Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When was the Last Supper: Wednesday or Thursday?

Tradition has long held that Jesus ate what we call the "Last Supper" on a Thursday, what we call Maunday Thursday or Holy Thursday. Indeed, three of the gospels suggest this to be the day. Mark 14:12-16 sets the stage by noting that Jesus' last meal with his disciples was a passover meal (14:12). After Jesus dies the next day, we read in 15:42 that "it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath, which of course is a Saturday. This easily leads to the conclusion that Jesus was executed on a Friday and thus ate the last supper the Thursday evening before. This schedule is also followed in Matthew (26:17-19; 28:1) and Luke (22:7-15, 23:54).

John's Gospel, however, does not follow this schedule. Instead the last supper is eaten the night before the Passover (John 13:1) and then Jesus is executed on the "day of preparation" for the Passover meal (18:28; 19:31).

New Testament scholars have long debated which, if any, of the schedules is correct. Did Jesus die before or after the Passover meal? Was the last supper on a Wednesday or a Thursday? The apostle Paul is of little help here since although he connects the death of Jesus with Passover in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, he makes no mention of Passover when talking about the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.

In a recent recorded interview on the BBC Colin Humphreys of Cambridge University presents one possible solution. In a new book, The Mystery of the Last Supper, Humphreys suggests that the apparent discrepancy between the synoptic gospels and John can be explained by examining different calendars that existed at the time of Jesus. Humphreys claims that the synoptic authors used an older Egyptian calendar that was handed down from Moses. John, on the other hand, was using a newer calendar. What this means is, that, following John's new calendar chronology, Jesus did eat the Passover, but did it a day earlier, on Wednesday, using the old style calendar.

This is not an entirely new suggestion. Some have suggested that John was using the Essene calendar which was a solar calendar while Mark and the synoptics followed the more common lunar calendar. Since the solar calendar only has 364 days, some have suggested that it why there is an apparent one day discrepancy between John and the synoptics. Adherents to this suggestion include Mile Annie Jaubert (La date) and Bargil Pixner.

I commend Humphreys and others who so diligently work at interpreting the scriptures. It is difficult at times to know what to make of some of the incongruities that are so evident between the four gospels. I think that when an answer from history or archaeology is forthcoming we should use those resources to help us to better understand the gospels. But I don't think this is the case here.

A more plausible, and indeed easier, solution might be to suggest that John has purposely altered the details in his gospel for theological rather than historical reasons. By having Jesus' execution take place on the "day of preparation" John is able to more fully portray him as the Lamb of God. This is how Jesus is identified in 1:29 and by having Jesus die the day before Passover John's Jesus dies at the same time that the passover lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for the upcoming feast. Thus in John, Jesus is the ultimate expression of what it means to be the slaughtered lamb of God. This is probably also the reason why John does not have an institution of the "Lord's Supper" at the last supper. Jesus is not eating passover with them, he is about to become Passover for them.

So in the end I think that, to the degree we can know, Thursday is still our best day for identifying when Jesus ate his last supper. And I think John knew exactly what he was doing when he altered the details to fit his theology. The challenge for us in this modern age is to appreciate what John did rather than try to make his gospel fit our 21st century ideas of what it means to "write history."





16 comments:

  1. If you have time, perhaps you could explain why you think your explanation is more plausible than that of Humphreys. What are the weaknesses of his argument (I have not read it). Also, it would be useful if you could substantiate your assertion that first century ideas of what it means to write history were different from ours.

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  2. I think in EP Sanders' -The Historical Figure of Jesus-, the author notes that the Johannine dating is probably more historically likely, since there was no year within the timeframe that Jesus would have been operating when the Passover fell on a Friday. Without having the book in front of me, I believe he said in the year 27, the Day of Preparation did fall on a Friday, thus being in line with John's Gospel.

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  3. I think the question you need to ask is whether or not you believe the bible to be 100% truth. Did John really alter the dates to make a better story? Are you kidding?
    When there's something we don't understand about the bible, the last thing we do is start tearing down the authors. Conclude that we might not know it all, and search, as Humphrey's, for a possible insight.

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  4. Daniel,

    I am not sure how believing in the truth of the Bible and suggesting that John altered the dates are incompatible. Is this not the same author who has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry rather than the end as does the synoptics? This seems to suggest the John has no problem with rearranging details to make a theological point. The problem, I would submit, is when we are not happy that an author does things that we would not consider a proper way of doing history.

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    1. Great insight understanding the human condition. You're closer to the truth then you realize.

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  5. Is this another example of theological enhancement?

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  6. As to the Passion chronology, his otherwise excellent argument is regrettably marred when he stayed with a traditional idea of Friday crucifixion in A.D. 33.

    Yes, the Lord's last meal could not have eaten in the evening before the crucifixion. It was not a passover meal, either. It was with common bread, not unleavened bread.

    The crucifixion was in A.D. 30 on Nisan 14 (the Passover preparation day). It was Thursday.

    The Lord's last meal was on Nisan 13 Tuesday evening (not on Wednesday evening). After His midnight arrest, the daytime of Wednesday (Nisan 13) was occupied by Yeshua vs. Sanhedrin. After sunset (with Nisan 14 begun) the evening time was occupied Yeshua vs. Pilate. After midnight sentencing (Jn 19:14 'sixth hour' = 12 o'clock - most wrongly understood as noontime), they led Him to Golgotha in the morning for crucifixion (9 A.M. to 3 P.M. Nisan 14 Thursday) and entombed before the sunset. On Nisan 15, the evening meal after sunset was the Passover meal as the Judean authorities celebrated with unleavened bread.

    BTW, Prof. Colin Humphreys is the author of the The Miracles of Exodus which provides very convincing arguments for the true 'Red Sea' crossing site (acutually 'Sea of reeds') to be at the top of the gulf of Aquaba and, for the real Mt Sinai to be in the Northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia. The genuine site is likely to be Jabal Al Lawz which was explored ( www.sinaimount.com ), rather than his idea of Mount Bedr (about 90 miles further south) (not explored).

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    1. If this is the true account, it makes the story even more ugly and shows the relentless vengeance of breadth that the Pharisees and Sadducess held; they took the Messiah, and tried him illegally, found him guilty of truly nothing, and went home that night, and ate with theirs families and gave thanks to God, that the angel of Death PASSED over Themselves....whoa...after killing The Elijah?!

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  7. Beth,

    Yes, this would another example.

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  8. The problem with gentiles reckoning the timing of Yeshua's death and resurrection is they don't read the Torah and find out what constitutes a Shabbat (sabbath). During the week of Passover there are three Sabbaths. The day of Passover, the next day is the Feast of Unleaven bread and then the weekly Shabbat. Anytime God calls a Holy day a day of rest and to have a Holy convocation it is a Shabbat, day of rest. If we read "In the beginning" God's timing is that the day begins at sundown and ends at sundown. so If Yeshua rose on the third day he did not wait until sunrise on the third day but arose just after sundown on the third day which would have been a Saturday evening. So his death would have been on Thursday afternoon just before sundown and you count from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday as one day, sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday as day two and he rose right after sundown on the third day which would be Saturday evening.

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    1. "Just as Jonah spent 3 WHOLE days, and 3 WHOLE nights in the Belly of the fish, the son of Man will spend in the ground."

      Thursday night to Friday Morning:
      1 Night
      Friday Night to Saturday Morning:
      2 nights & 1 Day
      Saturday Night to Sunday Morning:
      3 nights & 2 days.
      Sunday Sun-down = The 3rd whole day.

      Rising just before Sunday Night/Monday Morning.

      Signifying the fact He had risen before the women got to the tomb.

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  9. Old post but always an interesting topic. My thoughts, for what they're worth:
    Re John changing the details for theological reasons: it's the same event - unless Jesus did the same cleansing a couple of times - but John placed the event at the start of his account for a theological purpose; however, he didn't change the details of the cleansing, saying, for example, that it happened at the Mount of Olives. I think this is what Daniel Elliott understood you (JB) to be saying: that John deliberately lied about the date when the Final Supper took place.

    Choosing when to relate an event - like the cleansing of the Temple - for your purpose is okay; as long as we understand that St John is not intending to say: I'm writing these events in the order they happened. (It's like Heiko Oberman's excellent biography of Luther: he relates the events of Luther's life in terms of their political, religious or personal significance.) But changing the details of an event - essentially lying so the story fits your purpose - is not okay. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ: so how would John's purpose - so that people would believe that Jesus is the Son of God - be served by lying?

    Second, Kathleen Marion makes a good, and correct, point. But Kathleen, please don't lump Gentiles in with...er, Gentiles. Not all of us don't study the TaNaK. :)

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  10. Does it really matter? I mean it was a very long time ago... 2000 years I believe. Does it mater if it's a day or two out?

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  11. You are suggesting that the Apostle John lied or deceived all who read His Gospel account. This is reprehensible to me, sir. I do not believe for one minute that John contrived his Gospel for the sake of anything. I think this has all to do with the calender and the fact that this was a High Feast week which means TWO Sabbaths, not just the Passover celebration. I believe that Jesus and His disciples had the first celebration of what we know as the Lords Supper the evening before the Passover, a Wednesday evening, and He was illegally tried that night and the next day He was crucified, the Day of the killing of the lambs for Passover; then, by 3:00 PM, he was dead and His Body removed from the cross and placed in the tomb. This means He was in the tomb on Thursday, the first day, and Thursday night, the first night; then Friday and Friday night day 2 and night 2; then Saturday, day 3 and Saturday night the third night...then He was raised on the First Day of the week, as Scripture teaches. The Sabbath Day that they were preparing for was the High Sabbath, after that day, the women bought their spices, and rested on the SEVENTH day Sabbath and went to the tomb early on the First Day of the Week as Scripture says.

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    1. No, sir, I am not suggesting that he lied or was deceptive. What I am saying is that he arranged his material to make a theological point. Something we see the evangelists do many times.

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  12. I did an in-depth study on what day of the week Jesus ate the Last Supper. However I came at it from a different angle, by checking to see what days could not have been the weekly Sabbath, or the High Holy Sabbath of the Passover, by the events that were occurring. In this manner there are two days, 7 days apart, when nothing was happening or it was a weekly Sabbath. Therefore I believe the Last Supper occurred on a Thursday. More info available in my article.

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