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Wednesday, September 06, 2006 

The Date of Passover and the Pitfall of Inerrancy: Excursus

Part 3

Part 2

Part 1


I realize it has been quite a while since I've posted in this series. I do apologize. With the fall semester beginning and my workload increasing I've been struggling to find time to post blogs of substance. Nevertheless, I am going to finish this series. But since there has been a considerable time lapse I want to take a bit of an excursus in order to refresh my readers on the Passover "discrepancy" and to make some additional points in order to bring some clarity to the issue for those unfamiliar with the discussion.

1.) Raymond Brown reminds us that the "Hebrew pesach and the Greek pascha are ambivalent terms, referring not only to a feast day but also to the slaughter of a lamb or goat and the subsequent meal." (Brown, Death of the Messiah: Vol II, p. 1354) In other words the underlying Hebrew and Greek words for what we translate as "Passover" could refer to either the actual slaughtering of the animal, the meal which is eaten at sundown on the 14th/15th of Nisan or to the entire feast day of the 14th of Nisan itself.

2.) Originally, according to Ex 12:8, Lev 23:5-6, and Num 28:16-17 the day of Passover proper is the 14th of Nisan not the 15th when the pesach meal was actually eaten. In other words in pre-70 Judaism there was a distinction between the day of Passover and the meal that was eaten at sundown, which would have been the following day, the 15th of Nisan. But, as Sanders notes, "many modern scholars think that 'Passover' technically applies to the meal on 15 Nisan, and thus that 14 of Nisan is the day before Passover. " (Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 312) Why the misunderstanding? Because after the destruction of the temple, Passover in Jewish usage became referred to as the pesach meal and so in modern Judaism the 15th of Nisan constitutes Passover day proper. This then is often retrojected into the pre-70 period by modern scholars. But in ancient Judaism, the 14th of Nisan was actually Passover day proper.

This point is more for my own possible correction. I stated that the synoptics present Jesus' crucifixion on Passover day proper and John the day before Passover. However, according to ancient Judaism this would be incorrect. Technically then, John would be presenting Jesus as having been crucified on Passover day proper while the synoptics would have been portraying his crucifixion as having occurred after the pesach meal, namely, on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened bread.

However, I think Sanders may be wrong to posit a neat transition in terminology based soley on the second temple's destruction. Surely the situation was more complex. There is still a lot we do not know about this era of Judaism and so I see no reason why during the period of second-temple Judaism the Jews might not have begun to lose the distinction between Passover day proper and the subsequent meal. Nevertheless, nothing of monumental importance hinges on whether or not a distinction is to be made at the time of Jesus' crucifixion between Passover day proper and the pesah meal. Therefore, I will continue to speak of Passover day proper as the time after the meal and the day before as the day of preparation of Passover when the lambs were slaughtered.

3.) Now according to the OT passages mentioned above, namely, Ex 12:8, Lev 23:5-6, and Num 28:16-17 (and also Philo, On the Special Laws 2.27-28) we know that, initially, Passover day, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were considered separate feasts. However, we know that by the 1st century some Jews, including Josephus, began failing to make this distinction. For example in Antiquities 9.13.3, Josephus states: "When the feast of the Unleavened Bread came around, they sacrificed the pascha." The author(s) of Mark also fails to make this distinction: "On the first day of the Unleavened Bread when they sacrificed the paschal lamb," (14:12). Now at first sight this might appear to support Kostenberger's interpretation of Jn 18:28. But, as I will argue next time, looks are, in this case, actually deceiving.

4. Some readers were a bit confused as to some of my statements regarding how the Jewish calendar functioned during the Second-Temple period. I admit to being heavily dependent upon secondary sources in this matter. Calendarics (don't know if that constitutes an actual word) and astronomy certainly are not my specialty. But in order to grasp better some specifics concerning the Jewish calendar here is Sanders again, and at length:

"To demonstrate where the problem lies, I shall have to explain the Jewish calendar. It was (and still is) luni-solar. The year was divided into months, and months were reckoned strictly according to the phases of the moon. A lunar month begins with the new moon and lasts about 29 1/2 days; therefore months were either 29 or 30 days long. Twelve such months produce a lunar year of about 354 days, 11 1/4 days too short for a solar (seasonal) year, which is determined by the position of the earth relative to the sun. In a strictly lunar year the months back up. Every year, each month comes about 11 days earlier than the year before. The consequence is that springtime festivals soon start arriving in the winter. In order to keep months in the right season, Jews 'intercalated' a thirteenth month every two or three years. Thus while most years were 354 days, some were 383 or 384 days. Over a nineteen-year cycle, the total number of days comes out about right in terms of the solar calendar. This is why we say that the Jewish calendar is luni-solar: the months are lunar, but the number of months is adjusted in order to bring the calendar into agreement with the solar year." (Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 283-284.)

(I quote Sanders at length here in order to exhibit how the attempts to keep the solar year in step with a lunar reckoning of months would from time to time result in the 14th of Nisan coinciding with a Sabbath day. This is, I believe, precisely what John presents. )

I realize that these observations are a bit excessive and so not necessarily conducive for the overall thrust of my argument (except for point three). But I felt it necessary to clarify some matters partly because one of my readers implicitly condemned me for not doing my "homework" and partly because I wanted to present some of the more complex issues pertaining to Passover to those not too familiar with the topic under discussion.

If this did nothing but confuse some of you, then clear this post from your mind (with the exception of point 3 because it will be important for my critique of Kostenberger) and go back and read part 1. Alright, next time I promise to finally post my critique of Kostenberger

Thanks for the useful summary; I look forward to your critique. There is an error in your Part 3 here: "Normally, the 14th of Nisan would occur on a Thursday (with the day beginning at 6 p.m. on Wed and ending at 6 p.m. on Thrs) and the 15th on a Friday (with Friday beginning at 6 p.m on Thrs)." That's a bit like saying "Normally, Christmas day occurs on a Saturday", which is, of course, nonsense.

However, in the Synoptics, it seems clear that the 14 Nisan is Thursday and 15 Nisan is Friday, whereas in John 14 Nisan is Friday and 15 Nisan is Saturday, and it looks to me like this is where you are heading too in the upcoming posts. You are quite right about Kostenberger's claims that some people place John's Last Supper on Wednesday evening. I don't know anyone who says that. The point is, as you appreciate, not what day of the week it is on, but what *date* the (agreed) day of the week was.

Hey Chris, good work keeping your blog afloat...mine is floundering. (And see your reward?!? a Blogfather visit!)

What's the significance of Lk 22:1 and other uses of Passover/feast in Jn's Gospel? Does it tell us anything about how Passover was viewed/used in 1c? (Sacrifice of lamb, passover meal, or week-long feast?)

I found this post very interesting. I was aware of the discrepancy between John and the Synoptics, but I had no idea the issues were this complex.

Also, I'm not very knowledgeable about the Jewish festivals. The distinction between Passover Day (= the day on which the lambs were slaughtered) and the First Day of Unleavened Bread (= the day on which the lambs were eated) was good information to have. Even if there's some uncertainty about whether the designations were used consistently!

Dr. Goodacre,

Thanks for the helpful correction. On hindsight I think this probably explains why some of my readers were confused when I made reference to the Jewish calendar.


Thanks, J.B. As to the significance of the uses of Passover/feast in the gospel, I am not sure myself. On one hand we could say that the gospels (and Josephus) are simply making mistakes but on the other, as I mentioned, it could be evidence of a shift in Jewish thinking in regards to Passover/Feast of Unleavend Bread that became normative in the 1st century. I suppose without more sources we can't really say for sure.


Neither did I until I started researching this topic!

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