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Did Jesus eat an early Last Supper?

Leonardo da Vinci via Nightly News

Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" is the best-known representation of an event that, according to a Cambridge professor, may have taken place one day earlier than traditionally thought.

Biblical accounts of the Last Supper make more sense if the meal took place on Wednesday rather than on Holy Thursday, a Cambridge professor contends.

In a newly published book titled "The Mystery of the Last Supper," Sir Colin Humphreys explains why he thinks the first eucharistic meal, which most Christian churches will be commemorating on Thursday, actually occurred on the Wednesday night before Easter.

"Many people think the Gospels disagree," Humphreys told me today. "I'm saying they're in remarkable agreement. I've used science and the Bible, hand in hand, to solve this problem."

Humphreys is a materials-science professor at Cambridge University who also casts a scientific eye on the mysteries of the Bible. In 1993, he and a colleague wrote in the journal Nature that Jesus' crucifixion probably took place in the year 33. In 1995, he proposed that the "Star of Bethlehem" was actually a comet that became visible in the year 5 B.C. In his 2003 book, "The Miracles of Exodus," he proposed natural explanations for some of the phenomena described in the biblical story of the Jews' flight from Egypt.

Cambridge U. Press

Sir Colin Humphreys

His latest claims are aimed at addressing some of the nagging questions surrounding the Last Supper: First of all, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that it was a Passover meal, while the Gospel of John says that it occurred before Passover. Also, so much occurs between the Last Supper and the crucifixion that it's hard to fit everything into the time between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Jesus' capital trial before the Sanhedrin, for example, would have had to have taken place during the night, which is contrary to Jewish jurisprudence.

Pope Benedict XVI takes note of the Last Supper's loose ends in his own newly published book, "Jesus of Nazareth, Part II," without coming to a firm conclusion on whether the meal occurred on Holy Thursday or earlier in the week.

Humphreys analyzed a variety of religious calendars — Jewish and Egyptian, solar and lunar — and reached his own conclusion that ties up the loose ends. It turns out that Passover began at sunset on Thursday, April 2, in the year 33, according to the calendar adopted during the Jews' Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. But a different religious calendar, dating back to the Jews' time in Egypt, would have Passover beginning at sunrise on Wednesday, April 1.

That means Matthew, Mark and Luke could make a case for Wednesday's evening meal being part of Passover (by the pre-Exilic reckoning), while John would be justified in saying it happened before Passover (by the more recent reckoning).

If his timeline is true, the Last Supper would have taken place on April 1. Jesus' main trial before the Sanhedrin would have been on April 2. The confirmation of his sentence and his appearances before Pontius Pilate would have occurred on the morning of Good Friday, April 3, followed by the crucifixion. All this would lead up to the first Easter Sunday on April 5 of the year 33.

Cambridge U. Press

"The Mystery of the Last Supper" analyzes the timeline of the Passion story.

Many in the scientific community might see Humphreys' work as an empty exercise. They might even doubt whether Jesus was a historical figure at all. But Humphreys hopes that his analysis will be useful to scriptural scholars as well as rank-and-file believers.

"For biblical scholars, it resolves the discrepancy," he told me. "We now have just the right amount of space that we need for the Gospel events."

Humphreys also believes that Jesus and his followers were trying to send a theological message by celebrating the Passover on a schedule that goes back to a time before the Babylonian exile, to the era of Moses and the Exodus. "It mirrors the covenant that Moses announced," Humphreys told me. "It's cementing the message of Jesus, that he's the new Moses."

Chances are that Humphreys' claims won't lead churches to switch their Holy Thursday (a.k.a. Maundy Thursday) observances to Wednesday instead. But do they change your view of biblical lore? Feel free to share your thoughts about the Easter season and its historical underpinnings in the comment section below.

More about the Last Supper and the Bible:

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