New Testament Chronology
New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990)
Matthew, Mark and Luke said that the Last Supper was the Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified the following day. John appears to have said that Jesus was crucified before the Passover. Can this seeming inconsistency be reconciled?
There are solutions that allow the wording of all four Gospels to be exact and also give clues to the year of Jesus' crucifixion. One solution recognizes that many Jews of the Diaspora observed two days of Passover. The pilgrims may have brought this second day of Passover to Jerusalem, and John is referring to that second observance. A second solution recognizes the different calendars in use in Jerusalem, where sunrise reckoning or sunset reckoning might cause the Passover to fall on different days. A third sees the Last Supper as an observation of Passover according to the solar Jubilee Calendar of the Essenes, and John's Passover according to the lunar sunset calendar. The last possible solution recognizes that the "Passover" was a figure of speech that included all the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The observance of double holidays in the Diaspora became necessary because the Israelites distant from Jerusalem did not know when the Sanhedrin officially declared Rosh Chodesh, or the new month. This was particularly important for Rosh Chodesh Tishri, which set the dates of the Day of Atonement and Feast of Tabernacles, and Rosh Chodesh Nisan, for the following Passover. To ensure that these festivals were always observed on the proper day, they became observed on two successive days. This observance was only according to the sunset reckoning of the Diaspora. The Pharisees of the Sanhedrin and the later sages who recorded the Mishna and Talmud also used this calendar.
In the Diaspora the month of Adar would already have been established by observation or messengers. However, the official beginning of the following month of Nisan was not known in advance. This left the problem of the official day of Passover, and thus led to the double Passover. The Passover was observed in the evening following the beginning of Nisan 15. The two days of Passover were observed on the fifteenth and sixteenth days following a twenty-nine-day month, or on the fourteenth and fifteenth days after a thirty-day month. Thus, the official Passover meal was observed on Nisan 15 in either case. The true dates of the double Passover would have been Nisan 14 and 15 following an actual thirty-day Adar, and Nisan 15 and 16 following a twenty-nine-day Adar. The last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread was also observed double, and the festival was eight days long instead of seven. Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread had already begun before the Last Supper (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), can this be the basis of the seeming second Passover referred to by John?
The origins of the observance of second festival days in the Diaspora can be traced from the later writings of the rabbis in the Mishna and Talmud. These rabbis used the calendar with the day beginning at sunset and the year beginning in the fall. There was early observance of two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Tishri new year. It may have been first observed in Babylonia as early as the fifth century BCE.1 In anticipation of the arrival of witnesses attesting to the new moon, it was observed on the thirtieth day of Elul (assuming a twenty-nine-day month), and again the following day if witnesses did not arrive. Such an observance may be implied for Jerusalem at the time of Nehemiah, when the Feast of Tabernacles was restored (Neh. 8:13). The following fast on the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles could then be observed on the proper days. However, with the institution of the fixed calendar in the fourth century CE, it appears the Jews of Jerusalem returned to the observance of only one day of Rosh Hashanah.2 The observance of two new years was continued in the Diaspora, to be returned in the twelfth century CE, and imposed on the religious leaders of Jerusalem.3
The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent the official notification of Rosh Chodesh out to the Diaspora. The Mishna relates, "In six months do messengers go out. In Nisan, to determine the time of Passover; in Av, to determine the time of the fast; in Elul, to determine the time of Rosh Hashanah; in Tishri, to determine the time of the feasts; in Kislev, to determine the time of Hanukkah; in Adar, to determine the time of Purim. When the Temple was in existence they went out also in Iyyar, to determine the time of the minor Passover." (Rosh Hashanah 18a) The notification of Adar was also important when an additional month was to be intercalated and to determine the beginning of Nisan.
The use of signal flares to announce Rosh Chodesh was probably begun shortly after the controversy created by the Jubilee Calendar, with the change to the Diaspora calendar in about 152 BCE.4 After a temporary suspension of flares due to Samaritan interference, the flares were again used after 109 BCE, until finally suspended by Rabbi Judah HaNasi about 200 CE.5 The Mishna relates, "At first they used to kindle flares, but after the misleading deeds of the Samaritans it was decided that messengers go forth. . . . And where did they kindle the flares? From the top of the Mount of Olives [they signaled] to Sarteba, and from Sarteba to Agrippina, and from Agrippina to Hauran to Bet Baltin (a Babylonian city near the Euphrates). They did not go beyond Bet Baltin, but there the flare was waved to and fro and up and down until a man could see the whole diaspora before him like a sea of fire." (Rosh Hashanah 22b) Some system of messengers would have spread the news of Rosh Chodesh further to such as Babylon. The date of the new moon was sent north, but the Diaspora had spread far beyond the signal flares. Messengers could not have even covered the area of the flares. What effect might this have had on the beginning of the second festival days?
With the initial use of signal flares in the second century BCE, the outlying areas would have soon become aware that they were not always keeping the festivals in accord with the official observance in the Jerusalem area. Some localities may have independently begun to observe some festivals double, just as they already observed a double Rosh Hashanah. Within not too many years the Samaritans interfered, and the flares were discontinued for a time. Some towns would have been reached by the flares, but not by the messengers. After a period of official observance, they were faced with the problem of determining their own calendar or observing double festivals. There would have been a double observance of festivals toward the end of the second century BCE. A general observance in the nearby Diaspora may have begun about this time.
During the second century BCE the Essene sect with their Jubilee calendar had its beginnings. The Book of Jubilees condemned those who followed a lunar calendar and observed the holy days on the wrong days of the week (Jub. 6:38). About this time a Sanhedrin dominated by Pharisees came into being.6 These Pharisees used evening reckoning for days, as opposed to the morning reckoning of the Sadducees. The signal flares announcing Rosh Chodesh may have been the Pharisees' attempt to enforce their calendar reckoning over that of the Sadducees and Essenes. Their Sanhedrin did gain calendar control, and their calendar dating was transmitted to the Diaspora. Many likely accepted this voluntarily, just as the teachings of the Pharisees gained general acceptance or tolerance among the Jews. Some Jews may have observed double festivals because they were not sure which calendar was correct, a situation that was compounded by the differences between sunrise and sunset reckoning.
With some resistance the double observance of holidays grew, and became an imbedded tradition by the second century CE. The rules for observance appear in the third century CE. The double festivals were still observed after the calendar became fixed in the fourth century CE, and were seemingly unnecessary. The Jews of the Diaspora were cautioned to continue the practice "to preserve the custom of your ancestors." (Betzah 4b) The extent to which this Diaspora practice was kept during the time of Jesus in the first century CE is not known, but it probably would have been during a period of increasing observance.
It is contended that the Jews of Jerusalem and the surrounding area never observed a second festival day, except for Rosh Hashanah.7 There appears to be no recognized record of such, for then there would not be the ongoing controversy about whether the Last Supper was or was not on Passover. However, if some towns of the Diaspora had begun to observe a double Passover in the second century BCE, then by the first century CE the observance could already have been "the custom of your ancestors," going back about a century and a half. When pilgrims from these towns came to Jerusalem for the major feasts, they would have brought this tradition that originated from the Pharisees' calendar. As such, the Pharisees would likely have tolerated a double observance of feasts by the pilgrims. That no record exists may be because the practice was never officially recognized. There may have been unofficial double observances of festivals in Jerusalem by the Pharisees and some pilgrims.
Josephus noted, "We keep a feast for eight days, which is called the feast of unleavened bread." (Ant. II 15:1) In his writings Josephus used sunrise reckoning for days, which may explain this passage. The Feast of Unleavened Bread officially began in the evening to coincide with the rest period, or Passover "sabbath." Thus, according to sunrise reckoning it ran from the middle of the fourteenth day to the middle of the twenty-first day. This was a period seven days long in eight inclusive days. However, Josephus might here be referring to the feast being for eight days, evening to evening, over a nine-day period. Either Josephus is using sunrise reckoning, or he is specifically recording the double observance of the first and last day of an eight-day Feast of Unleavened Bread.
In the year Jesus was crucified there may have been a double observance of Passover according to the evening reckoning of the Pharisees and pilgrims of the Diaspora. In 30 and 31 CE the double observance of Passover would have followed a thirty-day Adar and would have fallen on the evenings of Nisan 14 and 15 by sunrise or sunset reckoning.8 Only in 30 CE this is exactly in accord with Scripture, with the lambs killed and the Sadducee's Passover and Last Supper on the evening of Nisan 14. Jesus, the Passover lamb, was then crucified on the intervening daytime of Friday Nisan 15 by the sunrise calendar, but still Nisan 14 by the sunset calendar of the Diaspora.9 The second Passover of the Pharisees mentioned by John was that evening of Nisan 15.
The Wednesday crucifixion must follow a Sadducee's Passover on Nisan 15, a day late. Jesus would not have been crucified between the Passovers, but after the second Passover. Thus, 31 is not a possible year according to this double observance of Passover.
In 33 CE Adar was twenty-nine days long, and a double Passover would have been observed on Nisan 15 and 16. However, only a Friday, Nisan 14 crucifixion is possible in 33 CE. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus would have been before both Passovers, and 33 CE does not solve the problem of two Passovers. If Scripture is describing the observance of the two Passovers of the Diaspora, then only the year 30 CE is possible for the year of Jesus' crucifixion.
After the Maccabean revolt in 164 BCE the Pharisees controlled the Sanhedrin once in the second century and once in the first century BCE. By 67 BCE the control of the Temple and the priesthood returned finally to the Sadducee's sunrise reckoning.10 By the first century CE the Sadducees were firmly in control of Jerusalem society.11
In years in which the new moon of Nisan 1 was first observable during the day before sunset, Passover would fall on the same evening, by both morning or evening reckoning. But, in years in which the new moon for Nisan 1 was first observed at night, before sunrise, Passover would fall on different days; the Passover on the sunrise calendar preceded the Passover according to the sunset calendar. The sunset Passover could not precede the sunrise Passover. There would have been a similar problem for other festivals. This would soon have led to a religious dispute for which there seemed no compromise.
The conflict over which was the official day for observance of the festivals may have led to the development or incorporation of the Jubilee calendar by the "Teacher of Righteousness," and the subsequent withdrawal of the Essenes to Qumran.12 At the Jerusalem Temple the use of the sunrise calendar for determination of festivals would have continued under the control of the Sadducees. Unable to control the official slaughtering of the Passover lambs at the Temple, the Pharisees may have furthered the observance of the rituals of the Seder in the years where the Passover was a day later according to their reckoning. Such would have been the normal practice in the Diaspora where no lamb was slaughtered.
Which Passover was the correct one according to the Temple priests? It was the Passover Last Supper eaten by Jesus. Before the Last Supper the lambs were slain (Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). This would only have been done by the priests on Nisan 14 according to the sunrise Temple calendar. They are unlikely to have sacrificed lambs on two days. This would have compromised their understanding of the law to accommodate the two-Passover tradition of the pilgrims, or the different calendar reckoning of the Essenes or Pharisees. There is no mention of the slaying of Passover lambs on the day of Jesus' crucifixion. The ritual slaying was usually done between 3:00 and 5:00 PM (Wars VI 9:3). Thus, Jesus was crucified on Nisan 15 according to the sunrise Temple calendar.
In the year Jesus was crucified the alignment of the Temple and Diaspora Passovers would have been as follows, on Chart XXVII. This arrangement occurs when the crescent of the new moon was first observed between sunset and sunrise. In the following charts P = Passover by Second Temple calendar, LS = Last Supper, C = Crucifixion, and S = Seder (Passover by Diaspora calendar without the lamb).
New Moon Observed at Night
When the new moon is first observed at night the above alignment will occur. This was the arrangement for the years 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34 and 35 CE.13 Thus, Jesus was crucified on Nisan 15 according to the Temple calendar and on Nisan 14 according to the Diaspora calendar. Jesus would likely have eaten the Passover according the Temple calendar. John's description must have recognized the later observance by the sunset calendar of a Seder with no lamb. This is probably the same sunset reckoning used by Paul, who described Jesus as our Passover; the Lamb of God was sacrificed instead of the Pascal lamb. The above alignment only supports a Friday crucifixion in 30 CE. Then, Jesus died on Friday, which was Nisan 14 on the sunset calendar and Nisan 15 on the sunrise calendar.
The above alignment does not support a Thursday crucifixion in 30 CE on Nisan 14 according to the sunrise calendar. It then becomes necessary to establish that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal. This is difficult, since that meal followed the slaying of the Passover lambs, and Jesus said that He was going to "eat the Passover with My disciples." (Mark 14:14) It also does not support a Wednesday crucifixion in 31 CE on Nisan 15 according to the sunset calendar. Then Jesus would have been crucified on the day following the second Passover, unless there was a late intercalated Ve-Adar.
When the crescent of the new moon was first observed between sunrise and sunset the following alignment occurs, as shown on Chart XXVIII. It is correct for the years 27, 33 and 36 CE. Here, Jesus would have been crucified on Nisan 14 on the Temple or Diaspora calendars. However, in this case the Passover lambs would have to have been slain on Nisan 13, in contradiction to keeping the lamb "until the fourteenth day of the same month . . . to kill it at twilight." (Exod. 12:6) The two Passovers due to the calendar difference exclude 27, 33 and 36 CE as possible years for Jesus' crucifixion. With a Friday crucifixion in 33 CE, that day must fall on Nisan 14 by either sunrise or sunset reckoning. It is again necessary to establish that the Last Supper was not a Passover supper. This requires ignoring the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Jesus, and relying solely on the Jews and John's usage of "Passover." As will be discussed below, the Passover may refer only to the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And still there is no explaining away the slaying of the lambs before the Last Supper. A 33 CE crucifixion is not possible if the two Passovers are to be explained by the calendar difference between sunrise and sunset reckoning.14
New Moon Observed During the Day
III. The Essene Passover
According to an old tradition (Syriac Didascalia 21) Jesus ate a Pascal Last Supper Tuesday evening, was arrested Wednesday and crucified Friday.15 In the Jubilee calendar of the Essenes the Passover always fell on Wednesday, which began the prior Tuesday night. Thus, it is supposed, Jesus ate a Passover Last Supper according to the solar sunset calendar of the Essenes. The Passover according to the lunar sunset calendar fell three days later on the Sabbath, after the Friday crucifixion. However, the Last Supper followed the slaying of the lambs at the Temple; this could not have been done for the Essenes, who opposed the current Temple ritual and observance of holy days. This also would interpose two extra silent days in the Gospel, between Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. The observance of the Essene Passover by Jesus is unlikely, especially since some of His teachings were antithetical to the Qumran community.
The Passover meal was eaten during the evening of Nisan 14, according to sunrise reckoning. It was on this evening at midnight that the first-born of Egypt were slain. The Feast of Unleavened Bread began at sunrise the following day, Nisan 15. This is given by, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord's Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord." (Lev. 23:5-6; also Exod. 12:6-8) Note the strong separation of the memorial Lord's Passover, which commemorates the deliverance of the first-born of Israel the night before the Exodus, from the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which commemorates the actual release from bondage the next day. These two separate feasts have long been a source of confusion, and they have been blended into one festival.
In common speech the "Feast of Unleavened Bread" and the "Passover" were often used interchangeably. Luke clarifies this with, "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call the Passover, was approaching." (Luke 22:1) Josephus uses similar words with, "the feast of unleavened bread, which was now at hand, and is by the Jews called the passover," (Wars II 1:3) and, "the feast of unleavened bread, which we call the passover." (Ant. XVIII 2:2) The whole Feast of Unleavened Bread was also known as the Passover. The Passover and following Feast of Unleavened Bread are often confused because of not recognizing this tradition of interchanging the names of the feasts. Considering this, a comparison of the words of Matthew, Mark and Luke to those of John is fruitful.
The synoptic Gospels relate that, "on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was being sacrificed, His disciples said to Him, `Where do You want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?'" (Mark 14:12; also Mark 14:13-17; Matt. 26:17-20; Luke 22:7-16) On Nisan 14, the day the "Passover lamb was being sacrificed," Jesus was still alive. The Last Supper, the Pascal supper, was yet to be eaten during the evening of Nisan 14. Jesus would be sacrificed the following day.
From this perspective the passages in John that seem in contradiction to Matthew, Mark and Luke may be reviewed. Before the Last Supper of Jesus and the disciples, John wrote, "Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world . . ." (John 13:1) These words probably occurred before the Last Supper, and relate the following events to Jesus' prior knowledge of His death. Or, the "Feast of the Passover" is actually the following Feast of Unleavened Bread. When Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus, "some were supposing, because Judas had the money box, that Jesus was saying to him, 'Buy the things we have need of for the feast.'" (John 13:29) The disciples presumed Judas went to buy provisions to continue the present Passover, or for tomorrow's "feast," the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
On that next day, after Jesus had been questioned by the high priest, "They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover." (John 18:28) John's description in not parallel to the Old Testament terminology "to keep" the Passover.16 Also, normally a man would only remain ceremonially unclean until evening, and the Passover supper was eaten after that time. However the cleansing process for the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread normally began a week before Passover, on Nisan 8. Here, the "Passover" again refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The last seeming contradiction to be considered reads, "Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he (Pilate) said to the Jews, `Behold, your King.'" (John 19:14) The "Passover" can again refer to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, not the prior Passover Last Supper. On the sunrise Temple calendar, Jesus ate the Passover meal in the evening of Nisan 14, and was crucified the following day, Nisan 15.
There are likely to have been two Passover meals celebrated in Jerusalem
during the time of Jesus. This tradition of the Jews in the Diaspora was
brought to Jerusalem by the pilgrims and condoned by the Pharisees. However,
the Temple priests would have slain the Passover lambs only on Nisan 14
according to the Temple sunrise calendar. The second observance after Jesus'
crucifixion may have been the Pharisee's observance of a Seder, or may
have been only the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This can well be the meaning
of John's use of "Passover," or he may have referred to a second Passover.
Jesus was likely crucified according to the calendar arrangement in Chart
XXVII above. If the Last Supper was a Passover supper, then the crucifixion
of Jesus was on April 7, 30 CE. This was Nisan 15 by the sunrise calendar
and Nisan 14 by the sunset calendar.
1. A. P. Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days (New York: KTAV, 1978), 197.
2. S. Zeitlin, "The Second Day of Rosh Ha-Shanah in Israel," JQR NS44 (1954), 326.
3. Zeitlin, "Rosh Ha-Shanah," 329.
4. See Chart IV. Bloch, Jewish Holy Days, 208, gives 141 BCE as the probable date for initiation of the signal flares.
5. Bloch, Jewish Holy Days, 210 suggests the suspension may have been related to the Romans misinterpreting the flares as signal fires by anti-Roman Jewish nationalists.
6. S. Zeitlin, "The Political Synedrion and the Religious Sanhedrin," JQR NS 36 (1945), 122-125.
7. Bloch, Jewish Holy Days, 203; S. Zeitlin, "The Second Day of the Holidays in the Diaspora," JQR NS44 (1954), 223-233.
8. See Chart XIX for new year calculations and Chart XXVII for alignment of the evenings.
9. See Chart XX.
10. Josephus (Ant. XVIII 1:4) noted that the Sadducees would accept the teachings of the Pharisees to ingratiate themselves to the multitude, but there is no indication that they would have set aside the calendar of Moses for that of the Pharisees or Essenes.
11. D. Goodblatt, "The Place of the Pharisees in First Century Judaism: The State of the Debate," JSJ 20, 1 (1990), 28 concludes, "Josephus and the New Testament do not support the view that Pharisaic Judaism comprised `orthodoxy' in the first century. Nor does it support the claim that the Pharisees dominated Jewish society in provincia Iudaea."
12. Y. Yadin, The Temple Scroll (New York: Random House, 1985), 232 noted the connection between the Jubilee calendar, Teacher of Righteousness and the Essenes, but he did not attribute the Essene exodus to a calendar dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees.
13. See the chapter, "Astronomical Determination of the New Moon."
14. H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 89, reproduces an alignment chart of the Dallas Theological Seminary on "The Reckoning of the Passover" which provides their solution for the crucifixion in 33 CE. This chart is in error for two reasons. First, it reverses the reckoning of the Sadducees and Pharisees, with the latter supposedly using sunrise reckoning. Second, in 33 CE the Passover was on the same evening by sunrise or sunset reckoning, with no offset; the offset of Passovers did occur in 30 CE.
15. J. Danielou, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1958, rep. 1979), 26-29; J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966), 24-25.
16. C. I. K. Story, "The Bearing of Old Testament Terminology on the Johannine Chronology of the Final Passover of Jesus," NT 31, 4 (1989), 322.