If a Christian were asked, “What day of the week was Jesus crucified?”, his or her answer would be, “Good Friday!” Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and therefore the “Last Supper” and arrest would have happened Thursday night (technically each day began at Sunday for a Jew, so Thursday night for us would’ve actually been the start of Friday for a Jew. I will use our way of reckoning throughout this blog). The Last Supper, then, would have been Passover supper.
Mark 14:12 reads, “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, ‘Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?’” (All Scriptures ESV). The Synoptic Gospels all agree that Jesus ate the Passover lamb with His disciples before being betrayed and crucified the next day (compare Matt 26:17-20, Mark 14:12-17, Luke 22:7-14).
There are several verses in John, however, that at first glance seem to indicate that the Last Supper was on Wednesday, and Jesus was crucified on Thursday (the Day of Preparation of the Passover Lamb). John 13:1 begins, “Now before the Feast of the Passover…” 13:2 opens with the phrase, “During supper.” Chapters 13-17 are one big conversation between Jesus and His disciples that directly lead into His betrayal and arrest (18:1-3).
John 18:28 and 19:14 add even more difficulty. “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover” (18:28). This seems to indicate that the people had not yet eaten the Passover feast, which the early morning trial happened early on Thursday morning, and the feast of chapters 13-17 happened on Wednesday evening.
19:14 seems to indicate something similar: “Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” The Day of Preparation would mean that the Passover lambs would have been slaughtered the entire day, the same day Jesus was crucified. In other words, at first glance John seems to parallel the slaughter of the Lamb of God with the slaughter of the Passover lambs.
To summarize, the Synoptic Gospels seem to indicate that Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover meal together on Thursday night, then was arrested the same evening and crucified on Friday. John, on the other hand, seems to indicate that Jesus and the disciples at a meal together on Wednesday evening, then He was arrested the same evening, tried Thursday morning, and crucified on Thursday, the day the Passover lambs were being slaughtered.
Of course, Jesus ate the Last Supper either on Wednesday or Thursday. He died either on Thursday or Friday. He certainly did not die on two different days!
This problem of chronology and theology is notoriously difficult to solve. If we begin with a conservative evangelical stance that Scripture does not contradict itself or lie, this would eliminate the view that John purposefully skewed the chronology to present Jesus as being the Passover Lamb slaughtered on the same day the other lambs are slaughtered. To be clear, John and the Synoptics agree, however this all shakes out.
Some scholars have come up with the possible solution that there were two different calendar systems in use, and the disciples were basically celebrating Passover a day before the Jewish Passover would be celebrated by the masses. This solution has its cake and eats it too! Jesus eats Passover, the Jews eat Passover, and Jesus is killed on the Day of Preparation before the Passover!
Unfortunately, the best solution is often not the most creative. The Passover lamb was typically slaughtered in the temple, and it certainly would have been strange for the disciples to do so the day before they were expected to by the Jewish authorities.
The answer may be more simple. If we assume that the “supper” that Jesus and His disciples ate together in 13:2 was the Last Supper (Passover meal), eaten on Thursday night, then how are we to understand 18:28 and 19:14?
First, we must remember that the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread were two different events sometimes viewed as one. Passover was technically only a 24-hour event, with the Feast extending seven days after Passover. But sometimes, because the two holidays were related, they were viewed and spoken of as one event. For instance, listen to Luke 22:1 – “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”
Because of this blending of the two holidays, it could be that Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover meal together, and we can still talk of other meals as being “the Passover meal” later on in the weekend or following week. This would explain the John 18:28 reference. The priests would fear defilement for the entire 7-day period, not just for Passover evening.
How, then, would we explain the reference to the “Day of Preparation for the Passover” in John 19:14? Some scholars have pointed out that “Day of Preparation” was a term typically used in association with the Sabbath, not with the Passover (Burge, John, 364-7). Which means that the Pharisees were concerned with the preparation for the Passover’s Sabbath (the Sabbath that fell during the Feast of Unleavened Bread week). 19:31 lends strong support to this view: “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.”
The problem is difficult, but not without solutions. What is most important to note is that John is not concerned as much with chronology as he is with theology. Not that chronology is unimportant or that he plays fast-and-loose with it, but his presentation of Jesus has a different theological focus than the presentation in the Synoptics. He does not focus on the ordinance of the “Lord’s Table” (you won’t find “this do in remembrance of me” in John’s Gospel). He focuses on the relationship of Jesus and His disciples, and His last words to them, which ultimately emphasize the need for another one like Jesus to come when He is absent (the Holy Spirit).
So as you read John’s Gospel, know that there is no contradiction with the others, but don’t be obsessed with comparing John with Matthew, Mark and Luke. Read John as John. Listen to his theology and focus and you’ll find a very different (yet complementary) view of Jesus’ last hours.