Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 3 of 3)

III. The Reversed Timeline

(View Part I; view  Part II.)

The vast majority of believers and free thinkers alike accept the existence of an “historical Jesus”, a real person whose actions and words were the seed of the Christian religion. They see the discrepancies, confusion and gaps in the story as the result of a centuries-long game of ‘telephone’; nevertheless, an unbroken flow of information exists from the man’s original followers and contemporary witnesses, into a fluid oral tradition, then a written proto-gospel(s), the canonical gospels and — passing through generations of copyists and suffering countless transcription errors — to the present day.

Rather, entertain for a moment another explanation, an alternate timeline where, instead of the man becoming more like a god with each telling of the story, the god becomes more like a man over time.

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The earliest writings on The Christ seem to be Paul’s so-called “undisputed” epistles, yet they contain none of Jesus’ sayings, no details his life. In I Corinthians, Paul (or whoever wrote Corinthians) provides what has to be the first description of the Last Supper. What was his source? A vision. “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” Paul never met Jesus, nor was he converted by Jesus’ followers — he heard a voice in his head while on the road to Damascus. However detailed Paul’s vision may be, it holds the same historical merit as Sister Emmerich’s fantasies. Is Corinthians the true origin of the Last Supper?

Although Paul is shoe-horned into the timeline just following Jesus’ crucifixion (based solely the mention of a ‘Saul’ present at the stoning of the mythical Stephen), the Pauline Epistles are undated. They first appear around AD 145, in the canon of Marcion, which also contained the first gospel, Marcion’s own. Around this same time we find the first indirect references to the existence of the canonical gospels, as well as a slew of Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels. (The earliest surviving manuscripts of the canonical gospels date to the mid 4th Century; the earliest fragments of Gnostic gospels to the mid 3rd Century.) All attempts at an earlier dating of the gospel pericopes are self-referential.

A gaping, 110 year-long hole now opens in the timeline, from the assumed date of Jesus’ Passion until the first written accounts of it. Eleven decades during which the new church has established itself not only in Jerusalem and the Levant, but in Alexandria, “great numbers spreading” across Asia Minor, in Greece, and in Rome where “vast multitudes” of Chrestians supposedly existed as early as the 60’s. Did none of these innumerable converts know how to write?

Word War One

It’s no coincidence that gospels larded with pseudo-factual details about an earthly Jesus first started appearing in the middle of the 2nd Century. A vicious turf war was raging among the several sects of the new religion, and the trinitarian sect in Rome was losing the war to the Gnostics. An highly plastic, almost casual worship of a timeless, ephemeral deity was open to infinite permutation and synthesis with other cults. It was eminently typical of that era, but also uncontrollable. By fixing a concrete, mortal entity into a definite point in time, a succession of authority could be established: the risen Jesus designates Peter who founds the church in Rome and designates Clement … all the way down to … me! (Note that Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, omits Jesus’ post-resurrection tour.)

The bare-bones of a biography had likely already been assimilated into a long-standing cult of the dying-and-rising god: rebel leader and messianic claimant named “Jesus” (every messianic claimant acquired the honorific ‘Yahweh Saves’) who gave his life for the cause, or fled but promised to return. The list of candidates is impressive, but one need not choose; they were all stitched together. Frankenjesus is born.

The story-line was barren, but Mark remedied that by riffing on Isaiah, Joshua, and Daniel. Luke contributed a veneer of historicity by plagiarizing Josephus like there was no tomorrow. Matthew tidied up the many Egyptian connections of the merged messiahs by shipping baby Frankenjesus off to the Land of the Pharaohs. Gods don’t issue proverbs; men do. Frankenjesus was provided not only with OT sayings and prayers (both the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ Gethsemane lament come straight out of Psalms), but also paraphrases of Seneca and other popular stoic philosophers.

By ingratiating itself with the Imperial powers, the sect in Rome acquired the strength to obliterate its more popular (and egalitarian) opponents. Under the aegis of the emperor Constantine, in AD 325 the Roman church convened the council of Nicaea, where it declared heretical all competing interpretations of the Christ. It trimmed the multiverse of scriptures down to a manageable — and hierarchy-friendly — canon.

Why retain four, barely-compatible versions of the same story? Why not combine the various elements into one, amalgamated gospel, as several communities had done (and as Luke claims to do)? The gospels were now set to a new task. What had formerly been free exegesis’s on eternal themes were now conscripted as corroborating (sic) eyewitness accounts.

Or So The Story Goes

The Nicene Council then appointed Eusebius to compile all material and write an ‘history of the victors.’ What Eusebius couldn’t remedy via interpolation or forgery, he burned — the entirety of the Gnostic corpus within his reach, the pagan criticisms, plus numerous works of antiquity that undermined the official story. And then Eusebius set the scribes to tydying up sanitized versions of the gospels, the very same works we today delve in search of traces of the historical Jesus.

We search there in vain. The ‘evidence’ seems to match the story only because, like Kaiser Söje’s tale, the story was created around the ‘evidence.’ However seemingly authentic their details, the gospels are fictional, and do not portray the “historical Jesus”, whoever that may have been. That person almost certainly wasn’t crucified c. AD 33, is probably a composite, and possibly never even existed. Our real story begins a century later.

© 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.


Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 2 of 3)

II. Delineating an Historical Window for the Passion

In response to the question, ‘when was Jesus born?’ most apologists answer ‘between 4 BC and AD 6 ’   That phrasing is specious, and should read ‘either/or’.  Matthew’s answer (when referring to the gospels, I will personalize the author, though we haven’t the slightest idea who actually wrote them) is ‘6, 5 or 4 BC.’  Luke is certain the year was AD 6.  Mark and John reply,  ‘who cares?’

The Jesus-Hunters are content to accept these contradictory dates as a ‘ballpark figure’ and set about triangulating from other specified dates in the gospels to home in on the precise years of Jesus’ ministry and death.

John the Baptist

Luke says John the Baptist’s ministry began fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, or AD 28/29.  Jesus begins his ministry either the day after his baptism (Luke, John), or sometime after the Baptist has been imprisoned (Mark, Matt). The historian Flavius Josephus tells us (assuming the relevant passage is not an interpolation) that John drew the ire of Herod for criticizing the king’s remarriage to his brother’s widow in late 34 or 35, and was executed in 36.  Christian apologists regularly push this back to 30-31, without basis.

This gives a time frame of between AD 28 and 36 at its widest for the advent of Jesus’ ministry.  Mark & Matthew narrow that window to between 34 and 36.

The Temple

John has Jesus questioned, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and you want to raise it up in three days?”  In the 18th year of his reign (20-19 BC),  Herod the Great began a magnificent rebuilding of the temple, which continued right up to its razing by the Romans.  This yields a AD 26 – 27  date for Jesus’ visit to the temple.  John has Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of this ministry, the synoptics place it just before the Passion.

The Peshitta 

The Peshitta, or Syriac vulgate version of the bible, mentions that Jesus died during his 6th septennial, that is, between the ages of 35 and 42.

With a Lukan birth, this means Jesus would have died between the years AD 41 and 48.  Following Matthew, the range would be AD 29 to 38.

The reference is worthless as corroborating evidence, as the author could simply have derived this age by tacking Luke’s “in his thirties” onto Matthew’s birth year.

The Passover Calendar

The synoptic gospels clearly indicate that Jesus celebrated Passover one (Hebrew) day before the sabbath.  John contradicts himself, first describing the Last Supper as a Seder, then saying the crucifixion happened on “the preparation day of the Passover“.  The mental gymnastics required to correlate the Jewish weekday with ours has led to widespread confusion, truckloads of special pleading, and accusations by biblical literalists that the Jews have misread their own calendar of six millennia.  Even Pope Benno (or his ghost writer) makes a complete arse of himself trying to sort it out.

The first day of Passover, or Pesach I, always coincides with the 15th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan.  The lamb is prepared for slaughter during the day of Nisan 14, and the Seder meal is held after sunset, that is, at the start of the next day.  Let’s dispense with modern day names to construct an abbreviated Passion timeline:

* Sunset — Nisan 15 / Pesach I / Day before Shabbat begins

— Passover meal (“Last Supper”)

— Gethsemane

— Jesus arrested

— Sanhedrin trial


— Jesus before Pilate

— Jesus crucified

— Jesus buried

* Sunset — Nisan 16 / Pesach II / Shabbat begins

— No activity


— No activity

* Sunset — Nisan 17 / Pesach III / “First Day”, day after Shabbat

— No activity


— Spices purchased

— Empty tomb discovered

We need only consult lunar charts, then correlate between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars to produce a list of years when Shabbat fell on Nisan 16.  That’s easier said than done, but it has been attempted in the past, with results posted on the internet.  Unfortunately, the researchers confuse themselves by talking about Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  The entire endeavor is made nearly hopeless by the Hebrew practices of calculating the new year by the sprouting of barley in Israel, moving the start of a month up a day if the sky was too cloudy to observe the crescent moon, and inserting entire ‘leap months’ whenever their calendar got too out-of-whack with the seasons. If any doubt remained, a feast was observed two days in a row.  These adjustments were made on an ad hoc basis depending on local conditions.

For what it’s worth, proposed matches for the synoptic gospels include AD 27, 30, 34, and 36, the last widely disputed.  John’s timeline matches the years AD 30 and 33.  Investigation has been limited to the span of Pilate’s rule.

The Essene Calendar

Some apologists believe they’ve discovered a way to reconcile John’s Passover with the synoptics.  The Essenes, who followed a separate calendar, squabbled with the other sects over the marking of holy days.  The  two often varied by several weeks, but in 30, the Essene Passover fell a day before that of the Pharisee/Sadducee feast.

Assuming Jesus was an Essene (and many do), he could have celebrated the Seder with his brethren, then the next day offered himself to the Sadducees and Pharisees as the sacrificial lamb of their Passover.

Pontius Pilate

Pilate ruled Judea from 26 until 36, when he was recalled for trampling local sensibilities and dispensing justice too harsh even for the standards of the age.

Both Josephus and Philo depict Pilate as “inflexible, stubborn and cruel”, whose preferred method of crowd control was to intersperse among the people soldiers in civilian garb, armed with cudgels, who, at a given signal, would begin pummeling at random and spark a stampede.  Hardly the type to bend over backwards to appease the throng gathered for Passover.

The release of prisoners on Passover is unequivocally not part of the Hebrew tradition.  The Barabbas tale does bear striking resemblance to the real Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat, as well as the Greek Pharmakos.  As such, the pericope serves double duty as exoneration of Rome for Jesus’ death, and allegory of sacrifice to remove sins and tribulations.

Barabbas (whose full name in early manuscripts is “Jesus Son of the Father [bar abba]”) is described as “a man in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”  What uprising?  The last recorded uprising was Judas the Galilean’s tax revolt in AD 6.  Had Barabbas been languishing in prison for thirty years?   Luke amends Barabbas’ crime to “for insurrection in the city.”  There had been a recent insurrection in the city — Jesus’ occupation of the Temple the week before!  Was Barabbas a follower of Jesus gone bad?  Moving past the orthodox time frame, we encounter several revolts  — in AD 46, 59, 66, 114 and 132 — each with a messianic leader with résumés similar to our man Jesus.  If this sounds absurd, note that all of these predate the first written gospels.

Pilate reportedly crucified 3,000 people during his tenure, including 500 in one day.  As Jesus was a common name, Pilate assuredly crucified several.  If our man was among them, we’ll never know for certain, as nothing outside of the NT links Pilate to him.  We must also entertain the possibility that  the original protagonist of the story has been bifurcated into Jesus and Barabbas.

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

Caiaphas’ tenure as high priest, running from AD 18 to 36/37 (per Josephus), imposes no constraints on the orthodox time frame.

Considerable disagreement exists between Jewish historians and biblical scholars as the role of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple Era.  Christian apologists are quick to point out an obscure reference in the Jerusalem version of the Talmud, implying that the Sanhedrin voluntarily gave up trying capital cases beginning in AD 30.  This, they reason, explains the mystery of why the priests, although “they condemned him as worthy of death“, had to turn Jesus over to the Romans for execution.  (John elaborates, “we have no right to execute anyone.“) Jewish scholars note a conflicting mishnah that states capital cases were not abandoned until after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.

Josephus mentions the high priest running afoul of the Romans in AD 15 for conducting executions that had been proscribed.  It’s unclear whether all executions or just certain types had been banned,  whether the edict was temporary or permanent, or if just this high priest was affected.  Far from being confirmation, the reference in Josephus may well be the source material for a 2nd Century embellishment.

The Talmud records thousands of trials that took place over centuries, but not a single mention of our man Jesus’ trial.

Mark displays a certain familiarity with Sanhedrin protocol (at least as they stood when first written down c. AD 200).  The priests do not “come to a decision” until daybreak.  Capital cases before the Sanhedrin could not be tried at night, and if deliberation went past sundown, a verdict could not be delivered until the morning.  The priests are vexed by contradicting testimony:  “many testify falsely, but their statements do not agree.”  If two witnesses contradicted each other, the Sanhedrin was required to throw out both testimonies.  The accused’s testimony in his own defense had to be weighed equally with that of others.  When Jesus admits to claiming divinity, the high priest says, “why do we need any more testimony?”

The most that can be said of these details is they are not inconsistent with the time frame.  Still, all were accessible from extant sources other than a putative, pre-Markan gospel tradition.  They no more confirm the existence of an historical Jesus than do authentic details consistent with the Battle of Chancellorsville found in The Red Badge of Courage confirm the existence of an historical Henry Fleming.

An Eclipse

Mark tells us, when Jesus was on the cross “darkness came over the whole land“, leading many bible enthusiasts to scour the astronomical charts for solar ellipses. Passover always begins at the full moon, when solar eclipses are impossible.

Extra-Canonical Documents

Four secular works of antiquity are cited as outside evidence for the existence of Jesus;  Josephus’ Antiquities (c. 100), Tacitus’ Annals (c. 110), Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (c. 119), and Pliny the Younger’s letters (110-112).   Each of these works is known to us only through 4th to 15th Century manuscripts copied by Christian scribes from earlier, lost versions.  Each of the relevant passages bear the marks of heavy interpolation or outright forgery – anachronisms, stylistic inconsistencies, etc.  Even assuming the minimum of tampering, the most that can be ascertained is:

  1. Pilate executed someone named Jesus;
  2. In Judea, there was once a man named James who had a brother named Jesus;
  3. Sometime after when Jesus is assumed to have lived, there were people who worshipped him.

Or more precisely, there existed “followers of Chrestus”,  whose worship consisted of communal meals held underground, an utterly unremarkable practice for the era.   ‘Chrestus’,  meaning “the good” or “useful”, was a common name among slaves and plebeians, as well as an honorific bestowed on popular leaders and deities alike.

More striking is the silence of contempary observers: Aelius Aristides, Appian, Appolonius,  Arrian, Damis, Epictetus, Justis, Lucan, Numenius, Pausanias, Philo, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Seneca.

Add It Up

Our window for dating an historical yet gospel-compatible Passion is firmly delineated on the one end by the Baptist’s imprisonment — late 34 at the earliest, early 36 at the latest, 35 most probable — and on the other by Pilate’s recall, likely in late in 36. The gospels never specifically state how many years Jesus was active, though most people assume one year. John mentions three separate Passover feasts, requiring no less than 25 months, which just barely fits into the widest possible stretching of the time frame.

The synoptic Passover dating matches 34 and possibly 36. John’s Passover dating falls outside the window, as does the Essene calendar theory.  Again, dating the Passion via the Hebrew lunar calendar is crippled by such inexactitude as to be essentially pointless.

Per Matthew’s nativity, Jesus would have been 40 to 42 years old in AD 36.  Luke’s nativity makes Jesus “about thirty” — just as Luke says!  The apparent corroboration is worthless. Luke lifts over two dozen passages nearly verbatim from the works of Josephus, which also give the dates for Pilate’s governorship and the Quirinius census.  All Luke had to do was count on his fingers then write down the number derived from his assumptions.  In any case, the phrase can also be translated as “in his thirties.”  John is even more vague, describing Jesus as “not yet fifty years old.”

The 34-36 window does not accommodate a visit to the Temple in 26-27 per John, which also predates The Baptist’s ministry per Luke.

The Peshitta-Matthew link can coexist with a AD 36 crucifixion; Peshitta-Luke cannot.

Accepting the highly-dubious historical mentions, one can only infer sometime prior to:

36 (Josephus)

54 (Suetonius)

64 (Tacitus)

112 (Pliny)

The year 36 emerges as the only plausible fit, and only if one discards parts of each synoptic, and most of John, as false.   The popular date of 33 for the Passion is based on three assumptions: 1) that Jesus was born in AD 1;  2) that he was “about thirty” (Luke) when he began preaching; 3) his ministry lasted three years (John.)  The fatal flaws of this formula are apparent, yet it is amazing how often devout Christians, after reviewing the materials outlined above, still arrive at 33 as the year of the Passion!

The only real conclusion that can be drawn from all these convoluted calculations is one already apparent to the astute observer: the canon contains serious contradictions, not only among the four gospels but also within each gospel, and is effectively useless as a dating tool.

(Up next — The Reversed Timeline.  View Part I.)

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved. 

Obstacles to Creating an Historical Timeline for The Passion of Christ (Part 1 of 3)

 – by Matt Cavanaugh

“Jesus Christ, I Presume”

Ask someone to name the year Jesus died, and the likely answer will be ’33 a.d.’  The hunt for the historical Jesus almost always begins at that point in time indicated by what appear to be clues in the gospels, the third decade of the 1st Century AD.

The Jesus-Hunters next assemble any & all relevant, extra-canonical data to pin down the Jesus story in an historical timeline.  And what a compelling story it is, filled with themes of love, courage, hatred, conspiracy, betrayal, and sacrifice, culminating at an exhilarating pace to a stunning climax.  No wonder it’s provided the plot for numerous movies and two Broadway musicals.

But when we try to use that story as a map to locate Jesus the man, more often than not we find ourselves following false spurs, headed down cul-de-sacs, or traveling in a circle to where we started.  We encounter three daunting obstacles:  1) Determining a plausible sequence of events during the Passion week; 2) Defining a window of possible years during which Jesus could have been active; 3) Tracing the ‘chain-of-command’ of the passing of the various story elements (pericopes) from putative eyewitnesses down to written, canonical gospels.

Jesus’ Insanely Overbooked Calendar for Passion Week 

Our story opens with Jesus, after a triumphant entry into Jerusalem as self-proclaimed King of the Jews, spending a quiet week in the temple preaching.  Then, fearing reprisal by the high priests (it’s their temple, after all), Jesus and Occupy Jerusalem flee to Bethany, two miles down the road, to celebrate Passover.  It’s Thursday.

After supper, Jesus and his followers decide to hide for the night in the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive oil factory just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  Sometime in the night, Jesus is arrested.  Everyone else escapes.  Jesus is dragged to the high priest’s house.  “All the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law come together”  — all seventy-one members of “the whole Sanhedrin” are roused from their beds and hastily assemble in Jerusalem.  They put Jesus on trial for blasphemy.  Witness after witness is called in, but they contradict each other.   Finally, Jesus is called to the stand and pleads guilty.  Blasphemy  is a capital crime, but for some reason the priests no longer can conduct executions. They hand him over to the soldiers who beat him and mock him.  All this takes place between sundown on Thursday and sunrise on Friday.

“Very early in the morning”, the Sanhedrin reaches a verdict/decision.  They ship Jesus off to Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman Province of Syria-Judea.  Pilate just happens to be in Jerusalem, instead of Caesarea, the capital of Judea, 55 miles away, or in Damascus, the capital of Syria, 135 miles away.  Pilate personally interrogates Jesus.  He asks Jesus if he really claims to be King of the Jews.  Jesus says ‘you got that right’.  This creates a bit of a friction as the last King of the Jews was deposed around 25 years ago, and Pilate is in charge now. Pilate figures this Jesus is a harmless nut, and tries to dump him onto the plate of Herod, King of Galilee, who just happens to be in Jerusalem, instead of in his capital of Sepphoris, 70 miles away. Herod convenes the Sanhedrin (again), who condemn him (again) and ship him back to Pilate.  All this takes place Friday morning.

Pilate comes up with another way to wash his hands of this crackpot Jesus. He offers Jesus as one of two possible prisoners to be released as part of an ancient Passover tradition nobody has ever heard of before. The crowd chooses a rebel leader named Barabbas and demands that Pilate crucify Jesus.  Wary of the mob, he consents.  Jesus is flogged, then the soldiers beat and mock him (again.)  It’s still Friday morning.

It’s around noon when Jesus is led outside the city and nailed to a cross.  From two to three women named Mary are in attendance.  Around 6 p.m., Jesus dies.  The sabbath will begin at sunset, so they have to hurry if they are to bury Jesus because Jews can’t touch dead things on the sabbath.  A friend asks Pilate if he can have the body.  Pilate agrees, maybe because he has issues with the standard Roman practice of leaving the corpses of crucifixion victims hanging for weeks to rot and be picked over by vultures.  The friend and the Marys perform an abbreviated version of the elaborate Jewish embalming ritual, toss Jesus’ body in a tomb, then hunker down for the Sabbath.

“Very early” on Sunday, “just after sunrise“, the Marys buy/prepare spices to complete Friday’s hasty embalming job.  They find the tomb open and Jesus’ body missing.  A boy/angel inside tells them Jesus has resurrected and gone to Heaven.  The End.  Or, Jesus spends a little more time visiting his disciples, names Rocky his successor, then goes to Heaven. The End.

Passion on Speed

The highly accelerated account  reads like a rush-order had been placed, with everyone pitching in to meet the Sunday morning deadline.

The presence of all seventy-one members of the Sanhedrin was required to try capital cases.  That they assembled in the middle of the first night of Passover to issue a drumhead verdict on the latest of a long line of messianic troublemakers, defies credulity.  They could have easily tossed Jesus into a dungeon and dealt with him at their leisure.  But Jesus had a pressing engagement.

Crucifixion victims normally lingered in agony for days, which was the whole point.  Any soldier foolish enough to deliver a coup-de-grace in the first few hours would find himself hanging from a cross of his own.  Yet Pilate is merely surprised.

Luke’s badminton game, with Jesus as shuttlecock batted from Pilate to Herod and back, is preposterous.  The very presence of the provincial governor in what was a small, backwater garrison town, much less his personal involvement in the case, is highly questionable.  To say that ‘Pilate crucified Jesus’ implies exactly the same as ‘Hitler murdered Anne Frank.’

One could also quibble (and many do) over whether sunset Friday — daybreak Sunday equals three days. The question is moot.  While actual events resembling the Passion Week might have taken place over a more extended period, the entire account must be rejected as completely unhistorical, a compressed, fictional allegory of salvation through the sacrifical lamb.

(Up next — Delineating an Historical Window for the Passion)

(c) 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh.  All rights reserved.