Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Date of the Last Supper

The date of Jesus’ crucifixion is a knotty issue indeed, but a new book by Professor Colin Humphreys of Cambridge (The Mystery of the Last Supper) claims to clear up the confusion by appealing to a little-known fact; namely, that Jews in Jesus’ day used two different calendars. Essentially, Humphreys argues that the constricted and contorted chronology of Holy Week that has been the staple of Church custom for centuries is based on two fundamentally mistaken assumptions: (1) that the chronologies of the Synoptic (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) accounts of Jesus’ final week can be harmonized with the Johannine account; and (2) that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ final week, with the Last Supper on Thursday, crucifixion on Friday, and resurrection on Sunday, derived from a single Jewish calendar that lies behind the biblical narratives. Humphreys argues that both assumptions are incorrect. He suggests that the events of Holy Week were more protracted than the attempt to harmonize the Gospel accounts would suggest, and that there is evidence that two, not one, Jewish calendars were in use in Jesus’ time. 
Humphrey’s theory is fascinating but hardly new. It was first suggested back in 1965 by Annie Jaubert in a book known only to NT scholars titled The Date of the Last Supper. Jaubert, in an attempt to resolve the apparent conflict of chronologies between the Synoptics and John, argued that the differences can be accounted for based on the fact that official Judaism and sectarian Judaism employed different calendars for determining high holy days such as Passover. I first encountered the book back in the 1970’s in my PhD studies while writing a paper on the Last Supper for Professor George Beasley-Murray's New Testament seminar. Both Humphreys and Jaubert argue that the calendar is critical for unraveling the “Mystery of the Last Supper.” Let me explain.

In point of fact, all four Gospels indicate that Jesus was crucified on Friday, including John (see John 19:31ff.). The issue in dispute among the Four Gospels is not over the day of the week but rather the day of the calendar. The Synoptics describe it as “the day of Preparation” that is, for the Sabbath (Greek- hemera hen paraskeves, sometimes shortened just to paraskeve, as in Matthew 27:62). Among Hellenistic Jews of the first century this was the typical Jewish shorthand for “Friday” since Sabbath was our “Saturday.” (Keep in mind that the names of the days of the week we now use in the English-speaking world were not in use in Jesus’ time) The Synoptic Gospels also indicate that Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples was a Passover (see, for example, Mark 14:12ff. where Mark says that Jesus gave his disciples specific instructions for preparing the Passover meal that they would eat together at the Last Supper). John, however, seems to suggest that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal (see John 13:1 where John says, “Now before the feast of the Passover....”). Moreover, when John describes the crucifixion, he points out that Jesus was crucified on the very day that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover Seder that would be eaten later that evening (see John 19:14), meaning that the meal Jesus had with the disciples in John 13 could not have been a Passover, and apparently indicating that Jesus was, metaphorically and spiritually speaking, the “Passover Lamb of God” who was being offered up for His people. This means, among other things, that the date and time of the Last Supper, at least in the Synoptics, was Passover (Nisan 14 according to the Jewish calendar), whereas the date and time of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John was at least 24 hours earlier (“Now before the feast of the Passover...”), and that Jesus’ last meal with His disciples was a “farewell meal,” but not a Passover meal. Which is correct?

Perhaps both. Now that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls, we’ve discovered that apparently not all Jews celebrated Passover on the same day. The Essenes (a first-century monastic reform movement that protested the corruption of the temple and the Sadducaic priesthood presiding in Jerusalem over such things as Passover) in protest followed a solar calendar rather than the official lunar calendar observed in Jerusalem. This means that the Essenes did not observe Passover on the same date that the rest of Jerusalem did. It could be that the differences between the Synoptic accounts and the account in John may be nothing more than a difference in “point of view.” Mark, for example, depicts the Last Supper from an “insider's perspective,” that is, from the perspective of Jesus and His disciples who, like the Essenes, also protested the corruption of the temple and the priesthood (cf. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple), and in protest did not observe Passover with the rest of Jerusalem but instead followed the solar calendar and observed Passover earlier. John, however, seems to be telling the story from the perspective of official Judaism in Jerusalem who followed the official lunar calendar; therefore, according to John, Jesus’ Last Supper was not a Passover (official Judaism, unlike the Essenes, followed a lunar calendar and, therefore, observed Passover later). And so, from the perspective of John’s Gospel, Jesus did not celebrate a Passover with His disciples; rather He was Paschal Lamb, crucified at the very moment official Judaism in Jerusalem was slaughtering lambs for Passover. Hence, from their differing points of view, both the Synoptics and John are correct.

Adding further credibility to this thesis is the fact that there are “Essene-like” allusions in Mark’s description of the Last Supper (see Mark 14:12ff). We now know that Essenes lived in the city of Jerusalem as well as out in the Jordan Valley at Khirbet Qumran. Archaeologists discovered a gate on the south side of the ancient city of Jerusalem near Mt. Zion dating from the time of Herod the Great which was known by Jewish sources of the period as “the gate of the Essenes.” This could have implications for understanding a rather enigmatic passage in Mark 14:13ff. In giving instructions to his disciples about making preparations for them to eat the Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into Jerusalem with the instructions:

“Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a water jar; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room ( kataluma in Greek), where I shall eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a great upper room (Greek, anagaion) already furnished and prepared; there prepare (it) for us” (Mk. 14:13-16).

This passage is striking for several reasons:

1) Why all the secrecy? It makes sense if Jesus and his disciples, like the Essenes, were perceived as something of a radical, eschatological reform movement opposed to the way in which official Judaism operated in the Holy City (cf. witness both Jesus' cleansing of the Temple and His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem earlier in the week). The Essenes, in favor under Herod the Great, had fallen out of favor with Herod's son, Antipater (which is why they were forced into seclusion on the shores of the Dead Sea), and with Pontius Pilate, the Roman military governor who now controlled the city. If Jesus and His disciples were regarded by the authorities as something of an Essene-like group (the Teacher and His pupils), it would explain the need to skulk through the city to prepare for Passover.

2) How would the two disciples know which particular man carrying a water jar to follow in a city the size of Jerusalem? The answer is that men in that culture didn't carry water jars; women did, unless of course they were a monastic community in which there were no women, like the Essenes. A man carrying a water jar would have stood out in that setting like the proverbial “sore thumb.”

3) Jesus told them to say to the master of the house: “The Teacher says, Where is my guest room where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?” The Essenes referred to their leader as “The Teacher.”

4) Finally, the gate of the Essenes on Mt. Zion is almost precisely located in the same place where tradition has preserved that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples - the Upper Room (cenacle in Latin; anagaion in Greek).

(For a fuller treatment of this theme, see my book, Where Jesus Walked, Judson Press, 2001, pp. 121ff.)

Does all this mean that Jesus and his disciples were Essenes? No, of course not. But it may mean that perhaps Jesus and his disciples, like the Essenes, were perceived in their culture and day as something of a “protest group” of obedient Jews looking to purify a corrupt Jewish establishment. It also means that perhaps at least some of Jesus’ followers (like the master of the house who hosted Jesus and his disciples for Passover) may well have been converts to Jesus’ messianic movement from the Essene movement.

That Jesus was crucified on Friday is certain. Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover is still debated, and how one answers is, at least in part, a function of whether one gives more credence to the Synoptic account or to John’s. Then again, as we’ve seen, one may not need to choose between them.

What I find most startling about the events we Christians remember on this day is the amazing metamorphosis of language by which we now call this Friday “Good.”


kevin ferrell said...

Good article, thanks. Question: I have Jewish friends who celebrate Passover. In today's culture, they celebrate first and second nights of passover. Is there any credance that this tradition existed in Jesus' time (and would this lend anything towards harmonizing the two differing accounts?)

kevin ferrell said...

Good article, thanks. Comment/Question: I have Jewish friends who celebrate Passover. In today's culture, they celebrate first and second nights of passover. Is there any credance that this tradition existed in Jesus' time (and would this lend anything towards harmonizing the two differing accounts?)

Jason Blanton said...

Really interesting! I've been reading a great deal of literature on the time period (Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Cahill; The Message and the Kingdom, Horsley; Rabbi Jesus, Chilton) and they come to similar conclusions about how Jesus and His followers would have been viewed - as another breakaway Jewish group following a Rabbi - binding and loosing a particular "yoke." In their case, one that was particularly anti-Roman as well as against the Herods (all of them) who had sold themselves and their people into subservience and then merely adopted the Roman model to create greater burdens.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Good question, Kevin. Short answer is that we don't know precisely how the Passover was observed in Jesus' day (with "precisely" being the operative word). Joachim Jeremias' "The Eucharistic Words of Jesus" presents a pretty good picture of how it might have been observed and how Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples would have fit into the tradition. As to how that compares with contemporary Jewish Passover observance I do not know. I do know that Jewish Passover observance, just like Christian Easter observance, has gone through significant modification through the centuries making it unlikely that one can read first century Passover observances through the lens of contemporary Jewish practice.