When was the Last Supper?
Published: 24 April 2011 (GMT+10)
Many people try to discredit the Gospels by pointing out several chronological difficulties where John tends to seem at variance with the Synoptic Gospels, and people have attempted harmonizations of the Gospels since Tatian’s Diatessaron (the first work that tried to put the Gospel events together in one document in chronological order) in the second century. Now a scientist claims to have pinpointed the day of the Last Supper based on historical, astronomical, and biblical research, to Wednesday 1 April, AD 33.1 He argues that this is evidence that the date for the celebration of Easter should be fixed to the first Sunday in April. He argues that Jesus, along with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, followed an old-fashioned calendar adopted by the Jews at the time of Moses (by which reckoning the supper would be the Passover), while John was using the official lunar calendar (by which reckoning the supper would be before the Passover).
This interpretation, however, is far from new, and was promoted most notably around 50 years ago by Annie Jaubert in a book entitled The Date of the Last Supper. Many commentators over the years have suggested that John and the Synoptics were using different calendars. But this is a convoluted explanation for which there is no evidence. Furthermore, it is unnecessary, because an informed reading of the text reveals absolutely no contradiction, without needing to appeal to calendar differences.
There are seven places in the Last Supper/Passion narrative where John has chronological markers that seem to be at variance with the Synoptics. There are a variety of ways that scholars have tried to harmonize the accounts, some better than others. But when read in the context of the first-century world, there is no need to resort to convoluted explanations to harmonize the accounts.
John 13:1 has a chronological marker “before the Passover feast”. The chronological problem occurs when that is taken as a heading to chapters 13–17. But it is just as plausible to take it as an introduction to just the footwashing,2 and this easily resolves any problems of chronology.
The next verse has a textual variant of only a single letter that affects how it is translated. Some texts have γινομένου (ginomenou, the present middle participle), others γενομένου (genomenou, the aorist middle participle). They’re different forms of the same word (γίνομαι, ginomai, to become), but whether it is present or aorist has an important effect on the meaning. δείπνου γινομένου (deipnou ginomenou) means “during supper”, while δείπνου γενομένου (deipnou genomenou) is most often taken as “supper being ended” (cf. KJV, AV), though if it is interpreted as an ingressive aorist, it could mean “supper having been served”. The former is supported by the critical texts (though with a strong minority contesting it, on the basis of the aorist being the ‘harder reading’ and therefore more likely to be changed by a copyist3) based on the strong manuscript evidence.4 But no matter which textual tradition one chooses (and there are respected scholars on both sides), it is possible to read it in such a way that the footwashing takes place directly after the meal had been served.
Many take John 13:27–29 as evidence that the Last Supper actually took place before the Passover, because otherwise the disciples wouldn’t assume that Judas was going out to buy something or give something to the poor, because Jesus presumably wouldn’t have sent Judas out so late, and it is argued that no shops would have remained open in any case. But Carson dismisses these objections:
“These objections are far from convincing. One might wonder, on these premises, why Jesus should send Judas out for purchases for a feast still twenty-four hours away. The next day would have left ample time. It is best to think of this taking place on the night of Passover, 15 Nisan. Judas was sent out (so the disciples thought) to purchase what was needed for the Feast, i.e. not the feast of Passover, but the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the ḥagigah), which began that night and lasted for seven days. The next day, still Friday 15 Nisan, was a high feast day; the following day was Sabbath. It might seem best to make necessary purchases (e.g. more unleavened bread) immediately. Purchases on that Thursday evening were in all likelihood possible, though inconvenient. … Moreover, it was customary to give alms to the poor on Passover night, the temple gates being left open from midnight on, allowing beggars to congregate there … On any night other than Passover it is hard to imagine why the disciples might have thought Jesus was sending Judas out to give something to the poor: the next day would have done just as well.”5
In John 18:28 the Jewish leaders do not enter the Praetorium, the reason being that they would incur ritual uncleanness that would prohibit them from participating in the Passover. But the uncleanness incurred from Gentiles was able to be removed by washing at the end of the day, which would leave them free to eat the Passover, which was after sundown; i.e. on the next day according to Jewish reckoning. Some commentators believe that they wanted to avoid uncleanness from corpses (in rabbinic times, it was believed that Gentiles buried aborted fetuses—i.e. corpses—in their homes, or flushed them down their drains); this would incur a seven-day uncleanness that would prohibit them from participating in the feast.
But the real problem with this verse is that the synoptics clearly portray Jesus as having celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples the night before—if Passover was the night before, why would the Jewish leaders be worried about remaining clean so they could eat the Passover? The answer lies in the fact that Passover could denote the Passover meal, or the Passover meal plus the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. In this interpretation, they simply didn’t want to be excluded from the Passover for a single day.6 Of course, there is intentional irony here—the Jews are legalistically making sure that they don’t contaminate themselves so they can participate in the Passover, while they are killing the One to whom the Passover points and who is its fulfillment.7
John 19:14 says that “it was the day of preparation” when Jesus was crucified. If this is referring to the day before Passover, John could be presenting Jesus as being sent to His execution at about the same time the Passover lambs are being slaughtered,8 which makes a lovely theological picture, but presents the same chronological difficulties alluded to above. “Preparation” can also refer to Friday—in other words, the day of preparation for the Sabbath. So it could be read as “It was Preparation Day of Passover week”—i.e. Friday, in which case John agrees with the Synoptics that Jesus ate the Passover meal on Thursday.9 The same goes for John 19:31 and 19:42.
Other problems with the Passover being on Wednesday
There is no evidence that Jesus followed a different calendar than the other Jews of his day. If He did so, we would expect to find some evidence of that in other places. And we would expect all His disciples to follow the same calendar He did; why would John follow a different calendar?
Also, the lambs were slaughtered on Thursday, not Wednesday. If Jesus and His disciples celebrated the Passover on Wednesday, they could not have celebrated it with a properly sacrificed lamb, as the priests would be unlikely to accommodate any eccentricities in Passover observance.
On Good Friday, we celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which paid for our sins, and Resurrection Day on Sunday recognizes the magnificent reality that He arose from the grave, sealing our salvation. Contentions about chronology shouldn’t detract from this. It can be tempting to refuse to get involved in such debates at all, because ‘who cares when it happened, as long as we believe it happened?’ But when someone attacks the Bible’s account of historical events, it’s usually a pretext for saying that we can’t trust anything it says at all. So we should rejoice in the reality of the Christ’s death and resurrection this Easter weekend, and all the more so that we can trust all of the Gospels’ accounts of it.
Does Easter have pagan origins? (Also covers: Was Christ really crucified on Good Friday?)
- Jesus Christ’s Last Supper “was on a Wednesday”, 18 April 2011, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13114124. Return to text.
- Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 460. Return to text.
- Also, see Carson, p. 469. Return to text.
- Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and others. See B. Metzger and UBS, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), p. 203. Return to text.
- Carson, p. 475, emphasis in original. Also, see Köstenberger, A.J., John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 417. Return to text.
- Carson, p. 589–590. Return to text.
- As in Borchert, G., John 12–21, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), p. 238. Return to text.
- As in Borchert, p. 257. Return to text.
- Köstenberger, p. 537. Return to text.