When The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus was released on Palm Sunday last year, it created what can only be described as a media storm. In the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in 2011, most UK national newspapers from the Times to the Daily Mail carried substantial articles about my book. In the USA there was a blog in the Huffington Post, I was interviewed on Fox News, I spoke on various radio programmes and there were articles in many newspapers.
Why did this book hit such a nerve? In my interviews on radio and TV I tried to put across two key points: First, that the four Gospels are actually in remarkable agreement about the last days of Jesus, when properly understood; second, that I had used science and the Bible, working hand in hand, to show this. The interviewers frequently seemed surprised by both these statements, and it was good to put across a different message from religion-dismissers like Richard Dawkins.
Bible readers throughout history have noticed discrepancies in the Gospel accounts, and this often leads people to question the Bible’s veracity entirely. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all state the Last Supper was a meal marking the start of the Jewish festival of Passover. John, by contrast, says that it took place before the Passover began. Whatever you think about the Bible, the fact is that Jewish people would never mistake the Passover meal for another meal, so for the Gospels to contradict themselves about this is really hard to understand. It is issues like this that my book addresses.
I start by pinning down a key date: the exact date of the Crucifixion, which has been called one of the great unanswered questions of our time. This date, which I determine to be 3 April AD 33, then acts as a key marker date around which other events in the last week of Jesus can be fitted. I show that there was a lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem on the evening of the Crucifixion, which is referred to in the Bible and other ancient literature, and this eclipse can be dated precisely using astronomy to the evening of Friday 3 April AD 33.
What about the apparent discrepancies in the Gospels, for example, concerning whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal or not? I suggest in my book that the solution to these problems is that the Gospels are using two different calendars to describe the Last Supper. John is using the official Jewish calendar in which the Last Supper was before the official Passover meal. On the other hand, I suggest that Jesus chose to celebrate his Last Supper as a real Passover meal using an earlier Jewish calendar, which I call the pre-exilic calendar, which persisted down to the first century AD and which I show was used by a number of Jewish groups.
We can reconstruct these two ancient Jewish calendars using astronomy. When this is done it shows that the Last Supper was on the Wednesday before the Friday Crucifixion, a result which will surprise many, but which is fully consistent with the Gospel accounts and which explains several other apparent discrepancies in the Gospels.
Various people have asked me what my next book will be. I am thinking about this! It could be a book on the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and the date of the birth of Jesus. Or perhaps I will write something about science and the Bible, going from Genesis through to Revelation. I would welcome any feedback from readers of this blog as to what would interest them the most!
Colin Humphreys is author of The Mystery of the Last Supper (2011) and director of research at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. He was awarded a knighthood in 2010 for services to science.