Does the account of the Last Supper as a Passover meal indicate biblical errors and historical unreliability?
1. Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, and Luke 22:7-38 call the Last Supper a Passover Meal as described in Deuteronomy 16:5-6, occurring on Thursday Nisan 14, and that Jesus was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday.2. John 13:1 and 18:28-19:16 described Jesus and His disciples eating the Last Supper on Wednesday night Nissan 13, meaning that Jesus was crucified on Thursday and resurrected on Saturday.
3. Mark 14:17-15:47 records events that contradicted Jewish Passover festal regulations and infringing upon their levitical purity for Passover: (1) Jesus left Jerusalem and visited Gethsemane; (2) the temple guards carried weapons; (3) the high priest tore his clothes at Jesus’ perceived blasphemy; (4) the removal of Jesus body from the cross; (5) Mary Magdalene prepared spices for His body; (6) the Jewish people participated in the Roman trials; (7) Jesus was executed on the first day of the feast; (8) Simon from Cyrene had traveled a long distance from the country; (9) Joseph purchased a linen shroud for Jesus’ burial; (10) The Sanhedrin met and condemned Jesus during the night of the Passover feast
4. Acts 2:42 indicates that the early Christians celebrated the Last Supper daily while the Passover was an annual event
5. 1 Cor. 5:7 describes Jesus as the Passover Lamb that was sacrificed, and the Passover lambs were sacrificed on Thursday Nisan 14 implying that He was sacrificed on Thursday and therefore resurrected on Saturday.
6. 1 Cor. 15:20 describes Jesus as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep and the Jewish first fruits were offered on Saturday Nisan 16 implying that He was crucified on Thursday and resurrected on Saturday rather than Sunday.
You bring up one of the most difficult questions with regard to the possibility of a contradiction in the scriptures. Does the account by John contradict with that of the Synoptic Gospels? Let us consider this possibility. On the face if, it does seem that John’s description of the timing of the Last Supper and the crucifixion is different from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke. There are two possibilities as I see it. Either:
1. it is in fact a contradiction and John’s description is an error. or
2. the perception of a contradiction is due to a misunderstanding of what John and the other gospel authors are saying.
Personally, I accept the second statement, that it is only an apparent but not an actual contradiction, but to be honest I am not absolutely certain this is the correct view. Let me explain my view and also offer a defense of the first option above.
First of all, it is helpful to be reminded that the word “Passover” was traditionally applied by the Jews to the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread, which included the Passover and the Feast of Firstfruits. As an analogy, in the West, we often call the entire season “Christmas.” Therefore describing the Last Supper as a Passover meal may simply mean that it was a meal celebrated during the time of the Passover, including the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread. It is entirely possible that Jesus and his apostles were eating a (not “the“) Passover meal. Note that at the Last Supper there is no evidence of a lamb being eaten. Many elements lead to the conclusion that this was not a traditional Passover meal. A description of this view is found in the Tyndale New Testament commentary on John. “The simplest solution, and the one assumed in this commentary, is that Jesus, knowing that he would be dead before the regular time for the [Passover] meal, deliberately held it in secret one day early…. Of course it was strictly incorrect to hold a “Passover” at any time other than th evening of Nisan 14/15, but Jesus was not one to be bound by formal regulations in an emergency situation!… It was therefore a Passover meal in intention but without a lamb”
This would explain a lot, including some of the other objections you raise above. It would explain why the legs of the two thieves would be broken so that the crucifixions could be ended before Passover. It would explain the carrying of spices for Jesus’ burial and so forth. According to this explanation, Jesus, anticipating that he would be dead by the Passover, and also knowing that he himself was a Passover lamb, celebrated a kind of special Passover with his apostles the night before the actual Passover so as to act out the symbolic type/antitype relationship between his death and its foreshadow in the death of the Passover lamb which saved the Jewish firstborn from death. If this explanation is correct, then Jesus died right about the time that the lambs were being killed by the Jews in preparation for the Passover meal that evening. If true, this would be a very fitting type/antitype relationship between the death of Jesus and the Passover.
If true, it would also explain John 18:28 which tells us that the crucifixion occurred on the day before the Passover, as you pointed out. It would also explain Matthew 26:17 and Mark 14:12 in which the disciples ask Jesus about preparations about preparations for eating a Passover meal which was in fact not an actual Passover, but the day before.
The second possibility is that John, writing almost sixty years after the events, is simply mistaken. John was not as concerned with exact chronology as the other gospel writers. He was more concerned with themes and with the timings of festivals. Perhaps John saw Jesus as fulfilling prophecy about the Passover lamb and therefore confused the facts and had him killed at the same time that the Passover lambs are killed. This would be a relatively small difference, all things considered. It would not overthrow the general claim that the Bible is inspired. I cannot absolutely reject this explanation, but to me it seems that even the distance of sixty years is unlikely to have allowed John to have forgotten such a significant detail as whether the crucifixion happened on or before the Passover.
Therefore, I believe that the second option above is the more likely. The Last Supper was an adapted Passover-like meal celebrated by Jesus in anticipation of the fact that his death would be a fulfillment of that which the original Passover was a prefigure of.
3. You mention a couple of other concerns. In the third question you mention a number of things which happened which would not be consistent with actions Jews would take on the actual Passover. I believe that my explanation covers these concerns. Some of the perceived problems may not be problems anyway. Simon of Cyrene may have come to Jerusalem earlier. Temple guards were an exception which Rabbis had allowed for many years to the rule about carrying loads on the Sabbath so that the Jews could not be attacked by their enemies on days they would otherwise be vulnerable. Preparing a body for burial on the Sabbath was an allowed-for exception as well. The Jews violated may of their own rules in the trials of Jesus, so it would not be a surprise that they violated some of the rules of the Sabbath to condemn Jesus. I could continue through this list, but if my explanation above is correct, these are a moot point.
4. As for Acts 2:42 is is not evidence that the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily. The phrase “the breaking of bread” is almost certainly a reference to the Lord’s Supper, but the phrase “Every day…” in 2:46 is about their meeting together daily is not saying they celebrated the Communion every day. When it says that they broke bread in their homes in Actus 2:46, this is almost certainly a reference to them simply eating together. Whereas Acts 2:42 is a description of the Lord’s Supper (with no reference to it being daily), Acts 2:46 is not a description of the Lord’s Supper, but simply recounting that they ate meals together in their homes daily.
5. The gospel accounts do not state the actual day of the week the events occurred. It is possible that in the year that Jesus was killed the Passover was celebrated Friday evening/Saturday day, that Jesus was killed on the day before the Passover (ie. Friday during the day) and that he rose on Sunday, which would be the 16th of Nisan and the Feast of Firstfruits. Therefore, the explanation I give above answers all the objections you raise, at least as far as I can tell. If I understand it correctly, the calendar for AD 30 agrees with this picture.
6. As already mentioned, the scenario I am describing is consistent with 16 Nisan being a Saturday evening/Sunday day, which would be consistent with the fact that the Church always celebrated the resurrection on Sunday (an historical fact from Church history) and also consistent with the idea that Jesus was indeed raised on the Day of Firstfruits, in fulfillment of the type/antitype connection between Jesus and the Feast of Firstfruits. Like I said above, the Bible does not tell us the days of the week of these events, but it tells us where they fell on the Jewish religious calendar. I discuss this in some detail in my book From Shadow to Reality (www.ipibooks.com).
I hope I have addressed all of your concerns. Let me know if I have not.