Friday, March 21, 2008

The Day Christ Died

James Tabor is author of The Jesus Dynasty and one of the chief proponents of the idea that the tomb of the family of Jesus may have been found: the Talpiot Tomb. Here is his blog post for Holy Thursday:

The subject heading is the title of a most famous book by Jim Bishop, The Day Christ Died, published in 1957 by Harper Collins with an official Imprimatur by the famous Archbishop of New York Francis Cardinal Spellman–guaranteeing it “free of doctrinal or moral error.” The book is still available in reprint editions. I highly recommend it for a kind of retrospective history reading. I remember devouring this book when it came out. I was eleven years old. It captivated me utterly, I could not put it down.

Fifty years later I write this post on a Thursday night, on the eve of “Good Friday,” that happens this year to also be the night of Purim as well as the Vernal Equinox–a kind of triple package of markers and observances. Today is Thursday. I have been absolutely convinced for several years now, as I explain in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that Jesus died on Nisan 14th, which in the year A.D. 30, fell on a Thursday not a Friday. So this is indeed, the “day Christ died.” He was put in the temporary rock hewn tomb just before sunset, and Friday, the following day, was the first day of Passover. This means the Passover meal or Seder was eaten that Thursday night, just as the Gospel of John records (John 13:1; 18:28). The next day, Friday, was indeed a “Sabbath,” but not Saturday, the weekly Sabbath, but rather one of the seven “annual” Sabbaths of the Jewish festival cycle (see Leviticus 23:7). This means there were two Sabbaths, back to back, Friday and Saturday, that year. Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene went early to the tomb and found it empty, it was indeed “three days and three nights” that Jesus had laid in that tomb (Thurs, Friday, Saturday nights), which comports with the tradition that Matthew has received (Matthew 12:40). Surely a million Sunday schools kids over the years have asked, not to mention adults, how can you get three nights, from Friday to Sunday morning. It simply will not work.

Modern astronomical programs completely confirm this chronology of the Spring of A.D. 30. I have had quite a few dozens of readers write me to point out that the Jewish calendar never allows the 14th of Nisan to fall on a Thursday. But this adjustment in the calendar, based on what are called “postponements,” was not instituted until well into the 2nd century. In the time of Jesus the month of Nisan was set by the new moon, and that particular year, A.D. 30, the 14th day of the first month (14 days after the new moon) fell on a Thursday. The “last supper,” that Jesus ate with his disciples the night before, a Wednesday evening, was not the Passover Seder, but a messianic banquet or Eucharist of “bread and wine,” such as mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Didache. One way of putting it is that Jesus did not eat the Passover, he was the Passover, at least as understood by the Gospel of John and by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7). According to Josephus it was between 3pm and sundown the Passover sacrifices were made, just as the 14th of Nisan ended and the 15th, an annual Sabbath, began. Christians subsequently saw great symbolism in this chronology.

Tabor is one of those rare progressive biblical scholars who thinks there is a fair amount of historical accuracy to be found in the details of the gospel stories, including the Gospel of John, and he puts it all together in a readable and fascinating way in his book. This post is a good example; he thinks the Gospel of John has the right chronology on Jesus' last supper. The last supper wasn't a Passover meal, which, Tabor says, would have been celebrated by Jesus with his extended family and disciples. The last supper was in essence a strategy meal (from his book) with the disciples to lay out his plans for the next day, and to say goodbye.

Jesus was killed on Thursday and buried in a temporary tomb by Thursday night. The women, who had watched the crucifixion from a distance also followed to see where he was buried. Mary Magdalene went on Sunday morning after the Sabbath to find the tomb and the tomb was empty. And the rest was history.

Or faith. Reading Tabor is like reading a good historic novel. Plenty of well-researched historic details and lots of imaginative speculation filling in the unknown gaps. But in his defense, every biblical scholar does the same. There is much that we don't know about the details and chronology of Jesus' life and death.

Tabor, by the way, is in Jerusalem participating in an archeological dig.

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