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.

The Last Days of Jesus: A Decisive Confrontation

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.

Merchants Temple

In mid March of 30 CE the time had arrived. Jesus and his entourage headed south down the Jordan River Valley to Jerusalem. It was a three-­day trip and they would have camped out along the way. Passover was near, falling during the first week of April. All of Galilee were on the road, making their way to Jerusalem for Passover. The group around Jesus, however large it was at that time, likely began to swell, both with followers and the curious. There was a sense of great excitement in the air. Everyone wondered what was going to happen next. There was probably a bit of amazement that Jesus planned to openly travel to Jerusalem despite the plots to kill him by Herod and the authorities in Jerusalem.

One of the pilgrim stops mentioned by Josephus just at the foot of the Samaritan mountains is still visible along the way, with caves for shelter by the road and a natural spring. They would have reached it the first night. One should picture a group of mixed ages, men and women, with baggage and gear, and pack animals. Their social makeup was completely diverse. Most were Galileans, though Jesus had his sympathizers in Judea and Jerusalem as well, as we shall see. At the core were the Twelve, including his brothers, then his mother and sisters, Mary Magdalene, and Salome the mother of the fishermen James and John. Luke also names Joanna, married to an official in ­Herod’s household named Chuza; and Susanna—women of means who provided funds for the operation. Luke adds that there were “many other women” in the group (Luke 8:1–3).

The second night they reached Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea and fifteen miles east of Jerusalem. The Qumran settlement, the administrative center of the Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was just a few miles to the south. As the group entered Jericho a huge crowd gathered and a blind man began to cry out “Jesus of Nazareth, son of David, have mercy on me!” These were revolutionary words. They are equivalent to publicly proclaiming one as the Messiah or King of Israel. Some of Jesus’ followers tried to silence the man, knowing Jesus had forbidden such declarations in the past. Jesus stopped and called the man over, and touching his eyes said: “Receive your sight, your faith has made you well.” According to the gospels he was instantly healed, joined the band of followers, and the crowd crushing around Jesus became ecstatic with excitement. Jesus at last was ready to permit the open proclamation of his Kingship—come what may.

The group spent Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath day, in Jericho. Sunday was to prove as busy as it would be fateful. It was our March 31 but the 10th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar. Passover began at dusk as the 14th of Nisan ended, which was a Thursday just four days ahead. A final countdown had begun.

One enters Jerusalem traveling up the steep road from Jericho from the east. The Jesus party must have gained quite a bit of attention and lots more people by the time it arrived in the late afternoon at the Mount of Olives. When the group reached the summit at the little village of Bethany on the eastern side, Jesus halted the procession. He sent two of his disciples into the town telling them to find a ­donkey’s colt and bring it to him. Jesus sat on the animal and slowly made his way down the steep path descending the western side of the Mount of Olives, which overlooked ­Herod’s Temple and heart of the city. His followers began to spread garments in front of the animal as it made its way and as the crowds swelled with excitement they cut leafy branches from the trees and did the same, creating a “royal carpet” for the King. Psalm 118 celebrates the procession of one “coming in the name of Yahweh” whose festal procession is celebrated with branches of leafy foliage (Psalm 118:27). Jesus’ intention was as obvious as it was deliberate. The prophet Zechariah had written:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold, your King comes to you; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)

The time had come. The die was cast. Zechariah’s prophetic scenario for the “end of days” was now to unfold. By this provocative act of prophetic “pantomiming” Jesus was openly declaring himself claimant to the throne of Israel. No one who knew the Hebrew Prophets could have missed the point. The excitement and buzz about this extraordinary event ignited like sparks in tinder. The crowds began to chant explicit messianic slogans: “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming.” The uproar would have been visible to anyone in the city below. Some Pharisees in the crowd, alarmed at the revolutionary implications of the scene, said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” Jesus replied: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).

After arriving at the city Jesus melted into the crowd. He had carried out the first stage of his plan. His purpose was not to lead a mob in revolt but to fulfill certain specific biblical prophecies. That he had done. As King he had come to “Zion,” or Jerusalem, riding on the foal of a donkey, provoking the rejoicing of the people. The words of the prophet Zechariah had been fulfilled that day.

By the time Jesus entered the city it was late in the day, and Mark says he “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11). He likely went into the Temple compound through the southern gates, working out in his mind his plan for the following day. He returned to Bethany on the Mount of Olives by nightfall where he, his Council of Twelve, and the women were staying in the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha, who were supporters of his movement.

On Monday morning Jesus and a select band of his followers made their way down the slopes of the Mount of Olives once again and entered the Temple. On the south side of the huge Temple compound was an area where the money changers operated and where animals that were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were sold. From a Jewish point of view there was nothing wrong with either of these activities. The popular idea that Jesus objected to “money changing” in the Temple is incorrect. Jews from all over the world brought coinage of all types as offerings to the Temple and it was necessary to have some standard of evaluation and conversion. There was also a need for people to be able to purchase sacrificial animals right at the Temple rather than to try to bring them from afar—especially at Passover when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims required one lamb per household. Some have assumed that the money changing had to do with converting coins with “pagan” images and slogans to Jewish coinage that was considered religiously acceptable. The very opposite was the case. The only coins accepted at the Jerusalem Temple were silver Tyrian shekels and half-­shekels, which had the image of Hercules on one side and an eagle perched on the bow of a ship on the other! The issue was not pagan images but consistency of value. Tyrian shekels were guaranteed to be made of 95 percent pure silver. The Sadducean priests who ran the Temple conveniently argued that the “purity” of ­one’s offering to God superseded any defilement that the images might bring.

663-Tyrean silver ShekelsAt Passover the money-­changing operation was vastly expanded since Moses had commanded that each male Jew over the age of twenty donate a half-­shekel of silver to the sanctuary once a year (Exodus 30:13). This offering, due by Passover, necessitated special tables to be set up in the Temple three weeks before to handle the huge crowds who would come to Jerusalem for the festival. Josephus estimates that two and a half million Jews from all around the world gathered in Jerusalem at Passover. He based his number on the 225,600 lambs that were sacrificed on the day of Passover itself. Scholars find his numbers likely inflated, but even with that taken into consideration the task of handling the numbers of Passover pilgrims must have been staggering.

The profit from these activities was enormous. The Jerusalem Temple had the most lucrative system of temple commerce in the entire Roman world. As one might expect, there were certain fees and surcharges added to these services. These funds went to support the wealthy class of Sadducean priests who had their lavish homes just west of the Temple
compound in the area today called the “Jewish Quarter” as well as on the slopes of Mt Zion, as our recent excavations have shown, see here. These priests in turn worked closely with their Roman sponsors. To understand the economy in Jerusalem, which really was a type of “Temple state,” one needs only to “follow the money.”

But what about the poor or those who could scarcely afford the trip to Jerusalem, much less the inflated charges for these required sacrifices? Maybe Jesus had been told the story growing up of how his mother Mary and his adopted father Joseph had not even been able to afford a lamb for an offering at his birth. They had managed to purchase two doves. And somehow they had to come up with the five Tyrian silver shekels to fulfill the commandment of “redeeming the firstborn.” Jesus’ family was typical of thousands of others at the time—large, poor, and yet devoted to fulfilling ­God’s commandments.

Jesus arrived that Monday morning at the very height of the trade season. He had three words on his mind: Zechariah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. At the very end of Zechariah’s sequential scenario of the “end times” he declares, “And there will no longer be traders in the house of Yahweh of hosts on that day” (Zechariah 14:21). Jeremiah had gone into the Temple of his day, the 1st Temple built by King Solomon, and declared in the name of Yahweh: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah 7:11). And Isaiah had envisioned a time when ­God’s Temple at Jerusalem would become a “house of prayer for all nations,” providing a spiritual center for humanity (Isaiah 56:7).

Jesus’ activities that day were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled. He began to overturn the tables of the money changers and topple the pay stations of those who sat taking money for the sale of the animals. He then quoted the words of Jeremiah and Isaiah as an explanation for his actions. Mark also adds that he “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple
(Mark 11:16). There were certain narrow gates through which goods had to pass to support the exchange and sales activities and Jesus stationed several of his rugged Galilean men at these posts and told them business was closed for the day.

The priestly leadership heard about the ruckus. They already had been looking for a way to have Jesus arrested and killed. They were more determined than ever to stop him but they feared the people. The crowd must have been immense that Monday morning and the crush of people cheered on Jesus. This was not a riot for which the priests might call in the Romans. They would be reluctant to do that anyway since the governor Pontius Pilate was known for his brutal handling of Temple crowds and his disdain for the Jews in general. Jesus’ actions were a symbolic “prophetic protest” and he had the support of the people, who were likely tired of paying the prices demanded to fulfill these ritual requirements. Mark indicates the “siege” lasted the entire day and it was only at evening that Jesus and his men left the city and went back to Bethany for the night.

Tuesday was an important day for Jesus and his Council of Twelve. They openly went back to the Temple early that morning and Jesus spent the entire day verbally sparring with various segments of the Temple establishment, including the Sadducean priests, leading Pharisees, and the Herodians—the political supporters of ­Herod’s dynasty. The priests asked him “by what authority are you doing these things?” They apparently referred to his two “prophetic” activities on Sunday and Monday. He said he would tell them if they would state in front of the crowds who were intently following the exchange whether John the Baptizer had been a prophet of God or a charlatan. Although the priests had not responded positively to ­John’s call of repentance and baptism, the people had, by the masses, and the priests feared to answer, knowing ­John’s immense popularity. The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus whether he supported Roman taxation—perhaps the most sensitive political and religious issue of the day. Holding up a Roman coin he replied with his now famous but ambiguous retort: “Render to Caesar the things that are ­Caesar’s and to God the things that are ­God’s” (Mark 12:17).

Jesus said two things that day that seem to epitomize his entire view of “true religion,” especially vis-­à-vis what was going on in the Herodian Temple. A man asked Jesus which of the commandments of the Torah was the greatest. Jesus quoted the Shema—that great confession of the Jewish faith: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is One, and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He added that the “second” greatest commandment was to love ­one’s fellow human being as oneself. The man agreed and observed that if one loved God, and loved ­one’s fellow as oneself, that would be “much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus then made a surprising statement to the man: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28–34). This indicates that Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God involved not only the revolutionary overthrow of the kingdoms of the world, but also a certain spiritual insight into what God most desires from human beings. One would not be complete without the other.

Toward the end of the day, as people were lined up to bring their monetary contributions into the Temple treasury, Jesus observed a poor widow who had come with two copper coins. It was all she had. He told the crowds, “This poor widow has put in more than all of these” (Mark 12:43). The coin was called a lepton and it took one hundred of them to make a denarius—an average ­day’s wage for a laborer.

Throughout the day the crowds were amazed and thrilled at all Jesus said and they marveled at the way he seemed to be able to handle his challengers no matter their rank or power. The gospels report repeatedly that Jesus’ enemies wanted to arrest him but feared the crowds. Luke says that people were pouring into the Temple to hear him as word spread through the city about the excitement he had caused (Luke 21:38). The Temple officials knew that if they acted publicly they would provoke a riot among the people and the Romans would step in, possibly blaming them for the disturbance. Their only hope was to arrest Jesus somehow when he was alone, maybe at night, with only a few of his followers around. Passover was two days away and they had no idea what Jesus had in mind or of what he might be capable. They determined that they had to act fast, and before the festival of Passover that began Wednesday evening. The next 48 hours proved critical.

To Be Continued…

Two Paths, The Mount of Olives, Palm Sunday, and “Good Thursday”

There are two distinctive paths on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, both leading down to the Old City, intersecting at the Kidron Valley near the traditional Garden of Gethsemane.  Both are thousands of years old, though paved with asphalt, with worn bed-rock showing here and there, indicating that the modern paths mirror the ancient ones. I have walked them both many times, alone, and with my students or with tour groups.  With all the hodge-podge building “development” on the Mt of Olives in the 20th century they are difficult to show in a modern photograph, but you can see them very clearly in this 19th century photo. The northern path leads almost directly to the summit of the mountain, where the “Chapel of the Ascent” and the old Mt of Olives Hotel are today (where I first stayed in July, 1962). The southern path connects with Bethany and Bethphage, and today leads down the slope by the Seven Arches hotel–where all the tour buses park to photograph the Old City. It goes past Dominus Flevit (where Jesus wept), and like the northern path, ends near the Garden of Gethsemane at the Kidron. The northern path is referred to as the “ascent” and the southern as the “descent.”

PathsMtOlivesWhen King David’s son Absalom sought to depose him we read that David left the city on foot, up the northern path called the “ascent” (מַעֲלֶה):

 But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went….While David was coming to the summit, where people would prostrate themselves to God. . . (2 Samuel 15:30, 32).

Today is Palm Sunday, marking the day, according to the chronology of the Gospel of John, that Jesus rode a donkey down the slope of the Mount of Olives on the southern “descent” path from Bethany and Bethphage, hailed openly by the crowds for the first time as the Messianic “son of David”–a revolutionary move if there ever was one.   (John 12:12-19). He was apparently pantomiming the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 in the most deliberate manner–signaling the imminence of the Kingdom of God with the arrival of its rightful King! The gospel of Mark adds further details–with Jesus descending and ascending the Mt of Olives repeatedly during this last week of his life–staying with his disciples at Bethany, and every morning walking down into the city (Mark 11:1-14).

I have argued elsewhere, both in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, and in various posts on this blog, that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday, not a Friday, and that the place of his crucifixion was the summit of the Mount of Olives--not the traditional site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the so-called “Garden tomb” north of Damascus Gate. The arguments for this location are based on our oldest text referring to the location of Jesus’ execution–one that connects it to the well-identified miphqad altar halfway up the slope of the Mt of Olives (Hebrews 13:10-13). I won’t rehearse here either the arguments for a Thursday rather than a Friday crucifixion–nor this location on the Mt of Olives–but you can read the full detailed arguments here: Jesus Died on a Thursday Not a Friday and Locating Golgatha.

The Crucifixion of Jesus and His Royal Attendants on the Mt of Olives

The Crucifixion of Jesus and His Royal Attendants on the Mt of Olives

My point today, on this Palm Sunday, is to think of the irony of Jesus riding down the southern path on the donkey as that fatal week began, and carrying his cross up the northern ascent path early Thursday morning–exiting out what is now called St Stephen’s Gate, stumbling along the way, crossing the Kidron, passing the Gethsemane area, and being executed at the summit–the “place of the skull.” Somehow the juxtaposition of the geography of these “Two Paths” echoes the poignant irony of both the events and the setting that Passover week of 30 CE.


The bedrock outcropping at the Summit of the Mt of Olives where the Romans crucified their victims in “front of the city” facing the Temple Mount.

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.

Tests on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Fragment Show No Evidence of Forgery

Update: Candida Moss has a nice summary piece in The Daily Beast on this latest development with pros and cons and some good links, here.


New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review. The findings support the argument of Harvard professor Karen L. King that the controversial text, the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus, is almost certainly an authentic document. Boston Globe, April 10, 2014

Jesus Wife PapyrusIn September 2012 when Harvard Professor Karen King introduced to the world a small scrap of papyrus with a reference to Jesus’ wife a storm of controversy erupted. I covered the story rather thoroughly on this blog in a series of posts, including all the charges of forgery. Those post are worth revisiting in the light of today’s news on the dating and ink composition tests as they deliberate all sides of the controversies related to this fragment.


This morning the New York Times and The Boston Globe published rather full stories. Below is today’s Boston Globe story. Not surprisingly, it is clear that the controversies are still with us. You can also read the latest version of King’s article in the Harvard Theological Review, as well as some of the wider context and response on-line here:

“New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review.

The findings support the argument of Harvard professor Karen L. King that the controversial text, the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus, is almost certainly an authentic document.

The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was introduced to the world by King at a conference in Rome 18 months ago. The announcement made headlines around the world, and many of King’s academic peers, as well as the Vatican newspaper, swiftly dismissed it as a fake.

King maintains the document was probably part of a debate among early Christians about the role of women, family, and celibacy in spiritual life.

The results of a carbon dating test found that the papyrus probably dates to eighth-century Egypt, about 400 years later than King originally thought, but still in ancient times.

Other tests found the ink’s chemical composition consistent with carbon-based inks used by ancient Egyptians. And microscopic imaging revealed none of the suspicious ink pooling that critics thought they saw in lower-resolution photographs of the fragment. Such pooling could have offered evidence that the ink was applied in modern times.

“I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’ ” King said in an interview.

King has never argued that the fragment is evidence that Jesus was actually married. It would have been composed much later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are regarded as the earliest and most reliable sources on the historical Jesus and which are silent on that question.

Still, the latest tests do not prove definitively that the text was written in ancient times. Specialists said, hypothetically, that a highly skilled modern forger could have obtained the right kind of ink and meticulously applied it to a blank piece of ancient papyrus.

Determining the age of the ink using conventional testing methods would destroy the tiny document, roughly the size of a business card. Groundbreaking work by Columbia University researchers may soon uncover a way to date the ink without harming the fragment, which would offer a more definitive verdict about its authenticity.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the fragment seems likely to continue.

Critics have dismissed the fragment as a ham-handed pastiche of bits of the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical gospel, mashed together by someone with an elementary grasp of Coptic. One scholar found that the fragment seemed to contain a typo found in an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, a discovery that some academics said offered powerful evidence of a forgery.

Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University who offers a rebuttal to King’s thesis in the new edition of the Harvard Theological Review, said none of the test results alter his view that the document is a fraud, a modern-day cut-and-paste job with several glaring grammatical blunders that a native speaker of Coptic would never commit.

He believes the forger may have “wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues,” such as the role of women and celibacy in Christianity.

“Nothing is going to change my mind,” he said in an interview this week. “As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish. . . . I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”



Harvard professor Karen L. King introduced her finding in Rome 18 months ago. Her paper is being published Thursday.

Harvard Divinity School granted the Globe, The New York Times, and Harvard Magazine advance access to the forthcoming Harvard Theological Review articles. The three news organizations were allowed to contact researchers involved with the articles, on the condition that they hold publication until Thursday morning, when the Theological Review will be published on line, and that they contact no outside sources for comment beforehand.

King began examining the fragment in 2011 at the request of its owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. Its provenance remains mysterious; the owner told King he bought it and five other papyri in 1999 from a collector who said he acquired them in the 1960s in East Germany. An undated, unsigned photocopied note in German accompanying the fragment said that a professor Fecht had examined the papyrus and thought it could be the only text in which Jesus speaks of having a wife.

The fragment appears to be cut from the middle of a larger document; it contains just eight partial lines, written in a crude hand, one of which says, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’ ” The next says, “She will be able to be my disciple.”

The first line, according to King’s translation, says in part: “My mother gave me life.”

King believes the document may have been copied from a much earlier Greek text, perhaps composed in the second century, and sees it as an important addition to the study of the development of Christianity as it spread through the Mediterranean world.

King said in the interview this week that her thinking about the meaning of the document has evolved somewhat. She originally hypothesized it concerned debates about discipleship, and whether becoming a Christian meant giving up one’s family to join a spiritual family. But in researching what early Christians said about whether Jesus was married or not, she recognized the importance of early Christian controversies about the spiritual advantages of celibacy. If Jesus were celibate, were Christians who were married or sexually active less fully human, or lesser in the eyes of God?

“Now when I come back and read the fragment, it seems the major issue being talked about was that Jesus was affirming that wives and mothers can be his disciples,” King said.

In her Theological Review article, the publication of which was delayed by some 15 months amid a storm of criticism and pending the results of scientific tests, King answers some of the major issues raised by critics.

Depuydt makes the case that there is only an infinitesimal possibility that the similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife are coincidental.

But King replies that the parallels are not nearly as close as Depuydt and others contend, and that some overlap is not surprising because they address similar topics and because many ancient Christian texts relied upon and responded to one another.

Depuydt says the grammatical blunders he sees in the text could not have been made by a Coptic speaker. One line, he said, appears to read, “An evil man does not he brings.”

“You can’t make sense of it as a fluent Coptic text,” he said. “Then you find out it’s all coming from Gospel of Thomas. Well, case closed.”

But King argues that the grammatical issues Depuydt raises are either errors of his own analysis or that similar grammatical constructions, including the same mistake as the apparent typo in the online Gospel of Thomas, exist in other Coptic texts whose authenticity is undisputed.

In sum, King said, it does not make sense that a forger with poor Coptic and scribal skills could also manage to acquire the right kind of papyrus and ink, and leave no ink out of place at the microscopic level. “In my judgment, such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely,” she wrote in her article.

The Theological Review was supposed to have published King’s findings in January 2013. King said it took longer than expected to complete the testing, particularly because she had no budget.

The original carbon-dating test of the papyrus, conducted by the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, gave a date of 400 to 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Researchers concluded that the result may be unreliable because the sample size was too small.

A second carbon-dating test was conducted by Noreen Tuross of Harvard and produced a mean date of 741 A.D.

The ink testing was done by a team of Columbia University researchers using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy to investigate the ink’s chemical composition. The researchers have also studied the ink in many of the ancient papyri in Columbia’s vast collection.

“This looks qualitatively virtually like every other papyrus manuscript we’ve looked at,” said James Yardley, a professor of electrical engineering who helped lead the team.

Roger Bagnall, director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and one of the world’s top papyrologists, assisted King with her initial analysis of the fragment.

“I haven’t seen any argument that I find at all compelling that would indicate that it’s not genuine, it’s not ancient,” he said.