Home > Christian History > The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Jesus)

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Jesus)

Most Christians maintain that the NT gospels are historically reliable documents that were written for the very purpose of relaying the actual teachings and actions of the historical Jesus. Few biblical historians today accept such a claim. The prevailing view among historians today is that the gospels are primarily myths. However, most historians nowadays will not use “myth” as a descriptor for the gospels because of the connotations that have been linked to it in the twentieth century. In contemporary society, a myth refers to something that is false: usually a false claim made about something or someone. Thus, it would be a myth that Christopher Columbus and his fellow compatriots thought that the earth was flat before setting out on their famous expedition.

Traditionally, myths were not understood this way. Instead, myths referred to a story about the past (i.e. a history) that conveyed religious truths. These stories, however, were not actual historical accounts, not the sort of accounts we get from Tacitus or Edward Gibbon or professional historians of today’s society. Rather, they were made-up stories with the purpose of teaching a deeper truth. If taken as actual historical accounts, such myths could, I suppose, be considered false. But, in most cases, that wouldn’t be saying very much. How many thousands and millions of individuals have cherished the writings of Homer, of Virgil, of Dante, while at the same time knowing full-well that such accounts were not telling them what actually happened in the past? The fact is, most of us realize that such accounts are not historically reliable even though they may contain some historical datum (Archeological digs have shown that Troy actually did exist and that it may have been sacked by outsiders around the time of the traditional dating of the Trojan War). The problem is, most people don’t realize that the same is true of the NT gospels. While it is true that the gospels may also contain some historical datum, most of what they contain are theologically driven myths (understood in the traditional sense). Here is one example for why historians suspect that this is the case.

Question: when did Jesus die?

Before I address that question, let me explain something quickly. For Jews in the first century (as is still the case among contemporary Jews), a day did not begin at midnight or even at sunrise. The day began after the sun went down. Thus, the Sabbath (Saturday) begins Friday night and goes through the morning and afternoon and ends Saturday night (apparently at the moment you can see three stars).

With that in mind, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples to go ahead of him to prepare the Passover meal. The Passover meal involved the slaughtering of a lamb. This was done on the Day of Preparation on the afternoon just prior to Passover. So this is evidently what Jesus is telling his disciples to do. That evening (Thursday night) the Passover meal was to be eaten. Mark tells us just this: in the evening, the beginning of Passover, Jesus and his disciples have the meal (now called The Last Super). Afterward, Jesus goes to pray in Gethsemane, is eventually arrested, and tried before Pilate. This all happens the night of the Passover. Jesus is then sentenced to crucifixion and is crucified at 9am the next morning (Friday morning).

Things are a little different in John. In John, Jesus never tells his disciples to go and prepare a Passover meal. There is a Last Super but this is not the Passover meal but just a regular meal where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:1). Eventually, Jesus is arrested and put on trial before Pilate. Unlike in Mark however, the Jewish leaders refuse to enter Pilate’s (a Gentile) headquarters for worry that they will defile themselves before the Passover (18:28). Jesus is then convicted and crucified at noon on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (19:14). It appears then that Mark and John give us differing accounts as to when Jesus was crucified. Was it after the Passover meal (Mark) or before (John)?

Some will no doubt wonder why this is such a big deal. A difference of one day? That’s it? There is theological significance in this difference, however. For John, unlike the Synoptic Gospels and unlike Paul, Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Is it a mere coincidence then that John is the only gospel to have Jesus killed (sacrificed) on the Day of Preparation at or around the same time when all the actual lambs were being slaughtered for Passover? I doubt it. Here is a clear case where history is shaped (read: made up) by the author to make a theological point.

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