Recall that, in Exodus 12:46 (see also Numbers 9:12), the Israelites were commanded to prepare the Passover lamb in a way that wouldn’t break a single bone.
You’re probably already trekking with us on this one. This is a “what comes first, chicken or egg?” conundrum, as we wonder whether God didn’t want the Israelites to break the lambs’ bones because not one of Jesus’ bones would be broken (Psalm 34:20, John 19:30–37), or if none of Jesus’ bones would end up broken because that’s how the Passover lamb was to die. Either way, God orchestrated this additional layer. Neither the lambs’ bones nor the Lamb’s bones would be broken in the carrying out of the sacrifice.
We all saw that one coming, we authors can hear the readers thinking.
Ah, yes, but do we all know how the Israelites had to prepare the Passover lamb in order for no bones to break? Do we know how they carefully roasted the animals in such a way that the entire flesh could be accessed and devoured (Exodus 12:10) without breaking any bones?
The process isn’t one we will go into in great detail, because those with weak stomachs may not appreciate it. Put simply: Once the lamb’s organs were removed, a pole (or branch from a sturdy source such as a pomegranate tree) was inserted horizontally to splay open the chest and upper arms of the animal, guaranteeing even and thorough roasting. Then another pole was inserted vertically and driven into the ground in order to hang the animal upright near the fire. The removed entrails were coiled atop the lamb’s head, an ancient tradition called the “Crown Sacrifice” or the “Crown of the Passover Lamb.” The result was literally a blood-crowned lamb hanging on a cross…a visual foreshadowing of Christ’s death. No regular human imagination could have planned that element centuries before He was crucified.
We could explore countless other parallels on this trail to understanding how Christ fulfilled the Passover. Here are just a few more that we can mention quickly:
- Jesus was thoroughly examined by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes for four days and found to be spotless (1 Peter 2:22), just as the Passover lamb for Seder was continuously examined for four days to ensure perfection before the sacrifice.
- After the building of the temple, when the Jews would gather en masse, preparations took more time to complete, and all the Passover lambs would have to be gathered and tied to their altars at 9 o’clock in the morning in order for the families to assemble to sing the Psalms. Nine in the morning was the same time Jesus would be nailed to the cross.
- In order for the lamb to be prepared in time for the feast, however, it needed to be slain at 3 o’clock in the afternoon—the same time of day Jesus died.
- At 6 o’clock in the evening, the Passover meal is complete and a new day begins. Thisis the same time Jesus was laid to rest in the tomb.
- When the temple’s high priest had completed the ritual killing of the lamb on the altar, he lifted his hands apart in the air and said, “It is finished.” This was the position of Jesus’ body on the cross when He spoke those same words and then gave up the Spirit.
The list goes on and on, detailing hundreds of intricate links and connections between the manner in which Jesus died and the feast that had been established or ages before He was born, many of which (like the timing of His crucifixion and death) couldn’t have been planned to symbolically align so perfectly.
Note that not every scholar agrees on the dates of these events. Some state that the Last Supper Jesus shared with His disciples was a true Passover Seder (i.e., happening on the official Jewish Passover day at the same time the rest of the Jews were sitting to supper), while others claim it was conducted ahead of the rest of the Jews so Jesus could have one last Passover experience before He was arrested (as He knew He would be). Theories abound as to what day of the week on which Jesus was crucified, and there are arguments for a number of different possibilities. This is all in addition to the fact that the Gospel of John mentions the urgency of taking the bodies down from the cross because it was a Sabbath day (John 19:31), which leads to numerous interpretations as to whether it was a literal or symbolic Sabbath day. (This discrepancy is no doubt related to the heated discussions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding whether the “holy” day of Unleavened Bread would be considered the real Sabbath Day of Passover week…a quarrel we will visit at more length later on.) Likewise, the year is in question, though most sources are willing to agree that Jesus went to the cross in either AD 30 or 33. And then, of course, the “what day did which event happen” puzzle gets even more complicated when we compare Gregorian “days” (that begin at precisely midnight) with Hebrew calendar “days” (beginning at 6 o’clock p.m., or sundown).
You may be wondering why the timing of any of this matters.
Bear with us; we want to show you something astonishing. It will take some explaining, since the subject is a little complicated, but it’s well worth the effort.
The Double-Calendar Issue: Was the Last Supper a True Seder?
For centuries, scholars, historians, researchers, and even Hebrew and Greek linguists have visited all the considerable details available in Scripture, in culture, and in various extrabiblical texts. In the research for this book, we consulted many sources, including the following two New Testament scholars and seminary professors who subscribe to the AD 33 theory: Dr. Harold W. Hoehner, holder of multiple doctorates in Bible and theology from several respected universities (including Cambridge), and author of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ; and Dr. Darrell L. Bock, senior research professor over all New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, editor of Christianity Today, and author of Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (although most readers will remember Bock for his book, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, in which he exposed Dan Brown’s best-selling “Jesus married Mary Magdalene” fiction, The Da Vinci Code, as the historical and theological train wreck that it was). These men have spent a significant portion of their professional lives looking into what dates, times, and customs are mentioned in the Scriptures surrounding the Passion Week, and then comparing them to the writings of early Church historians and several contributing calendars of that time (Gregorian, Judean, Galilean, etc.; more on this in a moment). The conclusion, once these and other “AD 33” timelines are compared, is that Jesus was killed on 14 Nisan, Passover’s “preparation day.” Remember that technically the Seder lamb was killed on 14 Nisan and then consumed at sundown, the beginning of the Hebrew calendar’s 15 Nisan.
We also checked sources that land at the AD 30 theory. On this end of the spectrum, in addition to some convincing scholarly discussions, a few expert astronomers with cutting-edge computer calculation technology have taken all the data that can be collected about feast days, rules of crucifixion, calendar dates, and astronomical movements within the universe since the New Testament, and they have concluded that Jesus was crucified in AD 30, yet still on 14 Nisan.[i] Once again, Passover “preparation day” is 14 Nisan; the Seder meal began at sundown hours later, on 15 Nisan.
In either case, AD 30 or AD 33, a massive number of scholars and historians agree that the order of weekdays, as they line up with the Passover week observations of the Jews, still place Jesus’ death on “preparation day,” not on or after the Passover Seder.
So, was Jesus’ last meal—the meal He called a Passover meal (Luke 22:15)—a real Seder or not? If He was killed on “preparation day,” then He couldn’t have been sitting down to the Last Supper hours later, right?
Before we go any farther, let’s stop for a moment and address why this is such a hotly debated issue.
If you’re familiar enough with the four Gospels, you will have already likely stumbled onto what we’re about to dissect, and perhaps you’ve even wondered about the apparent “discrepancy” between what the Synoptic Gospels say and what the Gospel of John says. The Bible seems to give two different days of Christ’s death.
Mark 14:12 appears to force the interpretation that Jesus’ Last Supper was an official Seder: “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, ‘Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?’” At first glance, that looks like a clear description of 14 Nisan, during the hours when the lambs were slaughtered, which presses the idea that the Lord would have sat to His meal with the disciples at dinnertime, sundown, the moment 15 Nisan began. (Also see Luke 22:7 and Matthew 26:17. They refer to the same time stamp, but for the sake of simplicity, we will use Mark as a representative text for the other two.)
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But as we turn to John 19:14, we read about a moment in what can only refer to early 14 Nisan—“preparation day”—when Jesus has already been arrested and is now standing before Pilate, soon to be crucified: “And it was the preparation of the passover [14 Nisan], and about the sixth hour [noon or midday in Hebrew time]: and he [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” (emphasis added).
Both Mark and John look as if they’re talking about events occurring on early 14 Nisan. However, Mark shows Jesus prior to His arrest preparing for a peaceful meal just after having been anointed with expensive perfumes in Bethany. John places Him in Pilate’s presence, well after His arrest: flogged, beaten, slapped, taunted, crowned with thorns, dressed in a mock-royalty robe of purple, and bleeding from head to toe, all while a crowd stands nearby demanding “Crucify him!” (John 19:15). Jesus, because He is God, certainly could have been in two places at once, but that obviously isn’t the case here.
A few verses later in John, another reference to “preparation day” (14 Nisan) is quite clearly noted; this time, it’s after Jesus has died:
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:30–31, emphasis added).
Yet, just when we might start to think we’ve discovered a biblical discrepancy or contradiction—just when we’re getting the impression that Jesus died “on 14 Nisan in John” but “on 15 Nisan in Mark”—Mark suddenly delivers this gem over in 15:39–43:
And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost [note: Jesus just died in this passage], he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem. And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation [14 Nisan], that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus. (Emphasis added)
Hold on a second… Mark describes Jesus as both preparing for the Last Supper on “preparation day” (Mark 14:12) as well as already being dead on “preparation day” (Mark 15:42), when the Word is clear that there was a whole night and day filled with trials, sentencing, beatings, mockeries, bleeding, and hanging on the cross between the Last Supper and Christ’s death?
Further, if John and the Synoptics don’t agree with each other…and Mark doesn’t even agree with itself…then why do all four Gospels agree that Jesus died on Friday, the day before the Sabbath (Matthew 27:62; 28:1; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54, 56; John 19:31, 42)?
If you’re confused, it’s okay. You’re only finding yourself in the same pickle that has caused many a brilliant Bible scholar to blink a few times. This is merely one of several areas of Scripture nonbelievers love to refer to as “proof” that the Bible is fallible and untrustworthy. However, the explanation is simpler than a lot of folks make it, and the answer can be found with a little diligent digging.
Today, many who study this subject initially believe the Hebrew calendar is a singular dating system for all the Jews. However, after the Diaspora separated the Israelites into many different sects for generations, which eventually saw to the establishment of slight variations in custom and tradition, not all sects within Judaism agreed on how to interpret the passage of a day. Eventually, the Galileans (including Christ) considered a day to be “from sunrise to sunrise.” The Judeans, along with the Sadducees (and therefore the high priest), considered a day to be “from sunset to sunset.” Though both of these considerations are “Hebrew,” once the instructions from God regarding the Passover are interpreted through these contrasting lenses, they effectively produce two Passover Seder meals the Jews would have been celebrating at the time of Christ.
Using AD 33 as an example:
- For the Galileans, 14 Nisan started at 6:00 in the morning on Thursday, April 2, and ended at 6:00 in the morning on Friday, April 3. However, because the Galileans’ “evening at the end of 14 Nisan” was on April 2, they would have celebrated their Passover Seder on Thursday night. In this, their “preparation” and their “Seder meal” were both on the Galilean 14 Nisan.
- For the Judeans, 14 Nisan started at 6:00 in the evening on Thursday, April 2, and ended at 6:00 in the evening on Friday, April 3. However, because the Judeans’ “evening at the end of 14 Nisan” was on April 3, they would have celebrated their Passover Seder on Friday night, just as the low sun whisked them into 15 Nisan. In this, their “preparation” was on 14 Nisan and their “Seder meal” was in the first moments of 15 Nisan.
Bottom line for us Gregorian calendar folks: One of these Seders would have been on Thursday and one would have been on Friday, while both days would have been “preparation day” for one or the other of the Galileans or Judeans. And whereas it might be seen as a point of contention between Galileans and Judeans as to whom was correct in their traditional interpretations, many scholars have noted that this discrepancy of celebration days actually brought some relief to the Jews in Jerusalem, since there were thousands upon thousands of lambs for the priests to slaughter. Exodus 12:10 required the lamb to be eaten the evening after it was slain, and if there was any leftover, it was to be burned in the morning. The differentiating interpretations of 14 Nisan allowed the slaughter, the preparation, the roasting, and every other massive arrangement to be broken essentially into two national Seder observations—one on Thursday and one on Friday—the latter of which would be the more public display of the two in the temple, since the high priest was among this group.
Semitic language master, Bible scholar, former president of Hebrew Union College, former honorary president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and a founder of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Dr. Julian Morgenstern, acknowledged this in his 1955 article, “The Calendar of the Book of Jubilees, Its Origin and Its Character.” Prior to that article, scholars were at times aware of this double-Hebrew-calendar problem due to the grace of God and/or their own passionate analysis of biblical cultures. However, since the academic quarterly Vetus Testamentum, which is sponsored by the International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament, ran Morgenstern’s study,[ii] it has paved the way for many more modern scholars to delve even further into what this would have meant for the “Passover Day discrepancy” we just reflected upon.
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One scholar who personally benefitted from the Morgenstern piece was Dr. Harold W. Hoehner, who, as we mentioned before, believes the crucifixion year to be AD 33. He wrote in his book, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ:
Thus, according to the Synoptics, the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Since the day was to be reckoned from sunrise, the Galileans, and with them Jesus and His disciples, had the Paschal lamb slaughtered in the late afternoon [3:00 p.m.] of Thursday, Nisan 14, and later that evening [6:00 p.m., but the same Hebrew day for the Galileans] they ate the Passover with the unleavened bread. On the other hand, the Judean Jews who reckoned from sunset to sunset would slay the lamb on Friday afternoon which marked the end of Nisan 14 and would eat the Passover lamb with the unleavened bread that night which had become Nisan 15. Thus, Jesus had eaten the Passover meal [the Last Supper with His disciples] when His enemies, who had not as yet had the Passover, arrested Him.[iii]
So, the reference to the preparation slaughter in Mark 14:12 relates to the Galilean Hebrew calendar, and the reference to the preparation day in Mark 15:42 relates to the Judean Hebrew calendar. All talk of “preparation” was on 14 Nisan, but with different interpretations of when 14 Nisan begins and ends; this means “preparation day” at the time of Christ would have been on both Thursday and Friday.
Okay, but why wouldn’t the authors of the Gospels mention the two different Passover meal days?
Why would they feel the need to?
The audience of their time would have been very familiar with the ongoing incongruity between Jewish sects and their post-Diaspora variations of tradition. And don’t forget that the first rule of biblical interpretation is that readers need to interpret the Word as it was written to the original audience, lest we find our contemporary lens warping what was originally said.
The conclusion, in these authors’ opinions, and as is shared in the judgment of many scholars: Jesus’ Last Supper was a legitimate Seder, celebrated with the Galilean sect of the Jews, on Thursday evening. Then, later that same night, He was arrested, Peter denied Him three times before dawn (the crowing of the rooster) on Friday, and by 9 o’clock a.m. Friday morning, He was being nailed to the cross. He died and was removed from the cross just before the Judeans had their Seder meal.
UP NEXT: What This All Means: Astonishing!
[i] Edward M. Reingold, Calendrical Calculations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008; 3rd ed.), in the Calendar Book, Papers, and Code series.
[ii] Morgenstern, Julian, “The Calendar of the Book of Jubilees, Its Origin and Its Character,” January, 1955, Vetus Testamentum, Volume 5, 64–65.
[iii] Hoehner, Harold W., Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1977), 87.