Question: My friend, the “village atheist,” says the Gospels must be false because they contradict one another. He claims that they give two different genealogies and two different birth dates for our Lord, and two different dates for the Cleansing of the Temple, and for the Passover at the time of Jesus’ death. How can I answer his claims?
Answer: To begin with, the idea of the Gospels containing “dates” is specious. Very little, if anything, was “dated” by the Jews of Jesus time. The closest to “dating” is the relation of something to a well known event—the earthquakes of Zacharias 14: 5 and Amos 1:1, for example, or the reign of a well known king as in 1 Machabees 1: 11. The Jews kept a calendar in order to have a uniform observance of their holy days, but it was not used for documentation of events in the way modern people do.
Matthew says nothing more than that there were fourteen generations from the Babylonian captivity to the birth of Christ during the reign of King Herod (37‑4 BC). Luke places Christ’s birth during the reign of Cæsar Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) and Cyrinus, governor of Syria (9-6 BC). The generally accepted historical date is 6 BC, an oddity caused by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth century writer who suggested that Christendom should date its calendar with reference to the Incarnation of Christ, which he reckoned to be on March 25, six years later than the best scholarship suggests. Matthew and Luke are not in disagreement, nor are they any less precise than the then current custom dictated. Both place the birth in Bethlehem of Judea.
The two genealogies (Matthew 1: 1-16, and Luke 3: 23-38) recount information garnered from limited public records and the recollection of family and friends. They report the same general family tree but differ in detail because of the ambiguous Jewish custom of tracing descent either through the biological father or through one of his brothers if he died an untimely death. By way of example, 1 Paralipomenon 3: 19 lists Phadaia as the father of Zorobabel, while Esdras 3: 2 lists Phadaia’s brother Salathiel. The book of Ruth suggests that the obligation extended even beyond brothers to other close male relatives. Saint Joseph is thus both the son of Heli and the son of Jacob; the one being father according to nature and the other according to the Law of Moses. In any event, neither genealogy is that of Mary, Jesus’ only biological parent, the sole purpose being to show that Jesus was legally of the royal house of David.
If the sequence of events is not always the same in all of the Gospels, neither were all four writers and their expected audiences the same.
Saint Matthew was a tax collector who wrote, probably in Aramaic, between 42 and 50 AD, for Jews, to demonstrate the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy in Jesus. He mentioned Jewish customs without explanation because he was writing for Jews. He mentions the currencies in use, probably out of professional habit. He was an eyewitness and provides what is probably the most chronologically correct account.
Saint Mark, although a Jew of Palestine, was probably not an eyewitness. His Gospel, in Greek, was based on the sermons he heard Peter give in Rome between 55 and 62 AD. Not surprisingly, as a sort of sermon anthology, it lacks some of the narrative and chronological detail found in Matthew. Mark (or Peter?) does pay attention to the number of those affected by Jesus’ miracles, and identifies some of the bystanders.
Saint Luke was a physician from Antioch in modern day Syria, not an eyewitness, almost certainly born a pagan, a man who displayed the attention to detail one expects in an artist or a scientific observer. He seems to have done a great deal of research about the early life of Christ (legend has it that he knew, and painted a picture of, the Blessed Virgin). Luke was a companion of Saint Paul. Both the Gospel (before 63 AD) and the Acts of the Apostles were addressed to a man with the Greek name Theophilus, as a sort of more advanced catechism for converts from paganism.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are often referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels,” a Greek term meaning that they saw things with pretty much the same perspective—with “the same glance” or “the same eye.”
Saint John the Apostle, an eyewitness, wrote in old age, around 95 to 100 AD. He did not attempt to duplicate the work of the other three Evangelists, whose works were already in circulation. Many events in John are not found in the others and visa versa. He wrote primarily to show that Jesus claimed and demonstrated His divinity. John places the “Cleansing of the Temple” at the beginning of our Lord’s public life, while the synoptics place it toward the end. Apologists sometimes claim that there were two cleansings of the Temple—perhaps, but it seems unlikely that Jesus would have free access to the Temple after the first. John may well have placed it out of proper time, as it made a splendid demonstration of just who Jesus was, how he related to the Father, and what He was all about—a powerful introduction to a Gospel on divinity.
All four of the Evangelists came from different backgrounds, and each wrote for a different group of readers. While their writings all contain truthful historical and biographical data, none of them wrote in the modern sense as historians or biographers—each wrote the “good news of salvation,” each in his own style, each with his own aim. There is no contradiction here, rather a complimentary set of writings inspired by God to make the Truth of Jesus Christ known to men.
Some critics take precisely the opposite approach, claiming that the Gospels are too much alike, and therefore either the work of a post-Apostolic conspiracy or a plagiarization of one author by the others (or even of an unknown author by all four). That will have to be the subject of another article.
Question: What about the discrepancy of the Passover date between John’s Gospel and the other three?
Answer: Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22all agree that the Last Supper was on the “first day of the unleavened bread, when it was customary for them to sacrifice the pasch.” If there is a discrepancy, it seems to be indicated by three references in John which might put the Last Supper sometime before the Passover.
It is also suggested that the Apostles would not have assumed that Judas left the Last Supper to buy things that were needed for the feast if it was in fact the day of the feast, for all of the stores would be closed. But, of all the Apostles, Judas was the one most likely to know where to find a shop keeper ignoring the law.
None of the three quotes from John is definitive. The 14th of Nisan was known as the preparation day, with the feast proper occurring on the 15th. The Apostles would have made arrangements for the supper during the day on the 14th. In the late afternoon they would have taken a lamb to the Temple, where it would have been sacrificed by the priests. They would have then carried the lamb to the place where they were going to eat, would have roasted it there, and would have eaten it as the main course of the evening meal. Since the Jewish calendar advances to the next day at sundown, the meal would this be taken during the earliest hours of the 15th. John 13:1 can be interpreted as taking place late on the 14th.
The Passover runs for eight days, and each day only unleavened bread may be eaten. So, in some sense, Jews may be said to “eat the pasch” from the 14th to the 21st of Nisan. Specifically, “the fifteenth day of the same month is the solemnity of the unleavened bread of the Lord” Leviticus 23: 5.
Every Friday was the “parasceve”—a day of preparation for the Sabbath. The “parasceve of the pasch” in John 19: 14 is ambiguous. It could have indicated either the preparation day for the Passover (the 14th), or the preparation day for the Sabbath which fell during the Passover.
But, for the sake of discussion, let us assume that John really meant to indicate that the 15th of Nisan fell on Saturday, thus making Good Friday the preparation day of the 14th—would that make the synoptic Gospels erroneous? Cornelius Haggarty, citing M.J. Lagrange’s The Gospel of Christ, holds that it would not: “Lagrange discusses the question thoroughly, showing that there was a certain elasticity about the eve of the Pasch when the 15th of Nisan fell on Saturday. The eve was both Thursday after Sundown and Friday. Jesus celebrated the Passover on Thursday night and was crucified on Friday.... That year, Thursday evening and all day Friday were the eve of the Pasch because the Pasch fell on the Sabbath. There is no contradiction here between John and the synoptics.”[i]
The “elasticity” in Lagrange’s argument comes from the Jewish regulations concerning the observance of the Sabbath. If preparations for the Passover were made on Friday, there was a likelihood that they would not be complete by sundown—to continue them would be to violate the Sabbath—to abandon them would be to violate the Passover. The lambs were sacrificed in the afternoon at the Temple. In theory at least, every able bodied Jewish man in Israel was expected to be there. The historian Josephus (a contemporary, who mentioned Jesus in his writings) claimed an attendance of over three million—probably an exaggeration, but a large number nonetheless. The ritual sacrifice of many thousands of lambs would have taken quite some time, making it doubtful that everyone could have returned to wherever they were observing the feast, and even more doubtful that they would be able to roast their lambs before sundown. The observance of Thursday evening as the preparation day for a Saturday 15th of Nisan seems pretty likely.
Catholics do something similar in celebrating Holy Thursday and Good Friday. While the Last Supper and the Crucifixion appear to be separate events from the historical perspective, they have the theological unity of both being the one Sacrifice offered by Christ for mankind’s redemption. In order to observe this unity liturgically we read the Gospel accounts of both events on Sunday (Matthew 26&27), Tuesday (Mark 14&15), and Wednesday (Luke 22&23) of Holy Week. On Thursday we read only John’s account (Ch. 13) of the Last Supper, and we reserve a second large consecrated Host until Friday. After Friday’s Gospel (John 18&19) which relates the events of the Crucifixion, in what is known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified, the priest receives the Host consecrated at Thursday’s Mass, liturgically completing the events of Thursday on Friday.
The discussion becomes a bit more complicated when we consider the differences in practice among the Jews at the time of Christ:
It gets worse, in that some scholars discuss yet a different date on which the Essene sect of Judaism celebrated the Passover—a vegetarian Passover with no lamb, by the way, which is said to fit the Gospel accounts which mention no foods other than bread and wine! But we have no evidence that Jesus was at all close to the Essenes or that He copied their practices. It is very difficult to conceive of One who obeyed the laws of the Temple from His infancy going off on such a tangent.
Perhaps the best way to approach the “problem” between the synoptics and John is to say that the Gospels are infinitely more concerned with the nature of what our Lord did than with when He did it. Trying to assign accurate dates to things in the Bible is like trying to erect a building anchored firmly in Jell-O.
@ @ @
Question: Can we just “run back” the Jewish calendar to see when the Passover and the Last Supper took place in the year of the Crucifixion?
Answer: Unfortunately we cannot. To begin with, we do not know the precise year of our Lord’s Crucifixion. We can only say that it took place when Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator, when Caiphas was the high priest, and while Annas, the father-in-law of Caiphas was still alive. In other words we are faced with the same sort of problems we have in dating the birth of Christ.
The ambiguity discussed above adds to the problem, for we really don’t know whether the 14th of Nisan came on a Thursday or a Friday—perhaps twice as many years thus become candidates.
More importantly, the Jewish calendar at the time of Christ was not at all fixed. The algorithm in use today was developed by the Rabbi Hillel II (c. 330-365), centuries later. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar month, and is made to fit into the 365 day year by adding a thirteenth month seven times out of nineteen years. Today that is done programmatically, so the modern Jewish calendar could be “run back” or “run forward” to any desired year—just like our Gregorian calendar. But just like the Gregorian calendar, the modern Jewish calendar becomes meaningless if “run back” to a date before it began to be employed.
Before Hillel II, the decision to add or not add an extra month was made by the Sanhedrin, based on agricultural evidence. If the baby lambs looked too small to be ready for Passover or the barley looked too immature for harvest on the appointed day, then an extra month was added. Years were not numbered, and even if they were it is highly doubtful that records of the lengthened years were kept or could be found today.
[i] Cornelius Haggarty, CSC, The Authenticity of the Scriptures (Houston: Lumen Christi Press, 1969), p. 269.
[ii] From an article by Fank W. Nelte –emphasis in the original—at http://www.giveshare.org/HolyDay/passovernelte.html