CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

After two posts worth (Part 1 and Part 2) of carefully sifting the data, we arrived at the standard conclusion that pretty much everyone goes with: Jesus held the Last Supper as a Passover meal on Thursday night; and was executed and buried Friday. (Which is "Good Friday" only if, and only because, Jesus was raised to life again sometime between sunset Saturday and dawn Sunday. But this is a historical analysis series not a theological one.)

Sure, GosMatt and (to a lesser extent) GosMark have some oddities in the Greek that can cause some problems, but GosLuke's language is far more specific; and even taken by themselves, GosMatt and GosMark independently add up to that timing schedule once the narrative details are thoroughly accounted for. So GosLuke isn't simply settling things one way that could have meant something else in the other two Synoptic Gospels, just clarifying what the other two Gospels added up to after all.

Soooooo.... where's the problem? Why do even conservative Christian scholars sometimes talk like the question of the day when Jesus died is in doubt?

-----oh, wait. We're still missing one of the canonical Gospels.

Yep, factoring GosJohn into the account leads to most of the trouble. Click on the jump to see why!



The problem isn't that GosJohn's timing is vague or mythically symbolic or anything like that. The Gospel According to John has the largest proportion of clear time/space narrative cues of all four canonicals! So when it doesn't seem to add up with the Synoptics, that leads to questions not only of which account we ought to follow, but to what extent any or all of them are historically unreliable.

Which is not to say that GosJohn doesn't have some timing vagueries of its own. John (unlike Matthew and Mark) is very specific that Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus six days before the Passover, and that His triumphal entry into Jerusalem happened the next day. (12:1-19) But GosJohn has nothing else to say about any of the other pre-Supper events of that week; and John's one unique contribution (12:20-50), a scene that occurs when certain Greeks arriving in town to worship at the Passover want to meet Jesus (but which has nothing much to do with them after), has no timing cues at all. Or spatial cues for that matter -- does it happen in the Temple, outside the Temple, in Jerusalem, outside Jerusalem? What relation should or does it have to any of the sequence of events set up in the Synoptics during that week? Who knows? I myself (in The King of Stories, which can be found here at the Cadre) put the scene in the streets of Jerusalem on Thursday before the Last Supper and after Jesus had departed the Temple Wednesday afternoon. But that's only because I had an empty plot slot for what Jesus was doing Thursday before the Last Supper, not because the text indicates this is where the scene is supposed to go. (The one point in this scene that seems to connect to anything in the Synoptics at all, however, is 12:27, which is rather similar to the prayer in Gethsemane, although the setting is clearly very different. On that basis alone it could be argued to fit the day before His arrest in Gethsemane later that night, but strictly speaking the scene could just have easily taken place Monday night in Bethany, although due to the presence of crowds in the scene it wouldn't be privately indoors.)

Anyway, when GosJohn picks up specific timing cues again, at the start of what we call chapter 13, the first thing John says out of the gate is {pro de tês heortês tou pascha}, "Now before the feast of the Passover"; and John isn't doing this to set up a scene where Jesus answers His disciples concerns about whether arrangements have been made for celebrating it yet or if not should they be doing so now (rather too late in the week to secure any decently large enough private room in the city!) No, John is setting up the Last Supper scene itself! Which John then goes on, unlike the Synoptics, never to call a Passover supper! In fact John doesn't mention anything that might feasibly point to this being a Passover service at all. Yet it's still obviously supposed to be the same scene in the Synoptics: Jesus laments that Judas will betray Him, and sets up the sign pointing to the traitor (which has extra meaning of honor to Judas if this is a Passover service by the way), and prophecies that Peter will also deny Him and that the disciples will be scattered; and there isn't another meal or day later, this is it! -- Jesus leaves the table (after what is called the Final Discourse) and goes to Gethsemane that same night to be arrested (with clear time/space cues), and He's tried before Pilate the next day and crucified and buried that same day.

So, if this all happens before the feast of the Passover, when exactly is the Passover supposed to be?! -- because on the face of it, the Synoptics, especially GosLuke, seemed to be saying the Passover holiday was that night!

Yet John is quite clear further on that the Passover holiday hasn't happened yet on the day Jesus is tried and executed. When Jesus is led into the Praetorium from Caiphas at 18:28 (although John doesn't actually mention the trial before Caiaphas but only a meeting with Annas the father-in-law of Caiaphas and still the proper high priest aside from Roman assignment, so this phrase means John knows about the trial before Caiaphas but is skipping over it), he specifically says that the chief priests don't want to go into the governor's residence because they don't want to be ritually defiled (by entering a pagan's house) before they have eaten the Passover! So the main Passover meal hasn't been celebrated and eaten yet!--GosJohn is clearly saying that the holiday itself wasn't the night of the Last Supper!

(Pilate's custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover, which all four canonical Gospels report, doesn't have any clear timing cues in itself about whether he does that before the Passover ceremony, symbolizing what Egypt should have done, or after the Passover ceremony, symbolizing what Egypt did do in setting the Hebrews free. Strictly speaking the Synoptics, aside from a verse appended to GosLuke in later copies to synch it up a bit better with GosJohn and the other Synoptics, don't even connect this practice specifically to the Feast of Passover--Pilate on their account might do this for each or any holiday feast.)

Moreover, once the crucifixion process kicks off, John makes a point of saying (19:14) that this happened on "the Preparation for the Passover". By this John apparently means the day the lambs were slain and crucified for sacrificial cooking, because when John connects what happens and what doesn't happen to Jesus, to Old Testament prophecy, the details of blood and water and being pierced and not having a bone broken are (at least superficially) similar to what happens to the lambs. (GosJohn alone of all texts in the New Testament, except also the Revelation to John, includes language of Jesus being called the Lamb of God in relation to Him being slain--although curiously he doesn't do so here at the actual scene.)

John doesn't only mean the day of preparation for the Passover meal, though; he also very explicitly means the day of preparation before the Sabbath: 19:31 (New American Standard Version) "The Jews therefore [meaning the Jewish leaders as GosJohn usually does by that term], because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath, for the day of that Sabbath was great, asked Pilate..." to order the men being crucified that day to be killed early and buried. (Jesus has already died when this request is made, by the way, but the other two men had not yet.)

Having set up that this is happening on Friday before sunset, John doesn't report anything happening Saturday at all, but moves on at the beginning of chapter 20 to {tê mia tôn sabbatôn}, "the first of the sabbaths", the same phrase used by the other canonical authors; and again by narrative context one way or another this has to mean Sunday morning just like they do.


So, there's the problem: GosJohn has the same Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday sequence as the Synoptics, and he's quite clear about that when the details are added up, but he's also very explicitly clear that the Passover holiday meal was going to be held Friday night with the lambs slain on Friday (which on Jewish day-reckoning would have started at sunset on Thursday). The Synoptics very clearly say that the Last Supper was the Passover celebration, held on Thursday night, with no mention of Friday night being the Passover celebration instead.

This is the main reason why there are various theories about Jesus having been slain some other day than Friday, even though all four texts are explicitly clear that He died on a Friday afternoon a few hours before sunset (thus those theories can only get going by discounting or ignoring various points of textual data).

Of course, another way of solving for the data is to conclude that the data cannot be solved for!--the Synoptics or GosJohn or both are just wrong, either accidentally or on purpose. Obviously sceptics tend to go with this kind of theory, but a number of conservative scholars are willing to suggest that John thematically shuffled the night of Passover around to emphasize how the sacrifice of Christ mirrored the sacrifice of the lambs eaten at Passover. (John would be the more plausible candidate for thematic shuffling of the Passover day, mainly because there doesn't seem to be any reason why someone in the earliest church would shuffle the Passover meal back to Thursday night.)


A more rare solution, and the one I currently accept, is the one I've talked about already in the earlier two parts: a leader was allowed to celebrate the Passover one night early in emergency circumstances, the typical example being that of the Maccabeean revolution when a battle was expected the next day.

This theory accounts for a number of other peculiarities in the stories, especially why in all four accounts the Caiaphas coterie in the Sanhedrin had decided to wait until after Passover to arrest and execute Jesus, and yet all of a sudden they're in a rush to get Jesus crucified by early Friday morning on the basis of information Judas thought he had to rush off to tell them. That Judas realized Jesus (at least) had learned of his plans to betray Him at some opportune time, might be a reason for Judas to flee as quickly as possible; but it would be no good reason for Caiaphas and his allies to rush a hasty trial and execution after they had already decided to wait. They wouldn't do that unless the situation they themselves were worried about had changed; Jesus knowing Judas was a traitor doesn't change any situation the Sanhedrin cares about, enough to risk mob action (and in the face of what was apparently some stiff opposition in the Sanhedrin against condemning Jesus, as GosJohn and some of the Synoptic accounts both tend to indicate in somewhat different ways).

But if Jesus holds the Passover one night early, that's a signal He's expecting not to be able to do it the normal night due to an emergency situation; and that would be a signal to the Sanhedrin that Jesus intends to make serious trouble Friday before Passover (or perhaps Friday night at midnight, since traditionally the Messiah was expected to come/reveal/declare himself at midnight after Passover).

The theory, as mentioned in previous parts, also synchs up with some odd Greek phrasing in GosMatt and GosMark, not found in GosLuke, to the effect that the first of two Feasts of Unleavened Bread was at hand when Jesus prepared the Passover.

That phrasing doesn't show up in GosJohn, but what does show up is a curious detail not found in the Synoptics: the disciples are confused about why Judas is leaving. They don't realize he's going out to betray them, but they can't decide if he's going out to buy supplies for the Passover (because he's the group treasurer) or if he's going out to give money to the poor which is what the person in the eldest-child position is supposed to do when the Passover ritual reaches a certain point (and also Judas is the group treasurer--but there are indications among the canonical four Gospels that Judas was given the place of honor at the meal.)

In other words, according to the implications of GosJohn 13:29, the disciples themselves were confused among themselves about whether they were in the middle of celebrating a Passover seder that night or not!

Now, if Jesus was holding the Passover seder in a peculiar way -- and there are indications in all four Gospels in this direction, too -- they might be confused about whether they were celebrating Passover at all that night, but they wouldn't be confused about whether Judas was going out to purchase supplies for Passover unless they thought this wasn't the normal night for Passover! If they only had one and only one night for Passover in mind, it's far too late to buy supplies for Passover by now, so that wouldn't be an issue. If they have two nights for Passover in mind, however, then that explains the detail of their confusion among themselves about whether Judas is leaving to buy supplies for Passover or to fulfill part of his role in celebrating Passover. (GosJohn, unfortunately, isn't clear that going out to give money to the poor is part of the seder celebration, but John demonstrably engages in Jewish meanings and theological disputes elsewhere that would fly way over the heads of a Gentile audience.)


This theory might also explain the oddity of GosJohn avoiding (almost) any indication that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. The only way John could explain that to a Gentile audience would be to introduce the concept of an emergency Passover, and even to a mixed Jewish/Gentile audience he might want to avoid bringing up the typical rationale for an emergency meal: battle expected the next day! On the contrary, John is much more concerned than the Synoptic authors with emphasizing that Jesus never had any intention of armed rebellion against Rome, and that He got on rather well with Pontius Pilate the Roman governor. That's an important cultural point at whatever time GosJohn was written (or even updated and re-released), whether pre 70 or late 90s: the Romans should understand that Christians pose no military challenge to their authority at all. Jesus was not slain in military rebellion against Rome, but due to religious concepts and political maneuvering by people who, ironically but wrongly, were worried (so John says, 11:47-53, even more explicitly than the other canonical Gospels) that Jesus intended to stage a military rebellion.


This may also account for why GosJohn would skip over or downplay the Passover-seder characteristics of the Last Supper after John had seemed so insistent about Jesus suggesting His real presence in something people would be eating and drinking, back in chapter 6 (in a scene that connects to the pre-Christian Jewish concept of the Temple "showbread", as the new manna, being the vehicles of the real presence of YHWH shown to the people during feasts). John would have a cultural reason to skip over that for sake of trying to protect Christians from Roman harassment; but Jews in John's audience would remember that one of the important points to the Passover is that the sacrificed lamb must be entirely eaten: the lamb may be a symbol for something greater, but Jews aren't supposed to 'only symbolically' eat the lamb by eating bread instead or anything like that.

So John isn't simply ignoring such issues, he's bringing them into His account, sometimes in very blunt ways--it's hard to get blunter than for Jesus to repeatedly insist that people must "munch" on His flesh to have God's own life in them! Consequently, there has to be some explanation other than doctrinal issues over the Real Presence for him to skip (almost) completely over the question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover seder.

(GosJohn has some other interesting details along this line, too, such as the statement back during the prologue in chapter 1 that, in Greek, says Jesus continues dwelling with us or within us as in a tabernacle for us to view His glory; and that we all at some point receive all His fullness with our hands. English translations tend to obscure this language, although the ancient Catholic congregations keep such things in mind.)


At any rate, this is the best harmonization explanation I've found so far about why the Synoptic accounts and GosJohn seem to deviate so dramatically between when the Passover occurred, Thursday night or Friday. And while I'm a bit late for contributing it this Easter, I hope it will be of some help on future Easter weeks to come!

3 comments:

Registering for comment tracking.

anyway you slice it he was only the tomb a day and a half at most.

friday evening beginning of day 1. Saturday evening begins of day 2. raises Saturday night or what we call Sunday but for them it's the same day.

day and a half.

True, although not the timing weirdness I wanted to talk about.

I'm thinking of doing an article on what the implications are of GosMatt including "three day and three nights in the earth" in Jesus' discussion about the sign of Jonah, when Matthew's own account agrees that it couldn't even possibly have been three days and three nights by even the most generous stretch of what counts as "days".

JRP

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