Critics point to alleged errors and contradictions in the Bible to show that it is neither inspired nor the work of eyewitnesses. These critics claim that if the biblical writers can’t agree on even the simplest details, how can we possibly believe what they have to say about important spiritual matters? One such charge is that the gospel writers cannot even agree whether Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover or the day before Passover.
The Alleged Contradiction
Bart Ehrman is perhaps the best known modern biblical critic. In a 2010 debate, he claimed that there are hundreds of contradictions in the gospel accounts and specifically called out a supposed discrepancy in the day on which Jesus died as an example. He claimed that Mark 15 “explicitly” states Jesus was crucified on the morning after the Passover meal while John 19 “explicitly” states the crucifixion occurred on the day of Preparation for Passover, which would be the day before the meal. He boldly proclaims “Don’t take my word for it. Read John 19 and Mark 15 for yourself. They contradict each other!”
When reviewing alleged errors and contradictions, it is important to review exactly what the text says and research the potential (and sometimes various) meanings of particular words and phrases. Ehrman is right that Mark 15 clearly has Jesus and his disciples eating the Last Supper on the day of Passover. So let’s review what John 19 says concerning Jesus’ trial (which would have been after the Last Supper):
“Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He (Pontius Pilate) said to the Jews, ‘Behold your king!’” (John 19:14; English Standard Version)
At first it seems Ehrman is right. The passage clearly says ‘’the day of Preparation of the Passover” which would have to be the day before Passover begins, right? Wrong. The text says “the day of Preparation of the Passover” not “the day of Preparation for the Passover.” While this may seem like a small, insignificant difference, that simple change in the preposition greatly changes the meaning.
To understand why, we have to understand what is meant by the “day of Preparation.” Fortunately, Mark, the writer that supposedly contradicts John, also uses the same phrase and defines what it means. In Mark 15:42, he states “And when the evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath” (English Standard Version). So we see that the day of Preparation is the day of preparing for the Sabbath, not for the Passover. Since Jewish law allowed no work to be done on Sabbath days, basic chores like cooking and cleaning had to be done beforehand, in preparation for the Sabbath.
We also have to understand the Passover. Passover is a week-long festival that commemorates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. The term is used nine times in the gospel of John and always refers to the festival as a whole, not just the Passover meal.
When we combine the actual wording of John with the correct definitions for the day of Preparation and the Passover, the meaning becomes clear. John is saying that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath of the Passover week (the day of Preparation of Passover), not the day before Passover!
In fact, later in John, the disciple himself makes this exact point, agreeing completely with Mark:
“Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” (John 19:31; English Standard Version)
Here, John uses the same “day of Preparation” phrase as before but more clearly links it to the Sabbath, not the Passover (since the bodies had to be removed on the “day of Preparation,” before the Sabbath).
Upon studying this particular charge, several facts become clear. First, there are passages in the Bible that initially seem to contradict one another. We must recognize this reality. However, the second fact is that a proper understanding of grammar and vocabulary, combined with the cultural context, usually resolves these issues easily. Unfortunately, the third fact we have to realize is that there are many people who want to find fault with the Bible. So they look incessantly for it and point it out whenever they think they find it. Even if it means propagating misinformation that simple research could resolve.
The bottom line is this: The New Testament has been around for nearly 2,000 years. It has repeatedly stood the test of time and the charges of critics. Don’t be afraid of supposed contradictions, even if they are boldly proclaimed by articulate scholars like Bart Ehrman.
McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Alleged Contradictions in the Gospels, Part II, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 20 August 2012, pg. 8 and pgs. 15-23, accessed 13 July 2015