Personal Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament

I have been thinking lately about the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity, or more properly, the kind of religion reflected in the Hebrew Bible and that of the Greek New Testament. In terms of definition and label I am neither a Jew nor a Christian — by that I mean the Mishnaic-Talmudic forms of the Classical Jewish faith that developed after Second Temple times, and the Orthodox Catholic versions of Christianity that developed in the West and East after Constantine. I am interested in religious and philosophical truth, but my training is that of an historian, so perhaps that is why I am drawn to the more ancient forms of these two faiths, i.e., the Hebrew faith as formulated by the Prophets and final redactors of the Hebrew Bible, and earliest Christianity as reflected in the New Testament. In considering these two “religions” or ways of thinking about God, the world and human purpose, I find that I am much more drawn to the former than the latter. Why is that so? What is it about the Hebrew Bible, even on a symbolic/mythological level, that seems to draw me so? Conversely, what is it about early Christianity, especially the systematic theologies of Paul or the Gospel of John, that puts me off so?

BurningBush

The Hebrew Bible’s Ambiguity

As for the Hebrew Bible, the whole notion of the One, true and living Creator, the God of Abraham is most appealing. Humans are seen as mortal, made of dust. Consequently, death and human history are taken very seriously. They are made in the image of God, capable of reason and free choice, of good as well as evil. God reveals Divine laws, the “Way” for humankind; a way that brings blessings not curses. The human race is seen starkly in its wayward and sinful condition, yet there are those who love and follow this true God in the midst of it all. Their mission is to be a witness to the “nations” (non-believers) and to bring about the establishment of righteousness, justice, and peace on the earth. On an individual level, as in Psalms or Job, there is a lot of questioning after God. The ways of God are far from clear. There is certainly expectation of intervention, a longing for God’s help and care, but simplistic view of things is rejected.The Hebrew canon (with the exception of Daniel) essentially closes with this kind of ambiguity.

Humans are to seek God, to live the ways of God on the earth, but much is left open, whether individual ideas of immortality or broader schemes of historical plans and purposes. The essential idea of the Shema is the heart of it all: God’s people are to acknowledge God’s nature, to love God, and to follow the ways of God revealed in the Torah and Prophets. Ecclesiastes shows clearly how many questions are simply left unanswered. True, the Prophets do offer many predictions of a restoration of Israel and even a transformed age to come. However, the texts themselves express lament-full doubts about when, and even whether, this will ever come (e.g., Psalm 89; Habakkuk). The Hebrew canon closes with II Chronicles 36:23 — “Let him go up” — which could bear some symbolic meaning beyond the proclamation by Cyrus of the end of the Persian exile of the Jews. It comes at the very beginning of the Second Temple period, as if to say: all if open, Israel’s future is still unwritten, and individuals are called to respond.

The New Testament’s Answers

The New Testament comes out of a wholly different milieu. First, it is part and parcel of the broad changes in religious thought that we know as “Hellenization.” It is characterized by a vast and expanded dualistic cosmos, an emphasis on immortality and personal salvation, i.e., on escaping this world for a better heavenly life. At the same time, and to be more specific, it is absolutely and completely dominated by an apocalyptic world view of things, whereby all will be soon resolved by the decisive intervention of God, the End of the Age, the last great Judgment, and the eternal Kingdom of God. In addition, the Christology that develops, even in the first century, is thoroughly “Hellenistic,” with Jesus the human transformed into the pre- existent, divine, Son of God, who sits at the right hand of God and is the Lord of the cosmos. The whole complex of ideas about multiple levels of heaven, fate, angels, demons, miracles and magic abound. It is as if all the questions that the Hebrew Bible only begins to explore — questions about theodicy, justice, human purpose, history, death, sin — are all suddenly answered with a loud and resounding “Yes!” There is little, if any, struggle left. There are few haunting questions, and no genuine tragedy or meaningless suffering. All is guaranteed; all will shortly be worked out.

ChristAscension

Of course, various attempts are made to reinterpret this early Christianity for our time, usually in terms of ethics or some existential core of truth, but early Christianity rests on two essential points, both of which resist easy demythologization: it is a religious movement built upon an apocalyptic view of history; and an evaluation of Jesus as a Hellenistic deity, i.e., a pre-existent divine Savior God in whom all ultimate meaning rests. If these are unacceptable in the modern world, or incompatible with the fundamental Hebrew view of things, then the whole system become difficult, it not superfluous.This is not to say that there are no similar problems with the Hebrew Bible, but fundamentally things are different. Even Daniel, that begins down the path of fantastic apocalyptic answers to hard human questions about the meaning of history, is somewhat vague about it all. That is one good reason Daniel was never included among the Prophets in the Jewish canon. Of course, the Hebrew Bible, like the New Testament, is framed around God’s intervention in human history: God calls Abraham, delivers Israel to Egypt, reveals the Torah at Sinai, gives the Land to the Israelites, expels them, promises to bring them back, etc. It is an interventionist story. And yet, in contrast to the New Testament, God is often silent, there are many dark areas, many unanswered queries, and much doubt and debate expressed about it all, even within the texts themselves. But more important, the two of the major problems for the later Hellenistic age–human mortality and theodicy, are left largely unaddressed.

Some years ago I read a fascinating interview in Biblical Archaeology Review by editor Hershel Shanks with Jewish thinker and Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel and renowned Harvard Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (July/August, 2004). In one short but significant section Professor Cross comments on how being a Christian affects his relationship to the Hebrew Bible, which is his field of concentration. I find his comments enlightening, and though here he only focuses on one issue, that of the magical/demonic world of late antiquity, the implications of what he states appear to parallel my thoughts here:

Shanks: How does being a Christian affect your relationship to the Hebrew Bible?

Cross: Happily, I come out of a Calvinist tradition in which the Hebrew Bible carries as much authority as the New Testament. No different weight is given to one or the other. The Bible is one, Old and New, in my particular tradition. My own interest is far more in the Hebrew Bible. My religion is more personally related to the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament.

Shanks: What does that mean?

Cross: I find myself a little uncomfortable in the New Testament environment. And this is also true of what I would call late Judaism, the Judaism of the Second Temple and later. With the Hebrew Bible, you’re living in an austere world. When you come to the New Testament you can’t even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits. And magic becomes something that is everywhere. In the Hebrew Bible this sort of thing doesn’t go on.

Shanks: You have miracles, yes, but they’re not the work, normally, of demons.

Cross goes on to explain his approach to the Hebrew Bible as one that takes a critical view of its stories and narratives, with lots of question marks regarding “historicity,” while appreciating the power and meaning of its epics, myths, and symbols.

My Attachment to Both Canons

Began my career as a “Bible scholar” and my college majors were Greek and Bible, so I still, broadly, consider myself a student of the Bible–that includes Hebrew Bible as well as New Testament, and of course my specialty is Christian Origins. I find myself drawn to these biblical texts, these ideas and images, tempered through the sifting and sorting out that comes through historical criticism in an effort to separate myth and history. I want to neither devaluing the former nor ignore the latter. The opening chapters of Genesis powerfully expresses any number of fundamental perceptions around which my own approach to human life is shaped. God as the “Power of all powers” (Elohim) orders the chaotic planet earth with humans, created from the, “dust of the earth,” but reflecting the image of the Elohim. Humans and beasts are given only “green herbs” to eat. It is only after the Flood that meat is allowed, when sin and violence had filled the earth. Are we to re-present to the world in this small way, this way of peace from which we have fallen? It is a powerful idea, as Isaiah himself knew when he spoke of the child’s leading the lion, the infant’s playing at the nest of the scorpion–“They will not hurt nor destroy on all My holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa. 11:9). Human are to “dress and keep” the garden and have both the power and responsibility to exercise custody over the good earth, even in the world of “thorns and thistles” outside the gates of Eden. When it comes to the New Testament the cosmically triumphant theologies of Paul and John are dominant, but running through the Gospel materials are layers in which one finds a Jesus wedded to the ethics and perspectives of the Hebrew Prophets, not a deity but one who is vulnerable, a “human all-to-human,” one who, as Schweitzer puts it, throws himself onto the wheel of history in an effort to move things forward but is tragically crushed. Those contingent, conditional, and open-ended aspects of the Jesus story I find most compelling, and most in keeping with the Hebrew view of history and human possibilities.

A version of these thoughts was published in the Journal of Reform Judaism (Summer, 1990): 35-38.

Frank Moore Cross on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament

One of the most fascinating interviews I have ever read is one conducted by Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks with Jewish thinker and Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel and renowned Harvard Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross (BAR July/August, 2004). In one short but significant section Professor Cross comments on how being a Christian affects his relationship to the Hebrew Bible, which is his field of concentration. I find his comments enlightening, although here he only focuses on one issue, that of the magical/demonic world of late antiquity, the implications of what he states appear to parallel my post here.

My favorite picture of Prof. Frank Moore Cross with his ever-present hat, intently discussing the James ossuary in Toronto in 2002 with Hershel Shanks and Joe Fitzmyer as we all crowd around to listen in. Thanks to Lori Woodall for this lovely photo.
My favorite picture of Prof. Frank Moore Cross with his ever-present hat, intently discussing the James ossuary in Toronto in 2002 with Hershel Shanks and Joe Fitzmyer as we all crowd around to listen in. Thanks to Lori Woodall for this lovely photo.

Shanks: How does being a Christian affect your relationship to the Hebrew Bible?

Cross: Happily, I come out of a Calvinist tradition in which the Hebrew Bible carries as much authority as the New Testament. No different weight is given to one or the other. The Bible is one, Old and New, in my particular tradition. My own interest is far more in the Hebrew Bible. My religion is more personally related to the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament.

Shanks: What does that mean?

Cross: I find myself a little uncomfortable in the New Testament environment. And this is also true of what I would call late Judaism, the Judaism of the Second Temple and later. With the Hebrew Bible, you’re living in an austere world. When you come to the New Testament you can’t even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits. And magic becomes something that is everywhere. In the Hebrew Bible this sort of thing doesn’t go on.

Shanks: You have miracles, yes, but they’re not the work, normally, of demons.

Cross goes on to explain his approach to the Hebrew Bible as one that takes a critical view of its stories and narratives, with lots of question marks regarding “historicity,” while appreciating the power and meaning of its epics, myths, and symbols.

The New Covenant is Not a Book!

Happily, I come out of a Christian tradition in which the Hebrew Bible carries as much authority as the New Testament. No different weight is given to one or the other. The Bible is one, Old and New, in my particular tradition. My own interest is far more in the Hebrew Bible. My religion is more personally related to the Hebrew Bible than the New Testament.

Professor Frank Moore Cross, Harvard University

Most people today think of the New Covenant, or as it is more commonly called, the New Testament, as a book–namely the 27 documents making up the tradition canon of the Christian Scriptures. In our Western Christian world this collection, bound together with what is then called the Old Testament or Jewish Scriptures, makes up the Holy Bible.  What millions fail to realize is that this is a wholly new creation–at least two hundred years in the making–was unknown to Jesus, or any of the apostles–not even to Paul whose letters make up over a quarter of the whole. They were all Jews and to them the “Bible” or the Holy Scriptures was the Hebrew Bible, that Jews today call the Tanakh–the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. It is this precise collection of books that Christians erroneously ended up calling the Old Testament.

New Testament

It comes as a surprise to many of my students to learn that the term new covenant only occurs once  in the entire Hebrew Bible–in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Although there are examples of the Covenant God made with all Israel through Moses at Horeb/Sinai being “renewed” at various points (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:1; 2 Kings 23:1-3), the “New Covenant” of which Jeremiah speaks (31:31-34) stands out in terms of how it is both described and placed in context.

Jesus did speak of a “new covenant” and it is clear that he is drawing from the prophet Jeremiah, whose life and message shape much of his understanding of his own mission. Just as Jeremiah had brought a message to Jerusalem and its corrupt leaders 40 years before the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE, Jesus saw himself repeating much of that mission, but in this case a generation before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE by the Romans. Jesus declares the Herodian Temple a “den of robbers” based upon Jeremiah 7:11, and he declares it abandoned and forsaken by God, based upon his reading of Daniel 9:26 and Zechariah 13:7-9. According to the gospel of Mark Jesus quotes these very texts Jesus actually quotes as he goes about his final activities in Jerusalem the week before Passover the year he is crucified. Many scholars would see the matching of such quotations with the activities and expectations of Jesus as inserted after the fact by Mark but there are good reasons to think it might have been just the opposite. Jesus if finding his messianic “script” in the Hebrew Prophets and is accordingly acting out what he considers to be his prophetic messianic role as the representative Suffering Servant who redeems all Israel. I have published several articles on this point and summarized my arguments in the post “The Making of a Messiah” here. I am convinced that Jesus both predicted and anticipated his confrontation with the Roman and Jewish authorities and willingly submitted to the suffering that he felt was his lot to endure. But what does all this have to do with the New Covenant?

If one reads carefully the wider context of Jeremiah’s “new covenant” reference, in chapters 30-31, it is abundantly clear, both by the descriptive content and the timing indicated (“At that time” “in that day” “the days are coming”), that this is a singular, unique, event is to take place in a specific time when all the Tribes of Israel are gathered together back in the Land, with Judah and Israel becoming one.

This event is spoken of in all the prophets with a consistency and a specificity that rivals any other theme or subject in the Hebrew prophets, and is particularly evident in Ezekiel 37, that also mentions this “new” covenant, using different words. It is a key theme throughout Jeremiah (see 16:14-21).

I think it is indisputable that this very specific vision of the future was the one anticipated by Jesus in speaking of a New Covenant.  Indeed, right after referring to the New Covenant at his last meal with “the Twelve” he Jesus refers explicitly to this expectation according to our earliest source–the Q Saying. There he tells his Twelve chosen disciples: “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). Here it is clear that the “new covenant” is proleptically anticipated as a messianic banquet. His perspective is the future–the new age–that he calls the “new world” (παλινγγενεσία/paliggenesia) as Matthew’s parallel makes clear (Matthew 19:28).

Although there is a sense that one might still refer to this as a “renewed” covenant, it seems to stand out as different from the various “renewals” in the previous history of Israel, so that it is understood, by analogy at least, like a divorce and a remarriage, with all Twelve tribes (the house of Israel and the house of Judah) regathered to the Land and united under the Branch or Davidic Messiah (see Jeremiah 23:3-8). Indeed, this future “regathering” of the scattered “lost” sheep of the house of Israel would rival the Exodus of Moses in terms of its scope and significance. So in that sense there is only one covenant, the one with Israel–broken but renewed in the future. This is the single Covenant with Israel commanded to a “thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 105:8).

Given this historical context and the clear words of Jeremiah the term Old Testament as a term applied to the Hebrew Scriptures or Tanakh is wholly inappropriate. As someone once said, O.T. might better mean “the Only Tesament.” So where did this idea of a new covenant replacing an old one that is obsolete originate? The answer is clear–it is wholly the creation of the apostle Paul. It is Paul who creates this dichotomy between his own work as a “minister of the new covenant” and the inferior and obsolete work of Moses that he refers to as a “ministry of death.” Indeed, he asserts that those who read the “Old Covenant” are blinded until they turn to Christ (2 Corinthians 3). In my own view, as I argue in my book, Paul and Jesus, these ideas of Paul which he begins to promulgate in the 50s CE, represent for the first time a new religion called Christianity, in contrast to the prophetic messianic message of Jesus and his first followers.

The “last” Prophetic word we have in the Hebrew Prophets is to “Remember the Teachings of My Servant Moses,” and that appears to take us to final days, characterized by the appearance of Elijah (Malachi 3/4). Rather than fade, the “glory” Moses experienced at Sinai will be renewed and enhanced in the time of which Jeremiah speaks. A simple reading of Jeremiah 30-31 belies Paul’s entire concept of a New Covenant that makes obsolete an Old, with a New Israel defined now as the Church of Christ, replacing the Jewish people whom he likens to “dead branches” broken off the tree of Abraham (Romans 11).

This is not to say that the images of putting the Torah in the heart, or having a “new heart,” that Paul makes use of, are not found in the prophetic passages that speak of the “new covenant” and its operation. They lie at the heart of things, but they are nothing new, in that these very possibilities and potentials are all at the center of the covenant Moses made with Israel. Moses constantly tells the ancient Israelites to circumcise the heart, to have hearts of flesh not stone, and to put the Torah within (Deuteronomy 10). This theme of a personal, spiritual “conversion,” or turning to Jehovah, is repeated constantly in the Psalms and Prophets as well. It is at the heart of the Sinai/Horeb revelation.  Grace and the personal forgiveness of sins, bringing about a bonded friendship with the Creator through the Holy Spirit, has always been offered freely to human beings, and all the more so through Moses’s covenant with Israel (Psalm 51; 145:18).

Paul’s view of a “fleshly” and “spiritual” dichotomy is well known to us in all the Hellenistic dualistic systems of thought of the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly the Platonists, Pythagorians, and to some extent the Stoics. That is why he thinks what one “eats or drinks” or observing “days” has nothing to do with the “real” inner person. One of the most telling indications of this orientation toward the “heavenly” over the earthly is his assertion that “God does not care for oxen” but the Torah passage mandating care for the welfare of animals actually refers wholly to supporting preachers like himself financially(1 Corinthians 9:3-12).

A central issue when it comes to Paul is not whether he was a good guy or a bad guy, sincere or insincere, or even whether the ethical principles of the Torah are abrogated or carried through into the “new covenant” as he understands it. I have no doubt that Paul thought he was living in the “end times” and would live to see all that Jeremiah spoke of come about, at least in some “spiritual” way, since he had given up the idea that what he calls “fleshly” Israel mattered anymore. The real issue is whether one, Jew or Gentile, can have a right relationship with God by grace through faith, as Abraham had, by turning directly in repentance and faith, without the requirements of “accepting Christ” and receiving “eternal life” through the blood of the cross, as the exclusive new “way of salvation.” This is where “Christianity,” at least as viewed by Paul, parts with Judaism, and for that matter, with a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible, both Torah, Prophets, and Writings. And yet for Paul, centering everything on God offering his divine Son as a sacrifice for sins is the heart of his “new covenant” ideas (2 Corinthians 3-5). If one then turns back and reads Jeremiah 30-31 there is little to no correspondence between what Jeremiah says and the ideas Paul expounds that he calls the “New Covenant.”

Jesus himself offers something dead center in terms of reflecting the Hebrew Bible and its “way of salvation.” His well known story of “justification” given by Jesus in Luke 15 and the lost son who comes home, requires only the father’s gracious acceptance of a son who is truly broken up over his past wrong behavior. Even more to the point is his story of the tax collector or “sinner” of Luke 18 who bowed his head, struck his breast, and said “God be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the one Way of turning to God that one finds consistently in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

Two verses from the Hebrew Bible come to mind in this regard:

Psalm 145:18: “The LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.”

Isaiah 56:6-7: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

One might refer to this understanding of God and God’s relationship with humanity as “Abrahamic Faith,” taking one back to the pivotal and foundational “faith” of Abraham as reflected in the accounts of Genesis 12-22 in particular. It is a faith summarized in both the promises and the mission of Abraham as laid out in texts like Genesis 12:1-3; 18:17-19; Jeremiah 4:2). It is a path open to “all humanity,” who by taking up Abraham’s mission to represent “justice and righteousness” in the world become his spiritual offspring or “household.” I have explored this in a preliminary way in the Conclusion to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, but for those interested an approach that is much more biblically oriented there is much more in an older work of mine, long out of print, but now again available titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith.

A personal postscript: I grew up in the Alexander Campbell/Barton Stone  American”Restoration” movement which as much as any branch of modern Christianity has emphasized the New Testament as the only rule and authority for all matters of faith. We used to fight with the Baptists and Methodists “tooth and nail” for not recognizing that the Old Testament, like an outdated or abrogated “Constitution,” had been made null and void by the “New.” Ironically, it turns out, that this former “Church of Christ” kid is now allied, on this point at least, with those Christians who continued to draw spiritual insight and sustenance from the “Old Testament,” and indeed, in some cases seem to have come to prefer Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures over the dogmas of Paul. See my blog post on Frank Cross, one of the greatest scholars of our time, on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament here, as well as my own published reflections here.

The Abba Cave, Crucifixion Nails, and the Last Hasmonean King

The mystery deepens…the plot thickens…

AbbaNail&Jaw

Few have heard anything about the “Abba Cave,” discovered in 1971 in the north Jerusalem suburb of Givat Hamivtar–not far from the tomb of “Yehohanan,” the famous “crucified man,” discovered in 1968–about which much has been written. The Abba cave held the remains of another “crucified man,” with three nails–not just a single one in the heel bone–that clearly pinned the hands (not the wrists, as some have argued) in hook-like fashion to a cross beam. It was assumed back in the 1970s that these bones were buried and no longer available for analysis–but it turns out this is not the case. What is even more intriguing, the victim was arguably none other than Matitiyahu Antigonus–the last of the Hashmonean kings–who was both beheaded and crucified by Marc Anthony. in 37 BCE). And even more significant, Greg Doudna has persuasively argued that this Antigonus is none other than the famed “Teacher of Righteousness” in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see a summary of his evidence, “A Narrative Argument that the Teacher of Righteousness was Hyrcanus II.”

Here is an overview and an update on the discovery, published in HaAretz:

Cold case: Did archaeologists find the last Maccabean king, after all?

Crucified remains and a broken jaw have confused scientists for decades. But it could well be that the last Hasmonean king has been found under a private house in Jerusalem.

By Ariel David, Apr. 29, 2014

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

Who was Abba, this unfortunate priest from Jerusalem? And who was the Mattathiah whose remains were apparently buried in the cave?

These questions have been fiercely debated by scholars for the past 40 years. Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty, whose reign was followed by Roman conquest, the destruction of the Second Temple and two millennia of exile.

A secret burial?

The supposed discovery of his remains was widely publicized in the Israeli media in the 1970s, and set off an archeological detective story that continues to this day, punctuated by academic rows, sudden tragedies and surprising twists.

Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

The Maccabees, or Hasmoneans, had ruled ancient Israel since leading the revolt against the Syrian Greeks, which Jews commemorate during Hanukkah. The young Mattathiah, son of King Judah Aristobulus II, ruled only for three years. His reign was marked by constant warfare to keep Judea out of the clutches of Rome and its main ally in the area, Herod.

In 37 BCE, Herod seized Jerusalem and the throne. Mattathiah was captured, taken to Antioch and executed by Marc Antony, who at the time ruled Rome’s Eastern provinces with his lover, Cleopatra.

Horrific death

The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch, today in southern Turkey, and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

Interviewed for a program titled “The Last of the Maccabees,” Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then, there was an accident. A month after the TV program aired, Haas slipped on an icy Jerusalem street and hit his head. He spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

The Hasmonean thesis dies, mostly…

Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned and the investigation into the Abba cave was closed. The ossuary and the inscription were given to the Israel Museum, where they are still displayed today, and the bones, following pressure from ultra-orthodox Jews were reburied in the same spot they were found.

But not everybody accepted that Abba’s riddle could not be cracked.

Raphael Delarosa, the owner of the house under which the cave was found, continued to believe that he was living above the tomb of the last true king of Israel.

“There was a beautiful ossuary and an inscription describing the people buried here, clearly this was someone important,” Delarosa told Haaretz. “I felt a piece of Jewish history had been placed on my shoulders and I had to save it.”

Delarosa preserved the cave and kept it open for small groups of visitors and researchers. Recently, new scholarly work and evidence has emerged that supports the original hypothesis and casts doubt on the skeptics’ position.

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian, sheds some light on the enigmatic priest Abba and links him to the Hasmonean dynasty.

As a scholar of Semitic languages and of the names of places in ancient Israel, Elitzur notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

“Here we have the two top anthropologists in the country saying opposite things; they can’t be both right,” Elitzur said in a telephone interview. “Given that Haas received the bones fresh from the dig and not after they sat for years in a lab, I tend to go with his interpretation.”

Contacted by Haaretz, Smith said in an email that a mix-up “was possible but unlikely.”

She wrote that while the absence of the pelvis and complete skull made gender identification difficult, she was convinced the mandible belonged to a woman “based on its condition, size, shape and pathology.” Smith added that two of her colleagues had seen the bones and agreed with her findings.

Case closed – again? Not so fast.

Was it a man after all?

In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

“Only the pelvis and the skull can give an indication of a skeleton’s sex, it’s impossible to scientifically determine it from a jaw bone, especially when it is severely fragmented,” Hershkovitz told Haaretz. “Actually the size and shape look more like that of a male to me, but it’s just a feeling, there is no scientific basis for it.”

Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”

Despite recent nay-saying, (see Doudna’s comments at the Zias article) by those who are apparently not aware of all the facts, including the available skeletal remains and nails mentioned here, the case that the tomb held the remains of a crucified/beheaded male, as Nicu Haas first indicated, is a convincing one, given this latest analysis from Prof. Hershkovitz. Also those who have argued that crucifixion nails went through the wrist not the hands, and that these nails are too “short” to be for crucifixion, are just mistaken. Hershkovitz has definitely clarified this issue. The nails are driven into the palm, then either angled or bent into a hook, not to hold up the body but to keep the hands and arms in place–thus “tacking” or pinning the hands to the wood behind. The hypothesis that this individual was the Hasmonean royal priest/king Antigonus turns out to be a live option.

In 1946, the year I was born, Robert Graves published his novel King Jesus, in which he argued that Jesus of Nazareth was the paternal grandson of Herod the Great through Herod’s son Antipater, whom Herod murdered five days before his death, as well as the maternal grandson of King Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king, since Antipater’s royal wife Mariame (Jesus’ mother) was a daughter of Antigonus, and was pregnant at his death. Joseph Raymond has vastly fleshed out and expanded the thesis in his book, Herodian Messiah and a subsequent novel titled: Grandson of Herod: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM. Raymond proposes that Mariame and the infant Jesus escaped to Egypt despite Herodian attempts to kill mother and child. He provides the following comparative chart which addresses the small “feminine” stature of Antigonus, whom the Romans mockingly called by the feminine name Antigone:

AbbaTomb Antigonus

Mary Magdalene as First Witness and Thus First Among the Apostles

Carefully re-reading the late and sorely missed Jane Schaberg’s book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, which I heartily recommend to all my readers, has set me to thinking and working through all the texts related to her once again, particularly those in our New Testament gospels. I wanted to do a bit of “thinking aloud” here, covering various thoughts and ideas that have come to me of late.

 

maria_magdalene

According to Paul the first named witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection was “Cephas” or Peter and James the brother of Jesus, along with the Twelve, other apostles, and a group of 500 “brothers,”and finally, much later, Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:8). Curiously–or not so curiously–given Paul’s culture and the denigration of women, Mary Magdalene and the group of women who first discovery the empty tomb, according to all our gospels accounts, go unmentioned. In the gospels not only is Mary Magdalene at the core of the narratives, but she is mentioned first, as head of the entourage of women followers of Jesus from Galilee, even ahead of Jesus’ own mother, and in two of our accounts (Matthew and John) she becomes the “first” witness to Jesus’ resurrection.

I begin with Mark, whose references to Mary Magdalene form the core of the Synoptic gospels account of her. He mentions her three times, at the crucifixion, at Jesus’ burial, and at the empty tomb on Sunday morning (Mk 15:40-41; 15:47; 16:1). She is named first among two other women from Galilee, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome, but according to Mark they are part of a larger contingent of “many other women” who had followed Jesus from Galilee where they had provided (Greek: diakoneo) for him. This reference to a large group of Galilean women who form a base of support, presumably financial and otherwise, is something Luke picks up on and elaborates (8:1-3), but it fundamentally comes to us from Mark. I presented arguments in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that this second Mary of Mark’s group, is Jesus’ mother, with Salome most likely his sister. At any rate, it is these three, led by Mary Magdalene, who make preparations to attend to the intimate task of preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial, buying spices on Saturday evening with the intention of anointing his body early Sunday morning. Thus they come to discover the empty tomb early Sunday morning.

Matthew, clearly relying on Mark as his source, has the same three references to Mary Magdalene, at the crucifixion, the burial, and early Sunday morning at the tomb. She is paired with the “other Mary,” and he does not name Salome, though he implies she might be the “mother of the sons of Zebedee. Regardless, it is the two Marys who witness the burial and visit the tomb Sunday morning (Matt 27:55-56, 27:61; 28:1).

Luke, also following Mark, makes some significant changes to Mark’s basic structure. He too has women from Galilee standing at the cross but he names none of them (Luke 23:49). Likewise, at the burial, these women from Galilee remain unnamed (Luke 23:55-56). Finally at the empty tomb he says the women who came to complete the rites of burial were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women with them” (Luke 24:10). This means that Luke only names Mary Magdalene once in the three scenes that Mark has introduced her.

As we will see, this is absolutely deliberate and calculated. What he does is introduce her much earlier, back in Galilee, among this group of many women who had provided for Jesus, picking up on Mark’s reference. But there he adds that she was part of a group of women who had been cured of “evil spirits and infirmities” naming Joanna and another woman, Susanna, but adding that Mary Magdalene herself was positively deranged beyond description, in that she had been possessed by seven demons! (Luke 8:1-3). Luke is keen to make the point that the presence of these women, who do not need to be even named, is of no credible importance, since they come from such shady backgrounds, epitomizing the hysterical “female” whose testimony would be considered an “idle tale,” thus preparing the way for the true and reliable male witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:11). All he really has to go on is Mark, but he skillfully recasts Mark’s material in this way, thus marginalizing Mary Magdalene, and “demonizing” her, quite literally, cured or not, lest anyone might think the resurrection faith was first proclaimed by such a witness. But there is more. Just before Luke introduces the deranged woman in chapter 8, as followers of Jesus from Galilee, he constructs a scene, in Galilee, of an unnamed woman of an unnamed city, a “sinner,” who comes to Jesus at a dinner with an ointment, who then weeps uncontrollably, bathes his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus forgives her many sins, and she presumably becomes his follower. And thus Mary Magdalene is introduced in the next passage. The juxtaposition is deliberate. Although Luke is not bold enough to say that Mary Magdalene herself is this forgiven harlot, the contextualizing is enough, coupled with her deranged mental past. Interestingly enough, Mark also has a story of an anonymous woman anointing Jesus, but it is a few days before Jesus’ death, in Jerusalem, and she is honored not as a forgiven sinner, but one whose anointing prepared him “beforehand” for his burial (Mark 14:3-9).

What Mark tells us then about Mary Magdalene is that she is first among a group of women from Galilee who provided for Jesus, that she is involved along with his mother, in the intimate rites of preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and that she, Mary, and Salome, are the “first witnesses” to Jesus’ resurrection. Mark knows nothing of appearances of Jesus to these women, but they hear the proclamation, “He has been raised, he is not here.” The disciples, led by Peter, are to “see him in Galilee,” though such a scene is never reported by Mark. Matthew elaborates Mark’s disturbingly sparse account, with Jesus subsequently encountering the women who linger at the tomb, and a mysterious “foggy mountain” appearance to the Eleven somewhere in Galilee (with some doubting!). Luke feels compelled to go further. There is no disputing the women were involved, at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb–but as a group they are unnamed, and even when named, identified as “formerly” deranged and contextualized with the unnamed “harlot” whom Jesus forgives for her many sins. Luke wants nothing of appearances in Galilee, nor of the deranged women who might have proclaimed such as “first witnesses.” For him the resurrection of Jesus rests solidly on his Jerusalem based appearances to reliable male witnesses, including to Peter and the Eleven.

And then there is the gospel of John. John also has Mary Magdalene at the cross, and he clearly identifies Jesus’ mother there as well. He does not mention the women at the burial but his account of what happened early Sunday morning is significantly different from that of Mark. Rather than the group of women arriving together, John relates that Mary Magdalene came alone, very early, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb (John 20:1-10). She runs to tell Peter, and he, and an unnamed disciple rush to the tomb, confirming her story, but not yet coming to the conclusion Jesus was raised. There are no messengers, angelic or otherwise, as in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, to tell the women Jesus is raised–it is simple a case of someone having “taken the master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2).

I find this account in John strangely compelling. Mark’s young man in white linen, proclaiming Jesus is risen, seems wholly theological, not to mention Matthews fantastic expansion where we have a dazzling angel who comes like lightening from heaven, heralded by an earthquake, who rolls back the stone and proclaims Jesus is risen. Luke’s two men in dazzling clothing is cut from the same cloth. In contrast, John’s core account has nothing fantastic or even theological. It deserves our careful attention, and at the heart of this account is the singular experience of a woman–namely Mary Magdalene.

According to John the tomb is found empty very early Sunday morning, even at dark. The logical conclusion is that someone has removed the body and placed it elsewhere, perhaps the gardener, or as the rumor in Matthew has it, some of his disciples. Schaberg effectively argues, in my judgment, that what happens next in John’s gospel (20:11-18), namely Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene, still in the garden near the tomb where he was missing, is our earliest and most fundamental witness to Jesus’ resurrection, and that further, the form and structure by which John narrates this encounter, implies an Elijah-Elisha like succession story, of Jesus passing on this witness to his chosen and intimate follower, Mary Magdalene. In this extraordinary account we have dialogue between Jesus and Mary. She is Maria in the narrative but Jesus calls her name directly, “Miriam,” and she replies with the affectionate diminutive “Rabbouni,” my dear/little Master. What she is told is that she must not grasp him for he is ascending to the Father.

Like Matthew and Luke, John includes other appearance stories, both to the disciples in Jerusalem, and in Galilee. But this core account, found now in John 20:1-18, is perhaps our best window for reconstructing what might have happened that early Sunday morning. Based on the Mary Magdalene account, found only in John, I am convinced that the discovery of the empty tomb should be given historical weight. It is what John’s account does not say that makes it compelling. With no angelic messengers proclaiming the resurrection, and Mary not even told to go tell the rest that they too would see Jesus, it seems to me we should give the Mary Magdalene story priority. The subsequent accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and even the supplemental accounts in John, all seem to be accretions to this core account.

Mark does not dispute that Mary Magdalene and the other women first discovered the tomb, but his account is clearly a generalized expansion of an earlier core story, much elaborated by Matthew, and radically re-contextualized by Luke. But they do not venture to remove the Magdalene. Only Paul does that, in his roll call of appearances of the heavenly Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. There Mary Magdalene is completely eliminated. In effect, that has already begun to happen in Mark, since the women “say nothing to anyone” and are mainly pointers to the male Eleven who will see Jesus in Galilee. In Matthew the main point of resurrection is the “commission,” and that would not be given to women, but only to the male Eleven. Likewise in Luke, who has Jesus appear to the Eleven, telling them to take his message to all the nations.

In my view John 20:1-18 stands separate and isolated from all these subsequently embellished traditions. John is able to contextualize it with subsequent appearances to the male leaders, but read as “first testimony” it has a most compelling ring to it. I find it the only account that lends itself to some measure of credible historical reconstruction. It essentially is what I make most use of in my own reconstruction in The Jesus Dynasty:

Jesus is hastily buried in a temporary tomb that happened to be nearby in a garden at the place of crucifixion. The intent was to move his body to a permanent place after the festival/Sabbath was past. Mary Magdalene arrives early Sunday morning, while it is still dark, and finds the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She alerts Peter and the others. No one thinks Jesus has been raised, but they draw the logical conclusion, that someone has moved him. Presumably that someone would be either other family members, or more likely Joseph of Arimathea. Lingering near the tomb Mary has a visionary encounter with Jesus himself. She is told by him that he is ascending to heaven and that is what she reports to the others. Mary then becomes first witness, and as such, “successor” to the ascending Jesus. She alone is given the message–Jesus has ascended to the Father.

It is difficult to read this account as it stands without interjecting subsequent stories from Matthew, Luke, and John. But that Mark, writing as late as the 70s AD, has no appearances, yet he does have Mary Magdalene at the tomb, supports the essential core of John’s Mary Magdalene story. Historians have rightly judged that the series of expanded and dramatic appearances of Jesus to his various male followers are theologically cast apologetics. As such, the singular appearance to Mary Magdalene, did not fare so well. Luke begins the long history of her demise and defamation–yes, she was there, but remember, she and the others were surely less than reliable witnesses. What is important is that even in Mark she can not be eliminated. She is there at the first, and she is clearly the first, if John is to be given any weight at all.

One puzzle in John is that he, like Mark and Luke, also has a scene at which Jesus is anointed by a woman (John 12:1-8). His account is clearly parallel to that of Mark in several of its key elements, but then it departs significantly therefrom. John’s story takes place a few days earlier than Mark’s, six days before Passover. John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, whereas Mark leaves her unnamed. Rather than Jesus’ head, as in Mark, this Mary anoints his feet with a costly perfume and wipes them with her hair–which in turn reminds one of the Luke story of the “woman of the city,” that is the “sinner.” In John Jesus does not say that she has anointed him beforehand for his burial, but rather that the costly perfume was well spent and that she can store it up to use in the future on the day of his burial! One would then expect her to appear in some manner, at the burial scene, to anoint Jesus’ body, as Mark has Mary Magdalene do. I see no easy way to sort through these three anointing stories. I think behind them lies some event that took place the last week of Jesus’ life, in Jerusalem. We can surely discount Luke’s moving the story much earlier, and placing it in Galilee, as well as his implication that the woman who anoints Jesus is a “sinner.” But that Luke juxtapositions his redeemed harlot story with his own introduction of Mary Magdalene as formerly “deranged” or demon possessed, gives one pause. Does Luke fear that Mark’s story might imply that the anointing woman is none other than Mary Magdalene–who subsequently comes to the tomb to complete her prophetic or proleptic act of devotion? The intimacy implied in John’s story, namely the wiping of the feet with the hair, given Jewish custom, is also present in Luke but not in Mark. It is all more than confusing but one is tempted to say at the core of these accounts is a story of involving intimacy, anointing, and burial. I do not think it makes sense to identify Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene, as some have suggested. However, it might make sense that final editors of John wanted to distance Mary Magdalene from such an intimate act by some substitution of names, whereas Mark simply leaves her anonymous.

The Most Important Ten Verses of the Gospels to Read on Easter Morning

All across the world this morning, moving from east to west, Easter bells are ringing. Multiple millions will gather in churches to celebrate Easter–“Rejoice! Christ is Risen!” will be the theme of every service. Without exception texts of the gospels reporting on the first Easter and the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb–along with his appearances to his followers–will be read.  In the New Testament gospels we have four rather complex and ofttimes contradictory accounts of what happened Sunday morning after Jesus was crucified–so there is quite a mix to choose from (Mark 16; Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20-21). Liturgical traditions have a set of these texts already designated. More independent groups will go with whatever their minister or preacher has prepared for the Easter sermon. What almost everyone will miss is the following:

Embedded in these layers of tradition are ten verses that appear to be the earliest narrative–and one that rings historically more likely given all the circumstances of that fateful weekend. Although these verses are found in the Gospel of John, one of our latest gospels, this little fragment of tradition stands alone and unique.

Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb
Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb

 

Here are those verses:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10).

That is it. Short and simple. What it does not say is as important as what it does say:

  • There is no group of woman coming just after sunrise
  • There is no earthquake
  • There are no angels appearing and proclaiming “Christ is risen”
  • There are no Roman guards knocked out cold from the terror of it all
  • There are no men in white garments
  • There is no resurrections of the “saints” who have recently died
  • And most important: There are no appearances to anyone.

Notice carefully: What Mary, the unnamed “Beloved” disciple, and Peter “believe” is that the body has been taken away, not that Jesus has been raised from the dead! This is made explicit in this text.

Now all of these elements appear elsewhere in the accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, cited above. But this little fragment of tradition clearly stands alone, in “silent” contradiction and start contradistinction from the Easter tradition as a whole.

I am convinced this passage preserves an independent embedded early tradition that centered on the mysterious Mary Magdalene that was passed on to John’s community through the equally mysterious “Beloved Disciple.”1

Notice the three main elements of this text:

  1. Mary Magdelene came alone before before sunrise–while it is still dark and she discovered the tomb already open and drew the obvious conclusion–namely that “they” had moved the body and placed it elsewhere.2
  2. The “they” in this context is clearly those in charge of Jesus’ permanent burial–namely the Joseph of Arimathea burial party–Jesus’ corpse had been temporarily stashed in this unfinished and as yet unused tomb nearby the site of crucifixion just an hour or so before Passover (John 19:41-42).
  3. Peter and the “beloved disciple” rush to the tomb, confirm the body has been “taken away,” and return to their homes in the Galilee–which fits well with the parallel tradition we have in the lost Gospel of Peter. There the disciples weep and mourn and return to Galilee to resume their fishing still in despair.

In this text and this text alone: Mary Magdalene, with her unique and special connection to Jesus came alone early that morning, most likely to mourn at the tomb and await the others to finish the rites of burial. This simple “bare bones” account rings true. The subsequent accounts here in John, as well as in Mark, Matthew, and Luke all are part of the typical “myth-making,” literary expansion, and theological embellishment–40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death.  One would expect that these Christian communities begin to bolster their faith stories in the face of skeptical opposition. That is why all of the subsequent accounts have an “apologetic” tone to them–with some doubting and more and more “proof” being offered that the “sightings” of Jesus were more than apparitions. These ten verses seems to be a primitive core account that is then later embedded in the larger narrative of John’s gospel with physical appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee and all the trappings we have come to associate with Easter.

How, when, and why the disciples began to have experiences of “sighting” Jesus is another question that I have explored in depth, see “What Really Happened Easter Morning–The Mystery Solved.” But this simple primitive account gives us much to ponder this Easter weekend–and along with Mark’s account which has no appearances of Jesus–it allows us to begin to reconstruct the birth of the Easter tradition from its beginnings.3


  1. See my series “There is Something About Mary–Magdalene, and Who Was the Mysterious Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

  2. See my article, “The First and Second Burials of Jesus.” 

  3. See “The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.” 

The First Easter: When Angels and Apostles Wept

Jesus was taken down from the cross a few hours before sundown on the preparation day for Passover, the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan. Joseph of Arimathea, an influential follower, had hastily placed Jesus’ dead body in an unfinished rock-hewn tomb that just happened to be near the place of execution until after the festival and the Sabbath day when proper rites of Jewish burial could be carried out and decisions about a permanent burial place could be made. A blocking stone had been placed at the entrance to protect against predators.

Just after sundown the entire Jewish populace of Jerusalem, swollen by tens of thousands of pilgrims, gathered to eat the Passover meal. Jesus’ core followers, including the twelve apostles, and a band of disciples, both men and women, who hopefully followed him down to the festival from Galilee expecting him to publicly reveal himself as Messiah were in utter despair. Their Teacher was dead–brutally murdered by his Roman and Jewish enemies in the most shameful of deaths.

HolySat Weeping

Jesus’ followers had scattered at his arrest the night before and we are not told where or how they observed Passover that night. One might assume they would have regathered at the house of Lazarus, in Bethany, just over the southern summit of the Mount of Olives, with the sisters Mary and Martha hosting the Passover meal for these out of town guests. Present would have been Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother, broken hearted beyond expression, as well as other close followers along with the Twelve. According to Mark, when Jesus and his band had arrived in Jerusalem a week earlier they had made this household their home, spending the nights there and their days in the Temple and its surrounding areas. As Jews they surely would have surely sat down together at the traditional Passover meal. One can scarcely imagine their grief and shock. Passover is normally a festival of joy and celebration but this particular “night to be much remembered,” to use Moses’s words, had to be the saddest of their lives. Our gospels record nothing of that evening or of the Passover day and Sabbath following. We must assume there was little to be said. A dead Messiah is no Messiah and all the talk about the kingdom of God being at hand, and the leaders sitting on thrones ruling over the regathered tribes of Israel had become meaningless.

The four New Testament gospels variously report what happened next. They do not agree on any of the substantive details and I have carefully documented their differences and the unfolding legendary embellishment of what happened that first Easter morning in several posts:

What Really Happened Easter Morning

The Strange Original Ending of the Gospel of Mark

We do have another ancient source that appears to change the entire story significantly–namely the Gospel of Peter, see “The Surprising Ending of the Lost Gospel of Peter.” This fragmentary narrative, discovered at the end of the 19th century, was found buried with a Christian monk in upper Egypt, just north of Nag Hammadi where another trove of ancient writings was found–including the Gospel of Thomas. It was our first non-canonical gospel to have surfaced for modern eyes. In more recent times two additional fragments were recovered that appear to belong with what we already had. This Gospel is narrated in the first person by Peter. Toward the end we find his strikingly significant words, and then the text breaks off:

[58] Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

Notice–according to this source the disciples of Jesus spend the entire week of Passover and the seven days of Unleavened Bread–in a state of weeping and mourning. Clearly, in this tradition, no one has seen the multiple apparitions of Jesus reported by Matthew, Luke, and John. In fact, the Gospel of Peter agrees with our earliest gospel source–Mark. It has no appearances of Jesus but predicts a recovery of faith in Galilee. This is precisely what is implied in the appendix to the Gospel of John–chapter 21–which should be taken as a source separate from that gospel as a whole. Peter and the rest of the disciples depart home to Galilee, still in a state of mourning, and they resume their fishing business. That means the entire Easter morning cluster of stories of appearances in Jerusalem are late, legendary, and without any basis in history. As dear and central to Christian tradition as the Eastern morning “appearance” scenes might be, this alternative scenario, preserved in Mark, the Gospel of Peter, the appendix of John, and alluded to in the ending of Matthew, turns out to be more historically believable, and in the end more inspiring.

These sources ring true to what most likely happened and they give us a limited glimpse into Passover and the entire week following with all its sadness and disappointment. Christians today celebrate Easter but it seems clear that such was not the case that fateful Passover week in 30 CE. No one was rejoicing that weekend or through the next seven days. The return to Galilee must have been a painful one, leaving behind the body of their Teacher, now buried permanently in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. How the group recovered its faith that Jesus had indeed been exalted to the right hand of God is another story–but it took place clearly in Galilee not in Jerusalem, apparently during the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot or Pentecost–when the group would have returned to Jerusalem for the that pilgrim festival. It clearly had nothing to do with “bodily” appearances of Jesus, with Jesus limping up to Galilee sometime after the festival with festering wounds and crippled limbs. Jesus lifeless body was given back to the dust, like putting off old clothes, but faith that his spirit had returned to God and been “reclothed” with a new immortal spiritual body was the earliest resurrection faith.  Here Paul is our best source as I have discussed extensively out in a previous post, “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of the Resurrection of the Resurrection of the Dead.”

Last Days of Jesus–A Final “Messianic” Meal

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

NT_Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priscilla Banquet

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

TyrianSilver

At 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…

Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Passover Meal?

LastSupperDurerRD

 Was the Last Supper a Jewish Passover Seder? Millions of Christians who are happily and profitably discovering their “Hebraic roots” by studying, participating in, and even reenacting “Passover” services have equated it with the final evening meal Jesus had with his disciples. Indeed, many so-called “messianic” groups have developed an extensive interpretation of the traditional Jewish Passover Seder that finds all sorts of Christological meanings reflected in the ceremonies, including the death and resurrection of Jesus for the sins of humankind.

All four of our gospels report that Jesus ate a last meal privately with the Twelve, on the “night he was betrayed,” as Paul puts it. However, the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John report things differently in so far as whether this meal took place on the night of Passover, or the night before. Although many have attempted harmonization, the differences in the two reports remain stark and and can not be ignored.  Scholars have exhaustively argued out every possibility pro and con.

I argue in The Jesus Dynasty (chapter 12 “Last Days in Jerusalem”) that the final meal was not a Passover Seder and offer a revised chronology in which Jesus dies on a Thursday, rather than a Friday, with the Passover Seder falling at the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, after sundown, Thursday night with that Friday, in the year AD/CE 30 being a “high day” sabbath, followed by the weekly Sabbath. See as well “Jesus Died on a Thursday not a Friday.”

I have referred readers for years to Boston University Prof. Jonathan Klawans’s thoroughly comprehensive general article originally published in Bible Review (October 2001), and now available on-line titled “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder.” Prof. Klawans explores the issue in a clear and compelling way, concluding that the last meal of Jesus was most likely not a Passover Seder.

Prof. Klawans has now just updated his analysis with new material and documentation, replying to various critiques of his view, “Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Meal.” I recommend these articles to all my blog readers–not because he agrees with me (well partly that!), but because I think Prof. Klawans has pretty well put this issue to bed.

P.S. I hope my readers notice that I have chosen as a “Last Supper” illustration the etching by the incomparably great Albrecht Dürer in which the “beloved disciple” is sleeping as a small child, next to Jesus.