There seems to be a bit of confusion this year as to when to commemorate the memorial. We know that Christ died on the Passover as the antitypical Passover lamb. Therefore, we would expect the memorial to coincide with the Passover commemoration which Jews continue to observe every year. This year, Passover starts at 6:00 PM on Friday, April 22nd. How odd then that the memorial of Christ’s death is to be held by Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide a month earlier on Wednesday, March 23rd.
Whatever scholarly research the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses may bring to bear on determining the correct date on the Gregorian calendar for the Jewish Passover, it cannot match that of the Jews themselves. But we’re not talking about the interpretation of Scripture here, just basic astronomy.
So which is it?
Lunar-based calendars begin any month on the first day that the moon sets in the west later than the sun. Every day the moon moves leftward from the sun about one hand-width against the sky, until 29.5 days later, it passes the sun again. As the sun sets on that day the moon is seen above it, setting later. However, it must move about one hand away from the sun to become visible in the fading light of the sunset.
The seasons of the year follow the Earth’s travel around the Sun in accord with the tilt of its spin axis to the plane of its orbit. Therefore, to keep 12 lunar months totaling 354 days in sync with the 365.25 days of the solar year, an additional month must be added from time to time. The final month before the spring equinox (around March 21) was known as Adar in ancient Babylon. When it was necessary to add a thirteen month to bring the lunar year back into sync with the spring equinox, it was called “Second Adar.”
The Babylonians were renowned astronomers. Very recently, archaeologists have unlocked the Babylonian astronomical tables for even the planet Jupiter, and they established astrology by a knowledge of planetary movements through the twelve houses of the heavens, which correspond to our months. It has long been known that the priests of Babylon used eclipse prediction tables, which required precise knowledge of both lunar and solar orbits. As Daniel was instructed in this science—and the Jews adopted this calendar—the setting of the new month was known in advance by mathematics, and not by observation after the fact, except as confirmation.
Rabbi Hillel II (circa 360 C.E.) formalized the Jewish system of the 19-year solar cycle to periodically add in the extra month (Second Adar) before the spring equinox in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19. This pattern is easy to remember, because it is similar to the keys of the piano.
In the current Jewish calendar this cycle started in 1997. Thus it ends in 2016, this being year 19 and calling for an extra Adar with the Passover be observed on April 22nd.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also employ this pattern, but have never formally adopted a specific version of it, which they attribute to the Greek astronomer Meton of Athens in 432 B.C.E. Nevertheless, by observation of the Memorial dates back to Russell’s era, we can note from the Watchtower memorial reports that year 1 of the above pattern was observed in 1973, 1992 and 2011. Thus for Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2016 is year 5. There will not be a second Adar for them in 2016, but rather in 2017 in year 6 of the cycle.
The Watchtower of December 15, 2013, page 26, contained a sidebar on determining the date of the Memorial:
“The moon circles our earth each month. In the course of each cycle, there is a moment when the moon lines up between the earth and the sun. This astronomical configuration is termed “new moon.” At that point, the moon is not visible from the earth nor will it be until 18 to 30 hours later.”
If we choose to use the observation of sunsets and moon settings from Jerusalem, then consultation with a table of those times and the astronomical almanac gives us the following information for 2016:
The new moon nearest the spring equinox of 2016 will occur on March 8th at 10:55 PM Jerusalem Daylight Time (UT+2 hrs).
About 19 hours later on March 9th, the sun will set in Jerusalem at 5:43 PM, and the moon will remain above the horizon until 6:18 PM. When it sets, the visible new moon will then be 19 hours and 37 minutes old. Civil twilight ends with a fully dark sky at 6:23pm.,so the moon sets in the range given by the Governing Body for beginning Nisan 1. Therefore, by the facts of astronomy, the date on which the month of Nisan should begin is Wednesday, March 9th. The Memorial of Christ’s Death, if it were to be celebrated after sunset on the evening of Nisan 14 (based on the JW reckoning) would then be observed on Tuesday, March 22nd.
The Organization has chosen not to follow its own published instructions, because Congregations have been instructed to observe the Memorial on Wednesday, March 23rd.
When Jesus instituted the observation of the memorial of his sacrificial death, he said:
“I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 20 And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:18-20)
Was Jesus focused on a reconstruction of the Babylonian lunar calendar, or even Jerusalem as the center of astronomic observations?
Did Jesus command us to connect this observation to a singular annual re-creation of the Jewish Passover?
Did he speak only to a “little flock,” or was his sacrifice to redeem all mankind, should they individually exercise faith in his ransom, making them his brothers, and hence sons of his father?
Paul gave instructions about the procedure: ”For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” 1 Cor. 11:26 (Berean Study Bible) He did not link it to a repetition or a holding to the Jewish Passover. The people of the nations for whom he had an apostleship would not have related to the slaughter of a lamb in the same way as the Jewish nation escaping slavery in Egypt on the first Passover. Rather, it was faith in the breaking of Jesus’s sinless body and the pouring out of his blood to redeem mankind from sin and death that was the object of the Christian memorial.
Therefore, it is up to the conscience of each one this year as to whether to go with the Jewish Calendar or the computations of the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the latter, then the correct date is Tuesday, March 22nd after sundown.