The death of Christ on Holy Wednesday

by DIVVS·IVLIVS

Bercianos de Aliste is a small and remote Spanish village near the Portugese border. Due to its century-long isolation the town’s parish has retained a very ancient and unadorned tradition of the Semana Santa, the Spanish Holy Week leading up to Easter. At first sight they seem to be following the standard rituals of the Holy Week: During the night before Holy Thursday a monumento is built for the host. From Wednesday to Good Friday women mourn for the enshrined body and watch over their Lord and Savior. Then the host is shared during the Holy Thursday liturgy. The Good Friday rituals begin in the morning, when the priest symbolizes the deceased Christ by lying on the floor.

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As part of the Good Friday tradition an effigy of the deceased Christ is taken out of its shrine, a wooden miniature temple, in which it lay during the whole year. The effigy is affixed to the Cross and carried outside. The crucifix is then erected on the town square (elevatio Crucis). The ritual ends with the effigy being removed from the Cross (depositio Crucis) and laid again into the temple shrine. Then the final funeral procession commences, while wafers and traditional flatbreads are handed out or sold to the people, especially during Santo Entierro and Soledad. The procession is eventually concluded by an entombment ritual in a calvario, a symbolic grave. The effigy is later moved back to the chapel, the hermita, where it will stay until the next year.

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The Semana Santa of Bercianos sticks out because it is umembellished: There is no laden orchestration of the events, no baroque pasos, no contest of the costaleros etc., and this allows for a better and less distracted glance at the underlying tradition and its chronological sequence. And it seems that not only the Bercianos tradition, but the Christian Holy Week tradition in general, is off by three days—or rather by two days, if you don’t count inclusively—, which would mean that Christ dies on Holy Wednesday. Yes, Christ dies on Wednesday, and it is possible to substantiate it. You would respond that it is received tradition that the Crucified is presented on Good Friday. This is true, but it is also a fact that the effigy on the Cross is only a simulacrum, a substitute body—a crucifix. And in Christian tradition the real body of Christ is the host, the true Corpus Christi. It is striking that in the evening hours of Holy Wednesday the parishes begin to construct a monumento (from Latin monumentum) for Christ’s body, which is nothing but a grave or a shrine, a symbolic tomb for the symbol of the true body. It is also conspicuous that women often mourn and watch over the entombed body, which is a prominent feature in the ancient tradition in Bercianos de Aliste that culminates in a vigil before Good Friday. Furthermore, the women are often joined by armed men, especially during the night. In Christian imagination the guards and vigils serve as a reminder of the need to prevent the Jews and/or the Romans from stealing the deceased body of Christ, so his later Resurrection could not be negated. In a similar tradition the Tenebrae ritual with the strepitus commemorating the extinction of Christ’s life, symbolized by the extinction of candles and other light sources, is celebrated on Holy Wednesday. At first glance it seems illogical to entomb Christ’s body and perform these mournful vigils and death rituals before Good Friday, which is supposed to be the day when Christ died.

It is well-known that the Semana Santa always reaches its climax on Good Friday, and that most traditional Christians view the processions on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday (Resurrectio) as merely an appendix. This would be a strange attitude, since the Resurrection—which Easter is all about—is said to occur on Sunday, not on Friday. So there seem to be two chronologies at work here, the one by the book ending on Sunday, and the underlying, but apparently traditional and more ancient chronology with Christ’s death on Wednesday, his subsequent enshrinement, and the climax on Good Friday. This alternate liturgical current obviously ignores the events in the Passion narrative of the Gospel, where Christ is commonly believed to die on the Cross.

However, it does follow the sources on Julius Caesar’s death, funeral and resurrection. One thing that remained the same in both accounts was the date of death: According to the synoptic gospels Jesus died on 15 Nisan, while Caesar was assassinated on Wednesday, 15 March 44 BCE, after his last supper on the 14th in the house of magister equitum Lepidus, where he had foreshadowed his assassination and spoken of his quick death. It was well-known in Antiquity that Caesar’s passion was accompanied by the sun’s darkness from the sixth hour (Serv. Georg. 1.466.1), and that the light of his life was “extinguished” (Verg. Georg. 1.466)—Caesar’s tenebrae. Late on the Ides of March his followers began to build his shrine and plan the funeral, most notably Fulvia, Mark Antony and Calpurnius Piso (see below), while the women prepared his body and mourned for the deceased lord and savior. Armed men protected the body to prevent the conspirators and their followers from stealing the body, so they couldn’t declare Caesar a tyrant, drag him through the streets and throw him into the Tiber. Thereby the Caesarians ensured his state funeral that would eventually see his resurrection as god. Vigils and guards proceeded until the day of his cremation, and then continued until his entombment. Caesar’s funeral ceremony and his resurrection occured on the third day, on Friday, 17 March, the ancient Roman Liberalia festival. On this day small loaves of flatbread called liba were handed out to the people. Caesar’s corpse was laid on a deathbed and presented in the procession and on the Forum Romanum inside a shrine, which was a miniature model of the temple of his divine mother Venus Genetrix. On the Forum Mark Antony held his famous funeral oration, and during the climax a wax effigy of Caesar’s slaughtered body was affixed to a cruciform tropaeum and shown to the attending masses.

Within the framework of Francesco Carotta’s theory that the historical Jesus was Julius Caesar and that the Gospel is a diegetic transposition of the Roman sources on Caesar’s Civil War, both chronologies of the Holy Week make perfect sense. The original underlying chronology is based directly on the Caesarian tradition: death on Wednesday, funeral with presentation of the effigy/crucifix on Friday. The received chronology is however the result of the diegetic transposition in scripture and the effect it had on later Christian tradition: In the Gospel the betrayal of Caesar, the assault and his assassination had become the betrayal of Christ, the assault and his arrest. The death of the Son of God (which historically occured on Wednesday) had shifted to the funeral ceremony on Friday, because in scripture the assassination was now an arrest, while Caesar’s cremation on Friday was misinterpreted as the death of Christ (Crucifixion account; cf. i.a. CREMO > kremáô). In Christian tradition the crucifix (i.e. originally Caesar’s effigy on the tropaeum) was then gradually understood to be a representation of a real person’s crucifixion. Likewise the Resurrection shifted by three days from the funeral on Good Friday to Easter, which historically corresponds to the collecting of Caesar’s remains and their interment on Sunday, a ritual that is still observed in Bercianos de Aliste and elsewhere. It is the story of Caesar’s empty tomb: The women came to the place of his cremation, but Caesar’s body had vanished. His remains had already been collected and interred in the Julian family grave, but his empty tomb on the Forum remained a popular and public place of the resurrected god, adorned at first by a large rock monument that was later removed.

The faint but noticeable echo of the alternate Holy Week chronology with Christ’s death on Wednesday might seem odd and wrong to modern Christians, but that is beyond doubt what actually happens in the ritual tradition: the entombment of the true Corpus Christi. In any case, it would not have raised any eyebrows in Antiquity, because it constitutes the primary and unaltered tradition that originated directly from Julius Caesar’s funus. From a standpoint that focuses on the Gospel alone, this alternate tradition is however completely inexplicable.

But it is also possible to converge on the historical Holy Week from a different angle: From early Christian writers like Tertullian we know that before the introduction of the computus Easter used to be celebrated at a fixed time in March (de jejun. 14): pascha celebramus annuo circulo in mense primo. And it’s the Christian Saints and their feast days that tell us the exact dates and chronology of events:

  1. Saint Longinus (15 March): the soldier present when Christ died (Caesar’s assassin Cassius Longinus)

  2. Saint Joseph of Arimathea (17 March): the mortician of Christ (Piso, one of the supervisors of Caesar’s funeral)

  3. Saint Joseph (19 March): “foster father” of Christ (also Caesar’s father-in-law Piso, as supervisor active at the last day of the funus: interment and Resurrection). [Nota bene: This second Joseph is also a partial transposition of Gaius Octavius, the putative father of the bodily resurrected Caesar, i.e. the young Caesar Octavian, whose real father was the god Apollo (by divine procreation), and later the divine Caesar Divus Iulius (by adoption and rebirth as Divi filius, "Son of God"). But the young Caesar was not at Rome during the great Caesar's funeral, and this is therefore a later addition to the tradition. Originally this Joseph was only a doublet of Saint Joseph of Arimathea.]

To recapitulate: In the Julian calendar calculations for 44 BCE, the year of Caesar’s death, resurrection and interment, these three dates fell on a Wednesday, Friday and Sunday in the Babylonian week—which constitutes the historical Passion and Holy Week. Therefore it is not surprising and only logical that the author of one of the earliest Easter calendars, the Chronicon Paschale, did not connect the first computed Easter date in the system’s base-year (312/13 CE) to any hypothetically dated Biblical event, but placed the origin of his paschal cycle on the date of Julius Caesar’s proclamation as dictator in Antioch. (Yet another mystery easily solved within the Caesarian framework.)

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Image source: Van Friesland J. 2008. The Gospel of Caesar. (Dutch title: Het Evangelie van Caesar). Documentary feature film. Utrecht. Van Friesland Filmproducties/VARA. © Copyright 2007–09 (worldwide). Used by permission.