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.

Locating Bethsaida

The following is the impressive case put forth by Rami Arav that Bethsaida of the New Testament, home of several of Jesus’ disciples, has been not only located but extensively excavated. Please subscribe to Near Eastern Archaeology for more articles of this sort. Readers interested in the Bible and archaeology should not be without this high quality publication produced by the American Schools of Oriental Research.

What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

What kind of a Jew was Jesus?

I think this might be one of the most frequent questions I get from general audiences over the years. I am encouraged. At least one finds there is more and more a general acknowledgement, if not an understanding, that the historical figure of Jesus was a born, lived, and died as a Jew. That was his religion, that was his faith. But what kind of Jew was he? Can he be further categorized or pigeonholed?

More often than not the questioner has in mind something even more specific–was Jesus an Essene, a Pharisee, a Zealot, or some other kind of Jew of that time? All three have been argued but the question that I think most of the queries center on most often was whether or not Jesus was an “Essene,” or to put it another way–what might have been his relationship, if any, to the group that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Whether one wants to use the label “Essene” depends on whether one equates the group know to us from Classical sources (Pliny, Josephus, Philo) as the “Essenes” with the sect that produced the Scrolls. And connected to this is a further question–what about the site of Qumran?

Chagall Christkillers

To put things succinctly:

1. Are the scrolls connected to the site of Qumran and its inhabitants from the 2nd century BCE down through the 1st century CE?
2. Is the group that wrote the scrolls the one known to us in Classical sources by the name “Essene”?

I would say yes–absolutely, to each question, despite those who have argued, even recently, to the contrary. But that really does not get us very far since it all depends on what one means by “Essenes” in the first place. A quietest, pacifist, non-nationalistic, Pythagorian-like group they certainly were not, but we have the Scrolls, more than Philo, Josephus, or Pliny to thank for that understanding. Rather than quibble over labels such as Essene what we need to do is simply read the book–which in this case means the books–namely the Scrolls themselves! Their self-descriptions surely carry more weight than our disputes about names and labels.

On the first question the archaeology is absolutely clear. I recommend the convincing case made by Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls as a start. On the parallels between the Essenes in classical sources and the characteristics of the group reflected in the Scrolls, I recommend James Vanderkam and Peter Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the opening essay by James Charlesworth in his edited volume,  Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

If you read the basic Classical sources, namely Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13 & 18; Jewish War 2; Philo, Every Good Man is Free 75-91; Hypothetica 11; Pliny Natural History 5, the parallels between the Qumran sect and the “Essenes” as they are therein described are overwhelming. I lean very strongly toward the view that the Greek word ’essaioi or ’ossaioi= the Hebrew ‘ossim, meaning the “Doers,” referring to the ‘ossim haTorah, that is the “Doers of the Torah (1QpHab 8:1). It is most interesting that Paul uses this very phrase in Romans 2, as does James in his letter, chapter 2.

The Qumran group considered as apostate those they called the “Seekers of smooth things” (haChalqot), taken from Dan 11:32. In other words those who gave a “light” interpretation of Torah, such as their rivals the Pharisees in particular, and in some cases the Sadducees as well.

But what about Jesus and his followers? Surprisingly, as strict as the Qumran community was about matters of “Doing the Torah,” there are some rather amazing parallels in comparing some of their basic conceptual ideas with those of  the “Jesus movement.”I sometimes say to my students:

The Jesus movement can best be described as a radical, nationalistic, anti-religious establishment, messianic, apocalyptic, baptizing, new covenant, wilderness-way movement–and that is precisely how the community behind the Dead Sea Scrolls can be described as well!

Here are the main parallel themes and emphases within both groups that I consider to be most significant. The quotations are from the Community Rule (1QS), the Damascus Document (CD), and some fragments from cave 4 (4Q), with parallels noted in the classical sources of Josephus and Philo as referenced above.

1) Apocalyptic: “This the time for the preparation of the way into the wilderness” (1QS 9) “From the day of the gathering in of the Teacher of the Community until the end of all the men of war who deserted to the Liar there shall pass about 40 years” (CD(B) 2). Both John and Jesus began their preaching by declaring that “The time is at hand,” and “the kingdom of God has drawn near” (Luke 3:7-9, Mark 1:14-15).

2) Prepare the Way in the Wilderness: “They shall separate from the habitation of unjust men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him” (1QS 8). John the Baptizer characterizes his work with the same text from Isaiah 40:3 and Jesus, being baptized by John, identified with the same set of ideas (Mark 1:14-15).

3) Messianic in Hope and Orientation: “They shall be ruled by the primitive precepts in which the men of the Community were first instructed until there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (1QS 9). These expectations appear to be at the core of the Jesus movement as well, regarding the identity of both John the Baptist and Jesus as Prophet, Priest, or Davidic King? (Mark 8:27-30; John 1:19-23).

4) Community of the New Covenant: “None of the men who enter the New Covenant in the land of Damascus and betray it shall be inscribed in its Book from the day of the gathering in of the Teacher of the Community until the coming of the Messiah(s) of Aaron and Israel” (CD 8). Jesus understood his own inauguration of the kingdom of God as ushering in the “new covenant” (Luke 22:20).

5) Water Initiation for spiritual purification: “And when his flesh is sprinkled with purifying water and sanctified by cleansing water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God” (1QS 3) “They shall not enter the water to partake of the pure Meal of the saints unless they turn from their wickedness” (1 QS 5) (Josephus). Both John and Jesus practiced immersion in water as a sign of repentance and remission of sins (Mark 1:4; John 3:22-26).

Mandean Baptism Today
Mandean Baptism Today

6) Spiritual Temple is the Community: “He has commanded that a Sanctuary of men be built for Himself, that there they may send up, like the smoke of incense, the works of the Torah” (4Q174) “They shall atone for sins without the flesh of holocausts and the fat of sacrifice and prayer shall be an acceptable fragrance of righteousness” (1QS 9) (Josephus, Philo). Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 more frequently than any other text of the Prophets: “I desire loving kindness not sacrifice.”

7) Communal Sharing of Property and Wealth: “All those who freely devote themselves to His truth shall bring all their knowledge, powers and possessions into the Community of God” (1QS 1) (Josephus, Philo). Jesus told his followers to “sell what they had” and come follow and the early movement seemed to practice a form of communal living, at least in Jerusalem (Luke 12:33; Mark 10:28-31; Acts 2:47-47)

8) Meals of Bread and Wine Anticipating the Messianic Banquet. “And then the Messiah of Israel shall come and the chiefs of the clans of Israel shall sit before him. . . and they shall gather at the common table to eat (the first fruits of the bread) and drink new wine” (1QSa 2). Jesus promised his “chiefs,” the Twelve apostles, who were to be over the clans of Israel, a place at his table to eat and drink when the Kingdom arrived (Luke 22:29-30).

9) Forbidding of Divorce: Fornication is “taking a second wife while the first is alive, whereas the principle of creation is ‘male and female’ he created them.” Two not three or more…(CD 4:20). Jesus quoted the same texts for the same point (Mark 10:1-12).

One could point out any number of additional parallels here and there. The Dead Sea community was ruled by a Council of Twelve and Jesus, of course, chose Twelve to be his Apostles. The Teacher had an inner council of three, and Jesus again, chose three–Peter, James, and John to be his inner circle.

What makes these motifs all the more noteworthy is that they are characteristic tags of identity, that is matters that define the entire essence and orientation of a group, not peripheral details. And further, as far as we know, neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducess shared a single one of these characteristics.

From this material alone I think we can say that Jesus and his movement fit best against the background or the kind of apocalyptic/messianic Judaism that we see reflected in the Scrolls. But that is not to say that Jesus or his followers were “card carrying” members of the Essenes. I rather think they were not. There are also sharp and strong differences. The Essenes, at least as we know them in the Scrolls, would have likely considered Jesus a teacher of “smooth things.” His relations with women, Gentiles, even Roman soldiers, and his attitude toward Sabbath observance and ritual purity, as well as other Halachic matters would have seen to them as lax and lacking. I do not think that he violated such things with a “high hand,” but that he interpreted the Torah on the principle that “Laws are for people, not people for laws.” One good example is the Scrolls forbid helping an animal that has fallen into a pit or well on the Sabbath day, whereas Jesus, agreeing with the Pharisees, asks, “Which of you would not help such a creature on the Sabbath?” (CD 11; Luke 14:1-6).

One other factor to keep in mind in doing any comparisons between the Dead Sea scroll group and Jesus and his movement is chronology. The Qumran community flourished in the generation before Jesus (1st century BCE) but over the next 100 years their apocalyptic hopes, dreams, and expectations failed to materialize, even though the group continued. See my article “Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return” for some of the major texts showing this disappointment and how they tried to maintain their faith. Who is to say that all those even loosely associated with this group, a generation or two after the death of their founding “Teacher,” would have maintained that original strictness in terms of observing the Torah? I think it likely that scores of “Essenes” and “Essene types” or sympathizers were drawn to John the Baptizer, Jesus and James. That is why I am so fond of Robert Eisenman’s designation: “The Messianic movement in Palestine” to describe the variety of nationalistic, messianic,  apocalyptic, “Doers of the Torah,”during this period.  Eisenman insists we should not get caught up on labels and modern disputes about who calls whom what. What links the groups is the language, the core ideas, the vocabulary, and the key concepts they shared. This is Eisenman’s great and under-appreciated contribution to the discussion of “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls.”1 Clearly, for those of us who see Jesus squarely within the contexts of this broader messianic movement that thrived in late 2nd Temple times, the Dead Sea Scrolls remain the most important parallel we have to the historical Jesus–and to John the Baptist and James his brother for that matter.


  1. Of Eisenman’s many important works in this area I would mention here James the Brother of JesusThe New Testament Code, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians,  and a recently edited overview series, James the Brother of Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls I (2012), not to be confused with his earlier magnum opus on James. 

A Tale of Two Tombs: Prof. Strange’s Review of The Jesus Dynasty (Part 2)

I want to continue my responses to the review of my book, The Jesus Dynasty, by my friend and colleague Prof. James F. Strange published in Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December, 2006, pp. 72-76). You can read Part 1, “Was Christianity All a Mistake?” here.

Strange JD Review BAR Dec 2006

In the Introduction (on-line here via ABC News) to my book titled “A Tale of Two Tombs” I explore the question of the possible provenance of the controversial ossuary that surfaced to public attention in October, 2002 with the inscription “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” I remain convinced that the evidence for the authenticity of the inscription is strong and I would urge readers to avail themselves of the latest reports, particularly Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shank’s book, James Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century, available for download as a free e-book here. No matter how many times one hears the inscription has been shown to be a forgery this is simply not the case.  Anyway, Dr. Strange writes the following in his review:

In his introduction, Tabor relates an exciting story of how he and his students, working with Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson in 2000, discovered a looted tomb with smashed ossuaries (bones boxes) and a burial shroud in Jerusalem’s Hinnon Valley. . . Tabor thinks there is reason to believe that the famous James ossuary… was looted from the Tomb. Furthermore, Tabor links this tomb with the tomb found in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood in 1980, because certain names found on ossuaries form the Tomb of the Shroud also occur on ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb…Tabor then asks a sizzling hot question: “Was it possible that we had unknowingly stumbled upon the Jesus family tomb?” This reveals the rather sensational tone of the book.

Now, I have to put on my scholar’s hat and ask why anyone would think that the Jesus family tomb was in Judea and not in Galilee, though I do not mean to imply that this was impossible. Furthermore, why two tombs? (There are three, if we count the 1926 Talpiot tomb found by Eliezar Sukenik, which also featured the name Jesus son of Joseph on an ossuary.) Tabor gives no clear answer, just a simple assertion. This pattern–asserting a proposition, not establishing the truth of the proposition–repeats itself throughout the book (p. 72).

I regret that Prof. Strange has misunderstood the point of my discussion in the chapter titled “A Tale of  Two Tombs,” so let me clarify things a bit here. The chapter is based on my own view that the James ossuary inscription is authentic and likely held the bones of James brother of Jesus. Since much of my book is about the “Jesus Dynasty,” that is how James and subsequent family members took over the leadership of the Messianic Movement, for his ossuary to have surfaced after nearly 2000 years is truly a remarkable thing, and adds the kind of “material evidence” to the textual evidence for James as the brother of Jesus of which we normally can only dream. Accordingly, the main focus of this introductory chapter was to raise a further question–where did this ossuary come from? It was obviously looted from a tomb somewhere in Jerusalem, but can we know when, and if so, which tomb might it likely have come from?

The Tomb of the Shroud and the Talpiot tomb are not connected so far as I have argued. The former was explored by Shimon Gibson, Boaz Zissu, and I in 2000, whereas the Talpiot tomb was excavated by archaeologists in 1980. I see no reason to connect the names in either tomb with one another.

Dr. Strange has misunderstood what I wrote. The reason I bring in these two tombs has to do with the unresolved issue of the date that the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, acquired it–in other words, when did it first surface on the antiquities market? Golan has given a number of dates, but he has consistently maintained he had it in his possession for 15-20 years. On the other hand, the IAA trial indictment against Mr. Golan claimed that he acquired it rather recently, not too long before it came to public view in 2002. What I try to present in my Introduction is the circumstantial evidence for either the Tomb of the Shroud (2000) or the Talpiot tomb (1980) being the tomb from which the James ossuary was looted. There is no connection I see between the two, but evidence in both cases, depending on when Golan acquired the ossuary, points to one or the other.

Strange mentions a “third tomb,” but as far as I know the ossuary published by Sukenik inscribed “Jesus son of Joseph,” Sukenik found stored in the basement warehouse of what is now the Rockefeller Museum and it has no known provenance. Since it was discovered sometime before 1926 it is most unlikely that it came from the same tomb as the James ossuary acquired by Golan, and thus no reason, other than a similarity of common names, to connect it to Jesus or anyone in his family.

Now, as to the matter of possibly “stumbling upon the Jesus family tomb,” it would all depend on whether or not the Tomb of the Shroud was the tomb from which the James ossuary was looted. The government’s evidence for Golan acquiring the ossuary rather recently has not yet been revealed, but Gibson and I became aware of other evidence that pointed rather strongly to our Shroud Tomb as the home of the James ossuary. This involves personal conversations between Oded Golan and our colleague Rafi Lewis, regarding the James ossuary having been looted from a tomb “near Silwan.”1 On the other hand, if Golan did have the James ossuary, intact with its full inscription, going back to the 1980s, and he presented a photograph at the trial to prove that then there is some interesting circumstantial evidence that points to the East Talpiot tomb as its home. You can read his full testimony here. What I do in my introduction is survey the evidence for both and in the end I am not able to reach any firm conclusion, since we have not been permitted to carry out DNA tests on the remains in the James ossuary compared to individuals in either of the two tombs. Maybe there is a “third tomb,” but as far as I know there is no evidence linking the James ossuary to any but the two I mention, so those are the ones I consider and discuss.

That is where things stood when I published The Jesus Dynasty in 2006. Since then the evidence has tipped rather dramatically in favor of both the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription and its likely provenance being the Talpiot Jesus family tomb. I offer a summary here.

As for the Jesus family tomb being in Galilee or Jerusalem, unlike Dr. Strange, I would favor Jerusalem. We seem to have pretty firm traditions that James was buried in Jerusalem in 62 CE., and his corpse was not carried to any family tomb Galilee. This would seem to indicate that the family has relocated itself by this time in the Holy City, which is the HQ for the growing movement worldwide. I don’t find it at all unlikely that Mary, her other sons, and her daughters, as well as extended relatives, might be put in the same tomb or tombs. See my arguments in this regard here. Why assume that James was buried in isolation when family burial is the normal practice? There are, of course, several locations for “tombs of Mary” in Jerusalem today, and I think one also in Ephesus as well. Given the burial of James, and now the James ossuary, plus the family exercising its leadership over the movement from Jerusalem, not Galilee, I am convinced that Jerusalem is more likely the place for the family burials.

My intention in my introduction was not to be sensational, but to bring to the public attention the potential implications of an authentic ossuary holding the bones of James the brother of Jesus, and the location of the tomb from which it was looted, as a vivid reminder of the family of Jesus, together in death as in life–and what that can mean for recovering the message of James. Admittedly, if either of the two possibilities I suggest are valid, and I am not aware of any others that have been proposed with any supporting evidence, one can not help but feel a bit of excitement in the discovery. I hope that further research and tests will determine some of these matters to the satisfaction of all of us who care about history and archaeology.


  1. See Shimon Gibson’s speculations regarding the James ossuary being stolen from the Akeldama “tomb of the Shroud.” Shimon Gibson, “A Lost Cause: A Response from Shimon Gibson on the James Ossuary Inscription” Biblical Archaeology Review 30:6 (2004) 55-58. 

A Jesus Hideout in Jordan

I am often asked a question at lectures and programs that I find hard to answer–“What is your greatest archaeological discovery in the field of Christian Origins?” I have been privileged to be involved in the Tomb of the Shroud in Akeldama, the Suba “John the Baptist” cave, the Talpiot tombs, and several other sites–including my location for Golgotha. If I had to choose I think I would pick what I call “The Jesus Hideout in Jordan.” This one is mine and mine alone. Here is the story.

In 1999, at the very first Biblical Archaeology Society “Bible and Archaeology Fest held that year in Boston, I gave a lecture titled “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan: Texts, Geography, and Archaeology Converge.” If I am not mistaken that lecture has proven to be the most popular of the hundreds I have done in Biblical Archaeology Society Seminars over the past 20 years. I also have uploaded an academic paper, “Wadi el-Yabis and the Elijah “Wadi Cherith” traditions in Relationship to John and Jesus in the Gospel of John,” dealing with the same topic here. This paper, presented at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in 2011, offers the technical underpinnings of my basic theory and proposal. I thought I would offer here a less technical overview of my analysis on this subject.

All our gospels are theological by definition. That is one solid result of the past 100 years of critical-historical work on these texts. However, it has generally been acknowledged that the gospel of John, in contrast to our three Synoptic gospels–Mark, Matthew, and Luke–is the most explicitly theological, especially in the long “red letter” sections where Jesus is represented as giving extended teaching about topics such as the spiritual “birth from above,” receiving eternal life, a spiritual resurrection, his “incarnation,” and mystically consuming his “flesh” and “blood.” Consequently John is usually dated late, even into the 2nd century CE, and he is usually regarded as much further removed from the “historical Jesus” than the Synoptics, and thus less useful for doing serious historical work on Jesus as we might imagine him to have been.

Nonetheless some scholars have begun to reexamine the underlying narrative framework found in the gospel of John. John provides details about both chronology and geography that are most intriguing. In contrast, Mark has few chronological markers, so much so that halfway through his account (chapter 8 of 16 chapters total), Jesus is already on his final journey to Jerusalem where he is crucified. What goes on before that, essentially Jesus’ entire preaching career, narrated in chapters 1-8, is presented in a rapid and sweeping flow of events with no indication as to whether the time involved was days, weeks, months, or even years. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I adopted the three and one-half year chronological scheme of the gospel of John (Fall, 26 CE to Spring, 30 CE) and attempted to understand Mark’s fast paced narrative in that light.

I have posted a useful document charting the narrative movement in the gospel of John here on my UNC Charlotte Web site. It is interesting that Mark provides a few “hooks” into John’s framework. The most obvious is the sequence of events with Jesus feeding a crowd, walking on the Sea of Galilee, and teaching in the area of Capernaum, found in Mark 6 and John 6. According to John’s account this is around the time of a 2nd Passover, which would be the spring of the year 29 CE. The most interesting and intriguing of these “hooks,” however, is the short statement in Mark 10:1:

“And he left there (Capernaum) and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again; and again, as his custom was, he taught them.”

Until the last week of Jesus’ life when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, Mark sets his entire rapid-paced narrative around the Sea of Galilee, but here he seems to at least be aware of the tradition that we find elaborated in John, that Jesus made these excursion-like forays south to Judea and east beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ move across the Jordan River during the final months of his life is something that really caught my attention in the spring of 1992. I was teaching my standard New Testament/Christian Origins class and we were working through the ending of the gospel of John when these words jumped off the page at me:

“He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained. And many came to him…” (John 10:40)

I was showing the students how that verse tied into the one in Mark, and that, according to the gospel of John, Jesus had made a quick trip to Jerusalem at Hanukkah (December, 29 CE), and that Mark at least mentions him going “to the region of Judea” but with no details, but we know from the gospel of John that Jesus’ life was actually in danger and he was in need of a safe place to hide until he decided to make his final moves in Jerusalem the following Spring. But what caught my attention that day was John’s reference to a specific place. I had never noticed that before. I remembered that earlier in his gospel John had actually pinpointed that very place with this description:

“John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there were many pools there; and people came and were baptized” (John 3:22).

We pulled out the Oxford map of Galilee in the time of Jesus and quickly located Aenon near Salim, just south of Scythopolis, or Beth Shean today. Directly across the Jordan from that spot I noticed two things. There was a “Wadi” or ravine named Cherith, and just to the north the Decapolis town of Pella. Both rang different bells in my head. Cherith, of course, was the ravine where Elijah hid and was fed by the ravens when he fled from king Ahab and queen Jezebel when his life was in danger (1 Kings 18:1-7). And Pella was the traditional location where the followers of Jesus fled around 68 CE when Jerusalem was put under siege by the Romans prior to its destruction. Scholars have always had problems imagining this flight of the Nazarenes, led by Shimon bar Clophas (whom I argue in The Jesus Dynasty is Jesus brother Shimon rather than his cousin), to a pro-Roman Hellenistic city such as Pella and any number have questioned the historical probability of this tradition. However, recent research, by Houwelingen1 and others, in my view at least, has shown the tradition is most likely reliable. I have also become convinced that perhaps the Pella tradition referred to the area of Pella, not the city itself. The Wadi Cherith is just six kilometers to the south, literally part of the “precincts” of what could be called Pella. In a matter of minutes it all began to fit together.

I recently discovered that the 4th century Christian Pilgrim Egeria (384 CE) visited Tel Salem, identifying it with the biblical Melchizedek of Genesis 14:18-24. Egeria visited the abundant springs in that area–the “many pools” of John’s Gospel. She was guided by a priest who pointed out to her “This garden is called to this very day ‘The Garden of John’.” She was told that monks of the time come from various places to bathe themselves there. The Israelis call it today “‘Ainot Mechatezetzim,” and the rich springs supply modern fish ponds in the area. Egeria crossed the Jordan and visited Tishbeh, the home of the prophet Elijah, entering a “splendid valley” that she was told was called “Corra,” where Elijah hid from King Ahab and was fed by the ravens. This is clearly the Wadi Cherith that is called “Korrath” (κορραθ) in the LXX, just across from Aenon near Salim (1 Kings 17:3). I find it strangely moving to think of this pious Christian woman “tracking Jesus” in this way over 1600 years ago.

It is in this area, according to the Gospel of John, that a dispute arose between the the disciples of John and “a Jew” over matters of water purification (John 3:25-30). The implication in this context is that Jesus own baptizing activity had somehow sparked the controversy. Water purification was understood in a number of ways among various Jewish groups in late 2nd Temple Judaism. Some restricted ritual immersion strictly to the Torah proscriptions of purification to enter the Temple following menstruation, sexual intercourse, contact with the dead, and various other activities would bring ritual defilement. Others used it as part of a conversion ritual when Gentiles took on the “yoke of the Torah.” Sectarian groups such as those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls practiced immersion in water as an initiation rite into their “New Covenant” Community (1QS III.4-12). Josephus comments on this very point in recounting the baptism practiced by John, making clear that his “immersion” rites had nothing to do with the cleansing of the body but only of the soul already purified by repentance (Antiquities 18.117-118).

Pella Cherith Map

The Wadi Cherith, across the Jordan, would have been remembered as a “place of safety” for Elijah. Although some have located the Wadi Cherith to the south, the weight of evidence favors the northern Gilead location. It fits the description in 1 Kings 17 precisely, and the site of Jabesh-gilead (Abu el Kharaz) as well as Tishbe has been located in the Wadi. If Jesus also went “across the Jordan,” from Aenon near Salim, that would put him right into the Wadi Cherith, and thus provide an explanation for this odd choice of location for his flight. Finally, nearly 40 years later, his followers, some of whom would have been with him in the winter of 29 CE flight, would have returned to that area.

I had been to Jordan before but only to see the standard tourist sites. I had no idea what the Wadi Cherith might be like. On a modern map of Jordan I saw the name used today: Wadi el-Yabis, which actually connects to the name Cherith (“to cut”), referring to the rugged rock-cut nature of the Wadi. I decided to make a trip to Jordan as soon as the semester was out and in June of that year I found myself hiking with some students and friends deep into the reaches of Wadi el-Yabis.

Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
ElYabisEntrance
Deeper Into the Wadi with Sheer Cliffs, Water Falls, and Caves

What we found was quite amazing. The Wadi was incredibly rugged with water falls, pools, and surrounding high cliffs on both sides, dotted with abundant caves. We searched some of the caves and found early Roman period pottery shards in abundance.

I asked the extraordinarily gifted artist Balage Balogh, who specializes in archaeological drawings and painting, and who was doing illustrations for my book, The Jesus Dynasty, to create a scene that would portray Jesus and his small band of followers living in this Wadi that last winter of Jesus’ life. He took great care in the details, as he always does, wanting to get the clothing, hairstyles, and other things just right. The result, in color, is quite stunning and it helps one to suddenly imagine an amazingly moving scene from the life of Jesus that has never until now been imagined. I have called it “The Last Winter.” I wanted to share it with my readers here:

Wadi-elYabisBlog

Based on the traditions of both Mark and John regarding Jesus’ excursion “beyond the Jordan,” as well as the Pella flight tradition, I am convinced that the location of Wadi el-Yabis as a “Jesus Hideout” has good historical probability. If John’s chronology is correct this is where Jesus and his entourage spent the last winter of his life, from December until early April, when he hears of Lazarus being deathly ill and is summoned by Mary and Martha of Bethany to come to the Jerusalem area. It would also be the location where the band of fleeing Nazarenes went in 68 CE as the Roman laid siege to Jerusalem. A Wadi el-Yabis Survey Project (G. Palumbo, J. Mabry, I. Kuijt) begun in the 1990s has identified a number of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age sites but a specific concentration on potential early Roman habitation of the caves south of Pella remains to be done. I have been back to Wadi-el Yabis four times and we have surveyed the caves and found 1st century CE Roman pottery is quite abundant. Perhaps in the future more work can be done here.


  1. “Fleeing Forward: The Departure of Christians from Jerusalem to Pella,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 181-200.