What makes the Bible different from any other literature, ancient or modern, that we should trust its message? Why should we believe what the Bible says? Perhaps you’ve noticed some apparent contradictions within its pages. Unfortunately, apparent contradictions in the Bible have caused many people to abandon their belief in the biblical message. We need to take a closer look at supposed contradictions in the Bible to find out whether the Bible can really be trusted.
While I was doing doctoral work at Duke, N. T. Wright, the popular Anglican bishop and former Oxford professor, was visiting and lecturing on his new book that Christ’s resurrection is a fact of history. My mentor at the time, now a professor at Yale, was lurking in the aisles, listening skeptically. During the Q&A, he asked how Wright could honestly claim a physical resurrection of Jesus in view of all the contradictions in the Gospel accounts. He rattled off a long list. The machine-gun pacing clearly rattled Wright, who never really addressed the series of proposed contradictions.
At the top of my mentor’s list was perhaps one of the greatest contradictions of all, the dating of Christ’s crucifixion. This famous contradiction offers us a chance to test whether the Scriptures bear a supernatural mark. To set the stage for this apparent contradiction, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—called the “Synoptic” Gospels—leave readers with the sense that Jesus was crucified on the day after the Passover lambs were slaughtered, Nisan 15 on their calendar, a Friday. According to Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7, Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper the night before his death (on Thursday) as a Passover meal after the Passover lambs had been slaughtered.
John’s Gospel agrees that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, but he gives the impression that Jesus as the Passover Lamb was crucified on the same day the Passover lambs were slaughtered, i.e., Nisan 14. If that’s the case, then John’s Last Supper the night before would not be a Passover meal, and that would contradict the other three gospels. In other words, John’s association of Jesus’s crucifixion—and not the Last Supper—with the Passover resulted in a different date for the crucifixion.
People draw on three lines of evidence to support the view that John has changed the date of Christ’s crucifixion. We will look at each in turn, but we will also see if each can bear the weight needed for there to be a contradiction. We want to be critical with the critical arguments. After all, turnabout is fair play.
First, many critical scholars claim that John 13:1 says the Last Supper took place before the Passover Feast, and thus for John it was not a Passover meal as in the Synoptics. John and the Synoptics would therefore be contradicting each other. Before we get too convinced that there is a contradiction, we should take a closer look! As you read John 13:1-4, look carefully. These verses never say that the Last Supper took place before the Passover Feast, only that Jesus had known that the hour for His departure would come and that He had loved the disciples. When 13:2 turns immediately to the “supper,” the most natural conclusion is that it must be the Passover meal since John had just mentioned the Passover in 13:1. One would conclude from John 13:1-4, in agreement with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that Jesus’s Last Supper was a Passover meal. The first rationale for a contradiction collapses.
Second, John 18:28 says that when the religious leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, they refused to enter Pilate’s hall so that they would not be defiled and unable to eat the Passover. As the argument goes, this must have been Nisan 14 with the Feast of Passover to take place later that evening. That would presumably allow John to place Jesus’s death on the day the Passover lambs were sacrificed. In other words, the Passover meal would take place after Jesus’s death and not the night before as in the other gospels—a contradiction.
Taking a closer look, however, notice especially how John did not say that they would be prevented from eating the Passover that evening. In any case, uncleanness before an evening Passover meal would easily be resolved by washing in water (Leviticus 15:5, 7, 11; Numbers 19:22). That fact suggests, instead, that the meal at issue is a daytime meal while the uncleanness remained in effect and had not yet been washed away. What is often overlooked is that “Passover” could also refer to the daytime meals that took place during the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, i.e., meals that took place after the Passover meal, proper. The most important of these was on the first full day of the Passover week (Numbers 28:18-19, the hagigah)—which would take place on Friday after the Thursday evening Passover meal. Notice also in this regard that John never actually claims that Jesus was crucified on the same day the Passover lambs were killed. Another basis for the contradiction in dates dissolves.
Third, in John 19:14, Pilate condemns Jesus on “the preparation day for the Passover,” which sounds like the day just before the first Passover evening meal. Again, Jesus would be crucified before the Passover meal, a contradiction with the other gospels. There is, however, a more likely possibility that will clear up the problem. One could translate John’s language as “the day of preparation,” which would refer to a week’s usual day of preparation, the Friday before the Sabbath. In other words, John would be referring to “the day of preparation of the Passover (week).” If that’s the case, Pilate would be condemning Jesus not on the Passover itself, but on the Friday of that Passover week celebration, in agreement with the other gospels. The apparent contradiction again vanishes.
John offers additional chronological indications that agree with the Synoptics. Jesus tells Judas to do quickly in 13:29 what he plans (the betrayal). The other disciples misunderstand, thinking that Jesus is asking Judas to give something to the poor, precisely what takes place on the first night of the Passover week! Beggars would stand by the gates and receive alms on the night of the Passover meal.
The reader should not miss the significance of all this. One of the premiere contradictions in the Bible is, upon closer investigation, not contradictory at all! When critics repeatedly mention the problem of the date of the crucifixion in John, it is easy to be conditioned into assuming that there must be biblical contradictions. At the end of the day, it is incumbent upon the believer to be critical with the criticisms and to engage afresh the biblical text for what it says and does not say.
Over the years as a biblical scholar, I have encountered many issues and possible contradictions. Rarely, however, does one encounter a possibly genuine contradiction, a proposition posed in one place with its exact opposite apparently in another. When a difficult problem like this emerges, my experience is that over time, an explanation suggests itself. That pattern of eventually finding resolutions to difficulties has served to increase my confidence in the biblical text. The Bible bears a unique, supernatural mark that attests itself over other literary materials that are of a purely human origin. We are justified in placing our confidence in its message, a message of a Savior who died for the sins of the world that we might have the confidence of our eternal destiny!
Rev. Dr. A. Andrew Das is the Niebuhr Distinguished Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Elmhurst University, an internationally recognized biblical scholar and author or editor of over ten books.