A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament

By George Salmon

Chapter 15




I come now to state another objection to the antiquity of the fourth Gospel, which has been repeated in tones of the utmost triumph, as if it were unanswerable. At least it used to be; but even the few years that I have been lecturing have been long enough to enable me to see the dying out of some objections that once were regarded as formidable. This argument, which I am now about to state, was not long since greatly relied on by the assailants of the Gospel; but now I think the more candid and cautious are inclined to abandon it as worthless. What the argument aims at proving is, that the Quartodecimans, who in the second century predominated in the Churches of Asia Minor, did not recognize the authority of the fourth Gospel, or own John as its author. Now since according to all the evidence, Asia Minor was the birthplace of that Gospel, and the place where its authority was earliest acknowledged, the fact of its actual reception there is so well established, that it is natural to think there must be some flaw in an argument which undertakes to show by an indirect process that the Asiatic Churches could not have accepted it.

The objection is founded on a real difficulty in an apparent discrepancy between the fourth and the Synoptic Evangelists. In reading the first three Evangelists we feel no doubt that our Lord celebrated the feast of the passover on the night before He suffered. St. Matthew tells us expressly (xxvi. 17) that on the first day of unleavened bread our Lord sent the message My time is at hand, I will keep the passover at thy house with My disciples; that the disciples did as Jesus commanded, and made ready the passover, and when the even was come Jesus sat down with the disciples. St. Mark (xiv. 12) adds that this was the day when they sacrificed the passover. St. Luke closely agrees with St. Mark, and adds (xxii. 15) that our Lord said: With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you I will not any more eat thereof until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. Thus, according to these three Evangelists, our Lord ate the passover on the evening of the first day of unleavened bread, and suffered the following day. St. John, on the other hand, tells us (xiii. i) that the supper at which our Lord told the disciples that one of them should betray Him was before the feast of the passover. When Judas leaves the room, the other disciples think that Jesus has commissioned him to buy the things that they had need of against the feast (xiii. 29), implying that the feast was still future. Next day the Jews refuse to enter the judgment-seat, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover (xviii. 28). Thus the impression left by John's narrative is, that Jesus did not eat the passover, but that He suffered on the first day of the feast, being Himself the true passover. Baur's theory is that one great object of St. John's Gospel was to bring out this point, that Christ was the true passover; and he quotes St. John's application (xix. 36) as a prophecy concerning Christ, of the law of the passover, neither shall ye break a bone thereof (Ex. xii. 46, Num. ix. 12). It has been doubted whether the quotation is not rather from the Psalms, from which John quotes so many other prophecies of Christ: He keepeth all his bones, not one of them is broken" (xxxiv. 20); but I am not inclined to dispute the reference to the passover, as to which Baur only expresses the general opinion of orthodox interpreters.

Now, that there is here a real difficulty I freely acknowledge; for there seems a force put on the words of John, if our Lord's Last Supper be made the passover supper, or else a force put on the words of the Synoptic Evangelists if it be not.1 It probably requires only a fuller knowledge of some of the facts connected with the usages of the time to remove the discrepancy. The ancient authorities (the Bible, Josephus, and Philo) leave some points undetermined on which we desire information, while regulations cited from the Talmud are open to the doubt whether they are as ancient as our Lord's days. Without knowing, for example, what latitude the usages of that period permitted as to the time of holding the feast, we cannot tell whether to accept solutions which assume that the priests did not eat the passover at the same time as our Lord's disciples. Some have suggested that our Lord may have anticipated the time usual among the Jews, in order to partake of the feast with His disciples before He suffered; others adopt Chrysostom's conjecture that the Jewish rulers postponed their passover in their occupation with arrangements for the capture and trial of our Lord. It has been pointed out that what St. John tells of the scruple of the Jewish rulers to enter the Praetorium does not imply (as some have inferred) that the Evangelist meant his readers to regard this incident as having taken place on the morning of the day on which the passover was afterwards to be eaten. The passover would not be eaten till the evening; but before that time the defilement contracted by entering the heathen house could have been removed. Consequently it is urged that what the Jewish rulers proposed to eat must have been something to be partaken of immediately: either the pass- over proper, their regular celebration of which at an earlier hour that night had been interrupted, but of which they regarded themselves still in time to partake in the early morning on their return home from their interview with Pilate; or else the Chagigah, a free-will offering made on the morning following the passover, but to which, accord ing to competent authorities, the name passover might be applied.

However, our present business is not to harmonize the Gospels, or remove their apparent inconsistencies. Such a work belongs to a later stage of the inquiry; and, as I said before, concerns Christians alone, and is one with which those who stand without have nothing to do. Critics, I think, over rate their knowledge of the Jewish usages of the time, who suppose themselves in a position to assert that there is a real disagreement between St. John and the other Evangelists. But what we have now to consider is whether, even supposing there be such a real disagreement, this makes it impossible to believe in the early date of St. John's Gospel. Now, to my mind, the conclusion is quite the reverse this, and other seeming contradictions between St. John and the earlier Evangelists, being, as I think, inconsistent with the ascription of a late date to the Gospel. For let us suppose that the fourth Gospel was not written until after the other Gospels had had time to gain acceptance, and to be generally received among Christians as the authentic account of their Master's life; and is it conceivable that a forger, wishing to pass off his performance as the work of an Apostle, would have set himself in flagrant opposition to the general belief of Christians? John is quite silent about many most important events in our Lord's life: in fact, as a general rule, the things which he relates are the things not told in the former Gospels; yet he makes no mention of preceding writings, and does not declare any intention of supplementing them. A forger would either have made a Gospel which he might hope to pass off as an independent complete account of the Saviour's life, or else he would profess to take the existing histories as his basis, and to supply what was wanting in them. And certainly the forger of a supplemental history would be cautious to dovetail his work properly into the accepted story. He would not venture, without a word of explanation, to make statements seemingly in direct contradiction to what the Church had received as the true Apostolic tradition. It seems to me, then, that the phenomena presented by the fourth Gospel can only be explained either by the hypothesis that it was published at so early a date that its writer was not aware of any necessity to take notice of other accounts of the Saviour's life; or else that it was written, as the Church has always believed it was, by an Apostle whose own authority stood so high that it was unnecessary for him to trouble himself to consider what others had said before him.

I believe that the latter explanation is the true one. All agree in placing the publication of John's Gospel so late that it is incredible but that other Gospels had previously been published, of which the writer could not be ignorant. No one whose own knowledge of our Lord's life was second hand would have ventured to dispense with a careful study of the traditions which rested on the authority of his immediate followers; but it is quite conceivable that the person least likely to study what had been said by others would be one who was conscious that he needed not to learn the facts from any other, but could himself testify what he had heard, what he had seen with his eyes, what he had looked upon, and his hands had handled, of the Word of Life.

I have now to explain how this discrepancy, real or apparent, between the Gospels, has been connected with the Easter controversies of the second century. There is still a good deal of uncertainty as to the exact point at issue in these disputes; but this much in general you are aware of, that the Churches of Asia Minor, where the Apostle John, according to the most trustworthy tradition, spent the last years of his life, celebrated their paschal solemnities on the day of the Jewish Passover, the fourteenth day of the first month,2 and that they cited the Apostle John as the author of this custom. The Churches of the West, and indeed of the rest of Christendom generally, held their paschal feast on the following Sunday, and continued their preliminary fast up to that Sunday, and after their Quartodeciman brethren had broken it off. There can be no doubt that the Western paschal feast was intended to commemorate the Resurrection of our Lord. In the Christian Church the weekly Resurrection feast was instituted before the annual feast; and it is plain that those who made their paschal feast coincide with their weekly celebration of the Resurrection did so in order to celebrate with peculiar joy that Lord's day which in the time of year most nearly approached to the time of His rising from the dead.

But what was the Eastern feast on the fourteenth day of the month intended to commemorate? The Tübingen school make answer, the Last Supper of the Lord. And then their argument proceeds thus: The Asiatics commemorated the Last Supper on the fourteenth day of the month: they there fore adopted the reckoning of the Synoptic Gospels, according to which the Last Supper was held on the fourteenth, and the Passion took place on the following day.3 And since the Churches of Asia cited John as the author of their custom, they must, if they knew the fourth Gospel, have rejected its claims to proceed from John the Apostle, since it apparently makes the fourteenth the day not of the Supper, but of the Passion. The whole argument, you will perceive, rests on the assumption that the Asiatic paschal feast was intended to commemorate the Last Supper; but where is the proof of that assumption? There is absolutely none.

And now, perhaps, you may be inclined to dismiss the whole argument; for if one is at liberty to assume things without proof, it is shorter work to assume at once the thing you wish to establish, instead of professing to prove it by an argument, the premisses of which you take for granted with out proof. However, as I have entered on the subject, I had better lay before you all that is known as to the details of these early Easter controversies. You will see that our information is so scanty that if we try to define particulars we are reduced to guessing. But it will appear, I think, that the Tübingen guess is a very bad one. In fact, what can be less probable than that the Asiatic Churches should make the Last Supper their one great object of annual commemoration, leaving the Crucifixion and the Resurrection uncelebrated?

There are three periods in the second century in which we hear of these paschal disputes. The earliest notice of the controversy is in the account given by Irenaeus (Euseb. v. 24) of the visit of Polycarp to Anicetus, Bishop of Rome;4 on which occasion we are told that neither could Anicetus prevail on Polycarp not to observe [the 14th Nisan] (μὴ τηρεῖν), inasmuch as he had always observed it with John the Apostle of our Lord, and the other Apostles with whom he had associated; nor could Polycarp prevail on Anicetus to observe (τηρεῖν), for he said that he ought to follow the example of the presbyters before him. Here we see that the Eastern custom was f to observe the day: the Western, not to ob serve it. The language of Irenaeus is so vague, that it even leaves it an open question whether the Roman bishops before Soter had any Easter celebration at all, for he speaks of the difference between Anicetus and Polycarp as more fundamental than that involved in the Easter disputes of his own times. At any rate, we are not told in what way the Easterns observed the day, nor in commemoration of what. No argument seems to have been used on either side but the tradition of the respective Churches. It does not appear that any question of doctrine was involved: and Polycarp and Anicetus parted on the terms of agreeing to differ, Anicetus even in token of respect yielding to Polycarp the office of consecrating the Eucharist in his Church.

It seems to me likely that Polycarp was right in thinking that the most ancient Christian paschal celebrations did coincide in time with the Jewish. We know that the days of the week on which our Lord suffered and rose from the dead were ever kept in memory by the Church, and were celebrated from the earliest times; but there is no trust worthy tradition as to the days of the year on which these events occurred. Our complicated rules for finding Easter serve to attest that among nations whose calendar was governed by the solar year, the annual celebration of our Lord's death and resurrection did not begin until so long after the events that the day of the year on which they occurred was not certainly known. We know, however, from the Acts, that Christians of Jewish birth continued to ob serve the customs of their nation, including, doubtless, the passover. And not merely the Judaizing Christians, but Paul himself. For in addition to what we elsewhere read of his compliance with Jewish institutions, we have plain indications of his keeping this feast at Philippi, when St. Luke tells us (Acts xx. 6) that they sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, St. Paul's wish at the time being to keep the next great Jewish feast, that of Pentecost, at Jerusalem. He says, also, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (xvi. 8): I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. But we cannot doubt, either, that when the Apostles kept the passover feast they would give it a Christian aspect. The very first recurrence of that season could not but bring vividly before their minds all the great events which the preceding passover had witnessed. Now this is quite independent of any theory as to the day of the month on which our Lord suffered. If we suppose that He suffered on the fifteenth, then the Apostles celebration of the passover feast would, doubtless, especially remind them of the last occasion on which the Lord had eaten the same feast with them; if we suppose that He suffered on the fourteenth, their passover feast would equally call to memory the death of Him who was the true Passover. To myself it seems certain, that since the great difference between East and West was that the East only celebrated one day, the West a whole week, commemorating the Crucifixion and Resurrection on different days the Eastern paschal feast must have included a recollection of all the events of this great season. We find very early traces that the feast was preceded by a fast; and it is scarcely credible that, as the Tübingen theory demands, Christians would have fasted up to the day before their anniversary of the Crucifixion, and then changed their mourning into joy on that which had been at first a day of mourning and sorrow.

Wherever Jewish Christians formed a large part of a Church, the time of their paschal feast would naturally coincide with that of the Jews, though the mode of celebration might be different. The Christians would, no doubt, make their commemoration of the Lord's death in that rite by which He Himself instructed them to show it forth. But they probably agreed with the Jews in the use of unleavened bread at this season; for I would understand, Paul as giving a spiritual interpretation to an already existing custom, when he says (1 Cor. v. 7), Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: there fore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. While the time of celebration where Jews were numerous naturally coincided with that of the Jewish passover, it no less naturally was independent of it where Jews were few. Afterwards, when the hostility between Jews and Christians became more intense, it was made a point to celebrate on a different day from the Jews; and to this seems to be owing the rule, which we still observe, that if the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter is not till the Sunday after.

The second time at which we hear of paschal disputes is about the year 170, when we are told that there was much disputing on this subject at Laodicea; and that the celebrated Melito of Sardis wrote a book on this subject. The occasion of it appears to have been that a leading Christian named Sagaris suffered martyrdom at Laodicea on the 14th Nisan; and that when in the following year great numbers of Christians came together thither from different cities in order to celebrate the anniversary of his death, the diversity of their Easter usages arrested attention and excited controversy. Eusebius, who tells us so much (iv. 26), has not preserved enough of Melito's writings to inform us of the particulars of the dispute; but we know otherwise that Melito was a Quartodeciman as being one of the leading bishops of Asia Minor. There are, however, two short fragments purporting to come from another celebrated contemporary bishop of the same district, Apollinaris of Hierapolis, these fragments having been preserved by an anonymous writer of the sixth century.5 In these Apollinaris argues that our Lord suffered on the i4th. He evidently used St. John's Gospel, for he refers to the water and blood which came from our Lord's side. It is much disputed whether, as the Tübingen school assert, Apollinaris was one of a minority in Asia Minor who had been converted to the Western custom, and who wrote in opposition to Melito; or whether he and Melito were on the same side both Quartodecimans, and only contending with those who set on wrong grounds the celebration of the i4th day. For our purpose it is immaterial to decide the question. At this stage of the controversy the arguments did not rest merely on traditional custom, but Scripture was appealed to. And Apollinaris argues from St. John's Gospel that the 14th was the day on which our Lord suffered, and accuses those who held the opposite theory of so interpreting the Gospels as to set them at variance with each other. It is evident that at this time the authority of St. John's Gospel was recognized by the Quartodecimans; of which we have a further proof in the fact that Melito counted our Lord's ministry as lasting for three years,6 a deduction which cannot be made from the Synoptic Gospels without the help of John's.

The third stage of the dispute was at the end of the century, when Victor of Rome excommunicated the Asiatic Churches for retaining their ancient customs. In excuse for Victor it must be said that trouble had been caused him by a presbyter of his own Church, Blastus, who wanted to introduce the Quartodeciman practice at Rome. A man might be very tolerant of the usages of a foreign Church as long as they were kept at a distance, but might think himself bound to put them down when they were schismatically introduced into his own Church.7 Victor was boldly resisted by Polycrates, in a letter, of which a most interesting fragment is preserved by Eusebius (v. 24). In this Polycrates appeals in defence of the Asiatic custom to John, who leaned on the Lord's breast at supper. I need not remind you that this description of John is derived from the fourth Gospel. Thus, it seems to me that the appeal which has been made to the Quartodeciman controversy, instead of being unfavourable to the authority of the fourth Gospel, really establishes its great antiquity. The only two Quartodeciman champions of whom we know anything, Melito and Polycrates, both owned the authority of that Gospel. To these I am inclined to add Apollinaris; but if the Tübingen school are right in saying that he was not one of the Quartodecimans, and that he used St. John's Gospel in arguing against them, at least he does so without any sus picion that its authority would be questioned by his opponents. In fact, if it could be shown that the fourth Gospel was at variance with Quartodeciman celebration, the fact of its reception by the leading men of that party would prove that the authority of that Gospel must have been well established before the Quartodeciman disputes arose, else those against whom it was used in controversy would surely have questioned its authority, had there been any ground for suspicion.

I have said that it is more than doubtful whether it was at all essential to the Quartodeciman system to count the 15th as the day of the Saviour's Passion; but in any case it is absurd to suppose that those who so computed denied the authority of the fourth Gospel. This very point is disputed by harmonists to this day: some decide for the i4th, some for the 15th; and yet we know that the one party and the other alike admit John's Gospel and Matthew's as of equal authority.



Astronomical calculations have been used to determine the day of the Jewish month on which our Lord suffered. We may assume it as certain that He suffered on a Friday. I am aware that Canon Westcott (Gospels, p. 345) offers arguments in support of the view that the day was Thursday; but the point is one on which it does not seem to me possible that Christian tradition should go wrong. If this day was the 15th Nisan, so also must the 1st of Nisan have been Friday. In that case, therefore, the year must have been one in which the passover month began on a Friday. On the other hand, if it was on the 14th He suffered, the I5th, and consequently the 1st of the month, must have been Saturday. Now among the Jews, the evening when the new moon was first visible in the heavens would be the commencement of a new month. Astronomical tables enable us to determine for any month the time of conjunction: that is to say, the moment when absolutely nothing but the dark side of the moon was turned towards the earth. At that moment, of course, it would be invisible, and it would not be until about thirty hours afterwards that the crescent of the young moon might be seen after sunset.

I had computed the new moons for the possible years of the Passion, using simple rules given by De Morgan in his Book of Almanacs, when I found that the table had been already given in Wieseler's Synopsis (p. 407, Cambridge ed.) from a calculation made by a German astronomer, Wurm; and I have since found that the same computation had been made for Mr. M'Clellan by Professor Adams (see M'Clellan's Commentary, N.T., p. 493). The year A.D. 29 is that which Hippolytus sup posed to be that of the Passion; and this date was adopted by many subsequent fathers. I have already mentioned (p. 201) that Hippolytus used an erroneous table of full moons, which led him to fix the date of the Passion as March 25th. But that was so many days after the actual occurrence of the full moon, that it is inconceivable the passover could have been kept on that day; and, from the considerations that have been just explained, it can be inferred that the Passion did not take place on any day in that year. The astronomical new moon took place about eight in the evening of Saturday, April 2nd. On Sunday night the moon would be too young to be visible; but on Monday night it would be forty- six hours old, when it could not fail to be seen, so that that evening would be pretty sure to be the first of the month. The month could not possibly begin either on Friday or Saturday. But in the year 30 the conjunction took place at eight in the evening of Wednesday, March 22nd, and we infer in the same way that the month began on Friday the 24th. This, therefore, is a possible year of the Passion. Proceeding in like manner,, we find that the month began in 31 on a Tuesday, and in 32 on a Monday. In 33, however, the conjunction took place at one on the afternoon of Thursday, March 19th. At six o clock next evening the moon would be 29 hours old, and probably would be visible; but it is possible it might not have been observed till Saturday evening. Similar arguments lead us to reject the year 28, but admit 27 as a possible year, in which case the day would be Friday. The following table exhibits the date of new moon and the probable first day of the passover month for the years A.D. 27-36:

A.D. Time of true New Moon. Moon first visible.
27. March 26, 8 P.M. Friday, March 28.
28. March 15, 2 A.M. Tuesday, March 16.
29. April 2, 8 P.M. Monday, April 4.
30. March 22, 8 P.M. Friday, March 24.
31. March 12, 1 A.M. Tuesday, March 13.
32. March 29, 11 P.M. Monday, March 31.
33. March 19, 1 P.M. Friday, March 20, or Saturday, March 21.
34. March 9, 9 A.M., or Wednesday, March 10.
      April 7, 1 P.M. Thursday, April 8, or Friday, April 9.
35. March 28, 6 A.M. Tuesday, March 29.
36. March 16, 6 P.M. Sunday, March 18.


The year 30 is that which Wieseler looks on as the probable year of the Passion; and since in that year the passover month began on a Friday, he concludes that our Lord suffered on the 15th Nisan, as the Synoptic Gospels would lead us to suppose. But everything turns on the question, How did the Jewish days commence? Caspari (Chronological and Geographical Introduction to Life of Christ, Edinb., 1876, pp. 17, 196) has pointed out that if the Jewish days began with the evening, the conclusion is just the opposite of what Wieseler supposed. For the appearance of the moon on Friday evening was on that supposition the beginning, not the end, of the first day of the month, which would include Saturday. The 15th Nisan, therefore, was also a Saturday, and the day of the Passion (assuming it to have been a Friday) must have fallen on the 14th, which was 7th April. On the other hand, it is urged that Josephus, in the passage cited (Note, p. 267), speaks of the lamb as killed between the 9th and nth hours, from which language it is inferred that though, for religious purposes, the day began with the evening, yet in ordinary Jewish language the day was counted as beginning in the morning.



1) The view that the Last Supper was the passover is advocated, among recent writers, by Wieseler, Synopsis, p. 313; by M Clellan, Commentary, p. 473; by Edersheim, Life of Jesus the Messiah, ii. p. 479. See also Dean Plumptre's Excursus in Ellicott's Commentary. The opposite view is maintained by Sanday, Fourth Gospel, p. 201; and by Westcott, Introduction to Gospels, p. 344; and in the Speaker's Commentary. This latter view was held by Clement of Alexandria, by Hippolytus, and by early Christian writers generally. Several quotations will be found in the Preface to the Paschal Chronicle (Bonn edit., p. 12), that from Clement being particularly interesting. But as on this point the earliest fathers had no more means of real information than ourselves, the opinion of a father has no- higher authority than that of an eminent critic of our own day.

2) According to Exod. xii. 6, the passover was to be killed on the I4th day between the evenings. Since the Jewish day, at least for ecclesiastical purposes, began with the evening, some have understood from this that the passover was to be killed on the beginning of the Jewish I4th day, or, as we should count it, on the evening of the I3th. But the best authorities are agreed that the passover was killed on the afternoon of the I4th, and eaten the following night. (Joseph., Bell. Jud. vi. 9, 3.) In the passage cited Josephus speaks of the lamb as killed between the ninth and eleventh hours.

3) That is, as we count days; but if the day is supposed to commence with the evening, the Last Supper and the Passion took place on the same day.

4) This visit probably took place about the Easter of A.D. 154; for a later date would not fall within the life of Polycarp, nor an earlier within the episcopate of Anicetus. There is no evidence that Polycarp visited Rome in order to confer on the question of Easter celebration; and probably the diversity of practice between East and West was only revealed through the occurrence of the festival during the time of Polycarp's visit. It is likely that the object of that visit was in order that the Gnostic pretence to have derived their peculiar doctrines by secret Apostolic tradition might be refuted by the testimony of an actual survivor from the Apostolic generation. (See Iren. iii. 3.)

5) Paschal Chron. (Bonn edit.), p. 12; Routh, Rell. Sac. i. 160.

6) This appears from a passage preserved by Anastasius Sinaita: see Routh, Rell. Sac. i. 121.

7) The Catholics generally looked on the Quartodecimans as quarrelsome people who schismatically refused to conform to the custom of the rest of the Christian world. Thus Hippolytus (Ref. viii. 18) describes them as φιλόνεικοι τὴν φύσιν, ἰδιῶται τὴν γνῶσιν, μαχιμώτεροι τὸν τρόπον; and Athanasius, quoted in the Paschal Chronicle (p. 9, Bonn edit.), as φιλονει-κοῦντες,ἐφετρόντες ἑαυτοῖς ζητήματα, πράσει μὲν τοῦ σωτηριώδους πάσχα, ἔργῳ δὲ τῆς ἔριδος χάριν μάλιστα.