The Passover Plot: An Easter Weekend Retrospective

In 1965 I well remember the publication of British biblical scholar Hugh J. Schonfield’s controversial and best-selling book, The Passover Plot. I like millions of others read it avidly and followed the controversies closely. I remember traveling on a flight just after it came out and seeing half a dozen people reading their copies of The Passover Plot. I still have my well worn original copy with its arresting book jacket pictured below. The book’s appearance was quite a phenomenon. In 2004 a 40th anniversary edition of the book was published and it is still available. I do not agree in the end with Schonfield’s central theory, that Jesus went to the cross willingly, having attempted to arrange beforehand his survival after a period of prophesied suffering, by insuring an early purported “demise” based on the administration of a drug. I do, however, highly recommend the book both for its gripping narrative of the social and political “messianic” contexts in which Jesus lived and died. Schonfield followed up in 1968 with another book, Those Incredible Christians, that I think has never been equaled and I recommend to all my students to this day. That along with Schonfield’s Authentic New Testament are treasured volumes in my personal library.

PassoverPlotThere is an fascinating interview on Youtube with Hugh Schonfield recorded in 1967 on the Long John Nebel Show in sharp dialogue with Christian apologist Walter R. Martin and others. One is able to hear Schonfield’s calm, professional, and engaging manner of presenting his case, which is in sharp contrast to Martin and other guests, who get quite exercised over the topic. You can hear it in its entirely here. It makes some good listening this Easter weekend and captures some of the religious dynamics of the 1960s that included the controversial ideas of Bishop Pike, Thomas Altizer, and Bishop John Robinson. Those were truly the days!

On a personal note, Hugh Schonfield died in 1988. I never met him but it was my privilege to carry on a lovely correspondence with him by post during my graduate school days at the University of Chicago in the early 1970s. He was one of the most gracious individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and I was quite taken, and still am, with his ideas expressed in The Politics of God, one of his last works, which has now been republished. I also highly recommend Owen Power’s wonderful dissertation on Hugh Schonfield, now published as a lovely book, Hugh Schonfield: A Case Study of Complex Jewish Identities. My friend Greg Doudna traveled to the UK and interviewed Schonfield in his London flat in 1985. His notes on that extended conversation, which he has given me permission to publish here, are fascinating. Schonfield’s work is now being carried on via the Schonfield World Trust Service which seeks to promote his vision of a “Messianic Servant Nation,” an idea he developed from the inspiration of studying the historical figure of Jesus.




The Day Christ Died

I have been convinced for several years now, as I explain in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that Jesus died on Nisan 14th, which in the year A.D. 30, fell on a Thursday not a Friday. So this is indeed, the “day Christ died.”

The subject heading is the title of a most famous book by Jim Bishop, The Day Christ Died, published in 1957 by Harper Collins with an official Imprimatur by the famous Archbishop of New York Francis Cardinal Spellman–guaranteeing it “free of doctrinal or moral error.” The book is still available in reprint editions. I highly recommend it for a kind of retrospective history reading. I remember devouring this book when it came out. I was eleven years old. It captivated me utterly, I could not put it down.

Bishop Day Christ DiedToday, with Passover and Easter falling together during the same week, I write this post on a Thursday night, on the eve of “Good Friday.”  I have been convinced for several years now, as I explain in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that Jesus died on Nisan 14th, which in the year A.D. 30, fell on a Thursday not a Friday. So this is indeed, the “day Christ died.” He was put in the temporary rock hewn tomb just before sunset, and Friday, the following day, was the first day of Passover. This means the Passover meal or Seder was eaten that Thursday night, just as the Gospel of John records (John 13:1; 18:28). The next day, Friday, was indeed a “Sabbath,” but not Saturday, the weekly Sabbath, but rather one of the seven “annual” Sabbaths of the Jewish festival cycle (see Leviticus 23:7). This means there were two Sabbaths, back to back, Friday and Saturday, that year. Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene went early to the tomb and found it empty, it was indeed “three days and three nights” that Jesus had laid in that tomb (Thurs, Friday, Saturday nights), which comports with the tradition that Matthew has received (Matthew 12:40). Surely a million Sunday school kids over the years have asked, not to mention adults, how can you get three nights, from Friday to Sunday morning. It simply will not work.

Modern astronomical programs completely confirm this chronology of the Spring of A.D. 30. I have had quite a few dozens of readers write me to point out that the Jewish calendar never allows the 14th of Nisan to fall on a Thursday. But this adjustment in the calendar, based on what are called “postponements,” was not instituted until well into the 2nd century. In the time of Jesus the month of Nisan was set by the new moon, and that particular year, A.D. 30, the 14th day of the first month (14 days after the new moon) fell on a Thursday. The “last supper,” that Jesus ate with his disciples the night before, a Wednesday evening, was not the Passover Seder, but a messianic banquet or Eucharist of “bread and wine,” such as mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Didache. One way of putting it is that Jesus did not eat the Passover, he was the Passover, at least as understood by the Gospel of John and by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7). According to Josephus it was between 3pm and sundown the Passover sacrifices were made, just as the 14th of Nisan ended and the 15th, an annual Sabbath, began. Christians subsequently saw great symbolism in this chronology.

It is hard to even begin to imagine the grief among Jesus’ followers that Thursday night. The gospels say that Jesus’ Council of Twelve had scattered and likely went into hiding. One would assume that some of the more intimate followers gathered for the Passover meal in Bethany, at the house of Mary, Martha, and Eleazar (aka Lazarus), where Jesus and his disciples had been staying all week. What a dark cloud must have filled the room where they gathered. Their King was dead! And the Kingdom of God had not arrived after all.

The details of my understanding of “Holy Week” I have posted through the week on this blog and readers who missed them can simply click back through the past few days.

The Last Days of Jesus: A Final “Messianic” Meal

From more of this story read my book The Jesus Dynasty, available at discount prices and in all formats–Kindle, iBook, Nook, CD Audio, which also has notes and references to this material.


On Wednesday Jesus began to make plans for Passover. He sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare a large second-­story guest room where he could gather secretly and safely with his inner group. He knew someone with such a room available and he had prearranged for its use. Christian pilgrims today are shown a Crusader site known as the Cenacle or “Upper Room” on the Western Hill of Jerusalem that the Crusaders misnamed “Mount Zion.” This area was part of the “Upper City” where Herod had built his palace. It is topographically higher than even the Temple Mount. It was the grandest section of ancient Jerusalem with broad streets and plazas and the palatial homes of the wealthy. Bargil Pixner and others have also argued that the southwest edge of Mt Zion contained an “Essene Quarter,” with more modest dwellings and its own “Essene” Gate mentioned by Josephus, see his article “Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway,” here.

Jesus tells his two disciples to “follow a man carrying a jug of water,” who will enter the city, and then enter a certain house. The only water source was in the southern part of the lower city of Jerusalem, the recently uncovered Pool of Siloam. This mysterious man apparently walked up the slope of Mt Zion and entered the city–likely at the Essene Gate. The house is large enough to have an upper story and likely belonged to a wealthy sympathizer of Jesus, perhaps associated with the Essenes. Later this property became the HQ of the Jesus movement led by James the brother of Jesus, see Pixner’s article “The Church of the Apostles Found on Mt Zion” here.

Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that is one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th of the Jewish month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

The confusion arose because all the gospels say that there was a rush to get his body off the cross and buried before sundown because the “Sabbath” was near. Everyone assumed the reference to the Sabbath had to be Saturday—so the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. However, as Jews know, the day of Passover itself is also a “Sabbath” or rest day—no matter what weekday it falls on. In the year a.d. 30, Friday the 15th of the Nisan was also a Sabbath—so two Sabbaths occurred back to back—Friday and Saturday. Matthew seems to know this as he says that the women who visited Jesus’ tomb came early Sunday morning “after the Sabbaths”—the original Greek is plural (Matthew 28:1).

As is often the case, the gospel of John preserves a more accurate chronology of what went on. John specifies that the Wednesday night “last supper” was “before the festival of Passover.” He also notes that when Jesus’ accusers delivered him to be crucified on Thursday morning they would not enter ­Pilate’s courtyard because they would be defiled and would not be able to eat the Passover that evening (John 18:28). John knows that the Jews would be eating their traditional Passover, or Seder meal, Thursday evening.

Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke one can get the impression that the “last supper” was the Passover meal. Some have even argued that Jesus might have eaten the Passover meal a day early—knowing ahead of time that he would be dead. But the fact is, Jesus ate no Passover meal in 30 CE. When the Passover meal began at sundown on Thursday, Jesus was dead. He had been hastily put in a tomb until after the festival
when a proper funeral could be arranged.

There are some hints outside of ­John’s gospel that such was the case. In Luke, for example, Jesus tells his followers at that last meal: “I earnestly wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffer but I ­won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:14–16). A later copyist of the manuscript inserted the word “again” to make it say “I ­won’t eat it again,” since the tradition had developed that Jesus did observe Passover that night and changed its observance to the Christian Eucharist or Mass. Another indication that this is not a Passover meal is that all our records report that Jesus shared “a loaf of bread” with his disciples, using the Greek word (artos) that refers to an ordinary loaf—not to the unleavened flatbread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” he significantly does not say “on the night of Passover,” but rather “on the night Jesus was betrayed,” and he also mentions the “loaf of bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). If this meal had been the Passover, Paul would have surely wanted to say that, but he does not.

As late as Wednesday morning Jesus had still intended to eat the Passover on Thursday night. When he sent his two disciples into the city he instructed them to begin to make the preparations. His enemies had determined not to try to arrest him during the feast “lest there be a riot of the people” (Mark 14:2). That meant he was likely “safe” for the next week, since the “feast” included the seven days of Unleavened Bread that followed the Passover meal. Passover is the most family-­oriented festival in Jewish tradition. As head of his household Jesus would have gathered with his mother, his sisters, the women who had come with him from Galilee, perhaps some of his close supporters in Jerusalem, and his Council of Twelve. It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat the Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples. This was no Passover meal. Something had gone terribly wrong so that all his Passover plans were changed.

Jesus had planned a special meal Wednesday evening alone with his Council of Twelve in the upper room of the guesthouse in the lower city. The events of the past few days had brought things to a crisis and he knew the confrontation with the authorities was unavoidable. In the coming days he expected to be arrested, delivered to the Romans, and possibly crucified. He had intentionally chosen the time and the place—Passover in Jerusalem—to confront the powers that be. There was much of a private nature to discuss with those upon whom he most depended in the critical days ahead. He firmly believed that if he and his followers offered themselves up, placing their fate in ­God’s hands, that the Kingdom of God would manifest itself. He had intentionally fulfilled two of Zechariah’s prophecies—riding into the city as King on the foal, and symbolically removing the “traders” from the “house of God.”

At some point that day Jesus had learned that Judas Iscariot, one of his trusted Council of Twelve, had struck a deal with his enemies to have Jesus arrested whenever there was an opportunity to get him alone, away from the crowds. How Jesus knew of the plot we are not told but during the meal he said openly, “One of you who is eating with me will betray me” (Mark 14:18). His life seemed to be unfolding according to some scriptural plan. Had not David written in the Psalms, “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me” (Psalm 41:9). History has a strange way of repeating itself. Over a hundred years earlier, the Teacher of Righteousness who led the Dead Sea Scroll community had quoted that very Psalm when one of his inner “Council” had betrayed him.

When Judas Iscariot realized that the plan for the evening included a retreat for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane after the meal, he abruptly left the group. This secluded spot, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from the Old City, offered just the setting he had promised to deliver. Some have tried to interpret ­Judas’s motives in a positive light. Perhaps he quite sincerely wanted Jesus to declare himself King and take power, thinking the threat of an arrest might force his hand. We simply ­don’t know what might have been in his mind. The gospels are content simply to call him “the Betrayer” and his name is seldom mentioned without this description.

Ironically our earliest account of that last meal on Wednesday night comes from Paul, not from any of our gospels. In a letter to his followers in the Greek city of Corinth, written around a.d. 54, Paul passes on a tradition that he says he “received” from Jesus: “Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25).

These words, which are familiar to Christians as part of the Eucharist or the Mass, are repeated with only slight variations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They represent the epitome of Christian faith, the pillar of the Christian Gospel: all humankind is saved from sins by the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus. What is the historical likelihood that this tradition, based on what Paul said he “received” from Jesus, represents what Jesus said at that last meal? As surprising as it might sound, there are some legitimate problems to consider.

Priscilla Banquet

At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism. The Torah specifically forbids the consuming of blood, not just for Israelites but anyone. Noah and his descendants, as representatives of all humanity, were first given the prohibition against “eating blood” (Genesis 9:4). Moses had warned, “If anyone of the house of Israel or the Gentiles who reside among
them eats any blood I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut that person off from the people” (Leviticus 17:10). James, the brother of Jesus, later mentions this as one of the “necessary requirements” for non-­Jews to join the Nazarene community—they are not to eat blood (Acts 15:20). These restrictions concern the blood of animals. Consuming human flesh and blood was not forbidden, it was simply inconceivable. This general sensitivity to the very idea of “drinking blood” precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such

The Essene community at Qumran described in one of its scrolls a “messianic banquet” of the future at which the Priestly Messiah and the Davidic Messiah sit together with the community and bless their sacred meal of bread and wine, passing it to the community of believers, as a celebration of the Kingdom of God. They would surely have been appalled at any symbolism suggesting the bread was human flesh and the wine was blood. Such an idea simply could not have come from Jesus as a Jew.

So where does this language originate? If it first surfaces in Paul, and he did not in fact get it from Jesus, then what was its source? The closest parallels are certain Greco-­Roman magical rites. We have a Greek papyrus that records a love spell in which a male pronounces certain incantations over a cup of wine that represents the blood that the Egyptian god Osiris had given to his consort Isis to make her feel love for him. When his lover drinks the wine, she symbolically unites with her beloved by consuming his blood. In another text the wine is made into the flesh of Osiris. The symbolic eating of “flesh” and drinking of “blood” was a magical rite of union in Greco-­Roman culture.

We have to consider that Paul grew up in the Greco-­Roman culture of the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, outside the land of Israel. He never met or talked to Jesus. The connection he claims to Jesus is a “visionary” one, not Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being walking the earth. See my book, Paul and Jesus for a full elaboration of the implications of Paul’s visionary revelations.  When the Twelve met to replace Judas, after Jesus had been killed, they insisted that to be part of their group one had to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptizer through his crucifixion (Acts 1:21–22). Seeing visions and hearing voices were not accepted as qualifications
for an apostle.

Second, and even more telling, the gospel of John recounts the events of that last Wednesday night meal but there is absolutely no reference to these words of Jesus instituting this new ceremony of the Eucharist. If Jesus in fact had inaugurated the practice of eating bread as his body, and drinking wine as his blood at this “last supper” how could John possibly have left it out? What John writes is that Jesus sat down to the supper, by all indications an ordinary Jewish meal. After supper he got up, took a basin of water and a cloth, and began to wash his disciples’ feet as an example of how a Teacher and Master should act as a servant—even to his disciples. Jesus then began to talk about how he was to be betrayed and John tells us that Judas abruptly left the meal.

Mark’s gospel is very close in its theological ideas to those of Paul. It seems likely that Mark, writing a decade after ­Paul’s account of the last supper, inserts this “eat my body” and “drink my blood” tradition into his gospel, influenced by what Paul has claimed to have received. Matthew and Luke both base their narratives wholly upon Mark, and Luke is an unabashed advocate of Paul as well. Everything seems to trace back to Paul. As we will see, there is no evidence that the original Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James, headquartered in Jerusalem, ever practiced any rite of this type. Like all Jews they did sanctify wine and bread as part of a sacred meal, and they likely looked back to the “night he was betrayed,” remembering that last meal with Jesus.

What we really need to resolve this matter is an independent source of some type, one that is Christian but not influenced by Paul, that might shed light on the original practice of Jesus’ followers. Fortunately, in 1873 in a library at Constantinople, just such a text turned up. It is called the Didache and dates to the early 2nd century CE. It had been mentioned by early church writers but had disappeared until a Greek priest, Father Bryennios, discovered it in an archive of old manuscripts quite by accident. The title Didache in Greek means “Teaching” and its full title is “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” It is a type of early Christian “instruction manual” probably written for candidates for Christian baptism to study. It has lots of ethical instructions and exhortations but also sections on baptism and the Eucharist—the sacred meal of bread and wine. And that is where the surprise comes. It offers the following blessings over wine and bread:

With respect to the Eucharist you shall give thanks as follows. First with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks our Father for the holy vine of David, your child which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the bread: “We give you thanks our Father for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.”

Notice there is no mention of the wine representing blood or the bread representing flesh. And yet this is a record of the early Christian Eucharist meal! This text reminds us very much of the descriptions of the sacred messianic meal in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here we have a messianic celebration of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah and the life and knowledge that he has brought to the community. Evidently this community of Jesus’ followers knew nothing about the ceremony that Paul advocates. If ­Paul’s practice had truly come from Jesus surely this text would have included it.

There is another important point in this regard. In Jewish tradition it is the cup of wine that is blessed first, then the bread. That is the order we find here in the Didache. But in ­Paul’s account of the ­“Lord’s Supper” he has Jesus bless the bread first, then the cup of wine—just the reverse. It might seem an unimportant detail until one examines ­Luke’s account of the words of Jesus at the meal. Although he basically follows the tradition from Paul, unlike Paul Luke reports first a cup of wine, then the bread, and then another cup of wine! The bread and the second cup of wine he interprets as the “body” and “blood” of Jesus. But with respect to the first cup—in the order one would expect from Jewish tradition—there is nothing said about it representing “blood.” Rather Jesus says, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes” (Luke 22:18). This tradition of the first cup, found now only in Luke, is a leftover clue of what must have been the original tradition before the Pauline version was inserted, now confirmed by the Didache.

Understood in this light, this last meal makes historical sense. Jesus told his closest followers, gathered in secret in the Upper Room, that he will not share another meal with them until the Kingdom of God comes. He knows that Judas will initiate events that very night, leading to his arrest. His hope and prayer is that the next time they sit down together to eat, giving the traditional Jewish blessing over wine and bread—the Kingdom of God will have come.

Since Jesus met only with his Council of Twelve for that final private meal, then James as well as Jesus’ other three brothers would have been present. This is confirmed in a lost text called the Gospel of the Hebrews that was used by Jewish-­Christians who rejected ­Paul’s teachings and authority. It survives only in a few quotations that were preserved by Christian writers such as Jerome. In one passage we are told that James the brother of Jesus, after drinking from the cup Jesus passed around, pledged that he too would not eat or drink again until he saw the kingdom arrive. So here we have textual evidence of a tradition that remembers James as being present at the last meal.

In the gospel of John there are cryptic references to James. Half a dozen times John mentions a mysterious unnamed figure that he calls “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The two are very close; in fact this unnamed disciple is seated next to Jesus either at his right or left hand. He leaned back and put his head on Jesus’ breast during the meal (John 13:23). He is the one to whom Jesus whispers that Judas is the betrayer. Even though tradition holds that this is John the fisherman, one of the sons of Zebedee, it makes much better sense that such intimacy was shared between Jesus and his younger brother James. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

It seems to me that the evidence points to James the brother of Jesus being the most likely candidate for this mysterious unnamed disciple. Later, just before Jesus’ death, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus put the care of his mother into the hands of this “disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26–27). How could this possibly be anyone other than James his brother, who was now to take charge of the family as head of the household?

Late that night, after the meal and its conversations, Jesus led his band of eleven disciples outside the lower city, across the Kidron Valley, to a thick secluded grove of olive trees called Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Judas knew the place well because Jesus often used it as a place of solitude and privacy to meet with his disciples (John 18:2). Judas had gone into the city to alert the authorities of this rare opportunity to confront Jesus at night and away from the crowds.

It was getting late and Jesus’ disciples were tired and drowsy. Sleep was the last thing on Jesus’ mind, and he was never to sleep again. His all-­night ordeal was about to begin. He began to feel very distressed, fearful, and deeply grieved. He wanted to pray for strength for the trials that he knew would soon begin. Mark tells us that he prayed that if possible the “cup would be removed from him” (Mark 14:36). Jesus urged his disciples to pray with him but the meal, the wine, and the late hour took their
toll. They all fell asleep.

Tonight’s The Night! Passover and Jesus’ Last Evening Meal

The longstanding question of whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal may be resolved by an overlooked possibility: that Mark tried to transform an ordinary meal into a Passover observance by fashioning and inserting a single paragraph between (what we identify as) 14:11 and 17. The proposed insertion revised the time-line of the surrounding original tradition that Jesus was to be arrested before Passover (“not during the feast”). Mark neglected, however, to explain what transpired to thwart that plan. Indeed, five to seven anomalies generated by Mark’s proposed insertion vanish simultaneously when, reversing Mark’s apparent procedure, we remove his offending paragraph. Thereby the Last Supper reverts to its originally presented, and intended, time-line: that of an ordinary meal. Prof. Michael Cook

I have argued rather extensively on this blog and in my book that the “last supper” Jesus ate with his disciples the “night he was betrayed,” to use Paul’s description (1 Corinthians 11:23), was NOT a Passover meal. I realize this goes against the common perceptions, especially among Christians who want to revive ideas of a “Christian Passover,” but the historical facts seem pretty clear. Jesus ate a last evening meal with his close male disciples the night before the Passover meal. It was an ordinary fellowship meal with leavened bread and wine. In fact there was a rush to get him condemned and crucified later that evening and through the early morning hours of the 14th of Nisan, before the Passover and Sabbath day arrived–since no such activities would be allowed either on Passover or the Sabbath. I lay out my main argument on this point in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, and you can read some of my previous posts on this point dealing with the various differences between the Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and the gospel of John at these links:

Reading Mark and John: The Last Days of Jesus

Was Jesus Last Meal a Passover Seder?

The Day Christ Died

Prof. Michael Cook has published a rather brilliant piece at Bible & Interpretation titled: “The Last Supper & Passover: Overlooking the Obvious?” in which I think he has solved an age old puzzle that has confused so many–namely what seems to be Mark’s insistence (subsequently followed by Matthew and Luke), that the last supper was in fact a Passover meal. What Cook clearly shows is that the verses in Mark over which the confusion has centered, namely Mark 14:12-16, are likely a later addition to an otherwise consistent narrative tradition that Jesus ate his last supper the night before the Passover evening meal. If one reads Mark without these verses the confusion suddenly disappears and Mark reports the same as our other sources, namely Paul, the earliest, and John, the latest. Be sure and read his reasoning. I find it immensely compelling.

Reconstructing the Last Days of Jesus: Sorting Through our Sources

I want to begin a series of posts on the “last days” of Jesus’ life as we come up to Palm Sunday tomorrow, Passover, next Monday evening, and Easter, the following Sunday. We will consider the textual as well as the archaeological evidence. What do we know about the “final” days and how do we know it?

For Christian believers and scholars alike the most dramatic and riveting section of our four New Testament Gospels is the “Passion Narrative,” found in three versions in the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke), as well as in the gospel of John. Whether John’s Gospel offers an independent version of the narrative or not is a question that scholars have wrestled with.  Is John’s account simply an edited expansion of the core account we have in Mark, our earliest gospel, or is it an independent production? John Dominic Crossan, for example, is convinced that John is simply recasting Mark, just as Matthew and Luke do, taking out things here and there, expanding in other places, with each contributing their own theological perspectives and emphases relevant to their times and to the tradition and communities from which they come.

I have struggled with this question for years and as readers of The Jesus Dynasty know, my conclusion is that although the final editors of John are likely aware of Mark, the core narrative of John offers an independent account based on materials and testimony the authors attribute to the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 20:24). This mysterious figure shows up out of the blue at the “last supper” and appears again at the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and up on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples had returned to their fishing (John 21:24; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7 & 20). To what degree this source, independent of Mark, runs through earlier sections of John, and might be behind the “Signs Source,” that I mentioned in a recent post, is a larger and more complex question that I hope to address more fully in the future.  My sense of things is that the narrative and chronological materials are more likely from this source while the extended discourses of Jesus, with the distinct theology, style, and tone we see also reflected in the letters of 1, 2, and 3rd John, are overlaid on this more primitive source. In terms of the Last Days of Jesus that would mean that the “red letter” material that runs so extensively through John 13-17 is secondary and thus has little if any connection to the historical Jesus.

If I am correct it follows the narrative and chronological framework that runs through John 12-20 (the appendix in chapter 21 is a separate matter) is based on traditions that are earlier and that developed outside of, and independently from, what became the “standard story,” as represented in Mark 11-16. It is also possible that Mark “knows” something like the underlying narrative tradition now reflected in John and that he not only makes use of it but offers his own corrective overlay in places. In other words, maybe a more interesting question is not whether John knew Mark, but whether Mark knew “John”–not in its finished form of course, but as an alternative tradition.

What I want to do in this post is simply highlight in a list form some of the more interesting materials we get from John, none of which are found in Mark, regarding these “Last Days of Jesus.” What emerges is not only an alternative view of the “standard story,” but one which often is in contradiction thereto.

1. Mark knows that Jesus headquarters his movements during his last week at Bethany (11:1, 11-12; 14:3), the little village on the backside of the Mt. of Olives, but John provides the connection with the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, who lived there (John 11:1; 12:1). Mark never mentions this family though Luke, in an oddly placed story in his special section “on the road to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-18:14), tells us how Mary chose to sit at the Teacher’s feet while Martha complained that she should be helping with the serving (Luke 10:38-42). He does not say “the certain village” where this took place was Bethany, and indeed, both the chronology and the geography of Luke show that he has no idea where it might have been (they are not even to Jericho in his narrative, much less near Jerusalem and the Mt. of Olives). In the gospel of John the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a critical point in the story and it not only accounts for the huge crowds that flocked around Jesus, having heard of the miracle, but also the sharp opposition of the Temple establishment (see John 12:9-11, 17-19). Mark knows nothing of this event or this family.

2. John says that the woman who anointed Jesus with a costly perfume was indeed Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and that she wiped his feet with her hair, a decidedly shocking and intimate act in that hair was considered part of “nakedness” (John 12:1-8). He explicitly says this took place six days before Passover. John adds other details, not in Mark, of how the house was filled with the scent of the fragrance, and that Judas, who objected to the “waste,” served as treasurer for the group and used to pilfer funds. Mark has an anonymous woman, he puts the scene two days before Passover, in Bethany, but at another house, of one “Simon the Leper,” and has only the anointing of the head and nothing about wiping the feet with her hair (Mark 14:3-9). Either he knows nothing of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, or he is quite interested in writing them out of the story. One very odd feature of Mark is that even though he gives no name for this woman, he nonetheless insists that her story will be told throughout the whole world “in memory of her,” see my recent post “Mary’s Memorial: In Memory of Her.” That surely is taking the motif of the anonymity of an important woman to the hilt.

Until just recently I had leaned toward giving Mark’s account of the anointing priority, but I am beginning to question my judgment in that regard. The two stories we have of the sisters “Mary and Martha,” come from independent sources (Luke and John) and both stress the intimacy and closeness of Mary to Jesus, as well as her status as “learner” or disciple, sitting at his feet. Also, in John there is a critical difference regarding the meaning of the anointing itself. In Mark, Jesus says that the unnamed woman has “anointed my body before hand for burying,” but in John he says she should keep the costly ointment to use for his body on the day of his burial, which is quite a different idea (John 12:7). That leads one to think, immediately, of the women coming early Sunday morning to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus for burial in Mark, and Mary Magdalene coming alone to the tomb very early before the sun was even up in John (Mark 16:1; John 20:1). In my post on Mary’s Memorial I began to deliberate on these two passages and I have still not resolved the tensions and contradictions, though I have considered the possibility, suggested by others, that the figures of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are confused and conflated in our early gospel traditions just as they are in subsequent texts such as the Acts of Philip. Let me just say here that I am not at all convinced that Mark should be given priority and that John is derivative with regard to this scene.

I should add here just a note, for later expansion, that the fragments of the Secret Gospel of Mark that Morton Smith found embedded in what I take to be an authentic letter of Clement of Alexandria, contains the following passage about Larzarus of Bethany and his sisters. Whether this was original to Mark or not is disputed by scholars:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”

3. The last night of Jesus’ life John narrates a “last supper” scene that is clearly not the Jewish Passover Seder (13:1). It is a fellowship meal between Jesus and his disciples at which he offers them parting words of encouragement, anticipating his ordeal ahead, washing their feet as an example of service, and telling them about his forthcoming betrayal. In John it is clear that the Passover Seder is the following night (18:28). In Mark Jesus sits down with his disciples to “eat the Passover” (Mark 14:12-16). John mentions no sacred meal of bread and wine, which is the central feature of Mark’s account. In fact, everything that John narrates takes place “before the Passover” and “after supper,” so that the meal itself is deemphasized completely, in contrast to Mark.

Here we have two starkly contrasting traditions regarding Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and although various attempts have been made to harmonize the accounts I am convinced that John is not offering an edited version of Mark but rather an alternative and independent account. It is worth noting that in our earliest written record of this “last supper,” found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we are told that it took place “on the night he was betrayed,” with no explicit mention of Passover per se (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul understands Jesus to be slain as a Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), which means his chronology fits more with John’s, who has the crucifixion on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, with the Passover lamb eaten as part of the Seder meal that evening. It is common for scholars to discount the chronology of John as part of his theological agenda, that is, wanting to portray Jesus as a slain Passover lamb, but in fact, there are enormous historical problems with imagining Mark’s scenario. It is quite inconceivable that Jesus’ Jewish enemies left their Passover Seders and their family gatherings the night of Passover in order to arrest Jesus after midnight, try him before the High Priest and Pilate, and crucify him the next morning, which would be a holy annual Sabbath Day, the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread, the 15th of Nisan, when nothing of the sort could possibly be done (Exodus 12). Mark’s account simply makes no sense in any Jewish context and even he notes the “rush” to get Jesus arrested and killed before Passover, and the “bread” he mentions is not “unleavened,” even though he says they sat down to eat the Passover (Mark 14:2, 16, 22).

When it comes to matters of chronology and many historical details I am convinced that the authors of John are relying on traditions not only independent of Mark, but closer to the testimony of the one they claim was their “eyewitness” (John 21:24). These scenes of the “last supper” are a good case in point. Their essential framework fits well with what we know of Jewish custom and calendar, despite the heavily overlaid theological discourses put in the mouth of Jesus in these chapters (John 12-17).

4. John’s account of the arrest and trial is heavily colored by theological motifs. For John the “agony” of the scene is removed, and Jesus is so triumphant that his captors fall backward when they first see him. Characteristically, however, John supplies details that demonstrate that he is drawing upon an alternative tradition, not just pulling things from Mark and embellishing them:

a. The garden where Jesus is arrested is across the ravine called Kidron

b. A cohort of Roman troops are involved in the arrest, including the chiliarch, who was their commander.

c. The name of the servant of the High Priest whose ear was cut off was Malchus.

d. Jesus was taken first to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphus the High Priest. John alone knows this detail but it fits the historical situation based on what Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us. It was Annas who really ran things behind the scenes and Caiaphus, who was his son-in-law, was under his bidding. Mark knows nothing of Annas and never even mentions him. It was in the courtyard of the house of Annas that Peter got in through the gate because the “other disciple,” elsewhere called “the beloved disciple,” was known to the servants of the High Priest. This indicates that whoever this mysterious “Beloved Disciple” was, he had Jerusalem priestly connections. I am convinced this role fits James, the brother of Jesus, based on things we are told later about him in various historical sources, particularly Heggisippus.

e. Jesus is brought before Pilate at the Praetorium, which was part of the palace on the west side of the city. The Jewish crowd stands outside, on the steps that are still visible today, as I have discussed in my recent post, “Ecce Homo Revisited.” They are not willing to come inside because they have already completed the ritual requirements for eating the Passover Seder the next evening. Pilate questions Jesus inside, has him scourged, and allows the soldiers to mock him with the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate would have stood at his canopy-covered Bema on the bedrock platform above the crowd that was called Gabbatha, or the pavement. Jesus had been taken inside the palace grounds, then back outside. John’s description reflects someone who knows the place and the scene, while Mark simply says “they delivered him up to Pilate” (Mark 15:1). John also notes that it was the “day of the preparation for the Passover,” at 6:00AM in the morning, not the day after as in Mark (John 19:14)

5. John provides several interesting and important details regarding the crucifixion and burial of Jesus that I do not think are merely embellishments of Mark. Once again, John’s Passion Narrative seems to be drawn from an alternative source.

a. The place of crucifixion was “near the city” and nearby was a garden (John 19:20, 41)

b. Jesus’ mother was present at the execution scene, and also the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” otherwise unmentioned in Mark who says that all the disciples “forsook him and fled” (John 19: 25-27; Mark 14:50).

c. The Sabbath that was arriving was a “high day,” or Nisan 15th, the 1st day of Unleavened Bread, that introduced the Passover (John 19:31).

d. Jesus’ side was thrust through with a Roman spear to assure he was dead and not just passed out or in a coma (John 19:34).

e. The tomb into which Joseph of Arimathea hastily put Jesus’ corpse was one that just happened to be in the garden near the place of crucifixion. It was a new tomb, not belonging to Joseph, but used temporarily by him in an emergency situation with the Passover Seder hours away, simple because it was “nearby” (John 19:41-42). One would expect, accordingly, that the body would be moved the next evening, just as soon as the Sabbath was over, so that the burial rites could be properly completed. Mark knows none of these details, as I have discussed in my recent post, “The First Burial of Jesus.”

c. Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb early Sunday morning, while it was dark. See my recent post on “Mary Magdalene as First Witness.” There is no indication that any of the other women were with her, as Mark has it, grouping them together for a single visit, after sunrise. When she arrived she saw that the golal, or blocking stone, had been removed from the entrance. She sees no one in the tomb, neither a young man (Mark), nor angels ascending from heaven (Matthew & Luke). She ran to Peter and the beloved disciple and told them the obvious: “They have taken away the Master out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” The “they” in this case clearly refers to Joseph of Arimathea and those who had taken charge of the burial.

Based on this material I am convinced that the authors of John are drawing upon a source independent from Mark and that when it comes to matters of chronology and the locations of places, in contrast to theology, this source should be carefully considered for its historical value. This is very much like Luke’s special material that is not taken from Q or from Mark. For example, it is only Luke that tells us that Jesus is sent by Pilate to Herod Antipas, who is in town for the festival, once Pilate learns he is a Galilean. When Luke is editing Mark’s account, which he does quite heavily, it is obvious, but when he is providing independent materials from his own tradition they can be quite helpful in terms of filling out the picture.

In writing The Jesus Dynasty I make use of this method throughout. I realize that to the average reader this can appear to be a rather arbitrary “picking and choosing,” of sources, but such is decidedly not the case, see my recent post on this point here. One’s method is everything and as much as is possible we should endeavor to sift carefully through the various layers of our traditions and separate out the editorial, the purely theological, and the more likely historical.