Close readers of the Gospels understand that John’s timeline of the Last Supper seems to differ from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The Synoptics indicate that the disciples prepared the Passover meal “on the first day of Unleavened Bread,” or Thursday night (Mark 14:12; see also Matt. 26:17; Luke 22:7). Judas went out to betray Him that evening, and Jesus was arrested in the night. He was then crucified on Friday. He was in the grave until Sunday morning, on which day He was raised from the dead.
Yet John says this after the Last Supper had occurred, when the Jews went to Pilate’s headquarters: “They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (John 18:28). He then later says, after Jesus was crucified, that “it was the day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14). This means that Jesus’ arrest and trial would have happened before Passover, unlike in the Synoptics, where Jesus’ arrest and trial happened after Passover.
Is this a contradiction? It seems that way on first reading. Various solutions have been offered to resolve this seeming contradiction. Some have argued that Jesus celebrated the Passover according to a different calendar in use at this time, such as according to a special Pharisaic calendar. Yet there is little evidence in the Gospels or historical records to validate such a view. Others have argued that Jesus wasn’t celebrating a Passover meal, but rather a different but related festival meal. The trouble with this argument is that one is left with the opposite problem — John’s chronology makes sense, but the Synoptics’ chronology doesn’t. The plain meaning of the synoptic Gospels indicates that Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal.
There is a final view that seems most biblically justified and understandable to me, but it requires some explanation. The first thing to understand is that Passover was simply a meal that began on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which went for several days. Western Christians don’t often celebrate multiday holidays, but many in other cultures do. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a week-long feast. It was one of several national celebrations for the Jews. It reminded them of their liberation from Egypt and God’s preservation of His people in the wilderness years. Passover kicked it all off, just like the original Passover kicked off Israel’s liberation from Egypt and led to the wilderness years and the promised land.
The second thing to understand is that because Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were so closely related — both in time and theme — their titles were sometimes used interchangeably. For example, Luke says that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover” (Luke 22:1). Though technically Passover was a single meal, Luke here refers to the Passover as the whole feast or festival. Mark does something similar, but in reverse. He says that on “the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?’ ”(Mark 14:12). Technically speaking, Mark was referring to the first day of Unleavened Bread a day early here, because Passover lambs were actually slaughtered before the Passover meal, which marked the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Did Mark commit an error by saying that the Feast of Unleavened Bread began earlier than it did? No. Again, in their context, there was some equivocation between the day on which the Passover lambs were slaughtered, Passover itself, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Even Josephus, an ancient historian of this period, exhibits some of this same ambiguity when he describes the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover.1
Based on the two points above, there is a third thing we should understand: John sometimes uses the word “Passover” to refer to other events occurring during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. When he refers to the Jews not wanting to be defiled to “eat the Passover” in John 18:28, it’s likely that he is referring to festival offerings and meals that the Jews would have eaten on Saturday — the Sabbath — as part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. He was referring more broadly to what we might call the “Passover festival,” not simply the Passover meal. That Saturday would have been a “high Sabbath,” or a Sabbath that occurred on a festival day. This made the Sabbath very special indeed, and it would have been understandable that the Jews didn’t want to defile themselves so they could continue participating in further Passover festivities and rituals. Those activities, by the way, involved important meals that the chief priests and rulers would have had to eat and oversee.
This interchangeability regarding John’s use of the word “Passover” also resolves the apparent contradiction in John 19:14, where John says it was the “day of Preparation of the Passover.” This “day of Preparation” language is indicative of preparation for a Sabbath. For example, Mark 15:42 explains that the “day of Preparation” was “the day before the Sabbath” so that readers will understand what he means. If John is using the word “Passover” to mean the “Passover Festival” or the “Feast of Unleavened Bread,” then this verse is easily understood to mean that it was the day during this celebration on which the Jews would prepare for the Sabbath. John is not contradicting the Synoptics here; rather, he is affirming them. He is saying that Jesus died on Friday — the day of Preparation — and was in the grave Friday night until Sunday morning.
It’s likely the case that John’s original audience saw no contradiction between John’s Last Supper chronology and the chronology of the other Gospels because they understood the way terms were used interchangeably in their day. Unfortunately, for modern readers who are unaware of the context, John’s language can sometimes be misunderstood to represent a different chronology than the Synoptics. This misunderstanding can be cleared up quickly when we examine the historical context and other biblical passages both in John and in the other Gospels. It does require some explanation, but sometimes texts require us to dig deeper to really understand what they’re saying. That’s not just true of the Bible, but of any form of literature or communication.
1. See Barry Smith’s thorough study of these issues: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/wtj/chronology_smith.pdf.↩
This article was first published in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier
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Rev. Thomas Brewer is vice president of publishing and senior associate editor of Tabletalk magazine. He is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.