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Night that he was betrayed

27 June 2011

Anthony Harvey on a sorting out of Holy Week chronology


The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the final days of Jesus
Colin J. Humphreys

Cambridge University Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

“I AM both a scientist and someone who has studied the Bible.” The author who offers this modest descri­ption of himself is Sir Colin Hum­phreys, who holds a senior position as a scientist in Cambridge, has writ­ten a book on Old Testa­ment history, and has a keen interest in astronomy.

He brings these powerful re­sources to bear not just on the Last Supper, but on what he identifies as “the four mysteries of the last week of Jesus”: first, the “lost day” (Wed­nes­day) when nothing seems to have happened; second, the nature of Jesus’s last supper — Passover or otherwise; third, the unduly short time allowed for Jesus’s trial; and, fourth, its apparent illegality accord­ing to subsequently recorded Jewish regulations.

Conscious also of the handle that inconsistencies between the Gospels give to those who impugn their historical value, he urges his own reconstruction as enabling us to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel with regard to the date and character of the Last Supper — the “mystery” of the book’s title.

New astronomical data allow him to claim virtual certainty for the date and time of Jesus’s death: Friday 3 April AD 33, at 3 p.m. According to the official Jewish calendar in use at the time, the Passover lambs were accepted for ritual killing at the Temple that afternoon, and the Pass­over supper was celebrated later that evening. This accords with the account in John’s Gospel, where the crucifixion takes place while the Pass­over lambs are being slaugh­tered. But, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the Passover preceded the crucifixion. Could their authors (and Jesus) have been using a different calendar, according to which the Passover would have been celebrated a day or two earlier?

This is not a new suggestion, nor an implausible one. The Essenes of Qumran are known to have used a different calendar. But Humphreys has a more sophisticated and prob­able suggestion. There is evidence of a calendar that was customarily used by the Jews before the Exile, in which the days were counted beginning, not at sunset (as in the official Jewish calendar), but at sunrise. Calculation by computer enables astronomers to establish that, according to this calendar, the Passover in AD 33 fell on the Wednesday. If Jesus and his disciples were following this calendar (for which they could claim the author­ity of Moses), and celebrated their Passover meal on the Wednes­day evening, all the Gospel accounts of his last days can be reconciled.

Is it possible — or probable — that Jesus was using this unofficial but religiously significant calendar? Humphreys can find evidence that there were groups in Jerusalem who did so (rather in the way that Ortho­dox Christians still celebrate Easter using a different calendar), and even that the Temple was available for the slaughter of lambs for those who kept their Passover earlier. His argu­ment is then made all the more persuasive, in that it allows the trial to be held during the day on Thurs­day, and the verdict confirmed early on Friday morning, so conforming to Jewish regulations as codified two centuries later; and a number of other smaller details (such as the puzzling “not during the festival” of Mark 14.2) fall neatly into place.

The precision made possible by modern astronomy, the thorough­ness with which the author has ex­plored all available literary, histor­ical, and astronomical evidence, and the clarity with which he leads the reader through a complex argument make him a powerful advocate for this new chronology.

Underlying it is his determination to rescue the Gospels from the charge of inconsistency and histor­ical unreliability. But even he has to allow that the Gospel accounts are necessarily selective in what they record; and sometimes memory may place successive events in the wrong order. So we cannot always follow the Gospels slavishly. This leaves a basic question unanswered: how im­portant to them was chronological accuracy?

Suppose, half a century later, no one any longer remembered exactly when Passover fell that year, and all that could be recalled was that Jesus was crucified around the time of Passover, and that he had a “last supper” with his disciples. More than one theological message could be inferred from this: either that Jesus represented the Paschal lamb, being put to death on the same day as the lambs at the Temple (so Paul and, by implication, John’s Gospel); or else (as in the Synoptics) that his last supper was the new Passover, Jesus deliberately refashioning the Jewish ritual that was being celebrated by others at that very moment.

Both reconstructions were preg­nant with religious significance, and have enriched the worship and devotion of the Church ever since. How much does it matter whether either or both of them happen to be historically correct?

Canon Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-dean of Westminster Abbey.

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