There are activities of Jesus which can be assigned to particular days in the last week of his earthly life, such as his entry into Jerusalem (Sunday) , clearing the Temple (Monday) the Last Supper (Thursday) and his crucifixion (Friday) but although he is said to have done other things, they cannot be attached to specific days. This opens up the possibility that he might have a day off in the middle of the week, without showing any concern at all for the poor people who would have to construct Holy Week liturgies!
The idea that he might have spent time with friends or gone shopping sheds a curious light on how we think of him. I mean, he was here to do and say significant things that his church could remember, so he’d have been dodging the column a bit if he did take some personal time out! That kind of thought should remind us that we tend to package Jesus for church consumption, and in that we are only continuing a tactic which was begun by the gospel writers and their predecessors. The gospels themselves package Jesus for church use, by assigning events to the one day, the next day, during a festival, or throughout a week. In all probability the stories about Jesus passed on by word of mouth, contained no timeline into which events could be placed, leaving the writers to construct their own. Most bible scholars think that they did so to highlight the meaning of the events rather than to reflect historical facts. John’s gospel for example places Jesus clearing of the temple at the start of his ministry rather than the end, as in the other three gospels. This is not to do with historical fact but because he wants the issue of God’s holy place to frame his entire Gospel.
If this is true of time it is also true of place. The geography of the gospels is related to the meaning of incidents. Matthew puts Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he wants to compare Jesus with Moses; Luke puts him on a plain because he wants to emphasise the humility and earthliness of Jesus’ ministry. Most gospel stories involving voyages reflect the Hebrew notion of the great deep which only the creator can control.
We may guess that the gospels are right in placing the culminating events of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem, but we should have some doubt as to whether they took place within one week. The gospel timescale is constructed deliberately to fit into a week, so that churches could remember them more easily and celebrate them day by day. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, but the interpretation of Jesus’ prophecy that the Son of Man would be raised on the “third day” – which in truth just means ” the day when everything changes” – is turned by the gospels into a weekend which generations of believers have taken as historical fact. Would it dismay us to discover that the third day was in fact a year or so later as Jesus’ followers began to trust his aliveness?
I am not at all sceptical about Jesus’ resurrection, but the gospel stories of it are again told to bring out key truths about Jesus’ aliveness, rather than to present an historical account. In most eras of its existence the Christian church saw the gospels as a set of stories with meanings rather than as factual history. Indeed the assumption that they are factual is quite modern and has only been prominent for 150 years. Doubtless there is some factual history in the gospels, but the very notion of historical accuracy would have been utterly foreign to their authors, who were in effect, preaching the good news rhrough stories.
This view of scripture allows us to listen to what they want to tell us about Jesus rather than imposing our own demand for scientific history on them. It gives us space for interpretation of the biblical writings according to what we know of their author’s methods without forcing them to walk in our shoes. This method in no way reduces my trust in Jesus Messiah, Son of God, my rescuer, crucified and risen. But it does lead me to hope that as he faced his almost certain death in Jerusalem he had time for a quiet chat with his mother or for sharing a flask of wine with a friend.