Friday, April 22, 2011

Dating the Last Supper a Day Early?

BBC News reported earlier this week on an interesting seasonal story about the date of the Last Supper:

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 ἀπαρνήσῃ

Mark 14.30: Amen I say to you: Today, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.
Peter'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).

(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.

Reflecting on the BBC/HBO Passion

It's a great pleasure to read Matt Page's Few Thoughts on The Passion. It is three years now since it aired on BBC1 in Easter 2008 and there is still no sign of its appearance here on HBO. I remember the producer, Nigel Stafford-Clark, mentioning that it might be "some time" before HBO screened it but I didn't imagine it would be four (or more) years. And sadly, it will do so now after the death of the writer Frank Deasy in 2009.

I have only re-watched parts of it again since 2008 and Matt's post reminds me that it would be rewarding to go back and watch it in toto again. He makes an interesting point about how time has changed the perception of several of the actors. One that I would add would be Ben Daniels who was a brilliant Caiaphas in The Passion and who, since then, has become a staple of Law and Order (UK), now already in its fourth series. I started watching that in part out of curiosity to see Ben Daniels in another role (and in part to see Freema Agyeman, Martha from Doctor Who, acting alongside him) and I have come to love the programme. Daniels plays a role a little similar to Caiaphas, a lawyer working for the CPS, though perhaps a little less stern and a little more kindly in this.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Passion Podcasts 2: The Horror of Crucifixion

The second Passion Podcast this year is NT Pod 54: The Horror of Crucifixion  It looks at the archaeological and literary evidence and reflects on its relevance to the Passion Narratives in the Gospels.

If you are interested in other episodes of the podcast, please visit the NT Pod web page or subscribe in your preferred reader or subscribe via iTunes. Or, of course, you can follow the NT Pod on Twitter or on the NT Pod Facebook page.

In Our Time on the Pelagian Controversy

In Our Time today, on Radio 4, discussed the Pelagian Controversy. Caroline Humfress, Martin Palmer and John Milbank were in the studio with Melvyn Bragg. If you are not familiar with the programme, you might be pleased to know that it is available as a podcast.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Passion Podcasts 1: Are the Passion Narratives "Prophecy Historicized"?

Around this time of year, as Easter approaches and as I get to the end of my latest  Historical Jesus class, I like to theme my podcasts with the Passion.  One of the latest episodes is NT Pod 53: Are the Passion Narratives "Prophecy Historicized"?  It discusses the origins of the Passion Narratives, contrasting John Dominic Crossan's theory of "prophecy historicized" with the idea that they are actually "tradition scripturalized".

For those who would like to explore further, I have an article out on the topic and I've reproduced it on the web for those who don't have access to the book:

Mark Goodacre, "Scripturalization in Mark's Crucifixion Narrative" in Geert van Oyen and Tom Shepherd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peeters, 2006): 33-47

I also have an unpublished piece available here, the Swan lecture at Nebraskan Wesleyan University, February 2006:

Mark Goodacre, "When Prophecy became Passion: The Death of Jesus and the Birth of the Gospels"

If you are interested in other episodes of the podcast, please visit the NT Pod web page or subscribe in your preferred reader or subscribe via iTunes. Or, of course, you can follow the NT Pod on Twitter or on the NT Pod Facebook page.

Doctor Who and Textual Criticism

I like to make it a personal challenge to find as many ways of relating Doctor Who and the academic study of Christian Origins as possible (e.g. Unreliability of Eye-witnesses of Doctor Who) so it is gratifying to see Chuck Grantham over on A 'Goula Blogger doing the same thing, relating Copies of copies of copies . . . . of Biblical manuscripts to copies of copies of copies of old VHS videos of Doctor Who among American fans in the 1980s.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nails in the coffin of the Nails of the Cross documentary

Before Simcha Jacobovici's Nails of the Cross documentary has even aired, it looks like the story has died. Where news stories have continued to appear, they generally have riders like "Experts doubt it", which is encouraging to see.  When the Washington Post weighed in on Friday, they quoted Gabriel Barkay to the following effect:
"There’s no proof whatsoever that they originate in the tomb of Caiaphas,” he said. “It’s all conjecture."
Even if we were sure that these nails came from the Caiaphas tomb, and even if we were sure that it is Caiaphas the High Priest's tomb, it is of course bonkers to assume that these nails would have been the nails from Jesus' crucifixion.  But Barkay's comment makes clear that there is nonsense on top of nonsense here.

I took a look at the History Channel's schedules and noticed that they are broadcasting this documentary at 11pm, which hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Simcha's Nails: Illustrating the Problem

I know that I should leave the story alone, but perhaps I may draw attention to at least one element in the reports that illustrate the problem with Simcha Jacobovici's absurd claims to have found the nails that crucified Jesus.  Time Magazine's report features this statement:
The Nails of the Cross dwells on 1st century non-Gospel writings that portray Caiaphas as an eventual follower of Christ.
Now it is of course possible that the Time reporter has misunderstood something in the documentary, but I would not be surprised if this kind of nonsense is present given that the Lost Tomb of Jesus website features several clams of this kind that are demonstrably false.

So let us be clear.  There are no "first century non-Gospel writings that portray Caiaphas as an eventual follower of Christ".  In fact there are precious few first century sources that mention Caiaphas at all.  He appears by name in Matthew, Luke and John (and arguably as the unnamed "high priest" in Mark 14) and he appears twice, briefly, in Josephus's Antiquities 18.  As far as I am aware, that is it for the literary record.   In none of these, nor in any other writings from the early centuries does Caiaphas become a follower of Christ.

Indeed the scarcity of the literary record on Caiaphas draws attention to one of the many other difficulties with the claim about the nails, that Caiaphas was only associated with the crucifixion of one man, for example here:
Caiaphas, infamous for the crucifixion of only one man, could have asked his offspring to place the nails in his ossuary, speculated the filmmaker.
This idea, of Caiaphas's infamy in relation to Jesus, is a feature in most of the articles that have been written about it. But we simply don't know anything about other crucifixions that Caiaphas may or may not have been involved with. Josephus does not associate him with any crucifixions, but he does not associate him with anything much at all. And I'd have guessed that the Romans crucified other Jews in Judea in Caiaphas's time as High Priest too (c. 18-36).

And in fact our sources, meager as they are, do mention two more crucifixions carried out by the Romans while Caiaphas was high priest, of two men (brigands, insurgents) along with Jesus (Mark 15.27 and par.). I think it is historically naive to imagine that these were the only three crucifixions carried out in the eighteen year period from 18 to 36, while Caiaphas was high priest.

That is just for starters, and already treats the claims with more respect than they are due.

How should scholars react when ludicrous claims are made?

Jim West draws attention to some extraordinary comments made by Simcha Jacobovici in the Jewish Chronicle Online, My Nails Were From Jesus' Cross, in which he responds to the derision with which his claim has been met:
Mr Jacobovici reacted by telling the JC: "The minute someone says anything significant about the New Testament, the immediate response is to scoff, not to study it." He believes experts prefer to avoid making bold claims relating to the New Testament because it brings them under such intense scrutiny - and they resent it when others do so.
Perhaps, then, I should illustrate our difficulty. In 2007, Jacobovici made a documentary in which he claimed to have located the lost tomb of Jesus, in Talpiot, Jerusalem. Many of us spent a great deal of time patiently, carefully and calmly researching the claims and explaining why they were found wanting. As one element in that enterprise, I perhaps stupidly took it on myself to try expose a series of errors, inaccuracies, false statements, sensationalist claims and nonsense on the Jesus Family Tomb Website.  I labelled the post Jesus Family Tomb Website: Errors and Inaccuracies and listed seventeen of these, with explanations of where the problems lay.  There was no scoffing, no ridicule, no derision, just a calm and patient explanation of errors and inaccuracies.

It is now over four years since that post appeared and to this day every single one of those errors and inaccuracies remains on the Jesus Family tomb website.  Two years ago, I again drew attention to the post and the errors, with some reflection on our failure to make an impact.

What I think this illustrates is that it is outrageous for Simcha Jacobovici to suggest that scholars immediately scoff at his ideas without examining them.  On the contrary.  If anything, our mistake is that we spend far too much of our valuable time attempting to react in a scholarly fashion to material that would be lucky to get a passing grade if it were submitted to us by one of our students.

Since the careful, detailed and patient attempts at engaging appear to make no impact whatsoever, I think it is entirely reasonable that this time we react with the ridicule that the claims deserve.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Simcha finds crucifixion nails but has a screw loose

Simcha Jacobovici, well known as the discoverer of the Jesus Family Tomb in Talpiot, has come forward with a brilliant, self-parodying April fool's joke in which he hilariously claims to have discovered the nails used to crucify Jesus!

If only it were 1 April, and if only Jacobovici had that degree of self-awareness.  Alas, he appears to be serious and alas, the media happily report the story, with pictures of Simcha proudly but earnestly showing the nail to the camera.

This one really is breathtaking. I suppose the major encouragement here is that it could go beyond self-parody, encouraging the public to treat this kind of "archeoporn" (Jonathan Reed's term) with the ridicule it deserves.

As usual, Jim West was on the case first and Robert Cargill has some entertaining and spot-on comments. Jim Davila gathers this together with several other extraordinary stories to declare 12 April Bizarre Historical Claims Day.

I wonder if Jacobovici got the idea for the latest documentary from this scene from Black Adder?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

NT Pod 52: Who is this "Son of Man"?

The latest episode of the NT Pod came out on Sunday and this time the focus is on the "Son of Man" language in the Gospels.

If you are interested in other episodes of the podcast, please visit the NT Pod web page or subscribe in your preferred reader or subscribe via iTunes. Or, of course, you can follow the NT Pod on Twitter or on the NT Pod Facebook page.

The Jordan Metal Plates and a Plastic Crocodile

One of my favourite recent posts on the Jordanian Lead Codices is this one from David Hamblin:

Jordan Metal Plates 4: Crocodile?

in which he suggests that a plastic crocodile might have been used to make one of the images.

For an excellent recent round-up of the issues, with links, see this post from Daniel O. McClellan:

Thoughts on the Jordan Lead Codices

and this one from Tom Verenna:

New Round-up on Lead Codices and Additional Information

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Davila's Random Thoughts on the Fake Metal Codices

Pick of the day: Jim Davila's fantastic post, Random Thoughts on the Fake Metal Codices over on Paleojudaica.

Update (Saturday 2.11pm): Daniel O. McClellan brings into a post of its own something that he had previously noted in comments, to the following effect:
Besides the numerous reasons Elkington’s credibility has been eradicated, at least one portion of the bronze plate analyzed by Thonemann was pressed or cast from the exact same die or mold as one of the lead plates currently making the rounds. Below you can see the tree from the old bronze plate and the tree from one of the newer lead plates. They are absolutely identical. They ca me from the exact same die or mold. The lead plates are forgeries just like the bronze plates.
Daniel has helpful illustrations too. Great work.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Lead Codices a Fake

It has been fascinating to see how the story of the lead codices has been examined on the blogs and already found wanting. I agree with James McGrath:
The biblioblogging community should be proud. It seems that yet again the collective effort of scholars and other interested parties with blogs has shed more light on an issue than the media or any one individual managed to, and has done so quickly and effectively. The next time someone asks "Why blog?" I will mention this as an example of the sort of thing that makes blogging worthwhile for all.
If you have not been following the latest developments, here are the key recent links (i.e. yesterday and today) in the blogs, all of which also have additional links:

Daniel O. McClellan: Peter Thonemann on the Lead Codices

Paleojudaica: Hebrew-Inscribed-Metal-Codices Watch: A Fake

Paleojudaica: Hebrew-Inscribed-Metal Codices Watch

Forbidden Gospels: Lead Codices? Come on!

Very well done to the bloggers who managed quickly to get on top of this story, in spite of the thin reporting, confusion and misinformation in much of the media.

UNC to launch Department of Irreligion

One of our local papers here, The Herald-Sun, is reporting today that the University of North Carolina is about to launch a new "Department of Irreligion":

NC hires William Franklin Graham III for... Department of Irreligion?
CHAPEL HILL -- The University of North Carolina is set to hire William Franklin Graham III as the founding director of what is believed to be the nation's first department of irreligious studies. Amidst campus-wide budget reductions and strategic program cuts, Dean Bernard Manakin of UNC's College of Arts and Sciences announced this bold new initiative: Establishment of a Department of Irreligion . . .
Not surprisingly, Bart Ehrman is mentioned in the article:
Of course, we could not hire someone who believes the Bible to teach the Bible. That would simply be wrong. We need people who can be objective about the document; obviously believers cannot do that," said Manakin.

One of the recent additions to UNC's Board Of Trustees, Gilbert Aussenzeit, had encouraged the university to place Dr. Bart Ehrman, the current chairman of the Department of Religion, as head of the new Department of Irreligion.

"As one of America's leading unbelievers, I thought that Ehrman would be the perfect fit, but, boy, was I quickly disabused of that notion," said Aussenzeit, a businessman from Fuquay-Varina.

"As Chancellor [Holden] Thorp explained it to me, it's OK to have a physics professor who believes in Newton's laws of motion, or a chemistry prof who accepts the periodic table, but it doesn't work that way in the humanities. There's no way you can have a religion professor who is religious," said Aussenzeit.