We know with relative certainty the day of the week on which Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, then Pilate, and fixed to the cross. It was the day before the Jewish sabbath: that is, a Friday. This information is provided by two of the four evangelists:
— Mark 15, 42
By this time evening had come; and as it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the sabbath), [...]
— John 19, 31
Because it was the eve of the sabbath, the Jews were anxious that the bodies should not remain on the crosses [...]
We also know with relative certainty the day of the month (but not the year) on which Jesus was crucified. It was the day of preparation for the Pesach (Passover) festival: that is, the Hebrew date of 14 Nisan. This information is provided twice by one of the four evangelists:
— John 18, 28
From Caiaphas Jesus was led into the governor’s headquarters. It was now early morning, and the Jews themselves stayed outside the headquarters to avoid defilement, so that they could eat the Passover meal.
— John 19, 14
It was the day of preparation for the Passover, about noon. Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’
It is also provided by a purely Jewish document:
— Babylonian Talmud, Nezikin ("Damages") order,
Sanhedrin tractate, V, 2, 43a
The day before Pesach, they executed Jesus of Nazareth [...]
Using the fact that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, 14 Nisan, historians have been able to conclude that this event probably took place on Friday, 7 April 30, when Jesus was about 36 years old.
At some time prior to this fateful Friday on the eve of Passover, Jesus had a final meal with his apostles.
Concerning this celebrated Last Supper, which inspired the Christian ceremony of the Eucharist, there is a dating problem that has not yet been solved in a way that satisfies everybody. Most people consider that it took place on the evening of Thursday, 6 April 30, but this convenient date raises problems, for reasons that I shall now summarize.
There has always been a ceremonial Jewish dinner on the eve or the first evening of Pesach that is known as the Passover Seder, or simply Seder. Christians often refer to this Jewish ritual as the paschal supper. Clearly, since Jesus was tried and executed on the eve of Pesach, then the Last Supper could not have possibly been an ordinary Jewish Seder. Besides, at the start of Jesus's final meal, John describes a curious event that is not part of a traditional Seder: Jesus washed the feet of his companions. Furthermore, as described by the evangelists, essential ingredients of the Seder appear to have been absent in the Last Supper. The gospels make no mention of the presence on the table of lamb, matzot (unleavened bread) and various symbolic foodstuffs.
In spite of these negative factors, the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) persist in speaking of the Last Supper as if it took place at the start of Pesach and constituted a traditional Seder. For example:
— Mark 14, 12-16
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, his disciples said to him, ‘Where would you like us to go and prepare the Passover for you?’ So he sent off two of his disciples with these instructions: ‘Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him, and when he enters a house, give this message to the householder: “The Teacher says, ‘Where is the room in which I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’” He will show you a large upstairs room, set out in readiness. Make the preparations for us there.’ Then the disciples went off, and when they came into the city they found everything just as he had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
The Catholic Church has always recognized, of course, that there are contradictions in the Gospels concerning this central theme of the Last Supper. Last Thursday, in his homily during the Holy Thursday mass in the basilica of Saint John Lateran, Benedict XVI made an allusion to these contradictions. Then he went on to make an astonishing reference to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Here are the words of the pope:
In the narrations of the Evangelists, there is an apparent contradiction between the Gospel of John, on one hand, and what, on the other hand, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. According to John, Jesus died on the cross precisely at the moment in which, in the temple, the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. His death and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.
This means that he died on the eve of Passover, and that, therefore, he could not have personally celebrated the paschal supper; at least this is what it would seem.
On the contrary, according to the three Synoptic Evangelists, the last supper of Jesus was a paschal supper, in its traditional form. He introduced the innovation of the gift of his body and blood. This contradiction, until a few years ago, seemed impossible to resolve.
The majority of the exegetes thought that John did not want to communicate to us the true historical date of the death of Jesus, but had opted for a symbolic date to make the deeper truth more evident: Jesus is the new and true lamb that spilled his blood for us all.
The discovery of the manuscripts of Qumran has led us to a convincing possible solution that, while not accepted by all, is highly probable. We can now say that what John referred to is historically correct. Jesus truly spilled his blood on the eve of Passover at the hour of the sacrifice of the lambs.
However, he celebrated Passover with his disciples probably according to the calendar of Qumran, that is to say, at least one day earlier -- he celebrated without a lamb, like the Qumran community who did not recognize the Temple of Herod and was waiting for a new temple.
Now, the explanations of Benedict XVI are really weird, for two reasons that I shall outline briefly before concluding this lengthy article:
— In suggesting that Jesus was an Essene, the pope has decided, as it were, to rewrite New Testament history on the basis of archaeological findings at Qumran made in the middle of the 20th century.
— Among the great Qumran scholars, nobody has ever imagined for an instant that the historical Jesus might have been an Essene.
My own explanation of the contradictions (for what it's worth) has the merit of being simpler and more orthodox than the pope's. I would imagine that the instructions about going into the city and meeting up with a man carrying a jar of water were in fact given by Jesus on the morning of Thursday, 6 April 30. After all, since the troublemaker from Nazareth and his followers were being spied upon by the authorities, it is feasible that Jesus thought it wise that his followers should be assembled in the "large upstairs room" well in advance of the eve of Passover. One can imagine that this room might have assumed the role, in the mind of Jesus, of a temporary shelter from his pursuers. But, by the end of Thursday afternoon, when everybody was present in the upper room, Jesus foresaw already that he would never live to see the eve of Pesach, twenty-four hours later. So, he transformed Thursday's assembly into an advanced and abridged ceremony: a sort of symbolic Seder. Since it was too early to envisage their evening get-together as a real Seder, there would be no lamb or special Jewish foodstuffs on the table, and the bread would be ordinary, not unleavened. But Jesus, knowing now that his time on Earth was about to end and that he would never be able to participate in a real Seder with his companions, improvised a virtual Passover supper... whose powerful spontaneous symbols (Jesus was equated to a sacrificed lamb, with Thursday's ordinary bread and wine of the upper room symbolizing his flesh and blood) gave rise to the Christian ritual of the Eucharist as we have known it ever since. To my mind, there is no need whatsoever to drag the Essenes into the picture.
In any case, the words of Benedict XVI, the day before yesterday, were astonishing and his reasoning is hard to fathom.