“What day did Jesus die on?” my friend asked. “It was on Christmas, right?”
He wasn’t pulling my leg. We both grew up in a vipers’ tangle of Southern Baptist fundamentalism, but obviously he was better at avoiding church than I was. He never had to endure relentless sermons about the wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb. Unlike a hundred million or so other Americans, he was never taught that the Bible is literal history—word for word—or that Satan buried dinosaur bones to lead us astray. That’s why he called me.
“Easter,” I replied with a weary sigh. But that isn’t exactly true.
Technically, Christians commemorate Christ’s death on Good Friday. His resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday. This is the most sacred time of the year for many Christians. If they read their scriptures carefully, there would be nothing more troubling to modern biblical literalists than when and how the Gospels say the crucifixion happened. It is obvious to me that these Christians don’t, and it’s likely they don’t want to know. Maybe they have good reasons. For all I know, you’ll go to hell merely for reading this.
Easter hops around the calendar from year to year in tandem with the Jewish Passover. This is because the Bible says that Jesus died on the day after Passover. Or was it the day before?
That depends on which Gospel account you would rather believe. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus eats his final Passover meal with his disciples, during which he institutes the Lord’s Supper. The next morning, he is crucified. Mark even checks his sundial:
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mark 15:25)
Yet according to the Book of John, Jesus’s last supper is not a Passover meal. Pilate condemns Jesus to death the day before Passover, at the exact time of day when the sacrificial lambs are being slaughtered at the temple:
Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” (John 19:14)
In the next passage, Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha—by himself, according to John—and is crucified. Where was Simon of Cyrene to help shoulder the burden? He only helped in the first three Gospels. From there, the astute reader can collect contradictions like trading cards.
What were Jesus’s last words before he died? In Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke, he is more hopeful: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In John, he simply declares: “It is finished.” After that, the versions of his resurrection spin off in four different directions.
If the crucifixion is the most important event in the Bible—and the Bible is the most important book ever written—then why don’t the Gospel narratives line up? And why do ministers routinely avoid the subject?
Jesus’s biographies were passed down through an oral tradition for decades before they were put down on parchment. Each of these four accounts was used by separate Christian communities which held dramatically different ideas about who Jesus was and what his death and resurrection meant. This created ample opportunity for permutations in the story before they were gradually wedded into an orthodox canon.
From beginning to end, the Book of John bears little resemblance to the other three Gospels, which in turn show subtle variations between each other. John is the only Gospel that refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, emphasizing his “glorification” on the cross as a sacrificial act. By having Jesus crucified on the day of Preparation—while the lambs were being killed at the temple—the author implies that Jesus was a cosmic substitution for animal sacrifice. Just as the lambs’ blood protected the Hebrews during the first Passover in Egypt, so does Jesus’s blood save each believer from eternal death. It appears that the author—or the author’s oral source—was willing to alter the details in order to make this connection. All of the Gospel writers bend Jesus’s story to fit their own perspectives. It’s called selective memory.
Fundamentalists never address these glaring discrepancies. They cling to biblical inerrancy as though the universe would collapse into the vacuum of reasoned inquiry if they started asking questions. This wouldn’t bother me if it weren’t for their evangelical mandate to badger the rest of us with holy-rolling enthusiasm. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if they would actually read their Bibles.
Fundamentalists tend to ignore everything in the “inerrant” scripture besides a few choice passages such as the “literal” creation story in Genesis, the assurance that only Christians go to heaven (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”), or the simple formula for getting there (“...whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life”). Any wiggle room for metaphorical interpretation is immediately crushed by their classic conversation-stopper at the dinner table: “God does not make mistakes.” That’s when I mention how delicious the bean casserole is and hope they’ll let me go to hell in peace.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather share a property line with Christians than with hypersensitive Muslims or chicken-gutting witch doctors. But fundamentalists really take the fun out of biblical discussions for me. Are they trying to ruin a literary masterpiece?
The first time I read the Gospels in their entirety was over a decade ago, when I was hitchhiking around the West Coast. I only packed one book, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which I read on the way. I found myself at a Rainbow Gathering in Montana, and as I sat in that field watching stinky hippies warp their brains, shed their clothes, and jiggle around hypnotic drum circles, some random guy handed me a pocket New Testament opened to 1 Corinthians 13.
I eventually flipped to the Gospels, where I found a welcome counterbalance to the decadence around me and a salve for the cancerous fury in my heart. I read every word as I bummed rides down the coast. I have read them many times since. Jesus’s and Lao Tzu’s parallel teachings—their counsel to avoid pretense and empty rituals; to remain calm in the face of adversity and cultivate empathy for your enemies; to moderate pleasure and detach from material wealth; to maintain the mind of a child—slowly opened a profound dimension within an otherwise animalistic existence.
A taste of wisdom does not turn a fool into a sage, but at least I’m not a completely selfish bastard anymore.
As for the nagging differences between the Tao Te Ching and the Gospels, I approach them in the same way that I do the multitude of contradictions within the Bible as a whole or the apparent discrepancies between all holy books and hard science. I absorb what I can with an open mind and weigh it against my reason and experience. These are ancient riddles to which there may be no ultimate solution. No one is comforted by ambiguity, but without the anchor of rigid dogma, that’s all we have.
In one scene peculiar to the Book of John, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”
Jesus never answers.
Copyright 2013 TakiMag.com and the author. This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order reprints for distribution by contacting us at email@example.com.