Like many churches, we’ll be marking the Last Supper and the institution of the Lord’s Supper this Holy Week on Maundy Thursday evening. However, it has long been known that the chronology of ‘Holy Week’ is problematic in the Gospels. The ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke) tie the Last Supper to the Passover, but John places Jesus’ execution on the day of Passover.
Theories to resolve this have abounded for years. One involves the idea that Jesus and his disciples used an unofficial calendar. A particular version of this theory has them using an Essene calendar, that varied from the mainstream. However, for many it is a further problem to see Jesus having any crossover with the Essene community at the Dead Sea, since his teaching was so radically different, especially his rejection of an ascetic approach to faith.
Others argue that the Synoptic Gospels got it right, but John put the Passover detail into his account of the crucifixion for symbolic reasons. While John is hugely different from the other three Gospels in many ways, I’m not sure that the way John incorporates this detail into his account easily reads as symbolism rather than history.
A further argument is that Jesus brought the Passover meal forward to an earlier date, knowing what was going to happen to him. This, too, is appealing to some, but if the last theory sits loose to John and history, this one risks not taking the historical detail of the Synoptic Gospels seriously.
Today’s Guardian reports another attempt to resolve the different narratives. In an article entitled Last Supper … or penultimate supper? Scientist challenges Maundy Thursday, the sub-editor makes it sound like a scientific solution to the dilemma. Which it isn’t. Although Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is a metallurgist, he seems to be using similar methods to resolve this conundrum to those used by biblical scholars. He is not the first to assert that the number of trials Jesus is subjected to in between his arrest in Gethsemane after the meal cannot be fitted into one night. Combined with the evidence that there are some missing days in the Gospels’ accounts of Holy Week, others have brought the Last Supper forward, as I have already indicated above.
I first heard a version of this theory in 1989 when I visited the Holy Land for three weeks, and Dr Jim Fleming, formerly of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research and the Biblical Resources Centre (now the Explorations In Antiquity Center in the USA) proposed to us that the Last Supper probably took place on the Tuesday. However, Dr Fleming seemed to lean on the Essene calendar theory.
Professor Humphreys tends towards the Wednesday. His work depends upon the crucifixion being in AD 33 and Jesus using another unofficial calendar, one that would have identified him with Moses. It will be interesting to see whether these two factors command assent from scholars. Watch this space.