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The Timing of Jesus’ Trial

Differences among the gospels might be a stumbling block for some, but they need not be

Every year during Holy Week, Christians focus on those last and most important moments of Jesus’s life: his passion and death.

But for some, these gospel narratives aren’t historically reliable because they apparently contradict each other in certain places. We’re going to consider two alleged contradictions here, both of which involve the timing of Jesus’ trial.

First, some say John contradicts the Synoptics with regard to the day on which Jesus was taken before Pilate. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all affirm that Jesus was brought to Pilate the day after the initial Passover meal on 15 Nisan, the night on which the lamb was eaten and the Haggadah (or Passover liturgy) was recited (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). But in John 18:28 it seems Jesus was brought before Pilate on the day before the initial Passover meal was eaten, for John says the Jews who led Jesus to Pilate didn’t enter the praetorium “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.” One possible way to resolve this apparent discrepancy is to say that the Jewish leaders were so preoccupied with the events of the previous evening that they put off celebrating the initial Passover meal until the following day.

There is a question, however, of whether Jesus’ arrest and the subsequent events would have begun early enough on Thursday evening to interfere with eating the initial Passover meal, which normally began soon after sundown.

But we know the chief priests and scribes were plotting to arrest and kill Jesus (Mark 14:1). It’s not beyond reason that their efforts would have been a catalyst to put off eating the initial Passover meal.

Also, Mark tells us that Judas led “a crowd . . . from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 14:43). This suggests the Jewish leaders may have coordinated this crowd to go and fetch Jesus. The time such coordinating activity would have taken could very well have interfered with eating the initial Passover meal on Thursday after sundown.

The uncertainty of when the group would bring Jesus to the Jewish leaders could be another reason why they put off the Seder meal. It makes sense they wouldn’t want their celebration of the Passover to be interrupted.

And speaking of eating the Passover, the substantial amount of wine that’s required to be consumed at the Seder meal could also have motivated the Jewish leaders to put off the celebration. They would want to be of sound mind to question Jesus once he was brought to them.

There’s another possible way to reconcile John and the Synoptics. The phrase “eat the Passover” (John 18:28) likely refers to other sacrificial meals eaten with unleavened bread during the seven days of the Passover festival.

The Old Testament uses the word “Passover” (Greek, pascha) in a way that extends beyond the initial Seder meal, and applies it to various animal sacrifices offered during the Passover week. For example, Deuteronomy 16:2 speaks of the “Passover [pascha] sacrifice” to the Lord “from the flock or the herd,” which was to be eaten with unleavened bread for seven days during the Passover festival (v.3; see also Num. 28:16-25).

So, it’s possible John refers to those Passover sacrifices offered during the seven-day festival when he speaks of the Jewish leaders needing to “eat the Passover.”

Three lines of thought further support this interpretation.

First, the Last Supper in John’s Gospel is a Passover Meal. New Testament scholar Brant Pitre lists several details that reveal it to be such, all of which are common aspects of a Jewish Passover meal: the reclining posture of Jesus and his disciples (John 13:23-25); the dipping of the morsel (John 13:26-27); the giving to the poor during a festal meal (John 13:29); and the last-minute purchase of something during the feast (John 13:29-30).

As Pitre argues, since John identifies the Last Supper as the Passover meal that takes place on 15 Nisan, his reference to eating the “Passover” in John 18:28 doesn’t appear to be a reference to the initial Passover lamb, but the sacrifices eaten during the seven-day festival.

Second, according to Leviticus 7:19-20, these festal offerings (called “peace offerings”) eaten during the seven-day paschal festival were also subject to ritual purity laws. This would explain why the Jewish leaders were concerned about defilement.

Third, as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out, the Jewish leaders’ concern for defilement in John 18:28 doesn’t jibe with the interpretation that John places the initial “Passover” meal on Friday evening:

The ceremonial uncleanness that the Jewish leaders would have incurred in entering Pilate’s Praetorium would have lasted only until sundown, so that they would not have been defiled in eating an evening meal on Friday.

Blomberg argues that uncleanness would have been an issue if they were thinking of the above-mentioned sacrificial offerings they needed to eat on Friday during the seven-day festival. It could also be due to the fact that they were unable to eat the meal during the preceding night and now needed to eat it before sunset.

The second supposed contradiction has to do with how the Synoptics report the time of day that Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin. According to both Mark (Mark 14:53-65) and Matthew (Matthew 26:57-68), the high priest questions Jesus Thursday night after Jesus is taken in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke, however, places the high priest’s interrogation of Jesus early the next morning (“when day came”—Luke 22:66).

The first thing we can say is that there’s no contradiction in these reports, only a difference.

Consider that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that Jesus was brought before the high priest late Thursday night at Caiaphas’s house (Luke 22:54; Matt. 26:57-58; Mark 14:53-54). All three also agree that, while there, Jesus was physically beaten and mocked. Matthew and Mark report Caiaphas questioning Jesus at that time, asking Jesus if he is the Christ.

Also, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that the high priest, scribes, and elders convened again early Friday morning to consult each other about putting Jesus to death (Mark 15:1; Matt. 27:1; Luke 22:66). The difference is that Matthew and Mark don’t mention an interrogation of Jesus at this morning convocation, whereas Luke does.

For there to be a contradiction, Matthew and/or Mark would have to deny that the high priest interrogated Jesus at the Friday morning convocation. But they don’t do that. They’re silent on the matter. Therefore, there’s no contradiction.

But the question remains: “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” Did Matthew and Mark get it right and Luke got it wrong? Or, vice versa?

The answer is likely that they’re all right because it’s reasonable to hold that the interrogation happened Thursday night and early Friday morning. Since Matthew and Mark left out the Friday morning interrogation, Luke includes it. And since Matthew and Mark included the Thursday night interrogation, Luke left it out.

That Caiaphas would question Jesus immediately when the crowd brought Jesus to Caiaphas’s house late Thursday night is reasonable, especially in light of the their intent to destroy Jesus. Why else would Caiaphas demand Jesus be brought to his house if he didn’t intend to question him in a preliminary manner, before the morning’s more formal gathering?

The claim that Caiaphas would have questioned Jesus again Friday morning is also reasonable because, as Blomberg argues, the Thursday night interrogation and charge of blasphemy weren’t legally binding. The Sanhedrin only had legal authority to sit in judgment for capital cases during the day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). This leads Blomberg to conclude, “it is quite probable that they repeated their questions to make at least some kind of show of legality when daylight first dawned.”

Differences among the gospels might be a stumbling block for some, but they need not be. Differences don’t entail contradictions. And when such differences can be plausibly explained, we have all that much more reason to trust the reliability of the reports.

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