WHEN DID JESUS DIE?
THE GOSPELS DON'T AGREE
Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus
University of Idaho (email@example.com)
In 2002 the Jewish Passover coincided with the Jewish Sabbath. I am unaware how frequently this actually happens, but one such coincidence is recorded in the Gospel of John. John indicates that Jesus died as the paschal lambs were being slaughtered for a "high day"--a double holy day when Passover and the Sabbath coincided (see John 13:1; 18:28; 18;39; 19:14; 19:31). Calender experts tell us that this date was most likely April 7, A.D. 30.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a different story. They say that the Last Supper was a passover meal eaten on a Thursday, on the eve of the day before the Sabbath (see Mk. 14:12). Jesus dies on the eve of the Sabbath, which, if correct, would have been April 2, 33 C.E. Jesus explicitly asks his disciples to prepare a passover supper, but, oddly enough, during the meal there is no paschal lamb and the wrong bread is eaten.
Who is correct, John or the Synoptics? Jewish sources definitely support John's account: "Jesus was hanged as a false teacher and beguiler on the eve of the Passover which was also a Sabbath." The most convincing evidence is the fact that the early church celebrated Jesus' death on John's date, the 14th day of the Jewish month Nisan. The Synoptics have him dying on 15th Nisan.
This tradition lasted until A.D. 164 at which point a major controversy broke out about when to celebrate Easter. Around A.D. 200, Hippolytus of Rome condemned an unnamed Christian for daring to suggest Jesus ate a passover meal before his crucifixion. Hippolytus insisted Jesus could not have eaten the ritual meal because he himself was the sacrifice. Paul implicitly confirms this view in his declaration that "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7).
Apologists go to amazing lengths to harmonize the passion chronologies of John and the Synoptics. For example, the word "Passover" in the phrase "day of Preparation of the Passover" is reinterpreted as a seven-day festival, thereby avoiding the obvious conclusion that it was really passover eve. C. C. Torrey introduced this thesis back in the 1930s, and although quickly dismissed by scholars, it is still unwisely used by some some conservative Christians.
The passage which secures the disjunction of the two accounts is one in which "day of Preparation" is used together with "that sabbath was a high day" (19:31). Brown and others have shown that "high day" meant "double holy holiday"--i.e., a day in which the Sabbath and Passover coincide. We have already cited Sanhedrin sources above which confirm this chronological coincidence with direct reference to Jesus' death.
The Gospeal writers also cannot agree when Jesus ascended into Heaven. The most substantial discrepancy is found in the Ascension accounts, especially the prima facie contradiction in Luke's own writings--first in Luke 24:50-51 and then in Acts 1:9. The RSV does not actually indicate a heavenly departure but that "he parted from them." Fitzmyer, however, argues that "he was carried up into heaven" (close to Mk. 16:19 and listed as an alternative in the RSV) should be "regarded as part of the original text of the Lucan Gospel." He suggests that it was omitted either in transmission or because of outright harmonizing by the early church.
I have heard some evangelicals, who also reconcile John and the Synoptics by saying that Jesus stormed the temple twice, propose that there were two ascensions. Just as unsatisfactory is the suggestion that Luke meant for there to be a forty-day break between verses 49 and 50. But Fitzmyer answers that the "temporal adverbs and prepositional phrases in the course of chapter 24 leave no doubt that they (Resurrection and Ascension) took place on Easter Sunday." Fitzmyer also cites passages from extra-canonical texts that demonstrate that an Easter Sunday Ascension was a tradition in the early church.