Recently, there has been a renewed flurry of interest in the date of Jesus’ execution, and I have added an appendix on this topic. Here I wish to comment generally on the mistakes (as I perceive them to be) of the scholars who bring forth extreme proposals on such points, such as that Jesus was executed in 26 or 36. Since the evidence is diverse and hard to reconcile precisely, there is a tendency to seize on one point, to say that is determinative, and then to beat the other pieces of evidence into the necessary shape. That is, there is a danger of sporadic fundamentalism in studying ancient texts – not just the Bible. ‘Fundamentalism’ refers to the notion that some ancient text – or ancient literature in general – tells the precise and unvarnished truth. Fundamentalism, however, is always sporadic: fundamentalists believe that some people never exaggerated, made mistakes or mislaid their notes; or, at least, that some sections of some texts are perfectly reliable. Reading chronological studies on the New Testament reveals a lot of fundamentalism – usually sporadic. A scholar will maintain, for example, that John’s chronology is better than Mark’s and Matthew’s (and thus that theirs is not true.) Next, he or she will accept John on the numerous points where that gospel disagrees with the other three: there were three Passovers during Jesus’ public career rather than one, he was executed on 14 Nisan rather than 15 Nisan, and during his ministry he was in his forties (he was ‘not yet fifty’, John 8.57) rather than in his thirties, as Luke has it. Having dismissed the chronology of Matthew, Mark and Luke, some scholar then seize upon Matthew’s story of the star that stood over Jesus’ birthplace, and they try to match it with the appearance of a comet – apparently not noticing that this particular star, according to our only description of it, did not blaze across the heavens, but rather ‘stopped over the place where the child was’ (Matt. 2.9). Why take the star of Matthew’s story to be a real astral event and ignore what the author says about it? Why pay attention to Matthew’s star anyway, since he was wrong about the date of Jesus’ death (which John got perfectly right)?
“External Sources,’ The Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 55. E. P. Sanders.