When did Jesus die? Memory and the Religious Imagination
In this blogpost, Helen Bond discusses her article ‘Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination’, which was published in New Testament Studies at the end of last year (59/4).
When it comes to the death of Jesus, the difference in chronology between John’s Gospel and the Synoptic tradition is well known. While both maintain that Jesus died on a Friday, in John’s gospel that Friday is the Day of Preparation, while in the Synoptics it is Passover itself. Scholars have come up with a number of ingenious ways to resolve this discrepancy (largely focusing on calendrical considerations), but in the end the dominant scholarly view is that we simply have to choose one over the other. So either Mark is correct and John has changed things for theological reasons, or vice versa.
Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, scholars have tended to opt for John’s account here. Despite its obvious theology (Jesus as the new paschal lamb), the Fourth Gospel presents a much more coherent narrative which avoids the difficulties of Mark’s arrest on the feast day and the unpleasantness of his Jewish kangaroo court. It is John’s dating, along with astronomical considerations, which gives the commonly accepted date of Jesus’ crucifixion – 7 April 30 CE.
When we look at Mark’s account, however, it is clear that only two (quite likely Markan) passages specifically note that Jesus died on the day of Passover itself – 14.1 and 14.12-16. Curiously, a number of other passages tell against this dating: the decision of the chief priests not to arrest Jesus during the feast (14.2), the note that Simon of Cyrene had just come in from the country/field (15.21), and Joseph of Arimathaea’s shopping expedition (15.42-46). These discrepancies suggest that Mark adapted an older account, situating Jesus’ death on the day of Passover onto a tradition which dated things rather differently.
Scholars who note the Markan difficulties most often assume that the evangelist’s source exhibited a Johnannine chronology, which Mark has altered for his own purposes – most likely to make theological connections between the Passover seder and the Christian Eucharist. But I see no evidence for a Johannine dating in the text. In the rest of the article, I draw on studies of individual and collective memory to suggest a rather different historical reality, and a different pattern of Christian reflection on tradition.
I suggest that we should understand Jesus’ death ‘at Passover’ in the same way that a modern Christian might talk of the death of a loved one ‘at Christmas’. The expression might mean that the person died on the 25th December, but it might easily refer to any time within a week or so of the feast. Similarly, Jesus might have died some time prior to the festival, perhaps up to a week beforehand. In the course of time, this death ‘at Passover’ was relocated to (at least) two differing yet theologically important dates by early Christians. By the 50s, Paul was a witness to what was probably a widespread understanding of Jesus as ‘our paschal lamb’ (1Cor 5.7). As the first passion narratives began to be composed, however, this theological understanding had to become more concrete. The tradition known to John placed Jesus’ death at the very moment that the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple, casting him as the new paschal lamb, whose death removed the sins of the world. A different tradition linked Jesus’ last meal to the Passover, so that the Eucharistic commemoration of Jesus’ death now took the place of the Passover meal, and became the symbol of the new covenant between God and his people. This is the interpretation found in Mark and enhanced in the longer version of Luke 22.14-20. Thus, both the Johannine and Markan traditions narratively represent Jesus’ death as profoundly meaningful, but both are based in the end not on any historical reminiscence, but on collective theological symbolic elaborations of the memory that Jesus died ‘around Passover.’
The phenomenon of significant dates acting as magnets for historical events is widespread not only in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also in Jewish and early Christian authors. Josephus notes that the Second Temple fell on precisely the same date as the first Temple had fallen to the Babylonians (9th Av; War 6.269), and Eusebius went so far as to claim that Jerusalem fell at Passover, a note which presumably incorporates his sense of divine retribution on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus (H.E. 3.5.5-6). What is important in these dates is not the precise historical point in time, but the location of an event in a theologically resonant schema, in which God is seen to be in control.
If I am correct in my hypothesis, then we can no longer use John’s Gospel to date Jesus’ death. If neither tradition is historically correct, then it is no longer a question of working out on which year the Day of Preparation fell on a Friday. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that Jesus’ death occurred after the appearance of John the Baptist and before the likely beginnings of Paul’s mission – that is to say, any time between 29 and 34 CE.
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