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24. DAY OF JESUS DEATH ACCORDING TO THE SYNOPTICS CONCEIVABLE.

Was Jesus trial possible on the feast-day? It would seem not. And if Jn. is right, this point is so decisive that we may seek the truth in this Gospel everywhere else as well. He would, in that case, appear as the eye-witness whose purpose in his story is tacitly to correct the Synoptics (see above, pp. 52-57).

But consider what this means. Hitherto, as compared with the Synoptics, the Fourth Gospel has always proved less correct, and often quite untrustworthy. Is this discovery to be all at once reversed? May we believe that the Synoptists have made a mistake like this even on this one point (the day of Jesus’ death)? Can we, if we do so, believe anything else at all in their books on any one point? What took place in these last hours of the life of Jesus must have 120stamped itself indelibly on the minds of the disciples. How could they have told, or merely through an obscure recital have suggested to their hearers, that their Lord was present to partake with them of the Jewish paschal meal, if this was not the case at all? How can they have wrongly stated, or only suggested, that he was arrested, condemned, crucified, and buried on the feast-day, when all this seems to be made impossible by the sanctity of the day itself? Of course, up to the present it seems an equally great riddle that Jn. should have been led by some mistake to relate the contrary. But, in any case, we have the most .pressing occasion to see exactly whether the statement of the Synoptics is really unacceptable.

According to Jewish law, as committed to writing in the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud, about 200 A.D., in order to pass a death sentence two sittings of the High Council—that is to say, of the highest judicial court—were necessary, and a night must intervene between them. Now, since no judicial proceedings might be held on the Sabbath, a trial which might end in a death-sentence could not commence on the day before (and therefore also, we may be sure, on the day before the first day of the Feast of the Passover). On this view of the matter, the story of the Synoptics seems in all circumstances to be excluded; for, according to this, the first sitting took place in the night which to the Jews already formed part of the feast-day, and the second actually on the morning of this first feast-day (Mk. xiv. 17, 53-64; xv. 1). But—and this is a point which is not usually noted—even the Johannine account would be impossible. Even if we assume that a trial of Jesus took place in the palace of Caiaphas (xviii. 24-28), as it had already done (xviii. 13-23) in the palace of Annas (Jn. does not tell us at all what happened before Caiaphas), 121we must still insist that between the two trials there intervened not a night, but only a few hours of one and the same night. If in conformity with the regulations a night was to be allowed to intervene between the two sittings, the trial, even according to Jn., could not have commenced; for, according to his account, the 14th of Nisan had already begun when Jesus was arrested, so that the second trial could not have fallen before the 15th Nisan, which would mean the great feast-day. Accordingly, as regards both stories, we cannot avoid devoting space to the following consideration.

At this time the Jews were no longer allowed to execute a sentence of death; that could be done only by the Roman governor, and so at that time by Pontius Pilate, who was present in Jerusalem throughout the Passover feast with a force of soldiers which had been increased on account of the immense throng of people. But, this being so, it was of no importance to the Jews to pass the death-sentence formally, since they had to ask Pilate to confirm and execute it. They could achieve their purpose equally well by simply making their charge against Jesus before Pilate without previously condemning him. The high-priest, who always presided, required in the first instance, therefore, simply to declare that no judicial court would be held, but only a charge be prepared to bring before Pilate; in that case, the law we have mentioned would have proved no obstacle. We may well believe that the High Council had shrewdness enough to hit upon this expedient.

Only consider, as regards the whole subject, how urgent the matter was! If, during the festival, the people were to declare for Jesus, recognising him as the Messiah, towards which recognition they had a few days before at Jesus entry into Jerusalem already made a very 122suspicious beginning (Mk. xi. 1-11), it would be too late to take action. The original determination to remove him had been formed even before the beginning of the festival (Mk. xiv. 1 f.). After the festival had started and Jesus had been arrested, not another hour was to be lost. The Christians heard nothing at all of that purely juristic observation of the high-priest, which we have conjectured; or they paid no attention to it for they saw in it, unquestionably and quite correctly, a mere excuse, and they held fast, in a way that we can very easily understand, to the familiar idea that the High Council was the highest judicial Court in their nation.

Simon, who was compelled to bear Jesus cross, was coming at the time “from the country” (Mk. xv. 21). But who can say that he had been working there? He belonged, in truth, to Cyrene in North Africa, and therefore clearly was one of the number of pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem solely in order to keep the feast. At such a feast two million men may easily have assembled; for we know that about 65 A.D. 256,500 paschal lambs were counted at the slaughter in the fore-court of the Temple, and no part of their flesh might be left over until the next morning (Ex. xii. 4, 10). Beyond question very many of those who had come to the feast must have passed the night outside the city, so that Simon may very well have returned to it before nine o’clock in the morning (Mk. xv. 25). The Greek words may mean not only “from the field,” but equally well “from the country.”

Similarly, from the fact that the Synoptics call the day of Jesus’ death “the day of preparation” we may not conclude that they support Jn. when he tells us in his gospel that it was a working-day. “Day of preparation,” that is to say, day for making preparations, was in fact the 123name of every Friday, because people prepared for the Sabbath by doing the works which were forbidden on the Sabbath itself. And this would be equally appropriate if the Friday were a feast-day; for some kinds of activity forbidden on the Sabbath were allowed then, particularly (see Ex. xii. 16) the cooking of foods, which were kept warm from every Friday evening to be used on the Sabbath when there could be no fire. Mk. expressly says (Mk. xv. 42) that the day of preparation was “the day before the Sabbath”; cp. Lk. xxiii. 54; Mt. xxvii. 62.

Jesus execution would not have been possible on the feast-day if the Jews themselves had had to carry it out. But as a matter of fact this was the business of Pilate; and what he did the Jewish authorities would not of course regard as a violation of the feast-day for which they could be held responsible. Nor was there any need to fear a rising among the people in favour of Jesus after Pilate had pronounced his sentence; it might be taken for granted that he would suppress anything of the kind with the utmost rigour.

Still less does the burial of Jesus, which according to all four Gospels (Mk. xv. 42-46; Jn. xix. 38-42) was carried out before sunset on the very day of Jesus’ death, prove that the first feast-day had not begun before this sunset, as Jn. would have us believe (according to the Jewish division of the day). All four accounts agree that Jesus died on a Friday. If then the time of burial had been delayed because this (according to the Synoptics) was a feast-day, it would have fallen on a Sabbath, a day on which it must have been still more strictly excluded. Moreover, the burial on the day of death itself is not merely a custom (see above, p. 19), but in the case of one who has been hanged, is expressly commanded in the Law (Deut. xxi. 22 f.).

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It was really forbidden in the Law (Exod. xii. 22) to leave the house in which the Passover meal had been eaten before the next morning. But this prohibition in view of the multitude of pilgrims, to which we have referred above, could certainly at this time no longer be obeyed. Even the custom enjoined in the same verse as well as in verse seven, of smearing the door-posts with the blood of the paschal lamb, was dispensed with. It seemed helpful to suppose that the practice had been ordained solely for the first celebration of the Passover before the Exodus from Egypt, and not for its later repetition (see v. 12 f.), though, as a matter of fact, in vv. 24 f. it is ordained “for ever.” Jesus therefore may very well have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples on the night which was included in the feast-day.

So far then we have not discovered a single point in which anything that the Synoptics tell us would have been really impossible on the feast-day to which they refer it. The case seems to be different when we read in Lk. (xxiii. 56) that the women prepared ointments, and in Mk. (xv. 46) that Joseph of Arimathea bought a linen cloth in which to wrap the body of Jesus. True, we do not know whether these two things would be as strictly forbidden on such a feast-day as they were on the Sabbath. But if they were, the further question must always arise, Were the Synoptics really guilty of the great mistake of placing Jesus’ death on a wrong day, or only of the small slip of recording on a side-issue something which the sanctity of the day made impossible? Would it not be quite excusable if they have pictured to themselves in a way that is not quite correct a matter which they did not witness themselves, and if they did so through not having a very accurate knowledge of Jewish regulations? Moreover, Mk. (xvi. 1), at any rate, 125says, in conformity with these, that the women did not buy the ointments until the Sabbath was over.

Similarly, the Synoptics may have been led astray by a pardonable error, when they suppose that the band of men sent by the Jewish authorities to capture Jesus were armed with swords (Mk. xiv. 43, 48). To carry a sword on the Sabbath, and therefore probably also on the night which, according to the Synoptics, was part of the feast-day, was forbidden. But this at any rate is certain, that the use of police on days when there was an immense throng of people could in no case be rendered impossible by a command which prohibited the carrying of any weapon. In the Mishnah, in fact, only the following weapons are for bidden; cuirasses, helmets, greaves, swords, bows, shields, slings (?), and spears. We may well believe that the Jews were sharp-witted enough to hit upon something which could not be included amongst these, and yet was a weapon all the same. Perhaps the Synoptics give us a real clue here, when they say that those who were sent by the Jewish authorities were armed with staves as well as with swords.

There is no reason to doubt that Jesus disciples had swords with them (Mk. xiv. 47). But they had themselves long given up the habit of painfully adhering to commands about such things as these. They had, of course, armed themselves on the preceding working-days, in order to be prepared against a sudden attack; and certainly on the night when they were exposed to greatest danger they would not have laid aside their swords, even though, strictly speaking, they were forbidden to carry them on the feast-day.

Let us draw the conclusion! Apart from unimportant side-issues, in which we can easily believe that mistakes 126may have been made, the Synoptists tell us nothing that might not have happened on the feast-day. The account in Jn., according to which the whole thing took place on a working-day is, it is true, easier to understand, but it does not by any means provide the only explanation. And it cannot surely be postulated that an event must have transpired in a way that can be understood easily. If that were so, how many events would have to be struck out of the pages of history! It is not necessary to reject an account, unless it is thoroughly inconceivable. But, as we have shown, that is by no means the case with that of the Synoptists. Consequently, we are fully justified in accepting it, seeing that on other points we have always been able to give more credit to the Synoptics than to Jn.

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