Some call into question the historical accuracy of the Gospels because of the apparent discrepancy between the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Gospel of John as to the date of the Passover in the year our Lord was crucified. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus offers the Lord’s Supper "on the first day of unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb" (Mark 14:12; cf. Matt. 26:17, Luke 22:7). That would mean Jesus said the first Mass on Thursday, the fourteenth of Nisan. This was "the day of preparation" for the Passover when the lambs were slain and the meal prepared to be eaten in the evening according to Ex. 12:6. However, John tells us that Jesus was crucified on the "day of preparation" in John 19:31. That would seem to make Friday, the fourteenth of Nisan, the day of preparation. Saturday would then have been both the Sabbath and the Passover. Is there a contradiction here? Let’s take a look.
First, we need to ask two very important questions. Can we surmise what day the Passover occurred and what day the Lord was crucified two thousand years ago? The answer to both questions is yes. We can be fairly certain of both. First, some background investigation is in order.
Do the Math
Dionysius Exiguus, a monk who died in A.D. 556, is the man who determined the date of our Lord’s birth as the year 753 (years were then counted from the year Rome was founded) using the information available to him at the time. He made the following year, 754, A.D. 1, and so on. Hence was born the system of dating that has been used by most of the world for two thousand years.
With new information available to us, we have found Dionysius to be remarkably accurate in his computation. He was off only about six years. Flavius Josephus tells us in both The Jewish War (I.33.1, 5, 6, 8; II.1.3) and in Jewish Antiquities (XVII.6.1, 4-5; XVII.8.1; XVII.9), that King Herod died in 750. If Jesus was born "in the days of Herod the King" (cf. Matt. 2:1) then he had to be born before 750. This moves Jesus’ birth back at least three years from the traditional date determined by Dionysius. Given that Herod ordered the killing of all male children under the age of two (see Matt. 2:16), Jesus was most likely born roughly a year before this order was given. And because Herod had to be alive to give the order, this pushes Jesus’ birth back at least to about 748 or 749. Furthermore, Josephus tells us that Herod became ill shortly after this event and traveled to Jericho (a warmer climate) to heal, where he died six months later. This moves the date of our Lord’s birth back still further. When we add these factors together, we find that Dionysius’ calendar was off about six years, meaning that Christ would have been born about 747 or 748 (5 or 6 B.C.).
How Old was Jesus?
Luke 3:23 reveals that Jesus was baptized by John and began his ministry at "about the age of thirty." Luke 3:1-2 is more exact when it says John the Baptist began to preach
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Phillip his brother tetrarch of Iturea, and the country of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilina; under the high priests Annas and Caiaphas . . .
Not much time seems to elapse between John’s beginning to preach and his baptism of Jesus. This was John’s mission—to "prepare the way of the Lord" as Luke 1:76 says. If John baptized Christ in the same year he began preaching, that would have been 780 (A.D. 27) because Tiberius was made Caesar to govern the eastern provinces under the reign of Augustus, which began in 765. Jesus, then, would have been about 32 or 33 when he began his public ministry.
The existence of all of the men mentioned in Luke’s Gospel can be verified from historical records, but the mention of Pontius Pilate is most helpful because he became procurator in Judea in A.D. 26. Jesus could not, therefore, have begun his ministry prior to A.D. 26. So we know we are right on track here.
Another note of interest: When Jesus cast the moneychangers out of the temple in John 2, he said, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again" (John 2:19). The Jews told him it took "forty-six years" to build the temple. They speak as if the temple was completed. We know that the temple did take forty-six years to build and that it was completed around A.D. 25-26, according to Jewish Antiquities of Josephus, XV.11.1. This fact reiterates what have seen so far, that Jesus most likely began his public ministry in A.D. 27 at about 32 or 33 years of age.
How Long Did Jesus Minister?
We know from John’s Gospel that Jesus’ ministry lasted either two years and three months or, more likely, three years and three months. The traditional month of Jesus’ baptism is January. That is why we add the three months from January until April (when Jesus was crucified). The three years are deduced by adding up the Passovers during Christ’s ministry. John 2:13, John 6:4, and John 13:1 explicitly record three Passovers during Jesus’ ministry. John 5:1 refers to "a feast day of the Jews," but it does not say Passover. So there is some question as to whether Jesus’ ministry was two or three years in duration. Three years seems most likely.
Having established this, we can simply look at the Jewish calendar and see that in A.D. 30, Passover fell on Friday. That lends credence to the theory that Jesus’ ministry was three years in duration. And remember, that means the fourteenth of Nisan would have been Thursday. This would have been the day of preparation when the lamb was slain and the Passover meal eaten in the evening. The Jewish people counted their days as beginning the evening of the previous day. The actual day of Passover is the fifteenth of Nisan. The only other year near A.D. 30 that Passover would have occurred on Friday was A.D. 33. Some do maintain that this was the year our Lord was crucified, but it does not fit with the rest of the facts as well. So we can be fairly certain that our Lord was crucified in A.D. 30.
Just the Facts, Please
We know for certain that our Lord died on Friday (cf. Matt. 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, and John 19:31). We know it occurred in the month of Nisan (April) because it was the time of Passover. But the question remains: Why in the synoptic Gospels does Jesus celebrate the Passover on Thursday night (and, of course, given the fact that Passover fell on Friday in that year, this would be expected), but in the Gospel of John, Friday is "the day of preparation"? According to John, Passover fell on Saturday, which is why he refers to it as a "great Sabbath day" (cf. John 19:31). It was not only the Sabbath, but it was Passover as well. We still have to deal with this apparent contradiction.
According to The Navarre Study Bible, in Mark’s Gospel the Pharisees and Sadducees had a different way of celebrating feast days (51-52). The Pharisees were strict in their observance. If the fifteenth of Nisan fell on Friday, then that would be the day they celebrated the Passover. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were more liberal and had no problem with moving a feast day in certain situations. This practice is analogous to our modern practice of moving some feast days to Sunday when they actually occur during the week (as is commonly practiced with the feast of the Epiphany). It could also be likened to the bishops declaring a holy day not obligatory because of the day upon which it happens to fall. For example, if a holy day falls on a Friday, the bishops will sometimes dispense Catholics from the obligation of attending Mass on that particular holy day for that year.
What does all of this mean? When Jesus actually celebrated the Passover, he did it in the traditional way of the Pharisees. That is what we see in the synoptic Gospels. With the Pharisees, Jesus kept the Passover strictly in accord with what Moses said in Ex. 12. However, when John wrote about Christ’s passion, he does not put the emphasis on the Lord’s Supper that the synoptic Gospel writers do. In fact, he does not mention the Lord’s Supper at all. He emphasizes the crucifixion. Only in passing, as he describes the activity of the day, does John mention that it was "the day of preparation." John was not speaking of the practice of Jesus and the apostles; he was speaking of the practice of the Sadducees, who had a large number of priests in their camp and great influence in the culture at the time. This fact explains why John calls Friday the "day of preparation" instead of Thursday. The Sadducees, who moved the Passover to Saturday, celebrated the day of preparation on Friday, rather than on Thursday as Jesus and the apostles did.
Jesus Agreed with Pharisees?
These facts lead to some interesting anecdotes. Most people would agree that Jesus was very quick to correct both Sadducees and Pharisees in his teaching. For example, he showed them both to be in need of a deeper understanding of marriage when the question concerned divorce and remarriage, as in Matt. 19:3-9. The Pharisees believed that only in certain cases, such as adultery, could one divorce, while the Sadducees would grant divorce for just about anything. Though the Pharisees were closer to the truth, Jesus urged all involved to a deeper understanding when he elevated marriage to the level of a sacrament and declared, "What God has joined together let no man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6).
Yet, when Jesus spoke of the communion of saints in Luke 20:27-39, he agreed with the position of the Pharisees. Remember, the Sadducees did not believe in the Resurrection, or in angels, or in the reality of spirit at all (see Luke 20:27 and Acts 23:8). They also believed only in the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah. It is interesting to note that in Luke 20, a group of these same Sadducees thought they would show up both Jesus and the Pharisees at the same time by using a story from Tobit 3:7ff against Jesus. They were going to "prove" that either there was serious error in Tobit and thus, Jesus and the Pharisees would be wrong about its divine origin; or, if Tobit were to be accepted as true, then the resurrection could not be true. Therefore Jesus and the Pharisees would be wrong about a matter they deemed essential to the true faith.
How did the Sadducees go about this? They knew Jesus believed, as did the Pharisees, in the canonicity of Tobit, so they cleverly used a "hypothetical" woman—in reality referring to Sarah from Tobit 3—and said:
There were therefore seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died without children. And the next took her to wife, and he also died childless. And the third took her. And in like manner all the seven, and they left no children, and died. Last of all, the woman died also. In the resurrection therefore, whose wife of them shall she be? (Luke 20:29-33)
Jesus, the apostles, and any Pharisee listening would have immediately thought of the story of Sarah, who is depicted in Tobit 3 as having had seven husbands, all of whom were brothers, each killed by the demon Asmodeus when they married her, and before Sarah could conceive a child. In other words, each of these seven brothers "died childless." This story may seem strange to us today, but in keeping with the law of the Torah (Deut. 25:5), each of these brothers was actually fulfilling his responsibility as a faithful Jew. The law stated that if a man, as was the case here, were to die without having "raised up seed," his brothers would have the responsibility to ensure that one of them in fact "raised up seed" in his name.
They Sadducees’ plan was almost perfect. They knew that polyandry was never allowed by God in Scripture. Thus, if all of these brothers had Sarah to wife, whose wife would she be in the so-called afterlife? The Sadducees no doubt asked the question with a smirk on their faces, certain that they had stumped our Lord. They were in for quite a surprise.
Jesus answered them definitively in Luke 20:34-38 when he explained marriage to be a sacrament for this life, not the next. In other words, Sarah would not belong to any of these brothers because marriage is "until death do us part" as we say. And Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to explain that those who die in Christ are not dead—at least in one sense—they are alive, "for all live to him" (verse 38). Jesus here clearly sided with the Pharisees, and in turn the Pharisees responded to Jesus and said, "Master, thou hast said well" (verse 39).
So it should not surprise us that Jesus lived liturgically in accord with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees when it came to the Passover. After all, Jesus himself acknowledged that the Pharisees and scribes who sit "in the chair of Moses" must be obeyed. It was not that Jesus tended to side with the "more conservative" Pharisees over the Sadducees. Jesus simply followed the legitimate authority that he, as God, had established in Israel. At the same time, Jesus was quick to correct the "traditions of men" of either the Pharisees or the Sadducees in the process of bringing to the entire world the fullness of God’s revelation.