Jesus died on a Friday, right?
I don’t think so.
In fact, I’d say, probably not.
In yet another file on “the scriptures aren’t internally cohesive and that’s OK because they weren’t written to be,” we take a quick look at the Last Supper-Crucifixion-Resurrection arc in the gospels.
Also: don’t @ me, bro. I know you may not like what follows, but…well…pastors really should be more intellectually honest about this stuff.
This question is particularly timely for two reasons. First, it’s Holy Week and these events are on the minds of Christians today. And secondly, tonight begins the Jewish feast of Passover, so it is especially timely.
There is a third reason, though…but I’ll get to that in a minute. Just wait.
I should note that Passover and Holy Week don’t always align, though…and Christians are surprised to hear this. Passover in the Jewish calendar is on a fixed date. But on the Gregorian calendar the date of Passover changes because the lunisolar calendar, on which the Jewish calendar is based, doesn’t align with the Gregorian calendar precisely.
Easter is also based on the lunisolar calendar, but on a fixed sign: the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
Confused? Yeah, there’s a lot of qualification there…
Bottom line: they don’t always line up, and aren’t meant to.
And maybe it’s better that they don’t always line up because, and here’s the big kicker: Jesus was preparing for Passover in Jerusalem when he was arrested, tried, and crucified, but his “Last Supper” was actually not the Passover meal.
I know. Your Sunday School teachers and parish pastors oversimplified things a bit, but it is more than likely, in my estimation, that Jesus was not celebrating the Passover at the Last Supper.
In fact, and here’s the other reason that I think this conversation is important today (Wednesday, April 8th 2020) of all days: I’m pretty sure that tonight is the memorial of the Last Supper for Jesus…even though Christians will celebrate Maundy Thursday tomorrow night. Which means the Last Supper was on a Wednesday, and Jesus may have died on a Thursday.
Why do I think this?
Well, tonight starts Passover on the Jewish calendar. But they won’t they eat the Passover meal until tomorrow night, right? That’s the important thing to remember: though Passover starts tonight, they won’t eat the meal until the end of the day (sundown-sundown).
Today is all about preparation. In the gospels Jesus sends his disciples to go and prepare a place for them to celebrate the Passover meal…which they do, in all the Gospel accounts. And it says they finish preparations, and then have a meal. But is it the Passover meal? It never indicates it is. It just says they make preparations and then share a meal.
This is a pretty important detail to leave out of the account.
And because it’s never clearly spelled out, and for the reasons below, it actually seems more likely that the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples is actually the meal before the Passover meal, not the Passover itself.
Another indicator that it’s not Passover, but actually just the meal before, is that Jesus is not celebrating with his mother and sisters. As the head of the household, he wouldn’t miss celebrating Passover with his family.
It’s also worth noting that the word used in all of the Last Supper accounts for the bread, artos, points to a regular yeast-loaf. Were it the unleavened bread of the Passover, matzos would have been used.
Now, despite all this, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do present the Last Supper in such a way that it would be easy to point to Jesus dying on a Friday and the Last Supper being a Thursday Passover. In fact, it may be that those Gospel writers did think that, though they also could have had a copyist make revisions, placing it on Thursday-Friday-Saturday path (which is a long story…primarily about a copyist adding the word “again” into a certain line in Luke 22:14 to do all this, but we need not go there today).
John seems pretty convinced that Jesus died on a Thursday, though. How do we know?
He writes that the Last Supper happened “before the festival of Passover.” (John 13:1) The writer of John’s gospel also notes that, when they handed Jesus over to the authorities, the accusers wouldn’t enter Pilate’s courtyard because they would be unclean and therefore unable to eat the Passover “that evening.” (John 18:28)
It’s also worth noting that, after the crucifixion, they wanted to remove Jesus’ body from the cross because it was a Sabbath day of “great solemnity.” Now, to the untrained ear, that would be an “ah-ha!” moment pointing to a Friday death. Sundown on Friday is the start of the Sabbath, yes?
There are other marked Sabbaths in the Jewish calendar, including any Passover. And in this particular year it appears that there are two Sabbaths back-to-back, which does happen (as it does this very year, 2020!): there is the Passover Sabbath break, followed by the weekly Sabbath break.
In addition to the above, the indicators outside of the gospels themselves point not to a Passover, but to a meal before the Passover.
In 1 Corinthians, which provides for us the language of the liturgy, the Apostle Paul, a Jewish leader, does not mention that Jesus was at Passover when he took the bread and blessed it, but rather notes instead, “on the night in which he was betrayed…” (11:23)
Why would he leave that important detail out? And his writing was the first one we know about on the matter.
Another little tidbit comes from one of the only extra-Biblical sources of the time that mention Jesus at all (a blog for another day), the Talmud notes that, “They hung Joshua the Nazarene on the ‘eve of the Passover.'” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)
And finally, though not really finally because we could certainly go down the rabbit hole farther, it’s important to note that the tradition that Jesus was in the tomb “for three days and three nights,” which is internally consistent in the gospels, cannot be accurate by the Jewish calendar if Jesus died on a Friday. If Jesus died on a Friday, assuming he was placed in the tomb just before sundown, he was actually only in there about two days and two nights. I mean, while this little detail could be chocked up to hyperbole or whatnot, it’s worth noting that for this particular arc of the Jesus story, the days and nights are significant because it tied Jesus back to the salvation story of Jonah, which they wanted to do.
By this point you may be asking yourself: why does any of it matter?
Well, I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons.
The first? It’s further evidence that any attempt to say that the scriptures are inerrant or infallible is a fool’s errand. They are internally inconsistent in a number of ways, and the magical “innerancy/infallbile” cults are literally ruining the beauty and complexity of the religion not only for the rest of the faithful, but also for the unfaithful who can’t even begin to look at a faith they find so ridiculous on the face.
The second? There’s no such thing as a “Christian Seder,” and we really shouldn’t be celebrating them. It is absolutely fine to attend a Jewish Seder as a guest and enjoy the hospitality of our Jewish sisters and brothers, but to usurp a sacred festival for our own use is something Christians just shouldn’t do. So many Christians think they can Christianize a Seder based off of the Last Supper account…but we can’t. And shouldn’t. It’s not ours.
A third reason? The connection between Jesus and the Passover lamb is important for the faith, but only in analogy and not in actuality. We even sing that Jesus is the “lamb who was slain,” but when we do so we sing it as a point of theological reference, not necessity.
What I mean is: Jesus was not sacrificed for humanity. Jesus was certainly killed by humanity, but what that means is complex, not simple. It’s not an exchange of blood for blood. God is not bloodthirsty. And when we make Jesus the Passover lamb, and only that, instead of just use it as an important tool of imagery that would have connected with the ancient people, we make God a bloodthirsty deity who demands sacrifice.
According to the prophet Micah that’s not what God desires, right? (Micah 6:8) So why do we continue to make Jesus exactly what God does not desire?
A critique on all this comes from theological corners concerned with our sacramental theology. “Didn’t Jesus change the Passover meal to be about him?” some sacramentalists would ask.
I mean, maybe.
But the sacrament of Holy Communion, while heavy on Passover imagery, remains just as heavy utilizing Sabbath meal imagery. Jesus may be seen and spoken of as the Paschal lamb, but the bread of life is not sacrificed every Sunday in a Christian church.
Praise is sacrificed. This is why it’s probably the best practice to not break the bread at the altar during the Words of Institution…it sends the wrong signal.
Note: this last critique is heavy on the insider imagery…I digress…
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it appears that Jesus may have been celebrating the Passover. In John, where Jesus pretty clearly dies on a Thursday, it appears he was not.
So what day did Jesus die?
I don’t know. No one knows.
Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover? I don’t know…but I don’t think so. No one knows.
The Gospels don’t agree on it all. And those first scholars who put the Gospels together surely saw that it was not internally consistent, and it didn’t really bother them…so it probably shouldn’t bother us either, right?
But if Jesus did die before the Passover meal on a Thursday, then it lines up with this year’s Jewish calendar in such a way that’s it’s pretty poetic, pretty interesting, and, I think, pretty beautiful.