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Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination

  • Helen K. Bond (a1)

After discussing the scholarly preference for dating Jesus' crucifixion to 7 April 30 CE, this article argues that the precise date can no longer be recovered. All we can claim with any degree of historical certainty is that Jesus died some time around Passover (perhaps a week or so before the feast) between 29 and 34 CE. The emergence of the Johannine tradition (in which Jesus died on the day of Preparation) and the Markan tradition (in which Jesus died on the Passover itself) are explored through the lens of social/collective memory.

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1 Dunn, J. D. G., Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 312.

2 Meier, J. P., Jesus: A Marginal Jew (New York and London: Doubleday, 1991) 402.

3 Murphy-O'Connor, J., Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives (Minnesota: Liturgical, 2007) 53.

4 Riesner, R., Paul's Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 58.

5 Witherington, B., New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001) 134.

6 For a survey of older literature, which similarly favoured 7 April 30 CE, see Blinzler, J., The Trial of Jesus (Cork: Mercier, 1959) 7280.

7 So Theissen, G. and Merz, A., The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (London: SCM, 1998) 160; E. P. Sanders accepts 30 as a useful approximation, but makes it quite clear that specific dates are impossible (and not really useful); more broadly he seems to prefer something in the range of 29–30; The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993) 54, 282–90.

8 For example, Vardaman, J. argues for Friday Nisan 15, 21 CE (‘Jesus' Life: A New Chronology’, Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan [ed. Vardaman, J. and Yamauchi, E. M.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989] 5582); Depuydt, L. argues for 29 (‘The Date of the Death of Jesus of Nazareth’, JAOS 122 [2002] 466–80); as does Lasker, D. J. (‘The Date of the Death of Jesus: Further Reconsiderations’, JAOS 124 [2004] 95–9); and Kokkinos, N. suggests Friday Nisan 14, 36 (‘Crucifixion in AD 36: The Keystone for Dating the Birth of Jesus’, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos [ed. Vardaman and Yamauchi] 133–64).

9 When combined with Luke 3.1–2, this date allows for the longer, Johannine reckoning of a two- or even three-year ministry. See, for example, Fotheringham, J. K., ‘The Evidence of Astronony and Technical Chronology for the Date of the Crucifixion’, JTS 35 (1934) 146–62; Hoehner, H., Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 65114; Finegan, J., Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible (Peabody: Hendrickson, rev. ed. 1998) 353–69; Barnett, P., The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 24–5, who admits that 33 is a ‘minority view’; and Humphreys, C. J., The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2011). Brown, R. E. declares himself unable to decide between 30 and 33, The Death of the Messiah (New York and London: Doubleday, 1994) 1376.

10 The Passover in John's scheme fell on the Sabbath that year, making the day following the crucifixion a particularly ‘high day’ (19.31).

11 Jaubert, A., ‘La date de la dernière Cène’, Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 146 (1954) 140–73; also La date de la Cène—Calendrier Biblique et Liturgie Chrétienne (Etudes Bibliques; Paris: Gabalda, 1957).

12 C. J. Humphreys, Mystery of the Last Supper, 110–50. This ancient calendar, he argues, calculated the new month not from the visibility of the new crescent (as the Babylonian calendar did) but from the day of conjunction, and hence started its new days at sunrise.

13 See Ben-Dov, J. and Saulnier, S., ‘Qumran Calendars: A Survey of Scholarship 1980–2007’, CBR 7 (2008) 124–68.

14 Stern, S., Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar 2nd Century BCE–10th Century CE (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001).

15 This point is also made by Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, 160.

16 Stern, Calendar and Community, 116–19.

17 Shepherd, M. H., ‘Are Both the Synoptics and John Correct about the Date of Jesus' Death?JBL 80 (1961) 123–32.

18 While Joachim Jeremias famously supported Mark's dating (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus [London: SCM, 1966] 2033), a majority of more recent Jesus scholars have favoured John: Blinzler, Trial of Jesus, 101–8; Brown, Death, 1351–73; Meier, Marginal Jew, 1.395–401; Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, 37; Crossan, J. D., Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) 100; and Fredriksen, P., Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage, 1999) 221.

19 See the detailed discussions in Sanders, E. P., Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 CE (London: SCM, 1992) 458–90; McLaren, J. S., Power and Politics in Palestine: The Jews and the Governing of their Land, 100 BC–AD 70 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991); also Bond, H. K., Caiaphas: Judge of Jesus and Friend of Rome? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004) 5772.

20 For fuller discussion, see Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, 329–44.

21 Ancient calendrical tables: Langdon, S. and Fotheringham, J. K., The Venus Talets of Ammizaduga (London: Oxford University, 1928); Parker, R. A. and Dubberstein, W. H., Babylonian Chronology 626 BC–AD 75 (Providence: Brown University, 1956). Applications of these to the date of Jesus' death include the following three articles by Fotheringham, J. K., ‘The Date of the Crucifixion’, Journal of Philology 29 (1903) 100118; Astronomical Evidence for the Date of the Crucifixion’, JTS 12 (1910) 120–7; and The Evidence of Astronomy and Technical Chronology for the Date of the Crucifixion’, JTS 35 (1934) 146–62; also Schoch, K., ‘Christi Kreuzigung am 14. Nisan’, Biblica 9 (1928) 4856; and Olmstead, A. T., ‘The Chronology of Jesus' Life’, Anglican Theological Review (1942) 126. For computer analyses, see n. 25 below.

22 Nisan was the first month of the Jewish year, corresponding roughly to our March or April; in the first century, the Passover seems to have always taken place after the vernal equinox, or after the 21 March—a situation which changed after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, either because there was no longer a need for the first fruits to be ripe before their presentation on 16th Nisan (so Jeremias, Eucharistic, 37) or because the lack of pilgrimage meant that weather conditions on the journey no longer mattered (so Stern, Calendar and Community, 65–85).

23 So Stern, Calendar and Community, 100; Jeremias, Eucharistic, 36–41. See also the earlier article by Kraeling, C. H., ‘Olmstead's Chronology of the Life of Jesus’, ATR 24 (1942) 334–54, esp. 336–7; and more recently Beckwith, R. T., ‘Cautionary Notes on the Use of Calendars and Astronomy to Determine the Chronology of the Passion’, Chronos, Kairos, Christos (ed. Vardaman and Yamauchi) 183205.

24 See Fotheringham, ‘Evidence of Astronomy’, 155–8; Stern, Calendar and Community, 61.

25 Humphreys, C. G. and Waddington, D. G., ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature (1983) 743–6.

26 The date and time are noted quite specifically in John 19.14. This corresponds with the sacrifice of the lambs in the Temple on the 14th Nisan between mid/early afternoon and sundown: Exod 12.1–13; Lev 23.5; Jub. 49.10; Josephus War 6.423; Philo Questions and Answers on Exodus 1.1; Special Laws 2.145; m. Pes. 5.1, 3.

27 See the two volumes edited by Anderson, P., Just, F. and Thatcher, T., John, Jesus and History. Vol. 1, Critical Appraisals of Critical Views (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), and John, Jesus and History. Vol 2, Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL, 2009).

28 This is of course disputed by Jeremias, Eucharistic, 41–62; he tackles the difficulties raised in the following paragraphs on pp. 62–84, though not in my view entirely successfully. He regards the Jewish trial scene as the only serious internal problem with Mark's dating, pp. 78–9; I have deliberately omitted any discussion of the trial as I regard it as almost entirely a Markan redaction, see Juel, D., Messiah and Temple: The Trial of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark (Missoula: Scholars, 1977) and Bond, Caiaphas, 98–108.

29 Neirynck, F., Duality in Mark: Contributions to the Study of the Markan Redaction (Leuven: Leuven University, rev. ed. 1988) 45–6, 49; Meier, Marginal Jew, 1.396–7. J. Marcus suggests the phrase here may be an allusion to Ps 10.7–8 (9.28–29 LXX); Mark 8–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University, 2009) 932.

30 See for example the conclusions of Dibelius, M., From Tradition to Gospel (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1934) 182, 189.

31 Collins, A. Y., Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 624; so also Jeremias, Eucharistic, 71–3. Problems of interpretation presumably lie behind the textual variant in the Western text which recasts the phrase as ‘perhaps during the festival there will be a disturbance of the people’ (thus not specifically a decision against arresting Jesus during the feast).

32 So Gnilka, J., Das Evangelium nach Markus (Mk 8,27–16,20) (EKK; Zurich: Neukirchener, 1979) 220. Luke omits these words, while Matthew allows Jesus an extra passion prediction prior to the leaders' plot (Matt 26.1–2), an addition which tends to strengthen the literary-theological reading implicit in Mark.

33 Dibelius, Tradition, 180–1; Bultmann, R., The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, rev. ed. 1972) 262–3, 434. See, for example, Marcus, Mark 8–16, 932, 937–8.

34 For fuller discussion, see Bond, H. K., ‘Barabbas Remembered’, Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn for his 70th Birthday (ed. Oropeza, B. J., Robertson, C. K., and Mohrmann, D.; London: SCM, 2009) 5971.

35 Meier, Marginal Jew, 1.400.

36 Corpse impurity took a week to remove according to Num 19.16. It has been suggested that m. Pes. 8.6 preserves a regulation which would allow a prisoner released just prior to the feast to participate in it (see Chavel, C. B., ‘The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem’, JBL 60 [1941] 273–78; though as J. Merkel noted, there is nothing to connect this with a supposed Passover ‘amnesty’, Die Begnadigung am Passahfeste’, ZNW 6 [1905] 306–7).

37 Marcus, Mark 8–16, 1041.

38 For prohibitions against commercial transactions on holy days, see Lev 23.7–8, Neh 10.31, and Amos 8.5; also Jeremias, Eucharistic Words, 77–8. Perhaps it was this difficulty which led both Matthew and Luke to omit the detail of Joseph buying the cloth.

39 For a detailed treatment of this, see Styler, G. M., ‘The Chronology of the Passion Narratives’, ATR 23 (1941) 6778. Both Matthew and Luke, though following Mark's plan closely, depart from their source's suggestion that events took a ‘week’— Matthew compresses events of Sunday and Monday, while Luke omits transitions from day to day (Styler, ‘Chronology’, 70–1).

40 Collins, Mark, 640.

41 Theissen, G., The Gospels in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991) 166–7; and Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1.398.

42 Myllykoski, M., Die Letzen Tage Jesu: Markus und Johannes, ihre Traditionen und die historische Frage (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1991–4) 2.35–7, 153–4; see also his ‘What Happened to the Body of Jesus?’, Fair Play: Diversity and Conflicts in Early Christianity: Essays in Honour of Heikki Raisanen (ed. Dunderberg, I., Tuckett, C., and Syreeni, K.; Leiden: Brill, 2002) 4382. Myllykoski's views were anticipated to some extent by F. C. Burkitt who argued that the (Palestinian) Matthew's dependence on Mark at this point showed that the early church was not entirely sure of the date of Jesus' death (The Last Supper and the Paschal Meal’, JTS 17 [1916] 291–7). It is more common to find objections to this line of argument, however; see, for example, the lengthy notes of Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1.429 n. 109 and Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus, 161, 585.

43 See the long discussion in Allison, D. C., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010) 130, with bibliography. Also Redman, J. C. S., ‘How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research’, JBL 129 (2010) 177–97; McIvor, R. K., Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: SBL, 2011).

44 See the discussion in Noble, I., ‘Memory and Remembering in the Post-Communist Context’, Political Theology 9 (2008) 455–75. More generally, see the volume edited by Kirk, A. and Thatcher, T., Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Atlanta: SBL, 2005), especially the essays by A. Kirk, T. Thatcher, B. Schwartz, A. Dewey, and W. Kelber.

45 On early Christian ritual, see Koester, H., ‘The Memory of Jesus' Death and the Worship of the Risen Lord’, HTR 91 (1998) 335–50; DeMaris, R. E., The New Testament in its Ritual World (Oxford: Routledge, 2008).

46 Mendels, D., Memory in Jewish, Pagan and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World (London: T&T Clark International/Continuum, 2004); Unterseher, C., ‘The Holy Cross in the Liturgy of Jerusalem: The Happening at the Center of the Earth’, Worship 85 (2011) 329–50, see esp. 330.

47 Redman classes ancient Mediterranean societies as ‘interdependent cultures’, where individuals would tend to go with the group rather than choose their own ‘correct’ memory; ‘How Accurate?’, 187.

48 Mendels, Memory, 37.

49 See Barr, J., ‘Why the World Was Created in 4004 BC: Archbishop Ussher and Biblical Chronology’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 67 (1984–5) 575608; J. Barr, ‘Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science?’ The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 1987, delivered at the Senate House, University of London, 4 March 1987; Barr, J., ‘Luther and Biblical Chronology’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 72 (1990) 5167; Barr, J., ‘Pre-Scientific Chronology: The Bible and the Origin of the World’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 143 (1999) 379–87; and Hughes, J., Secrets of the Times: Myth and History in Biblical Chronology (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990).

50 Barr, ‘Biblical Chronology’, 8.

51 For example, Justin Martyr Dialogue 16; Origen Against Celsus 1.47; 4.73; Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 10.17.

52 So Tertullian Adv. Jud. 8; Hippolytus In Dan. 4.23; Clement of Alexandria Strom. 1.21 (146); I owe these references to Shepherd, ‘Are Both the Synoptics and John Correct?’, 126. The Byzantine feast of the Holy Cross (or Enkainea) brought together a number of traditions associated with Jesus' death and resurrection which had little historical connection, but which allowed the faithful to contemplate the mysteries of the feast. The dedication of the church (which took place in 335) is iconographically linked with the Empress Helena (who died in 330) and often with Constantine (who does not appear to have attended the service). By the late fourth century, the nun Egeria could associate the feast day, 13 September, not only with the founding of the basilica and the finding of the true cross, but also with the dedication of Solomon's Temple, Itinerarium 48.2. See Unterseher, ‘Holy Cross’, 336–9.

53 This interpretation is also to be found in 1 Pet 1.19; Rev 5.6, 9, 12; 12.11; Gos. Pet. 3; and b. Sanh. 43—though at least some of these may be dependent on the Fourth Gospel.

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