Do the Gospels conflict in the Timing of the Last Supper?
Updated: Jun 1
As we prepare for Easter, we notice a difference in the timing of the Last Supper as reported in the various Gospels. The Gospels agree that Jesus's trial and execution were on Preparation day and they had to be finished before the Sabbath began at dusk. Given that Sabbath began Friday at dusk, Preparation Day was normally Friday so no work was done on the Sabbath. There is a discrepancy in the timing and type of meal.
Image: Rossakiewics Last Supper, Wikimedia
The four Gospels say that Jesus is executed on Preparation Day and that those on the crosses had to be taken down Friday before dusk when the Sabbath began.
Matthew: Jesus was killed on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Matthew 26:17) and also on Preparation Day (Matthew 27:62).
Mark: Jesus had his last supper on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Mark 14:12) and also that it was called Preparation Day (Mark 15:42).
Luke: They were approaching the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed (Luke 22:7)
John: They met just before the Passover Festival (John 13:1) and Jesus was killed on the day of Preparation, the day before a High Sabbath (John 19:31).
Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe Jesus's last supper with the disciples as the Passover seder meal. Many scholars believe Jesus's last supper was a seder meal. This places the last supper and Passover meal on Thursday evening after dusk. It can be understood that the common people were sacrificing lambs throughout the city a day earlier than the priests sacrificed the lambs at the Temple. Preparation day began Thursday at dusk and lasted until Friday at dusk. Jesus was executed on Friday just before dusk when the Jewish Sabbath begins.
However, John indicates the Passover meal was to be eaten Friday evening. John states that when the Jewish establishment took Jesus to Pilate's palace, they did not enter the palace because doing so would make them unclean and unable to eat the Passover seder Friday evening (John 18:28). This would conflict with the other Gospels indicating the Passover meal eaten before Friday, on either Thursday or Wednesday. However, this may be resolved if we understand the word Passover to indicate not only the Passover seder meal but the entire week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread. Therefore, John may be referring to the establishment keeping ritually clean for the remaining Passover festival meals since the Feast of Unleavened Bread lasts for seven days.
John places Jesus's death on the cross at the same time on Friday afternoon as the priests were making their sacrifices in the Temple in preparation for the 'High Sabbath' Passover seder meal. In this case, Preparation Day refers to a general period of time as opposed to a specific day. This means the Passover seder meal was to be celebrated Friday evening, in contrast to the other Gospels which seem to indicate a Passover seder as Jesus's last supper on Thursday evening.
John's reference to a 'High Sabbath' means that that particular Sabbath (Saturday) after Jesus's death was a combined weekly Sabbath at the same time as the Sabbath that went with the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In search of a date when these two Sabbaths occur on the same day, one calendar has Passover on Wed. 5 April AD 30 AD and another has it on Friday 7 April AD 30 AD and another on Friday 3 April AD 33.
Some solve the differences by saying the last supper was held on a Wednesday, allowing for three full nights and days before the resurrection, consistent with the sign of Jonah. However, Romans and Jews used inclusive dating, with no zero and including partial days. This means three days could be Friday before dusk, Saturday (the Sabbath), and the next day which began Saturday at dusk. Scriptures tell us he was raised on 'the third day' (Mark 9:31, Luke 18:33, 1 Corinthians 15:4) and on the 'first day of the week' which was a Sunday (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).
The Gospels all agree that Jesus died on a Friday on the Day of Preparation during the Passover. We know he was executed in the reign of Caesar Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea (AD 26–36); Caiaphas, high priest in Jerusalem (AD 18–36); and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (circa 4 BC-AD 39). We also know that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of the babies. Herod the Great died in 4 BC, Jesus began his ministry at around age thirty (Luke 3:23), and at least three Passover festivals are described during his ministry, putting his death at somewhere between AD 29-33. Using astronomical data, Humphreys and Waddington have calculated that the celebration of a Friday Passover would have to be either April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33.
In fact, on their last evening together, John mentions they were at supper but gives no description of the meal, no example of the last supper, eucharist or holy communion. Jesus washes their feet and provides final predictions, teachings, and prayers but there is no description of the meal and John does not call it a Passover meal. It may have been a formal Jewish meal with elements such as prayers, broken bread and shared wine, ending with a hymn, but not the Passover meal. At a much earlier point in Jesus's ministry, John reports Jesus telling everyone that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life (John 6:54).
The sequence in John's Gospel makes a symbolic point by portraying Jesus' sacrifice on the cross occurring at the same time as the priests sacrifice the Passover lambs for the atonement of the people. John is reinforcing the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God sacrificed for the atonement of the world (John 1:29).
In addition, Matthew says that no sign will be given to the establishment except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, the Son of Man will be in the earth for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). This indicates the possibility that Jesus was executed on a Thursday, allowing for three nights before the resurrection Sunday morning.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke record three hours of darkness during Christ's crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45). Secular sources describe a solar eclipse at that time.
Image: Peter Paul Rubens Last Supper, Wikimedia
While some things can be known, multiple theories remain regarding the date of Jesus's last supper and whether it was a Passover meal.
How do we reconcile these accounts?
The last supper on Thursday evening was not a Passover meal but a private dinner: a fellowship meal. The Passover seder meal was celebrated Friday evening and the Feast of Unleavened Bread after that.
The last supper was not a Passover seder but a Seudah Maphsehket or Fast of the Firstborn. This unique Jewish fast day is a ritual last meal that falls the day before Passover, so the Fast of the Firstborn on Thursday evening, Preparation Day and crucifixion Friday, Passover seder Friday evening.
There were two Passover meals; a private family celebration on Thursday and a communal sacrifice and atonement at the Temple on Friday.
The Passover seder was celebrated on different days based on tradition: Thursday by Galileans and Friday by Judeans; or, different dates based on solar calendar vs lunar calendar
The last supper took place on a Wednesday evening, the crucifixion on the Preparation day Thursday; High Sabbath begins Thursday at dusk for the special Sabbath kicking off the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the regular weekly Sabbath the next day.
Taking into account all the information we know, as well as the conflicting information, and what may be most palatable to my readers, my biblical novel Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold uses the following assumptions:
- The last supper took place on a Thursday evening
- the last supper was a Passover seder meal
- Galileans celebrated a private Passover seder with their families the day before the communal Passover sacrifice
- Trial and crucifixion take place on Preparation Day, Friday 7 April AD 30 at the same time as the priests were preparing to sacrifice lambs in the Temple for the communal Passover sacrifice
- High Sabbath began Friday at dusk, marking the weekly Sabbath and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread
- Saturday was the Sabbath
- Sunday was the resurrection, and Jesus rose on the third day using inclusive counting.