Jesus’ Last Steps

This past summer, a number of people from my church went on a tour of Israel. On their return, one of the pastors was marveling at the great distance that Jesus was required to walk on the morning of his crucifixion. Of course, it is not possible to say with total certainty what route He took that morning, but I believe with a little research it is possible to make some fairly good guesses. The relevant passages in Scripture are Matthew 26:17-27:45; Mark 14:12-15:37; Luke 22:7-23:51; and John 13:2-19:38.

©Leen & Kathleen Ritmeyer, from Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus. Annotated by me.

The paragraph numbers below correspond to points on the accompanying map.

  1. The Upper Room – The trek, of course, began at the Upper Room. Most of the sites visited can be located today with some degree of confidence. Not so the Upper Room. Church tradition places it at the site of the Church of the Apostles on Mt. Zion, in the southwestern quarter of the city, in an upper story directly above the traditional location of the Tomb of David. I don’t believe that this is the correct location of either shrine. David’s real tomb was probably in a known cave complex on the southeastern slope of the City of David, but the Upper Room could be anywhere in the city. Due to the proximity of the Gihon Spring and given that the host was described as a man carrying a jar of water, some authors tentatively place it on the Ophel, south of the Temple Mount; however, everybody in Jerusalem had to fetch water, and the room was described as “large”, leading me to place it somewhere in the more upscale Upper or Lower City (the Western Hill or the Tyropoeon Valley). After killing the sacrifices on Thursday, Nisan 14 (probably April 4, AD 30), food for the Seder had to be prepared and the Sabbath candles lit before sundown. Then the meal could begin during the twilight period. Most celebrations wrapped up at around midnight and the celebrants went outside, either into the streets or onto the roofs, to join in citywide singing of the Hallel psalms.
  2. The Mount of Olives – After singing the Hallel, Jesus and his party adjourned to the Mount of Olives, presumably leaving the City of David via the Water Gate, above Gihon Spring. There was most likely a switch-back road descending from the gate into the Kidron Valley below, intersecting with a road running along the valley floor. Matthew and Mark describe this stage of the trek similarly: as they arrived at The Mount of Olives, Jesus prophesied that his apostles would lose faith in him that night. He quoted from the apocalyptic 13th chapter of Zechariah which speaks of the End of Days (acharit hyamim). At that time, the people in the Land will be scattered, with 2/3 of them purged and those who remain purified. He then said that after His resurrection He would meet the disciples in Galilee. At this point, we see the exchange with Peter, when his threefold denial is foretold. They then proceeded on to Gethsemane. Luke only says that Jesus told them to pray that they might not be put to the test. He then went “about a stone’s throw away” to pray—presumably the John 17 prayer—and returned to find them sleeping. John’s account is quite different. There is no clear transition from the Upper Room to the Mount of Olives. Chapters 13 through 17 cover in great detail the exhortations and warnings to the disciples, and Jesus’ prayer. Given only this passage, one would conclude that the entire conversation, including the prayer, took place around the Seder table, though that is not actually stated. From this passage it appears that the exchange with Peter occurred near the end of the Seder, in the Upper Room. Conservative hermeneutics, based on examination of ancient literary practices, allows conversations to be paraphrased and chronologies to be out of order, as long as the message is not distorted by doing so, so this part of the conversation could have taken place in either location. Another likely possibility is that Jesus said the same thing twice in order to drive the point home to Peter.
  3. Gethsemane – From the Mount of Olives, the party moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane (Gat-Sh’manim), where Jesus was arrested. Since Gethsemane is an olive grove and olive press on the Mount of Olives, this can of course be interpreted to mean that they simply moved from outside to inside the borders of the grove; however, I have a personal theory based on the passage in John. John records that after the prayer of chapter 17, “He went out with his talmidim (disciples) across the stream that flows in winter through the Vadi (Vale, or Valley) Kidron, to a spot where there was a grove of trees; and He and His talmidim went into it (CJB).” They must at some time have crossed the Brook Kidron, but is this the stream referred to? At that time the Kidron was fed year-round by the seasonally varying Gihon Spring, and by other sources in the mountains to the east and north during the rainy seasons of early and late winter. Since they would have had to cross this stream below Gihon, it would have always held water. I don’t see how it would be described as “the stream that flows in winter.” I am therefore postulating that the stream may have been just a small rill spilling down off of the Mount, to the south of the grove. That would allow the entire conversation of chapters 13 through 17 to have taken place on the Mount close to, but not strictly within, Gethsemane. One possibility is a small stream that separates what we currently think of as the Mount of Olives and the Mount of Offense. In those days these two mountains, along with Mount Scopus to the north were all considered part of the Mount of Olives.
  4. Annas’ House – Only John mentions that after His arrest, Jesus was first taken to the house of Annas, father-in-law of the current High Priest. Annas was an extremely wealthy man who, though no longer High Priest, was still perhaps the most powerful man in the city. Annas was probably the inhabitant of a house in the richest part of the city which has been excavated, partially restored and named the “Palatial Mansion.” The arresting party is likely to have taken one of two routes from Gethsemane: I have drawn them retracing Jesus’ earlier steps to the Water Gate, then taking the most direct route to Annas’ house. As an alternative, they could have entered the city on the north side near the present Lions’ Gate, passing between the Pool of Israel and the Bethesda Pools and rounding north of the Antonia Fortress. The second route is longer, the first more tortuous.
  5. Caiaphas’ House – After briefly questioning Jesus, Annas sent Him to Caiaphas. Matthew and Mark say that “The head cohanim (priests) and the whole Sanhedrin” then put Him on trial. Luke says, “Having seized Him, they led Him away and brought him into the house of the cohen hagadol (High Priest).” Caiaphas’ house has been identified by many with an archaeological site in the southwestern portion of the city, near the traditional site of the Upper Room. Many scholars have long assumed that since the Sanhedrin was involved, Jesus must have then been moved to the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Temple complex, since that was where they normally met until a few years later when they moved into the Royal Porch. This view is not credible, because (a) they were holding an illegal trial at that time of day (before daybreak); (b) the Temple gates were still locked at that time of day; (c) Peter was described as “outside in the courtyard, (of a residence); and (d) the accompanying Roman soldiers had custody and would not have handed him over to the Jews at this time, which would have been necessary since they could not enter the inner courts of the Temple.
  6. The Praetorium – This was Pilate‘s (the governor’s) headquarters. It has been variously identified as (a) the Antonia Fortress; (b) The Hasmonean Palace, near the Palatial Mansion; and (c) Herod the Great’s Palace, at the site of the later Citadel. It is presently believed that (c) is the correct location. Jesus was taken here “early in the morning”, around daybreak, and questioned by Pilate.
  7. Herod Antipas – This son of Herod the Great normally lived in Caesarea Maritima but was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover. When in Jerusalem, he normally lodged in the Hasmonean Palace (see above). Only Luke mentions this side trip. Herod questioned Jesus and sent Him back to Pilate.
  8. The Praetorium again – When Herod sent Jesus back to the Praetorium, Pilate tried unsuccessfully to release him in order to avoid confrontation with the masses of common people. Instead, he was compelled to kill Jesus instead of Barabbas (Bar-Abba). Jesus was led inside, tortured, and prepared for crucifixion.
  9. Golgotha (Gulgolta) and Joseph of Arimathea’s (Yoseph from Ramatayim’s) Tomb – In a previous blog I explained why Gordon’s Golgotha and the Garden Tomb are not possibly where Jesus’ life was temporarily put to an end. Instead, the crucifixion and burial almost certainly occurred at the traditional Christian site inside the Church of the Resurrection.

Easter Myths, part 2

Updated 7/12/2022

©Ron Thompson, based on my own calculation, using Scripture, Jewish customs, and available scientific New Moon tables.

Myth: The crucifixion actually took place on a Wednesday. For two thousand years, most Biblical historians and scholars have held to a Friday crucifixion. More recently, though, many evangelicals have begun to teach that Jesus died on a Wednesday or Thursday. At the heart of this matter is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:39–40:

But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
—Matthew 12:39–40 ESV

For some reason, it’s hard for some folks to see how you can find three nights between Friday and Sunday! I’m going to first present the actual timeline (see also the first chart, above), as I see it, and then I’ll explain several important concepts:

©Ron Thompson. This chart added for 2022 revision.

As most Biblically educated people know, prophets often used the word “day” (Heb. yom) to indicate a long or indeterminate period of time, rather than a literal 24-hour solar day. The key to understanding the timing issue here lies in Hebrew idiom—figures of speech. Where there was a likelihood of confusion, ancient Hebrew writers used terms like “three days and three nights” and “the evening and the morning were the first day” to emphasize that true solar days or portions of literal days were in view, not a longer prophetic period of time.

In the Matthew 12 passage quoted above, Jesus was prophesying. Many of His listeners believed in a coming resurrection of the dead in the acharit hyamim, or end times, so it was necessary for Him to emphasize that He was speaking of something that He would personally experience, and that it would be of short duration. Paraphrased, He was saying, “In a little while, I’m outta’ here, but I’ll be back before you know it, on the third calendar day.”

In both spoken and written Hebrew, references to literal solar “days” or “days and nights” did not necessarily imply that complete 24-hour periods were meant. “Three days and three nights” meant “some part of one solar day, all of a second, and some part of a third.” On the first line of the second timeline chart above, “Day 1” was Friday. Recall that Jewish days last from evening twilight until the subsequent evening twilight (see the third chart, below). Jesus died around 3 PM and was entombed before twilight, so at most He was dead only around three hours on this day. He remained in the tomb all through the night and day of Saturday, “Day 2”. His resurrection was sometime on Sunday morning, “Day 3”, before His tomb was found open. The total period was thus composed of a little more than one full period of daylight and at most two full periods of dark. “Three days and three nights” by traditional Hebrew reckoning.

Many conservatives refuse to believe this non-literal interpretation of Jesus’ words and insist on exactly 72 hours, but the hermeneutic employed by me and many conservative, Evangelical scholars allows for a non-literal (but not random!) interpretation of various obvious (to those who understand Hebrew literary techniques) figures of speech.

Many well-meant attempts to rescue the Friday crucifixion tradition resort to various forms of Greek linguistic gymnastics, trying to prove that “in the heart of the earth” doesn’t really mean buried, but could, for example, mean the period from Jesus’ betrayal to His resurrection. I urge caution in using Greek to understand Hebrew concepts. Hebrew idiom does not always translate well into Greek.

Each Jewish day begins at nightfall and lasts until the following sundown. The twilight period between any two days technically does not belong exclusively to either day, or in another sense, it can be viewed as belonging to both days. The Seder supper always begins during this twilight period between Nisan 14 and Nisan 15 (see Lev 23:5). Note that the lambs are sacrificed on Nisan 14, before the Seder and thus before, not during, the traditional weeklong Feast of Passover.

©Ron Thompson

Every Sabbath is preceded by a Day of Preparation, when meals are prepared, candles lit, and other chores performed that are unlawful on the Sabbath itself. Many arguments against a Friday crucifixion focus on misunderstandings of John 19:31 and its parallels:

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.
—John 19:31 ESV

The argument is that Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so it could not have been the previous day of preparation. It is true that the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread are important Sabbaths. But in Jewish custom, the regular weekly Sabbath that occurs during the Passover week is the most important of all the 7th-day Sabbaths.

So, in that particular year, there was a Feast Day Sabbath on Friday and a weekly Sabbath the following day, on Saturday. Confusion arises because many non-Jewish scholars believe, incorrectly, that it was unlawful to ever cook or make other preparations on any Sabbath. In fact, Jewish law makes an exception when two successive days are Sabbaths. Preparations for each are permissible on the preceding day, whether or not it, too, is a Sabbath.

Some confusion also arises due to a failure to recognize that the “First day of unleavened bread” is one day prior to the first day of the Feast by that name.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.”
—Luke 22:7–8 ESV

On Nisan 14, the day of the sacrifices, all hametz (leaven) must be removed or destroyed so that none at all is present during the entire week of the Feast.

Another verse that leads to confusion about the timing is John 18:28:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
—John 18:28 ESV

To most, this seems to imply that Jesus’ trial and crucifixion came on the day before the Seder, implying that the Last Supper was something entirely different. Not so. Any ritual defilement caused by entering Pilate’s presence would only last until sundown, so it would have no effect on eating the Seder meal. Instead, this refers to the chagigah (festival sacrifice) which was eaten with much celebration and joy in the afternoon following the Seder.

You may ask how the Wednesday crucifixion proponents manage to get “three days and three nights” out of a Wednesday to Sunday entombment. Mostly, there are two schools of thought. Some actually place the resurrection on Saturday and justify this by misinterpreting the passages about the women at the tomb. Others say that while Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, he was not placed in the tomb until evening, which would be early Thursday on the Jewish calendar. In that case, a resurrection early Sunday (on our Saturday evening) would meet the requirement.

A less prevalent theory is that the crucifixion was on Thursday. I believe that there are severe problems reconciling Sabbaths, preparation days, and calendar days if this approach is taken, but I will not cover it here.

Easter Myths, Part 1
Easter Myths, Part 3

For a complete series on the Principle Jewish Feasts, as specified in Leviticus 23, please see The Jewish Feasts–The Back of My Mind.

Easter Myths, part 1

Updated 7/12/2022

If you think I’m about to say that the resurrection is a myth, forget it! The resurrection of Jesus is central to my life and theology. I’d have no reason to exist without it. This is about “other stuff.”

Myth: The resurrection occurred on Easter Sunday. This won’t come as a shock. We all know that Easter is a Christian commemoration of the event, not a celebration of the exact day of the year. But why do we do it that way? In the early centuries of Christianity, many churches in the Roman Empire began to object to celebration on the traditional date, considering it to be a “humiliating subjection to the Synagogue.” During the 2nd Century, many of those churches had begun celebrating Easter on a Sunday, regardless of the Biblical calendar. For a clue to the mindset, there’s this ancient text: “Sunday commemorates the resurrection of the lord, the victory over the Jews.”

In AD 325, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to discuss two major issues in the church. One of those was “the Passover Controversy”, the disagreement between churches that commemorated the resurrection on the Jewish feast day and those that did not. Constantine’s view, of course, won out. He wrote,

It seemed to every one a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches! Having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds.”

It is fit, therefore, that, rejecting the practice of this people, we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite, in a more legitimate order, which we have kept from the first day of our Lord’s passion even to the present times. Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews. … In pursuing this course with a unanimous consent, let us withdraw ourselves, my much honored brethren, from that most odious fellowship. … [I urge you] to use every means, that the purity of your minds may not be affected by a conformity in any thing with the customs of the vilest of mankind. … As it is necessary that this fault should be so amended that we may have nothing in common with the usage of these parricides and murderers of our Lord.

The date for Jewish celebration of the Passover season Feasts is tied by Divine Ordinance to specific dates on the Hebrew calendar (see Leviticus 23). Non-Jews are released from such ordinances, so I don’t care on what day we celebrate the Resurrection. But you should be aware that the name, “Easter”, and most of the secular traditions tied to the holiday are pagan in origin, and that Nicene Council separated it from Passover for blatantly anti-Semitic reasons.

Myth: The crucifixion occurred on Passover, Nisan 14. Well, yes and no. The crucifixion happened on Nisan 15, after the sacrifices and after the official Passover as specified in Torah. It became customary, even in the New Testament, to refer to the three spring feasts together as “Passover.” Technically, Passover is just the short period of twilight between Nisan 14 and 15, on the Jewish calendar (see Part 2 of this series). Immediately after Passover, the 7-day Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on Nisan 15. And in the middle of this period, there is the Feast of Early Firstfruits. Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover Seder. That meal always begins during that twilight period, true Passover, and ends around midnight on Nisan 15, when celebrants adjourn to the streets and rooftops to sing the Hallel Psalms together. The crucifixion, therefore, occurred on Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

My reckoning of the Crucifixion Week timeline. ©Ron Thompson

Myth: Jesus died at the very instant that the High Priest plunged his knife into the heart of the Passover Lamb. I’ve heard this one even from Ray Vander Laan, a man I consider to be an expert on Israel and its customs. But it’s wrong on so many levels! First, the sacrifices occurred during the day before the Seder, on Nisan 14; the crucifixion was the next day, Nisan 15. Second, there wasn’t just one lamb; there was a lamb for approximately every ten people celebrating. Perhaps 100,000 lambs, killed over a period of hours! Which one are they talking about? Third, the High Priest killed only his own lamb, and that much earlier in the day, before the Temple gates were opened. All the other lambs had to be killed by their owners, not by a priest. Fourth, each lamb was killed by a quick slash of its throat, as specified by scripture. A knife to its heart would be considered cruelty, and in the context of the Feast, could get one stoned. Sometimes, the melodrama in the pulpit is just crazy!

To be continued…

For a complete series on the Principle Jewish Feasts, as specified in Leviticus 23, please see The Jewish Feasts–The Back of My Mind.