Passover: “The thorniest problem in the New Testament”

If you’ve ever done a study on Passover and the Last Supper, you’ve no doubt come to a place in Mark and John that left you scratching your head or going back and forth between them, only to become even more confused. Furthermore, when I have pointed out the discrepancy, people have gotten downright ugly with me. So what’s the issue?

The Last Supper was a Passover Seder (the meal on the evening of Passover) according to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.’”  So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover. When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. (Matthew 26:17-19)

That seems pretty clear – until you read John.

It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about six in the morning. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. (John 19:14)

Did Jesus celebrate Passover with His disciples and then he was crucified? Or was He crucified just before Passover, fulfilling His role as the Passover Lamb (the lamb was sacrificed just before Passover on the evening)? It is a question that has confused lay-theologians and scholars for centuries. In fact, the seeming contradiction has caused many scholars to call this ‘the thorniest problem in the New Testament’.

One theory is that He ate the Seder before Passover, knowing He had other plans on Passover. Another is that, Passover and the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread are synonymous—so, maybe He did eat the Passover with them on the first night and He was crucified just before the second night.

One interesting theory that has gained acceptance recently, and is now taught by most Israeli tour guides, is The Essene Passover Theory. I have always been a fan of the late Bargil Pixner, a Benedictine monk and Bible scholar at the Dormition Abbey on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. I love his take on the upper room being the first actual Messianic synagogue post 70 CE, and now I want to share his theory of the Essene Passover.

More recently Professor Colin Humphreys, a scientist at the University of Cambridge, has embraced the idea:

“Whatever you think about the Bible, the fact is that Jewish people would never mistake the Passover meal for another meal, so for the Gospels to contradict themselves in this regard is really hard to understand.”

The Essenes were a Jewish sect in the first century. They were extremely strict and are credited with preserving the Dead Sea scrolls—the greatest archaeological find in history.

The Essenes had a fixed 364-day calendar, according to Bixner. That means every day fell on the same day of the week every year, because 364 is divisible by seven. So, if your birthday was on Sunday in 32 CE, it would be on Sunday in 33 CE. Surely that had some sort of leap year every so often to keep things right with the seasons.

Most people do not know that the Bible is not clear on when each month begins and ends. In fact, only a few have names beyond first month, seventh month, etc. Most of the names came from Babylon and were not so kosher. So, clearly the Essenes were seeking to fix this. They deeply distrusted the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple.

On the Essene calendar, Passover always starts on Tuesday night. Pixner explains that while Yeshua was not an Essene, He choose to use their Passover date over the Temple’s new lunar calendar. The reason is obvious—he would not be around on Friday night to celebrate. Yeshua had to celebrate the Passover and also be crucified as the Passover lamb, just before Passover. The two dates gave Him that ability.

Here is more possible evidence. John says Yeshua arrives in Bethany six days before Passover (John 12:1). Bethany is next to the Mount of Olives and part of the greater Jerusalem area. Mark says he arrived two days before Passover. Yet, they seem to mark the same event on the evening of His arrival.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, … Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. (from John) Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away. While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. (from Mark)

The fact that one account has His feet anointed and another account has His head anointed are not contradictory. They are just two viewpoints of the same event. It is unlikely that this happened twice that week, because the perfume was extremely expensive—a year’s wages. Not many people had that kind of money.

So, assuming that these are the same events, Mark has it two days from Passover and John, six. If the traditional Passover was Friday night and the Essence Passover was Tuesday night—then this makes perfect sense. He comes into Bethany six days before Passover and then on the next day, two days before the Essene Passover, this event takes place with perfume.

Men don’t carry water

Yeshua tell His disciples:

He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” (Luke 22:10-12)

Here is another clue. Why would a man, and not his wife, be carrying water? This is strange, unless the man was unmarried, a celibate—an Essene. Now some say, the Essenes were poor and would not have owned a house so close to the Temple. Well, they didn’t—but maybe they had friends who did own a house (such as is mentioned) and who supported them? The man with the jar of water did not own the house, but he takes the disciples to the owner.

Pixner claims “he found archaeological proof for the existence of an Essenes quarter in Jerusalem during excavations on Mount Zion in 1977.”

Let’s assume that Yeshua ate the Passover on the Essene date, Tuesday night. Now we need to figure how we get from Tuesday to Friday or at least Thursday. Many have long believed that Yeshua was crucified on Thursday morning, with the traditional Passover beginning that evening.

If you read the events of John, we see a lot of activity between the time Yeshua leaves the upper room until He is crucified. So, we can assume that they left sometime that evening. It was late enough that His able-bodied disciples kept falling asleep. He seems to say that He was gone one hour and then goes back to pray again. Let’s say they were there until about 2am, maybe 3am.

  1. His arrest on the Mount of Olives takes time. They fall down (John 18:6)…they get up, wonder what happened and then Peter cuts a guy’s ear off. This whole scene could have taken two hours, and then the thirty-minute (at least) walk to Jerusalem.

  2. Next, our Messiah is arrested and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. There is a sham trial, but it had to take some time. It’s possible that He was held for a few hours.

  3. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

  4. Common sense says this had to have taken many hours. It has to be morning by now, if not later in the day.

  5. Now, He is on His way to Pilate. A lot is happening here. Jerusalem is packed for the feast. Surely it takes more than 10 minutes to get Him to Pilate, and then for Pilate to take an interest. Next we have the whole Barabbas episode. That had to take at least an hour or two.

  6. Pilate is now contemplating. He refers to a dream about Yeshua. After a lengthy debate, Pilate washes his hands of Yeshua. Could it really only be 6:00am the next day?

  7. The soldiers now beat Him, mock Him and divide up His clothes. This probably takes at least an hour or more.

  8. Now, Yeshua has to walk from there to the place of crucifixion. It is probably one or two kilometers—He is hurt, beaten…He drops the cross. Jerusalem is built on a mountain and it is very steep. This was no quick sprint.

My point: It is very possible that all this took an extra day before the crucifixion. It is possible by the time they got to Pilate, it was early on the morning of the next day. After several hours of arguing, Pilate judges Him at 6:00am. Is it realistic that all that happened between 2:00am and 6:00am of the same day – in only four hours?

We can conclude, as more and more are, that Yeshua celebrated Passover on Tuesday night with the Essenes and was crucified on Thursday morning, and died as the Passover Lamb, with the other Passover lambs, before the traditional Passover on Thursday evening, before twilight on Nissan 14.

However, many scholars do not agree with Bixner on the Essene date and say that it was on a Wednesday that the Essene Passover fell. Professor Humphreys takes this position. If indeed it was Wednesday, then the crucifixion could have been the next morning at 9AM or possibly Friday morning.

The purpose of this paper is not to convince you of something but to give you food for thought. The Essene Passover theory, if true, certainly does solve ‘the thorniest problem in the New Testament.’

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