The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus
If you move the Last Supper to Wednesday, instead of Thursday, the Gospels are actually in remarkable agreement. In addition, the Bible nowhere states that the Last Supper was on the evening before the Crucifixion, contrary to the claims in many biblical commentaries that it does!
For more on the Last Supper see: The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
By Colin J. Humphreys
Professor and Director of Research
University of Cambridge
Bible scholars have puzzled for centuries over apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus, and this often leads people to question the Bibles veracity entirely. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all state the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John, by contrast, says that it took place before the Passover began. Whatever you think about the Bible, the fact is that Jewish people would never mistake the Passover meal for another meal, so for the Gospels to contradict themselves about this is really hard to understand. The eminent biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, once described this problem as the thorniest problem in the New Testament.
The Gospels also do not seem to allow enough time for all the events they record between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, whilst indicating that Wednesday was a missing day on which Jesus did nothing. Scholars have literally rushed around Jerusalem with a stop-watch to see how the large number of events recorded in the Gospels could have occurred between the Last Supper on Thursday night and the Crucifixion on Friday morning. Most conclude that it is impossible. In addition, the Mishnah (a compendium of regulations attributed to about 150 rabbis who lived from about 50 BC to about AD 200) states that the Jewish Court called the Sanhedrin, which tried Jesus, must not meet at night, on a feast day or on the eve of a feast day, and in capital cases a verdict of conviction must be reached the day after the main trial. If these rules applied at the time of Jesus then the trials reported in the Gospels blatantly flout Jewish legal proceedings, yet although the gospels claim there were many false witnesses they implicitly accept the legality of the trials. However, it turns out that there is a very simple solution to these problems: if you move the Last Supper to Wednesday, instead of Thursday, the Gospels are actually in remarkable agreement. In addition, the Bible nowhere states that the Last Supper was on the evening before the Crucifixion, contrary to the claims in many biblical commentaries that it does!
What Really Happened in Jesus Last Week?
In my new book, The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge University Press, 2011), I use science and historical reconstruction to take a closer look at the apparent inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of the final days of Jesus. Essential to this task was the use of different calendars. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that there were a number of different Jewish calendars in use in Israel in the first century AD, and so different Jewish groups celebrated Passover on different days. We have a similar situation today with the date of Easter: Catholics and Protestants celebrate Easter on a different date from Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, because they calculate the date of Easter using different calendars (Gregorian and Julian, respectively). In his description of the Last Supper, John uses the official Jewish calendar, in which the Last Supper was before the date of the official Passover. However, I suggest that Jesus chose to hold his Last Supper on the date of Passover in a different Jewish calendar, which is what Matthew, Mark and Luke report. So all four Gospels in fact agree!
I am not the first person to suggest that Jesus might have been using a different calendar. Most recently, the Pope proposed in 2007 that Jesus might have used the solar calendar of the Qumran community, who were probably a Jewish sect called the Essenes. However, I have shown that when the date of Passover is calculated using this calendar, it would have fallen a week later, after both Jesusdeath and resurrection.
I have worked with an expert astronomer to investigate, for the first time, the possibility that a third Jewish calendar was in use in the first century AD. The official Jewish calendar at the time of Jesusdeath was that still used by Jews today; a lunar system in which days run from sunset to sunset. This was developed during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Before that, however, the Jews had a different system. This is referred to in the Book of Exodus, which describes God instructing Moses and Aaron to start their year at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In my book I argue that this pre-exilic Jewish calendar was based on the Egyptian lunar calendar (their calendar used for religious feasts and festivals, as distinct from the Egyptian solar calendar used for civil purposes).
There is extensive evidence that this original Jewish calendar survived to Jesus time. Not all Jews were exiled to Babylon. Those who remained retained the pre-exilic calendar and by the first century AD groups such as the Samaritans, Zealots, some Galileans and some Essenes were still using the original Jewish calendar. Under this pre-exilic calendar, Passover always fell a few days earlier than in the official Jewish calendar, and the days were marked from sunrise to sunrise, not sunset to sunset.
According to our reconstruction of the pre-exilic calendar, in AD 33, the year of the Crucifixion, the Passover meal in this calendar was on the Wednesday of Holy Week. From the clues they give, its clear that Matthew, Mark and Luke all used the pre-exilic calendar in their description of the Last Supper as a Passover meal, whereas John uses the official calendar in which the Last Supper was before the Passover.
What does this mean for our celebration of Easter?
Holy Thursday (sometimes called Maundy Thursday) is the well-known day on which Christians annually commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus. But my research shows that we should really be celebrating this on the Wednesday of Holy Week. This resolves the apparent contradictions in the Gospels on the date and nature of the Last Supper, it also gives just the right amount of time to fit in all the events the Gospels record between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion and it means that the trials of Jesus were in accordance with Jewish law.
Today, about half of the churches in the world use unleavened bread in their weekly or monthly celebration of the Last Supper, because they believe it was a Passover meal, and half use leavened bread, because they believe it was before the Passover meal. I have shown that everyone is right! The Last Supper was before the Passover meal in the official Jewish calendar (used by John), but it was the Passover meal in the earlier original Jewish calendar that Jesus chose to use for his Last Supper (described by Matthew, Mark and Luke).
We celebrate Christmas on a fixed date each year: December 25. However, Easter is a moveable feast: the date of Easter Sunday changes every year, according to a complicated formula, and can range from March 23 to April 25. Many people would prefer to have a more fixed date for Easter. I have shown that the Crucifixion was on Friday, April 3, AD 33, with the Resurrection on Sunday, April 5, AD 33. For those who would like a more fixed date for Easter, my research suggests the date: Easter Sunday should be the first Sunday in April.
Finally, why did Jesus choose to hold his Last Supper at Passover time according to the pre-exilic calendar? I suggest it was because this original Jewish calendar was the one the Old Testament says was used by Moses to celebrate the very first Passover in Egypt. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus presenting himself as the new Moses. Jesus was therefore holding his Last Supper on the exact anniversary of the first Passover of Moses, as described in the book of Exodus, thus proclaiming that he was the new Moses, instituting a new covenant (a direct reference to the original covenant made between God and the Jewish people through Moses, according to Exodus) and leading his people out of slavery into a new life. Jesus then died just as the Passover lambs were being slain, according to the official Jewish calendar. These are deep, powerful symbolisms, which are based on objective, historical evidence. Far from being incompatible, as many scholars make them out to be, here science and the Bible work hand-in-hand to show that all four Gospels are in remarkable agreement about Jesus final days.