The Crucifixion of our Lord: John and the Synoptics

by | Mar 30, 2023


One Sunday at Speakers’ Corner recently, I found myself flummoxed when I knew the answer to a question that was raised but could not express it. It was not, as you would say, on the tip of my tongue. So, consider this my penance and an attempt to engrave the answer in my mind and to help you when people raise the issue. Remember, the point of apologetics is only to show the reasonableness of our faith. We are not inventing doctrines, but – defending them – and there is more than one way to defend any doctrine of the Christian faith. It is up to the Church to make one or the other canon. I do believe, however, I have a genuinely untried-in-the-crucible answer to this problem which I leave it to history to decide its strength or weakness. The point of apologetics is that arguments stand or fail, but our doctrines hold fast! All Bible quotes below will be taken from the Netbible.

So, “What is the issue?” I hear you say. Well, it is that a prima facia reading of the gospel of John seems to suggest that the Crucifixion of our Lord occurred before the Passover, (See John 18:28 & 19:14 – which we discuss shortly) on the day of preparation, whilst the synoptic gospels place the whole incident firmly after the Passover supper.

Mattew 26:17-29:

17 Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says, “My time is near. I will observe the Passover with my disciples at your house.”’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus had instructed them, and they prepared the Passover. 20 When it was evening, he took his place at the table with the 12. 21 And while they were eating he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” 22 They became greatly distressed and each one began to say to him, “Surely not I, Lord?” 23 He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go as it is written about him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for him if he had never been born.” 25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Jesus replied, “You have said it yourself. 26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” 27 And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

See also Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23 which agree with the above.

Passover Refers to More than the Supper Christ Ate During the Passover:

The key to this is appearances can be deceptive, and you have to know a little bit more about Jewish culture (which John did) than we presently do. The crux of the whole disagreement is found in the following passages: John 18:28 & John 19:14

18:28 “Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal.”

 19:14 “(Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon.) Pilate said to the Jewish leaders, “Look, here is your king!”

To our gentile ears, it sounds like a contradiction. Was it on or after the Day of Preparation for the Passover? There appears to be a contradiction; the Jews in John’s account were concerned with the Passover Seder meal, or what we know as the Passover supper; the one we see in the synoptic gospels.

One response is to point out that this was not the only important meal to be eaten by Jews during this festival. The Festival of Unleavened Bread commemorates the haste in which the Hebrews fled Egypt and their reliance on unleavened bread during their flight. The two Festivals (The Passover and Unleavened Bread) often fall on top of one another; thus they were often referred to interchangeably as we see in Mark 14:

12, which describes the events leading up to the Last Supper.

Mark 4:12 “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

Here, the Day of Preparation is clearly associated with the ‘preparing for.’ The Passover meal and the festival are being seen as the same thing. Obviously, an intimacy with the culture would allow for immediate differentiation; people would know the proper place of things spoken of and their proper order. However, the uninitiated may be unaware and mistake one thing for another; confusing preparations for Sabbaths with Passover suppers! We see the same again in Luke 22:1, which states the “the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover.” The fact is, we see that the term ‘Passover’ is being used as a shorthand for the ‘Festival of Unleavened Bread’.

Luke 22:1 “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.” 

In Mathew 26:17, it speaks of the first day of Unleavened Bread as the day the Passover supper was to be eaten; again showing how closely these two separate things were linked in the minds of first-century Jews. Quite possibly, because the Jews themselves had no complete agreement on how to reckon time, from sunrise or sunset, the evidence seems to suggest that two methods were in competition in the first century, but this is not crucial to our defence.

Matthew 26:17 “Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

Also, in Jn 18.39, it seems to make it clear that Christ was on trial ‘at the Passover.’

John 18:39-40 “But it is your custom that I release one prisoner for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release for you the king of the Jews?” 40 Then they shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.)”

Those who insist on this criticism of our precious gospels must either concede that the Passover is being used by John as an umbrella term, at which point we gain ground for our defence, or they concede that John agrees with the Synoptics. They would be conceding that Passover is referencing the Day of Preparation for the Passover; thus agreeing with us, that this is an umbrella term, which is exactly what we see from John consistently in his use of the word ‘Passover.’ see 6.4,

John 6:4-5 “Now the Jewish Feast of the Passover was near. 5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?”

John 13:1 “Just before the Passover Feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end.”

John 11.55 “Now the Jewish Feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually.”

John 2:13 “Now the Jewish Feast of Passover was near, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”

All these references in John use the rubric ‘Passover’ not to refer to the supper only, but the whole seven days of festivities. Furthermore, it makes sense that the supper referenced in John 13:2 which states, “The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus.” was the Passover supper referenced in 13:1! This is even clearer when one considers the assumption of the Apostles recorded in John 13:29-28 where the apostles assume he is out to buy ‘provisions for the feast’ [people bought their daily bread as there was no refrigeration at that time] thus is was on demand buying. Alternatively, ‘should give something to the poor’; it was a custom that at the start of the Passover feast; in other words the night of the Passover meal; to give alms to the poor; so that they could participate in the Passover; we see this in the Mishan and the Talmud that speak of charity on this night; “It is a duty to gladden the hearts of these poor people, as it is said, ‘And you shall rejoice in your feast’ (Deuteronomy 16:14). A person has fulfilled his obligation if he gives them meat, wine, and anything else that makes them happy” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:16); the poor would gather at the gates of Jerusalem so they could be found for such a purpose. Therefore this indicates, the supper; is the Passover supper. Remember; John 13 is the start of the sequence to the end of the Gospel.

There were Other Ceremonial Meals on Passover:

Another possibility is due to the fact that the Jewish people have more than one ceremonial meal to eat during the Passover. The first meal is the Passover Supper – which kicks off the festival. The others were the Chol HaMoed meals which were eaten after the Passover Supper, during the week, and governed by rules of the Torah, thus were still part of the Passover celebration; for which ritual cleanliness would still have been an important concern. Therefore, John 18:28 could well be referring to that – given that Passover and Unleavened Bread were interchangeable terms to first-century Jews.

Preparation for the Passover Supper or the Sabbath:

There is further evidence that could account for references to the Day of Preparation as being not for the Passover meal but for the Passover Sabbath. We see this in John 19: 31:

John 19:31 “Then because it was the Day of Preparation so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the victims’ legs broken and the bodies taken down.” 

Therefore we should understand John’s use of language as being ‘Passover’ = equalling any point in the festival of Passover; and ‘preparation’ of the ‘day of preparation’ = the day before the Sabbath. To strengthen how common this term was in the culture; both the Didache and the writings of Polycarp use the same Greek expression found in John; to refer to the ‘preparation day’ in reference to the Sabbath. All the gospels agree Christ dies on the day of preparation for the Sabbath; compare Matt 27:62, Mark 15: 42 & Luke 23: 54; [yes pick up your bible and compare] and we are arguing John 19.31; the reference in John 19.14

‘John 19:14 (Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon.’

This should be read in the light of the fact that it was a High Sabbath; the Sabbath was the Passover Sabbath of John 19:31. The fact that it was a ‘High Sabbath’ meant that it was different from the ordinary Sabbaths, of the weeks before or after Passover. The High Sabbath required more extensive preparations; Jews had special sacrifices that had to be offered in the Temple during the High Sabbath that were not offered on an ordinary Sabbath; two lambs were sacrificed in the morning and two in the evening on account of the Passover. See Numbers 28:16-25:

Numbers 28:16-25 “‘On the fourteenth day of the first month is the Lord’s Passover. 17 And on the fifteenth day of this month is the festival. For seven days bread made without yeast must be eaten. 18 And on the first day there is to be a holy assembly; you must do no ordinary work on it.

19 “‘But you must offer to the Lord an offering made by fire, a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram, and seven lambs one year old; they must all be unblemished. 20 And their grain offering is to be of finely ground flour mixed with olive oil. For each bull you must offer three-tenths of an ephah, and two-tenths for the ram. 21 For each of the seven lambs you are to offer one-tenth of an ephah, 22 as well as one goat for a purification offering, to make atonement for you. 23 You must offer these in addition to the burnt offering in the morning that is for a continual burnt offering. 24 In this manner you must offer daily throughout the seven days the food of the sacrifice made by fire as a sweet aroma to the Lord. It is to be offered in addition to the continual burnt offering and its drink offering. 25 On the seventh day you are to have a holy assembly, you must do no regular work.

These therefore; more than account for the ‘preparation of the Passover’ as this did not refer to just the Thursday before the Passover as a whole and especially the Saturday the normative Jewish holy day, the term ‘Passover’ could refer to any day of it; including the Friday after the Passover supper, especially when we consider this is referring to the ‘sabbath’ both referenced in chapter Jn 19. 14 & 31.

The Novel Argument the Priests had not Eaten the Passover:

The final offering to the issue and one I believe no one has yet made the argument for is, that the priests had not eaten the Passover when they should have. Considering that Jerusalem would have been flooded with pilgrims, the ritualistic slaughter of Preparation Day [before the supper] would have gone on into the night. The Priests themselves would hardly have had time to eat their own Passover supper; considering that was the night they hunted, captured and tried our Lord; and travelled to the Praetorium to have our Lord tried before Pilate; it is possible, that their concern to eat the ‘Passover’ was because they themselves had not eaten it. Considering Leviticus 15. 5 – 11:

Leviticus 15:5-11 5 “Anyone who touches his bed must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 6 The one who sits on the furniture the man with a discharge sits on must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 7 The one who touches the body of the man with a discharge must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 8 If the man with a discharge spits on a person who is ceremonially clean, that person must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 9 Any means of riding that the man with a discharge rides on will be unclean. 10 Anyone who touches anything that was under him will be unclean until evening, and the one who carries those items must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening. 11 Anyone whom the man with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening.

Ritual uncleanliness ended by the evening; thus if this was the Day of Preparation – they would have no need to worry about the meal; as they were already ritually clean by the evening anyway. Rather, they would have been ritually unclean for the preparatory sacrifices. If this is argued by our critics, this would mean our critics would have to concede that ‘Passover’ is being used more elastically by John than clinically, thus strengthening our case made earlier; and thus it is possible to argue if they insist that it refers to the supper, that they had not yet eaten the Passover meal themselves, and desired to do so; or as stated earlier they had concerns about another meal; as mentioned above. Remember, Jerusalem at this time was packed to the rafters with pilgrims. There would be huge gatherings of friends and families and neighbours eating together. Christ’s own thirteen people around a table would have been a normal size for nearly every household in Jerusalem. We do not need to speculate on the industrial scale of the operation of Preparation Day, the Scriptures themselves testify to this.

2 Chronicles 35:1014 “Preparations were made, and the priests stood at their posts and the Levites in their divisions as prescribed by the king. 11 They slaughtered the Passover lambs and the priests splashed the blood, while the Levites skinned the animals. 12 They reserved the burnt offerings and the cattle for the family divisions of the people to present to the Lord, as prescribed in the scroll of Moses. 13 They cooked the Passover sacrifices over the open fire as prescribed and cooked the consecrated offerings in pots, kettles, and pans. They quickly served them to all the people. 14 Afterward they made preparations for themselves and for the priests, because the priests, the descendants of Aaron, were offering burnt sacrifices and fat portions until evening. The Levites made preparations for themselves and for the priests, the descendants of Aaron.

Considering the extra curricula activities that night of the Sanhedrin it is possible they never completed their own Passover meals and desired to do so. Why should we be surprised that sinful men failed in their religious duties when they conspired to destroy an innocent man?

Now, all that being said: I do think John is trying to make a theological point and is deliberately trying to create an allusion to the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb on preparation day, and is pushing his text in that direction; as far as a record of history and permissible linguistic usage allows; hence his reference to a ‘supper’ not the ‘Passover meal’ of the Synoptics; and his ‘fuzzy’ use of the ‘Passover’ & ‘day of preparation’ terminology; but his text does agree with the Synoptics; as a careful reading shows given above, that even his attempted allusions still must give way to the reality of the history he is recording no matter how artistically done; shows that this is no contradiction at all.