Does the Bible Contradict Itself Regarding the Day of the Crucifixion?
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, before His crucifixion, Jesus sent disciples to prepare the Passover meal, killing the Passover lamb. They note that this task was completed on “the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,” the 14th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, the day before Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7)—identifying for us that the meal was prepared on a Thursday. In accordance with the Law of Moses, Jesus then ate the Passover meal that evening—Thursday night to the modern mind, but the beginning of the Jewish Friday to the Israelite (the Jewish day began at sunset). Jesus’ crucifixion then occurred the next day on Friday (the same day as the initial Passover meal to Jews), before the Jewish Sabbath Day began Friday evening (the Jews’ Saturday). [NOTE: While some believe the crucifixion, and hence the Passover meal, was earlier in the week, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, and Matthew 27:62 indicate that the crucifixion took place on Friday, “the day before the Sabbath,” with Jesus dying as “the Sabbath drew near.” Backing up through the synoptic narratives reveals Jesus being arrested the night before (Thursday night), while Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately after His last supper with the disciples. The resurrection took place on Sunday, “three days” later, according to the Jewish idiomatic reckoning of the chronology (Mark 16:9; Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; cf. Lyons, 2004; Lyons, 2006; Bullinger, 1898, pp. 845-847; Robertson, 1922, pp. 289-291).] John, however, seems to indicate that Jesus’ crucifixion actually took place before the Passover even began (John 13:1; 18:28; 19:14). Thomas Nelson’s The Chronological Study Bible says, “The Synoptics [i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke—JM] present the Last Supper as being the Passover meal…. In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper was not the Passover meal” (2008, p. 1217). Jennifer Viegas, writing for Discovery News, said, “The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) indicate that Jesus died before nightfall on the 15th day of Nisan…. John’s gospel differs from the synoptics; apparently indicating that Jesus died before nightfall on the 14th day of Nisan” (2012). Respected biblical scholar J.W. McGarvey highlights the debate over the matter stating that,
[s]ince the second century a great dispute has been carried on as to the apparent discrepancy between John and the synoptists in their statements concerning the passover. The synoptists…clearly represent Jesus as having eaten the passover at the proper time, and as having been arrested on the same night, while John here and elsewhere…seems to represent Jesus as being arrested before the passover (2012, CXVIII, John 13:1-20, italics in orig.).
Is this a legitimate discrepancy that can be levied against the Bible?
First, what did the Law of Moses command concerning the observance of the Passover? In order for Jesus to be sinless (Hebrews 4:15), our spotless and unblemished Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), He had to keep the Law of Moses perfectly. If He violated the Law of Moses regarding the correct observance of the Passover, our hope is vain. The Passover lamb was to be killed at twilight (i.e., sunset) on the evening of the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar (Ezekiel 45:21). The lamb was then to be eaten that same night with unleavened bread (Exodus 12:6-8; Numbers 28:16-17; Leviticus 23:5-7), leaving none of it until morning—burning any remains (Exodus 12:10). Unleavened bread was then to be eaten every day until the 21st day of the month at evening (Exodus 12:18). No leavened bread was even to be in an Israelite house for that week, or those individuals would be “cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:19).
The language of Matthew, Mark, and Luke leaves little doubt that the Passover lamb was killed by the apostles on Thursday afternoon of the crucifixion week, which was the 14th of Nisan, and that Jesus then immediately ate the Passover meal that evening on the 15th of Nisan in keeping with the Law of Moses (cf. Matthew 26:17-21; Mark 14:12,16-18; Luke 22:7-9). The apparent discrepancy comes when we compare various verses in the book of John.
John 13:1-2 says, “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him.” A straightforward reading of this passage leaves the impression that the last supper that the disciples ate with Jesus was not the Passover meal, but actually “before the feast of the Passover,” as though the Passover began the next day. This would contradict the synoptic Gospels’ clear claims and imply that either John taught that the last supper was not actually the Passover meal as the other Gospel writers claimed, or that Jesus was observing the Passover early—on a different day than was commanded by God. In truth, the alleged contradiction in this case is easily dispelled by understanding that the phrase “supper being ended” (NKJV) is properly translated:
“during supper” (ASV; ESV; RSV; McCord, 1989), or
while the “meal was being served” (NIV), “being prepared…or going on” (Jamieson, et al., 2012, John 13:2), or “was preparing” (Clark, 2013, John 13:2), or
“while they were at supper” (Barnes, 2012, John 13:2), or
“there being a supper made, or he being at supper” (Henry, 2014, John 13:2).
In context, verse one of John 13 is a transitional verse, serving as a summary and wrap-up of the preceding section of John’s narrative (i.e., those events occurring “before the feast of the Passover”) leading up to the next critical section of his book, which covers the next seven chapters (an entire third) of the book, moving the reader through the final events of Jesus’ life. Verse two begins a new discussion concerning the Passover events—a narrative that begins “during” the Passover supper, or while it was “being served” or “prepared.” Greek scholar A.T. Robertson stated that “it is not certain that verse 1 is to be connected with verse 2. The best exegetes agree that a complete idea may be presented therein, either a general statement that Jesus loved his own before the Passover and until the end, or that he came into special consciousness of this love just before the Passover” (1922, p. 282). Respected biblical scholar Hugo McCord’s independent translation captures the portrait being depicted by John. “Before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end. [Verse 2:] During supper (since the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him)” (John 13:1-2). Note the natural contrast that John is making between the words “before” and “during” with regards to that important feast.
But what about John 18:28? “Then they [i.e., the Jews] led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early [Friday] morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.” This verse seems to indicate that the Jews had not yet eaten the Passover meal, which again leaves the impression that either the Passover had not yet begun, or that the Jews had failed to eat the meal at the proper time, which seems very unlikely. It is argued that “[i]n John’s sequence, the Last Supper was celebrated on Passover eve, and Jesus was tried the next day while the Jewish authorities themselves were preparing to eat the Passover meal (18:28)” (The Chronological Study Bible, p. 1217). However, a closer look at how the term “Passover” is used in the Bible, and especially by John, sheds light on this passage. Robertson notes that
it is by no means certain that the phrase “eat the Passover” means simply the paschal supper…. [T]he word “Passover” is used in three senses in the New Testament, the paschal supper, the paschal lamb, or the paschal festival. The word is used eight times in John besides this instance, and in every case the Passover festival is meant. So we may fairly infer that the usage of John must determine his own meaning rather than that of the Synoptists (pp. 281-282; cf. Jackson, p. 176).
Recall that the Passover festival lasted seven days, not merely the one night when the lamb was slain and eaten (Exodus 12:6-20). The Passover week had begun the night before with a feast and would continue over the following days with more feasting. The Jews, therefore, did not want to become defiled before the next unleavened meal of the Passover week.
The verse that perhaps causes the most accusations against the biblical account of the crucifixion day regards John 19:14. Before the crucifixion, after scourging Jesus and allowing the Roman soldiers to mock Him, Pilate brought Jesus out to the Jews again. “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” Because of this text, some argue that John “suggests that Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover began—‘the Preparation Day of the Passover’” (The Chronological Study Bible, p. 1217, italics in orig.). Again, this would imply that the supper that Jesus ate the night before with His disciples was not actually the Passover meal—i.e., the synoptics are wrong.
However, the phrase “Preparation Day of the Passover” is referring to the Sabbath Preparation Day that occurs during the Passover week—i.e., Friday. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who as stated earlier in unison clearly portray Jesus as being arrested and crucified after the Passover meal, all also state that the “Day of Preparation” was the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. They simply make it clear in context that they apply that description to the Sabbath Preparation Day (e.g., Matthew 27:62). Immediately after Jesus’ death, Luke couples the Preparation Day with the Sabbath, noting, “That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near” (Luke 23:54). Mark defines his use of the term even more clearly, stating, “Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath” (15:42). Robertson notes that John also used “Preparation Day” as being coupled with the Sabbath. “John himself so uses the word in two other passages (19:31,42), in both of which haste is exercised on the Preparation, because the Sabbath was at hand” (p. 282).
Biblical scholar Gleason Archer notes that the word translated “Preparation” (paraskeuē) was the actual word for Friday in the first century. “[T]he word paraskeuē had already by the first century A.D. become a technical term for ‘Friday,’ since every Friday was the day of preparation for Saturday, that is, the Sabbath. In Modern Greek the word for ‘Friday’ is paraskeuē…. [T]hat which might be translated literally as ‘the preparation of the Passover’ must in this context be rendered ‘Friday of Passover Week’” (1982, p. 375).Robertson agreed, explaining that “the term ‘Preparation’ has long been the regular name for Friday in the Greek language, caused by the New Testament usage. It is so in the Modern Greek to-day” (p. 282). Indeed, the NIV rendering of John 19:14 helps to clear the confusion by rendering the sentence, “It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.” John simply does not contradict the synoptic Gospels regarding Jesus’ crucifixion day.
But if Jesus was killed on Friday the 15th of Nisan, and the Passover lambs were killed Thursday the 14th of Nisan, how can He be our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7)? Gleason responded to that question, explaining, “It simply needs to be pointed out that the lambs referred to here [i.e., in 1 Corinthians 5:7—JM] are not those that were slaughtered and eaten in private homes—a rite Jesus had already observed with His disciples the night before…—but the lambs to be offered on the altar of the Lord on behalf of the whole nation of Israel” (p. 376, italics in orig.). Gleason proceeds to illustrate the distinction between the private sacrifices (e.g., Exodus 12:6) and the public sacrifices (Exodus 12:16-17; Leviticus 23:4-8; 2 Chronicles 30:15-19; 35:11-16). He notes, “These were all known as Passover sacrifices, since they were presented during Passover week” (p. 376). Jesus is the Passover lamb for all, and therefore, it makes sense that He would be sacrificed as a public sacrifice.
Thus, as is always the case, a text which appears on the surface to contradict another biblical text, is found to harmonize perfectly with it. Amazingly, when studied further and treated fairly, alleged contradictions which are levied against the Bible are consistently found in the end to actually provide even more evidence that the Bible’s internal consistency is nothing less than supernatural. If God is indeed the Author of the Bible, as it claims (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), then that certainly should be the case any time the original rendering of a Scripture can be determined with confidence and translated accurately. John’s description of the crucifixion event provides even more evidence for the amazing accuracy of the Bible. [NOTE: See Butt, 2003 for further information.]
Archer, Gleason, L. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Barnes, Albert (2012), Barnes’ Notes On the New Testament (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Bullinger, E.W. (1898), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968 reprint).
Butt, Kyle (2003), “What Kind of Bread did Jesus Use to Institute the Last Supper?” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1196.
The Chronological Study Bible (2008), (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).
Clarke, Adam (2013), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Henry, Matthew (2014), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Jackson, Wayne (2011), A New Testament Commentary (Stockton, CA: Christian Courier).
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown (2012), Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871) (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Did Jesus Rise ‘On’ or ‘After’ the Third Day?” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=756.
Lyons, Eric (2006), “Reasoning About the Resurrection of Christ,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=228&article=3689.
McCord, Hugo (1989), McCord’s New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College).
McGarvey, J.W. (2012), The Four-Fold Gospel: A Harmony of the Gospels (Electronic Database: WORDsearch).
Robertson, A.T. (1922), A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Harper & Row).
Viegas, Jennifer (2012), “Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion Believed Determined,” Discovery News, May 24, http://news.discovery.com/history/religion/jesus-crucifixion-120524.htm.