Does the Chronology of the Passion Week in John Contradict the Synoptic Gospels? Part 1

The Synoptic Gospels clearly indicate that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover meal together on a Thursday evening. During that year, the Passover ran from about 6:00 pm Thursday to about 6:00 pm Friday. The crucifixion occurred the next day, on Friday.

However, many scholars are convinced that the Gospel of John places the Last Supper on Wednesday evening and the crucifixion on Thursday. They typically cite seven verses in John that prove their case.

If John does move the Last Supper and crucifixion up by one day, then we would seem to have a contradiction between John and the other Gospels. The biblical scholar, D. A. Carson, however, argues convincingly in The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, that once these seven verses in John are interpreted correctly, the apparent contradiction evaporates. John agrees with the chronology of the Synoptic Gospels.

The first verse to consider is John 13:1. “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

The argument goes that verse 1 of chapter thirteen introduces all the events from chapter thirteen through chapter seventeen, including the Last Supper. If that is correct, then the Last Supper must have happened before the Passover meal. Carson, however, argues that verse 1 does not introduce the entirety of chapters thirteen through seventeen.

[T]here is nothing in the words themselves to discourage us from taking the clause as an introduction to the footwashing only [verses 2-20], and not to the discourses that follow the meal. Chronologically, the opening words then place the footwashing before the Passover meal is about to begin (and v. 2, in the best texts, does not contradict this point); theologically, the clause alerts the readers to the Passover theme developed throughout the book (2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; cf. 18:28, 39; 19:14), inviting them to see in the footwashing an anticipation of Jesus’ own climactic Passover act as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29; cf. notes on 13:6–9).

The second verse to consider is John 13:29. “Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor.” Jesus has told Judas to leave during the Last Supper, and his disciples are wondering why.

Carson writes,

Many have taken these words as evidence that this meal took place twenty-four hours before the Passover. If not before the Passover, why send Judas out at this late hour? And if this were Passover night, would any shops have remained open?

But Carson finds these arguments unconvincing.

One might wonder, on these premises, why Jesus should send Judas out for purchases for a feast still twenty-four hours away. The next day would have left ample time. It is best to think of this taking place on the night of Passover, 15 Nisan. Judas was sent out (so the disciples thought) to purchase what was needed for the Feast, i.e. not the feast of Passover, but the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the ḥagigah), which began that night and lasted for seven days. The next day, still Friday 15 Nisan, was a high feast day; the following day was Sabbath. It might seem best to make necessary purchases (e.g. more unleavened bread) immediately. Purchases on that Thursday evening were in all likelihood possible, though inconvenient. The rabbinic authorities were in dispute on the matter (cf. Mishnah Pesahim 4:5). One could buy necessities even on a Sabbath if it fell before Passover, provided it was done by leaving something in trust rather than paying cash (Mishnah Shabbath 23:1). Moreover, it was customary to give alms to the poor on Passover night, the temple gates being left open from midnight on, allowing beggars to congregate there (Jeremias, p. 54). On any night other than Passover it is hard to imagine why the disciples might have thought Jesus was sending Judas out to give something to the poor: the next day would have done just as well.

We’ll continue Carson’s analysis in part 2.