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.


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

  1. […] Did it happen? If so….when?  […]

  2. fionnchu says:

    As a boy, I read what was one of my dad’s favorite books, Jim Bishop’s no-nonsense (sic), brisk you-are-there, 1950s pop-journalist’s account of “The Day Christ Died.” Then, in Catholic h.s. and college, I learned of the discrepancies of the Gospel narratives and that “the Bible is not a history book.” Tamerlane, your “rush order” analogy perfectly suits the latter perspective; in retrospect I wonder if such as Bishop ever noticed such meticulous discrepancies, in their own desire to tell the Greatest Story Ever Told vividly–always the Fourth Estate’s own rush to get it in print? Same as it ever was. Even if all the news doesn’t fit.

    • tamerlane says:

      I was told that disclaimer, too. So, if it’s not history, then it’s myth, so it doesn’t need to be true to convey it’s message. But what they’re really saying is, ‘of course the sillier parts aren’t historical, but the rest is.’

  3. moseszd says:

    Really nice work. I appreciate it.

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