Christ Our Passover

Christians around the world will remember and celebrate the essence of the gospel this weekend — “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

We believe that the Apostle Paul’s inspired summary statement is true, and we are certain that these events actually happened in real history, providing the basis of our salvation.

Dr. Tim Sigler adds this succinct observation: “It is unmistakable that Jesus was crucified in connection with Passover.”1 As Paul states again, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).2

When we delve deeply into the question of exactly when these events happened, however, and how they relate to the timing of Passover—details that are not included in the infallible text—we may be surprised to find the number of complications that lie between us and the answer.

Bible students have offered numerous explanations regarding the day on which Jesus died and the date on which that fell, among other issues. Of course, the year in which these events occurred will affect the dates—which tie to the relation between the events of Passion Week and the celebration of Passover.

My goal in this article is not to provide a comprehensive catalog of all the possible views. Rather, it is to introduce some initial solutions to the fundamental issues at hand—reinforcing confidence in the Scriptures and sharing the hope that they offer through the events of Jesus’ passion.

Here are some basics: First, I believe that Jesus was crucified on Friday (see Matt. 16:21; 27:63-63; Luke 24:21, 46; Acts 10:40). Next, I believe that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples “on the same night in which He was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23; see Matt. 26:17-19; Luke 22:8, 15).

Greek scholar Dr. James L. Boyer calls this the “traditional view,” and includes the following: “Christ ate the regular Passover with His disciples on Thursday which began Nisan 15. He was crucified on the afternoon of the next day, Friday, still Nisan 15. … He arose, early Sunday morning.”3

This explanation is substantiated by a note in the ESV Study Bible, which reads:

Preparations for the Passover were made on Thursday afternoon (Nisan 14). Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover meal after sundown on Thursday evening (now Nisan 15), with Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper later that evening. Jesus was crucified the following afternoon, Friday (still Nisan 15).4

Köstenberger affirms that “… all four Gospels concur that Jesus’ last supper was a Passover meal eaten on Thursday evening (by Jewish reckoning, the onset of Friday).”5

Indeed, Passover was celebrated on Nisan 14 (see Ex. 12:6; Lev. 23:5). If that was the day we call Maundy Thursday of Jesus’ Passion Week, that would mean that Palm Sunday was, in fact, Nisan 10—the day that the Passover lambs would be selected by each household (see Ex. 12:3). What rich symbolism that provides regarding “The Lamb of God” (John 1:29)!

In the bigger picture, I believe that there is strong Biblical evidence that Palm Sunday was the final day of the 69th week of Daniel, who received the prophecy of the 70 weeks (periods of seven years each) from the angel Gabriel (see Dan. 9:20-27). In other words, Christ appeared in His triumphal entry on the final day of a stretch of 483 years, which had begun with Artaxerxes’ decree allowing Nehemiah to return “To restore and build Jerusalem” (Dan. 9:25; see Neh. 2:8). That 69th week would take Israel up “Until Messiah the Prince” (Dan. 9:25).

Gabriel described to Daniel what would transpire between the 69th and 70th weeks. Verse 26 states:

Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.

I believe, then, that the Scriptures provide a strong implication that the last day of the 69th week was the exact day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem (see Ps. 118:24; Luke 19:42, 44).6

So far, all of this seems to fit together wondrously. But this is where things can get very, very complicated!

As stated above, these events must have happened in a year that allowed for the days to fall on these dates. According to Boyer, the only years that qualify for this traditional scheme would be 28, 30, 31 and 34 A.D.7

Beyond that—an issue that will not be solved in this writing—however, we also have to interact with two difficult verses in the gospel of John.

John 18:28 states:

Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.

Now, if Jesus and His disciples had already eaten the Passover, how could others still be anticipating it the next day?

John 19:14 also adds this, which clearly describes the day of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour.

These statements may actually be fairly easy to reconcile with all that we have considered so far. The Moody Bible Commentary states regarding John 18:28:

The words “eat the Passover” do not refer to the actual Passover meal itself, which Jesus and all the Jewish people had already consumed. “Passover” can include not only the memorial meal, but also the week of celebration that followed it called “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (see Nm 28:16-19; Lk 22:1).8

Its comments on John 19:14 explain that this verse describes “the day before the Sabbath (Friday) of Passover week.”9

There are also more complicated attempts to harmonize John with the Synoptic gospels. The MacArthur Study Bible offers this intriguing explanation:

The answer lies in a difference among the Jews in the way they reckoned the beginning and ending of days. From Josephus, the Mishna, and other ancient Jewish sources we learn that the Jews in northern Israel calculated days from sunrise to sunrise. That area included the region of Galilee, where Jesus and all the disciples, except Judas, had grown up. Apparently most, if not all, of the Pharisees used that system of reckoning. But Jews in the southern part, which centered in Jerusalem, calculated days from sunset to sunset. Because all the priests necessarily lived in or near Jerusalem, as did most of the Sadducees, those groups followed the southern scheme.

… During Passover time … it allowed for the feast to be celebrated legitimately on two adjoining days, thereby permitting the temple sacrifices to be made over a total period of four hours rather than two. …

On that basis the seeming contradictions in the Gospel accounts are easily explained. Being Galileans, Jesus and the disciples considered Passover day to have started at sunrise on Thursday and to end at sunrise on Friday. The Jewish leaders who arrested and tried Jesus, being mostly priests and Sadducees, considered Passover day to begin at sunset on Thursday and end at sunset on Friday. By that variation, predetermined by God’s sovereign provision, Jesus could thereby legitimately celebrate the last Passover meal with his disciples and yet still be sacrificed on Passover day.10

The Moody Bible Commentary actually goes on to state, similarly to MacArthur:

At the time the Lamb of God (cf. 1:29) was about to be sacrificed, Jewish tradition suggests the priests began to slaughter the Passover lambs in the temple. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, Jewish people calculated Nissan 14, the date of the Passover (Lv 23:5), in two different ways. Jesus, His disciples, and the Pharisees followed the Galileans method in which the day was from sunrise to sunrise.

In the year of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nissan 14 began for them on Thursday morning, and they celebrated the Passover meal early Thursday evening. The Sadducees calculated the day from sunset to sunset. Nissan 14 began at Thursday’s sunset, and the Passover lamb was sacrificed Friday afternoon. Their Passover meal was eaten before the sunset that evening. The Synoptics are written with the first method in view; John was written from the viewpoint of the second method.11

So where does all of this leave us?

The basic truths with which we began are clear. Christ died in real history, as our Passover lamb, and rose again, opening our way to heaven (John 14:19). We celebrate that this week—looking forward to that glorious future that He has provided.

That being said, we may never have sufficient understanding of all the historical details surrounding these events—at least on this side of glory—to achieve unanimous agreement on their outworking. One wonders, in fact, if we could go back in time, would those who were involved have been able, in their own day, to offer an exhaustive explanation?

Perhaps Leon Morris’ words provide a fitting conclusion to our study:

The evidence is thus confusing, and it is not in the least surprising that scholars have come to very different conclusions. I do not see how we can be dogmatic in our present state of knowledge. The most natural reading of the Synoptists shows the Last Supper there to be the Passover. The most natural reading of John shows that Jesus was crucified at the very time the Passover victims were slain in the Temple. While it is undoubtedly possible to interpret the accounts in such a way that we make them tell the same story, it seems better to see them as the result of following different calendars.12

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash.

Notes

1 Personal correspondence, April 11, 2022.

2 All scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

3 Chronology of the Crucifixion and the Last Week. “Study-Graph.” (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1976), front.

4 ESV Study Bible, Wayne Grudem, Gen. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), note on Matt. 26:17 pp. 1,880-1,881

5 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 538.

6 In modern times, two men have undertaken a significant investigation of the chronological outworking of the 70 weeks of Daniel (Dan. 9:24-27). The first was Sir Robert Anderson, who landed on March 14, 445 B.C., as the starting point, described in Neh. 2:8. Anderson held that the first 69 weeks ended with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which, he said, took place on April 6, 32 A.D. See The Coming Prince (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984), pp. 127-128. (See his discussion of Passover on pp. 106-118.) In more recent decades, Anderson’s work became the basis for further study by Dr. Harold W. Hoehner. He placed Artaxerxes’ decree in Neh. 2:8 on March 5, 444 B.C., and also assumes that the first 483 years ended with the triumphal entry, but moved that date to March 30, 33 A.D. See Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1978), pp. 138-139. (See Hoehner’s discussion of Passover specifically on pp. 76-90.) Most contemporary dispensationalists have accepted the dates proposed by Hoehner. See, for instance, “The 70 Weeks of Daniel” in Ed Hindson and Thomas Ice, Charting the Bible Chronologically (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2016), pp. 96-99. One glaring exception to this trend is found in The MacArthur Study Bible, which continues to utilize parts of Anderson’s dating scheme. Presumably this is because MacArthur bases Biblical chronology on the famous charts by Drs. John C. Whitcomb and James L. Boyer (including the one quoted in this article), who in turn relied on Anderson. See, for instance, “Timeline of Nehemiah” in John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, 2nd Edition, ESV (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2021), p. 588. Credit is given on the copyright page to Whitcomb and Boyer for use of their charts.

7 Chronology of the Crucifixion and the Last Week, back.

8 John F. Hart, “John,” in The Moody Bible Commentary, ed. Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), p.1,656.

9 Ibid, p. 1,658. Köstenberger agrees (p. 537). Boyer makes a similar point (front).

10 “Interpretive Challenges” in The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1,430. Hoenher also favors this explanation; see p. 90, It must be observed that both men present Christ’s triumphal entry as taking place on the Monday of Passion Week. See “Christ’s Passion Week,” in The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1,259, as well as the study note on Matt. 21:9, p. 1,300. See also Hoehner, pp. 69 and 91. Boyer’s comment, however, is also worth noting here: “All these two-Passover views have … serious weaknesses” (front).

11 The Moody Bible Commentary, p. 1,658. Here we must also acknowledge, however, that this solution offered by Hart, MacArthur and Hoehner (see p. 89) does not match the dates in the “traditional view” offered above by Boyer. Also, Alfred Edersheim stated, “We have already expressed our belief that in the Fourth Gospel time is reckoned not according to the Jewish mode, but according to the Roman civil day, from midnight to midnight” (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), Book III, p. 408).

12 The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), p. 694.

Paul Scharf 2019 Bio


Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email pscharf@foi.org.

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