February 10, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: The two calendars

See Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13, John 13:1

As we arrive, in this series of columns, at the Last Supper, we have to resolve a discrepancy between the Gospel of John and the other three.

For John, the feast of Passover clearly began the evening of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the reference noted above for John’s Gospel says that the Last Supper was “before the feast of Passover.” The Synoptic Gospels are just as clear that the Last Supper was the Passover meal.

This was a huge problem for biblical scholars until recently. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 and later, and then translated, it became clear that the Jews had two calendars at the time of Christ. The Essenes, who most scholars believe composed the scrolls, rejected the authority of the leaders of the temple and their calendar as well. The temple calendar was a lunar calendar (based on the moon) while the Essenes’ was solar (based on the sun). Perhaps Jesus celebrated Passover that year according to the Essenes’ calendar.

Why would he have done that? Various reasons have been proposed. One is that he knew that he would not be alive at the time of the temple Passover. Another is that Bethany, where he stayed frequently, was an Essene-influenced village, as was the section of Jerusalem where he observed the feast.

Bethany is considered Essene-influenced because Lazarus, Martha and Mary, who lived there, were unmarried. This was highly unusual in Jewish society—except among the Essenes. That the section of Jerusalem was Essene-influenced is indicated by the fact that Jesus told Peter and John to look for a man carrying a jar of water. He would have been conspicuous because carrying water was women’s work—unless the man was unmarried.

So perhaps Jesus followed the Essene calendar when he celebrated his Last Supper. Unfortunately, that doesn’t entirely solve the problem. It is generally agreed that Jesus was crucified in the year 30. According to the temple calendar, Passover began on Saturday (or Friday evening) that year. According to the Essenes’ calendar, it began on Wednesday. That, though, meant that the Last Supper was on a Tuesday.

Surprisingly, there are early Christian documents that say precisely that. Moreover, they state that Jesus was arrested Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, and that his trial stretched from Wednesday to Friday. The Didache, for example, says that the early Church altered the Jewish fast days (Monday and Thursday) to Wednesday and Friday “because on Wednesday Jesus was taken prisoner.” It references Jesus’ saying, “When the bridegroom is taken away, they shall fast on that day” (Mk 2:20).

I believe that Jesus’ trial lasted longer than was depicted in the Gospels because far too many things happened between the time of Jesus’ arrest late at night and when he was led out for his crucifixion on Friday morning. However, when we get to those events I will follow the timetable in the Gospels because this series is about Jesus in the Gospels. †


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