Critical scholars make much of the apparent conflict between the way the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) portray the events leading up to the Lord’s Passion and John’s account. The synoptics describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal, but John doesn’t. The synoptics place the crucifixion on the day after Passover, while John places it on the day before, at the hour when the lambs were sacrificed.
As if to complicate matters, some of the Syriac Fathers — those who were closest to the Jewish milieu of Jesus and the Apostles — spoke of the Last Supper taking place on a Tuesday, with the crucifixion on Friday.
Pope Benedict made something of a splash this year in his homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. He proposed what some theologians and reporters called a “novel approach” to the problem. But it’s not really so novel. It was proposed in the mid-twentieth century by French scholar Annie Jaubert, who found in the Dead Sea Scrolls a key to reconciling the accounts of the Synoptics, John, and the Syriac Fathers. Here’s the Pope’s summary of the problem and solution:
It was on the eve of his Passion that Jesus together with his disciples celebrated this meal with its multiple meanings. This is the context in which we must understand the new Passover which he has given to us in the Blessed Eucharist.
There is an apparent discrepancy in the Evangelists’ accounts, between John’s Gospel on the one hand, and what on the other Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us.
According to John, Jesus died on the Cross at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple. The death of Jesus and the sacrifice of the lambs coincided.
However, this means that he must have died the day before Easter and could not, therefore, have celebrated the Passover meal in person – this, at any rate, is how it appears.
According to the three Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was instead a Passover meal into whose traditional form he integrated the innovation of the gift of his Body and Blood.
This contradiction seemed unsolvable until a few years ago. The majority of exegetes were of the opinion that John was reluctant to tell us the true historical date of Jesus’ death, but rather chose a symbolic date to highlight the deeper truth: Jesus is the new, true Lamb who poured out his Blood for us all.
In the meantime, the discovery of the [Dead Sea] Scrolls at Qumran has led us to a possible and convincing solution which, although it is not yet accepted by everyone, is a highly plausible hypothesis. We can now say that John’s account is historically precise.
Jesus truly shed his blood on the eve of Easter at the time of the immolation of the lambs.
In all likelihood, however, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples in accordance with the Qumran calendar, hence, at least one day earlier; he celebrated it without a lamb, like the Qumran community which did not recognize Herod’s temple and was waiting for the new temple.
Consequently, Jesus celebrated the Passover without a lamb – no, not without a lamb: instead of the lamb he gave himself, his Body and his Blood. Thus, he anticipated his death in a manner consistent with his words: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10: 18).
At the time when he offered his Body and his Blood to the disciples, he was truly fulfilling this affirmation. He himself offered his own life. Only in this way did the ancient Passover acquire its true meaning.
In his Eucharistic catecheses, St John Chrysostom once wrote: Moses, what are you saying? Does the blood of a lamb purify men and women? Does it save them from death? How can the blood of an animal purify people, save people or have power over death? In fact, Chrysostom continues, the immolation of the lamb could be a merely symbolic act, hence, the expression of expectation and hope in One who could accomplish what the sacrifice of an animal was incapable of accomplishing.
My friend Scott Hahn agrees with the pope on this question. Scott touched on the Jaubert solution in his essay The Fourth Cup, which I heartily recommend:
I find the supposed conflict between the synoptics and John is resolved to my satisfaction by Annie Jaubert, The Date of the Last Supper (Staten Island: Alba House, 1965). She argues two calendars were operative in Christ’s time and accepts the ancient Syriac testimony of a “Holy Tuesday” institution of the Eucharist. Granted, there are difficulties in that, but her work helps harmonize the five trials of Jesus (Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, and Pilate), which fit much easier into a Tuesday to-Friday time frame than in a Thursday-midnight-to-morning frame.