Jesus Christ's Last Supper 'was on a Wednesday'
The gist of the story is that Colin Humphreys, a metallurgist and materials scientist at the University of Cambridge, claims that Jesus and the Synoptics were working with one (older) calendar, according to which Passover fell that year on the Wednesday, while John was working with the standard calendar, according to which Passover fell that year on the Friday evening / Sabbath.
The story made it into the L.A. Times (link courtesy of Jim Davila, who also reports an email comment from Geza Vermes) and there are fuller versions at Cambridge University's research pages, The Penultimate Supper? and in an article written by Humphreys himself in Bible and Interpretation, The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Last Days of Jesus. These articles are all advertising Humphreys's new book, The Mystery of the Last Supper, now out from Cambridge University Press.
This is an ingenious proposal that attempts to squeeze every element in the Gospel Passion chronology into a harmonized whole. If I have understand the case properly, and I have not yet had a chance to read the book, the effective timetable, on Humphreys's scheme, looks like this:
Wednesday evening: Last Supper (Old Passover: Synoptics; before the Official Passover: John)
Thursday: Trial before the Sanhedrin
Friday: Trial before Pilate and Crucifixion
Sabbath: "Official" Passover (John)
This scheme of contrasting Passovers attempts to resolve the conflict over the date of the crucifixion. It attempts to harmonize all the varying statements in the Gospels. When the Synoptics talk about Jesus eating the Passover, they are talking about Passover on an old calendar. When John talks about events before Passover , he is talking about Passover on the "official" calendar. So both types of statements, eating the meal before the Passover and during the Passover, can be harmonized.
It is a neat solution and I'll have to read the book to get the detail but on the basis of the sketch, let me outline my problems with the proposal:
(1) One of Humphreys's primary concerns is to avoid the idea that the Gospels "contradict themselves". The concern is one that characterizes apologetic works and it is not a concern that I share. Nevertheless, if it is to be a concern, then it needs to be reiterated that as they stand, the Gospels do "contradict themselves" and this proposal does not succeed in avoiding the contradiction. What the Synoptics are calling "the Passover" is set on a different day from what John is calling "the Passover". The Synoptics do not distinguish the Passover that Jesus is celebrating from the Passover that everyone else was celebrating (e.g. Mark 14.1-2) and John shows no awareness of an alternative Passover date. What Humphreys's proposal does is to try to explain the contradiction in the light of a proposed underlying history; it does not remove the contradiction.
(2) It is not just Jesus and his disciples in the Synoptics who think that it is Passover. It is Pilate and the crowds too (Mark 15.6,8).
(3) Proposals that attempts to harmonize discrepant accounts usually end up placing strain on the narrative(s) at other points. This proposal is no exception. The pay-off, for Humphreys, in the Wednesday evening Last Supper is that this allows more time for the trials to take place. But according to Mark, the trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin took place on the same night as the Last Supper and not the next day. It receives a marked emphasis:
Mark 14.30: καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι σὺ σήμερον αύτῃ τῇ νυκτὶ πρὶν ἢ δὶς ἀλέκτορα φωνῆσαι τρίς με ἀπαρνήσῃPeter's denial in Mark is famously intertwined with the trial before the High Priest -- it is taking place at night, that night, before the cock crows (Mark 14.53-72).
Mark 14.30: Amen I say to you: Today, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.
(4) The clear indication is that the events of Mark 15 follow straight on from the end of Mark 14, beginning "Early" (πρωΐ,15.1) without an additional unmentioned day intervening.
(5) Humphreys is concerned that a night trial before the Sanhedrin would be illegal. It is true that this concern is often repeated in the literature, but the basis for it is weak. The authoritative work on Mishnah Tractate Sanhedrin by Jacob Neusner concludes that that tractate is not a useful guide to what obtained in Jerusalem in the pre-70 period. It is an idealized re-imagination of what went on before 70.
(6) Humphreys is also concerned about the rushed timetable that is implied. I don't share this concern for two reasons, historical and liturgical. The historical concern: we should be wary of importing our own ideas of what a "trial" ought to include. In the ancient world, these "trials" were often summary, ad hoc, ruthless affairs. The liturgical issue: If early Christians were remembering the Passion as they celebrated Passover, it is easy to imagine how the retelling compressed the narrative. The apparently tight timetable is more about liturgical remembering than historical memory.
Now it may be that some of my concerns are dealt with in the book, which I hope to read in due course. But on the basis of the press releases and summary articles, I think the proposal is flawed for these reasons.