The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield

Reviewed by Tim Chaffey

    During the 1960’s, Hugh J. Schonfield created quite a stir when he published a best-selling book entitled The Passover Plot.  The cover of the book briefly explains that the book is a “new interpretation of the life and death of Jesus.”[1]  In reality, The Passover Plot is a bold denial of much of Jesus’ life and the circumstances of His death, burial, and resurrection.  Naturally, many Christians protested the book while atheists and skeptics praised it.

     Schonfield identified himself as a Jew on the first page of the book.[2]  So it should come as no surprise to the reader that he would deny the New Testament and its teachings concerning Jesus Christ.  What may surprise the reader is his severe subjectivity toward this particular topic.  This attitude will be examined throughout this critique.

     The Passover Plot denies so many essential doctrines of the Christian faith that it is difficult to thoroughly critique this book in just one article so we will focus on three main points of Schonfield’s hypothesis.  The first topic that needs to be examined is his denial of the deity of Jesus Christ.  The second section  will focus on Schonfield’s denial of the death of Jesus Christ.  The final point to be examined is his denial of the resurrection.

     Prior to digging into these three points it is necessary to develop an understanding of Schonfield’s hermeneutical principles and practices.  His reasons for holding the views he does will become clearer when one understands the utter contempt he holds for the New Testament.  He opposes the orthodox view that the gospels were composed between A. D. 50 to A. D. 95.[3]  Instead Schonfield opts for the higher critics’ view that the gospels were written between A. D. 75 to A. D. 115 pushing the writings past the date of the destruction of Jerusalem.  This allows him to argue that the authors of each gospel had tainted memories of their younger years and therefore provided false and embellished details in their biographical accounts of Jesus. 

     Schonfield’s hermeneutical approach is illogical.  Similar to the members of the Jesus Seminar, he utilized a hopscotch approach to the gospel accounts.  Whenever a passage did not contradict his hypothesis he would use it to back up his point.  However, whenever a verse contradicted his theory he rejected it.  For example, he wrote, “We may dismiss the story in Matthew alone that the chief priests requested Pilate that a guard be set over the tomb, and that they posted a watch…”[4] He does not give evidence as to why we should disregard this account but simply claims that it is not historical.  There are numerous examples of this throughout the book.  It is amazing that Schonfield can know more about what Jesus said and did than the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ day.  Perhaps they should consider what He stated in Revelation 22: 18 – 19 concerning anyone that tampered with His word.

     Although Schonfield claims to be objective and scientific in his approach it is easily demonstrated that his bias and philosophy overrule any attempt at objectivity.[5]  For example, he states, “With the birth stories of Jesus, and of John the Baptist also, we pass directly from the world of sober reality into the world of fairy-tale.”[6]  While denying the God-inspired nature of the Bible he wrote, “All we need is the application to our eyes of the fairy dust called faith to enable us to see and acknowledge this.”[7]  A truly scientific approach to this issue would not rule out any conclusion, including the supernatural, until all research has been completed.  Schonfield rules out the miraculous simply because it does not fit his philosophical views.  When one considers the miraculous birth of his ancestor Isaac, it is astonishing when a Jewish person labels the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ as impossible.

     Another factor to consider when demonstrating his lack of objectivity is that all New Testament passages that appear in the book are quoted from Schonfield’s own translation of the Bible entitled, The Authentic New Testament.  He also misquotes passages from the Old Testament to support his hypothesis.  For instance, he misquoted Isaiah 53:9 to bolster his claims that Jesus faked his death on the cross and then eventually died from His unexpected spear wound in an unknown location.[8]  He quoted it as “He made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his deaths [plural].”[9]  The true rendering of this passage uses the word “death” [singular] not “deaths.”   

     It is abundantly clear that Schonfield is far from the objective historian that he promotes himself to be.  He absolutely despises the Gospel of John and refuses to even call it by name.  Instead he calls it the “Fourth Gospel” throughout the book.  An open mind is required to perform the type of investigating that Schonfield claims to do.  However, his attitude toward this gospel and many other issues of the Christian faith betray his objectivity. 

     As stated earlier, Schonfield denies the deity of Jesus Christ.  He states concerning Christ that “he had no control over what lay beyond, and in much that he anticipated he was mistaken.”[10]  Again, he accuses Jesus of error when he writes, “nevertheless Jesus was deeply moved and hurt at his failure, even though it had not really looked as if he would succeed.”[11] 

     Obviously, God cannot lie or fail.  Even Schonfield would agree with this.  However, it is beyond the realm of possibility that one man could fulfill all of the Messianic prophecies concerning the first advent unless that man was God incarnate.  While Schonfield argues that Jesus studied these prophecies and schemed to fulfill each and every one of them it is unfathomable that he could even fulfill those that are beyond His control, were He a mere mortal.  Josh McDowell lists eight prophecies that Christ fulfilled that were “totally beyond human control…Place, time, and manner of birth, betrayal, manner of death, people’s reactions, piercing, and burial.”[12]  Schonfield contends that Jesus arranged for His betrayal, manner of death, and burial.  Even if this is true he cannot account for the others nor could Jesus be sure that these others would be carried out. 

     McDowell quotes Peter Stoner’s book Science Speaks to determine the chances of one man fulfilling just these eight prophecies.  Stoner concluded that the odds would be 1 in 1017.  He likens these odds to the possibility of one man given one chance to find a marked silver dollar in a field of silver dollars two feet deep and the size of Texas. 

     While denying the virgin birth he writes, “there was nothing peculiar about the birth of Jesus.  He was not God incarnate and no Virgin Mother bore him.”[13]  Later he adds, “He was as completely human as every baby, the eldest child, as we have said, of a Jewish artisan named Joseph and his wife Miriam (Mary), inheriting his form from their stock and his portion of their character and disposition.”[14]

     One must wonder how Schonfield knows that Christ was not God incarnate.  How could he know that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father?  The Virgin Birth does not fit into Schonfield’s philosophy so he disregards any reference made to it in the gospels.  It is much easier to believe the writers who walked and talked with Christ and His disciples than it is to believe a man with an agenda writing nearly two millennia later. 

     The simple truth of the matter is that a mere man could not have accomplished all that Jesus did despite what Schonfield claims.  C.S. Lewis convincingly defends the deity of Jesus Christ in his book Mere Christianity.  He wrote:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the rally foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.

“You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.[15]


     As Lewis stated, the only logical answer concerning the deity of Jesus Christ is that He is indeed God in the flesh.  Any other conclusion does not fit with what the eyewitnesses wrote down for us nor does it make sense that a “great moral teacher” would willingly lie and deceive people.  Schonfield is simply grasping at straws in an attempt to discredit Jesus. 

     Incredibly, he claims that his view of Jesus does not “detract from his greatness and uniqueness.”[16]  Could a logical person really claim that Christ’s greatness and uniqueness is not affected by demoting Him from God the Son to a deceitful and mistaken man?  Schonfield’s ignorance at this point is astonishing.

     Concerning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Schonfield wrote that Christ forced the Sanhedrin’s hand into condemning Him to be crucified.  He claims that Jesus new the Old Testament Scriptures well enough to understand that the Messiah needed to die and live again.  Of course, a mere man could not accomplish this feat so Schonfield claims that Jesus staged His death and fully intended to appear to His followers.  However, the unexpected spear wound was too much for Christ to recover from and He eventually died in an undisclosed place.

     There is so much evidence to refute these ideas.  It is true that Christ knew the Old Testament well enough to know that the Messiah must die and rise again.  It would be impossible for Jesus, as a mere man, to have arranged the fulfillment of every prophecy that occurred during His crucifixion.  Did He pay off the Roman soldiers to gamble for His clothes?  Did He arrange for the Romans to beat Him so badly that he was hardly recognizable?  Why would the sky grow dark and the temple veil tear in two at the moment of a common man’s death?  Why would the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep rise and enter the holy city and appear to many?  Schonfield does not have an answer for any of these questions so he claims that none of these events ever occurred.  Once again, it is easier to trust the eyewitnesses than a man with a grudge.

     Could a mere man have known that the Messiah needed to ride into Jerusalem on a colt on the very day prophesied in Daniel 9: 25?  Could He have arranged for the fulfillment of Isaiah 53: 8 which states, “He was taken from prison and from judgment?”  This was not the Roman practice.  The convicted criminal would go from prison to trial to prison again and then to judgment.  How coincidental is it that Christ’s trials and judgment did not follow the typical Roman order but instead followed an obscure passage written 700 years earlier?  The obvious answer is that it was not coincidence but the precise fulfillment of the plan of the ages made by a holy God and carried out by His Son, Jesus Christ.

     Schonfield downplays the centurion’s report of Jesus’ death found in Mark 15.  Regarding this, he wrote:

Joseph [of Arimathea]…sought an audience with Pilate…and requested to have the body of Jesus.  Pilate was greatly astonished, as well he might be, to hear that Jesus was already dead, and being on his guard in view of all that had happened he sent for the centurion in charge of the execution to obtain confirmation.  When this was forthcoming, he readily gave the necessary permission.[17] 


     No mention is made of the fact that the centurion, who was in charge of the execution, would have been able to tell the difference between a dead man and one who was faking it.  It is beyond the realm of believability that this man would have admitted that Jesus was dead unless it was indeed the case. 

     When one considers the evidence related to the resurrection of Jesus Christ it becomes clear that Schonfield is once again mistaken.  Many books have been written confirming the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter morning.  The evidence is too overwhelming for Schonfield’s theory to refute.

     Dave Hunt wrote the following in his apologetic work In Defense of the Faith regarding proof for the resurrection:

The very transformation in the disciples, which the Pharisees acknowledged, was more than sufficient proof of the resurrection.  The disciples, like the cowards they were, had abandoned Christ in the garden and had fled to save their own lives.  Yet here they were, these ‘unlearned and ignorant men’ (Acts 4: 13), now no longer afraid, but boldly indicting the rabbis for having delivered Christ to be crucified.  In spite of beatings and threats of imprisonment and death, these former cowards were now courageously standing up to the rabbis and with great conviction testifying that their Lord had risen from the dead.[18]


     The fact that all but one of the disciples was martyred for his faith is another convincing proof that they saw the resurrected Lord.  It is inconceivable that all of these men would be willing to die for what they knew to be a lie.  Schonfield claims that they were simply deceived and only thought they saw Jesus on the road to Emmaus and at the Galilean seashore.  Instead, he claims that it was probably Joseph of Arimathea disguised to make the disciples believe that he was the resurrected Jesus.  As Henry Morris wrote, “certainly the disciples could recognize the One who had been with them every day for more than three years.”[19]  John Ankerberg corroborates this idea by writing, “this theory makes Christ a fraud and the disciples near idiots.”[20]

     Schonfield only mentions these two post-resurrection appearances because both accounts state that the disciples did not immediately recognize Him.  He does not even mention the other appearances to over “five hundred brethren” according to 1 Corinthians 15: 6.  He would probably claim that these never happened and were just embellished stories.  It should be exceedingly clear who has embellished the stories.

     One of the greatest proofs of the resurrection is the empty tomb.  However, this will not be used as evidence since Schonfield’s theory accounts for this.  However, Schonfield cannot account for the existence of the Church in the world today.  He cannot account for the experiences of millions of people worldwide trusting in this carpenter from Galilee for their salvation has changed whose hearts.

     There are many other evidences for the resurrection that cannot be discussed here due to lack of space.  Schonfield’s theory may be one of the most well crafted ones to deny the resurrection but it still lacks any convincing proof.  While an uninformed person may fall for his ideas any honest and informed person can easily refute them. 

     It takes a much larger amount of faith to believe all the Schonfield has written in this book.  George Hanson wrote:

The simple faith of the Christian who believes in the resurrection is nothing compared to the credulity of the skeptic who will accept the wildest and most improbable romances rather than admit the plain witness of historical certainties.  The difficulties of belief may be great; the absurdities of unbelief are greater.[21]


     John Lilly wrote:

All of these attacks have been triumphantly repulsed, their futility demonstrated.  The field of biblical criticism resembles a vast graveyard filled with the skeletons of discarded theories devised by highly imaginative skeptics….One might think that so many repeated failures…would lead the opposition to abandon their efforts, but not so.  They continue unabated, and men are still wracking their brains, working their imaginations overtime, and parading a vast amount of erudition and ingenuity in their, to us, futile attempts to destroy the impregnable rock of historical evidence on which the Christian faith in the resurrection stands proud and unshaken.[22]


     Paul states in the first chapter of Romans that unbelievers are without excuse, not due to lack of evidence, for there is plenty, but because they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1: 18).  Jesus Himself stated that “men loved darkness rather than light” (John 3: 19).  Never is this truth made clearer than when the skeptics concoct impossible and unbelievable stories to circumvent the truth.

     The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ still stand as the most important events in human history.  The fact that mountains of evidence corroborate them testifies to their historicity and authenticity.  No amount of skeptical attacks such as The Passover Plot will ever change these facts.



[1] Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York: Bantam Books, 1969), front cover.

[2] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 1.

[3] John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Word Publishing,1997) pp. 1389, 1452, 1505, 1569.

[4] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 163.

[5] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 3.

[6] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 41.

[7] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 41.

[8] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 173.

[9] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 166.

[10] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 34.

[11] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 80.

[12] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1972) 166.

[13] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 42.

[14] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 44.

[15] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1952).

[16] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 7.

[17] Schonfield, The Passover Plot, 161.

[18] Hunt, Dave. In Defense of the Faith (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999), 126 - 127.

[19] Morris, Henry.  The Bible Has the Answer (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1976), 47.

[20] Ankerberg, John and Weldon, John.  Ready With an Answer (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1997) 112.

[21] Hanson, George.  The Resurrection and the Life, (New York: Revell) p. 24.

[22] Lilly, John.  “Alleged Discrepancies in the Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 2, 1940, p. 99.



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About the Author

(The above picture is from 40th anniversary edition of the book.  This critique is based on the 1977 edition.)