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Reconstructing Holy Week

24 March 2009

John Court on a vivid piece of detection

The Longest Week: The truth about Jesus’ last days
Nick Page
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, John Wenham, famous for his textbook of New Testament Greek, wrote Easter Enigma, in which he adopted the methods of a fictional detective story to piece together a coherent account of the Easter events from the five versions in the New Testa­ment. It needed “imagination and reasoned conjecture” to establish the motives of all the witnesses. Now Nick Page, a prolific author who de­scribes himself as a freelance writer, designer, and former actor, has taken a similar approach to Holy Week, and sought to produce “a history of the last week of Jesus’ life”.

For him “it’s a darker, more com­plex story than we realise, a tale of politics and double-dealing, of be­trayal and compromise, of remark­able, earth-shattering events, of apparent failure and astonishing triumph.” He claims that his narra­tive resembles “a white-knuckle ride”.

Page seeks to present “all the sights, sounds, smells of Jerusalem at Passover”; he acknowledges the use of imagination and modern par­allels, as well as the source mater­ial of ancient literature, Ro­man, Jewish, and Christian. Such a reconstruction is necessarily specu­lative as to the days and timing of the events. John’s Gospel is pre­ferred for the chronology (apart from the Triumphal Entry), but on individual narratives Page is select­ive, sometimes preferring Mark’s version and sometimes Luke’s. The theology is underplayed; in its place is a discursive emphasis on politics and economics (e.g. the contrast of powers between Jesus and Pilate — entering Jerusalem from east and west respectively — and the profit­eering within the Temple system).

The language of the narrative is vivid, and sometimes jokey to the point of irritation (e.g. “Houston we have a problem” applied to the con­trast between John and the Synop­tics on the question of Passover). The book is well-researched, to judge from the footnotes and bib­lio­graphy, but not always up to date. The author says that writing it af­fected him exceptionally and drew sweat and tears, if not actually blood.

Unusual features include identifying the young man who fled naked from Gethsemane as Lazarus, and the other disciple accompany­ing Peter to the High Priest’s house as Judas Iscariot, because he would be well-known there. Annas has a larger role because he is offended by Jesus’s interference with the Temple trade in which he had a personal interest. And the Last Supper is summed up in these words: “Real bread, real wine: the ordinary stuff of life. Yet transformed into the stuff of sharing and story and symbol.”

Dr Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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