Comparing what the Gospels say about any episode of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus reveals many differences and contradictions. The significance of these differences is that they undermine the historical reliability of the main sources on the alleged crucifixion. This article deals with one of these contradictions.
The contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion start as early as their specification of the date on which Jesus was arrested. All four Gospels state that Jesus was arrested and later crucified on the day of preparation:
Now when evening had already come, since it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath). (Mark 15:42)
The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate. (Matt. 27:62)
It was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. (Luke 23:54)
Then, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to have the victims’ legs broken and the bodies taken down. (John 19:31)
This designates Friday, on which all preparations for the Sabbath had to be done as no work could be done on the holy day. But John disagrees with the Synoptic assertion that this Friday was the first day of the Jewish festival of the Passover, suggesting that it was the day of rest of the Passover, i.e. one day earlier.
According to Jewish law, the lamb of the Passover is slaughtered in the evening of the 14th of Nisan, which is the first month in the Jewish calendar, and it is then eaten in that night (Exo. 12:1-8). As the Jewish day is reckoned from sunset to sunset, this night represents the start of the 15th of Nisan. The Synoptics claim that after having the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was arrested later in that night, i.e. the night of the first day of the Passover (Mark 14:12-46; Matt. 26:19-50; Luke 22:7-54), and was crucified in the morning, that is on the morning of 15th Nisan.
John states that after being arrested and questioned by the high priest, Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate very early in the morning on the day of rest of the Passover, clearly implying that he was arrested on the previous night: “Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence. (Now it was very early morning.) They did not go into the governor’s residence so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (John 18:28). The crucifixion happened hours later, so it must have taken place on the 14th of Nisan. So John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels, placing the arrest and crucifixion one day earlier. According to John, the Friday of the crucifixion was the day of rest of the Passover, whereas the other three Evangelists make it the first day of the feast. So the agreement of the four that it was on a Friday hides a disagreement on when that Friday fell with respect to the Passover.
John’s timeline of the crucifixion makes Jesus die at the same time of the slaughter of the Passover lambs. This works very well for his description of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” in the opening chapter of his Gospel, which he attributes to John the Baptist:
On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)
John also applies to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the form of a prophecy, a description that the Old Testament applies to the Passover lamb: “For these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of his will be broken’” (John 19:36). John, thus, suggests that in his crucifixion Jesus played the role of the true Passover lamb. The fact that John’s dating of the crucifixion is in such agreement with his theology has made some scholars reject the historicity of his dating as deliberately manipulated and favor the Synoptic date:
In John 1.36 Jesus is called the “the lamb of God,” and the equation Jesus = lamb has determined John’s dating of the crucifixion. At the very time when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, the true lamb of God was dying outside the walls of the city. Once we see that the date in John agrees so strongly with its theology, we are inclined to prefer the Synoptics and conclude that Jesus was executed on Friday, 15 Nissan. (Sanders, 1995: 72)
Interestingly, while Mark makes it clear that Jesus was crucified on the first day of the Passover, it also states earlier that when, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and the experts in the law were conspiring to kill Jesus they did not want to kill him “during the feast, so there won’t be a riot among the people” (Mark 14:2). This passage may belong to a different tradition which is in line with the Johannine chronology of the crucifixion.
Not surprising, there have been attempts to harmonize the contradictory Gospel accounts. One popular attempt suggests that John used a different calendar from that used by the other three Evangelists. There is no evidence to support this suggestion, and there are strong arguments against it (Theissen & Merz, 1999: 159; also Vermes, 2005: 97-98).
This article has discussed only one of the contradictions between the Gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, but there are many more. Furthermore, the Gospel stories contradict established historical facts also, including Jewish trial law. The Gospels are the main sources on the supposed crucifixion of Jesus. In fact, they are the only sources that discuss this alleged incident in detail. Therefore, their numerous internal contradictions and disagreements with history, both of which undermine the Gospels’ value as historical sources, must also equally undermine their claim that Jesus was crucified.
Sanders, E. P. (1995). The Historical Figure of Jesus, Penguin Books: England.
Theissen, G. & Merz, A. (1999). The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, SCM Press: London.
Vermes, G. (2005). The Passion, Penguin Books: London.
Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.
Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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