Each year when Christians celebrate Easter week, Thursday is of particular importance because this is the day Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples. It was after this evening meal that Jesus was arrested and put on trial before the Jewish authorities. Depending on one’s particular theological background, this day may be called Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday.
During the last week of his life, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. Passover was, and is, the Jewish holiday celebrating when the Angel of the Lord passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt, sparing their children’s lives during the 10th plague, prior to the Exodus. In antiquity, Jews from all over the Jewish homeland made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. In the last year of his life, Jesus also made this pilgrimage, together with his companions.
Part of the ritual of Passover was the slaughter of a perfect, unblemished lamb. This not only hearkened back to the story of the Exodus, when the Jews used the blood of slaughtered lambs to mark their doors so the Angel of the Lord would know which houses to bypass, but it also symbolized corporate atonement for sin. The sins of the Jews were, in effect, atoned for by the blood of the lamb offered as sacrifice to God. The lamb itself was then eaten by faithful Jews as part of a ritual meal that inaugurated the Passover festivities.
According to Mosaic Law, Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the 1st month of the Jewish calendar. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and thus different from our Western calendars, this is why Passover, and therefore Easter, falls on a different day each year.
In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, (collectively called the “Synoptic Gospels”) Jesus’ Thursday meal with his companions was not only their last meal together, but it was also the ritual Passover meal. After the meal, Judas Iscariot leads the authorities to where Jesus is praying. Jesus is arrested, put on trial, and finally crucified the following day, Friday. Thus, Jesus’ execution and death happen during the Passover celebration. For these gospel writers, Passover began on Thursday evening and lasted until Friday evening. On Friday evening, the weekly Sabbath began, as it does every week in the Jewish calendar.
Here, it is important to understand how ancient Jews conceived of a day. In the modern world, we understand a day to be a 24-hour period beginning at 12:00 a.m. and ending at 11:59 p.m. In the ancient world, centuries before modern calendars and concepts of time had been formulated, the concept was different. For the Jews, a day simply ended at sundown. Since the “day” ended at sundown, the next day began at sundown. Thus, where we conceive of a day lasting from 12:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., the ancient Jews conceived of a day lasting from sundown to sundown. In modern terms, we might say the Jewish day lasts from 7:00 p.m. to 6:59 p.m. Thus, the Passover meal – a meal eaten at the beginning of Passover – is eaten in the evening at the start of the day of Passover. It is an inaugural meal, not an adjourning meal.
For the authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Passover began on Thursday evening. Thus, Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was the Passover meal. Jesus was executed the following day, in the middle of Passover, and was taken down prior to sundown, before Passover ended.
This is important to note, because the Gospel of John pushes everything back a day. For the author of John’s gospel, Passover begins on Friday night, not Thursday night, meaning that Jesus is executed prior to Passover, not during Passover. This also means that for the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, but simply the evening meal on the day before Passover.
Consider the language from Mark:
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” … So the disciples set out and went to the city…and they prepared the Passover meal (Mark 14:12, 16).
Luke and Matthew also call this final meal the Passover meal.
Now compare John:
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father…And during supper, Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself (John 13:1-4).
At first glance, this passage may not seem at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. John notes simply that it is “before” Passover, and that Jesus is eating “supper” with his disciples. Couldn’t this be the Passover meal?
John’s chronology becomes clearer when you look at what he writes after this Last Supper scene (which, incidentally, takes up the next five chapters of John’s gospel). In chapter 18, after Jesus has been arrested, John writes:
Then [the Jewish authorities] took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover (verse 28).
It is now the following morning (Friday morning), and John tells us explicitly that the Passover meal is set to be eaten that evening. In the following chapter, John again reinforces this chronology: “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’” (John 19:14).
The day of Preparation for the Passover was the day before Passover. It was the day, mentioned above, when the Passover lambs were slaughtered in preparation for the evening meal. For John, this preparation day was Friday (or, more specifically, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday), and the Passover itself began at sundown Friday.
All this, of course, brings up an obvious question: Why the discrepancy? Someone must be wrong; it can’t be both ways. Jesus can’t have been executed on Friday, during Passover, and on Friday, before Passover. The Last Supper can’t have been both a Passover meal and a meal on the day before Passover.
My interest here is not to focus on the discrepancy itself. Rather than arguing about which account is historically accurate, or harping on the fact that the Bible is not inerrant, I’m far more interested in why John might have altered the chronology of previous traditions.
For anyone familiar with the Gospel of John, that his chronology of Passover week differs from the other gospels should come as no surprise. Much of John’s chronology is at odds with what we find in the Synoptics. The cleansing of the Temple, for instance, happens early in Jesus’ ministry in John, but happens during the last week of his life in the Synoptic gospels. In the Synoptics, the Triumphal Entry occurs on Sunday (thus “Palm Sunday”), but in John it happens on Monday. In the Synoptics, Jesus’ anointing in Bethany occurs on Wednesday evening before his execution on Friday, but in John it happens on the previous Sunday.
What could have been John’s reason for changing the chronology of the Passover? Why was it important for John to move the festival back a day? Surely it wasn’t a decision made willy-nilly.
Over the years, historians have tended to agree that the change occurred to fit John’s particular theological purposes. More than any other gospel in the New Testament, John focuses on Jesus’ symbolic representation as the sacrificial lamb of the Passover. Most Christians are familiar with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God. This is a phrase that is used twice in John’s Gospel to describe Jesus – with both occurrences happening on the lips of John the Baptizer. It doesn’t occur in any other gospel, or in any other text of the New Testament. Anyone familiar with what we might call Christian Theology 101 recognizes that Christians believe Jesus’ blood atoned for the sins of humanity. Thus, “Jesus died for our sins.” For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate atoning sacrifice. This is a theology that is explicit and rife throughout John’s gospel in particular. For John, Jesus became the ultimate sacrificial lamb of the Passover, spilling his blood to save humankind from its sins.
This “lamb of God” theology is fairly unique to John’s Gospel. For Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ death wasn’t necessarily about becoming the sacrificial lamb of the Passover, but was instead part of the Suffering Servant model from Isaiah. Jesus would suffer and die, and through that suffering, bring salvation to the world. For Luke, Jesus died so that human beings would have an opportunity to recognize their sinfulness (which put Jesus on the cross) and thus seek repentance. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus’ death function explicitly as atonement – a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity, like the sacrificial lamb of the Passover.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why John may have changed the chronology of Passover. Recall the discussion above about the festival of the Passover. It was inaugurated by a ritual meal wherein Jews would offer a blood sacrifice from an unblemished lamb, then consume the meat of the lamb. On the day before Passover, called the Day of Preparation, ordinary Jews would purchase an unblemished lamb, take it to the Temple, and have it ritually slaughtered by the priests. The blood would be offered on the altar, and the remaining meat would be cooked in preparation for the evening meal. All of this took place during the late morning and afternoon on the day before Passover. At sundown, Passover would officially begin, and the ritual Passover meal would be eaten.
By changing the chronology of Passover and moving it to Friday evening, John is effectively having Jesus crucified on the afternoon of the Day of Preparation. In other words, while the priests in the Temple are busy slaughtering the sacrificial lambs in preparation for the evening Passover meal, Jesus is at Golgotha being crucified. Jesus, then, is functioning as a human sacrificial lamb; his blood is being spilled for the atonement of humanity’s sins.
This is why John changed the chronology we find in the Synoptic gospels. John, more than any other gospel writer, wanted to show that Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb. He was crucified so that his blood could atone for the sins of humanity. For that reason, he was executed at the same time that the priests were slaughtering the ritual Passover lambs.
As a result, in the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, as it is in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Instead, it is simply an evening meal on the day before Passover. This is of particular interest in light of a recent study about depictions of the Last Supper in art over the centuries. Researchers have found that the portions depicted on the table have steadily increased over the years, reflecting the increase in our collective dietary habits (particularly in the West). Some folks have noted that the portions would likely have been large anyway, since it was a Passover meal, and thus a veritable “feast.”
In John’s gospel, however, it was not the Passover meal at all, and would instead have been a modest meal of bread, fish, and wine.