Christ our Passover: Making Sense of the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Death

This year’s Eastertide literary sensation is, on the face of it, a conservative rather than a radical one. Since the whole “lead codices” thing peaked too early and fizzed out, there was room for Sir Colin Humphreys‘ book The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge, 2011) to make it into seasonal opinion pieces open to a bit of wishful thinking about the contradictory accounts of the chronology of Jesus‘ last days. Christopher Pearson‘s predictably-affirming summary and commendationhas graced Australian tables today.The basic problem Humphreys wants to solve in this well-intentioned  book is that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share a chronology (and more) which has the Last Supper as a Passover banquet (see Mark 14:12-16 etc). John’s Gospel, however, has Jesus’ death take place on the day before, when preparation for the feast was taking place; so Jesus is arrested, and already before Pilate, before the banquet could have happened (John 19:14).

Humphreys suggests that the problem can be dealt with through harmonization of the accounts; that is, with enough scrutiny and thought, the contradiction is not so much resolved as removed. Both accounts were true. In this case, the solution is a supposed variety of calendars being used in first-century Judea. This isn’t a complete impossibility by the way, nor is it a new theory in broad terms at least. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-20th century gave impetus to the idea there really were different calendrical systems current in first-century Judaism. Annie Jaubert’s study published more than half a century ago, and which is still noted, addressed the same problem and offered a vaguely-similar solution.

What James Vanderkam states gently but devastatingly about Jaubert’s theory, however, is just as applicable to Humphreys’: “there is no evidence that Jesus or any early Christian of the New Testament period used the solar calendar of Qumran – or any other calendar that made them noticeably different from other Jews” (The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 214-5).

Mark Goodacre has made some of the important points about the false problems in Gospel chronology at his NT Blog. Worth emphasising too is Humphreys’ tendency – not unique by any means, but unsatisfactory nonetheless – to retroject evidence from later Rabbinic literature (e.g. about the times of trials, or the use of water-jars) as though it gave an accurate sense of first-century belief and practice.

These and other technical problems with the execution of the argument would probably be sufficient grounds to pass on quickly. However I think the more serious problem is not technical but hermeneutical or theological, and needs to be described a bit further.

Humphreys’ account suggests “all four Gospels agree on the date and nature of the Last Supper” (p. 193). This is a sophisticated instance of how fundamentalism subverts the Gospels by deconstructing them in favour of some supposed fifth Gospel that lies behind the texts, the “real history” of Jesus’ last days. In fact the Christian Church offers these problematic texts themselves as the bearers of meaning to those with ears to hear. They exist to be read and heard, not to be mined or deconstructed for that sort of “scientific” truth Humphreys apparently wants, but whose pursuit makes him sound (as just quoted) like someone who has never read the Gospels at all.

It is worth noting that despite assumptions to the contrary, such attempts at harmonisation represent modernity, not traditional Christian interpretation. The Fathers of the Church understood that not everything in the Bible was literally true, but were relaxed about it; they were interested in more important stuff. In the third century Origen of Alexandria, the greatest biblical scholar of the early Church, commented on the different chronology apparent between John and the Synoptics:

The student, staggered at the consideration of these things, will either renounce the attempt to find all the Gospels true, and not venturing to conclude that all our information about our Lord is untrustworthy, will choose at random one of them to be their guide; or will accept the four, and will consider that their truth is not to be sought for in the outward and material letter (Commentary on John, 10).

Indeed. As far as the stories of the Passion are concerned, the cost of missing this point is profound. The Synoptics present Jesus eating the Passover with his friends, taking the symbolic bread of the meal and saying “this is my body”. His Paschal self-identification is clear and startling. In John’s Gospel however, Jesus dies on the cross at the point his near-contemporary Josephus says the lambs for the feast were slaughtered (Wars 6.9). They do not say the same thing, in Humphreys’ sense.

It is, however, the same story in another sense, but a story told in two quite different ways. The only thing a historian is likely be convinced about beyond reasonable doubt regarding the chronology is that Jesus’ death coincided with Passover; I think that to insist on more is as pointless as it is groundless, but in any case if some new discovery awaits to make us think anew about the chronology of the Passion, this work isn’t it. Many hearers of the stories will, however, be convinced about far more concerning Jesus from those conflicting accounts, whose harmony lies not in historical agreement, but in a common faith in the one whose passion they recount.

I first met Andrew McGowan when he was a schoolboy in Darwin, Australia, where his father was Dean of the tiny Cathedral. As a member of the Cathedral congregation, I was involved with a series of ongoing House-Masses and Bible Studies – before the awful cyclonic devastation of Darwin in, I think, 1973 – (which happened after I had left for a wonderful year at  All Saints, Margaret Street, London).
Andrew’s mother, Kate, a School Teacher, made sure that Andrew did his homework, and was, together with Fr. Brian, Andrew’s father, a large part of the godly influence that has contributed to Andrew’s facility as a theologian. I heartily recommend the articles which have proceeded from his priestly vocation – leading to his Warden-ship of Trinity College, Melbourne,  which institution, I might say, has an theological  flavour very different from that of Moore College in Sydney. Here is one of Andrew’s reflections: 
“The Fathers of the Church understood that not everything in the Bible was literally true, but were relaxed about it; they were interested in more important stuff.”
From this sentence alone, you will perceive that Andrew is no mere Biblical literalist, but rather a ‘seeker after Truth’ – an important attitude, surely,  for an influential teacher and theologian.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch 

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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