We recently interviewed Andreas Köstenberger & Justin Taylor about their new book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. Below we ask about what they hoped to accomplish and why it’s important for Christians to understand the events surrounding Jesus’s last week on earth.
Why is it important to study the events of the last week of Jesus’s life?
Andreas J. Köstenberger: The last week of Jesus’s life is disproportionately important in Jesus’s ministry. This is the primary reason why he came to earth: to die for our sins and to provide redemption. That’s why all the Gospels devote a large amount of space to the final week of Jesus. In fact, one German scholar once famously characterized the Gospel of Mark as “a passion narrative with a long introduction.” That’s obviously an exaggeration, but it makes the point that Jesus’s final days are disproportionately important.
Is this book more academic or devotional? Who will benefit from reading it?
AJK: Well, the question presupposes a kind of dichotomy between the academy and the church that, while all too common, is one this book is seeking to transcend. In other words, we want to put sound scholarship at the disposal of every Christian who wants to study the events surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
Ultimately our Christian faith is not a set of abstract beliefs or affirmations but trust in a historical person, Jesus, who was born, walked the earth, engaged in public ministry, died, was buried, and then rose from the dead. Working on The Final Days of Jesus gave me a new and deeper appreciation of the personal nature of my faith.
Why is it important to assess the historical reliability of the Gospels in studying the final days of Jesus?
AJK: It’s important because, since none of us has seen Jesus with our own eyes, we all have to rely on those who did and who were eyewitnesses to the saving events in Jesus’s life. We literally have to take their word for it. Of course, in the Bible we have four Gospels, not one. In some respects, it might be easier just to have one Gospel, because then there would be no possible contradictions among the Gospel witnesses. In fact, many critical scholars have construed the presence of four Gospels in our Bibles, with inevitable differences in perspective, as a major problem, the “Synoptic problem,” as it is often called. But I like to tell my students that I like to look at it more as the “Synoptic opportunity” or even the “Synoptic blessing.” By this I mean that we have in the four Gospels a richness and diversity of perspectives that helps us to get a fuller, more comprehensive picture than if we only had one Gospel.
Let me use the analogy of a modern-day court case. What would you rather have: one witnesses or multiple witnesses? I venture to guess that most of us would rather have multiple witnesses knowing that any one person by him- or herself is limited in the way they perceive a given set of events. Not that they necessarily falsify the information, but they may not catch all the details. But if you have multiple witnesses—say, four witnesses—they will give you a much more comprehensive picture of what actually happened. I believe this is what we have in the Gospels, including in their witness to the events during the final days of Jesus.
You mention two ways to read the Gospels: horizontally and vertically. What’s the difference between these two techniques?
AJK: Horizontal study involves looking at a given event, such as the crucifixion, in all four Gospels. That’s important because in this way we can see all that is said about the crucifixion in the four Gospels combined.
Vertical study involves reading each of the Gospels in their own right. That’s important because this is how the Gospels have come down to us, even before there was a canon where the four Gospels were put together.
The benefit of a horizontal reading of the Gospels—as we do in this book—is that it allows us to see individual emphases of a given Gospel writer. For example, John focuses more on the glory in Jesus’s cross than on his sufferings or that Mark stresses the way in which even Jesus’s closest followers failed to grasp who he truly was.
How can we account for the differences in the four Gospels that describe the same event?
AJK: By responsible harmonization, that is, by trying to figure out how the individual pieces in the composite picture of the various Gospels all fit together. Was there one donkey involved on which Jesus sat at the triumphal entry (as Mark and Luke mention), or were there two (as Matthew mentions)? At first, this may seem like a contradiction. But when we remember that none of the Gospels may tell us everything that happened, we can put the pieces together and arrive at a better understanding of what happened. In fact, a closer reading of the text often reveals things we may have missed the first around. For example, both Mark and Luke mention that no one had ridden on the colt before (Mark 11:2; Luke 19:30), which helps to make sense of why Matthew might have added the detail of the colt’s mother (Matthew 21:7), who may have been used to steady the colt as it carried its first rider.
What did Jesus do early in the week that was perceived as a threat to the existing power structures?
Justin Taylor: Up to this point in Jesus’s ministry, As we note in the book, up until Palm Sunday, Jesus “could still have managed to live a long, happy, peaceful life, but his actions on Sunday set in motion a series of events that could result only in either his overthrow of the Romans and the current religious establishment—or his brutal death. He has crossed the point of no return; there would be no turning back. Caesar could allow no rival kings.”
From this point forward, virtually all of Jesus’s actions and teachings during that final week were perceived as a threat—religiously, socially, politically, and financially. From the royal red carpet laid by robes and branches across the ground as he rode into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the temple, to his cursing of the fig tree, to his pointed parables about grace and judgment, to his interactions with the religious leaders and his pronouncement of woe upon them, Jesus set his eyes on Golgotha and did everything righteous in his power to bring his encounters with worldly and religious power to a head.
The great irony, as we noted in the book, is that “In order to gain and maintain power, the Romans could kill—which they did quite effectively—but how could they defeat a leader who could raise the dead at will?”
Jesus spent a long time teaching his disciples on the night before his death. What did he focus on in this teaching, and how can this change our lives today?
JT: This is an important but neglected part of the story to study. We tend to focus on the final seven sayings of Jesus. It is, after all, the man’s dying words. But you are right—he spent a lot of time teaching when he knew he only had mere hours to live. Sinclair Ferguson once made that comment that “when his disciples were about to have the world collapse in on them, our Lord spent so much time in the Upper Room speaking to them about the mystery of the Trinity.”
Why was Jesus crucified? What if Jesus had been crucified but had not risen from the dead?
JT: When Thomas Aquinas dealt with a big question, the first thing he did was make distinctions—so I will follow suit!
There are two ways to answer a “why” question: one is to look at the cause and the other is to look at the purpose.
For the cause, there is both a human and a divine answer. Acts 2:23 says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and at the same time was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” In other words, he died at the hands of lawless men in accordance with the will of a flawless God. Acts 4:27–28 is even more specific: “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [did] whatever [God's] hand and [God's] plan had predestined to take place.”
In terms of the purpose, there is again a human and a divine answer. Perhaps the clearest way to explain it is from Romans 3:26, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” In other words, by taking our unrighteousness and giving us Christ’s righteousness God demonstrated his unswerving righteousness.
If Christ had died but not been raised, then God would be unrighteous and we would be liars who are dead in our sins forever—not to mention the most pitiable fools on earth (1 Corinthians 15:12–19).
How do you envision people might use this book?
JT: One brother (a professor and pastor) who is reading the book told me he recently used it in his personal devotions and “felt closer to Jesus ever since.” Another pastor-friend who read it mentioned that he “can’t wait to give it to my skeptical friends.” Both of those gracious and encouraging comments illustrate the sort of ways we envision the book being used by the Lord.
We hope lots of different people find it helpful: those who have known the story so long that it has lost its sense of wonder, and those who have never really seen and read what Jesus said and did; those who are pastors preparing a sermon and those families or small groups looking for devotional reading during Lent.
Ultimately, if our goal is to become like Jesus by beholding him (2 Corinthians 3:18), then we offer this book as a gift to the church and say with Jesus, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
Andreas J. Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior research professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a prolific author, distinguished evangelical scholar, and the editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. His many books include The Heresy of Orthodoxy, God, Marriage, and Family, and God’s Design for Man and Woman (August 2014).
Justin Taylor (PhD candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is vice president of book publishing and an associate publisher at Crossway. In addition to blogging at Between Two Worlds, he has contributed to a number of books and is the co-editor (with Stephen Nichols) of Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series. He and Köstenberger are the authors of The Final Days of Jesus:The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (excerpt, study guide).