Some Questions in Gospel Chronology:

3. Jesus' Crucifixion and the Last Supper

There are two ways to approach this question. One is by looking at the internal chronologies of the gospels to see how long Jesus' ministry may have lasted. The other is by looking at the calendar to see when the relation of the start of Passover to a Sabbath matches the information in the Gospels. Both these approaches are fraught with difficulties. In the first case we have to deal with discrepancies in the information that the Gospels provide. In the second case we must acknowledge the difficulties created by the state of our knowledge of the Jewish religious calendar in the first century ce. So our progress and our conclusions on this question will necessarily be ringed with caveats.

One of the most obvious differences in internal chronology among the gospels is that between the Synoptics on the one hand and John's Gospel on the other about the length of Jesus' ministry. In the Synoptic view the ministry can be measured in months rather than years, starting around the arrest of John the Baptist and ending at the following Passover. So according to the Synoptic model, Jesus' arrest and Crucifixion was at Passover 29 CE. John's Gospel describes a longer and more diverse ministry that likely included parts of 3 years, making Passover 30 CE more likely:

  • John 2.13: Passover (spring) 28 CE

  • John 5.1: Unnamed festival, probably Weeks (spring) or Booths (fall) 28 CE

  • John 6.4: Passover (spring) 29 CE

  • John 7.2: Booths (fall) 29 CE

  • John 10.22: Hanukkah/Dedication (winter) 29 CE

  • John 12.1: Passover (spring) 30 CE

Can we make any determination about the more likely year? In the Synoptic Gospels it seems clear that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and further that that day was the first day of Passover (15 Nisan in the Jewish calendar). In John's Gospel, the timeline seems to be a little different; its statements (especially in John 18.28 and John 19.14) are usually taken as establishing that that Friday was the day before Passover began (14 Nisan). Not only does this have relevance for our attempt to offer dates for the Crucifixion and Last Supper, it also has a bearing on the nature of the Last Supper. In the Jewish calendar, a day was reckoned from one sunset to the next, so the Last Supper and the Crucifixion took place on the same day, whether 15 Nisan or 14 Nisan. If the former, then it was the Passover meal, as the Synoptics say; if the latter, it was eaten before the festival began, as John's Gospel seems to say. If we could decide which day of Nisan that Friday likely was, it could help in determining the likely date.

Over the centuries attempts have been made to harmonize the apparent disagreement between the Synoptics and John's Gospel. An argument has been made by New Testament scholar Barry D. Smith that such a harmonization is possible. Smith argues that there are two issues to be determined: whether John's Gospel regards the Last Supper as a Passover meal and how the phrases 'eat the Passover; and 'day of Preparation for the Passover' in John 18.28 and 19.14 respectively should be understood. In the first case, he shows good reasons to infer that John assumed that the Last Supper was the Passover meal from the way it is described, even though the text does not explicitly say so. In the second, he demonstrates from Josephus and from rabbinic sources that terminology used to describe Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread was much more fluid at the time that the Fourth Gospel was written than we now expect. Thus the way is clear for a reading of John 18-19 in which the Last Supper was indeed a Passover meal as the Synoptics specify. If we accept this argument, then we can say that we are looking for a year compatible with the rest of our evidence and assumptions in which 15 Nisan was a Friday.

Attempts to determine what day of the week a day in the Hebrew calendar fell on in the first century CE are based on modern interpretations of rabbinic calendar rules (which are often later than the period in question) and modern astronomical calculations. So we must be aware that these attempts are all based on assumptions which may be mistaken, just as our assumptions about the data in the gospels may in some cases be mistaken. The balance of the evidence seems to suggest that in 29 CE 15 Nisan was a Saturday. So if the Crucifixion took place on a Friday around Passover time that year, it took place on 14 Nisan, which was likely 18 March 29 CE, a date compatible with the traditional interpretation of Johannine chronology, in which the day of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion is the day before the start of Passover. It seems ironic that the determination of the possible date of the Crucifixion in 29 CE, the year suggested by the Synoptic timeline, should depend on the Passover chronology suggested by a traditional reading of John's Gospel. In 30 CE the balance of the evidence seems to suggest that 15 Nisan fell on a Friday, a date compatible with the Synoptic chronology and with the harmonised Johannine chronology. So it is very difficult to make the decision, since the calendar appears to fit either of the dates that are probable on other grounds.

Addendum: The Cleansing of the Temple.

The most prominent disagreement among the gospels other than the date of the last supper and Crucifixion relative to Passover is that over the cleansing of the Temple. In the Synoptic Gospels, this takes place at the end of Jesus' ministry, in the week preceding his Crucifixion. In John's Gospel it takes place at the beginning of his ministry. Both traditions connect Jesus' presence in Jerusalem with the Passover, but disagree about which Passover. Unlike the question of the date of the Crucifixion, there is no room here for harmonisation: if the Synoptics are right, John is wrong, and vice versa. Is there any criterion for deciding who is correct?

Not really. The only way to decide between the two datings is by what seems most probable and many factors are involved. I find it somewhat more probable that the act happened at the start of Jesus' ministry, as it seems most appropriate to the period when we know that he was most influenced by the ministry of John the Baptist. It was probably dismissed by the Temple authorities as an act of fairly minor vandalism by some mad Galilean preacher, and may have faded from their memory by the next time Jesus visited Jerusalem. After all, the actual sacrifices and worship were not interrupted and only one man acting alone was involved (for there is no evidence that the disciples were anything more than onlookers). Others will find the Synoptic chronology more convincing and there is really no way to say that one is wrong and the other right with any assurance.

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