The date of Passover
Question: A skeptical friend told me that the Gospels do not agree on the date of Passover and that three Gospels say Holy Thursday was a Passover meal and one Gospel says it wasn’t. Is this true? How can I resolve this major contradiction?
— Harold Debosse, Cincinnati
Answer: It is true. Any straightforward reading of John’s Gospel will show that he regarded the Passover as beginning at sundown on Good Friday. Hence as Christ dies at 3 p.m. on that Friday, it is at that very hour that the Passover lambs also were being killed. It is also clear that the Synoptic Gospels say that the Thursday night meal we call the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Thus, from their reckoning, Passover that year began Thursday (one day earlier) at sundown.
This discrepancy is not really that hard to explain if we remember that the Jews of Jesus’ time followed several different calendars, some lunar, some solar. And thus, even among the Jews there were differences of view as to the actual day of Passover.
Today, we still have the same problem among Christians. Since the Orthodox and many Eastern Catholics still use the Julian Calendar, they often celebrate Easter a week, or even close to a month, later than the Western Latin Rite, which uses the Gregorian Calendar. Somehow, despite this discrepancy, we manage to respect one another and understand why the difference occurs. The same issues also emerges today with regard to Christmas.
Also, for the ancient Jews, Passover usually was celebrated over the period of a week. Thus, Jews with different calendar traditions would not find it surprising that other Jews in Jerusalem observed slightly different days for the exact celebration. Therefore, it would seem that Jesus and his disciples followed a different calendar than the Temple leaders.
John, for various theological and pastoral reasons, prefers to present Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection in a slightly different framework, one day apart, from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Historically, it does seem that John’s framework is most likely the date for Passover as observed by the Temple leaders. This is because if Passover had begun that Thursday evening for them, it is highly unlikely that they would have been available to conduct a trial that very evening, lead Jesus to Pilate and Herod, and been present to demand Jesus be crucified on the very day they regard as a Passover feast of solemn rest and worship.
Question: There are a lot of differences in the details of the Resurrection that cast doubts on credibility. How can we resolve them?
— Nancy Jenson, Philadelphia
Answer: A different way of seeing this is that the discrepancies (which are usually about small details) actually point to credibility. It shows that the message was not a highly controlled message. Many ecstatic events yield different recollections about the details.
Further, the Resurrection accounts are selective, focusing on certain events and places and not others. For example, Luke and John focus more on Jerusalem appearances, whereas Matthew and Mark focus more on Galilee. But they do not thereby deny the Jerusalem appearances.
We would expect this with eyewitness accounts to an unprecedented event. We also expect brevity and selectivity from ancient handwritten texts.