I know this post will disturb some good people and for good reason. I have the unenviable task of introducing a topic that calls into question many people’s view of the Bible, and specifically the gospels, as a unified, non-contradictory account of “just the facts.”
There are only two ways you can hold that view of the Bible: (1) Like most people, don’t read it closely enough to see the problems; (2) Be so committed to your view of a unified voice without contradictions in the Bible that you are willing to go to extremes of suspension of disbelief to harmonize all the problems. I really do respect (2) as an option. I’d say the medieval exegetes of Judaism took this approach, even though Judaism has historically been much more open in its view of the Bible and history than some forms of Christianity.
In the accounts of the Last Supper (Mark 14:12-26; Matthew 26:17-30; Luke 22:7-39; 1 Corinthians 11:13-26; John 13) we encounter irreconcilable contradictions, as also in the matter of which day with regard to Passover Yeshua was crucified (Mark says he was crucified on Passover’s first day, after the Seder, and John says he was crucified as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered before the Passover Seder). In past years, being of the mindset of (2) above, I harmonized the accounts in the manner of Alfred Edersheim in his book on The Temple. My close reading of the gospels no longer allows me to hold to a position like (2). But this does not cause me to doubt the inspiration and authority of the gospels in any sense. I will in this post explain the problems as clearly as I can and say a few words about inspiration and authority.
The Last Supper Was / Wasn’t a Passover Seder
To keep things simple, I am only comparing Mark and John’s accounts here. Matthew, Luke, and Paul follow Mark mainly (there is complexity overlooked in that statement, though, since Luke is influenced by John in some way–see Fitzmeyer’s commentary on Luke or Paul Anderson’s study on The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus for more about this).
Let me lay out the argument that Mark and John do not agree on the timing of the Last Supper as clearly as I can:
(a) Mark says that the disciples asked Yeshua about preparing for Passover on the first day of Unleavened Bread and when the Passover lamb is sacrificed. This statement already involves a slight complication due to differences in reckoning days (to keep it simple, let’s just talk about two ways: the Jewish and the Roman). By the Roman reckoning (see Adela Yarbro Collins’ commentary citing Pliny) a day ordinarily means “dawn till dark.” This is the reckoning Mark is using. The Passover lambs are sacrificed on Nisan 14 and the Passover’s first day (same thing as first day of Unleavened Bread) begins after sundown, which in the Jewish reckoning is another day, Nisan 15). It is noteworthy that Mark says nothing about Yeshua or the disciples bringing the required burnt offering (the “appearance” offering of the festivals) or the Passover lamb. Is this because Mark is reluctant to show Yeshua offering a sacrifice? Is it because Mark has his facts wrong and it was not yet Passover (and thus, nothing in Mark’s sources for this account suggest that Yeshua made a sacrifice)?
(b) John says that the Last Supper of Yeshua and the disciples happened before the feast of Passover. This is already enough to say: Mark and John have a disagreement. John’s clear assertion about this timing continues in a number of ways. When Yeshua is brought to Pilate after the meal and the time in the olive grove, the chief priests do not want to enter the Praetorium so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover (18:28). The flogging of Yeshua occurred on the day of preparation for the Passover (19:14), which would mean Nisan 14 when the lambs were to be slaughtered for the Seder. The body of Yeshua was taken down more hurriedly than the norm for a crucifixion because it was the day of preparation (19:31), which here clearly means “preparation for Passover” since John goes on to say the Jews did not want bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially since it was a high day. Apparently, sometimes bodies were left during sabbaths (at least John says so), but this being such an important Sabbath (Passover and Sabbath on the same day), they did not want to allow this to happen. Finally, in 19:36, John compares Yeshua directly to the Passover lambs, whose bones were not to be broken.
(c) In order to harmonize these two accounts, the only options are: (i) to propose multiple calendars, (ii) to propose that Yeshua deliberately had a Passover Seder a day early, (iii) or to interpret John’s account in every case as though the “Passover” means the festal offering of the first day and not the Passover lambs for the Seder offered on the day of preparation (this is Alfred Edersheim’s harmonization and the one I have used in previous years).
(d) I will discuss possible harmonizations as well as many other angles regarding the timing of the Passover-Last Supper-Crucifixion in future posts. For now, let me say that I do not think harmonization is possible. We have here variant traditions about the timing and nature of the Last Supper. But what we do not have is a disagreement about the overall purpose and symbolism of Yeshua’s death. He is the Passover and prepares a New Exodus for his movement of renewed Israel (which will be extended to include the nations). Both accounts make this point in various ways. So the theology of the Last Supper and crucifixion is harmonious while the historical details are not.
I welcome dialogue by comment or by email at yeshuaincontext at gmail. I cannot read 10,000 words essays on the matter. Feel free to suggest possibilities briefly. Feel free to ask questions or challenge.
How can I believe in the inspiration and authority of the gospels while recognizing contradictions in historical matters and so on? This discrepancy in the tradition about Yeshua is far from the only one in the Bible. There are discrepancies in the Passover story and regulations from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the former prophets, the major prophets, and the writings as well (I commend Scot McKnight’s The Death of Jesus and his discussion in the chapter, “Pesah in Jewish History”).
I simply do not believe the nature of God’s revelation is in any sense uptight about matters like this. I could give numerous examples of the looseness of sacred scripture with regard to such things. Nor do I believe the Bible speaks with one voice. I would say God inspired varying perspectives (compare Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for example). God’s way is both-and, not either-or.
More to come and I hope this discussion helps us deal with the truth about scripture. My intent is to uphold faith, not attack it. Unrealistic faith in untrue paradigms is not helpful. Real faith accepts the problems and complexities and believes in God all the more.