(Jn. 13:1) Does John contradict the Synoptics regarding the Passover meal?

Critics argue that John’s chronology of the final night of Jesus’ life is contradictory with the Synoptics. That being said, there are also a number of chronological points on which all four gospels agree:

(1) Jesus predicted that he would be raised on the third day (Mt. 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22).

(2) Jesus was laid in the tomb on Friday—the day of preparation—before the Sabbath on Saturday (Mt. 27:62; 28:1; Mk. 15:42; Lk. 23:54, 56; Jn. 19:31, 42).

(3) The women rested on the Sabbath on Saturday (Lk. 23:56), and they went to the tomb on Sunday morning (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1-2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1).

(4) Jesus met his disciples on the road to Emmaus the day he rose from the dead, and they told him, “It is the third day since these things happened” (Lk. 24:21).

(5) All four gospels state that Jesus ate the Last Supper a day before his crucifixion (Mt. 26:20; Mk. 14:17; Lk. 22:14; Jn. 13:2; c.f. 1 Cor. 11:23).

However, there is tension between the Synoptics and John on whether or not the Last Supper was the same as the Passover meal. The Synoptics tell us that the disciples prepared the Passover meal “on the first day of Unleavened Bread” (Mk. 14:12; c.f. Mt. 26:17; Lk. 22:7-8).

But John states that Jesus was crucified before the Passover meal. John tells us that the Jews didn’t enter the Praetorium “so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (Jn. 18:28). He also tells us that Jesus was tried in front of the people on “the day of preparation for the Passover” (Jn. 19:14). This puts his trial a day before Passover—not after it. Thus according to John, Jesus didn’t eat the Passover supper on Thursday night, because Passover hadn’t happened yet.

How do we reconcile these two accounts? Let’s consider several options:

OPTION #1: Jesus had his own personal Passover meal a day early.

Advocates of this view surmise that maybe Jesus had a personal Passover meal with his disciples early, while this wasn’t really according to the proper Jewish calendar.

However, this view isn’t tenable, because the Passover lamb had to be slaughtered in the Temple by the priest. Jesus couldn’t have gotten a lamb earlier than the other people. He needed to get the Paschal lamb along with everyone else. This wouldn’t solve the problem before us.

OPTION #2: The Qumran calendar places the Passover on Tuesday.

Advocates of this view argue that the Qumran calendar places the Passover early (on Tuesday), while the official Jewish calendar places it later.

However, interpreting Jesus’ actions in light of the practices of the Qumran community is historically and biblically bizarre. Hoehner writes, “There is no indication that Jesus was really associated with or ministered to the Qumran community and certainly no indication in the Gospels to support the conclusion that Jesus ever followed a Qumran calendar.”[1] We reject this view.

OPTION #3: The Last Supper was not the Passover meal. It was a different meal.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?” (Mt. 26:17). In fact, the Synoptics make this claim this repeatedly (Mt. 26:17, 18, 19; Mk. 14:1, 12, 14, 16; Lk. 22:1, 7, 8, 13, 15). However, advocates of this view argue that none of the gospels explicitly state that the disciples ate the Passover lamb, which was central to the Passover feast. Instead, “the Passover” could refer to the general meal.

What was “the first day of Unleavened Bread”? was normally designated as the 15th of Nisan. However, the Passover lambs were sacrificed before this time, and “there is some evidence in the rabbinical literature, however, that the day on which the paschal lambs were sacrificed (the 14th of Nisan) was sometimes loosely designated ‘the first day of Unleavened Bread.’”[2]

Did Jesus eat the Passover meal with his disciples for the Last Supper? This seems likely. First, the meal needed to be eaten at night (Mk. 14:17; Ex. 12:8) and inside the city of Jerusalem (M. Pesachim VII. 9). Second, the Passover “was the one occasion when the serving of a dish preceded the breaking of bread.”[3] This is exactly what Jesus does (Mk. 14:18-20, 22). Third, wine was very common at the Passover (M. Pesachim X. 1). Thus, Lane concludes, “The cumulative evidence supports the claim made in verses 12, 14 and 16 that the disciples prepared a Passover meal and that the external forms of the Passover were observed at the meal itself.”[4]

The “Passover” (the pesach) doesn’t necessarily refer to the paschal lamb, but to “the chagigah, the paschal sacrifices (lambs, kids, bulls) which were offered throughout the festival week.”[5] The “Passover” refers to the chagigah in the OT as well (Deut. 16:2; 2 Chron. 35:7). If Passover has this range of meaning, then this would resolve the difficulty. Carson notes that Josephus uses pascha to refer to the entire feast of unleavened bread (Antiquities of the Jews, XIV, 21 [ii.1]; cf. XVII, 213 [ix.3], Jewish War II, 10 [i.3]). Moreover, Luke 22:1 uses it to refer to the entire feast—not just the meal (“the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching”). We find this view very plausible.

OPTION #4: There were two calendars for the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

We hold to this final view. It states that the Jews celebrated the Passover on two consecutive days. Hoehner writes, “The Pharisees celebrated the Passover immediately (Nisan 13/14) while the Sadducees waited until the usual time (i.e., Nisan 14/15).”[6] Jesus celebrated the Passover on Thursday night according to the Pharisaic calendar, which is in line with the Synoptics. But John was going off of the Sadducean calendar, when he wrote his gospel, because he was focusing on Jesus’ enemies.

Since there were so many people to feed, it would be virtually impossible for the priests to sacrifice enough lambs in a 24 hour period. Josephus estimates that about a quarter million lambs were slaughtered during the Passover.[7] Modern historians believe that Josephus was clearly exaggerating these numbers. It would be difficult for an army with guns and grenades to kill that many sheep, let alone a group of priests! However, modern historians estimate that anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 people were in Jerusalem during Passover.[8] This would be a massive amount of people to feed with the sacrificed sheep.

By spreading this out over two days, this would help the priests perform the sacrifices. Thus Hoehner explains, “There arose the custom where the Galileans slew their lambs on Nisan 13, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted eight days whereas the Judeans celebrated on Nisan 14.”[9] Hoehner also argues that the Galileans/Pharisees could have used a different way of reckoning the day from the Judeans/Sadducees. He writes, “It is thought that the Galileans used a different method of reckoning the Passover than the Judeans. The Galileans and Pharisees used the sunrise-to-sunrise reckoning whereas the Judeans and Sadducees used the sunset-to-sunset reckoning.”[10] We can express these two groups succinctly:

The Galilean Jews reckoned the day from sunrise-to-sunrise. This made the Last Supper a Passover meal. They had the Paschal lamb slaughtered in the afternoon on Thursday, Nisan 14. Carson writes, “The slaughter normally took place between 3.00 p.m. and 5.00 p.m. on 14 Nisan, falling on a Thursday in the year in question; Passover itself began about 6.00 p.m. on the same Thursday, the beginning of 15 Nisan.”[11]

The Judean Jews reckoned the day from sunset-to-sunset. They would not have considered the Last Supper a Passover meal. They had their Paschal lamb slaughtered on Friday afternoon, Nisan 15. Under this calendar system, Jesus was eating the Passover meal, when his enemies were conspiring to arrest him. In fact, they arrested him the night before.

The corporate sacrifice of a burnt offering for the nation was done at 3 pm on Passover, according to the Judean calendar. This means that when the priest was slaying the Paschal lamb, Jesus was at that very moment yelling “tetelestai” from the Cross! John must have been calling attention to this fact by focusing on the Sadducean calendar.

[1] Hoehner, Harold W. Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1977. 81.

[2] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 497). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 497). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[4] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (pp. 497–498). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[5] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 498). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[6] Hoehner, Harold W. Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1977. 82.

[7] Josephus writes, “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 that were pure and holy.” Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 6.9.3.

[8] E.P. Sanders writes, “No one believes the largest of these figures.” Sanders, E.P. Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. p. 126. He gives the estimate listed above. Joachim Jeremias places the number around 155,000 people: 30,000 residents and 125,000 pilgrims. Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. New York: Scribner, 1966. 42.

[9] Hoehner, Harold W. Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1977. 82.

[10] Hoehner, Harold W. Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1977. 86.

[11] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.