The year is A.D. 33. On Sunday, March 29, a Galilean rabbi named Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to a chorus of welcome. By Friday afternoon he’s been betrayed, arrested, deserted, mocked, accused, sentenced, beaten, and hung. By Sunday his tomb is vacant and he is alive, visiting disciples and eating fish.
Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday bookend the most important week in human history.
In a new book titled The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Crossway) [review | study guide | 40-day reading guide], Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor lead us—day by day, hour by hour, step by step—on the haunting journey of Jesus Christ’s last week. As we prepare our hearts once again for Easter season, may we marvel anew at the King who, for the joy set before him, stumbled to Calvary’s throne.
I corresponded with Köstenberger (senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Seminary) and Taylor (senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway) about reading horizontally and vertically, apparent contradictions, Jesus’ age when he died, lessons for us today, and more.
How should the events of Jesus’ final week inform our reading of the teaching and miracles that precede it?
German scholar Martin Kähler once remarked that Mark is essentially an extended passion narrative with an introduction. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but he made an important point: in each Gospel what is most important and given a disproportionate amount of space is the narrative of Jesus’ passion—his death, burial, and resurrection, his final week. It’s there that the essence of the gospel is fleshed out in Jesus’ life and ministry, and all of his teaching—even the miracles—build up to his sin-bearing death and resurrection.
What does it mean to read the Gospels both “horizontally” and “vertically”?
Reading the Gospels horizontally and vertically are two different yet complementary and legitimate ways of reading the Gospels. Reading the Gospels horizontally means seeing how each Gospel relates to the others as complementary witnesses to the same set of historical statements and events. Take Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, for example, recorded in all four Gospels. Reading the account in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will give you the totality of what the Bible says about this event. Though no Gospel gives all the details, this kind of synoptic (or horizontal) reading provides all the information across the board. Obviously this approach is quite valuable in enabling us to see all that Scripture says about a particular event.
Reading the Gospels vertically, on the other hand, means reading each Gospel from beginning to end as an independent, self-contained narrative of the life of Jesus. This kind of reading capitalizes on the distinctive insight with which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tells his own story, and forces us to respect the literary and theological integrity of their work. As we read the Gospels vertically, we’ll get a better sense of their respective emphases, style characteristics, and theological themes. For example, Mark likes to use the word euthus (“immediately”), which indicates the uniquely fast-paced nature of his Gospel.
How can we account for the differences—even apparent contradictions—among the Gospel authors in describing the same events (e.g., the number of Peter’s denials; what the sign on the cross read; how many women came to the tomb on Easter morning, etc.)?
On the one hand, we have to avoid approaching the text with undue suspicion, acting as if the narratives are guilty until proven innocent.
On the other hand, we want to avoid forced or artificial harmonization. (One thinks here of the interpretation that Peter ended up denying Jesus more than three times.)
Both approaches ironically come from the same error: expecting detail and precision the text never intended to offer. The fact that the four narratives complement one another in telling the one story but don’t always harmonize themselves in neat and tidy ways actually enforces their veracity. In other words, they read exactly like eyewitness narrative and truthful historical recounting should read.
We also must distinguish between the inerrancy (freedom from deceit or error) of the Gospel accounts and the fallibility (possibility of error) in our interpretation of these accounts. In The Final Days of Jesus we try to offer some help on these various issues, but we don’t claim that ours is the last word on the subject.
Let’s take as an example the crucifixion epitaph (the placard authorized by Pontius Pilate and placed on the cross above Jesus’ head). Each of the four Gospels renders it a bit differently; in fact, it may be the case that none includes all the words of the original. The original may have read in full: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What we did in The Final Days of Jesus is render the four versions in a chart for comparison, which we think ends up reinforcing the essential veracity of their complementary depictions:
Inerrancy doesn’t require reproducing every detail, just as a faithful witness of an event can tell the truth in selecting details deemed most important. Only the worst kind of wooden literalism and special pleading would insist that the renditions above constitute a genuine contradiction.
Another would be the question of the time of day Jesus was crucified, and you can see our solution here.
For how we handle some of the other alleged discrepancies, we encourage you to look at the book where we seek to work them out in a bit more detail.
How old was Jesus when he died?
We believe he was 37 or 38 years old. There are a number of issues bound up with this view, but in brief: Jesus was probably born in the fall of 6 or 5 B.C. Herod the Great died in the spring of 4 B.C. after decreeing that all male boys “two years old or under” be put to death (Matt. 2:16). The only two serious options for the date of Jesus’ death are in the spring of A.D. 30 or A.D. 33, and we’re persuaded only the latter can account for all of the evidence. If we remember that there was no year 0 between B.C. and A.D., this would put Jesus at the age of either 37 or 38. If someone were to ask how this fits with the designation that Jesus was “about 30 years of age,” that is a reference to when Jesus “began his ministry” (Luke 3:23), which would have been three years earlier. He would have been between 33 or 35 at the time, which fits with Luke’s approximation.
Jesus spent a long time teaching his disciples on the night before his death. What did his instruction focus on, and how should it affect the way we live today?
Jesus taught on a few important subjects. First, he taught his followers about love. He showed them it’s because of love that he went to the cross, and so any follower of his must likewise be a man or woman of love.
Second, he taught them how to continue in close relationship with him now that he was returning to the Father. He told his followers they’d receive the indwelling Holy Spirit and must remain faithful to Jesus’ teachings and share the good news with others.
Third, he taught them about the need for believing prayer in his name. As they would embark on their mission, they could ask Jesus for resources and he’d supply them with all they needed.
Love, the Holy Spirit, prayer, and mission—those were some of the major highlights as Jesus instructed his disciples before his death.