Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

Salvador Dalí, The Last Supper

No one likes to be in the chair of an amateur dentist. No one likes his government to spend money on nuclear research by amateurs. But everybody seems to believe that amateur historians can add something valuable. Now I am not denying that amateurs have contributed enormeously to the development of ancient history – but Winckelmann and Gibbon lived in the eighteenth century and Schliemann in the nineteenth. As a rule of the thumb, we can accept that, unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is an unqualified historian.

As an example, I mention the British physicist Colin Humphreys, who has recently claimed that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and not on Maundy Thursday. Well, there is a problem indeed. The Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Marc, Matthew, Luke). The latter describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal; Jesus is crucified on the next day. John, on the other hand, presents it as a normal meal, and states that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jews were still preparing the Passover meal. All agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday evening.

Humphreys says that Jesus and his followers used a different calendar than the Temple authorities. Using his own calendar, Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal on one day, as indicated in the Synoptic Gospels; while other Jews might celebrate it on another day, as indicated by John. This might mean that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, which would also create some room for the complex series of events between the arrest and the crucifixion.

Humphreys’ theory is not new. It was, in a slightly different form, proposed by Annie Jaubert, in 1957, in a book called La date de la cène. The trouble with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis is that it solves a problem that does not exist by using a method that is self-contradictory.

First, the non-existing problem. There is absolutely nothing inherently impossible in the series of events following the Last Supper: arrest, a hearing by Caiaphas during the late evening, transfer to Pilate during the night, trial early in the morning, flagellation, crucifixion. I visited Jerusalem quite recently and walked from the western slope of the Mount of Olives to the Davidson Center (which must have been the place of Caiaphas’ official residence), through the Jewish Quarter to the Citadel (Pilate‘s palace); after that, I walked back through David Street, through the Triple Suq to the Basilica of the Sepulcher (which is not far from Golgotha). This is more or less “the real Via Dolorosa” and I needed less than two hours, including coffee and conversations with shopkeepers.

Second, the self-contradicting logic. Any professional historian will immediately realize what is wrong with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis: they accept the gospels where they are contradicting each other (the date of the Passover meal) while they reject the evidence of the gospels where they are in agreement – Jesus was arrested on a Thursday. This is not logic, it is a travesty.

Unfortunately, this is not an innocent, funny story about scientists who should not pretend they are historians. They are common (example 1, example 2) and because everybody knows that unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is just an unqualified historian, they are not really dangerous. Still, there is a complication: Humphreys has an academic title, which gives credibility to his parody of scholarship. Our universities are sources of disinformation. This is the problem I am addressing with my series on common errors; a solution I do not have, but often I am wondering whether we should not create a system to retract a doctorate.

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5 Responses to Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    Hmm, I thought you’d bite at this bit of pop history. . . . Reading you, my mind is scattering (as often) in several different directions.

    (1) I agree with you overall about qualified historians, like qualified anything else; but we’ve got to be careful not to fall into credentialism here. As you’ve pointed out repeatedly, just because someone’s done their professional work (i.e., trained, then paid) work in a field, they may be very bad at it; conversely, just because someone is an astrophysicist doesn’t mean he can’t be interested in, and have an idea, or an opinion, about NT history; and it looks very bad to try and prevent them from expressing it, or disparage them for having done so. As someone who has no qualifications in anything except a long-receded career in languages, I still make pronouncements on all kinds of things, and have a perfect right to — BUT, not being a scholar, I shouldn’t be very affirmative about them! and of course, if I happen to know that someone else had “my” idea before, I should let people know. Of course, one of the problems about not being a scholar, i.e., not having read endless reams of stuff, is that when us plain Joes come up with an idea, we don’t know it’s not the first time it’s been thought of. Circumspection on my side, a degree of tolerance on yours, are called for.

    (2) Gotta be careful, too, that you don’t dismiss someone as unqualified because you disagree with them. I have no idea what Jaubert’s qualifications were, but to get a book published on a rather minor and esoteric point that I can’t imagine most people care about; I mean, really, Wednesday or Thursday, who cares! — surely she must have had some??

    (3) I always think of Roger Pearse when this kind of stuff comes up. He’s out there doing valiant battle against pop atheists, who, having had a little brainstorm about a passage in the Bible, assume no one’s thought of it before: almost every conceivable hostile argument against God and Christianity has already been discussed ad nauseam, centuries ago, in far greater detail than our autodidact even suspects, and often — far from being “hidden by the Church” as we are often shrilly assured — discussed by great Catholic scholars.

    (4) As for recalling doctorates, good luck. Leaving aside the entrenched interests not to do that, just look at the difficulty in getting laws passed for the recall of politicians in my own country! Maybe a better model would be a periodic recertification built into the system: doctors and some other professionals, after all, are required to undergo periodic recertification.

  2. Bill Thayer says:

    Oh and I forgot one of those tentacular trains of thought: non-scholars like Gibbon and Schliemann surely didn’t die out in the 19c! They’re out there now, too; but not being a scholar myself . . . I couldn’t begin to tell you where to look for them, of course.

  3. hirundine608 says:

    It seems to me, that you are saying that amateur historians should stay out of “the kitchen”. Unless they follow a professional manner? I can see that, but I also see that sometimes there may be relevance with how the history is approached in an amateur manner?
    If Jesus of Nazareth really existed? What does it matter what day of the week that his betrayal took place?
    As a non-christian. it still seems to me that the whole message of christianity is; love thy neighbour as thyself and do unto others as you you would have them do unto you.
    Most people who call themselves ‘christians”, seem to have a hard time with that message?

  4. It seems to me, that you are saying that amateur historians should stay out of “the kitchen”.

    What I am saying is that a professional training is useful, and that history is not an easy discipline to master. Many common errors are the result of insufficient command of historical method. Ideally, a professional historian

    * … knows how to define concepts like cause, explanation, fact, objectivity, and so on;
    * … understands the difference between the four most important explanatory models (covering law, hermeneutical, comparativist, statistical);
    * … recognizes well-known problems (e.g., conflict of written sources and archaeological reconstruction);
    * …. is aware of common fallacies (Everest Fallacy; Positivist Fallacy; Testis unus, testis nullus)..

    When a scholar does not know these things, there is a fair chance that he will make mistakes. Professionalism matters. Much false knowledge will become obsolete once people start to realize that “amateur historian” or “self-taught historian” are just other words for “deficiently trained”.

    What does it matter what day of the week that his betrayal took place?

    That’s beyond my article; I agree that it does not matter. What does matter, though, is this: as a historian, I do not claim to be capable to solve technological problems – there are physicists and other experts to do that. I would appreciate it if physicists do not interfere with my business. The fact that they do, betrays the failure of our universities. And that matters a lot to me.

  5. hirundine608 says:

    Well, thank you for clarifying your article and helping with my understanding of it.

    I do not think of myself as a historian. Professional or otherwise. I do however appreciate this blog and always enjoy reading the posts …. cheers!

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