August 6, 2018

Cheney's Four Year Jesus Timeline

Johnston Cheney's Appendix: "The Gospels' Four-Year Chronology" is seven pages long. It was written by an untrained amateur, without footnotes, ignoring previous scholarship, based on his own imagination, after 23 years of compiling an academically indefensible harmony which he called The Life of Christ in Stereo (1969). Despite these problems, Cheney's appendix is a must read in the field of Jesus Chronology because it remains, to my knowledge, the only defense of a Five-Passover Timeline for Jesus's public ministry.

Personally, what I find most fascinating is that Cheney's whole project was focused on discourse but eventually he wound up thinking in terms of story. Despite spending decades to harmonize a sequence of discourse, sometimes straining out literalistic minutia in ridiculous fashion (e.g, Cheney's rooster crows six times, because it had to be "two times, three times"), all that misguided literalism did not prevent his mind from somehow finding this other level to play on, as well. On paper, Cheney was sewing words together. In his mind, he began to imagine activity, chains of events, periods of growth and development, and historical scenarios.

It was nothing but Cheney's decades of this makeshift "historical thinking" which loaded his Appendix with so much imagination and insight that Harold Hoehner devoted three pages in Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (1975) to refuting Cheney's scenario. As it happens, that refutation is one of the weakest points in Hoehner's argument (and also one of the most compromised, because Hoehner's position on the "46 years" datum in John 2:20 had already committed him to arguing against the four-year duration for Jesus' ministry; for the record, Hoehner's work gives us no indication that he realized this flaw.) Since then, Cheney's work has been occasionally referenced but not robustly engaged.

The upshot is that Cheney's proposed chronology is at least as likely to be true as other proposed timelines of Jesus' ministry, and for this reason (at least!) it is well worth considering.

To that end, here's my quick and dirty synopsis of "The Gospels' Four-Year Chronology".

Cheney's unique suggestion is that the story of the two-drachma tax (the coin in the fish's mouth; Mt. 17) represents the fourth spring time (of five) depicted in the cannonical Gospels. That is, if the "Temple Tax" was collected each year in advance of the Passover, and if some part of this story (at least) represents a real event which occurred about half-way in-between John the baptist's beheading and Jesus' crucifixion, then the four Gospels collectively represent a time frame which spans five Passover seasons:
1. The Passover before John's arrest (Jn. 2) 
2. The Passover near the time when Jesus' disciples ate nearly-harvestable grain on the sabbath (Mk. 2, Mt. 12, Lk. 6) 
3. The Passover shortly after John was beheaded (Jn. 6) 
4. The Passover not long after the two-drachma tax collection (Matt. 17) 
5. The Passion Week
Critically speaking, of course, it is also possible this temple tax story depicts a real event which Matthew has placed somehow contrary to the historical event sequence. Certainly, one way to argue against Cheney's view is to make just this claim. Personally, however, I find that chronology presented in Matthew's depictions does fall roughly in line with Mark's on the level of general periodization:
Phase One: Jesus ministers in Galilee until John's beheading. 
Phase Two: After John's beheading Jesus travels through regions surrounding Galilee (E, W, and N, but not S) until Peter's rebuke and the transfiguration. 
Phase Three: Jesus appears again briefly in Galilee before he begins making his way to Jerusalem.
If the temple tax collection in Matt. 17 represents a real event in the springtime after Jesus' excursions, and if the length of those excursions place this event about a year after John's beheading, and if Jesus spent roughly a year traveling in and around Judea before his crucifixion in Jerusalem, then two years passed between John's death and Jesus' death. If the grain-eating scene similarly marks a springtime one year after the Passover of John 2, and one year before John's beheading, then John's arrest lasted for nearly two years. If all this is considered plausible, then Jesus' whole public ministry lasted approximately four years - the space in between five Passovers.

To my knowledge, Johnston Cheney was the first person to suggest this Five-Passover Timeline. I believe it deserves far more attention. But so do other hypotheses!

Someday I hope to publish a project called Comparative Jesus Timelines. Mathematically, there are dozens of unconsidered scenarios which must be constructed and then weighed against one another, after which some can be logically eliminated, so that this process can be systematic rather than dogmatic.

Even if Cheney is totally wrong about Matt. 17, it is nevertheless quite possible that Jesus' ministry lasted four years. We need to shift the whole field away from debating the referentiality of individual data points and begin reconstructing comparative scenarios.


*If you can't find the 1970's edition of The Life of Christ in Stereo, the same appendix also appears in reprints such as, The Greatest Story (1994), which credits Stanley Ellisen as co-author.

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