The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Gospel of John contradict each other on the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Synoptics tell us Jesus ate the Passover sacrificial meal with his disciples the evening before he died; the Gospel of John that Jesus was crucified at the same time of the Passover sacrifice. In the Gospel of John there is no description of a ritual meal — “take, eat, this is my body, etc” — on the eve of Jesus’ arrest.
Whoever was responsible for collecting those gospels with such a blatant contradiction and placing them side by side in a holy canon? What on earth were they thinking?
David Trobisch in The First Edition of the New Testament offers an intriguing explanation. His explanation is in fact only one small point in a small volume that raises several major new ways of understanding the evidence for the origins of the New Testament canon. The back cover blurb sums it up:
The First Edition of the New Testament is a groundbreaking book that argues that the New Testament is not the product of a centuries-long process of development. Its history, David Trobisch finds, is the history of a book — an all Greek Christian bible — published as early as the second century C.E. and intended by its editors to be read as a whole. Trobisch claims that this bible achieved wide circulation and formed the basis of all surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.
In the first part of his book Trobisch argues that certain characteristics of the surviving manuscript trail are best explained if they all originated from a carefully edited collection. That is, from a canonical New Testament very similar to the New Testament with which we are familiar today. The traditional understanding has been that the New Testament canon was a relatively late development and many of the surviving manuscripts originated solo long before the various works were collated into the NT. Trobisch points to features in common across most of these manuscripts that indicate otherwise —
the common use of the nomina sacra,
- the adaptation for a codex form of publication,
- the uniform order and number of writings in the manuscript tradition;
- the common formulation of the titles,
- and the evidence that the collection was known as the “New Testament” from the beginning.
The second part of his book is another fascinating exploration, this time of the “editorial concept” of the New Testament. Trobisch alerts us to many features many of us who have grown up with the New Testament know all too well but have tended to take for granted. I am thinking of those many little cross-references and “coincidental” positions of the books in relation to one another. The NT is collated like a little code book in some ways. There is just enough information placed strategically to allow us to discern a real historic unity behind all of the books and to see who has written what and what the historical relationship of each of the authors was with one another. (I’m talking about a naive popular reading of the NT.) So towards the end of 2 Peter and 2 Timothy we find Peter and Paul writing in ways that lead us to think all their earlier differences (e.g. in Galatians) were patched over and they ended up as spiritually affectionate brothers. There are enough references here and there to Mark to alert us to identifying the apparent author of the second gospel as the companion of Peter. Similarly Luke is given enough “incidental” references for us to identify him as a beloved physician and companion of Paul and author of Luke-Acts. In a codex form it would have been a thrill to explore back and forth to see how all of the works do relate to one another, how their authors’ histories with one another can be discerned, and above all, how all the various ideas and teachings were really from the one spirit and pointed to real underlying harmony in the church from its beginnings.
As we have seen, Trobisch believes the best explanation for the details of the manuscript evidence is that the New Testament as we know it was collated much earlier than generally thought. He places around the middle/latter half of the second century.
Now we come to our little detail of the contradiction over the date of the crucifixion.
What was the “state of the church” at that time? “Proto-orthodox” Christianity had been battling (and gradually sending into retreat) the Marcionite “heresy” in Asia Minor. There was correspondence between the Roman church and sizeable bishoprics in Asia Minor. And there was a dispute over the correct date to observe Easter/Passover. Its written up in history books as the Quartodeciman controversy. The leading bishop of the churches in Asia Minor travelled to Rome to address some of their differences. Here is the famous summing up of this dispute:
Neither could Anicetus [Bishop of Rome] persuade Polycarp [Bishop of Smyrna] not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. [Wikipedia reference: Irenaeus, “Letter to Victor (bishop of Rome), quoted in Eusebius (chapter 24)”, in Schaff, Church History, book V, CCEL]
The Asian churches observed the day on the Passover, the 14th Nisan, and claimed the apostle John as their authority. The Roman churches observed the event on the first Sunday after the full moon of that month. But both bishops were determined not to let this difference of opinion divide the church.
Congregations in Asia Minor honored the tradition of the Gospel According to John. They celebrated the day of Jesus’ death parallel to the Jewish Passover on the fourteenth day of the moon, no matter which day of the week this happened to be. Most other churches, however, insisted on the practice of celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on no other day but Sunday (Eusebius, h.e. 5:23). Accordingly, the death of Jesus was always commemorated on a Friday. Although the two sides repeatedly tried to find a common solution, the church did not succeed in establishing a worldwide uniform date for Easter. Consequently, Christians were not able to observe a common fasting practice during the second century. Each party maintained its custom and tried to live in peace with the other. Irenaeus puts it this way: “The disagreement in the fast confirms our agreement in the faith: (Eusebius, h.e. 5:23.1). The literary solution in the canonical Tetraeuangelion [four gospels] perfectly represents this attitude. Instead of selecting one Gospel and declaring one tradition as authoritative, four Gospels are placed next to each other, forming the canonical Gospel collection. The unity of the gospel (euangelion is based on the diversity of the four (tetra). The New Testament is spirit, not letter. (pp. 105-106, my bolding)
This is consistent with the “catholicizing” theme of the New Testament. The divisions between Peter and Paul that are so stark in Paul’s letter to the Galatians are smoothed over in Acts and some of the later letters purporting to by Peter and Paul (2 Peter and 2 Timothy). Paul and Jerusalem are in harmony in the New Testament writings. Other works (not developed by Trobisch here) have suggested that the “proto-orthodox” even co-opted and repackaged Paul in an effort to steal him from the “heretics” such as the Marcionites. And if Anicetus and Polycarp, Rome and Smyrna (Asia Minor) could live harmoniously with different traditions for Easter then so could a holy canon for all.
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