Friday, April 22, 2011

Review of Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper

THE MYSTERY OF THE LAST SUPPER by metallurgist Colin Humphreys, is reviewed in the Los Angeles Times:
Last Supper was not Jesus' last supper, researcher says
A British academic believes Jesus used a largely abandoned 3,000-year-old calendar that had Passover beginning Wednesday evening, and that the meal was indeed a Seder. So his actual last supper would probably have been jail fare.

By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

April 22, 2011
The Last Supper was probably the next-to-last supper of Jesus' life, a British researcher has concluded after using ancient calendars and astrological data to rethink the chronology of what Christians know as Holy Week.

Colin Humphreys, a scientist who previously explored the Exodus of the Old Testament, believes his studies show that Holy Thursday — the day that Jesus gathered his disciples for the famous supper, according to tradition — was actually a Wednesday.

Humphreys also believes he has resolved a longstanding disagreement over whether the Last Supper was a Jewish Passover Seder: It was, he says.

Humphreys' book, "The Mystery of the Last Supper" (Cambridge University Press), was published Thursday, a day that many Christians observed as one of the holiest of the year. That's a mistake, according to the researcher, a professor of materials science at Cambridge University who has made a sideline of biblical research.

"The Last Supper was on Wednesday, April 1, AD 33, with the crucifixion on Friday, April 3, AD 33," Humphreys writes. He believes that his research not only definitively establishes the dates, which have eluded most scholars, but that it resolves an apparent conflict within the Gospel accounts of Jesus' last days.

Those dates sound suspiciously precise. Most historical Jesus scholars would be cautious about narrowing the time down beyond a range of a few years.

The article has a little to say about scholarly responses:
Humphreys' book is likely to create a stir among biblical scholars, whether or not it alters prevailing views.

"I think it's really fascinating the way he brings in astronomy and ancient calendars and other contributions from outside the field of biblical studies," said Paul Anderson, a professor of biblical studies at George Fox University, a Quaker school in Newberg, Ore. Anderson previewed Humphreys' book before publication.

However, he said, "scholars won't agree with many of his presuppositions."

But Humphreys said he has received mostly warm reviews from Bible scholars, even if they don't "agree with every word." And, as a scientist and Christian, he said he hopes his efforts will contribute to the dialogue between science and religion.
The book is published by Cambridge University Press, so one would hope that means it has been thoroughly vetted and is worth looking at. Nevertheless, I want to hear from some top-flight historical Jesus specialists and I think it's a little odd that the media treatments I've seen so far don't quote from any of them. And all the more so after a breathless e-mail blurb for the book arrived in my mailbox yesterday from CUP. My favorite quote in it was "A gripping read that is hard to put down" by ... get ready ... Sir John Houghton, Chairman of the Scientific Assessment Committee of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. Call me suspicious, but that makes me wonder how seriously CUP is taking this whole peer review thing and how hard they might be finding it to get endorsements from the above-mentioned historical Jesus scholars.

More on the book here.

UPDATE: Professor Geza Vermes has e-mailed to note that Sir Colin has been at this for quite a while. Back in 1984, before he was Sir Colin, his ideas about the date of the Last Supper were noted in a New Scientist article. Vermes wrote in a response that Humphreys showed "the kind of naivety to which scientists inexperienced in historico- literary matters tend to be prone." In his e-mail today he adds "Of course, he claims to have solved the mystery of the star of Bethlehem too."

Not looking promising here, either for Sir Colin or CUP.

UPDATE (23 April): Mark Goodacre pokes some holes in the theory: Dating the Last Supper a Day Early?