The Events of Holy Week Radically Re-Assessed

Humphreys, Colin J.: The Mystery of The Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (CUP, 2011).


Anybody who reads any Gospel account of Holy  Week with critical care will experience some discomfort at the extreme compression of the narrative; and anybody who reads the account of John alongside that of another Evangelist will be even more uncomfortable because of the glaring discrepancies in the narratives. Indeed, after the vexed issue of theodicy there is probably no single topic which has so discredited Christianity as the narrative muddle over the most important week in the life of Jesus. John insists that Jesus was crucified before Passover while the Synoptics insist that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. Discuss.

Colin Humphreys is no ordinary discussion leader. He is a materials scientist with a lifelong passion for New Testament studies and he has used all the resources of contemporary computer-driven astronomical calculation to shed new life on this major Christian embarrassment.

Refreshingly, for a modern commentator - and following in the ground-breaking footsteps of Richard Bauckham - Humphreys' starting point is that we should take the Evangelists at their literal word, parsing the sentences for their basic meaning before going off into flights of hermeneutical fancy. So, he argues, when he sees a text saying: "It was morning", he assumes that it was.

By a process of empirical elimination, based on astronomical calculation, Humphreys dates the Crucifixion of Jesus to 3rd April, 33 AD. This, he says, confirms that Jesus died at precisely the hour ("The Ninth Hour" or 3 pm) when the lambs were being slaughtered for Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7) and rose three days later, parts of days being counted as whole days at that time (1 Corinthians 15:20, cf Leviticus 23:10-11). Thus ends an extremely crisp analysis.

There then follows almost half of the book dealing with ancient calendars which, Humphreys says, shows that Jesus, the "New Moses" (Luke 22:20 cf Exodus 24:8; Luke 22:19, cf Exodus 12:14) was operating on a "Pre Exilic", sunrise-to-sunrise calendar, as opposed to the contemporary sunset-to-sunset calendar used by John who calls it "the Jewish Passover" (John 11:55); and that Jesus therefore celebrated a genuine Passover Last Supper meal on Wednesday 1st April. On the rather superficial basis, I admit, that the more laboured an explanation the less I trust it, I find the calculations a little tendentious but, paradoxically, I find  the conclusion absolutely convincing.

What convinces me is not so much the calendars as the way Humphreys reads his Scripture. Luke 22:10-12 identifies the strange, socially anomalous,  image of a man carrying a pitcher of water because the Essene sect in Jerusalem was almost entirely celibate and, therefore, men had to carry water. Jesus probably, therefore, celebrated his Last Supper Passover in the upper room of a house in the Essene quarter. The lamb would have been killed between sunset and star shine in a tradition directly echoing Moses and pre-dating the slaughter of lambs in the afternoon before the Passover day began at sunset. The leisurely meal, with its attendant discourses, would have ended early in the morning of Thursday when Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane. He could not have been arrested in the upper room because the authorities would not have sent TempleGuards into the Essene Quarter. Jesus was taken to Annas who was the de facto High Priest, the power behind the throne, which explains the ambivalence in naming the High Priest.

The formal Sanhedrin trial began after sunrise on Thursday morning and lasted most of the day as there were many (false) witnesses. Jesus was imprisoned on Thursday evening and was sentenced on Friday morning before being sent to Pilate to confirm the sentence who sent him to Herod before finally pronouncing. Here we have two significant pieces of evidence: first, the Sanhedrin was not allowed to meet at night and if it wished to condemn a person to death that had to happen on the day after the trial; so the idea that Jesus was tried and sentenced in the middle of one night makes no sense. Secondly, and to my mind even more convincing, is the account in Matthew 27:19 of the behaviour of Pilate's wife who could hardly have had a bad dream about the condemnation of Jesus during the night when he was being arrested, unknown even to her husband. Her dream only makes sense if she knew about the trial on Thursday afternoon prior to Jesus being sentenced on Friday morning. Added to this, it is difficult to see how all the Sanhedrin and witnesses could have been summoned between midnight and first light on Friday; and Pilate could only have been involved through a formal Sanhedrin petition.

This is a lucid and deeply satisfying set of conclusions from a careful sifting of the evidence and it is little wonder that the book was widely cited in the press during Holy Week 2011 but, thus far, it seems to have had very little impact in church circles. You might say that this is because the implications for the way we celebrate Holy Week would be shattering or because we're all 'grown up' and can take this kind of disruption in our stride. After all, we celebrate Christmas very well while taking the Gospel accounts of the Nativity no more literally than the cant we feed to  our children about Father Christmas (incidentally, Humphreys, in other work, has dated the Nativity to 5 BC when there was a comet which accounts for the story of the "star").

If Humphreys is right, the key questions we need to ask ourselves are: what difference does this make to the credibility of Scripture? Should our belief be related in some way to a literal understanding of the Gospel texts; and should we change our Holy Week liturgies to reflect these radical conclusions?

Although some of the parts are just a little awkward to fit into the jig-saw, I found the whole utterly convincing, a very nice rejoinder to Geza Vermez on the one hand and Richard Dawkins on the other. A compulsory read for all serious Christians.