Jesus Died on a Thursday not a Friday

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 Hebrew 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 3pm on Thursday afternoon.

CrucifixionBaloghWeb

The reason it matters is that getting the chronology straight that weekend enables us to understand the early tradition that Jesus was in the tomb “three days and three nights,” as well as the chronology of the “Last Supper” and the Passover and how the Sabbaths and festival days correlate together that year. This alternative chronology makes all our pieces fit from our various sources, including the Synoptic Gospels, John, and the Gospel of Peter.

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 30 AD Friday, the 15th of the Jewish month 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” (Matthew 28:1).1

Passover Week Chart

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 tradition 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 AD. 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 proper and full Jewish burial rites could be carried out.

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). 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 of 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 flat bread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” significantly he 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.  We also have a similar tradition in the Talmud which tells us, “They hung Yeshua the Nazarene on Erev Pesach”–which means on the “eve of Passover” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)

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 that 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 meal Wednesday evening alone with his Council of Twelve in the upper room of the guest house on Mt Zion. 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 him 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 lead the Dead Sea Scroll community, had quoted that very Psalm when one of his inner “Council” had betrayed him.

When Judas realized 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.

When Jesus was arrested his disciples “all forsook him and fled,” though a group of loyal women from Galilee, among them Mary Magdalene and his mother, apparently followed from afar. He was taken first to Annas, who sent him for a mock “trial” at the house of Caiaphas who was his son-in-law and titular High Priest. After being condemned for blasphemy he was taken to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, who sent him to Herod Antipas who was in town for the Passover festival. Herod sent him back to Pilate and in the wee hours of Thursday morning Jesus was flogged and condemned to be crucified for sedition along with two others.

Jesus and the other two victims were put on their crosses by 9am Thursday. I have argued that the place of crucifixion was none other than the western slope of the Mt. of Olives directly before the Eastern or “Golden” Gate, see “Locating Golgotha.” Whether Jesus expected God would rescue him before things went that far is impossible to say. If he had identified himself with the Davidic figure who was to be “pierced” in Zechariah 12 it is entirely possible that he thought he was destined to be nailed to the cross—but then saved from death itself before it was too late.

What Jesus likely expected was a sudden, dramatic, and overwhelming manifestation of the Kingdom of God—perhaps a great earthquake that would destroy the Herodian Temple, with the sun darkened, the moon turning blood red, the dead being raised, and the appearance of legions of heavenly armies in the sky. During the previous week he had told his disciples who had been admiring the beauty of the massive stones of Herod’s Temple complex that the day would come when not one stone would be left on another (Mark 13:2). At his trial one of the charges had been, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands’” (Mark 14:58). As Jesus had told his disciples the night before at their last meal, “Now is the judgment of the world, now the ruler of the world will be driven out” (John 12:31). The Hebrew prophets had written vividly about the “Day of Yahweh,” when people would cast their gold and silver into the streets and hide in the caverns of the rocks from the “terror of Yahweh and the glory of his majesty when he rises to terrify the earth” (Isaiah 1:21). The kings of the earth were to be toppled and Satan himself be shut up in a pit (Isaiah 24:21). For Jesus the prophetic “third day” had arrived and the coming of “the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven” was imminent.

The gospels report that the chief priests and others who had supported them taunted the victims, aiming particular scorn at Jesus: “Let the King of Israel come down from the cross that we may believe!” Standing at a distance was Jesus’ mother, Mary, as well as Mary Magdalene and the other women who had followed him from Galilee on this last journey to Jerusalem. According to the gospel of John the “disciple whom Jesus loved” was also present with Jesus’ mother. Late in the day, when Jesus began to think he might die after all, he officially put his mother in the care of this disciple whom I have identified as his brother James—now to be the “eldest” of the family.

According to Mark Jesus was on the cross from the third to the ninth hour, which is 9am until 3pm (Mark 15:25, 33). Toward the end he began to sensed his life slipping away. He cried out with a loud voice in his native Aramaic tongue: Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachthani? Those are the opening words of Psalm 22—My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? At that point he bowed his head and breathed his last. Other than the words of the Psalm he quoted we will never know what his last thoughts were. It might well be that as he grew weaker he was reciting that very Psalm. It is the prayer of a dying man, attributed to King David, who in the end is saved from terrible suffering and death. In fact, this is the Psalm that specifically refers to “piercing of the hands and feet” (verse 16). The Psalm ends with the hopeful declaration: “God did not hide his face from me but heard when I cried to him.” Up until the last minutes perhaps Jesus believed that God would intervene, save his life, and openly manifest his Kingdom.

Since the Jewish Passover meal or Seder was to be eaten just after sundown that evening, the high priests had asked the Romans to break the legs of the victims to hasten death. The gospel of John remarks, “They did not want the bodies to remain on the cross during the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was a high day” (John 19:31). When they came to Jesus he appeared to be completely lifeless. One of the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus’ side just to be sure. He did not flinch. The King was dead.


  1. This breakdown of the last week of Jesus’ life is based on astronomical calendar calculations not the modern Jewish calendar programs which is a “calculated” calendar not necessarily in line with astronomy in all cases. Here are screen shots of the New Moons in 30 CE as well as the month of Nisan:

    New Moon 30 CE Nisan 30 CE

    A more detailed breakdown of the events of that week by Daniel Bruce is here:

    Nisan 30 CE

    Many who reject a Friday crucifixion opt for a Wednesday for Nisan 14th but this is not the correct date based on the New Moon of the first month of 30 CE as set by the Vernal Equinox, and thus the seasons for the barley harvest. 

Standing Again with Jesus: Ecce Homo Revisited

It was about twenty years ago that I first began to combine my textual study of the historical Jesus with an in-depth interest in the archaeology of late 2nd Temple Jerusalem and Galilee as it relates to the life of Jesus. An obvious interest of mine has been to determine, if and where possible, the locations of various sites that are the settings of the basic gospel narratives. This interest actually goes back to 1962 for me–so a full fifty years ago, when I first visited Jerusalem with my family on a trip back to the United States from Iran where my father, an Air Force officer, had been stationed for the previous two years. One of my major interests, then as now, as I describe in the preface of my book, The Jesus Dynasty, was to ask the Sandburgian question–“What is this place, where are we now?” Back in 1962 there was precious little one could see in the Old City of Jerusalem–then a part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and forcibly emptied of its Jewish population–that could be reliably connected to our gospel narratives. Of course there were all the standard holy sites–the garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Mt. of Olives, but even at that time I had read enough from the guidebooks to know that many of these places to which the Christian pilgrims flocked had little historical or archaeological basis, despite their devotional attractiveness to millions.

When one visits Jerusalem with such a focus one inevitably concentrates on what might be called “the Last Days of Jesus,” that final week, narrated in both the Synoptic gospels and John, that includes his daily excursions into the Temple court area, the guest house where he ate his last supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the various stages of his “trial,”–first before the High Priest Caiaphas at his residence, then Pontius Pilate, followed by Herod Antipas–the place of the execution by crucifixion, and the location of the nearby tomb where his corpse was temporary placed in haste. In almost every case I have found reason to question the traditional sites, many of which were settled upon in the 4th and 4th centuries CE, or even much later–in Crusader times. Today the landscape, both on the ground and under the ground has dramatically changed. There are a dozen or more sites to which one can reliably point that are connected to narratives in the gospels–from the recently discovered Pool of Siloam to the roadway and southern steps leading up into Herod’s Temple complex. It is today now possible again to “stand where Jesus stood” and “walk where he walked.”

Over the years, in now over 50 of trips to Jerusalem, I have studied the various sites and their traditions and my views have settled over time. I have given particular attention to the theories of the late Bargil Pixner, whose instructive book, With Jesus in Jerusalem has become a classic. I knew Bargil well and spent many pleasant hours with him on dozens of visits to Jerusalem.  I helped him edit two of his popular articles, both of which I have linked on my University Web site: Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway and The Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion. I highly recommend these fascinating treatments even though Bargil and I held different views on several matters, especially the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and initial burial.  I have a photo from the early 1990s taken in Jerusalem where we were discussing some of these very matters. It is of great sentimental value to me. I came to love and respect Father Pixner very deeply.

Pixner

I have learned from various people over the years and I have continued to refine my conclusions, particularly in dialogue with my colleague, Shimon Gibson, whose remarkable book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, represents one of the most up-to-date treatments of all the relevant issues. Gibson and I continue to have our differences, but his arguments for the location of Herod’s palace just inside the Western Wall of the Old City, with Pilate’s judgment seat just outside that wall I find wholly convincing.

Gibson locates this judgment seat of Pilate, the Roman governor, and the scene of the trial, just outside the western wall of the Old City, with the Praetorium inside the wall through a gate leading inside the palace (John 18:28). Gibson argues, and I wholly agree, that it is unlikely Pilate would be staying in the barracks of the Antonia Fortress, near the first station of the cross on the Via Dolorosa inside the Old City, which is the traditional location. I remember visiting that site as a teenager on my first trip to the Holy Land, maintained by the Sisters of Sion. I was profoundly moved as our tour guide narrated how Jesus was scourged and mocked in the courtyard of the Antonia, where the stone pavement, today known as the “Lithostrotos,” is still visible three meters below the present street level. At that time I had no idea this was surely the wrong place and that the tradition of the Via Dolorosa only went back to Crusader times.

As Gibson has shown, the governor Pontius Pilate, who preferred his residence at Caesarea on the Mediterranean, in town for Passover in April of 30CE, would have surely stayed in the complex of Herod’s palaces, on the luxurious western side of the city. I have marked the spot of the scene with a red square on this map, just to the west of the Old City wall:

JerusalemTrialWeb

Although the Oxford map does not show it, the vast palace grounds would be just inside the wall, running south the entire length to the Hinnom Valley, as I have marked here in white. In the painting below, that artist Balage Balogh did for for The Jesus Dynasty, he puts the palace grounds just inside the wall and also shows the gate leading inside to the royal grounds:

JerusalemBaloge

Here in the model of Herodian Jerusalem that has now been moved to the Israel Museum. You can see how the various buildings of the palace might have looked in their splendor, just inside the city wall. It was inside this area that Jesus was taken for his interrogation and scourging at daybreak the day he was executed. The crowd of his accusers waited outside, as they would be eating the Passover that evening (John 18:28).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shimon Gibson helped to excavate this entire western wall area back in the 1970s under Magen Broshi. He has studied it in great detail and has been able to identify its main features. Of our four New Testament gospels it is John alone who seems to know the precise topography of the scene. The way this area looks today appears in the photo below. You can still see the steps, intact from Herodian times, leading up to the platform where Pilate sat and the area where the gate led into the Praetorium. The platform was called called Gabbatha (John 19:13) and the flat stones making up the floor are still in place. Following the interrogation inside Jesus was brought back outside on this judgment seat to face his accusers and it was here that Pilate uttered his famous words: Ecce Homo–Behold the Man! Jesus was then taken down these steps and led to the place of crucifixion, outside the city walls–which for reasons I will not elaborate here I argue was near the summit of the Mount of Olives.

Gabbatha

Balage Balogue produced this wonderful painting that accurately reconstructs how things would have looked. He did a great deal of research on the archaeology of the site based on Gibson’s findings, as well as careful attention to clothing and other features:

JesusbeforePilate

Whenever I read the gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, especially in the gospel of John, I have these images and pictures vividly in my mind. It is one of those rare juxtapositions between imagination, place, and text. I hope some of my readers can manage to visit this site someday. In my estimation it is truly holy ground and as yet it is pristine and untouched by church, shrine, or tourist vendor.

Locating Golgotha

“On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame”

Evangelical Hymn, George Bennard, 1913

Balage Cruifixion Watermarked

According to all our historical records Jesus was crucified somewhere outside the city wall of Jerusalem. He was sentenced to death by the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, at the Praetorium, which we can now locate at the western entrance to Herod’s place, see my recent post, “Standing Again with Jesus: Ecce Homo Revisited.” Mark, our earliest record, then says:

And they led him out to crucify him. And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha, which means Place of the Skull. (Mark 15:21-22)

Matthew and Luke repeat Mark, who was their source. John also names the place as Golgotha–place of the Skull, but he adds a detail, “the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city,” thus visible to passersby (John 19:20). Golgotha is Aramaic for Skull. The more familiar name Calvary is based on the Latin Calvariae, or Skull, the word Jerome used when he translated the gospels into Latin. How or why the place got this name is unknown to us. There is a late Jewish tradition, known also by Christian fathers like Origen, that Adam’s skull was buried in Jerusalem, which accounts for the tradition so common in medieval art of placing a skull at the foot of the cross. Some have speculated that the name might be related to “Goliath,” based on the text of Samuel that mentions David bringing his severed head to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 17:54). Others have seen the name as describing a despicable place of execution, where skulls and bones would be strewn about. Still others, have seen it more as a physical description–perhaps of a craggy rock-like hillock that gave the appearance of a skull.1

Crivelli Adam's Skull

What none of these texts explicitly say is anything about a hill called Golgotha or Calvary, which is so familiar in Christian tradition, but as we will see, that notion does have support in other texts.

So the question is–where is Golgotha? Can it be located? And why would it be called the “place of the Skull.” There are two traditional sites in Jerusalem that tourists and pilgrims revere as its likely location.

The oldest and most revered is of course the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom, honored by Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and other Eastern branches of Christianity. It is located in the Christian Quarter, inside the present Old City walls and was built by queen Helena, the devout mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, and Coptic Christians share the veneration and operation of the site. In the time of Jesus the area was a rock quarry and was just outside the northern city wall. The problem with this location, despite its overwhelming favor with both Christian believers and a score of scholars who have written on the subject, is there is no connection of Jesus to the site before the early 4th century–approximately 300 years after the time of Jesus. Helena, the pious mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor, is the first one to give it her stamp of approval and consecrate it as the location of Golgotha, but it has little or no other basis in any of our historical records.

CHSTaborView

Many Protestants prefer an alternative site, outside the Old City walls, just north of the Damascus Gate near the bus depot. It is commonly referred to as the “Gordon’s Calvary” or the Garden Tomb, after its “discoverer,” the British general Charles “Khartoum” Gordon. Gordon suggested the location on a visit to Jerusalem in 1882, impressed by the elevated craggy rock outcropping that he thought resembled a skull, and a nearby ancient tomb with an entrance sealed with a rolling stone. The main problem with this site is that the tomb adjacent to this hill has been definitively dated to the Iron Age, which would preclude it being the newly hewn tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea in the time of Jesus.

GordonsCalvary

Some years ago I encountered the view that the crucifixion took place on the Mount of Olives, as expressed in a little book published by the late Ernest Martin titled The Place of Christ’s Crucifixion: Its Discovery and Significance (Foundation for Biblical Research, 1984). This book is long ago out of print though used copies can still be found at Amazon and other sources.

Although Martin independently came to his view that the crucifixion of Jesus took place on the Mount of Olives, after publishing his first work he discovered the views of Nikos Kokkinos (1980) who had developed a somewhat different argument related to the notion that the crucifixion would have taken place at the scene of Jesus’ arrest, based on Roman law, thus near the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mt of Olives. Later Martin also noted the views published by W. J. Hutchinson in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1873, 115; also 1870, 379-381), that Jesus’ crucifixion must have taken place somewhere east of the Temple Mount.

JerusalemMap

The basic case for the Mt. of Olives being the site of Jesus’ crucifixion rests on several interrelated arguments of varying evidential strength.

1) The first, and in my view, the most weighty, is a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews (13:10-13) that speaks of “going outside the city gate,” to a specific altar that was not inside the Temple, but “outside the camp.” This is a clear and unmistakable reference to the Eastern Gate, leading to the Mt of Olives, and the Miphqad altar located on its slopes. It was at this spot that the Red Heifer (parah ‘adamah) was burnt to provide the essential ashes for cleansing all things related to Temple worship (Numbers 19). The Talmud and Mishnah are clear that this altar was located 2000 cubits, outside the Eastern Gate, on the slopes of the Mt. of Olives (bYoma 68a, mSanhedrin 6:1). The author of the book of Hebrews makes use of this essential sacrificial practice, “outside the camp,” to establish the legitimacy of Jesus being crucified “outside the gate.” Rather than a gate on the north of the city, the Eastern Gate is really the only one that would make sense in this passage. This image of the Red Heifer, that had to be “without spot or blemish” was picked up by the early Christians as the most fitting allegorical image of Jesus’ own cleansing sacrifice, with the “sprinkling” of his blood likened to that of the water prepared with the ashes of the Red Heifer. The writer of Hebrews, preserving pre-70 CE traditions, subsequently lost after the destruction of two Jewish Revolts and the establishment of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina by Hadrian, seems to be reflecting some actual take on the geography of Jerusalem and is able to make a very effective point to his readers based on Jesus being crucified east of the city, outside the gate, on the Mt. of Olives.

2) The Acts of Pilate (aka Gospel of Nicodemus IX.5) preserves a tradition that Jesus was sent away by Pilate with two malefactors named Dysmas and Gestas, to be crucified in the garden where he was arrested–Gethsemane, which all our gospel sources agree was across the Kidron on the slopes of the Mt of Olives. As Prof. Kokkinos demonstrated, this was in keeping with Roman law.

3) The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (preserved by Ibn Shaprut in his work Even Bohan), published by George Howard, refers to the site of the crucifixion, in Hebrew, as Har Golgotha, which means a “mountain” or “hill,” and certainly not the little outcropping of rock preserved at the stone quarry where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands. This is one of our earliest records of Golgotha being called a “hill” or “mountain,” which seems to have become a popular notion in Christian lore and legend down through the ages.

4) Josephus says that during the Jewish revolt (66-70 CE) as many as 500 Jewish victims per day were crucified “before the wall of the city,” in order to terrorize the population (War 5:289; 5:449-450). This description fits perfectly with the Mt. of Olives, before the main city gate, with the Romans camped just to the north on Mt Scopus. This was the only location that could be seen by anyone in the city of Jerusalem, and the week Jesus died it would be visible to passersby arriving from all directions for the Passover feast, thus providing a visible warning to those who might be tempted to sympathize with rebels.

The traditional site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre fits none of this evidence. By the time Constantine’s mother, queen Helena came to Jerusalem, in the early 4th century, there was no memory of the original tomb of Jesus or the site of the crucifixion, as that oral tradition, that would have belonged to the Jerusalem Church, led by James and Simon, brothers of Jesus, had long ago perished. The tomb and monument area she was shown, by a stone quarry, most likely was the tomb of John Hyrcanus, that is often mentioned by Josephus as precisely in that area.

Back in 2005 when I was working on The Jesus Dynasty I commissioned the extraordinary artist Balage Balogh to paint the crucifixion scene on the Mt. of Olives based on my own exploration of the siteI had located a bedrock area, flat and just above the site of the miphqad altar, that seemed to me to be an idea location for crucifixion as alluded to in the book of Hebrews and “in front of the city wall” as Josephus indicated. It is directly in front of the Eastern Gate, looking into the courtyard of the Temple. Nearby are lots of 1st century tombs, as well as an oil-press (Gethsemane/Gat Shemen means “press of oil), and lots of Olive Orchards. None of these features fit the quarry area just north of the 1st century city wall, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.

GolgothaRD

The image of Jesus dying, overlooking the city of Jerusalem, on the very slopes of the mountain he had ridden down a week earlier on the donkey, hailed by the crowds as the harbinger of the kingdom of David, is surely one of the most touching scenes imaginable. To this day there is a steep path on the north slope that goes up to this area of crucifixion that I have proposed and a southern path that goes down, from Bethany, both worn deep into the bedrock.


  1. Thanks to Bill Sulesky for pointing out that Julius Caesar was also buried at a “place of the skull,” according to Appian, Civil Wars bk 2: “The people returned to Caesar’s bier and bore it as a consecrated thing to the Capitol.” The word capitol (Capiolium) is derived from the latin word CAPUT which means dead man’s head or SKULL. Supposedly an Etruscan king, Olus (i.e. Aulus Vulcentanus) was killed and buried there, and that the Capitoline temple and hill in Rome received its name after his skull was later found: “the head of Olus”—caput Oli—Capitolium…place of the skull. So Julius Caesar’s murdered body was also carried to the Place of the Skull. 

Praying to Jesus: From Jewish Messiah to Incarnate God

For untold millions of Christians asking the “Lord” for guidance, help, and even salvation is a complex and confusing business. Evangelicals often pray the “sinner’s prayer” asking Jesus directly to come into their “hearts” (Revelation 3:20; Romans 10:13). Or alternatively, they might call upon God to save them “in the name of Jesus.” I remember growing up in an evangelical Christian tradition and hearing prayers that began: Heavenly Father, we thank you for this or that…for sending your son Jesus Christ into the world…and we are grateful that you shed your precious blood for our sins…”

The switch from  talking “to” God “about” Jesus and praying “to God” as if he were Jesus, or talking “to Jesus” as if he were God was often seamless–in a single prayer. I remember being surprised my first semester teaching my historical Jesus course at Notre Dame when some of my Roman Catholic students would refer to Jesus as God without blinking an eye–as in “Dr. Tabor, what about that time God walked on the water and calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee?” It took me and any non-Catholics in the class a second or two to realize they were referring to the gospels narratives about Jesus. But had they used the term “the Lord” there would be no problem–since the word “Lord” in English can easily mean God, Jesus Christ, or both–and is commonly so used in our culture. I remember the popular evangelical song from the 1960s–“I know the Lord will find a way for me…” It really did not matter if one was referring to God or Jesus–and dozens of Christian hymns, both formal and informal, have the same ambiguity.1

Praying to Jesus

Part of the confusion is that the God of the Hebrew Bible, who mostly goes by the name Yahweh/Yehovah, is referred to as “the LORD” (the ALL CAPS indicate the name–but are missed by most readers) in most popular English translations of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament–Catholic, Protestant, and even Jewish2 This translation practice is an ancient one–and is even found in some copies of the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where יהוה/YHVH is rendered as ΚΥΡΙΟΣ/Lord.3

The problem comes with the New Testament in which Jesus is also commonly referred to as “the Lord.” Often only the context is all we have to go on to sort out whether one is referring to “God” or “Jesus”–and many would say since Jesus is God–why would it matter? But for others, the distinction between God the Father and Jesus the “Son of God” is an important one. I will never forget my 90 year old mother–who was raised in a solid Trinitarian evangelical tradition–saying to me, “Well I surely don’t think Jesus is God! God is God, and Jesus is the Son of God–he was Divine but he was not God. Jesus prayed to God just as we all do. He did not pray to himself!”–thus settling the issue in her mind.

Continue reading “Praying to Jesus: From Jewish Messiah to Incarnate God”


  1. Love Divine All Loves Excelling
    … Jesus, Thou art all compassion; Pure, unbounded love Thou art.
    Visit us with Thy salvation; Enter every trembling heart.

    Jesus the Very Thought of Thee
    Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast;
    But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest.

    Jesus, Lover of My Soul
    . . . let me to thy bosom fly
    . . . Hide me, O my Savior, hide
    . . . Oh, receive my soul at last!

    More Love to Thee
    . . . O Christ, more love to Thee!
    Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee
    This is my earnest plea: More love, O Christ, to Thee.

    Close to Thee
    Thou, my everlasting portion, More than friend or life to me,
    All along my pilgrim journey, Savior, let me walk with Thee.
    Close to Thee. . .

    My Jesus, I Love Thee
    . . . I know Thou art mine.
    For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
    My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou.
    If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.

    My Faith Looks Up to Thee
    . . . Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!
    Now hear me while I pray; Take all my guilt away.
    Oh, let me from this day Be wholly Thine!  

  2. There are a few mainstream exceptions, including the American Standard Version (that used Jehovah) and the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible (that uses Yahweh).  

  3. A few such Greek manuscripts in fact write the name in Hebrew characters: יהוה –which were then confused for the Greek letters: ΠΙΠΙ–leading some who were unlearned to conclude that the name of the Hebrew God was PIPI. 

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 3)

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.

A Married Jesus and the Silence of the New Testament

            Even though there is no explicit reference to Jesus being married in any of the four gospels or other New Testament writings the silence might turn out to be less deafening than one would suppose. There are several factors one must consider in making the judgment that he lived a celibate single life.[i]

MaryMagdaleneSinner

First, it is important to realize that we know very little about the historical Jesus. What historians are relatively certain about could be written down on a single piece of paper. What we have in the gospels are not biographies of Jesus—far from it—but theological presentations regarding his preaching, healing, and in particular the significance of his death and resurrection. They contain almost no personal information. The gospel of Mark, for example, never names or mentions Jesus’ father while the gospel of John never names his mother. We have one childhood story, when he was twelve years old, and most scholars consider it a standard literary motif, not a historical account (Luke 2:41-52).[ii] We know nothing of his life beyond that point, including his teens and 20s when most Jewish males were expected to marry.

Second, in regards to the Twelve apostles, no wife is specifically mentioned or named for any of them. None of their children are mentioned or named—how many, what they did, or any personal details about them. Most of the Twelve, with the exception of Peter, hardly speak at all in our gospel accounts—a few lines at most.

This silence hardly means that none of them were married. In fact, there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed of a fever in Mark 1:30—but her name is never given. Paul refers to the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, but again, no names are given (1 Corinthians 9:5). He even mentions that these women accompanied their husbands on their missionary travels. We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.[iii]

Third, celibacy was not considered an ideal or valued lifestyle among Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Even though it is mistakenly believed that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued and practiced celibacy, this notion is a pure invention. They were one of the three major Jewish groups of this period, along with Pharisees and Sadducees. This misunderstanding stems from the reports of Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100 CE), Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Hellenistic philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE), and Pliny, the Elder, a Roman official (23-79 CE) about the Essenes. Each of these writers projected their own admiration of celibate idealism onto the Essenes, though, ironically, each of these writers was married. Josephus, for example, in writing of the sect of the Essenes, makes the following observation about women and marriage:

They [the Essenes] do not absolutely deny the value of marriage, and the succession of the human race is thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.[iv]

Such a negative attitude toward women commended here by Josephus, who was unhappily married three times has no basis in history. Philo writes:

[the Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice self-control to a remarkable degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.[v]

Pliny the Elder says that the Essenes “have no women and have renounced all sexual desire.[vi] We know that what each of these men claim about the Essenes is untrue. What is most telling here is that none of these three were celibate, all were married.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, representing over 600 texts of the period before and after the time of Jesus, were discovered hidden away in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, never hint at celibacy, but quite the opposite. Like other pious Jews of the time, they strictly adhered to the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The Scrolls are full of instructions about marriage, divorce, and avoiding fornication, or sex outside of marriage.[vii]

Jesus as well as John the Baptist have been rightly connected to the apocalyptic and messianic ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though neither was likely a formal member of the Dead Sea community, there are common ideas they share. Since the Dead Sea community is most often identified as Essenes, and it is mistakenly assumed that the Essenes practiced celibacy, the argument is often made that Jesus’ own celibacy arises out of this context

Continue reading “There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 3)”

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 2)

A Woman Called Magdalene

            Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.

Judah

In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the Magdalene, Miriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]

Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.

Continue reading “There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 2)”

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 1)

Paul indicates that “seeing the Lord” is an essential criterion for one claiming to be an apostle. According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection.” Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter, James, or any of the Twelve apostles.

MM & Corpse Is it probable that Jesus was married?  And that he could have fathered a child?  These claims are in such direct contradiction to our received tradition that it is hard to believe.  Furthermore, there have been such sensational claims in the past, particularly in the famous novel, The DaVinci Code, that it is important to be skeptical and to base any claims on solid evidence.  It is for this reason that in my last book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argued that I did not believe there was sufficient evidence to argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had had a child.  But to be a scholar is to remain open to new data and new interpretations and always to be willing to change one’s position.  Based on new evidence, I now believe that my earlier position was most likely mistaken.

The New Testament says nothing directly about Jesus being married or having a child.  If Jesus had been married with a child would there not be some record, even some hint of this somewhere in the gospels? There are times when the silence of a text speaks volumes. Such silence can reflect absence, ignorance, or suppression. I am now convinced that in the case of Mary Magdalene the silence does not indicate he was unmarried. The authors of the New Testament gospels, written many decades after Jesus’ life, and when most of the original witnesses were dead, were either unaware of Jesus’ wife and child, or more likely, for theological reasons, decided to suppress this information.  The Jesus of these gospels was the divine Son of God, ascended to heaven, and any “earthly,” or sexual ties to a mortal woman were deemed inconceivable. His exalted heavenly status as the Son of God surely precluded him “leaving behind” such mortal remains. The New Testament gospels are male dominated accounts in which the few women who do play a role in Jesus’ life are marginalized and subordinated.   They purportedly did not hold leadership roles equivalent to the male disciples. This is not to say that the gospels are devoid of references to Mary Magdalene’s singular importance in Jesus life. To the contrary, the inclusion of narratives involving Mary Magdalene as intimately involved with Jesus’ mother and his sister in preparing Jesus’ naked corpse for burial, and as the first witness to his resurrection from the dead, signals how central her role must have been in his life. It is as though she could not be written out of the story entirely—but her relatively isolated inclusion in such an intimate and important way makes very little sense overall.

This silence is in sharp contrast to half a dozen other ancient texts that have been discovered in the last hundred years, including several “lost” gospels that are not included in the New Testament.  In these texts, Mary Magdalene is mentioned very prominently, given a role superior to the Twelve apostles, and presented as Jesus’ intimate companion. Even though these texts were written later than the New Testament gospels—most of them dating to the 2nd century CE—they also have their theological axes to grind yet nonetheless bear witness to an expanded and wholly alternative role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life. As such they give voice to a suppressed history and a muted memory that correlates strongly with the evidence in the Talpiot tombs.

 

The fact that the Talpiot tomb contains two ossuaries inscribed with names of women—Maria on one and Mariamene Mara on the second—plus a third ossuary Judas son of Jesus, strongly suggests that one of these two Marys is most likely the mother of the son, and thus the wife of the Jesus buried in this tomb. The DNA evidence done on the bones from the Yeshua and the Mariamene ossuaries, further shows that Mariamene Mara is not Jesus’ mother or his sister, leaving her as a possible candidate for his wife, and thus the mother of the son Judas. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother named Mary, and apparently one of his sisters was also named Mary.[i] If Jesus’ sister Mary were married, which seems likely given the norms of the culture, she would not be in his tomb but in the tomb of her husband. If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus and his family, the second Mary—Maria—is most likely either his mother, unless she lived past 70 CE when the tomb went unused.  Alternatively, the second Mary could perhaps be a wife of one of his brothers. That leaves Mariamene Mara as the most likely candidate to be the mother of his child.

There is the related issue of the status of Mary Magdalene. The Mariamene buried in the Jesus family tomb is also known as Mara—the Lady. This title can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement, a role that is hinted at by the evidence in the Talpiot tomb but never explicitly indicated in any of our sparse New Testament texts mentioning Mary Magdalene.

What I present here is a consideration of all the relevant ancient textual evidence regarding Mary Magdalene, both inside and outside the New Testament, with the new archaeological evidence from the Talpiot tombs. There is an impressive correlation between much of this textual material and what we observe in the tombs themselves.

Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels

            I begin with our earliest source on Mary Magdalene—the gospel of Mark, most scholars consider to have been written before Matthew, Luke, or John.  According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly the most mysterious and intriguing woman in Jesus’ life. She appears for the first time completely out of the blue, without any kind of introduction, watching the crucifixion of Jesus from afar. She is named first, surely giving her special priority, and she is associated with an entire group—one might even say, an entourage of women who had followed Jesus down from Galilee to Jerusalem just before the Passover festival began:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41).

Luke supplements this tradition of Mark, also emphasizing the many women from Galilee who were followers of Jesus. He names Mary Magdalene first, implying she has some kind of leadership role, but then identifies two others, a certain Joanna, who is the wife of Chuza, a household administrator in the court of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, and Susanna, otherwise unknown. The implication is that these women are of high standing with financial means. Luke specifies that they provided for the Jesus movement from their means (Luke 8:2-3).

In Mark’s gospel it was Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary, the mother of Joses, most likely Jesus’ mother, who observe Joseph of Arimathea taking down the bloodied body from the cross, placing him temporarily in a nearby tomb, and sealing the entrance with a heavy stone, until the Passover was over (Mark 15:47).[ii] As soon as the Sabbath day was over Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother, and an unidentified woman named Salome, possibly Jesus’ sister, bought spices so they might return to the tomb early Sunday morning to wash the corpse and complete the rites of burial. Mark relates that early on Sunday morning, again, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary and Salome, go to the tomb very early, before the sun is risen, and find the stone rolled away and the body removed. Inside the tomb is a young man dressed in a white linen garment who informs the women that Jesus has been “raised up,” that they are to go and tell his male disciples, and that he is going to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:1-4).[iii] According to Mark they fled from the tomb in fear and astonishment, saying nothing to anyone. In our oldest copies of Mark that is how the story ends—abruptly and mysteriously, with the promise to the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee in the future. The oldest copies of Mark have this abrupt ending with no “sightings” or appearances of Jesus to anyone. Later manuscripts or copies of Mark add on one of three different alternative endings, composed by editors to try and blunt the abruptness of Mark’s original ending. The fear was that Mark’s account, if left as is, might leave doubt as to Jesus’ resurrection.[iv]

Washing and anointing a corpse for Jewish burial was an honored and intimate task. The body was stripped naked and washed from head to toe. It was taken care of by the immediate family or those closely related. Although these narratives from Mark do not identify Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, they certainly cast her as taking the lead in carrying out the burial rites for Jesus—an extremely intimate task for a wife, mother, or sister. Matthew and Luke have Mark as their source, and although they relate the story of Jesus’ burial slightly differently, it is unlikely that they have much independent information. It is also entirely possible, writing so many decades after the events, when all of the original witnesses were dead, that they know the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in Jesus’ burial, and thus find it essential to include her, but have no idea who she was or why she is so prominent in the story they had received.

It is in the gospel of John one finds an alternative narrative tradition, one independent of Mark. What John brings to the table is utterly fascinating and sheds an entirely different light on what might have happened early that first Easter morning John writes that Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb, very early Sunday morning, while it was still dark. She sees the stone rolled away from the tomb and the body removed and she runs in panic to tell Peter and an unnamed disciple, otherwise identified as the “one whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). What she exclaims to the men is most revealing:

They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2).[v]

In this account Mary Magdalene’s logical assumption is that the body has been removed from the temporary tomb, which John has already emphasized was a tomb of convenience in an emergency, not a permanent burial cave (John 19:41-42). Her reference to “they” obviously refers to Joseph of Arimathea, assisted by another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, whom John says assisted in the initial removal of the body from the cross.

What happens next is a story completely unique to John. Mary Magdalene returns to the empty tomb, weeping outside, she then enters the tomb for the first time to look inside. She sees two angels dressed in white sitting inside. The Greek word translated “angel” (aggelos) can refer to a “messenger,” and does not necessarily mean an angelic non-terrestrial being. These two ask her why she is weeping. She repeats her take of the situation—“Because they have taken away my Master, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Just as she replies she turns and sees a man outside the tomb that she takes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question—“Woman, why are you weeping, whom do you seek?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The man then addresses her by name—calling her Miriam, using the Hebrew form of her name. She apparently recognizes the voice and turns to face him, crying out in Hebrew, Rabboni—a diminutive term of endearment meaning “my dear Master.” She recognizes it is Jesus but he tells her not to touch him, adding that he is ascending to heaven (John 20:16-17). For a woman to touch a man in this culture further implies a familial connection. Mary Magdalene returns to the male disciples and tells them what she has seen.

This remarkable story presents Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike Mark who has no appearances of Jesus following the empty tomb, or Matthew who has Jesus encountering the Eleven remaining apostles on a misty mountain in Galilee much later, or Luke who relates that Jesus appeared physically to the disciples in a closed room, showing his wounds and eating a meal in front of them—John’s story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter stands in sharp contrast. Even John includes in his gospel additional appearances of Jesus to groups of men, but he alone preserves this Magdalene tradition.

My friend, the late professor Jane Schaberg and others have interpreted this singular experience of Mary Magdalene as forming the core of the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.[vi] It is a personal encounter prompted by an exchange of greetings—Miriam and Rabboni—as if those words signaled a flash of recognition based on personal intimacy.  If one asks—who can lay claim to the first appearance of Jesus after his death John’s story offers a clear answer—it was Mary Magdalene. Matthew knows a garbled version of the story in which the group of women encounter Jesus as they flee from the tomb, but without the personal exchange between Mary and Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10). In Matthew’s story they are mere vehicles who are to carry the news to the male disciples, not independent witnesses whose testimony is valued. Jesus commissions the Eleven remaining apostles and the women are nowhere to be seen (Matthew 28:16-20).

Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, just twenty years removed from the crucifixion, says explicitly that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve [apostles], then to James, and finally to 500 brothers en mass  (1 Corinthians 15:5). He either knows nothing of the Magdalene tradition, or given his view of women, considers it less merit.  This was after all a time in ancient history when a woman’s testimony in court did not carry the same weight as that of a man. Even in Luke the initial testimony of the women who first visited the tomb is dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In a male dominated movement how could a hysterical woman, weeping at a tomb, provide any kind of credible testimony?

There is evidence that such a critique was leveled against the developing Christian movement from the late 2nd century CE. Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack of the Christians called True Doctrine around 178 CE, says:

Jesus went about with his disciples collecting their livelihood in a shameful and importunate way . . . For in the gospels certain women who had been healed from their ailments, among whom was Suzanna, provided the disciples with meals out of their own substance.[vii]

He does not specifically name Mary Magdalene he seems to have her in mind:

While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those (women) who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has a happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a change for other beggars.”[viii]

Further on in the same narrative Celsus charges that Jesus “appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own confraternity.”[ix] This is without a doubt an accusation based on his reading of the account in the gospel of John. There is evidence that a number of other pagan writers were critical of the female initiative that apparently was central to Christianity’s development.[x]

Is there any likely historical truth to the notion that the faith in Jesus’ resurrection began with this entourage of women led by Mary Magdalene? Schaberg has argued that this singular account in John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene encounters and speaks to Jesus in the garden tomb, preserves fragments of a tradition of Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus—and thus, “first founder” of Christianity, in the sense of authoritative witness to resurrection faith. Whether this early tradition can be connected or not to later Christian texts that present Mary as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide, a beloved companion of Jesus and transmitter of his teachings I will deal with in the subsequent parts of this blog post.

Schaberg, in my view, convincingly shows that the narrative structure of John 20 reflects an imaginative reuse of 2 Kings 2:1-18 where Elijah the prophet ascends to heaven, leaving his disciple Elisha as his designated witness and successor. This intimate personal appearance to Mary Magdalene, which focuses on an ascent to heaven rather than resurrection of the dead per se, stands in sharp contrast to the other formulations in the gospels that present indirect angelic encounters to a group of women.  Upon this foundation Schaberg offers a preliminary sketch of what she rather boldly labels “Magdalene Christianity,” both suppressed and lost in the our New Testament gospel tradition, and particularly in Acts, much like the history of James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem community from 30-50 CE.

The notion of apostolic authority in early Christianity depended most of all on one being included as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and receiving a commission.[xi] Paul, for example, bases his own late addition to the apostolic roster upon his visionary experience of the Christ several years after he had been crucified: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). One should not take this modesty on the part of Paul as any indication that he thought he was in the least bit inferior to the apostles who were before him. He says of the other apostles:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Apparently Paul did receive challenges to his rights to be called an apostle. Against such charges he adamantly defended himself, insisting that his apostleship was based squarely on his experience of having “seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). Apostleship was not, in his view, something that was passed on from men, but was given by a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12, 16). According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter. The gospel of Luke explicitly rejects her status in this regard, characterizing the report of Mary and her entourage of women from Galilee and their claim to have “seen Jesus” as an “idle tale,” using language that in the culture of that time was particularly associated with the testimony of women. Mary Magdalene’s disqualification was based on her gender. Paul, for example, insists to his congregations:

 The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

This silencing and subordination of women was carried into the next generation, long after Paul was dead. One of his successors paraphrased Paul’s position with even stronger language:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 1:11-13).[xii]

The remedy for this Adamic curse upon women was that they “be saved through bearing children”

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.


[i] According to early Christian tradition the names of Jesus’ two sisters, not given in the New Testament gospels (see Mark 6:3), were Mary and Salome, see Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 with Protoevangelium of James 19-20.

[ii] For the arguments for identifying this second Mary as Jesus’ mother see, James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-82.

[iii] Salome is likely Jesus’ sister, or perhaps the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the fishermen James and John (Matthew 27:56). Luke adds that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s assistant, was with them. Even though the verb used for “lifted up” can just mean to pick up or carry, in this context it seems to refer to being lifted up from the dead—in other words, resurrected.

[iv] See James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 223-241. The main appended ending (Mark 16:9-20) does not appear in our two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating to the early 4th century AD. It is also absent from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, the Old Latin version, and the Sinaitic Syriac. Even copies of Mark that contain the ending often include notes from the scribe pointing out that it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

[v] I have translated “Lord” here as Master, which has less theological connotations and fits with what follows in the story where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabboni—my Master.

[vi] See Jane Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continium Press, 2006), pp. 122-126. Schaberg’s full study is The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continium, 2004).

[vii] Contra Celsum 1. 65. Celsus’s critique is preserved by the church father Origin who wrote a defense against him around 248 CE. He apparently knows the passage in Luke 8:1-3 that mentions specifically Joanna. There is a summary of his critique in his own words on-line at: http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm.

[viii] Contra Celsum, 2. 55.

[ix] Contra Celsum 2. 70.

[x] See the study of Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xi] See Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xii] Although the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul scholars are universally agreed that they are “deutero-Pauline,” written by some of his followers in the generation after his death, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, pp. 395-407.

Getting our “Jameses” Straight

With all the recent attention to the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” I thought it might be helpful to give some consideration to the confusion about the name “James” in most English bibles. When news of this ossuary inscription first broke in 2002 any number of people asked–James who? Or responded–I had no idea Jesus even had a brother.

Few English readers of the New Testament are aware that the familiar name “James,” as it is translated in English, is actually the name “Jacob,” or Yaaqov in Hebrew. In other words James=Jacob. It is the same name. In Greek it is written Yakobos, which echoes the name Jacob quite clearly. It is an unfortunate circumstance of English naming traditions that the original origin of the name James has been largely lost on people.

James the Just copy

The name itself occurs about 60 times in the New Testament and according to John Painter, in his worthwhile book, Just James, these occurrences break down into as many as eight different Jameses (or Jacobs):

(1) Jacob the patriarch (Abraham’s grandson) in the Hebrew Bible

(2) Jacob the father of Joseph (husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16)

(3) James the son of Zebedee, brother of John the fisherman

(4) James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve (Mark 3:18)

(5) James the “less,” son of Mary and Clophas (Mark 15:40)

(6) James the brother of Joses/Joseph (Mark 6:3)

(7) James, the brother of Judas (one of the Twelve Luke 6:16; Jude 1)

(8) James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19)

This can all become rather confusing but I think we can bring some clarity to the data with a bit of examination.

The first three are without question different persons, thus unlikely to be confused. Number 3 is the well known Gospel character, James son of Zebedee, the fisherman, brother of John. The possible overlap occurs with numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. Each might well refer to a separate person, giving us our total of eight Jameses, but I am convinced all five of these references could well be the same person.

Number four and five fit well with the Clophas/Alphaeus scenario which I cover in chapter 4 of my book, The Jesus Dynasty. Number six seems likely to be the same James as well because the brothers of Jesus were James and Joses according to Mark 6:3. Number seven is also the “other” James of the Twelve, and brother of Judas/Jude, and therefore Jesus. Number eight is clearly James the brother of Jesus.

Therefore, each of the Jameses listed here, namely numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 can be seen as one individual represented in five contexts. It is confusing to readers today, but once the identification of this “second” or “other” James is made, these texts fit together rather well. If we leave out the Patriarch Jacob, and Jacob/James the father of Joseph, husband of Mary, that leave only TWO Jameses–James the fisherman and James the brother of Jesus. And that is indeed what we find in the letters of Paul as well as in the book of Acts–two Jameses not six. I not only find the economy of this interpretation convincing but it makes the best sense of the various passages where these “Jameses” are mentioned.

James the fisherman apparently dies quite early on, beheaded by Herod (Acts 12). But what about the “other” James, the brother of Jesus, about which there is so much confusion. Two theories come to dominate in Christian theology, one being the eastern view and the other being the western. The eastern view holds Mary to be a virgin not only at the time of the birth of Jesus, but throughout her entire life. It goes on to portray Joseph as father of four sons and two daughters with another woman prior to his marriage to Mary. He becomes a widower, remarries, and thus brings these six children to the marriage. The western view is stricter in that it holds not only Mary, but Joseph also were strict virgins throughout their entire lives and neither of them ever had any children. These “brothers” and “sisters” are merely cousins, children of Joseph’s brother Clophas, but through another woman named Mary, not Mary the mother of Jesus. In The Jesus Dynasty I present an alternative view.

Continue reading “Getting our “Jameses” Straight”

Another Comforter: The Forgotten Brother of Jesus

Something of which I am more and more convinced is the paramount importance of James the brother of Jesus to the very survival of the Messianic movement in the critical months and years following the tragic and brutal murders of both John the Baptist and Jesus. I present my extended argument for that idea in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, in the chapter titled “Go to James the Just.” James is not merely a figure we need to “add” to our emphasis on Peter and Paul in Christian tradition–he is, quite literally, the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding Christian origins.1

James the Just

As I explained here recently, I am convinced that James was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who became head of family, leader of the movement, and dynastic successor to Jesus as next in line of the royal lineage of King David. Jesus died in the year 30 CE and the earliest written records we have of the movement come from the apostle Paul in the early 50s AD–twenty years later. The historian John Dominic Crossan has called these twenty years the “dark age” of the Jesus movement in that we have no surviving records from those crucial years. What little we know is based on attempts to try to read back what we might possibly construct from later materials–namely the Synoptic Gospels, John, and the book of Acts–all of which are late compositions, heavily influenced by Paul and his visionary based Gospel. These texts become the “standard narrative” and James is pretty much written out of the story, see my post on getting the New Testament “James” straight here.  Given the dominance of these texts in the New Testament it becomes difficult to even imagine how vital James was to the survival and development of the movement in those first critical decades.

I am convinced that the earliest followers of Jesus and John regained their faith and resolve following Jesus’ crucifixion not by a spirit of ghost of Jesus appearing to them, nor by experiences of the resuscitated corpse of Jesus coming to life and living among them, passing through walls, and finally rising up bodily into the clouds into heaven, but by the living presence of James the beloved brother of Jesus.

It was the spirit that James must have reflected and exhibited in those dark days of danger and disappointment, when the scattered followers migrated back to Galilee after the Passover week ended, that would have held them together. I realize this is quite an alternative to the later “Easter story,” as I have explained here and here, but this is the picture presented by our earliest independent sources.

To have James with them was akin to having Jesus with them. In terms of historical explanations I think this one makes the most sense and it was James who led the group back to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, 50 days after Jesus’ death, where they really began to consolidate things and found a new direction and hope for the expectation of the Kingdom of God to which they had dedicated their lives. Their faith was focused on the “coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven” based on their understanding of Daniel 7:13, which for them meant the “saints of the Most High” receiving “dominion, glory, and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages” would serve them (Daniel 7:13-14 as interpreted in verse 27).

The book of Acts quite deliberately mutes the vital role of James, listing the presence of the remaining Eleven apostles in Jerusalem and then adding, in passing, that “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” were there as well (Acts 1:14). Peter and the fishermen James and John take center stage in Acts and Jesus’ brothers, including James, go unnamed.

It is only at the critical Jerusalem Council meeting (c. 50 CE), when the unity and survival of the entire movement hung in the balance, that the author of Acts, quite reluctantly, and without fanfare, has to acknowledge that none other than “James” (whom he does not even bother to identify as Jesus’ brother!) presided over the group, declared his “decision,” while both Peter and Paul stood before him in audience (Acts 15:13-21). If all we had was Luke-Acts we would not even know Jesus had a brother names James who assumed leadership of the movement. The same is true of all three of our Synoptic gospels. James’ place and role is written out of the story and that is why most non-academics, and even pew sitting Christians today have no idea he even existed–unless they have somehow picked up on all the publicity surrounding the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary inscription.

One speculation I find appealing is the idea that James somehow reminded the shattered group of Jesus. Whether they were very similar in looks, voice, outlook, and personality we will never know, but somehow, after Jesus was dead and buried, the community found solace in the physical presence of James. Perhaps he was the mysterious figure on the shores of the sea of Galilee whom they had trouble recognizing, or the one who appeared to them on a mountain in Galilee, leaving some “doubting” (John 21:4-14; Matthew 28:16-17). This would also mean he is the “witness” cited by the final editors of the appendix to the gospel of John (21:24).

Jesus-and-his-brother-James

In gathering around James it was as if the spirit of Jesus was still among them in the person of his brother. I have wondered whether the original idea now embedded in latter part of the gospel of John, about the “Helper” (better translated as Guide) coming, was originally referring to James:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Guide, to be with you forever (John 14:16)

But the Guide, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 16:26)

“But when the Guide comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me (John 15:26)

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Guide will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7)

The Greek word is Paraklete/παρακλητος, and refers to one who represents, advocates, helps alongside, leads, or guides. It is true the text personified this one in John as “the Spirit of Truth,” but “he” is spoken of in a very personal way, in the masculine gender, very much as one would speak of a person. Jesus says of this one that he will be “sent in my name,” and that he will be a Teacher who will remind the community of all that Jesus has taught them. The Ebionites held the view that what they called the “Christ Spirit” had “hastened through the ages” and rested upon various ones in a successive way from generation to generation. In this view the “Spirit of Truth,” that Jesus received at his baptism, making him the “anointed of the Spirit,” was passed on to James his brother. This idea, of the “anointed of the Spirit,” is based on Isaiah 61:1, a text that both Jesus followers and earlier, the Dead Sea community, had focused upon, as I recently discussed here. Jesus told them that this one “abides with” them and will be “among” them. This one will “not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Indeed, when you compare the teachings of Jesus in our earliest source and the teachings of James, the parallels are quite striking, notice:

Jesus’ Teachings in the Q Source

Teachings of James

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)

“Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5)

“Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments . . . shall be [called] least in the kingdom” (Matthew 5:19) “Whoever keeps the whole Torah but fails in one point has become guilty of it all” (2:10)
“Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom . . . but he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21) “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22)
“How much more will your Father . . . give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7: 11) “Every good gift . . . coming down from the Father” (1:17)
“Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24) “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (5:1)
“Do not swear at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool . . . let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:34, 37)

“Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath but let your yes be yes and your no be no” (5:12)

Paul’s emphasize on his visionary apparitions or “appearances” of the heavenly “Christ,” come later by several years. The Galilean based group of Jesus followers must have found a way to sustain themselves and express their faith in Jesus as one whom God had exalted to heaven long before Paul showed up on the scene with his unique claims to be a “thirteenth” Apostle on a par with those who had known Jesus personally and were chosen by him.


  1. Robert Eisenman, in his pioneering 1997 book, James the Brother of Jesus, laid out the foundation for his recovery, see Robert Price’s review here

A Historian’s Take on a Different Kind of “Silent Night”

December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus can be traced back to the early 3rd century CE although it did not achieve more universal recognition until the late 4th century. It is common to hear the charge that “Christmas is pagan,” based on the popularity of the Roman winter festivals of Saturnalia (Dec 16-24), and Sol Invictus, that marked the Winter Solstice (Dec 21st), or “birth of the sun.” Certainly the celebration of such winter festivals in various cultures where Christianity spread, perpetuated in our day at office parties and social gatherings, have contributed to the seasonal popularity of December 25th, with or without much focus on the birth of Jesus.

SilentNight

However, as far as we can tell the designation of December 25th as the date of the birth of Jesus had nothing to do with pagan customs and practices. Rather it was based upon the detailed chronological calculations of early Christians such as Julius Africanus (c. 200 CE). Africanus who put the conception of Jesus around the Vernal Equinox (March 20th), which gave him his date of December 25th, nine months later, for Jesus’ birth. It is possible that the view common in some Jewish circles that Adam was created in the Spring, at the time of the Equinox, contributed to the idea that Jesus, as a “second Adam,” was incarnated on this day as well.

The New Testament gives us precious little about the chronology of the birth of Jesus. No month or season is explicitly mentioned in either Matthew’s or Luke’s birth stories. Luke does mention three things that chronologists, both ancient and modern, have used to attempt to get a more precise date. He puts the conception of John the Baptist shortly after Zechariah, his father, carried out his priestly duty in Jerusalem as part of a cycle of priests known as the “Abijah” group (Luke 1:5, 8; see 1 Chronicles 24 where these “courses” of priests are listed). He then tells us that Jesus and John are about six months apart in age (Luke 1:26), and he notes that when Jesus is baptized he is “about 30 years old” (Luke 3:23). It is upon this tiny thread of Luke, which most historians would place wholly in the realm of the theological, that any attempts to place the time of the birth of Jesus have hung (see the extensive discussion of Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Yale University Press, updated 1999).

According to Josephus each priestly section served for periods of eight days, from noon on one Sabbath to noon on the following Sabbath, twice a year, with everyone serving during the three festivals, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The cycle began on Nisan 1st, which was in the Spring, just before Passover, and the “Abijah” group was eighth in line. Scholars have worked this out in various ways and the major proposals are surveyed in Jack Finegan’s A Handbook of Biblical Chronology (Hendrickson, 1998).

Reconstructing the chronology of Luke’s  “thirty-something” Jesus who dies in April, 30 CE, puts the baptism of Jesus by John in the Fall of 26 AD, around the time he turned 30, which would also place his birth date in the Fall (September), rather than the Winter (December). This assumes that the time of the birth of John the Baptist, six months earlier (March), is related to Zechariah’s service in the Temple as part of the Abijah section that finished its duty in June of the previous year. Thus one gets:

Conception of John the Baptist: late June, 6 BC

Conception of Jesus: late December, 6 BC

Birth of John the Baptist: late March, 5 BC

Birth of Jesus: late September, 5 BC

Given such a construction, ironically, Christmas would turns out to be the time of the young teenaged Mary becoming pregnant, with Jesus’ birth in late September, nine months later. The source of that pregnancy is a matter of debate among believers in a literal “virgin birth,” (Jesus had no human father), most academic scholars of early Christianity (his father was Joseph and the virgin birth story theological myth), and a minority view that Miriam became pregnant from an unnamed father in circumstances unknown to us. (see Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Sheffield, 2006).  Subsequently, Joseph took her as his wife, but was not the father of the unborn child.  Part of the profile of Jesus then was that he and his mother faced the scandal and gossip throughout their lives associated with the charge that he was a mamzer–that is illegitimate (John 8:41).

So, if one is imagining this season, and imagining is all we have can do given our scanty sources, one might honor Miriam, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in whose heart were kept secrets to be judged only by her and by God. This would include hard times she must have endured during the ensuing months of her pregnancy through the winter of 6-5 BC when she fled her home-town area of Sepphoris to hide out in the hill country of Judea with her relative Elizabeth (all according to Luke again!) I am thinking here of a different kind of “Silent Night,” but with thoughts and emotions every bit as touching as those of a manger scene.