The Passover Plot
The Passover Plot Hypothesis
The Passover Plot is a book by radical New Testament scholar, H. J. Schonfield, who proposed that Jesus was an innocent messianic pretender who connived to “fulfill” prophecy in order to substantiate his claims (Schonfield, 35-38). According to the plot, Jesus secretly “schemed in faith” (ibid., 173), connived with a young man, Lazarus, and Joseph of Arimathea, to feign death on the cross, revive in the tomb, and demonstrate to his disciples (who were ignorant of the plot) that he was the Messiah. However, the plan went awry when the Roman soldiers pierced Jesus’ side and he died. Nonetheless, the disciples mistook others as Christ some days later and believed he had risen from the dead (Schonfield, 170-72).
A Challenge to the Passover Plot
If true, the “Passover Plot” would contradict orthodox Christianity, which is built on the beliefs that Jesus was truly the Messiah who supernaturally fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, and who died on the cross and rose from the dead three days later (1 Cor. 15:1-5). Apart from these basic truths there is no historic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12-18). Thus, it is incumbent on the evangelical apologist to refute the Passover Plot hypothesis.
At least three basic dimensions of traditional apologetics are called in question by this alleged plot: the character of Christ, the supernatural nature of messianic predictions, and the resurrection of Christ. Each will be addressed in order.
The Character of Christ. If the alleged plot is correct, then Jesus was anything but “innocent.” He was a conniving, cunning, and deceptive messianic pretender. He intended to deceive his closest disciples into believing he was the Messiah when he was not. But this thesis is contrary to the character of Christ known from the Gospel records, which have been demonstrated to be reliable. The Jesus of the Gospels is the perfect exemplar of honesty and integrity.
The Nature of Supernatural Prophecy. Contrary to the “Passover Plot,” messianic prophecy is supernatural. And in the case of Christ there are many reasons that he could not have manipulated events to make it look like he fulfilled all the predictions about the Old Testament Messiah.
First of all, this was contrary to his honest character as noted above. It assumes he was one of the greatest deceivers of all time. It presupposes that he was not even a good person, to say nothing of the perfect man the Gospels affirm him to be. There are several lines of evidence that combine to demonstrate that this is a completely implausible thesis.
Second, there is no way Jesus could have controlled many events necessary for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. For example, he had no control over where he would be born (Mic. 5:2), how he would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), when he would die (Dan. 9:25), what tribe (Gen. 49:10) and lineage he would be from (2 Sam. 7:12), and numerous other things.
Third, there is no way short of being supernatural that Jesus could have manipulated the events and people in his life to respond in exactly the way necessary for it to appear that he was fulfilling all these prophecies, including John’s heralding him (Matt. 3), his accuser’s reactions (Matt. 27:12), how the soldiers cast lots for his garments (John 19:23, 24), and how they would pierce his side with a spear (John 19:34). Indeed even Schonfield admits that the plot failed when the Romans actually pierced Christ. The fact is that anyone with all this manipulative power would have to be divine—the very thing the Passover Plot hypothesis is attempting to avoid. In short, it takes a bigger miracle to believe the Passover Plot than to accept these prophecies as supernatural.
The Resurrection of Christ. The Passover Plot offers an implausible scenario as an alternative to the resurrection of Christ. This is true for many reasons. First, it is contrary to the Gospel records, which are demonstrably reliable, having been written by eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. Second, it totally overlooks the powerful testimony of the resurrection of Christ, including: (1) a permanently empty tomb; (2) over five hundred eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:5-7); (3) some twelve physical appearances of Christ in the same nail-scarred body (John 20:27); (4) which were spread over a period of forty days (Acts 1:3); (5) during which time Jesus ate with them on at least four occasions and taught them concerning the kingdom of God; (6) and transformed them from scared, skeptical, scattered disciples into the greatest missionary society the world has ever known overnight!
The Passover Plot is in fact an implausible scenario that is based on unjustified presuppositions and is contrary to many known facts. For example, it supposes: (1) unjustified late dates for the Gospels; (2) an antisupernatural bias, (3) a flawed character of Christ; (4) the incredible naiveté of his disciples; (5) mass cases of mistaken identity after his death; (6) a miraculous transformation based on a total mistake.
To put it positively, the alleged plot is contrary to (1) the early dates of the Gospels; (2) the multiplicity of the eyewitnesses’ accounts; (3) the verification of history and archaeology; (4) the known character of Jesus’ disciples; (5) the permanently empty tomb; (6) the nature of the resurrection appearances; and (7) the incredible number of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ—over five hundred. In short, The Passover Plot is just another beautiful theory ruined by a brutal gang of facts.
C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
G. Habermas, The Historical Jesus
H. J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot
E. Yamauchi, “Passover Plot or Easter Triumph” in John W. Montgomery, Christianity for the Tough-Minded
C. Wilson, The Passover Plot Exposed