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Background:

Over the centuries, many readers of the four Gospels have seen significant discrepancies between John and the Synoptics, particularly with regards to chronology. This has led many to conclude that John and/or the Synoptics are in error with regards to their historical claims.

Meanwhile, others have ardently defended the position that all four Gospels are historically accurate in their claims, as this answer indicates.

It is interesting to note that there is strong evidence that John was aware of the Synoptic tradition at the time of writing his Gospel, and assumed his original audience was also familiar. (See here for example.) This leads to an obvious question: did John accidentally goof up his chronology, or did he intentionally deviate from the Synoptics... or is his chronology actually in harmony with that of the Synoptics? This question will explore the latter possibility.


More Specifically:

A recent question on this site (and its ensuing comments and chat conversations) exposed a few such alleged contradictions between John and the Synoptics. They are all related to the Passion chronology. The main difficulties are as follows:

  • The Synoptics indicate that Jesus ate the Passover with His disciples at the normal time (Matt. 26:16-20, Mark 14:12-17, Luke 22:7-15.) However, John 18:28 indicates that after Jesus was betrayed, the Jews were concerned about being prevented from eating the Passover due to defilement. Why would they be worried about such a thing if the Passover had already taken place?

  • Furthermore, John 19:14 indicates that Jesus was sentenced during the "day of preparation of the Passover". How could Jesus be sentenced during the preparation for the Passover if He ate the Passover with His disciples?

  • Mark 15:25 states clearly that Jesus was crucified "at the third hour", and all three of the Synoptic Gospels have Him on the cross well before the sixth hour (Matt. 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44) However, John 19:14 indicates Jesus' sentencing took place at "about the sixth hour". How could He be crucified before He stood before Pilot?

The Question: Is it possible for John's passion chronology be reconciled with the Passion chronology from the other three Gospels? If so, please include a chart showing how the relevant verses relate to one another, and then specifically address the three issues mentioned above.

share|improve this question
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This is a fine self-answered question, though asking for a chart might be a touch too restrictive. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Jun 9 '13 at 4:34
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@JonEricson Fair enough. Part of my motivation was to address Dan's frustration that "everyone has a theory, but no one will take every verse and lay it out in their timeline" –  Jas 3.1 Jun 9 '13 at 4:36
    
@JonEricson (I'm also hoping to squeeze a more detailed chart out of Joseph, but don't tell him I said that) –  Jas 3.1 Jun 9 '13 at 4:38
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It seems (from the question) that only two verses in John are at odds with the Synoptics. If anyone thinks other verses should be addressed, feel free to edit (or suggest an edit). –  Jon Ericson Jun 9 '13 at 4:40
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+1. Great succient summation of the major chronological issues. Thanks. –  Matthew Miller Jun 9 '13 at 5:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Short Answer: Yes, it is definitely possible for John's chronology to be reconciled with that of the Synoptics. As the following chart shows, the sequence of Passion events recorded in John is in perfect harmony with the sequence in the Synoptics. When John's terminology is properly understood, it becomes clear that John's chronology does not contradict that of the Synoptics, but actually strengthens and adds further clarity to it -- particularly for the audience he was writing to.

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The difficulty is not in the sequence of events, but in properly understanding the terms John used to locate those events in time. The key to understanding John's choice of terms lies in the historical context of the Gospel.

Historical Context of the Gospel of John

Audience: The best we can tell, John probably wrote his Gospel somewhere around 85 AD in Asia -- probably Ephesus.1 We can get a bit more specific about his audience by examining literary clues:

John explained Jewish customs, translated Jewish names, and located Palestinian sites. These facts suggest that he was writing for Gentile readers who lived primarily outside Palestine.2

Of course, Rome ruled the land in those days, so John would have had to translate much of this Jewish material before his Gentile ("Roman") audience could understand it.

Relationship to the Synoptics: As mentioned in the question, there is strong evidence that both John and his intended audience were intimately familiar with the Synoptic tradition. John's Gospel was thus supplementary in nature, written for a theological purpose, rather than to rehash the historical details they were all already familiar with. This is why John doesn't spend his time rehashing Jesus' genealogy, birth, baptism, temptation, calling of the twelve, exercising demons, parables, transfiguration, agony in Gesthemane, ascension, etc. In fact, it is estimated that 93% of the material in John is unique to John.3

He focused on Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem, the Jewish feasts, Jesus' private conversations with individuals, and His preparation of His disciples.4

John 18:28

This verse indicates the Jews feared that they might be defiled, and thus precluded from eating the Passover. The semantic range of the term "the Passover" includes "the Feast of Unleavened Bread", as seen elsewhere in Scripture:

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching. -Luke 22:1

This view is supported by both modern commentators and ancient Jewish sources. For example, one esteemed commentator (citing the Mishnah) recently explained:

The "Passover" was the name that the Jews used to describe both the Passover proper, and the entire festival that followed it, which included the Feast of Unleavened Bread . . . Part of the feast was the offering of two peace offerings, called the Chagigah—one on the Nisan 14 and one on Nisan 15, the latter being the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Jewish law was very strict that no one who was defiled could offer the Chagigah.5

Thus, John 18:28 seems to simply be indicating that the Jews were concerned that they would not be able to eat the Feast / offer the Chagigah.

Why did John use the term "the Passover", rather than "the Feast"? Probably to highlight the irony of the situation: the Jews go to great lengths to preserve their participation in the Passover Feast while, at the same time, going to great lengths to betray the True Passover.

John 19:14a

The beginning of the verse says that it was now "the day of preparation of the Passover." The term "the day of preparation" is a single word in Greek (παρασκευὴ) that normally referred to "Friday" (which is the day of preparation for "Saturday," the Sabbath.)6 In John's day, παρασκευὴ had become the colloquial name of the 6th day of the week. 7 So, the most natural rendition of the statement would be "the Friday of the Passover."

Given that this is the preferred interpretation exegetically, and that it aligns perfectly with the chronology of John, as well as the Synoptic witnesses, there is no reason to suspect that it means anything different. This apparent contradiction only exists in modern English.

Why did John use the term "the day of preparation" of the Passover? Probably to help his readers understand the Jews' request to break the legs of the condemned in verses 31-36; they couldn't have people hanging on crosses on that Sabbath, "for the day of that Sabbath was great" (being associated with the Passover.) Again we see the irony of the Jews' high view of the Passover festival, and disregard for the True Passover.

John 19:14b

The verse goes on to specify that "it was about the sixth hour" when Pilate brought Jesus out and told the Jews "Behold, your King!" The important question to answer here is: by which clock? At the time of the writing of the Gospel of John the Romans were using a system of reckoning time which would have placed "the sixth hour" at about 6:00 AM,8 as evidenced by recovered Roman legal documents.9 So, was John using the Jewish calendar, the Roman legal calendar, or did he just goof up on a very specific timestamp?

There are a number of reasons to favor the view that John was using the Roman legal calendar here:

  • Recall that John's late-century, Gentile audience was most likely more Roman than Jewish in culture, and so it is likely that the term "the sixth hour" would mean 6:00 AM to them -- especially in reference to Roman legal matters.

  • Recall that John and his readers were already familiar with the Synoptic tradition. It would be very odd for John to blatantly contradict that tradition with no explanation. (It would be even more odd for John to accidentally make such a specific mistake!)

  • Recall that most of John' material served to supplement the Synoptic tradition. The idea of John adding a "Roman legal" timestamp to clarify the timing of this event for his readers is highly consistent with the nature of this Gospel.

  • "The sixth hour" (by the Roman legal calendar) was the exact time at which the Romans typically began their legal work.10 Given the haste of the Jews in capturing Jesus and bringing Him to Pilot, and the fact that Jesus was captured in the middle of the night, it makes perfect sense for them to get him to Pilot first thing in the morning -- and for John to highlight this!

  • This would not be the first time that John's Gospel displayed a more "Roman" focus than the Synoptics. In fact, we have another example in the very next verse:

The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." -John 19:15

This reference to Caesar only appears in John.

  • If John was using the Roman legal calendar, John's Passion chronology aligns perfectly with that of the Synoptics (refer to chart.) We're not talking about a solution that makes it possible to reconcile the accounts, we are looking at a legitimate, historically-vetted definition of the term that fits exactly with everything else we know about the Passion chronology.

Why did John use the term "the sixth hour" to refer to 6:00 AM? Because that was the term his audience would have been familiar with in regards to Roman legal matters, and being the start of the Roman legal workday, it highlighted the Jews' haste in driving Pilot to sentence Jesus first thing in the morning.


1: D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, 82-87; Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on John: 2013 Edition, http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm (accessed February 6, 2013), 2-3

2: Constable, 6

3: Constable, 4 citing Edwin A. Blum, "John." In Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, 267-348, Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1983), 269

4: Constable, 4

5: Constable, 281 citing Pesahim 6:3 from The Mishnah. Translated by Herbert Danby (London: Oxford University Press, 1933) . . . cf. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by William Whiston (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1866); reprint ed. Peabody, Mass.: (Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 14:2:1; 17:9:3; See also Carson, 589-590

6: Carson, 603 citing Charles C Torrey, "The Date of the Crucifixion According to the Fourth Gospel", Journal of Biblical Literature, 50:4 (1931), 241; A. J. B. Higgins, "The Origins of the Eucharist", New Testament Studies 1 (1954-55), 206ff; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 776-777

7: Constable, 292 citing Torrey, 241; Higgins, 206-8; B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John: The Authorised Version with Introduction and Notes (London: James Clarke & Co., Ltd., 1958), 1:343; Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 70

8: Constable, citing Westcott, 2:324-26; and R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries series (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 209

9: Constable, citing Morris, 708

10: Constable, citing A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 45

share|improve this answer
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Well argued and explained. Thank you. –  Jon Ericson Jun 9 '13 at 4:38
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+1. This a great attempt. I'm don't think it really puts the issues away though. I agree it's possible but I think the evidence still points in the opposite direction. –  Matthew Miller Jun 9 '13 at 10:01
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I still have questions, but this is the clearest attempt I've seen yet. Thank you. +1. So you think everything that preceded the sentencing by Pilate happened before 6 A.M in the morning? Also, if we apply this standard of time here, how does that influence other chronologies of additional events in John (I'm not sure)? Just some thoughts –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jun 9 '13 at 21:18
    
@Dan Yes, I believe that is the case. It would seem that the Sanhedrin captured Jesus in the dead of night, then after meeting in the dark of night to condemn Him they brought Him before Pilot first thing in the morning (at 6:00 AM) to request His death. Note that this was the earliest that the Sanhedrin could have brought Jesus before Pilot, since the Romans began their work at around 6:00 AM. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 9 '13 at 21:39
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@Jas3.1 I'm curious why even translations who support your theory still reckon other references incorrectly (such as footnotes claiming John 1:39 is 4 p.m. rather than 10 a.m. following this time scheme)? This isn't a challenge (you can't answer for translators), just an observation. Even so, there are numerous other clear disparities through out the synoptics when compared to John that makes it hard to even place the events in the same year when put on a big timeline of the entire book. Even so, your points are compelling if only the narrow passages dealing with the passion are handled. –  maj nem ɪz dæn Jun 9 '13 at 23:51

Leviticus 23 begins with the definition of the Sabbath day, and then equates the Sabbath with the "appointed times," which are the holy convocations (or the feasts and festivals). In other words, most (but not all) of the Jewish feasts and festivals were declared automatic Sabbath days in the Law of Moses, which means that even though they may not fall on the last day of the week, they are still Sabbath days. So in theory, if the Day of Atonement fell on a Wednesday (for example), then that day of Wednesday would be a Sabbath day even though that day happened to fall in the middle of the week.

So the following feasts and festivals are Sabbath days, which are "holy convocations" in which "you shall not do any laborious work."

For example, we begin in Leviticus 23:4-14, and read that...

15 Nisan = Feast of Unleavened Bread (Sabbath Day)
16 Nisan = Festival of First Fruits (non-Sabbath Day)

No laborious work was to occur on 15 Nisan (Lev 23:7). We therefore see the explicit reference to "Sabbath" in Lev 23:11, that is, the Festival of First Fruits occurs immediately AFTER the "Sabbath," which in this immediate context is 15 Nisan.

In other words, the reason that 15 Nisan is a Sabbath day is not because it was supposed to fall automatically each year on the last day of the week (which it does not), but because that particular day was a "holy convocation" wherein "no laborious work" was to occur (Lev 23:7).

Therefore 15 Nisan is a Sabbath Day.

It is actually a "floating" Sabbath Day, because year-to-year (like other Jewish festival and feast days), this feast falls on a different day every year.

So if we assume that Jesus Christ was crucified in the morning of 15 Nisan (Friday), then he was crucified on what the Hebrew Bible would have to call a Sabbath Day. That is, this day was not a Sabbath because it was connected to the last day of the week, but because of the definitions outlined in Leviticus Chapter 23 concerning the "appointed times of holy convocation," which included the holy feasts and festivals.

So, to wrap up, the following graph depicts not only what the Hebrew Bible would say was the chronology (with respect to the "Sabbath" of 15 Nisan), but, in keeping with Jesus's allusion to Jonah in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights, if we use the Hebrew Bible's interpretation of what happened to Jonah.

So Bible interpreters must decide: is the normal and plain interpretation of the Hebrew Bible relevant to the chronology of the Passion of Jesus Christ? In other words, the plain and normal reading of the Hebrew Bible indicates that 15 Nisan was a Sabbath Day, and that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. These facts therefore carry into the Christian New Testament, if and when we use a normative and plain hermeneutic.


QUESTION 1: The Synoptics indicate that Jesus ate the Passover with His disciples at the normal time (Matt. 26:16-20, Mark 14:12-17, Luke 22:7-15.) However, John 18:28 indicates that after Jesus was betrayed, the Jews were concerned about being prevented from eating the Passover due to defilement. Why would they be worried about such a thing if the Passover had already taken place?

ANSWER 1: Exodus 12:17 indicates that the "observance" of the Feast of Unleavened Bread occur on 14 Nisan. (Thus while this date is not the actual Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is 15 Nisan, it is nevertheless the FIRST day that the "observance" of the Feast of Unleavened Bread can occur.) Exodus 12:18 then indicates that this bread be eaten at evening, because of the 14 Nisan Passover (Num 28:16-17). So gospel passages like Matthew 26:16-20 or Mark 14:12-17 or Luke 22:7-15 speak to this day - 14 Nisan, which is the FIRST day that the "observance" of the Feast of Unleavened Bread can occur. That is, this date (14 Nisan) was the time --at dusk-- when the Passover commenced, and thus was a "Day of Preparation." So, to answer the question, Passover HAD NOT occurred in Matthew 26:16-20 or Mark 14:12-17 or Luke 22:7-15.

QUESTION 2: Furthermore, John 19:14 indicates that Jesus was sentenced during the "day of preparation of the Passover". How could Jesus be sentenced during the preparation for the Passover if He ate the Passover with His disciples?

ANSWER 2: Jesus ate the "Last Supper" with his disciples during the first hours of 14 Nisan, which would have been between (say) 7:30 p.m. and midnight -- that is, the Last Supper occurred during the "evening" (Mark 15:42), which is the time AFTER sunset (Mark 1:32). As noted in the ANSWER 1 (above) the Law of Moses permitted the "observation" of the Feast of Unleavened Bread to occur on 14 Nisan (Ex 12:17), which is actually the day before the actual Feast of Unleavened Bread. The problem is that the consumption of Unleavened Bread was supposed to happen late that day as part of the consumption of the meat of the Passover lamb (Ex 12:18, Lev 23:5, and Nu 28:16). In other words, Jesus was able to comply with the Law of Moses, because he declared that the "meat" of the Passover meal was NOT an actual lamb that was sacrificed for Passover, but that the Unleavened Bread itself constituted his body, which was the "meat" for this Passover meal. Therefore there was no actual lamb meat at the Last Supper, because Jesus declared that the Unleavened Bread was the "meat." (In fact, the blood of this "meat" was the wine.) So there was "meat" at the Last Supper, which made the Last Supper an actual bona-fide Passover meal notwithstanding that this was an "early" Passover meal on that day. This "meat" (or Passover sacrifice) was "broken" -- please see diagram, above.

QUESTION 3: Mark 15:25 states clearly that Jesus was crucified "at the third hour", and all three of the Synoptic Gospels have Him on the cross well before the sixth hour (Matt. 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44) However, John 19:14 indicates Jesus' sentencing took place at "about the sixth hour". How could He be crucified before He stood before Pilot?

ANSWER 3: In John 19:14 Pilate presented Jesus to the people "at the sixth hour." Later that same day "at the sixth hour" darkness fell upon the whole earth (Luke 23:44). So in the case of Pilate, we see Roman time (sixth hour = 6 a.m.) and in the latter case the Jewish time (sixth hour = 12 noon). Therefore Jewish time is in view in Mark 15:25 (third hour = 9 a.m.).

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Thanks Joseph, this is an interesting perspective. Could you specifically address the three points raised in the question when you get a chance (just for clarity's sake)? Thanks again. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 9 '13 at 8:09
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Israel left Egypt on the same night that the angel passed over them; this chart shows them sitting in Egypt for an extra day. (If they had an extra day, then there would have been time for their dough to rise...) Also, you seem to be saying that Jesus was crucified on one day and his body was broken a day later; is that what you meant? I thought it was cross -> tomb (in a few hours) and then nothing until Sunday morning? –  Gone Quiet Jun 9 '13 at 17:58
    
NOTE: This view is supported by R. T. France in 'Chronological Aspects of "Gospel Harmony"', VE 16, 1986, pp.50-54 –  Jas 3.1 Jun 9 '13 at 22:18
    
@MonicaCellio - Thanks. I always take your feedback to heart. I have improved the graph incorporating your suggestions to include an updated reference to the Feast of Unleavened Bread and its significance to the body of Jesus. In fact, I have added some more verses and have incorporated the reference and significance of the Festival of First Fruits as well (16 Nisan). Again, thanks. –  Joseph Jun 10 '13 at 2:42
    
@Jas3.1 - Questions are answered per your request, and I have "beefed up" the diagram. –  Joseph Jun 10 '13 at 2:43

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