Do John and the Synoptics Contradict Each Other on the Passover?
Feb 17, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 0 Comments
It is widely believed that John's Gospel contradicts the Synoptics by putting Jesus' crucifixion on the afternoon before the evening that would have begun the Passover feast that year, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke clearly portray Jesus celebrating the Passover the night before he was executed. In my The Historical Reliability of the Gospels and The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel I elaborated an approach that D.A. Carson takes in his Pillar commentary on John, that has been followed by Andreas Kostenberger in his Baker Exegetical Commentary on John, and that has been defended by a variety of others as well. But it is a minority position, even in somes evangelical circles.
I will not repeat all of the details of that harmonization here. I am more intrigued by Kenton Sparks' two-page response to it in his new book, God's Word in Human Words (pp. 162-64). Sparks, who teaches biblical studies at Eastern University, has penned a work in which he encourages evangelicals to take more seriously standard critical approaches to such classic debates as the meaning of the creation narratives, the genre of Jonah, the authorship of Isaiah and Daniel, and so on. Sparks is clearly much more at home in Old Testament studies than in New Testament ones. I am sympathetic to his approach with some of his illustrations though not with all. But what he does in response to me, I confess, seems passing strange.
First, he thinks my view requires one to believe that John was portraying a Passover meal in John 13-16, while going "out of his way to dissociate John's final meal from the Passover." But, in fact, I argue that the best reading of 13:1-2 is to indicate that this was the Passover. It is true, John does not include the Words of Institution over the bread and cup as in the Synoptics, but then neither does he describe Jesus' baptism in John 1, while telling us everything else surrounding it. These phenomena have regularly been observed and given a variety of explanations from John being non-sacramentalist to him seeing all of life as sacramental, but no one argues that John has changed the chronology with respect to Jesus' encounter with John the Baptist. Maybe I have not interpreted John 13:1-2 correctly, but that is a separate matter.
Second, Sparks wonders if it is even likely that John's audience would have recognized this as a Passover meal, even if 13:1-2 isn't meant to suggest that. In other words, how familiar were they with the Synoptic traditions? Sparks doesn't interact with Richard Bauckham's well-known treatment in The Gospels for All Christians that suggests they would very much have been familiar with them. But he insists that the audience would have picked up from the passing reference in John 19:14 that it was "about the sixth hour" (i.e., noon) when Jesus was crucified that this was the same time that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for that evening's supper to come. The audience doesn't know the basic account of the Last Supper, already central to Christian liturgy, but they, largely Gentile, are expected to know the details of the time of the slaughter of the lambs in a Jewish festival and to assume that was what John was stressing merely by giving the time of day with no actual mention of any sacrifices? This seems entirely backwards to me.
In fact, Sparks seems to be trying much too hard; he writes that John "juxtaposes in blatant fashion [the crucifixion] with the day of preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour." But 19:31 clarifies that the Day of Preparation was not for the Passover, it was for the Sabbath (Saturday) during Passover week. And where is there any blatant juxtaposition? The crucifixion is not mentioned for another two verses and Jesus doesn't actually die until verse 30, well after noon and the proper time for the supposed allusion to the Passover lambs to fit very closely.
Third, Sparks complains that I don't tell what my backup theory would be if my harmonization between Mark's third hour and John's sixth hour for Jesus being put on the cross were wrong--namely by assuming the time was somewhere between 9:00 and noon. But how often do scholars make a habit of telling readers each time they propose a theory what they would opt for if that theory were shown to be wrong? That would make most books double the length they already are! Sparks rarely does it in his book. But I guess my answer would be to opt for the approach Westcott and others well argued, that John was following Roman reckoning rather than Jewish, though admittedly that approach has problems of its own as well.
Fourth, Sparks claims I don't discuss the problem of 13:1 saying that the meal took place before the festival. Apparently he didn't read my comments under 13:1, because I very much do explain this, in both books! I argue that 13:1 forms a small paragraph in itself, as indeed many English translations punctuate it. It was indeed "just before the Passover" meal when Jesus knew his time to leave was at hand and nevertheless determined to love his disciples to the end by carrying through with his mission. What the critical view always fails to explain is what other meal any first-century reader would have imagined John was talking about when, in the next verse/paragraph, he proceeds to refer to an evening meal now occurring. Wouldn't they naturally assume that now the Passover was at hand, especially since it began with an evening meal? Maybe. Maybe not. But how can Sparks say I don't deal with the question at all?
Finally, Sparks adopts the standard critical position that because "Lamb of God" is a distinctive feature of John's Gospel, we should expect him to have the Passover lambs in view with the reference to the sixth hour back in 19:14. At first glance, this appears eminently plausible. But while "Lamb" is a distinctive feature of John's Christology (in the sense that it does not occur in the Synoptics), it is certainly not a dominant one. It occurs exactly twice in the Gospel, in 1:29 and 35, both times on the lips of John the Baptist, and never again after that first chapter in the entire Gospel. Would a congregation hearing the Gospel read from start to finish, with so many other major Christological emphases in between, even remember these two references eighteen chapters later? If they did, would they consider them to have constituted so pervasive a theme that it must lie behind a reference that is most naturally taken as just telling us the time of day something happened?
But what is particularly puzzling, even distressing, is Sparks' rhetoric and exaggerated language throughout his discussion. The problem he claims I do not address about 13:1 that I do is a "glaring" problem. My arguments "fail entirely, or hang by the slender thread of. . .speculative and somewhat problematic assumptions." My thesis "is based largely on conjecture and with so many dangling questions." I have "no hard evidence" behind my view (I guess textual data like 19:31 isn't hard evidence). Finally, harmonizations like mine "cannot pass as serious scholarly readings of the biblical text," especially "because their authors present their very improbable reconstructions as if they are likely or even highly probable." In short, harmonizations like these "fail, and fail badly."
I have no desire to defend all harmonizations. Some are good, some are bad, and some are hard to assess. If mine is a bad one, I need to abandon it. But if it is bad, then I am really missing something that I just don't see. I invite my readers to weigh in on the issue. At the moment, it appears that Sparks has not read me carefully at all, and in key places not at all. Can his approach therefore pass as a serious scholarly reading? Are these lacunae not what really make a position "fail, and fail badly"? Methinks Sparks doth protest too much.