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The Last Days of Jesus: An Interview with Dr. Eckhard Schnabel

Phoenix Seminary
December 27, 2018

Next month, Phoenix Seminary is very pleased to be hosting Dr. Eckhard Schnabel to our campus to teach a January term. Dr. Schnabel is the Mary French Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and his course in January will focus on the subject of his most recent book, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Eerdmans). The book and course offer a detailed look at the persons, places, times, and events mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s last week. In preparation for his visit, we asked Dr. Schnabel a few questions about the subject.

What led you to write this current book and who are you hoping to reach with it?

For years I had been interested in Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin presided over by Caiaphas and before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. I had compiled primary sources which made its way into the publication, written with David Chapman who presents material on crucifixion, entitled The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). I discovered that there were many misconceptions about what happened, and became convinced that a thorough study should include an analysis of all events beginning with Jesus’ anointing in Bethany.

How is this new book different from other books on the last week of Jesus such as Raymond Brown’s well-known, two-volume Death of the Messiah or, at the popular level, Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor’s The Final Days of Jesus?

Some books on Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem are short and selective on what they comment. Brown’s work is thorough, but its combination of source-critical, redactional, philological, and theological explorations makes it difficult for pastors to benefit from the wealth of information.

The publisher’s description says that the book shows that “Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection can be understood historically as well as from a faith perspective.” Can you explain that a bit for us: what is the relationship between history and faith when it comes to these fundamental events in the life of Jesus?

This description comes from the publisher, not from me: I only saw it when the first published copy of the book arrived on my text. In the introductory chapter I comment on the fact that the testimony of eyewitnesses who were Jesus followers does not disqualify them from being trustworthy sources for the Gospel authors’ descriptions of Jesus’ life, trial, death, and resurrection, benefiting from the work of Richard Bauckham. But the book was not written to demonstrate this. The focus of the book is on explaining the Gospel texts, which by necessity requires a historical focus. In the last chapter I explore, albeit briefly, the theological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Jesus’ followers.

Your book engages both the Biblical text and recent archeological evidence. I wonder what unique insight the latter brought to bear on the former as you worked through the material.

We can understand the Gospel texts on Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem without topographical and archaeological knowledge of first century Jerusalem. But such knowledge helps readers to visualize some of the events. E.g., knowledge of the location of the Lithostrotos and the Praetorium, where Pilate sentenced Jesus to die by crucifixion, and knowledge the location of Golgotha, indicates that Jesus’ walk to Golgotha was less than half a mile. Also, the information given by local guides to modern visitors to Jerusalem is not always well informed; I wanted to help readers understand what we know and what is hypothetical when it comes to identifying sites in Jerusalem connected with Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.

In doing the research for this book, is there something you found especially significant theologically in terms of understanding Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection?

There is no doubt that for the four Gospel authors, Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, culminating in his death and resurrection, is the foundation and the center of their faith and of the proclamation in the earliest churches. They devote about a third of their text to this one week. It seems a pity that many studies focus on the Gospel authors and their redactional or narrative interests, rather than on Jesus, about whom they write.

When we approach the passion week in the coming year, what advice would you give to pastors who find themselves preaching these familiar texts yet again? Are there any common misconceptions they should avoid? Any points they should absolutely not miss?

A very common misconception is the notion that the proceedings in the Sanhedrin which led to Jesus’ conviction was a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome. The details of the Gospel texts show that this was not the case. Caiaphas presided over a regular, albeit unusual trial (justified by the fact that Jesus was tried as a mesit, a seducer of the people); he did what he thought needed to be done, on the basis of the fact that he rejected Jesus’ claims – which were not fully understood even by Jesus’ disciples until after the resurrection!

An important point that preachers should not miss is the fact that Jesus was not only willing to die – he wanted to fulfill God’s mission, re-confirmed at Gethsemane: he wanted to die. This is why he did not defend himself, and this is why, when Caiaphas challenged him directly about his convictions concerning his own person, he gave the presiding high priest what he wanted: a reason to convict on a death penalty charge. Jesus’ death was not a miscarriage of justice which could have been avoided; Jesus’ death was not “plan B” on account of Israel’s rejection of his claims, but “plan A” all along.

How do you hope this book will be used by students, pastors, and ministry leaders?

It is my hope that students will use for book in exegesis classes to gain a better understanding of Jesus’  last week in Jerusalem, and I trust that pastors, Sunday school teachers, evangelists, and missionaries who preach several sermons on the relevant Gospel texts connected with Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem learn from my analysis and gain a deeper understanding what happened and why it happened, impressed Jesus’ obedience to God’s mission and with the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

You have been remarkably productive as a New Testament scholar.  What can you share with us about how you go about research, writing, and publication?

It is difficult to answer this question. I enjoy teaching, and I regard research and writing as part of the responsibility of scholars training men and women for Gospel ministry. Some projects I was asked to take up, but most I was able to initiate myself. I don’t have hobbies, I don’t follow sports, and I am not active on social media, all of which seems to save me a lot of time. The Lord has granted me health, perhaps reinforced by many years of long-distance running. My wife Barbara has been incredibly supportive, which has not only been a personal blessing but also an encouragement for writing.

About Dr. Schnabel

Dr. Eckhard Schnabel (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is the Mary French Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. A noted New Testament scholar with over 30 years of experience in teaching, ministry, research, and scholarship, he has written more than ten books in both German and English, including the two-volume Early Christian MissionPaul the Missionary, and 40 Questions About the End Times.

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