The Final Days of Jesus

I liked this book, The Final Days of Jesus. Its author, Shimon Gibson, is an archaeologist based in Jerusalem. He has dung up bits of the ancient city, shimmied into ancient mortuary caves and even found an ancient shroud, so he knows what he is talking about. With a name like Shimon I guess that he is Jewish, but he takes his profession seriously, so his book is mostly religion neutral, although there is a mournful note when he writes about the destruction of the second Temple in 60 C.E.

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

The book begins with that walk down from Galilee. At the end of this trek (no fifteen mile drives to the mall in those days), He stays at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. There is a rich crop of Beth villages around Jerusalem: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethabara, and Bethphage (which apparently means “house of green figs.”) Gibson discusses in some detail the rituals of purification and anointing at that time and shows that Jesus’s anointing by Mary is consistent with the practices of the time.

We then walk down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, its skyline dominated by the Temple “which dazzled those who entered the city from afar” as it “gleamed all over with gold and polished stones.” The well-to-do had nabbed the hills of Upper Jerusalem for their palaces and forts while Jesus characteristically stayed with the people in Lower Jerusalem.

Dividing the city in two is the Tyropoeon Valley: Tyropoeon apparently means cheese-makers who, of course, were blessed in the beatitudes according to the Life of Brian. In Lower Jerusalem is the Siloam Miqwa’ot (ritual purification pool of Siloam). Gibson describes the care to separate the pre and post purified with different steps and even different sides of the street. In an age before antibiotics and immunization, and the prevalence of diseases like leprosy, a concern about hygiene is understandable.

Gibson downplays two events of Holy Week: Jesus’s arrival on Palm Sunday (p18) and when Jesus chased the money lenders out of the Temple precincts (p48). He argues that anything smacking of insurrection would have swiftly been jumped on by the forces of law and order, both Jewish and Roman. The Last Supper Gibson reckons took place somewhere near the Siloam Miqwa’ot and not in the tourist stop off, the Cenacle, whose Gothic arches were clearly built in Crusader times and is just too big. Why wouldn’t Jesus and the Disciples just have hunkered down there rather than schlep up the Mount of Olives? Gibson suggests that the real room was too small and they were just camping out like many other Passover visitors. The choice of Gethsemane as that evening’s camp site would have been down to its proximity to the lower city and its accessibility through the Siloam Gate. It would also have been comparatively comfy as the whole hill was an olive grove: the name ‘Gethsemane’ is derived from the Aramaic for “olive press.” Once He had been arrested, Jesus would have been taken down the Kidron Valley into the city and up to Caiaphas’s house somewhere in the Upper City.

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest and chairman of the Sadducees, belonged to an influential family and held the job from 18 to 36 CE. It was given to him by one Roman, Valerius Gratus and fired from it by another, Vitellius, Governor of Syria, at the same time as Pilate was removed as Præfectus.” We know that Pilate really existed as there is an inscription mentioning him on a piece of stone found at Caesarea. Also, we’ve found the Caiaphas family tomb. Both fellows were career bureaucrats whose lives, their rise and fall was routine for the time, except for that minor nuisance around 30 CE which, for them, was probably simply a matter of keeping the riffraff in their place. I wonder what they would make of their fame down the ages principally due to the man they had had executed.

Gibson puts Christ’s trial in a complex of buildings near Herod’s Palace called the Essenes’s Gate, which had been built to provide a quick escape for the royals should the masses become too revolting. Here is the nice tie to the visionary folk, who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shared many of Jesus’s ideas. The gate complex centered around a small courtyard with a raised platform, so would have suited Pilate for a quick summary trial. If it really was the location of the trial, then the story about Barabbas and the guilt of the Jews cannot be true. The Essenes’s Gate was far too small for a decent crowd to claim the guilt of Christ’s murder for themselves and their children. Neither was there a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover Time. Sad to say that the Holocaust, centuries of pogroms and hatred may be all down to a few lines by a scribe trying to suck up to the Romans.

Gibson describes the horrendous business of crucifixion in some detail including the bent nail left in some poor sod’s ankle. During the siege of Jerusalem in 60 C.E. the Roman soldiery got so bored with nailing people up they “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” What must the screaming and groaning have been like?

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

The Roman soldiers probably did not think much of the Jewish religion. After all, Alexander the Great and his Greeks had beaten the Jews in battle, and then Pompey’s legions had done it all over again. Any normal people would have signed up for the winning gods. The Romans and Greeks believed in essentially the same capricious, amoral Marvel characters. As ingénues, those Romans didn’t realize that they were just the latest in a long line of military powers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians – who had been awesome in the day, and were no more. The Jews and their faith would outlive them too. Nowadays, we also prefer Marvel heroes and Mammon, and don’t have much time for the meek or the venerable.

The location of Golgotha, the site of both the Crucifixion and the tomb in the garden, Gibson reckons has always been known, as it was on a prominent outcrop overlooking a main route to the city, all the better to show off Rome’s might. It was pointed out to the Roman emperor Constantine’s mum, Helena, when she visited the city in 326-8 C.E. As she had bought the empire’s piggy bank with her, she brought up everything and anything to do with Christ, including those pieces of the true cross carried by the Frankish kings of Jerusalem, some 800 years later. She had her son tear down the temple to Athena which was standing on the hill of Golgotha and build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration to our times.

The big question is did Jesus just die that horrific death, knowing his life and work destroyed in the maw of imperial justice, or did God stretch out his hand and bring him back to life? This is a matter of belief: science, in the form of archaeology, cannot  answer yea or nay. For most of its existence the Christian tradition has stood by Jesus at the Siloam Pool with the humble folk. In time, of course, the folk from the upper city came down to help (themselves). The official religion of Constantine shattered into many fragments and became such strangers that epic bloodshed was countenanced by the words of the Good Shepherd, mildest of men. But it wasn’t all bad; even a Borgia pope left the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and Barbarini – the pope who had Galileo summoned to the Holy Offices of the Inquisition – sponsored Allegri’s Miserere Mei.


Both chapel and chant are some of the artillery of art made for the Counter Reformation. That shock and awe campaign flowered into Baroque and is in part theatrical and therefore man made. I have had many sublime theatrical experiences: the sunrise in the Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real: Much Ado in the garden of St. John’s, Oxford when the toasting summer had run dry of Pimm’s,

Clown Song in Twelfth Night
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.


I think I’ve seen profound religious experience:

  • once, in the Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, I watched a very poor man, perhaps a water seller, calmly and with great dignity praying and being one with his God;
  • as a boy, during autumn evensong conducted by the old priest, who was one of the few adults I felt any connection with, while singing the Nunc Dimittis;
  • as a teenager, in the cool transept of Salisbury Cathedral where devotion is cast in stone.

Still, the noun “belief” and its verb “to believe” is troublesome. What does a good God fearing Republican such as Rick Santorum means when he says he does not believe in evolution? If he could, would he “defund” those parts of government sponsored science which rely on the notion, such as the CDC, making America as vulnerable to epidemics as Medieval Europe. Such public declarations are much rarer outside the USA, yet religion is still potent and mischievous elsewhere, even in the secluded bishop’s row of The Church of England. The long shadow of the Tudors meant that Tony Blair waited until he was no longer Prime Minister before becoming Roman Catholic.

It seems to me that the notion of belief and its relationship to truth is conditioned to the times the speaker lives. In The Sleepwalkers the author Arthur Koestler tries to imagine how the ancients viewed the night sky, and drew a metaphor between Ra’s boat sailing in the heavens and the dancers drawn around the frieze of his nursery. There is a distinction between things that happened in former times, which the historian Michael Wood calls sacred time, and the present day.

This distinction seems to have happened as early as the 17th Century. In Japan in those days, Catholic priests and missionaries were trying to convert the Japanese to their universal catholic faith. They claimed that there was only one church, their church, which was disproved when the Dutch ship Liefde arrived in 1600 with its English pilot William Adams. ‘A fanatical but decidedly crazy friar called Juan Madrid’ thought that a quick miracle would convert the heretic Dutch and English and offered to walk on water. Adams said that “he firmly believed that all miracles ceased longe since, and that those of late time were but fictions and nothinge to be respected.” The unfortunate friar went on to prove Adams’s skepticism by almost drowning. He was rescued by the scoffing Protestants.

Well before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 60 C.E., the Jews have had no prophets. The word of God is to be found in the Torah and enlightened by rabbinical study. If there were ever a time when a jealous God should have interfered in the world on behalf of his chosen people then it was during the events now known as the Shoah or Holocaust. This was no mere enslavement or exile, it was an attempt to kill every Jew on the planet. Yet Hitler evaded and survived some forty two assassination attempts, to eventually die by his own hand.

Adolf Hitler Rednerposen from Bundesarchiv

Adolf Hitler Rednerposen from Bundesarchiv

On 5th November 1939, Hitler was in a Munich beer hall, celebrating his abortive 1923 putsch. Behind him, built into a column supporting the balcony, was a time bomb. George Else, its designer and maker, had relied on the published time table: Hitler was scheduled to speak at 9 pm for an hour, so the bomb was set to explode at 9:20. Unfortunately for the whole world, Hitler decided to start at 8pm and had left when the bomb obliterated the podium and the front seats, killing 8 and injuring 60. Ten months later World War Two began which killed tens of millions and reduced Europe to ashes. From Hitler’s genocide grew the state of Israel; a secular, nuclear power able to take on and defeat its regional neighbors, twice. God is no longer allowed to forsake His people in quite the same way.

Christ’s church also had serious problems. During the Black Death (1346–53 CE) about a third of all the people in Europe were wiped out. In such extreme times, the church allowed laymen to perform holy offices, and, in a pinch, even a woman. With God unable or unwilling to help, people started to look for help in other places. What they came up with was able to deal with infection such as the plague and much besides: science.

Charles Darwin by G. Richmond

Charles Darwin by G. Richmond

The great watershed in the human notion of time is the Principles of Geology by Charles Lyll. It argues that the geological world could be explained by the processes of wind and water we see acting now. Over many millions of years, these apparently trivial forces could raise the depths of the sea to the height of mountains. This could explain why there are sea fossils in the snows of the Himalayas. Then Charles Darwin very tentatively suggested that this could also be true of living things. The debates in the tiny captain’s cabin of The Beagle between Captain Fitzgerald and Darwin erupted into a public war between Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall and Science vs. Richard Owens, Bishop Wilberforce and Morality. The arguments rattle on to the present day, although modern Darwinians – Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould et. al. – are much more restrained that Huxley, Tyndall and crew were in condemning religion as idle, useless superstition or make-believe mummery for the weak minded. The Victorian cult of Reason was dealt a wounding blow by the carnage of the First World War which has been followed by too many examples of human cruelty, stupidity and greed.

So it would seem that the Jerusalem that Jesus walked and talked in existed much as the Bible portrays. His execution as a security measure implemented  by folk ‘just doing their job’ is quite likely: What is not is His Resurrection.

His message is still very relevant to our modern world. God on the whole likes people and wishes us to like each other better. As the big Man said after teaching us to pray.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

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