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.

Ginnosar by Daniela Ciubuc
Ginnosar by Daniela Ciubuc

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.

Has the Intact Tomb of Jesus Been Found?

Many years ago a man from the BBC came to me and he asked me if the Dead Sea Scrolls will harm Christianity. I said to him that nothing can harm Christianity. The only thing which could be dangerous to Christianity would be to find a tomb with the sarcophagus or ossuary of Jesus – still containing his bones. And then I will surely hope that it will not be found in the territory of the State of Israel. –David Flusser1
Has the tomb of Jesus been found? Here is my response to two influential critics whom I greatly respect but with whom I disagree: Does the Evidence Add Up? Although I have to agree with David Flusser that such a discovery would be controversial–I don’t think it poses any danger to Christianity or “resurrection” faith, at least as I understand the earliest development of this idea, see my analysis, Why People are Confused About the Earliest Christian Resurrection Faith.
If this whets your appetite, you can find the whole story here in what I consider to be my most important book–as it is about much more than the discovery of these tombs–but their implications for understanding earliest Christianity:
Jesus Discovery Paper RD
Click on the image for an Amazon Link

  1. Quoted by Neil Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls (New York: Putnam, 1994), p. 129. 

Jesus Died on a Thursday not a Friday

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

CrucifixionBaloghWeb

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

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

Passover Week Chart

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

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

There are some hints outside of John’s gospel that such was the case. In Luke for example, Jesus tells his followers at that last meal: “I earnestly wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffer but I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:14). A later copyist of the manuscript inserted the word “again” to make it say “I won’t eat it again,” since the tradition had developed that Jesus did observe Passover that night and changed its observance to the Christian Eucharist or Mass. Another indication that this is not a Passover meal is that all of our records report that Jesus shared “a loaf of bread” with his disciples, using the Greek word (artos) that refers to an ordinary loaf—not to the unleavened flat bread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” significantly he does not say “on the night of Passover,” but rather “on the night Jesus was betrayed,” and he also mentions the “loaf of bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). If this meal had been the Passover Paul would have surely wanted to say that but he does not.  We also have a similar tradition in the Talmud which tells us, “They hung Yeshua the Nazarene on Erev Pesach”–which means on the “eve of Passover” (b. Sanhedrin 67a and 43a)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    New Moon 30 CE Nisan 30 CE

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

    Nisan 30 CE

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

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

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

PathsMtOlives

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

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

Today is Palm Sunday, marking the day, according to the chronology of the Gospel of John, that Jesus rode a donkey down the slope of the Mount of Olives on the southern “descent” path from Bethany and Bethphage, hailed openly by the crowds for the first time as the Messianic “son of David”–a revolutionary move if there ever was one.   (John 12:12-19). Although most of my academic colleagues would suggest this event never happened and the gospel writers insert it to “fulfill prophecy,” I am convinced quite the opposite is the case. It is Jesus who is self-consciously acting out or pantomiming the messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 in the most deliberate manner–signaling the imminence of the Kingdom of God with the arrival of its rightful King! The gospel of Mark adds further details–with Jesus descending and ascending the Mt of Olives repeatedly during this last week of his life–staying with his disciples at Bethany, and every morning walking down into the city (Mark 11:1-14).

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

CrucifixionBaloghWeb

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

 

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

A Bit of Background Reading for the “Jesus Dynasty” Tour

I put together this reading list for our “Jesus Dynasty” 10th Anniversary tour participants this week–I call it “tracking Jesus,” see here. I thought readers of the Blog might enjoy “coming” along. I will be posting daily photos and reports on the trip–so stand by. The PDF might take a few seconds to load. Unfortunately the hyperlinks might not be active on all browsers but the URLs can be pasted in and loaded.

Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
Wadi-el Yabis Entrance

Threescore and Ten

I was born on this day, March 2, 1946, in Gorman, Texas, f. Elgie Lincoln Tabor, m. Hazel Mae Tabor, one of the first of the first Baby Boomers, 9 months after the War–go figure. Dad, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Air Corp was home from war in June 1945, joining my mother and sister Betty who were living with mother’s parents on the family farm in Eastland, Texas while he was away. I am part of the new generation, shaped by the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, turning our young faces from the horrors of the Great War. What a time to live, so filled with trouble and tragedy and promise. As the traditional prayer of Moses says, “The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore…” It is wonderful to be alive and healthy at 70. I am on no medications whatsoever and feel the same as I did at 20, but I hope I am a bit wiser. I am though rather fond of Dylan’s enigmatic line, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…” I also want to honor my parents. I love the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes 12–Remember your creators–plural–rather than Creator–singular–as the traditional translations have it. I am thankful today for my family and friends, the hundreds of thousands of readers of my books and blog, and my thousands of students over the past 30 years at Notre Dame, William and Mary, and now UNC Charlotte.