Extracts from the Transcript of BBC Four Research Documentary
What really happened to Jesus 2,000 years ago? The Christian faith is based on New Testament accounts but some Historians and Theologians have very different – very controversial theories which some seems may disturb you. Did Jesus die?
The most celebrated human being in history was a first century Jewish revolutionary called Jesus. To his followers he was the Son of God with miraculous powers to walk on water, heal the sick and even bring people back from the dead. According to them he gave his life to save mankind. He was crucified and died. But on the third day he roused from the dead and ascended into heaven. But throughout history people has responded differently to this story. There have been those so inspired by the crucifixion that they wanted to share the experience. There have also been those who denied resurrection and have themselves been executed for their beliefs. There have been heresies that suggest that Jesus was rescued from crucifixion and escaped to live a secret life in southern France. And there have even been people convinced that Jesus survived and traveled to the mountain Kingdom of Kashmir where he died at the age of 80. To try and solve this 2,000 years old mystery some of the most devout Christians and Most Experts Scholars will suggest new ways of reading the Gospel and ask the question “Did Jesus Die on The Cross?”.
Jesus Christ was executed because he was a fundamentalist Jewish agitator in a country only precariously occupied by the Roman Empire. But he inspired a Religion that spread across the whole globe. He did this partly through his teachings and through his life and death but most of all; he became an inspiration for millions because his followers believe that he have resin from the dead.
Christianity is based upon the resurrection of Christ and upon the concept of Gospel Truth. To question one is to question the other. Throughout history the Church has treated these questions as heresy and persecuted those who ask them. But 2,000 years after the events many modern scholars and theologians and even some who are training for the priesthood now seems to doubt the historical accuracy of the Gospels, and even the literal truth of the idea that Jesus rose from the dead.
“I’ve never been able to find a dichotomy between being an historian and a theologian - or a good historian and a Christian, putting it very bluntly. I do not believe that gods and goddesses or anyone ever comes out from heaven and produces divine babies; I don’t believe it actually happens. Nor do I think that Jesus, in a literal sense went up to heaven to take his place at the right-hand of God”. (John Dominic Crossan, Professor of Religious Studies, DePaul University, Chicago)
But how has it happened that so many Christian Theologians have managed to interpret the Bible in ways that would have once been seen as heretical? The most obvious reasons can actually be found in the original texts themselves – in the four Gospels.
“I think the Gospels stories that are something handed to us from childhood. As we’re sitting in Primary school, we’re told there were four Apostles, and Jesus did this and Jesus did that and we see the pictures. To a certain extent, we do not encourage question beyond that. It is presented as a narrative. It is presented as a story that actually happened. For a lot of people that belief never goes further than that. They simply remember these stories and that’s what happened. The problem is moving beyond that to work out what exactly the Gospels are” (Peter Stanford, Religious Historian)
One story on which they are all clear, concise and more or less agree is the story of the crucifixion.
Every year, at Easter, Christians in the Philippines re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus as described in the Gospels. They actually volunteer to be crucified. They do it because they believe it will help them to purge their sins. For the onlookers it is a bloody and brutal reminder of what happened to Jesus 2,000 years ago.
“Crucifixion was the most cruel and atrocious punishment that the Romans could inflict. And it was inflicted only for treason, and only on slaves. If you were a nobleman and you were a traitor, then normally you were strangled – something much simpler and much easier and much less painful. After condemnation, the crossbeam was strapped to the shoulders of the criminal and he paraded through the streets with his arms stretched out. At the place of execution then nails were hammered into hands and feet”. (Fr. Jerome Murphy O’ Connor, L’ Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem)
In the Philippines they use real nails. They do experience the real pain that Jesus felt.
In fact, a man nailed to the cross does not die from his wounds. He dies, surprisingly from suffocation. Hanging just by your arms from a cross, your chest is compressed. It’s hard to breath without supporting your body weight on your legs. Over time, the strain on the legs and the pain make that impossible and you are unable to breath.
In the Philippines the volunteers are brought down from their crosses within an hour. Death from crucifixion takes much longer, often several days. The only way to hasten death on the cross was to break the legs making it immediately impossible to support your weight and therefore to breathe. But the Gospels are all agreed that Jesus died after only three to six hours. The crucifixion began at the third hour.
“And it was the 3rd hour and they crucified him” (Mark 15: 25)
Some think that the Gospel according to Luke has the shortest crucifixion.
“It was about the sixth hour ……… and Jesus had cried with a loud voice …… he gave-up the ghost ”
Luke 23: 44-46
Mathew and Mark clearly have Jesus surviving a little longer.
“And about the 9th hour Jesus cried out…”. Mathew 27:46
The disciples wanted to take Jesus body down from the cross immediately. But the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, was doubtful.
“And Pilate marveled if he were already dead” Mark 15:44
Pilate was reassured by the centurion that the Jesus was dead. But this was the same centurion who had earlier said:
“Truly this man was the son of God” Mark 15:39
Jesus Body was them laid in a tomb donated by a rich man - Joseph of Arimathea. This Joseph and a man called Nicodemus came to minister to the body.
“(They) ……. Came to Jesus by night and brought a mixture of myrrh and Aloes about on hundred pound weight” John 19:39
These accounts, when viewed as an historical rather than a sacred record may raise many question!!!!
Why did Jesus die so quickly? Why did Joseph and Nicodemus take so many herbs into the tomb? But no-one really doubts that Jesus was crucified
“Read the story of the empty tomb. On Friday same one is killed and on Sunday they are gone from the tomb. You ask the question, what might have happened? Either God raised him from the dead, which is the traditional Christian affirmation, or the body was carried away by someone – body stolen. Those two possibilities are even talked about in the New Testament”. (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
“According to Mathew, the Jews who were hostile to Jesus’ followers claimed that his disciples have stolen his body out of the grave and then pretended he was resurrected”. (Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion, Princeton University)
While the enemies of Christians immediately came up with conspiracy theories to explain the resurrection- the stories tell by the Gospels are very down to earth. They describe how Jesus was alive again. He ate, he drank and Thomas could touch his words. It is therefore, perhaps not surprising that the people who always look for natural Explanation of miracles have suggested that Jesus was alive because he didn’t die on the cross.
“There are many versions of that story one came up in a book years ago called ‘Passover Plot’, which suggested that he had been sedated on the cross - that he was removed quite early and therefore could well have survived. That is certainly a possibility.” (Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion, Princeton University)
The disciples did mange to give Jesus some kind of substance on a sponge.
“They filled a sponge with vinegar and put it upon hyssop and pat it to his mouth” (John 19:29)
And Jesus immediately died after taking the substance.
“When Jesus had received the vinegar he said ‘It is finished’” (John 19:30)
But oddly enough it isn’t necessary to suggested that Jesus was sedated or drugged by whatever was on the sponge in order to believe that he could have survived. There are stories of people who did survive crucifixion. A Jewish Historian Josephus, wrote one of his own friend surviving crucifixion in Palestine in the First Century.
“He is traveling out to a village named Thecoa to scout hand for a Roman Camp. And he notices that three of his friends are hanging on crosses. So he requests that they be brought down. And Titus, the Roman General, gives him permission. The three are brought down immediately and given medical Care. Two of then died but the third survived”. (Steve Mason, Professor of Ancient History, York University, Toronto)
So is it possible that Jesus could somehow have survived. Certainly he was speedily executed, perhaps too speedily.
“When you look at the story of Jesus and how he is executed by the Romans. He is on the cross for Six hours. The assumption is that he is dead. The Roman solders checked the body. There were two others crucified according to the Gospel accounts and they broke the legs of those to hasten their death because Sabbath day was coming. When they come to Jesus they said he is already dead. Presumably his body is motionless; he has quit breathing. They then prepare the body and put him in a tomb. And presumably it is sealed up and he is dead for all practical purposes. The question now is ‘Is he clinically dead’?” (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
The question of clinical death is certainly raised by the fact that the herbs Joseph Aramithea took into the tomb with the body of Jesus were Aloes - these are haling and not embalming herbs. So could it be that Jesus was resuscitated in the tomb?
“Lot of modern people confuse the term Resurrection with life after death. Resurrection is a Hebrew idea. And it is notion that someone is in the world of the dead which the Hebrew called ‘Shiol’ and the body is been buried and they resuscitated ! they come back! Term we might use today would be resuscitation more then resuscitation. We do have stories both from the modern world and the ancient world, where people appear to be dead and for all practical purposes they are dead - that is they are not responding to the outside world but then they do revive or come back. We call it resuscitation - but if you want to press the language that would be resuscitation”. (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
Whatever actually happened -The different Gospel stories do all agree that the disciples saw Jesus as if he were alive. But if Jesus survived it doesn’t necessarily mean that the resurrection was a hoax or a deliberate falsehood. At the end of the 19th Centaury, the English Writer, Samuel Butler in his book on the resurrection came up with the theory that if Jesus had collapsed in a shock-Induced Coma on the cross and then recovered; he and the disciples would actually have believed his recovery was a miraculous resurrection.
“That still has great credibility — if you see it in the light of more contemporary developments. Look at the near death experience in the United States - something like 13 Million people in US say that they had near death experiences. They have seen white light. They believe its some from of miracle. So the idea in first century when they had none of this scientific information and they had none of hospitals — that people thought it actually makes lot of sense. It doesn’t make them fraudsters. They were genuine people who thought they had witnessed a miracle”. (Peter Stanford, Religious Historian)
Whatever the circumstance, if Jesus was alive then he and his disciples faced a serious problem.
“If Jesus was placed in the tomb and somehow was revived — he himself world certainly think that it was an act of the grace of God. I came right to the bars of death and was brought back. But now there’s a practical problem — It is a political problem actually. Romans basically do one thing to Messiah – they crucify them.”( James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
It is clear that, either through resurrection or resuscitation Jesus did survive Crucifixion. But he faces a problem. He is a condemned man. The Bible is said to solve this problem with a miracle called the “Ascension”. Jesus is taken bodily into heaven. But the original texts are more confused when it cones to the “Ascension” than they were about the resurrection. The “Ascension” does not actually appear in the original form in any of the Gospels. The Ascension references in Mark are among the verses which, as we have seen, were added 200 years after the events. There is one line in Luke which reads “And was carried up into heavens”. But again this does not appear in all Bibles. It was in fact inserted simply because the Ascension is referred to in a latter book of Bible — the “Acts of the Apostles”. And it has always been assumed that Luke was the author of the “Acts”. There is no Ascension in Mathew. And John Gospel ends with enigmatic words:
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” 21: 25 John.
So what were the many other things that Jesus did………………. If the faithful knew that Jesus was, in fact, still alive, surely they would have shared that knowledge and surely they must have hoped, that at some time in the future, Jesus could have returned? And evidence for that hope should be somewhere in the original text. It is. The disciples were expecting Jesus to return – they were expecting what is known as “The Second Coming”. But this was not necessarily going to be a miraculous return.
“Jesus definably went away. Whatever view of Resurrection you take – Resuscitation or divine miracle in the traditional sense of belief – he goes away. He says, I’m going away. The disciples say, can we come? He says no. He says I am going to come again. What is interesting about that is normally, if some one says they’re going away and will come back, you look at your watch or calendar wondering – OK, he said went away – He’s going to come back. You’d take it in the every day sense (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
The concept of a heavenly “Second Coming” with Jesus returning on the Day of Judgment was only created after became clear that he had not returned in that every day sense.
“That idea of the “Second Coming” that Jesus, having come once and died, will come again- is very much distinctive Christian idea. Christianity borrows most of its ideas from Judaism. But this is one it thought up on its own. If you look at the Messiah Tradition in Judaism, when Jesus was around the Jesus were expecting their own Messiah. They were exacting him to come and sort everything out and there would be end to it. They were not excepting him to come, half sort things out, die, gone somewhere and come back later on. The ‘Second Coming’ is one of the distinctive Christian idea”. (Peter Stanford, Religious Historian)
But does the concept of “Second Coming” ignore the very mater-of-fact nature of some of the references to it in the Bible?
“A lot of those references to Jesus coming back might, in fact, be taken more in an everyday sense. If some one going away to accomplish certain mission and then planning to retune when that mission is accomplished.” (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
But if Jesus did Leave Palestine, France still doesn’t seem a likely distention. It was, after all, a Roman colony. Some claim that if Jesus did survive the crucifixion, his first priority would be to escape the Jurisdiction of the Roman Empire.
“You just look at a map. Palestine is on the far eastern border of the Roman Empire. If you go west, you’re going right into the heart of Roman territory. Where we have 15 legions stationed around the world. If you go east, you’re crossing over into Parthia and you’re going towards Persia – eventually India and Afghanistan – that direction”. (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
And if Jesus thought he was the Jewish Messiah, there was another reason why he might have traveled east.
“People forget that the Messiah’s got to do essentially two things. Everyone knows he’s got to bring world peace and justice and defeat evil. That’s all the way through the prophets. When the Messiah comes he is a prince of peace. But the other huge task is he’s got to gather all the scattered tribes of Israel back to the land of Israel. Now this takes a bit of explaining but it’s not too complicated. The people we know today as the Jews are only one tribe – the tribe of Judah. And we have in the Hebrew Bible the story of ten of the tribes been taken away to the east, to the north east, by the Assyrians - in the eighth century BC. They become know in the history as the “Lost Tribes” because nobody knows exactly what happened to them. We do though — We can speculate that if Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, he might have had in mind, ‘I’ve got to go and present myself to these dispersed brothers and sisters — wherever they might be’ ”. (James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina)
The journey East from Israel in the first century was surprisingly easy - By land, or by sea, on the silk route, or the spice route…. But if Jesus traveled or returned the East, surely there would be legends, like in France, to support the idea? And of course there are such traditions. In fact, the people here in Kashmir called their tribe B’ney Yisrael, and claim to be descendants of the lost tribes. And here there are stories that in the first century Issa, known locally as Yus Assaf mining leader of the healed returned to Kashmir in his 30s. Yus Assaf’s ministry here can easily be seen as a continuation of Jesus ministry. In a local temple, the temple of Solomon, there used to be an inscription which told of Yus Assaf’s claim, made about 50 AD, to be Jesus – the Prophet from Israel.
“All the Kashmiri history books tell us that Yus Assaf came from abroad. He was a Prophet and a messenger. He came from Israel…. he came to spread his teaching. He lived and died here. Yus Assaf was Issa, he was Jesus……. The meaning of Yus Assaf is the Healer who cures the lepers……..another meaning is “The Shepherd” the one who gather others.” (Abdullah Assiz Kashmiri, University of Sirinagar)
Yus Assaf continued to teach and to preach in Kashmir until he died around year 80 AD. He was buried in Srinagar. And this rather modest building is they say- his tomb. The first shrine erected around the site was built in 112 AD. In fact, it is now a shamed grave site. In the 15th centaury, the Islamic holy man Syed Nasir-ud-din was also buried here. Although both the grave stones under the cloth point North- South, in the Islamic tradition, the body of Yus Assaf is buried beneath it in a grave dug East-West, in the Jewish tradition. But this is a sacred site and short of exhumation, there is no way of discovering whether the body buried here is that of a man who once survived crucifixion. However, next to the sarcophagus are the carved foot prints of Yus Assaf. And they do have marks or scars on them.
“He died at a ripe age. The footprints were carved as a sign………..the scars are clearly visible, sustained as he was nailed to the cross” (Abdullah Assiz Kashmiri, University of Srinagar)
The position of the scars just behind the toes, do not match each other. But they would align if a single nail was driven through both feet — with the left foot placed on top of the right. There are many who believe this (i e. Roza Bal) to be the tomb of Jesus.
If this is the tomb of Jesus, then he spent most of his life in the mountain kingdom of Kashmir. He did not die on the cross. There was no resurrection. He did not ascend to into Heaven — and he does not sit at the right hand of God. For many Christian, this would be end of the Christianity as we know it.