Explore
Online premiere of Dismantled: A Scientific Deconstruction of the Theory of Evolution
Watch for free here between 12 AM October 9th - 11:59 PM October 11th EDT!

When was the Last Supper?

by

First published: 24 April 2011 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 9 April 2020 (GMT+10)
Last supper
Credit: Lost Seed

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).

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.

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.

‘Problem’ texts

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Related questions:

Why was the incarnation necessary?

Is it important to believe in the divinity of Jesus?

Does Easter have pagan origins? (Also covers: Was Christ really crucified on Good Friday?)

How does Jesus resurrection guarantee that believers will also be raised?

How can Jesus sacrifice save me?

References

  1. 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.
  2. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 460. Return to text.
  3. Also, see Carson, p. 469. Return to text.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Carson, p. 589–590. Return to text.
  7. As in Borchert, G., John 12–21, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), p. 238. Return to text.
  8. As in Borchert, p. 257. Return to text.
  9. Köstenberger, p. 537. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Foolish Faith
by Judah Etinger
US $11.00
Soft Cover
By This Name
by John R Cross
US $15.00
Soft Cover
Ha-Mashiach
by Dr Arnold G Fruchtenbaum
US $20.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

Mick S.
Thanks Lita, for the work you and CMI do. I've often wondered about the day of the crucifixion. Jesus says he'd be in the earth 3 days and 3 nights, the same as Jonah (Jonah 1:17 and Mat 12:40). If we know resurrection was on the Sunday (first day of the week), then this would mean the crucifixion was on Thursday. Otherwise Jonah, as a 'type', got a raw deal. Could you please comment? Thanks
Don Batten
Thanks for your appreciation, which we all appreciate!
The question of which day Jesus was crucified on is dealt with in detail here: Was Jesus crucified on Good Friday?
Deon B.
If Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose early on Sunday how do you explain Jesus' own words in Mathew 12 v 40. Three days and three nights remain just that?
Don Batten
Please note the "Related questions" box, which recommends:
Does Easter have pagan origins? This also covers: Was Christ really crucified on Good Friday? (including the meaning of three days and three nights)
Bill P.
For TRUE believers of The Gospel of Christ this whole week is a very important one for us to meditate on. As believers we know that Christ fulfilled ALL Scripture to the letter, even the smallest of details that were foretold about HIS first coming, HIS life, HIS death, and HIS resurrection. I'm in awe of these things because here is The Creator of heaven and earth "willingly" allowing Himself to become a servant to all mankind to pay the required price for sin on our behalf. HE would have been within HIS rights to just say, away w/ALL of you. Instead HE revealed HIS love, grace, and mercy by taking our sin and paying the price. This is a beautiful thing that HE did putting HIS plan of salvation in place even before HE created the heavens and the earth ("The Lamb slain before the foundations of the world"). It will take an eternity to comprehend the magnitude of what HE did for the world, for ALL who believe in HIM.
Two thousand yrs. ago shortly after these historical events took place this unbelieving world (kings, nations, empires, armies, and the so-called wise) have been trying to prove GOD to be a liar. They have been using the oldest trick in the book (the same trick that the evil one used in "The Garden") by twisting the Word of God anyway they can to cause doubt in the heart of the believer and deceive those who might be seeking GOD w/all their heart. YET after all of these yrs. The Word of God still stands strong, while they have all passed away into the dust.
Soon (I believe) the day will be here when their earthly wisdom will end, and their mouths will be abruptly closed forever. They will try until the very end, BUT will be left standing there in shame.
"Who is like You Lord, from everlasting to everlasting You are GOD". HE is worthy of praise forever, AMEN.
Doug B.
I think our everyday culture tends to make us forget that according to Scripture, “Evening and morning were the first day.” Days begin and end at sunset, not at midnight or sunrise. Messiah celebrated the Passover seder at sundown, the beginning of the sixth day of the week. Messiah was executed and buried on that same sixth day, before the next sundown which initiated the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. Thank you for all you do.
Matthew B.
For me, the question is whether Jesus ate the Last Supper with the disciples the evening before the other Jews ate the Passover, or whether they ate it the same evening as the other Jews were eating the Passover. If one reads Matthew 26:17-20, it is very clear that the Last Supper was when they were expected to eat the Passover. Mark 14:12-17 also makes it clear that the Last Supper was eaten on the day that the Passover lambs were killed. Luke 22:7-15 says the same; indeed, Jesus called the Last Supper a Passover in v. 15. John 13:1 comes between the account of days previous to the Last Supper and the Last Supper itself. It does not need to mean that the whole Last Supper came before the Passover the next day. Then what about John 18:28, where the priests wanted to eat the Passover the next evening? If one begins with the assumption that these details are recorded accurately, as we do, this can be reconciled. Obviously the "Passover" that Jesus had celebrated the previous evening was a day earlier than the "Passover" that the priests wanted to celebrate that afternoon. Like you pointed out, this was probably another one of the several feasts in the Passover week. Do any scholars of Jewish history believe that Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover (Matt. 26:19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:15) a day early? That is what advocates of an "early" Last Supper are saying, but there is a problem: it does not square with God's Law. The Law gave no provision to eat the Passover a day early. It was to be killed on the 14th day of the first month and no other day. If that was missed for good reason, it could be done on the 14th day of the second month (Num. 9:11). Otherwise, it was Nisan 14 and none other, on the pain of death (Num. 9:13). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah p 806-7
David J.
Two above me mentioned the problem of Jesus saying He will be dead for three days and three nights (Mt 12:40) . Batten answered with the link https://creation.com/easter-and-good-friday-questions-and-answers#friday. This article however, only shows the Jews could count partial days as days, which makes sense. But counting partial days and nights does not lead to 3 nights, given friday as the day of crucifixation. So the article has not solved the problem to satisfaction. Also, regarding your statement in this article: "And we would expect all His disciples to follow the same calendar He did; why would John follow a different calendar?" But the disciples could all follow the same calendar in their own lives, but still use a different one when composing the gospels. This because their readers may only be familiar enough with the newer official calender and not the old one.
Lita Cosner
David, "three days and three nights" was an idiomatic way of saying it. "Third day" is the more precise way of saying it. We see both in the Gospels.
David B.
Thanks for this, and the pointer to the article explaining the three days. However, comments on that article are now closed so I’m having to ask here - whilst you have explained the three days, what about the (very explicit) three nights, something which I have never understood. Friday late afternoon - Friday night - Saturday - Saturday night - Sunday early morning is indeed three days, but can only be construed as two nights surely? Though an exactly similar problem occurs if the crucifixion was on Thursday - there are now three nights but four days!
Lita Cosner
"Three days and three nights" was an idiomatic way of speaking. "Third day" is more precise. Both are used in the Gospels.
Don C.
Donald Grey Barnhouse thought the Friday crucifixion date would leave no time acceptable to the Jews to have an audience with Pilate requesting a guard lest the disciples steal the body. He thought the crucifixion was on a Wednesday or Thursday.
If it were on Friday, the next day would be the High Sabbath. The Jews would not profane the Sabbath by a meeting with
the hated Romans. So the request for a guard had to be before then.
RONALD M.
Several have problems with three days and three nights. It was already shown that any part of a day or night was considered a day. Esther 4:15 - 5:1 also shows this. In the Greek of the NT, the common "on the third day" te trite hemera, or just te trite, was an idiom that meant the day after tomorrow. Note, for example, Luke’s references to the third day.
"on the third day" te trite hemera Luke 9:22
"on the third day" te trite Luke 13:32
"on the third day" te hemera te trite Luke 18:33
"on the third day" te trite hemera Luke 24:7
"the third day" triten tauten hemeran Luke 24:21
"on the third day" te trite hemera Luke 24:46

Luke 13:32 clearly shows that “on the third day” meant the day after tomorrow.
“Today” was the first day, “tomorrow” was the second day, and then came “the third day.”

Luke 24:21 clearly shows that late on Sunday (see 24:1ff.) was the third day. Sunday was the third day, Saturday was the second day, and Friday was the first day. Thursday would have been the fourth day and Wednesday would have been the fifth day.
Matthew B.
"The third day" appears 12 times; "three days and three nights" once. An alleged discrepancy.
Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch about 70 years after the time of Christ and he was a student of the apostle John. In the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, in the Epistle of Igantius to the Trallians, we read:
"On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen. At the sixth hour, He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord's day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoke by Himself, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mat. 12:40). The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord's day contains the resurrection.""
It looks like this early writer saw no conflict between the verse about 3 days and 3 nights and a Friday crucifixion. If we understand the phrase in Mat. 12:40 as one unit referring to three days (parts of three days including not only the daylight but the night as well), then the difficulty would disappear for us too. Even if this letter was possibly edited 200 or 300 years later, it still shows that in the first several centuries of the Early Church, they 1) believed that Christ was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday from tradition, not necessarily only from the Bible, and 2) they did not see the verse about 3 days and 3 nights as demanding a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion. They saw no contradiction between the two statements.
Nathanael L.
Thank you for this useful article with its very elegant potential solution. I did some research for my house group on this issue. I do think this article has unfairly sweepingly dismissed the celebration on different days option. Granted the evidence for different calendars is decidedly flimsy, but there are other options. For instance there is evidence from the Talmud and Mishnah (admittedly two sources difficult to interpret on multiple levels) suggesting that a) the Temple authorities turned a blind eye to people celebrating a day early by calling their lamb sacrifice something else, and b) the apparent custom of the diaspora and possibly Galileans celebrating on a different day, plus c) the apparent Galilean custom of holding a Pre Passover lambless Seder the night before, whilst then fasting 24 hours before Passover proper, the original meal being called, intriguingly and tantalisingly, the Last Supper. Definitely food for thought. Thanks again.
Lita Cosner
Thanks Nathanael. I am aware of many different theories for different days of crucifixion, but this was not intended to be a thorough survey of the different options, but an explanation of what I believe to be the best solution.
Nathanael L.
Just to clarify, my comments weren't in relation to claims that Jesus was crucified on a different day of the week to the traditional Good Friday, but possible explanations for the apparent different chronologies of John and the Synoptics.

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.