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RBL 06/2012

Humphreys, Colin J.
The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the
Final Days of Jesus
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii
+ 244. Paper. $24.99. ISBN 9780521732000.

Mary J. Marshall
Murdoch University
Perth, Australia
From its cover, this attractive little volume looks much like a detective story, and indeed it
is that, in a sense. However, it is not a work of fiction, but a serious investigation of the
Gospel accounts of Jesus last meal and the subsequent events up to the crucifixion, with
the object of resolving the apparent inconsistencies. The author, Sir Colin J. Humphreys,
is Professor and Director of Research at the Department of Materials Science and
Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge, but he has gained considerable expertise in
his leisure pastime of biblical studies. His previous work includes The Miracles of Exodus
(2003), some scholarly articles on the star of Bethlehem, and others, co-authored by
Oxford astrophysicist Dr Graeme Waddington, on the date of the crucifixion. In his latest
book, Humphreys builds on his earlier findings, relying to a large extent on Waddingtons
input for the reconstruction of ancient calendars and for many of the explanatory
illustrations.
The stated purpose of the book is to present new information that reveals that the four
gospels in fact give a remarkably coherent account of the last days of Jesus (1). As
Humphreys observes, this also throws new light upon our understanding of the words
and actions of Jesus (1). Despite the esoteric nature of much of the material, it is treated

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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in a manner that makes it accessible to the general public. Endnotes provide additional
information, background, and discussion.
There are thirteen chapters, each concluding with a summary. Chapter 1, Four Mysteries
of the Last Week of Jesus, outlines the main issues: (1) the curious lack of activity on the
Wednesday before the crucifixion; (2) the disagreement between Johns Gospel and the
Synoptics as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal; (3) the seemingly
inadequate time frame for the number of events between the meal and the crucifixion;
and (4) the legality of the trials. In chapter 2, Roman and Jewish sources are used to
determine that Jesus was crucified on a Friday in the period 2636 C.E. There is also some
helpful discussion on ancient calendars and on determining the first day of the month,
for lunar calendars, by observation of the crescent moon just after sunset. Chapter 3, The
Problem of the Last Supper, details the discrepancies between the Synoptics and Johns
Gospel over the timing and nature of the meal and provides an overview of the various
methods scholars have used in an attempt to resolve them. The findings lead to two
crucial questions: whether the crucifixion occurred on Nisan 14 or 15, and in which years
during the period 2636 C.E. these dates fell on a Friday. Chapter 4 draws on
Waddingtons calculations to reconstruct the Jewish calendar in use during Jesus
lifetime, taking into account complex issues involved with observation of the crescent
moon and translation of dates from the Jewish lunar calendar to the Julian solar calendar.
In chapter 5 Humphreys builds on his previous findings and utilizes clues drawn from
Scripture to determine that in the relevant period there were only two possible dates for
the crucifixion and that Johns Gospel is correct in placing it on Nisan 14. Hence
according to the official Jewish calendar, the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, and it
follows that the chronology in the Synoptics can only be correct if it was not a real
Passover meal or if a different calendar was being used. By exploiting additional clues
from Scripture, the author is able to pinpoint the time and date of Jesus death as about
3:00 P.M. on Friday, 3 April 33 C.E. Chapter 6 reaches the same conclusion by a different
means: examining whether the references in Acts 2 to the darkening of the sun and the
moon being turned to blood could be applicable to historical events on the day of the
crucifixion. Humphreys argues persuasively that the darkness would probably have been
due to a khamsin sandstorm and provides scientifically based evidence for a partial lunar
eclipse on the evening of 3 April 33 C.E. that would have caused the moon to appear
blood-red.
To determine whether Jesus may have used a calendar other than the official Jewish one,
Chapters 7 and 8 consider in turn the solar calendar used in Qumran and an ancient
Egyptian lunar calendar. While it is concluded that the Qumran calendar is not relevant
to the enquiry, Humphreys finds that the Egyptian lunar calendar, used for religious
festivals and feasts, warrants further exploration. According to this calendar, the day

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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starts at sunrise, and the first of the month is the first day of invisibility of the old lunar
crescent. This identifies the day of conjunction, when earth, moon, and sun are aligned,
and signifies the day of the true new moon. In chapter 9 Humphreys considers the
disagreement about the date of the Feast of Passover in Exodus and Ezekiel, where it is
the 14th day of the month, over against Leviticus and Numbers, in which the lambs are
slain on Nisan 14 but the Passover is eaten on Nisan 15. It is pointed out that, in order to
commemorate the exodus, Moses was instructed to change the Egyptian lunar calendar so
that the year started in the spring (Exod 12:12). Humphreys refers to this modified
Egyptian calendar as the preexilic Jewish calendar and suggests that during the exile the
Jews began to use a Babylonian-style calendar that operated as a sunset-to-sunset day and
was based on the first visibility of the new lunar crescent. The discrepancy in the biblical
accounts about the Passover is shown to be due to the transfer of feast dates from a
sunrise-to-sunrise day to the later official Jewish calendar with its sunset-to-sunset day.
Chapter 10 then discusses a number of groupsthe Samaritans, the Zealots, some
Essenes, and possibly some Galileanswho used the preexilic calendar for the celebration
of Passover and who therefore would have held the meal on Nisan 14, whereas the
appropriate date according to the official calendar was Nisan 15.
In chapter 11 Humphreys turns to what he terms the hidden clues in the gospels to
augment his previous findings. His main argument is based on the fact that, when Mark
14:12 is taken at face value, it indicates that the relevant calendar must have a sunrise-tosunrise day, since the Passover lamb would be sacrificed in the afternoon and eaten that
evening: Nisan 14, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. He then considers four
calendars that Jesus may have used and concludes that the only possibility is the preexilic
calendar of ancient Israel. Jesus instructions to his disciples for preparation of the
Passover (Mark 14:1315 and parallels) are also accepted as reliable and understood as
indicating that the meal was held in the home of an Essene. Humphreys then suggests
that Jesus celebration of the Passover using the preexilic calendar, and his words during
the meal, can be seen as deliberate symbolic actions with which he identified himself as
the new Moses. After further discussion, Humphreys concludes that the Last Supper took
place on Wednesday, 1 April 33 C.E., and that it would have been feasible for Jesus and his
disciples to have a Passover lamb for the meal.
Chapter 12 consists of a detailed exploration of the events from the Last Supper to the
crucifixion, as deduced by drawing on all four Gospel accounts. Humphreys shows
convincingly that positioning the Last Supper on the Wednesday evening is consistent
with the legality of holding the main trial in the daytime on Thursday and another short
trial at daybreak on Friday to confirm the death sentence. Chapter 13 then provides a
succinct summary of Humphreyss step-by-step reconstruction of the final days of Jesus.
The means of solving the mystery of the Last Supper is painstaking and complex, but

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.

the outcome can ultimately be expressed simply. The conclusions endorse the validity of
Johns chronology (in that the Last Supper was not a Passover meal according to the
official Jewish calendar) but also that of the Synoptics (since it was held on Nisan 14 in
conformity with the preexilic calendar). The finding that the meal was held on the
Wednesday evening is firmly grounded and particularly attractive in that it actually
allows sufficient time for the events described in the Gospels to have occurred. As well as
arriving at these important conclusions, Humphreys provides some theological insights.
According to his interpretation, Jesus identifies himself as the new Moses by celebrating
the Passover on what was purportedly the exact anniversary of the meal as detailed in
Exod 12.
The book is the culmination of three decades of research on an extremely complex topic.
Humphreyss approach is multidisciplinary, and several of the subjects covered would
probably be unfamiliar to the general readership and even to many biblical scholars. The
frequent inclusion of tables, illustrations, and summary statements is therefore most
helpful, especially in the areas relating to phases of the moon, lunar eclipses, the gates of
heaven, and observation of the crescent moon. The work has a great many strengths.
Humphreyss method is rigorous, and, as he states, the book is evidence-based and uses
a combination of historical and scientific reasoning (2). It is noteworthy that on the few
occasions when he cannot be completely sure of his ground, he is careful to acknowledge
his uncertainty, such as by stating that he suggests (141, 145, 166, 180) or even very
tentatively suggests (132). Yet despite his caution at these points, his arguments are
extremely convincing for the most part. A particularly appealing characteristic of the
author is that he is never disrespectful of other scholars, although he states his contrary
opinions plainly, and sometimes emphatically, in terms such as This is wrong (209 n.
14) and This is fundamentally wrong (219 n. 5).
Humphreyss attention to detail is admirable, and his enthusiasm for the topic is
infectious; he draws the reader along with him as he systematically unravels the mystery.
The book offers innumerable insights, including many relating to well-known biblical
passages that scholars have tended to treat with skepticism. For instance, Humphreyss
approach to Mark 14:1215treating every detail as significant and then showing its
importance exegeticallyis truly refreshing. Similarly satisfying is his ingenious
interpretation of the two cockcrows in Marks account of the denials by Peter (17880).
He provides solid reasons for accepting that there were in fact two cockcrows and
understands the first one in Mark 14:68 as being the 3:00 A.M. trumpet call or gallicinium
(, as in Mark 13:35) and the second as coming from an actual bird (Mark
14:72). There are many other highlights such as these. The volume is meticulously
researched, soundly referenced, and includes a bibliography, a general index, and an
index of biblical and other ancient sources. No typographical errors were detected.

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.

I do, however, have a few reservations about the work. First, although there is frequent
discussion about calendars in which days are reckoned from sunset, Humphreys does not
offer a comment on the creation account in Gen 1, with its repeated phraseology And
there was evening and there was morning, which indicates a sunset-to-sunset day. The
passage would be familiar to most readers, who may therefore believe that this had been
the situation from the time of creation onwards and so question the assertion that the
change to the Jewish calendar occurred during the exile. In an effort to provide evidence
for his hypothesis, Humphreys refers to the suggestion put forward by de Vaux (1958)
that to signify a 24-hour period preexilic Israelites used the terminology day and night,
whereas in the later books of the Old Testament the order is reversed, supposedly
indicating the switch from a sunrise-to-sunrise day, to reckoning whole days from sunset
to sunset (213 n. 8). The few cases he cites seem to support this view, but in fact there are
several exceptions to the posited principle, and hence it does not add any weight to his
argument. Rather than using Jdt 11:17, Esth 4:16 (which use the order night-day), and
Dan 8:14 (which refers to 2,300 evenings and mornings) as examples of postexilic
writings, it would have served his purpose better had he drawn attention to Gen 1:12:3,
with an explanation that this passage can be attributed to P. Hence in its redacted form it
can be dated to the mid-sixth century and so provides endorsement for his theory. Such
an approach would cohere with his observation about the Documentary Hypothesis and
that several of his conclusions fit well with the usual view of P (the priestly writer) (215
n. 12). Humphreys does actually refer to Gen 1 and 2 but only in relation to the Qumran
solar calendar (99). Unfortunately, this reference does not appear in the index of biblical
sources.
Second, there are some instances where Humphreyss expertise as a biblical commentator
does not meet expectations. For example, he uses the tendentious terminology cleansing
of the temple (76, 162) rather than referring to the incident in more appropriate
language such as clearing of the temple or temple action. He also appears to rely
routinely on the accuracy of the NIV and to accept sayings attributed to Jesus literally,
without entering into any discussion as to their authenticity. This is particularly
noticeable in the sections where he asserts that Jesus understood himself to be the new
Moses (16062) and in his reconstruction of the time frame of the Last Supper (174).
Several sayings of Jesus from Johns Gospel are treated as genuine (160), as are the long
discourses (174). In a similar vein, Humphreys observes that [r]eferences to Jesus as the
new Moses permeate the New Testament and cites Heb 3:23 as a typical reflection of
the way Jesus thought of himself (161). Moreover, his citation of Luke 22:20b from the
NIV is problematic, in that the word order in this translation implies that it is the blood
that is poured outwrongly in my opinion, since the two phrases
and are in the nominative case and therefore belong together,

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.

whereas is in the dative case. The NRSV correctly renders the whole
phrase as: This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,
indicating that the cup of wine Jesus offers signifies the new covenant, while the blood is
the means by which the covenant is sealed. To sum up, I would suggest that issues such as
those outlined result from Humphreyss uncritical reliance on the NIV and his preference
for a natural interpretation of the biblical texts (11). While his approach may be
appropriate for exploring some key verses, such as Mark 14:12, 16 (154, 165) and it
enables him to achieve the primary purpose of the book, it is much less satisfactory for
pursuing his theological aim of identifying Jesus as the new Moses.
In his foreword to The Mystery of the Last Supper Emeritus Professor I. Howard Marshall
observes: Here is a book that offers a new historical reconstruction of the evidence
that must be taken very seriously indeed, and biblical scholars must not assume that
because it is written at a more popular level it can be ignored. (x). Although I have
intimated that some aspects of the volume are disappointing, I wholeheartedly agree with
that conclusion, and the subsequent statement that the work belongs in that category of
bold, imaginative and fresh interpretations of the evidence that take us significantly
forward (xi). Humphreys has deliberately written in a style that assumes no specialist
knowledge of Jesus or the Bible (12), and for that reason the book will appeal particularly
to the nonacademic reader. Although Howard Marshall expresses some caution about
Humphreyss argument (xxi) and the author himself does not expect that all of his
findings will be accepted by scholars (xiii), the book nevertheless makes a very important
contribution to New Testament scholarship. It is highly recommended for anyone
interested in solving the intriguing puzzles concerning Jesus last daysincluding clergy,
theological students, and biblical scholars.

This review was published by RBL 2012 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit http://www.bookreviews.org/subscribe.asp.