By Charles DeCelles
Jesus instituted the Eucharist and Holy Orders at the Last Supper. But when during Holy Week did Jesus celebrate the Last Supper? A rather convincing case can be made for the evening of Tuesday rather than Thursday. In this article I shall argue that position while indicating some problem areas.
My article reflects the scholarship of Mlle. Annie Jaubert, a Catholic biblical scholar at the Sorbonne in Paris, whose writings on the chronology of the Last Supper appeared in the 1950s.1 Her theory is relevant today and deserves careful examination.
There are six good but not irrefutable reasons for thinking that Jesus celebrated His Last Supper on Tuesday evening of Holy Week. 1) That date helps reconcile the Synoptics with John. 2) It eliminates the conflict between John and the Synoptics regarding the date of the anointing at Bethany. 3) It makes possible the legality of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin. 4) It renders more plausible the numerous passion related activities of Jesus. 5) Tuesday is the date indicated in the Didascalia Apostolorum. 6) That date explains why the Early Church had a special liturgical reverence for Wednesday.
As Jean Daniélou, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, has pointed out ''one of the most difficult problems in the exegesis of the New Testament is that of establishing the exact day of the Last Supper. The Synoptic Gospels make a Paschal meal of it. But according to St. John, the Crucifixion took place before the Passover . . .''2
All the Synoptic Gospels indicate that Jesus' Last Supper was a Passover meal;3 that means it was celebrated on the eve of the Passover, or, more precisely, at the onset of Passover since the Hebrew day begins with evening after sundown.4 It was celebrated at the beginning of Nisan 15. Nisan is the first month of the year for Jews. The paschal lamb was slain on the 14th of Nisan upon the altar of the Jerusalem Temple. But John's Gospel points out that Jesus was dead and buried by the sundown that brought Nisan 14 to a close.5 He was in His tomb when the Passover meal was celebrated. ''Here . . .is a real contradiction; it seems impossible to reconcile the dates.''6
Yet the dates can be reconciled if John had in mind a different calendar than the Synoptics. There were in fact two Hebrew calendars in use at the time. There was the official lunar calendar with ''floating'' months and dates followed by the Temple priests, and there was an unofficial but ancient solar calendar utilized by the Essene sect at Qum'ran with fixed months and dates. The latter calendar, the Jubilees, was a matter of speculation until established as factual with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.7
According to this calendar, Passover (Nisan 15) always fell on a Wednesday, commencing Tuesday after sundown. Jesus could have celebrated the Last Supper as a Passover meal on Tuesday evening, the appropriate time and date according to the solar calendar of the Qum'ran Community, making the Synoptic Gospels correct. Yet he could have been dead and buried when the Passover was officially celebrated according to the lunar calendar which observed Passover the year of Jesus' death on the Sabbath day, Saturday, beginning sundown on Friday. This makes John's Gospel also correct.
Raymond Brown has written regarding this two calendar view, Jaubert's theory in a nutshell, that it satisfies ''the Synoptic evidence that Jesus ate a real Passover meal and John's evidence that he died the day before the official Passover.''8
Nevertheless, Brown opines that the conflict between John and the Synoptics can be resolved without the hypothesis of two different calendars. One simply accepts John's view as historically factual. Jesus was dead and buried when the Passover meal was supposed to be eaten. Therefore, the Synoptics are technically incorrect in referring to Jesus' Last Supper as a Passover meal, since it was eaten the wrong day, Thursday evening. Yet, it contained a sufficient number of elements of the true Passover meal to indicate a link between the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Therefore, it was a Passover-like meal. Eventually the meal became viewed in the Early Church simply as a Passover meal, and the day of its celebration, the Passover. This development is reflected in the Synoptic tradition that simply regards Jesus' Last Supper as a Passover meal.9 This interesting scholarly opinion that the Synoptics stretched the meaning of ''Passover meal'' will be refuted in our second reason for thinking that Jesus celebrated his Last Supper on Tuesday evening.
One can, of course, wonder why Jesus would have followed the solar calendar for His celebration of the Passover when He seems to have followed the Orthodox Hebrew calendar the remainder of the time. Admittedly, Jesus knew of the Essenes at Qum'ran, may have been influenced by them in secondary ways,10 and may have even spent some time in their midst,11 but he was frequently seen in the Temple area during the celebration of the religious feasts according to the lunar calendar. Why would he suddenly switch to an unorthodox Essene calendar?
Actually, Jesus was not exactly ''orthodox.'' Father John Mahoney points out that He found himself squarely in opposition to the priesthood of the Temple. According to the Synoptics, when Jesus is in the Temple He is either teaching or clashing with Temple authorities. In John, He attends the Temple festivals but with His own agenda. He continuously finds himself in polemic encounters with outraged Temple officials.12 None of this precludes the possibility that He would follow a heterodox solar calendar (one perhaps widely used in Galilee)13 especially if it were traditional and ancient and arguably more authentically Hebrew than the official lunar calendar influenced by Hellenism, a Hebrew calendar viewed as revelation by the Essenes.
Our second reason for thinking that Jesus celebrated His Last Supper on Holy Tuesday as a Passover meal is that such a date resolves the conflict between John and the Synoptics regarding the date of the anointing at Bethany. John indicates that the anointing occurred ''six days before the Passover . . .'' (Jn 12:1). Mark and Matthew state it occurred two days before (Mk 14:1; Mt 26:1-2). Who is right? Both are correct if they had in mind the solar and lunar calendars respectively.
For John the Passover, based on the official lunar calendar, is Saturday, beginning Friday evening. For the Synoptics, with the Jubilees-Essene calendar in mind, Passover begins Tuesday evening. The ''contradiction'' is resolved. The anointing occurred after sundown, the Saturday evening (beginning of Sunday) preceding the Passover. That is six days before the lunar Passover. It is two days ahead of the solar Passover if one regards Sunday and Monday as the intervening days between the Tuesday evening of Passover and the previous Saturday night.
One could quibble about the counting of the days. But one thing is clear. The Synoptics and John are totally irreconcilable if both are thinking of the Passover according to the standard lunar calendar. Two days are not equal to six. Nor are the Gospels reconcilable if John has in mind Friday night and the Synoptics Thursday night.
Therefore, it would seem, the Synoptics were not just calling Jesus' Last Supper a Passover meal. It was a Passover meal. It occurred on the 15th of Nisan, according to the traditional solar calendar of the Jews, that is, Tuesday evening.
A peculiar discrepancy should be noted here, however. In John's Gospel the anointing at Bethany (12:1 ff) immediately precedes Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem (12:12 ff). With Mark and Matthew the triumphant entry occurs days before the anointing (Mk 11:1 ff; 14:3 ff: Mt 21:1 ff; 26:6 ff).
A Tuesday evening Last Supper makes it possible for Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin to be a legal one. This is a third good reason for thinking that Tuesday was the date of Jesus' Last Supper. The tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah prescribed that capital cases had to be tried during daylight hours, and a verdict of condemnation could not be reached the same day as the trial. Furthermore, no trial could be held on the eve of a festival or Sabbath day.14 Jesus' nighttime trial would have violated several Jewish laws, yet the Gospels do not indicate this, and the Christian community does not denounce the trial as illegal.15
C.K. Barrett does not think this necessarily eliminates the possibility of a nighttime trial during the wee hours of Friday. Jewish law, he points out, made exceptions for special circumstances such as executing a rebellious teacher to make an example of him. In this case a festival would be the perfect time for his execution.16 The problem with his view is that Jesus was not killed during the festival of Passover but one day before, at least according to John.
A legal, full scale trial intended not only to destroy Jesus but also to discredit His followers would be possible during the Wednesday daylight hours but not the night of Thursday-Friday.
The fourth argument for a Tuesday evening meal is that it makes more plausible Jesus' passion itinerary. Numerous things happened to Jesus between the time of His arrest and His death. He is taken to Annas for interrogation (Jn 18:13), then to Caiphas and the whole Sanhedrin for a capital trial (Mk 14:53). Members of the Sanhedrin play sadistic games with Him (Mk 14:65).
After sunrise, He is taken to Pilate for trial (Mk 15:1), but Pilate finds no case against Him. He decides to send Him to Herod (Lk 23:7), who questions and mocks Him and returns Him to Pilate (Lk 23:9-12). Pilate has Jesus scourged (Jn 19:1). The soldiers play mockery games with Him and return Him to Pilate. After attempting to gain the sympathy of the crowds that He might release Jesus and after interviewing Him again, ''Pilate was anxious to set him free...'' (Jn 19:12).
But finally he handed Jesus over to the chief priests to be crucified. Jesus then carried His cross out of the city to Golgotha where He was crucified (Jn 19:17-18). He died about 3:00 p.m. (Mk 15:37). According to Mark, He was crucified at 9:00 a.m. (15:25).
All of these activities would have occurred during a period of some 15 hours if Jesus' Last Supper occurred Thursday evening. That is a packed schedule.
Jaubert offers an alternative. Jesus is arrested during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday. He is taken to Annas for interrogation. At daybreak, Wednesday, He is escorted to Caiphas where, all day long, He is tried before the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Israel.
The following morning, Thursday, the guilty verdict is pronounced. Jesus is immediately dragged to Pontius Pilate who interviews Jesus and sends Him to Herod. On Friday morning Jesus is brought before Pilate again. He is whipped and later crucified.
The chronology is much more satisfying and plausible. It ''does not appear to contradict the Gospels but rather be suggested by them.''17 The biblical accounts seem to involve a compression of events, something commonly found in the Gospels. It should be noted that nowhere do the Gospels explicitly state that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper on Thursday night. First Corinthians mentions ''the same night that he was betrayed'' (12:23), not the night before his death.
A fifth argument supporting the theory that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper on Tuesday evening and not Thursday is that such is the teaching of the Didascalia Apostolorum and Saints Epiphanius and Victorinus of Pettau. The Didascalia is a Church order fashioned after the Didache, the oldest existing manual of Church order.
Authored apparently by a Jewish convert to Christianity and a physician, the Didascalia dates back to the early portion of the third century.18 It is regarded as a very important source of knowledge of the Early Church and of the Scriptures. More than other early Christian writings, the Didascalia ''presents traditions handed down among very early Christians about the events of Jesus' life.''19
The Didascalia places the Last Supper of Christ on Tuesday night of Holy Week, with His capture in the Garden of Olives occurring during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday. His crucifixion and death are listed as occurring on Friday. This is according to the Syriac version of the Didascalia, the only version in existence that retains the complete text of the original Greek.20
St. Epiphanius (d. 402), Church Father, and bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, regards as certain the tradition that posits Tuesday as the correct evening for the Last Supper and false the one that offers Thursday evening. He holds the view that Jesus' arrest occurred during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday. Epiphanius' testimony contains details not present in the Didascalia.21
St. Victorinus (d. 304), bishop of Pettau in Syria and martyr, states in his DeFabrica Mundi, which shows no dependence on the Didascalia, that Jesus was arrested by impious individuals, on the fourth day of the week, namely, Wednesday.22 He also refers to a fast held on Wednesday in honor of Jesus' imprisonment that reflects a second century tradition.23
A sixth argument for the Tuesday position is that it offers a logical explanation for the special liturgical reverence the Early Church displayed for Wednesdays, especially as regards fasting. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most satisfactory theory to explain the tradition that Jesus was arrested during the wee hours of Wednesday, following a Tuesday evening Last Supper, is that Wednesday was observed in the Early Church as a fast day. The arrest of Jesus on Wednesday provided a good reason for fasting that day.24
St. Victorinus of Pettau explains the Church's Wednesday fast as connected to Jesus' arrest that day.25 So does St. Peter of Alexandria (d. 311). St. Peter, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt,26 informs us that Christians following tradition are expected to fast on both Wednesday and Friday: Wednesday because that is when the Jewish plot to betray Jesus was implemented and Friday because that was the day of his suffering. In one of his Epistola, Peter of Alexandria writes: ''According to tradition we are rightly expected to fast on...the fourth day because the Jewish plot to betray Jesus got underway then...''27
Six solid arguments, therefore, support the theory that Jesus celebrated his Last Supper as a Passover meal on Tuesday night (officially the beginning of Wednesday) according to the Jubilees-Essene solar calendar.
Although this theory found support among numerous Catholic scholars when introduced a half century ago, Father Raymond Brown was not convinced of its correctness; neither were many other Catholic scholars.
Brown admits that a one-day itinerary for the events of Jesus' passion produces a packed schedule, but not an impossible one, in his opinion. Actually, he thinks the hurried schedule was essential if the crowds were to be kept in ignorance regarding Jesus' persecution. The temple priests had advised precaution so as to avoid a possible uprising among the people. ''In the hurry of one morning Jesus was tried and crucified before His supporters in the crowd could cause trouble, but in three days all Jerusalem would have known.''28
Brown's argument makes sense but can be rebutted. Father John Mahoney indicates that a Thursday-Friday trial before Pontius Pilate would have provided the Jewish leaders more time to win support for their cause from the crowds which they relied on to pressure Pilate into condemning Jesus to death. Further, the crowds would have been less likely to support the Jewish leaders if they thought the Sanhedrin trial was underhanded and illegal as a nighttime capital trial might have been.29
The theory that Jesus celebrated His Last Supper on Tuesday evening and experienced both His agony in the Garden and capture that night is not commonly held. However, it is viable and supportable, though not definitively established.
Father John O'Flynn, writing in the Irish Theology Quarterly in 1958, declares that Jaubert's theory has a ''solid historical foundation.''30 I agree. It seems probable that Jesus instituted Holy Orders on Tuesday of Holy Week. It is not certain. TP
1Here my focus is especially on one lengthy article: A. Jaubert, "La date de la derniere Cene, "Revue de l'histoire des religions 146 (1954) pp. 140-173
2Jean Daniélou, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Primitive Christianity, trans. Salvator Attanasio (New York: Mentor Omega Books, 1962), p. 27.
3Mark 14:16; Matthew 26:19: Luke 22:13.
4In the creation story, Genesis states: ''It was evening and it was morning, the first day'' (Gn 1:5).
5''Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there'' (Jn 19:42). Cf. The New Testament of the Jerusalem Bible, ed. Alexander Jones (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), p. 246. All New Testament quotations will be taken from the Jerusalem Bible.
6C.K. Barrett, The Gospel of John: An Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 48.
7The Manual of Discipline and theDamascus Document, original compositions of the Essenes at Qum'ran, establish that the Jubilees calendar was followed by the monks at Qum'ran. Patrick Skehan ''The Date of the Last Supper,'' Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958) p. 192.
8Raymond Brown, ''The Date of the Last Supper,'' The Bible Today 2:11 (1964), p. 730.
9Ibid., p. 733. Bruce Vawter speculates that the Synoptic tradition labeled ''Passover'' a meal that was Passover-like and inaugurated the Christian Eucharist, but which was not a true celebration of the Hebrew Passover. Cf. Bruce Vawter, ''The Gospel According to John, ''The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond Brown, et al. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968), vol. II, p. 451. Gerard Sloyan hypothesizes that the Synoptics used ''Passover'' in a figurative manner ''identifying Jesus with the lamb of sacrifice,'' Cf. Gerard Sloyan, Jesus in Focus, rev. ed. (Mystic CN: Twenty-Third Publications, 1994), p. 126.
10''Daniélou, Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 29-33. John Allegro, The Mystery of the DeadSea Scrolls Revealed (New York: Gramercy Publishing, 1981 (1956)), p. 114. There is, however, no clear evidence that Jesus was influenced by the Qum'ran Community in his celebration of the Last Supper. Cf. Leonard Badia, ''Was Jesus' Last Supper Influenced by the Dead Sea Community's Sacred Meal?,'' The Priest 37:2 (Feb. 1981), p. 46.
11''The episode of Jesus' temptation by Satan may suggest this. Matthew writes: ''Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil'' (4:1). ''Wilderness'' unqualified refers to the solitary location of the Essenes. Hence, it would seem Jesus had withdrawn to a place of prayer, rather than to the heat of an open desert. Interestingly, the traditionally designated site of Christ's temptation is the very cliff area where in the mid-20th century the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Cf. Daniélou, Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 25-26.
12John Mahoney, S.J., ''The Last Supper and the Qum'ran calendar,'' ClergyReview 48 (1963), 230-31.
13Jaubert suggests that Jesus and his Galilean entourage may have followed a modified Jubilees calendar that was separated from the official lunar calendar by a few days only. Cf. Francis Firsh, C.S.B., ''Jaubert's Theory,'' The Canadian Catholic Review 10 (December 1992), p. 34.
14C. Milo Connick, Jesus: The Man, the Mission, and the Message,. 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 376; Jaubert, La date, pp. 162-163. Anthony Tambasco points out, furthermore, that it is ''quite unlikely that the entire Sanhedrin could have been assembled in the middle of the night.'' Cf. Anthony Tambasco, In the Days of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press 1983), p. 102.
15Mahoney, ''Qum'ran Calendar,'' p. 227. The Mishnah itself did not exist when the Gospels were written; it was written during the second century A.D., but the practices that it records did exist.Ibid, p. 229.
16Deuteronomy approves of this as a way to instill fear in the people. Cf. Barrett, Gospel of John, pp. 49-50.
17E. Vogt, ''Dies Ultima Caenae Domini,'' Biblica 36 (1955), p. 413; cited in: George W. McRae, ''A New Date for the Last Supper,'' American Ecclesiastical Review 138 (1958), p. 302.
18Johannes Quasten, ''Didascalia Apostolorum.'' New Catholic Encyclopedia 4 (2003), p. 737.
19Firth, ''Jaubert's Theory,'' p. 34.
20Quasten, ''Didascalia,'' p. 737. An incomplete Ethiopic version posits Thursday as the date for the Last Supper. Cf. Robert McDonald, S.J., ''The Last Supper: Tuesday or Thursday?,'' American Ecclesiastical Review 140 (1959), p. 83.
21Jaubert, ''La date,'' pp. 146-147.
22McDonald, ''The Last Supper'' p. 86.
23Jaubert, ''La date,'' p. 148.
24Mahoney, ''Qum'ran Calendar,'' p. 225.
25Brown, ''Date of Last Supper,'' p. 731.
26Herbert Musurillo, ''St. Peter of Alexandria,'' New Catholic Encyclopedia 11 (2003), p. 195.
27Epistola Canonica, c. 15 (PG 18, 507). Cited in: McDonald, ''Last Supper,'' p. 168.
28Brown, ''Date of Last Supper,'' p. 732.
29Mahoney, ''Qum'ran Calendar,'' p. 228.
30Cited in: Editors, ''The Date of the Last Supper,'' Theology Digest 6 (1958), p. 122.
DR. DECELLES, PH.D., is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Marywood University, Scranton, Pa.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs