Friday, March 25, 2005

Vermes on Good Friday (with comments)

Geza Vermes has developed an uncanny ability to pop up at all the major moments of the Christian calendar, and at other times too, to comment on the Gospels and the Historical Jesus. He is in this week's Church Times commenting on the date of the first Good Friday and related matters:

Professor Vermes finds a date for Good Friday
By Bill Bowder
Arguing from his knowledge of Jewish laws and customs, he said last week that the Synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were wrong about many details of the Last Supper, Jesus's arrest, and his trial. The trial before the Sanhedrin never took place, he said. The religious authorities would not have tried Jesus for blasphemy, because he never used the sacred name of God.

"No Jewish law of any age suggests that the messianic claim amounted to the crime of blasphemy," he said. Furthermore, the Jewish authorities could not have tried Jesus on the Passover . . . .

. . . . . Professor Vermes said he knew exactly when Jesus died. "Of course Easter should be on a fixed day. There are not many things in the Gospels that you can be half as certain about." He has based his calculations of Jesus's death on the known dates of John the Baptist's ministry and of the spring equinox, and on the assumption that Jesus's ministry lasted only one year.

Jesus could not have died in the years 31 or 32 because the Passover did not fall on Saturday, although it could have fallen on a Saturday in 33. John's Gospel suggests a three-year ministry, but Jesus could not have survived that long, Professor Vermes argued. "I don't think that anybody of the type of John the Baptist or Jesus could have lasted three years in the Roman Empire. They would have been finished off," he said. The Romans were "completely ruthless if you crossed them".
I haven't had a chance to look at Vermes's new book yet, so these comments are, of course, provisional and may be addressed in the book itself. First, the blasphemy question. Vermes claims here, and has often claimed in the past, that claiming to be Messiah would not amount to blasphemy. That seems to be clearly correct. But some of the most persuasive current readings of the Marcan trial see the blasphemy charge not in Jesus' affirmative answer to the High Priest's question "Are you the Messiah, the Son of Blessed?" but in his elaboration, "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14.62).

Second, the question of the length of Jesus' ministry. I don't know why one would assume that it lasted for only a year and in so far as one can judge from general impressions, mine would be that it was much longer, with time to travel, to build a reputation, to gather followers, perhaps to visit Jerusalem more than once. On the notion that John's Gospel gives us a three year ministry, I am not convinced. It seems to me to be two years, from Passover in Chapter 2 to Passover in Chapters 13 and following, with one Passover in between in Chapter 6. That is two years and a couple of days, not three years. On whether someone like that could have "survived that long", does that not lend plausibility to Jesus' having spent the majority of his career in Galilee away from Rome?

On pinpointing the date of the first Good Friday, I am not as confident as Vermes. That vital contradiction between the Synoptics and John demonstrates that our earliest sources are just not sure whether Jesus was crucified exactly on a Passover or not. What they appear to know is that Jesus was crucified somewhere around that time. That fits the historically probable notion that Jesus' death is likely to have been caught up with the Passover crowds that year, the presence of Pilate and so on, without our necessarily having to try to be as precise as are the Synoptic writers. It is my view, to be defended at great length in due course, that the dating of Jesus' crucifixion on 15 Nisan (Synoptics) and 14 Nisan (John) are bound up with the differing dates on which the respective communities celebrated Jesus' passion. The celebration of Jesus' Passion on 14 Nisan carried on well into the Second Century among the Quartodecimans ("14th-ers"), whose tradition, according the Eusebius (H. E. V, 23), spanned "the whole of Asia".

1 comment:

John W. Marshall said...

The notion that we can judge how long Jesus or John "could have lasted" is deeply problematic. Perhaps if we assume that Jesus was "too hot to handle" from the moment he undertook public speech, but where is the evidence for this? Gospel chronology is too lightly founded for this type of reasoning.

On the notion that a messianic claim [or, I would add, attribution] need not constitute blasphemy, I thank Vermes for a strong and helpful caution.