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The Death of Jesus

"Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?"

John 18:38

The traditional Jewish calendar of the first century AD was lunar, in which the first day of each month was determined by when the crescent of the new moon became visible in Jerusalem shortly after sunset (the full moon rising fifteen days later). It was perhaps natural, therefore, that the setting sun should signify the end of the day and sunset the beginning of a new one, which extended to sunset the next day (night and day, rather than day and night; cf. Genesis 1:5, "And the evening and morning were the first day"). Friday, for example, began at sunset on Thursday and ended at sunset on Friday, which was the beginning of Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Daylight hours, however, still were measured from sunrise (6 a.m.). By this reckoning, the third hour was 9 a.m.; the sixth hour, 12 noon; and the ninth hour, 3 p.m. An event that occurred in the twilight just before sunset (the twelfth hour, 6 p.m.) was counted as taking place on that day and, shortly after sunset, the next. Although the notion of a new day beginning in the evening is potentially confusing, it is no different than one beginning at midnight six hours later.

As God had "rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made" (Genesis 2:2), so the Sabbath was to be a day in which "ye shall do no work therein" (Leviticus 23:3, Exodus 20:10). The meal to be eaten that evening, on what was the beginning of the Sabbath, therefore had to be prepared earlier in the afternoon—while it still was Friday, a Day of Preparation (cf. Mark 15:42, "it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath"). As well as the Sabbath, there were other "feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons" (Leviticus 23:4), the most important of which was Passover, a movable feast that could fall on any day of the week but was especially sacred when it coincided with the Sabbath.

Nisan was to be "the first month of the year to you" (Exodus 12:2), corresponding to March/April (just as the vernal equinox on March 25 was the beginning of the new year in the early Roman calendar). There was to be a Passover feast of unleavened bread and bitter herbs to commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would pass over them. And so a lamb was to be kept "until the fourteenth day of the same month" (12:6, Leviticus 23:5, Numbers 28:16), when it was slain that afternoon (Nisan 14) in anticipation of the evening Passover meal. "On the fifteenth day of the same month was the beginning of the feast of unleavened bread" (Leviticus 23:6, Exodus 12:18), when the meal that had been prepared several hours before was eaten after sundown (with the rising of the full moon) on what then was the beginning of Passover day (15 Nisan).

The Gospels all agree that Jesus died on a Friday during Passover on the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:42), that he shared a "last supper" with his disciples, and was crucified in the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea (AD 2636); Caiaphas, high priest in Jerusalem (AD 1836); and Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (circa 4 BCAD 39) (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.2.2, XVII.8.1; Luke 3:1-2).

But there is disagreement as to whether Jesus died before or after this last supper and whether it truly was a Passover meal. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke; so named because they share a similar narrative when "seen together"), Jesus is said to have been crucified and died after the Passover meal on Passover day. In the Gospel of John, he died before the Passover meal on its Day of Preparation.

Mark was the first Gospel to be written, probably about AD 70 when, on Passover that year, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the Second Temple four months later (Josephus, The Jewish War, V.3.1, VI.4.8; cf. Mark 13:2, "there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down"). He recounts that, on "the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover [lamb]," the disciples asked Jesus where they were to prepare the meal "that thou mayest eat the passover" (14:12; also Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:15, "I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer"). Preparations were duly made and that evening Jesus took the bread and broke it (as his own body would be broken) and then the wine, signifying the shedding of his own blood. Afterwards, they went into the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed and arrested that night. Tried and found guilty by Pontius Pilate, he was crucified the next morning at "the third hour" (9 a.m.) on Passover day (Mark 15:25).

John was the last Gospel to be written, about twenty-five years later. He relates that Jesus died "before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father" (13:1). There was no preparation for a Passover meal nor mention of a communion; rather, "supper being ended," Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (13:2, 5) and, echoing Moses, gave them a new commandment: to love one another (13:34). That night (as the Day of Preparation began), Jesus was arrested and, early the next morning, taken from the house of Caiaphas to the praetorium of Pilate. The Jewish authorities refused to enter the building, however, "lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover" that evening (18:28), obliging Pilate, somewhat incongruously, to pass to and from his own palace as he questioned Jesus and his accusers. Finally brought outside for judgment, Jesus was led away to be crucified. "It was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour" (noontime) (19:14, 16).

Mark and John agree that Jesus died on a Friday. In Mark, this was the Day of Passover (15 Nisan), the morning after the Passover meal of the evening before. Arrested and interrogated by Caiaphas and Pilate that night, Jesus was tried and crucified the next morning at 9 a.m. on Passover day. In John, Jesus died on the Day of Preparation (14 Nisan), the day before the Passover meal, sometime after noon but before sunset later that evening. According to Josephus, this would have been "from the ninth hour till the eleventh" (3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) (The Jewish War, VI.9.3). Having had a last supper the night before, Jesus does not partake of the Passover meal but is sentenced and crucified while it still was being prepared.

In John, Passover day fell on a Saturday, thereby coinciding with the weekly Sabbath. "That sabbath day was an high day" (19:31), in which the two festivals were celebrated on the same day, and Friday was the Day of Preparation for them both. The death of Jesus on the Day of Preparation then would be at the same time that the lambs were being prepared for the Passover feast later that evening, at the beginning of Passover Day. Jesus himself has become the sacrificial lamb or, in the words of John the Baptist, "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, 36), dying at the same time as the paschal lambs were being ritually slaughtered in the Temple—as prefigured by I Corinthians "For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (5:7).

And, "because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day" (John 19:31), Jesus has to die before sunset—before the beginning of the Sabbath, when capital punishment was prohibited by Jewish law, as were decisions regarding criminal cases being made at night (Sanhedrin, Mishnah IV.1; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23, "His body shall not remain all night upon the tree"). In the synoptic accounts, Jesus does die on Passover, a Sabbath day. This is why John alone speaks of the legs of the two thieves being broken so that they not remain alive on the cross (cf. Cicero, Philippics, XIII.27, "it is quite impossible for him to die unless his legs are broken," a proverbial remark said of Titus Plancus, whose shifting political alliances allowed him to survive; for him, even though "They are broken, and still he lives"). Unable to lift themselves to breathe, suffocation would come all the more readily and death hastened—before the start of the Sabbath (and Passover) that evening, only hours later. The legs of Jesus no doubt would have been broken as well, had he not already died (as confirmed by the thrust of a spear), thus fulfilling God's command that "neither shall ye break a bone thereof" of the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:46, John 19:33-34).

Although the Gospels suggest the day on which Jesus died, they do not specify a year—other than it occurred during the reign of Pontius Pilate. Using astronomical data, Humphreys and Waddington have calculated that, when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea (AD 26–36), the celebration of a Friday Passover on 14 Nisan would have to be either April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33. A Passover on 15 Nisan during that decade would be in the year AD 27 or AD 34, which almost certainly is too early or too late.

John records three (possibly four) Passovers during Jesus' ministry, the first at its beginning (2:13), when John the Baptist began his own ministry about AD 29 (Luke 3:1-3), and the last just before Jesus' death, when he and his disciples went to Jerusalem, for the "passover was nigh at hand" (John 11:55). By then, the Temple had been forty-six years "in building" (2:20), work having begun by Herod's father, Herod the Great, "in the fifteenth year of his reign" (Josephus, The Jewish War, I.21.1). Josephus also says "in the eighteenth year of his reign" (Antiquities of the Jews, XV.11.1), but the discrepancy simply is between when Herod became king of Judaea in 37 BC and when he had been given that title by the Roman Senate three years before. If Herod's fifteenth regnal year ended in 16 BC, forty-six years later would be AD 29—the same year that Pilate was governor of Judaea, which was "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1), who succeeded Augustus in AD 14 (Tacitus, Annals, I.5, Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, XXIV.2). For Jesus' ministry to have begun about AD 29 and extend over three annual Passovers, he could not have been crucified in AD 30.

Jesus died, therefore, on 14 Nisan, 3793 anno mundi—Friday, April 3, AD 33 at about 3 p.m., a few hours before the beginning of Passover day and the Sabbath. This is the date in the Julian calendar, which had been introduced in 46 BC, and follows the convention that historical dates adhere to the calendar in use at the time. If, instead, the current Gregorian calendar were retroactively extended to a date prior to its introduction in 1582 (or even 1752, when it was adopted by the United States and United Kingdom), such a proleptic date would be different. The equivalent Jewish date for the death of Jesus is calculated by adding 3761 BC (its proleptic Julian date) to AD 33—and subtracting a year to allow for the fact there is no AD 0. In the Jewish calendar, 3761 is the year of creation, as determined by the sage Halafta, who used only the chronology of the Bible as his authority, and codified by the twelfth-century scholar Maimonides a millennium later.

Three o'clock in the afternoon is the "the ninth hour," as attested by Matthew (27:46), Mark (15:34), and Luke (23:44). When Luke says it was "about the sixth hour" (noon) that Jesus reassured the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in paradise (23:44), in John, he still was standing before Pilate, who declared to the Jews, "Behold your King!" (19:14). Given the prolonged agony of crucifixion, Jesus would have died later that afternoon. ("Excruciating," coincidentally, derives from the Latin crux, "cross").

To reconcile the Gospel accounts, it has been suggested that Jesus, no doubt aware of his imminent arrest, did not have a Passover meal (which would have required a paschal lamb in any event) but simply a last supper the night before. Others (especially those concerned about Biblical inerrancy) have tried to harmonize the Gospels by suggesting that different calendars were used by the Pharisees and Sadducees (or nearby Qumran sect), days were reckoned differently by Galileans and Judeans, time was approximated, a fraction of a day was considered to be a full day, John measured time after Roman usage in which a new day began at midnight, or there was a scribal error in translating the third and sixth hour, confusing gamma and digamma—an argument put forward by Ammonius of Alexandria (Patrologiae Græcæ, LXXXV, Col. 1512) in the early third century AD and by Eusebius a century later (Greek Fragments, To Marinas, Suppl. 4), as well as other church fathers.

But, as Ehrman cautions, this discrepancy, in fact, cannot be reconciled. To do so is to gloss over what each gospel says: in Mark that Jesus died on the Day of Passover, when the moon was full, as it was on Creation, and in John, that he died on the Day of Preparation as the Lamb of God.

In AD 33, too, there was a partial lunar eclipse as the full sanguine moon rose above Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the prophecy quoted by Peter that "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:20). Although it is fitting that the blood smeared on the door frames of the Israelites in Egypt as "a token upon the houses where ye are" (Exodus 12:13) should prefigure a blood-red moon rising above Jerusalem that night, later calculations by Schaefer indicate that the eclipse would have been almost over by then—and the redness suggested by Humphreys and Waddington much less pronounced, if discernable at all. What color was observed more likely was due to dust in the atmosphere.

But there was another incident, this one historical rather than astronomical, that supports the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 33: the death in Rome of the praetorian prefect Lucius Sejanus, commander of the imperial guard, two years before. When Tiberius retired to Capri in AD 26, he effectively abdicated his responsibilities to Sejanus, who appointed Pilate procurator of Judaea that year. Both men were virulently anti-Jewish: Sejanus "desirous to destroy our nation" (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXIV.160; Against Flaccus, I.1) and Pilate determined "to abolish the Jewish laws" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1). When, to honor Tiberius, Pilate dedicated some gilded shields in Herod's palace in Jerusalem, there was a riot (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.299ff). Josephus later relates a similar (if not the same) story. Roman standards, adorned with the emperor's image, were brought secretly into Jerusalem during the night, prompting a riot among the populace, who considered "their laws to have been trampled under foot" (The Jewish War, II.9.2-3; retold in Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1). Money taken from the Temple treasury to begin construction of an aqueduct provoked further unrest, which was brutally suppressed (The Jewish War, II.9.4; also Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.2).

Pilate was in a quandary, "neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable to his subjects" (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.303). When a supplicatory letter was sent to Tiberius, entreating that he intervene, Sejanus was dead, having been belatedly executed for treason in AD 31 (Dio, Roman History, LVIII.11.1ff). With the loss of his patron, Pilate no doubt was fearful of his association with the disgraced Sejanus. Indeed, he was reproached by the emperor, who ordered the immediate removal of the offending objects, which were to be placed instead in the Temple of Augustus at Caesarea on the coast (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.305).

This wariness in giving further offence may explain why Pilate, "a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate," was so uncharacteristically acquiescent in handing Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. Indeed, he was fearful that, if they were to send an embassy to Tiberius, it "might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity" (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.301–302). No doubt the Jews were aware of Pilate's vulnerability when they threatened that "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12). In AD 30, when Sejanus still was alive, such a threat would have been a matter of indifference; afterwards, it had to be taken into account.

In AD 36, there was yet another disturbance, when Pilate thwarted the Samaritan followers of someone claiming to be the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15ff. Although only the principals were executed, the Samaritans complained to the governor about the number slain, and Pilate was recalled "to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.4.1ff). He hastened to Rome but, by the time he arrived, the ailing Tiberius had died, to be succeeded by Caligula. Nothing more is recorded of Pilate's fate.

For Christian apologists, this was a problem. In about AD 180, the pagan philosopher Celsus had asked why "no calamity happened even to him who condemned him" (quoted by Origen, Against Celsus, II.34). If Pilate killed the son of God, he chided, why had God not punished him? It was a question that discomfited the early church, especially during the first and second centuries AD, when the young sect already was viewed with suspicion by the Romans. In the reign of Claudius, for example, Jews had been expelled from Rome because there were constant "disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus" (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, XXV.4; cf. Acts 18:2). Under Nero, members of the "pernicious superstition" founded by Christus were persecuted for the great fire in Rome and that "class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians....convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race" (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44). In a letter written to Trajan about AD 112, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in northern Asia Minor, complained of their "stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy" in adhering to a "depraved and excessive superstition" (Letters, X.96; cf. I Peter 2:12, written to the faithful in Bithynia, warning that people "speak against you as evildoers," also 3:16, 4:4).

The gospels, therefore, prudently refrained from overtly criticizing the Roman procurator of Judaea for his culpability in the death of Jesus. In John, for example, Pilate is said to have twice declared that "I find in him no fault at all" (18:4, 38); in Matthew, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person" (27:24); in Mark, "Why, what evil hath he done? (15:14); in Luke, the declaration was "said unto them the third time" (23:22).

Written about AD 150, the pseudegraphical Gospel of Peter is the earliest non-canonical passion narrative—although, like other writings falsely attributed to the apostles, it was rejected as apocryphal by the early church, "knowing that such were not handed down to us" (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VI.12.3, III.3.2, 25.6). The Gospel of Peter is even more emphatic in exonerating Pilate, who is said to have declared "I am clear from the blood of the son of God" and kept news of the resurrection from the Jews (XI.46–47). Rather, it is Herod, the Jewish tetrarch of Galilee, who is responsible for the crucifixion, as are the Jews themselves. When Joseph of Arimathea (here, a friend of Pilate) asks to be allowed to bury the body of Jesus, Pilate is obliged to seek permission from Herod, who reassured him that, even if he had not been asked, "we should have buried him, since also the Sabbath dawneth; for it is written in the law that the sun should not set upon one that hath been slain" (II.5, cf. John 19:31, "the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day"). As to the Jews, they are utterly malevolent. When the thief on the cross recognized that Jesus has become the savior of men, "they were wroth with him, and commanded that his legs should not be broken, that so he might die in torment" (IV.1314; cf. Luke 23:41). The referent in Greek is not clear, however, and Jesus himself may be meant. Whether Jesus or those who believed in him, it is the Jews, and not the Romans, who are hostile to the new religion.

In Justin Martyr, the animus of the Jews extends to Rome itself. In the First Apology to Antoninus Pius (circa AD 155), he complains that the Jews "count us foes and enemies; and, like yourselves, they kill and punish us whenever they have the power, as you can well believe" (XXXI), referring to the bloody Bar Kokhba revolt of AD 132–135 when, outraged that Hadrian would construct a Roman colony on the ruined foundations of Jerusalem, the Jews fought a prolonged rebellion in which "many Romans" perished (Roman History, LXIX.12–14). By the early third century, Origen, in arguing against Celsus that Pilate had not been punished, declared that the taunt has been misdirected. "And yet he does not know that it was not so much Pilate that condemned the Jewish nation, which has been condemned by God" (Against Celsus, II.34). As in the Gospel of Peter, Pilate was not responsible for Jesus' crucifixion but the recalcitrant Jews, who perversely refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

In time, Pilate himself metamorphoses. According to Tertullian, writing in AD 197, he "in his own conscience was now a Christian" (Apology, XX1.26). A century-and-a-quarter later, Eusebius adds that Tiberius was so impressed with what Pilate had to say when he was summoned to Rome that the emperor proposed to the Roman Senate that Jesus be recognized as a god (Ecclesiastical History, II.2.4–6). Nevertheless, the procurator reportedly fell into misfortune and committed suicide "and thus divine vengeance, as it seems, was not long in overtaking him" (II.7.1; cf. Matthew 27:3–5, where Judas also repents of his betrayal and hangs himself).

Among the annual sacred feasts enumerated in Leviticus, there was, after Passover (14 Nisan) and the feast of unleavened bread (15 Nisan), a feast of first fruits (16 Nisan), which was to be celebrated the day after the Jewish Sabbath, when the first sheaf of barley was offered to God in thanksgiving (Leviticus 23:10–11). In AD 33, this Sunday also would have been the first Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus who had "become the firstfruits of them that slept" (I Corinthians 23:20).

As the Passover was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, so too did the church determine that Easter would be on the first Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). In most years, when the lunar Jewish calendar does not need to adjust for a leap year, Easter occurs on the Sunday after Passover. But there was a problem, as Eusebius records in his Ecclesiastical History (V.23-25),

"A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour" (V.23.1).

This was the Quartodeciman controversy (from quarta decima, "fourteenth") over whether Easter should coincide with the Passover on 14 Nisan (as observed by the early church in Asia Minor, which claimed its authority from the apostle John) or be celebrated only on Easter Sunday (as insisted by the Roman church, which did not want an alignment with the Jewish calendar). It was a potential schism that was effectively settled only by a promulgation from the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325.

In a Germanic language such as English, the festival of Easter (Ostern in German) derives from Eostre, a pagan goddess of the dawn and spring. The Old English word first is mentioned by the English monk Bede in De temporum ratione ("The Reckoning of Time"), written in AD 725, where he identified the month of April as Eosturmonath (§330).

"Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated 'Paschal month', and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance" (§331).

In the Life of Charlemagne, written about a century later, the Frankish scholar Einhard relates that, among the reforms of Charles the Great, "He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks" (§29). April was called Ostaramonath, "Easter month," Ostara and Eostre being related to Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn, heralding the arrival of spring. Jacob Grimm (the elder of the Brothers Grimm) elaborates on the etymology in Teutonic Mythology, first published in 1835.

"This Ostara, like the AS. [Anglo-Saxon] Eastre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries....Ostara, Eastre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the christian's God" (pp. 292-292).

Passover is Pascha in Greek, as transliterated from the Aramaic. This also is the word for Easter in Latin and the Romance languages.

The seventeenth-century ivory crucifix is in the Treasury of the Cathedral of Córdoba (Spain), which is situated within the Great Mosque (Mezquita).

References: "Dating the Crucifixion" (1983) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, Nature, 306, 743-746; "Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion" (1990) by Bradley E. Schaefer, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 31, 53-67; "The Date of the Crucifixion" (1985) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. Graeme Waddington, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37, 2-10; "The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse and the Date of Christ's Crucifixion" (1992) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, Tyndale Bulletin, 43(2), 331-351; The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (2011) by Colin J. Humphreys; Jesus, Interrupted (2009) by Bart D. Ehrman; Marking Time (2000) by Duncan Steel; Bede: The Reckoning of Time (1999) translated by Faith Wallis; The Works of Flavius Josephus (1737) translated by William Whiston; The Works of Philo Judaeus (1854) translated by Charles Duke Yonge; Jacob Grimm: Teutonic Mythology, Vol. 1 (1875/1882) translated by James Steven Stallybrass; "Was Jesus' Last Supper a Seder?" (2018, March 28) by Jonathan Klawans, Bible History Daily, an online publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society (reprinted from Biblical Review, 2001); The Apocryphal New Testament (1924) translated by M. R. James; Eusebius of Caesarea: Gospel Problems and Solutions (2010) edited by Roger Pearse (pp. 219–221).

See also Bede and the Paschal Calendar.

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