Reviews of

Helen Bond, “Dating the Death of Jesus”

In Edinburgh, Helen BOND, Historical Jesus, Kerry Lee, SEMINAR REPORTS on December 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm

A report on a paper given by Dr. Helen Bond (Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Edinburgh) at the Biblical Studies Seminar at New College, the University of Edinburgh, 2 December 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Biblical Studies Seminars at Edinburgh can be downloaded from here. RBECS is also on facebook, here.

Dr. Bond presented a clear and persuasive argument against the certainty with which numerous scholars date the death of Jesus to 7th of April 30 CE. Her paper first set forth the reasons for this consensus, the implications of the date, a reflection on the nature of the chronological data in the Gospel of Mark, and her own suggestion, which affirms the basic historicity of the Gospel accounts but which also detaches the event from the specific date of 7th April 30 CE. She concluded by pre-emptively answering some common objections to her position. Central to her thesis was a contemplation on the nature of human remembrance and its tendency to shift to infuse meaning in subjectively significant events.

The paper’s impetus is a scepticism towards the apparent certainty a large number of scholars exhibit in dating Jesus’ death. This date emerges from the scholarly awareness of apparent contradictions between, especially, the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels of Mark and John. The Gospel of Mark in its final form presents the Last Supper as a Passover meal (occurring Friday evening, since the Jewish day was considered to begin with sundown), thus making Jesus’ crucifixion and death occur on the day of Passover, Saturday the 15th of Nisan. On the other hand, the Gospel of John presents Jesus’ crucifixion as occurring at the same time as the slaughter of the Passover lamb, on the day of Preparation, Friday the 14th of Nisan, with the Last Supper occurring on Thursday evening.

Scholars have dealt with this discrepancy in several different ways. Some have attempted to harmonise the data, usually positing some kind of alternative or dual calendrical system (e.g. as opposed to using the dominant Babylonian lunar calendar the disciples used either an old solar calendar, as found at Qumran, or a pre-exilic lunar calendar). Against these harmonising efforts, Dr. Bond raised several objections: 1) there is little evidence for widespread use of alternative calendars for religious use in 1st century Palestine; 2) the old solar calendar in evidence at Qumran is now thought to be schematic rather than practical, relating to a future age; 3) there is not the slightest indication in Jesus’ preserved teachings that contention about the religious calendar was an issue; 4) according to either alternative calendar, the 14th or 15th of Nisan, and hence the Last Supper, would have happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday rather than a Thursday or Friday, so reconciliation along these lines introduces other problems. Others have posited a difference in dating between diaspora and Palestinian Jews, but one would think, according to Dr. Bond, that anyone making the journey to Jerusalem would have needed to use a Jerusalem calendar.

Rather than attempting to harmonise the data, more recent scholars have usually given preference to the account in the Gospel of John over that in the Gospel of Mark for two reasons: 1) John’s account is internally consistent, whereas Mark’s is not, and 2) the trial makes more sense in the Gospel of John. The evidence of astronomy has also been garnered to support the Johannine chronology. But this preference is immediately questionable given that the Gospel of John is at the same time generally considered to be the least historically reliable of the four Gospels.

Dr. Bond next re-examined the evidence in the Gospel of Mark and noted that the two passages which make the link with the Passover (14:1 and 14:12-16) are considered redactional. If one does not take these two passages into consideration, a possibly pre-Markan chronology emerges. The evidence for an alternative date comes especially from three places. First, the release of Barabbas in 14:2 makes more sense at the beginning of the week of preparation, not on the day of Passover itself, as Mark’s Gospel would have it. Second, in 15:21 Simon of Cyrene is coming in the from the field, perhaps indicating a distance of travel longer than was deemed permissible on the Sabbath. Third, Joseph of Arimethea’s activities in 15:42-46 would have been difficult to impossible on the Passover (especially the commerce indicated in the purchase of a linen shroud for Jesus). In fact, Dr. Bond notes, Mark’s entire portrayal of “Holy Week” is organised by subject rather than chronology. Rather than giving an indirect confirmation of the Johannine chronology, Dr. Bond seeks a third but less specific way to deal with the data

Her proposal is that in historical fact, the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, it was simply a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples some time before Passover, possibly the Thursday evening of the week before Passover, and in any year between 27 and 34 CE. This allows for a connection of the event with the Passover celebration, and makes the most sense of the types of activities said to have occurred, including the release of Barabbas. The connection of the Last Supper and Jesus’ death more specifically with Passover celebrations was a result of later remembering and theological reflection which took two directions (meaning argument for specific dates from details included in either text or from astronomy misses the point). In one of the two directions (that of John and Paul), Jesus was equated with the paschal lamb and was crucified the day before Passover. In the other (seen especially in Mark), the Last Supper is connected with the Passover celebration itself, so that Jesus is remembered as having been crucified on the very day of Passover. Dr. Bond tied in this process of remembering with some discussion of scholarly work done on the fragility of human memory and with a personal anecdote (with which she had introduced her paper) wherein she had misremembered the death of her grandmother as having occurred on the 31st of December when it had actually occurred on the 27th of December. This misremembrance she attributes to the fact that the death had occurred near the new year and to her desire to find some solace in associating that death with the end of one year and the beginning of another.

To conclude her paper, Dr. Bond addressed three objections to her kind of suggestion raised by John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew. In response to the most significant of those objections, that text criticism should only in the rarest cases reject all extant readings in favour of a hypothetical one, Dr. Bond differentiated her work from text criticism. She was not attempting to argue that the original or most-authoritative reading of Mark is one which excises 14:2 and 14:12-16. Rather, she is formulating an explanation for psychological and sociological forces in the early Church which could have led to the development of two irreconcilable and equally problematic chronologies of Jesus’ Last Supper and death, both of which relate the passion to the Passover albeit in different ways.

Kerry Lee
University  of Edinurgh

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  1. […] Supper and Crucifixion among the Gospels is attributable, in part, to theological concerns – see Helen Bond, “Dating the Death of Jesus”; also vv. 31-36 where legs are not broken in accordance with Exodus 12:46). During the Feast of […]

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