be particularly relevant to our study. In his treatise on the Special Laws, II, The Fourth Festival, (XXVII (145-149), Philo discusses “the Passover, which the Hebrews call pascha, on which the whole people offer sacrifice, beginning at noonday and continuing till evening” (145). He further states “…the victim being sacrificed so as to make a suitable feast for the man who provided it and of those who are collected to share in the feast, being all duly purified with holy ablutions” (148). Finally he tells us that this all occurs on “And this universal sacrifice of the whole people is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the [first] month…” (149). Another witness, Josephus, writing of Passover shortly before the Jewish revolt (65 AD), puts it thusly:
So these high priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the Passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the eleventh, but so that a company not less than ten belong to every sacrifice, (for it is not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves,) and many of us are twenty in a company, found the number of sacrifices was two hundred and fifty-six thousand five hundred; which, upon the allowance of no more than ten that feast together, amounts to two millions seven hundred thousand and two hundred persons[e] that were pure and holy; for as to those that have the leprosy, or the gonorrhea, or women that have their monthly courses, or such as are otherwise polluted, it is not lawful for them to be partakers of this sacrifice; nor indeed for any foreigners neither, who come hither to worship. -Josephus, Wars, VI, ix, 3
This agrees well with Philo, except for the times of sacrifice. We will presume that that Josephus is counting hours from daybreak since the Talmud considers invalid as a Passover sacrifice any animal killed before noon on the fourteenth of Nisan (Mishnah Zebahim 1:2, 1:3; Bavli Zebahim 91A). The Talmud was composed after the destruction of the Second Temple, but many of the ordinances arguably refer to practices of the Temple at the time of Christ.
So according to our testimony, two and a half to three million pilgrims would descend upon Jerusalem in the middle of Nisan to celebrate the Passover. On the afternoon of the fourteenth, between noonday and evening or between 3:00 to 5:00 P.M., hundreds of thousands of lambs would be slain, their blood caught by a priest in the Temple court and sprinkled upon the alter. Then the carcasses were roasted with fire, and taken to a place chosen by each family where the rest of the Passover meal had been prepared. There, with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, the lamb was eaten as the sun set. But as we have seen, according to Jewish observance the fifteenth day of Nisan begins when the sun sets on the fourteenth. So the Passover meal ushered in the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, upon which the children of Israel would hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work (Lev.23:8).
5. The Feast of Unleavened Bread during the Time of the Crucifixion of Christ
Since the Passover meal also involves unleavened bread, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread immediately follows the Passover Seder, many people in Jesus’ time did not distinguish them as two separate festivals. This was the case when Luke explained, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching…” (Luke 21:1), and “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.” (Luke 21:7).
Before we accuse Luke of being an ignorant Gentile, consider the usage of Josephus, “…we keep a feast for eight days, which is called the feast of unleavened bread.” (Ant., II, xv, 1). Where did the eighth day come from if not the inclusion of the Passover? Or, again, “…at the time when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, which we call the Passover…” (Ant., XIV, ii, 1), and “…on the feast of unleavened bread, which was now come, it being the fourteenth day of the month…” (Wars, V, iii, 1) [f]. Josephus grew up in a leading sacerdotal family, a descendent of the Hasmonaean priest-kings. Surely he would be familiar with the religious terminology of his own time?
This convention also appears in the Talmud, with examples such as: “R. Jehoshua said: ‘By “seven” is meant the seven days of Passover, by “eight” is meant…’” (Bavli ‘Erubin, 40B); “…Come and hear: He who has not kept the feast for the seven days of the Passover, and the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles…” (Bavli Hagigah, 17B). If the fourteenth of Nisan is combined with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (seven days from the fifteenth through the twenty-first) as the “Passover”, how is this not eight days of Passover? Could the term Passover apply to the seven days of Unleavened Bread, not including the actual day of Passover? It appears that these terms could be used quite loosely, and with variant meanings. But since these are the words of Israel’s most prominent priests and Rabbi’s, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the terms for Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were often used interchangeably. Sometimes the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” contains the actual day of Passover, and sometimes the “Passover” includes days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Not so with Philo, to whom the distinction is clear:
THE FIFTH FESTIVAL
XXVIII. (150) And there is another festival combined with the feast of the Passover, having a use of food different from the usual one, and not customary; the use, namely, of unleavened bread, from which it derives its name…(155) And this feast is begun on the fifteenth day of the month, in the middle of the month, on the day on which the moon is full of light…(156) And, again, the feast is celebrated for seven days…(157) And of the seven days, Moses pronounces two, the first and the last, holy; giving, as is natural, a preeminence to the beginning and to the end…(158) And the unleavened bread is ordained because their ancestors took unleavened bread with them when they went forth out of Egypt, under the guidance of the Deity… – Philo, The Special Laws, II, The Fifth Festival, XXVIII (150-158)
Philo’s explanation fits very well with the ordinances described by Moses in Leviticus Chapter 23, our starting point for the definitions of these festivals. He confirms that this feast begins on the fifteenth of the month, even as he explained that Passover is observed on the fourteenth. He notices that the fifteenth is always a “full” moon, which is obviously the case with lunar months which commence upon the phase of “new” moon. In other words, the month begins upon first sighting of the “new” moon; the moon becomes brighter for the first half of the month, becomes “full” in the middle of the month, and wanes during the second half of the month. The next “new” moon marks the beginning of the next lunar month.
Philo also confirms that the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were observed as holy and preeminent in his own time. Exactly how these days were observed, he does not say. We may assume that a sacred assembly was held, and that these two days were treated as a Sabbath in regards to work, since these were the stipulations of Moses, to whom Philo defers in this regard. And this brings us to a final point concerning these Jewish rituals. For when G-d ordained the appointed feasts of the LORD (Leviticus 23:1) through Moses, starting with the weekly Sabbath (v 3), and the feasts of Passover (v 5) and Unleavened Bread (v 6-8), the offering of First Fruits was next established (v 9-14).
6. The Offering of First Fruits during the Time of the Crucifixion of Christ
Starting with Moses, as seems appropriate:
9 The LORD said to Moses, 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. 11 He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. 12 On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the LORD a lamb a year old without defect, 13 together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil-an offering made to the LORD by fire, a pleasing aroma-and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine. 14 You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. -Leviticus 23:9-14
Once again, the question is not whether, but how this ordinance was celebrated during the time of Christ. The First Fruits offering appears between the feasts of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost in Leviticus Chapter 23. Since the list appears to be sequential, it is reasonable that First Fruits happens somewhere in this order. The first problem is when? The feast is associated with an early grain harvest, but the only specific time reference is that the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath (v 11). To what Sabbath, then, does this refer? After Moses’ death, his successor Joshua held the Passover at a place called Gilgal. The observance of this Passover provides additional insight:
10 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. 11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan. -Joshua 5:10-12
The fact that they ate bread and roasted grain from the produce of Canaan for the first time was proof to Hebrew scholars that the First Fruits offering must have already been performed, “You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God.” (Leviticus 23:14). Based upon this precedent, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time counted the fifteenth Nisan as the day that Passover was completed, and concluded that the Special Sabbath of the first day of Unleavened Bread was indeed that Sabbath spoken of in Leviticus 23:11. This led Pharisees to celebrate First Fruits on the sixteenth of Nisan, the day after the (Special) Sabbath of the fifteenth. The sect of Sadducees, however, reasoned that the Passover at Gilgal must have fallen on a weekly Sabbath (either 14 or 15 Nisan fell on the weekly Sabbath; it can be reasoned either way). So in the view of the Sadducees First Fruits always fell on the Sunday which followed the first weekly Sabbath after Passover[g]. Philo appears to support the position of the Pharisees when he says:
THE SIXTH FESTIVAL
XXIX. (162) There is also a festival on the day of the paschal feast, which succeeds the first day, and this is named the sheaf, from what takes place on it; for a sheaf is brought to the alter as a first fruit both of the country which the nation has received for its own, and also of the whole land…- Philo, The Special Laws, II, The Sixth Festival, XXIX (162)
Philo’s explanation seems very reminiscent of the language in the Book of Joshua, and he never assigns an actual date. But Josephus is unambiguous when he tells us:
In the month of Xanthicus, which is by us called Nisan, and is the beginning of our year, on the fourteenth day of the lunar month, when the sun is in Aries, (for in this month it was that we were delivered from bondage under the Egyptians,) the law ordained that we should every year slay that sacrifice which I before told you we slew when we came out of Egypt, and which was called the Passover; and so we do celebrate this passover in companies, leaving nothing of what we sacrifice till the day following. The feast of unleavened bread succeeds that of the passover, and falls on the fifteenth day of the month, and continues seven days, wherein they feed on unleavened bread; on every one of which days two bulls are killed, and one ram, and seven lambs. Now these lambs are entirely burnt, besides the kid of the goats which is added to all the rest, for sins; for it is intended as a feast for the priest on every one of those days. But on the second day of unleavened bread, which is the sixteenth day of the month, they first partake of the fruits of the earth, for before that day they do not touch them. And while they suppose it proper to honor God, from whom they obtain this plentiful provision, in the first place, they offer the first-fruits of their barley, and that in the manner following: They take a handful of the ears, and dry them, then beat them small, and purge the barley from the bran; they then bring one tenth deal to the altar, to God; and, casting one handful of it upon the fire, they leave the rest for the use of the priest. And after this it is that they may publicly or privately reap their harvest. They also at this participation of the first-fruits of the earth, sacrifice a lamb, as a burnt-offering to God. -Josephus, Antiquities, III, x, 5
This passage of Josephus really defines the relationships between all three festivals, as well as discussing sacrifices performed for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the offering of First Fruits. Josephus’ opinion concerning the sixteenth of Nisan is also corroborated by Talmudic passages, “He ordained also at the same time that on the sixteenth day of Nissan, called the day of Noph (the day of waving the omer: Lev. xxiii. 11)” (Bavli Succah, 41A), and “On the fifth of Nissan the second rain fell, and on the sixteenth of that month they already offered up the new grain…” (Bavli Taanith, 5A).
7. Summary of Festal Observances During the Time of Christ’s Passion
(a.) 14 Nisan: The Passover; (sometimes included as a part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread)
(i.) Various ordinances concerning ceremonial cleanliness for Passover (being all duly purified with holy ablutions” (Philo, the Special Laws, II, The Fourth Festival, XXVII, 148) ; start no new work after noon in preparation for Sabbath of fifteenth;
(ii.) From noon to evening, all of Israel sacrifices their lambs in the Temple courtyard. One lamb suffices for each company of ten to twenty Israelites. A Priest catches the blood and sprinkles it on the alter. The lambs are roasted with fire, and taken to the place where each company has planned their feast.
(iii.) The Passover meal is eaten as the sun sets. The meal ushers in the fifteenth of Nisan, and with it the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
(b.) 15 Nisan: The First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Special Sabbath); (first day of seven day feast also sometimes designated as the week of Passover)
(i.) Begins at sunset of the fourteenth. First day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which will continue for seven days. For seven days, every day, they will they feed on unleavened bread; on every one of which days two bulls are killed, and one ram, and seven lambs. Now these lambs are entirely burnt, besides the kid of the goats which is added to all the rest, for sins; for it is intended as a feast for the priest on every one of those days. (Jos., Ant., III, x, 5). We don’t know anything else about this feast for the priest(s).
(ii.) In addition to which: And of the seven days, Moses pronounces two, the first and the last, holy; giving, as is natural, a preeminence to the beginning and to the end…- Philo, The Special Laws, II, The Fifth Festival, XXVIII (157); and 7On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. 8 For seven days present an offering made to the LORD by fire. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. (Leviticus 23:7-8). So the fifteenth was like a Sabbath as regarding work, and the Pharisees had interpreted that it was indeed the very Sabbath which preceded the First Fruits offering. The sacred assembly was also a unique feature to this day.
(c.) 16 Nisan: The Offering of First Fruits; (also called waving the sheaf or omer)
(i.) Second day of Feast of Unleavened Bread.
(ii.) Not a Sabbath. (Although it could occur on the weekly Sabbath if Passover fell on a Thursday).
(iii.) The First Fruits of the barley harvest are offered to the Lord. After this offering, people may begin to eat the new harvest.
(iv.) A lamb is also sacrificed as a burnt-offering to God.
(v.) The normal daily sacrifices associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread were performed in addition to the First Fruits offerings.
8. The Reconciliation of the Gospel Chronologies
All four Gospel accounts agree that Jesus and his disciples had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread[h]. Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution were all concurrent with the activities of these holy days. The first definitive reference to a specific day occurs during the planning of Jesus’ Last Supper, as the three Synoptic writers disclose:
|17On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
18He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’ ” 19So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.
20When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve.
- Chapter 26:17-20
|12On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”
13So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
16The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
17When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.
- Chapter 14:12-16
|7Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
9“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.
10He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”
13They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
- Chapter 22:7-15
All three writers speak of preparing the Passover meal on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Obviously, they do not mean that they started on the fifteenth (first day of Unleavened Bread) to prepare a meal that would be eaten on the fourteenth (Passover). Rather they are combining the Passover day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread into one festival, a usage that we have already noticed. But Mark and Luke both specify that this was the very day on which the Passover lamb was to be slain, the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan according to all of our first century sources. And the upper room was secured with the explanation that Jesus and his disciples would there partake of the traditional Passover meal. So it appears that Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples as the sun set at the conclusion of the fourteenth of Nisan, and that this meal that was technically finished on the fifteenth of Nisan. We have no indication of the actual day of the week in these passages.
Other theories, which are widely accepted today, conclude that the Last Supper was eaten at sunset between the thirteenth and fourteenth of Nisan. Justification for these beliefs is provided along various lines of reasoning: (1.) The Passover was always intended to be eaten at the sunset commencing the thirteenth of Nisan, and Jewish tradition misinterpreted the LORD’s intent in this regard[i]; (2.) Jesus, having foreknowledge that he was to sacrifice his life at the time when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, was granted special dispensation to celebrate the Passover a day early[j]; (3.) The Jewish custom provided for sacrificing the Passover lamb on the afternoon of the thirteenth, if the fifteenth fell on a weekly Sabbath. This was done so that the Passover sacrifice would not interfere with the preparation for the Sabbath[k]; (4.) Various other reconstructions based upon differences in calendars and scriptural interpretations between various Jewish sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Qumran), as well as differences between Galilean and Judean practices (some of which are recognized in the Talmud) support Last Supper dates of either the thirteenth or fourteenth of Nisan. Some of these theories even suggest that the Passover lambs were sacrificed on two consecutive days in deference to the customs of these divers groups[l].
The limiting factor in all of these arguments is the lack of exact information concerning the festal rituals in the time of Christ. Philo’s statements are authoritative and contemporaneous, but want specific detail. Josephus lived during the Second Temple period, shortly after Christ. But he wrote after the destruction of the Temple, and his terminology seems very loose for a priest. The Talmud was written over a period of many years, beginning shortly after 70 AD, from the perspective of Judaism subsequent to the Second Temple. But the Talmud does not catalogue the differing opinions of Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees, and it does not provide a chronology for the establishment of the various rites. Thus it is often difficult to ascertain which Talmudic ordinances were in practice during the Second Temple, and whether these practices were universally observed by all sects.
But as long as methods exist of reconciling all of the known facts, we don’t need to know which of these theories is exactly correct. Each theory depends upon interpretation of events for which we lack exact knowledge. The timelines which place the Last Supper at the conclusion of the thirteenth are probably every bit as valid as those which place the Last Supper at the conclusion of the fourteenth; it’s just a question of which assumptions you make for the unknown factors. Our purpose is merely to show how the Gospel accounts fit together, and to demonstrate their historicity with regard to known Jewish and Roman customs of the first century AD. So we need only one viable method of reconciliation to pursue our goals. With this in mind, we will proceed on the basis that the Last Supper occurred “On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb”. Since Philo, Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud agree that the lamb was slain on the afternoon of the fourteenth, we will continue to assume that date, notwithstanding the possibility that other variants might have existed. Now John is the least specific of the Gospel writers concerning the time for the Last Supper, stating only:
1It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. 2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. -John 13:1-2
Exactly when is just before the Passover Feast, three days or setting the table? Originally written as a Greek manuscript with no chapters or verses, and little punctuation, could “It was just before the Passover Feast”, or the entirety of verse 1, be placed at the end of chapter 12? Without the detailed references provided by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels, this passage would be very difficult to date. On the evening of the Last Supper, (which was the fifteenth of Nisan once the sun set), Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane for prayer[m]. There he was arrested[n], and subjected to a series of hearings and trials which lasted through the night. Sometime during the morning of the fifteenth (or the fourteenth on the alternate timeline), Jesus was condemned to die by crucifixion. The day of the crucifixion is referred to in all four Gospels as a day of preparation. Since this term bears on the chronology for the crucifixion, it behooves us to investigate its meaning and derivation.
The Greek noun translated “preparation” in reference to the day of crucifixion is παρασκευὴ or paraskeuē. Each of the Synoptic Gospels uses paraskeuē once to denote this specific day. The Gospel of John uses paraskeuē on three occasions to describe this particular day. The noun paraskeuē is used no where else in the Bible. The term originally evolved to describe the day before the weekly Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Since work was forbidden on the Sabbath, meals and other preparations were completed on the preceding Friday. The Modern Greek name for Friday is still παρασκευὴ. Whether this term would also apply to a preparation day prior to a Jewish feast day is debated. The loose variants of terminology applied to the feast days in the first century further complicate issues. Finally, it seems evident that John in particular was offering an abridged version of the Jewish festivals to his gentile audience, in order to avoid the detailed explanations of Jewish religious traditions unnecessary for the practice of Christianity. Let us review all six cases where the word παρασκευὴ occurs in the Christian Bible:
(i.) On the day after the crucifixion, the chief priests approached Pilate to request a guard for Jesus’ tomb, “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate” (Matthew 27:62). No indication is given that would lead anyone to think this was not preparation for the Sabbath.
(ii.) After Jesus’ death on the cross, “42It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:42-43). Here, Mark tells us that this was indeed the preparation before a Sabbath.
(iii.) After Jesus’ death on the cross, late in the afternoon, “It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 23:54). Luke confirms that this was the day before a Sabbath.
(iv.) On the morning of the crucifixion, shortly before Jesus was condemned, “It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.
‘Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews” (John 19:14). Does John mean that this was the preparation day of the Passover, when the lamb was slain? Or does he mean that this was a Friday (παρασκευὴ) that happened to fall in the week of Passover? If John is telling us that this is the preparation day for the Passover feast, this is the only passage in the Bible where παρασκευὴ is so used. When Jesus and his disciples discussed preparing the Passover for the Last Supper (see above), the word translated “prepare” on six occasions was ἑτοιμάζω (Matthew 26:17, 19; Mark 14:12, 16; Luke 22:8, 13). The most likely interpretation of this phrase is that John is speaking in loose terms to a gentile audience of the Friday (παρασκευὴ) that happened to fall in the week of Passover.
(v.) During the crucifixion, the ruling priests approached Pilate to hurry the executions so that they would not interfere with the festival rites, “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down” (John 19:31). In this passage John concurs that the next day was a Sabbath. Technically speaking, the day after the Passover sacrifice, the fifteenth of Nisan is also a type of Sabbath. But John’s language is so vague compared to the explicit explanations given in the Synoptic accounts (see above) that it is hard to imagine that he was making such a technical point. Notice the reference to Jews rather than chief priests in this verse. Now the author of the fourth Gospel assures us that he was welcome in the house of the high priest (John 18:15), so he was well aware of the appropriate titles for offices of the Levitical priesthood. The fact that he calls these ruling priests Jews shows that John no longer identified himself as one of them. And referring to them as Jews offers additional proof that John was glossing over the technical nuances of Judaism as of little interest to his predominantly gentile audience.
(vi.) On the same day, after Jesus’ death, “Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:42). John would obviously not refer to the “Jewish” day of preparation if he was writing to a Jewish audience. If you are still having trouble seeing the looseness of expression in John’s Gospel, go back and compare these three passages to the explanations of festal observances given by Moses, Joshua, Philo, Josephus, the Talmud, and the Synoptic Gospels. Since all four Gospels use the word παρασκευὴ to describe this day and no other, and the Synoptic Gospels are most specific about celebrating the Last Supper Passover on the day the lamb was customarily sacrificed, and John’s various descriptions of the Jewish day of preparation of Passover Week where the next day was to be a special Sabbath seem clearly to be glossing over details unnecessary for a gentile audience, it seems most likely that Jesus was crucified on Friday, Nisan 15.
The only other reference by John to the timeline of the crucifixion occurred when “the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (John 18:28). A common interpretation based upon this and the passage previously discussed in John 19:14 is that the crucifixion occurred on the day on which the lambs were sacrificed for the single day of Passover. But consider John’s language on other occasions, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover” (John 2:13), “one of the Jewish festivals” (John 5:1), “The Jewish Passover Feast was near” (John 6:4) and “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover” (John 11:55). None of the other Gospels ever refer to the “Jewish” Passover. John clearly did not expect his audience to have a deep understanding of the Jewish festival rites. And he never refers to any specifics of the feast. He never mentions sacrificing the lamb, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or the First Fruits Offering. If his purpose was to accurately designate the day of crucifixion in this fashion, all he had to say was “when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb” or “the day before the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread” to be as specific as the three Synoptic Gospels, (ancient testimony indicates that he possessed the Synoptic Gospels when writing the fourth Gospel).
We have observed multiple instances wherein Matthew, Mark, Luke, Josephus, and even the Talmud use the term “Passover” to refer the events of the entire week which technically includes Passover, The Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the First Fruits Offering. So do we really think that John, who was still explaining that these were Jewish festivals, who never refers to any ordinance of this festival week other than Passover and Sabbath, was more technically specific in his terminology that the Synoptic writers? A more reasonable suggestion for John’s assertion that the Jewish leaders… wanted to be able to eat the Passover is that there was another feast associated with the Passover Week, which fell on the fifteenth of Nisan. Going back to Moses, we know that:
6 On the fifteenth day of that month the LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. 7 On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. -Leviticus 23:6-7
In addition, Josephus told us:
The feast of unleavened bread succeeds that of the passover, and falls on the fifteenth day of the month, and continues seven days, wherein they feed on unleavened bread; on every one of which days two bulls are killed, and one ram, and seven lambs. Now these lambs are entirely burnt, besides the kid of the goats which is added to all the rest, for sins; for it is intended as a feast for the priest on every one of those days. -Josephus, Antiquities, III, x, 5
So if the Jewish leaders wanted to eat this feast for the priest on the day of the sacred assembly, do we think that John would stop his Gospel to give a ten page tutorial on exactly how these events were related? Or would he more likely just say the priests wanted to eat a feast of the Passover season? This is the question that determines whether you believe that the crucifixion occurred on the fourteenth or the fifteenth of Nisan[o].
If you believe, after the preceding exercise, that John was definitely saying that the crucifixion took place on the fourteenth of Nisan; then you should investigate the various explanations for why Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover one day early. Understanding these theories will require some research, but it is an exercise not without rewards. The good news is that this interpretation opens up more days of the week for the crucifixion, since the “preparation” could loosely apply to the “Sabbath” of the fifteenth of Nisan, rather than the weekly Sabbath. This provides a great deal of latitude for those who are concerned over whether Jesus rose from the grave within three days, after three days, or on the third weekday after having been entombed[p]. In addition, several Talmudic passages that could possibly refer to Jesus of Nazareth describe his execution on the “Eve of Passover”[q].
9. The Timeline of the Crucifixion
Two Days before the Crucifixion
13 Nisan, Wednesday
(Or 12 Nisan, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday)
The Day before the Crucifixion
14 Nisan, Thursday
(Or 13 Nisan, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday)
* Passover/Last Supper is prepared during day (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13)
* Upper Room is Secured for Dinner
* Passover/Last Supper is begun as sun sets (Matthew 26:20-35; Mark 14:17-31; Luke 22:14-38; John 13:1-17:26)
The Day of the Crucifixion
15 Nisan, Friday
(Or 14 Nisan, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday[r])
* Passover/Last Supper is finished
* Jesus and eleven disciples retire to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives for prayer (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46; John 18:1)
* Jesus is arrested (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-11)
* Jesus spends the entire night in hearings and trials
- Preliminary Hearing before Annas, (who had been high priest from 6-15 AD, father-in-law to Joseph Caiaphas who was current high priest, still addressed as “high priest”, much as a retired General is still addressed as General) (John 18:12-23)
- Hearing before Joseph Caiaphas, (high priest from 18-36 AD), and trial before Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57-27:1; Mark 14:33-15:1; Luke 22:52-71; John 18:24-28)
- First Hearing before Pontius Pilate (Roman procurator of Judea from 26-36 AD) (Matthew 27:2-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-7; John 18:28-19:16)
- Hearing before Herod Antipas (Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, from the death of his father, Herod the Great, until 39 AD) (Luke 23:8-12)
- Final Hearing before Pilate; Condemned to die (Matthew 27:2-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:11-25; John 18:28-19:16)
* Jesus is Crucified (Matthew 27:31-44; Mark 15:20-32; Luke 23:26-43; John 19:16-27)
- Placed on cross at roughly 9:00 AM (our time)
- Darkness begins at noon and lasts until time of death
* Jesus’ Death and Burial (Matthew 27:45-61; Mark 15:33-47; Luke 23:44-56; John 19:28-42)
- Death at roughly 3:00 in afternoon (our time), earthquake, Temple veil rent, dead rise from graves
The Following Sunday and Later Dates
*Many Eyewitness Accounts of Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-20; Luke 24:1-53; John 20:1-21:25; Acts 1:1-11)
1.) Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®: Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All rights reserved throughout the world. Used by permission of International Bible Society.
NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of International Bible Society. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of International Bible Society.
2.) Titus Flavius Josephus:
Works by this author published before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago. Translations or editions published later may be copyrighted. Posthumous works may be copyrighted based on how long they have been published in certain countries and areas.
Citations are from the William Whiston translation published by Thompson & Thomas in 1901. (Whiston’s translation was originally completed in 1736). This version of Whiston is in the public domain and available as a .pdf file on Google books.
A better reading translation (still under copyright) is that of P. L. Maier, ed./trans., Josephus -The Essential Works , Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994
Flavius Josephus at CCEL (Whiston Translation) http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/JOSEPHUS.HTM
Jerome, on Josephus (at CCEL) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.v.iii.xv.html
3.) Philo of Alexandria:
Works by this author published before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago. Translations or editions published later may be copyrighted. Posthumous works may be copyrighted based on how long they have been published in certain countries and areas.
Philo at EarlyJewishWritings (C.D. Yonge Translation) http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html
Philo at WikiSource http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Philo
Jerome, on Philo (at CCEL) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.v.iii.xiii.html
Jerome, on Philo (at WikiSource) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_III/Lives_of_Illustrious_Men/Jerome/Philo_Judaeus
4.) Babylonian Talmud:
I normally use Jacob Nuesner’s translation for Talmudic references, but I have not yet obtained permissions to reproduce his text. The citations in this article are from Michael L. Rodkinson’s translation (incomplete) which is in the public domain. I referred each citation to the Nuesner and Soncino translations to confirm applicability.
The Babylonian Talmud at SacredTexts (Michael L. Rodkinson Translation) http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm
[a] The time for one lunar cycle (i.e. full moon to full moon) is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. Since months do not contain partial days, a month would be either twenty-nine or thirty days long.
[b] See also Exodus 12:1-51; Numbers 9:1-14; Deuteronomy 16:1-8
[c] See also II Kings 23:21-23; II Chronicles 30:1-27; 35:1-19; Ezra 6:19-22; Ezekiel 45:21-24
[d] There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks; and three ambassadors were chosen out of each party that were at variance, who came to Caius. Now one of these ambassadors from the people of Alexandria was Apion, who uttered many blasphemies against the Jews; and, among other things that he said, he charged them with neglecting the honors that belonged to Caesar; for that while all who were subject to the Roman empire built altars and temples to Caius, and in other regards universally received him as they received the gods, these Jews alone thought it a dishonorable thing for them to erect statues in honor of him, as well as to swear by his name. Many of these severe things were said by Apion, by which he hoped to provoke Caius to anger at the Jews, as he was likely to be. But Philo, the principal of the Jewish embassage, a man eminent on all accounts, brother to Alexander the Alabarch, and one not unskillful in philosophy, was ready to betake himself to make his defense against those accusations; but Caius prohibited him, and bid him begone; he was also in such a rage, that it openly appeared he was about to do them some very great mischief. So Philo being thus affronted, went out, and said to those Jews who were about him, that they should be of good courage, since Caius’s words indeed showed anger at them, but in reality had already set God against himself. – Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVIII, viii, 1.
See also Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XLIV (349).
[e] 256,500 lambs were slain in two hours, from 3:00 to 5:00 on the afternoon of the fourteenth, to provide for 2,700,200 people. This record was compiled at the request of Cestius Gallus, Roman Governor of Syria. Josephus also mentions that when Cestius visited Jerusalem upon the approach of the feast of unleavened bread, the people came about him not fewer in number than three millions (Wars, II, xiv, 3). This may or may not be the same occasion.
[f] Other instances of this usage by Josephus include: Ant., XVII, ix, 3; and Wars II, i, 3)
[g] I am very much indebted to Dr. S. Safrai for this insight into the difference of opinion between Pharisees and Sadducees concerning the offering of First Fruits. Please refer to pp 892-893 of Chapter Seventeen, The Temple, in The Jewish People in the First Century, S. Safrai and M.Stern.
[h] Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:1; John 12:1
[i] It certainly seems from the account of the first Passover (Exodus 12:1-50) that the Israelites left Egypt on the same day that the firstborn was slain (v 50), else why did they not have time to leaven their bread (v 29-39)? And Numbers 33:3 indicates “The Israelites set out from Rameses on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover.” If the Israelites left on the fifteenth, then the firstborn was slain at midnight of the fifteenth, and Passover occurred at the sunset separating the fourteenth from the fifteenth. This would support the Jewish tradition.
[j] During Moses’ second celebration of Passover in Numbers 9:1-13, “some of them could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were ceremonially unclean on account of a dead body” (v 6). Moses asked the LORD what should be done in these cases, and a permanent dispensation was granted that those who are unclean or on a journey during the time of Passover may “celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight.” Following this precedent, it is argued that the LORD granted his Son dispensation to celebrate Passover a day early, rather than a month later. Obviously this type of theological interpretation is driven by factors outside the scope of our study, and may be neither proven nor disproved with the available evidence.
[k] The Talmud specifically stipulates that Passover may not fall on a Friday (Sanhedrin 13B), and this is considered in the process of intercalating leap months. But the logic for argument (3.) is that Passover was celebrated a day early at the time of Christ, prior to the Talmudic ruling that eliminated the conflict. The Talmud also claims that Hillel the Elder (30 BC – 10 AD) ruled that the Passover sacrifice overrides the weekly Sabbath restriction (T. Pesahim 4:1-2; T. B. Pesahim 66a-b). But this ruling was attributed to Hillel long after his passing. Samaritan and Karaite tradition does not suspend Sabbath restrictions for the Passover.
[l] For an interesting overview of many of these proposals the reader is referred to Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, The Problem of The Last Supper, pp 76-90, Zondervan, 1978
[m] Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46; John 18:1
[n] Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-11
[o] No matter which timeline you choose, the trial described by the Gospel accounts was not in compliance with standard Jewish law.
[p] Matthew 12:38-40; 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:39-40, 62-64; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29-30; Luke 9:22; 18;33; 24:6-7, 21, 46; John 2:19-22; Acts 10:40; I Corinthians 15:4
[q] Sanhedrin 43a, 67a
[r] Whether Passover could have been held on Friday depends upon whether the Talmudic restriction was already in force at the time of Christ. It also depends on whether the Passover observance was moved to avoid interference with the day of preparation for the weekly Sabbath, as has been proposed.