The exact chronology of Easter is not the most important thing to think about during Easter week, but students often ask me questions about chronological issues in the Gospels. Here are some common questions:
What is the probable date of Jesus’ crucifixion?
Calculating ancient dates gets complicated for a number of reasons: Jewish months all started at the new moon; they had two “new years” per year; they added in leap months as needed; days started at sunset, not sunrise; ancient people often used imprecise designations for years, and not everyone was using the same calendar system in the first century. But here’s what we do know: Jesus celebrated a Passover dinner on Thursday night before his crucifixion, placing his crucifixion the next day, on Friday, Nisan 15.
To figure out the year of the crucifixion, we just have to look for years in which Nisan 15 was a Friday. AD 30 and 33 both work; however, AD 30 does not give enough time to account for the starting of John’s ministry in AD 28/29 (Luke 3:1), and then the three or more years of Jesus’ ministry implied by the Gospel of John. So the most likely date is Nisan 15 (= April 3), AD 33.
Calculating the date is quite a bit more complicated than what I just wrote, but believe me, you don’t want me to start talking about whether or not the Sanhedrin missed a new moon observation due to cloud cover some time that decade.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus dies the day after Passover. But in John, it seems like he dies on the Passover. Can these be reconciled?
The Last Supper is clearly a Seder, a Passover dinner (Matt 26:17-19). Passover lambs were sacrificed earlier that day, Thursday, Nisan 14. Jesus died the next morning, Friday, Nisan 15. However, at first read, John seems to place Jesus’ death on the Passover, making it Friday, Nisan 14 (which would only occur in a different year). The chief priests do not want to enter Pilate’s palace so that “they might not be defiled but eat the Passover” (John 18:28), and Pilate sends the titulus (the sign for Jesus' cross) proclaiming Jesus as king on “the day of Preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14).
There have been a number of proposals attempting to deal with these two different accounts. Some suggest that John is ignoring historical accuracy to make Jesus’ death coincide with the slaying of the Passover lambs. Others suggest that John and the Synoptic authors were using different calendars. Although it is true that some early Jews, most notably the Essenes, followed a different calendar, I don't think that really solves the problem in John.
Here’s the solution I find most likely. “Day of preparation” (παρασκευή, paraskeuē) is also the standard word for “Friday” for early Jews and Christians, since Jewish households had to prepare for the Sabbath every Friday. John clearly means Friday, since he says that this παρασκευή was the day before Sabbath (John 19:31). The other Synoptic Gospels also call the day of the crucifixion παρασκευή (Matt 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54). So the phrase “Preparation of Passover” (παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα) can simply mean “Friday of Passover [week]” rather than “preparation for Passover.” That makes it the same day and date as the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels.
What about the chief priests’ desire to “eat Passover” that night, after Jesus’ death? (John 19:31) While this is definitely evidence for the belief that John has a different chronology, there is a reasonable explanation. Passover is not only a single meal, but a week of festivities, with more than one sacred meal. The chief priests would be more likely than most Jews to be involved in multiple rituals during Passover week, and all of them would have required ritual purity.
Why don’t we celebrate Easter at Passover?
Christians wanted to keep Easter on Sunday, and Passover is not tied to a day of the week. So early Christians adopted different ways of calculating the date of Easter, and of course they got in big arguments over which day to celebrate. By the late third century, most Christians settled on the same definition (first Sunday after the Passover new moon). Some Christians still use a different date.
In my next post, I will answer a few questions related to the "three days and three nights."