Passover, Last Supper, Crucifixion: 2011 Notes, Part 1

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.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Passover, Yeshua, Yeshua In Context. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Passover, Last Supper, Crucifixion: 2011 Notes, Part 1

  1. Derek,
    Much of your argument with regard to Mark’s account hinges on how to interpret Mark 14:12. It says, “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was being sacrificed.” Already in this verse, we have a problem. The Passover lamb is not sacrificed on the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15) but rather on the day before (Nisan 14). Granted the leaven is thrown out on Nisan 14, but that day is not officially Chag Hamatzah. Technically, Nisan 14 is Passover according to Leviticus 23:5 (“on the 14th of the month in the afternoon is the time of the Passover offering”) while the Feast of Unleavened Bread occurs on Nisan 15 (Lev 23:6). My point is that Mark seems less concerned about exact timing here than perhaps we are.

    My interpretation of this verse is that Mark means “toward the first day of Unleavened Bread” and not literally “on the first day of Unleavened Bread.” If you continue to read the chapter, you’ll see that he and his disciples enter the city around evening time (v. 17), just after he sent two disciples to find the place already prepared for them (vv. 13-16). In addition, my interpretation of verse 12 is that Mark is referring to Nisan 14, the day when the leaven is purged and the Passover lamb is sacrificed. Thus, Mark is saying that the actual time is Nisan 13, late in the day, toward Nisan 14. Once evening arrived, the setting of the sun would constitute a new day, Nisan 14.

    My interpretation is not without its weaknesses. Is Mark using the Roman method of time or the Jewish reckoning? Throughout his gospel, he seems to use the Jewish method of counting days (e.g., Mark 1:32; 15:42; 16:1). Should we take Mark literally here or not? How could he and his disciples have sacrificed a Passover lamb in the afternoon of Nisan 13, much less eaten one a few hours later on Nisan 14. Still, after looking at all accounts, this scenario makes the most sense to me.

    -David Cook

  2. David:

    Before commenting on your proposal, I want to make sure I understand it. Are you saying that:

    (1) In Mark 14:12 it is two days before Passover still (see Mark 14:1, hasn’t another day passed?).

    (2) That on Nisan 13 and it was about to turn at sunset in Nisan 14, the disciples asked this question.

    (3) That in Mark 4:17, sunset happens and it is now Nisan 14.

    (4) And, therefore, that the Passover meal (14:16) of Yeshua was deliberately a day early? (i.e., it should be after sunset turns the day from Nisan 14 to Nisan 15, but you seem to be saying it is after sunset has turned Nisan 13 to Nisan 14).

    This would make Mark and John agree in some ways. There would still be problems. Why is Yeshua having his Seder a day early? It doesn’t seem to fit Mark’s accounting of days (compare 14:1 and 14:12).

    Anyway, when you clarify, I will try to respond more clearly and specifically (I suspect I am being very unclear in this comment on your comment).

  3. Derek,
    You have for the most part accurately captured my position. The only detail I would add in order to offer clarification is that Mark 14:1 (“Now the Passover and Unleavened Bread were two days away”), in my opinion, marks the beginning of Nisan 13. Verse 12 occurs also on Nisan 13 but toward the end of the day, late in the afternoon.

    -David Cook

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  5. David (healthtourist):

    Sorry I did not come back with more yesterday. I spent many hours until midnight looking into the issue.

    I can’t agree with the “toward the first day of Unleavened Bread” reading you propose because the “toward” is probably not a valid option for the dative article (I need a Greek person here, as my Greek is poor). The dative seems more likely to be “on” here and not “toward.” I’m thinking a preposition would be needed to indicate “toward” (but I might not know what I’m talking about).

    But even if I did, there are many features by which Mark makes clear that his account is of a Passover:
    –when they sacrificed the Passover lamb (vs. 12).
    –to eat the Passover (vs. 14).
    –they prepared the Passover (vs. 16).

    As I said in my post, the “day” as Mark describes it is by Roman reckoning (dawn till dark or midnight to midnight) so that the lambs are slaughtered on Nisan 14 and at sundown the Jewish date turns to Nisan 15 while it is still the same Roman day.

    Mark gives no indication that this Passover is a day early. I will argue in a future post that Mark has mistakenly “passoverized” a festal meal held during the days leading up to Passover and that John’s account has the timing correct.

    Derek Leman

  6. Derek,
    The Greek might very well mean “on” but that doesn’t mean we can’t interpret it as “toward.” We can cite numerous examples of this type of translation from Greek to English. Here are two examples:

    • In Acts 22:2, Paul spoke to the crowd in Hebrew, according to the Greek text. Yet look how many scholars insist on translating it as Aramaic. I’ll bet you are one of them, given your belief that Aramaic was the common language of the day.

    • In Matthew 6:22, we read of an eye that is “clear, healthy, whole, single, or sound.” Still, we know the text means “good,” even though the Greek doesn’t say “good eye.”

    I am simply looking at the evidence and making what I think is a reasonable interpretation. If you conclude that the day mentioned in Mark 14:12 was late in the afternoon on Nisan 14, then you must also conclude that the execution took place on Nisan 15, the first day of Unleavened Bread, a day having a sanctity that is similar to the Sabbath in terms of restricting work (Leviticus 23:6-7). If the execution took place on Nisan 15, then you will also agree that other significant work-related events occurred on this day, including the mob coming to the garden with torches and clubs to arrest Yeshua (14:43), the lighting of the fire in the courtyard of the high priest (14:54), the meeting of the Sanhedrin (15:1), the trial (15:2-5), the carrying of a heavy wooden beam (15:21), and the burial (15:46). I have serious doubts that the Jewish people would have interpreted the Torah as allowing all of these activities to occur on a holy day, especially the author of Mark.

    -David Cook

  7. David (healthtourist):

    Yes, I think Mark was mistaken about his date and also that he sometimes is weak on understanding Jewish laws. Yeshua was crucified on Nisan 14, I now believe, according to John’s chronology (the same time as the lambs being slaughtered by Passover leaders at the Temple for their Seders).

  8. Derek,
    I definitely agree with you that John’s chronology of the events leading up to Yeshua’s crucifixion is preferred over Mark. However, I also believe that Mark and John can be harmonized by interpreting Mark 14:12 as “toward” instead of “on,” and that it is a reasonable interpretation. Still, I don’t expect you to agree with me on that point.

    You know, most people seem to debate over the days of the week involved without consideration for the days of the month, even though the latter is a more important issue worth discussing. Nevertheless, trying to figure out whether the crucifixion occurred on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday is another puzzle that’s hard to figure out, each having its own problems. Perhaps we can discuss it on a future Shabat.

    Thanks for debating me and for your excellent points.

    -David Cook

  9. PraetorDrew says:

    I find this change in attitude a little disturbing, to say the least. I tend to treat Bible difficulties like a puzzle to be solved. Just because I cannot solve a puzzle, no matter how hard I try, doesn’t mean the puzzle cannot be solved. Mathematicians have this issue. Some proposed theorems, like Goldbach’s Conjecture, have been tested by computers which could not find a single counterexample to prove it false, but that doesn’t make it true.

    Similarly, the inability to find a plausible harmonization without resorting to pilpul doesn’t mean the accounts are contradictory. We may not have the knowledge or the tools today to be able to harmonize without it sounding contrived.

    I remember a story Dr. Craig told me about a student of one of his colleagues. The student was told by one reliable source that his mother had broken her hip and was being rushed to the hospital. Another reliable source told him that his mother died instantly in a car crash. It turns out that she broke her hip, and died when the ambulance was involved in a car crash. Tragic, but if I had proposed that type of a solution to a Bible difficulty, it would be regarded as a gross harmonization.

  10. Praetor Drew:

    I perfectly understand how you feel. Let me describe the situation this way:

    (1) Mark 14, as normally read, says the Last Supper was a Passover and Yeshua died on Nisan 15.

    (2) John 13, 18-19, as normally read, says the Last Supper was before Passover and Yeshua died on Nisan 14.

    (3) But we should read either Mark or John differently so that they agree because we subscribe to a higher principle: “biblical writers do not make mistakes and God doesn’t inspire writings with errors or problems.”

    So, I call (3) into question. You have to call (1) or (2) into question or both.

    If people pursued many other studies in a similar manner (“ignore evidence; the findings must agree with the predetermined conclusion”), then our bridges would fail, medicine would be useless, and we’d not have computers or airplanes.

    Why is the Bible the only field where we ask people not to consider the evidence or to disbelieve the evidence if it doesn’t fit predetermined conclusions?

    Derek Leman

  11. PraetorDrew says:

    It isn’t. Science is filled with repeatable, but anomalous experiments that do not fit the current model. That doesn’t automatically mean that the model should be abandoned, even if there does not appear to be a possible solution on the horizon. And this doesn’t just happen in highly speculative areas, but in areas that are exceedingly well-known, such as organic chemistry.

  12. Praetor Drew:

    Where did you hear that?

  13. PraetorDrew says:

    I believe it was J.P. Moreland who first tipped me off to this issue.

  14. Praetor Drew:

    But the logic of the argument is bad and the likelihood that this is how good scientific practitioners would describe the nature of hypothesis and testing is poor.

    I’m sure that all experimentation has flawed results and unknown causes of variance.

    This has nothing to do with noting a discrepancy between relatively certain facts. And the John vs. Mark discrepancy concerns relatively certain facts about the meaning of their designations of time and day.

  15. David (healthtourist):

    Further reading clarified for me the nature of the “toward the day of Unleavened Bread” proposal you made for Mark 14:12.

    It comes from translating protei not as “first” but as “toward.”

    So, the option you are thinking of should be rendered “toward the day of Unleavened Bread” (not the “first day” since the word cannot stand for both at the same time). This translation is unlikely and would not solve the discrepancy anyway.

  16. PraetorDrew says:

    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

  17. danielgregg says:

    Derek, its called the “Dative of respect/reference” Daniel B. Wallace, Exeg. Syntax. page 145.

    12 Now concerning the¹ first day of Unleavened Bread, (by when they would had sacrificed² the passover), his disciples said to him, “Where do you desire going we should arrange that you may eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; 14 and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 15 “And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; then arrange¹ us for that place.” 16 And the disciples went out, and came to the city, and found it just as he had told them; and they arranged for the Passover.

    • Daniel, I see you have the correct understanding of how the Greek in Mark 14:12 should have been interpreted, as a Dative of reference (this also applies to Matthew 26:17). I did not know that anyone else had discovered this. However I have not seen anyone else explain how Luke 22:7 should have been translated so as to harmonize the scriptures correctly. If you are interested to see that information please scroll down to my next comment where I provide the link to that chapter in my book that harmonizes the gospel accounts (including Luke 22:7) using the proper rules for Greek grammar as well as the Jewish idioms of their day.

  18. Antonio says:


    One of my earliest blog posts was actually a response to your attempt to harmonize the two opinions in favor of Mark, so your revisiting of this issue is a pleasant ‘deja vu’ for me.

    I’ll have to dig it up that old post, but I think John P. Meier addresses this issue very well in the first volume of A Marginal Jew.

  19. Pingback: The 2011 Passover Palooza of Information! | Messianic Jewish Musings

  20. betternock says:

    Hi all,
    I like what PraetorDrew says about Bible puzzles. Pro 25:2 It is the glory of God to

    conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. I think that is what

    made the Bereans noble (Ac 17:11). So here are some digs:

    1. The book of Mark was probably written for Romans. Mark often explained Jewish words,

    customs, and places. And he translated some words into Latin. He used Roman time rather than

    Hebrew time. []. Roman time is generally condidered to be midnight to

    midnight. We understand that, by Jewish reckoning, Abib 14 (Passover) finished at sunset.

    From sunset on, they considered it to be a new day, Abib 15 (Unleavened Bread). So, my

    suggestion is that, when Mark was referring to Passover and Unleavend Bread as though they

    were the same day, he was ‘ignoring’ sunset as being the end of the Jewish day. In the Roman

    Calendar, Passover and Unleavened Bread did occur on the same day: Passover up to sunset,

    then Unleavened Bread from sunset to midnight.

    2. Originally, God declared that a month shall be determined as being NEW MOON to NEW MOON.

    The Hebrew word for month means NEW MOON. But a new moon is, by definition, one that shows

    no reflection of the sun. But you can’t easily see a new moon: it is close to the sun and

    any stars it blocks out are less visible. So the officials decided that it was easier to

    walk by sight than by faith, and so they measured the first of the month from the date of

    the first crescent. That means that every month was out by a day. Could it be that Jesus, in

    fulfilling all righteousness, ate the last supper in accord with God’s date, while still

    accomodating man’s timetable. (Jesus accommodated by paying man’s tribute Mat 17:27). Hence,

    was Abib 15 actually Abib 14 in God’s eyes, and was Jesus pleasing the Father by eating wiht

    his disciples just after sunset on that day? (Some commentators say that the Essenes kept

    God-ordained dates (based on unseen moon rather than first crescent)).

    3. The Mosaic law states that the lamb was to be killed during the afternoon of the Abib 14,and consumed after sunset ie on Abib 15. HOWEVER, the very first Passover lambs were killed sometime around evening and consumed between sunset and midnight on Abib 14, just prior to the angel killing the firstborn. This was 24 hours earlier than the time prescribed by the law, and corresponds to the time of the Last Supper.

    4. The Bible actually describes TWO Passover meals: (1) that which was to be in homes; (2) another performed by the priests for all the people that was to be in the place where God would deem to dwell (tabernacle? temple?) [Though there is a scripture saying that the sacrifice shall not take place within the walls. So qualifications.] The fact that these two prescriptions are often considered as one can lead to much confusion.

    Some thoughts for discussion.

  21. Derek, thank you for your article and for digging into these controversies, you write: “How can I believe in the inspiration and authority of the gospels while recognizing contradictions in historical matters and so on?” (end quote). After graduating from Bible College I entered the masters program and we debated some of the exact same questions you raise in this article, and we could not come to a resolution. I believed that God had indeed inspired the scriptures (in their original form, not the English translations) yet these contradictions were causing me to really question some things. For the next twenty years or so this continued to trouble me, and I continued to chase this down (learning the first-century Jewish idioms, and the Greek language were both essential) until I finally found the Greek keys that unlock these supposed contradictions. As I say, the first-century Jewish idioms were also a huge part of deciphering this. Solving this last supper conundrum (whether it was a Passover or not) led to even greater truths, such as that the Christian Communion ritual was not what the original Jewish believers taught, nor did they think that’s what the Messiah meant (in his parables). If I may, my book is titled “The Messianic Feast; Moving Beyond the Ritual” and much of it can be read for free at my website (just add “.com” to the title). For the one chapter that solves the language controversies, please consider reading this chapter titled “Three Greek Keys That Unlock the Gospels” which can be found here:
    Another chapter you might find interesting is the history that led to this misunderstanding, it is titled “The Jewish Disconnect and the Fourteenthers” and it can be found at the website under the chapter samples tab. Thank you much for considering.

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