Noted agnostic NT scholar Bart Ehrman says that the Gospels are cannot be reliable eyewitness accounts because they’re riddled with contradictions. The very center of the Gospel message is that Jesus was crucified. But according to Bart, the evangelists can’t even agree on what day exactly Jesus died. Ehrman brought this objection up in his debate with William Lane Craig.
“[When you read the Gospels] you come up with major differences. Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die…? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says?”Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? The Craig-Ehrman Debate, March 2006
Let’s take a closer look at the texts in question:
- Mark 14:12: “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” (The Last Supper happens afterward.)
- John 19:14: (Describing the scene where Jesus is condemned to death) “Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover…”
On the face of it, there does seem to be a glaring contradiction here. According to Mark, the Last Supper takes place on the first day of Passover. Jesus is arrested that night and crucified the next day, which would be the first day of Passover.
But John tells us that the crucifixion took place on the day of preparation for the Passover, which happens the day before. But is that what he really says?
What John actually says
John doesn’t say that it was the day of preparation for the Passover. No, he says that it was the day of the preparation of Passover. Mark even uses the same term, but unlike John, he explains what it means to his Gentile audience.
“When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath,“Mark 15:42
Ah, so the ‘preparation’ is preparation for the Sabbath. Let’s look more closely at John 19:31:
“Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.”
So John actually agrees with Mark that it was the day before the Sabbath, that’s what he means by ‘preparation.’ There’s no discrepancy here.
John says that Sabbath was a high day, meaning that it was a Sabbath during Passover week. But there’s another issue. Skeptics have been quick to point out John 18:28, which seems to indicate that Passover already happened. Let’s read the verse:
“Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.”
So they avoided entering Gentile courts so they could eat the Passover and avoid being ritually unclean. So John seems to definitely be saying Passover had not happened yet.
To understand what’s going on here, we need a little history lesson about Passover. Remember that in John’s Gospel that there are multiple mentions of festivals. John mentions Passover 8 times, and it is always referred to as a week-long affair. John never refers to it as just the starting meal.
There’s more than just one ritual meal eaten during Passover week. You have the seder, and there’s also the Chagigah meal (meaning “festival offering”). This other meal was eaten around lunchtime the following day, aka the feast of unleavened bread. There is an entire Talmudic tractate devoted to mid-festival days called Mo’ed Katan that details the differences.
The chief priests couldn’t be concerned about the seder meal, but some other meal. Why? Because if they entered Pilate’s courts and thus defiled themselves, their defilement would expire at sundown. (Leviticus 11:24-25, 14:45-46, 19:7, etc.) They’d just need to wash, and then they’d then be ceremonially clean for the evening supper. No problem.
There is no discrepancy between Mark and John. The priests’ concern couldn’t be about the seder, that just doesn’t make sense. The seder was the night before. Far from contradicting each other, Mark and John actually fit together perfectly.
When we look at the fine details in John’s account, he had the same timeline that Mark and other Synoptic writers had. Don’t simply take a scholar’s word for it when they say the Gospels contradict. Do your homework.
Sources and recommended resources
- Alleged Contradictions in the Gospels (Lecture by Tim McGrew)
- The Historical Reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.