When we speak of the Gospels we group them as the three Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. The Gospels known as the Synoptics are so termed because Matthew, Mark and Luke “see the same” events in our Lord’s life. These three Gospels find it important to share the good news in ordinary or ordinal time. One of the distinctive elements of the Gospel of John is that he seems to be using a different calendar when establishing the events in our Lord’s life. For many modern readers, this can pose a perceived quandary because we are so tied to an ordinal understanding of time. This is especially true of Holy Week. To begin to comprhend the perceived conflicts we should first look to the purpose of our calendar.
Our Liturgical Watch
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch helps us understand how Judaism views its calendar by stating:
“The catechism of the Jew consists of his calendar. On the pinions of time which bear us through life, God has inscribed the eternal words of His soul-inspiring doctrine, making days and weeks, months and years the heralds to proclaim His truths. Nothing would seem more fleeting than these elements of time, but to them God has entrusted the care of His holy things, thereby rendering them more imperishable and more accessible.”
This perspective is also shared by Catholics. We recognize that faith is more caught than taught. Our calendar is constructed liturgically to orient our lives and prayer in accordance to the heavenly liturgy as expressed in Sacred Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2705) also teaches us that the Father wrote two books. One divinely revealed through Sacred Scripture and the second book revealed through creation. Thus, our liturgical calendar also coordinates its solemnity and feasts in relation to the Verbum Dei as expressed in the natural order of creation.
The Timing of the Holy Week and the Last Supper
At one time, biblical scholars believed that first century Judaism was a cohesive and liturgically consistent religion. Archeology on the other hand has discovered that Judaism at the time of the Christ has very factious and was composed of many splinter groups. A good example that relates to our topic is the liturgical calendar.
The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus celebrated the Passover before Good Friday (Mt 26:17-20; Mk 14: 12-17; and Luke 22: 7-16) while in John’s Gospel (Jn 18:28, 19: 14), the authorities did not celebrate Passover until the evening of Good Friday. In fact, John’s Gospel specifically tells us that Jesus breathes his last when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the temple.
The priests and Sadducees who managed the Jerusalem Temple followed a 354-day lunar cycle. Through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls scholars have come to learn that the Essene Jews of Qumran followed a 364-day solar cycle calendar. This would mean that Passover would fall on a different day of the week every year.
The archeology evidence seems to indicate that Jesus celebrated the Passover in the Essene quarter (which later became the Christian quarter of Jerusalem). If we are to believe that our Lord celebrated the Passover on Tuesday evening, this would assist in understanding how all the extensive legal proceedings that took place prior to His crucifixion with a limited amount of time. These legal proceedings include:
- Annas – Jn 18:13, 19-23
- Caiaphas – Jn 18:24
- Sanhedrin – Lk 22:66-71
- Herod – Lk 23:6-11
- Pilate – Jn 18: 28-40
It has been the tradition of the Church that our Lord celebrated Passover on Holy Thursday. This may have arisen from a strict interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels or may be historically accurate. Regardless, our liturgical tradition helps us understand the order of the events which does not change.
Through liturgy, we are allowed to accompany our Lord during His final days. We get a front row seat to the Bridegrooms epic feat of love which is recalled in the Paschal mystery. May we set aside the troubles of our week to enter into His mystery.
For a further treatment of the timing of the Passion in John’s Gospel, I would encourage you to read the article, When Did Jesus Celebrate the Last Supper? found on page 44 in the Ignatius Catholic Bible Study: The Gospel of John.
 The catechism of the Jew: Samson Raphael Hirsch, Judaism Eternal (London: Soncino, no date), 3.