The “Jesus of Faith” Vs the “Jesus of History” – part 5:2 The Crucifixion Plot
I remember when I was fourteen and studying for the Catholic priesthood kneeling in front of a large carved image of Jesus hanging on a cross above the altar in the chapel and struggling to get in touch with feelings of guilt and sorrow for my sins, sins for which this man is said to have died an ignominious death. I was actually able to bring myself to sorrowful tears of repentance. Such memories serve me today as motivation to write about the deception that has been created and maintained for two-thousand years by the Catholic Church and by Christianity in general. I truly believe that, if Jesus were to come back today, he would have all the crucifixes taken down and destroyed. It is his life of love and compassion, his “good news” about the Kingdom of Heaven being right at hand, that I believe he wished to be remembered by and not his crucifixion.
That said, I would like to share religious historian Michael Baigent’s perspectives on the crucifixion of Jesus from his controversial book The Jesus Papers – Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. The chapter heading from which the excerpts are taken, “SURVIVING THE CRUCIFIXION,” speaks for itself.
Jesus’ crucifixion was politically motivated, and Jesus was well aware of the political reality of the time. The main contention between the Jews and the Romans was their refusal to pay taxes. This played a pivotal role in both Jesus’ betrayal by the Zealots, as well as in a survival plot orchestrated by Pontius Pilate himself. I’ll let Michael Baigent detail his scenario.
If the Sadducee priesthood wanted to be rid of Jesus because they saw him as a messiah and a threat to their power, and if the Zealots too, for different reasons, wanted to be rid of Jesus, then word of this would have reached Pilate. And this intelligence would have put him in a very difficult position. Pilate was Rome’s official representative in Judaea, and Rome’s main argument with the Jews was that they declined to pay their tax to Caesar. Yet here was a leading Jew — the legitimate king no less — telling his people to pay the tax. How could Pilate try, let alone condemn, such a man who, on the face of it, was supporting Roman policy? Pilate would himself be charged with dereliction of duty should he proceed with the condemnation of such a supporter.
The New Testament represents “the Jews” as baying for Jesus’s blood. And this apparent guilt of the Jews stuck for millennia — it was only acknowledged as fraudulent by the Vatican and excised from the teachings as late as 1960. But as should now be clear, it was not “the Jews” in general who were calling for Jesus’s arrest and execution, but the militant Zealots, those who hated the Romans and would sacrifice even one of their own for their political aims. In the scenario presented here, Pilate would have found himself in a serious dilemma: to keep the peace he had to try, condemn, and execute a Jew who was supporting Rome but whose existence was causing public disorder, the flames of which were being fanned by the disgruntled Zealots. Pilate needed to try to square the circle on this; he desperately needed a deal.
And the deal, I suggest, was this: that he try Jesus and condemn him as a political agitator, thus appeasing the Zealots, who threatened widespread disorder. This was the last thing Pilate needed on his watch, especially since he was aware that he was falling out of favor with the Roman authorities. But while he condemned Jesus and had to go through with the required sentence of crucifixion, he could not dare have it reported to Rome that Jesus had actually died. So Pilate took steps to ensure that Jesus would survive. He spoke with a member of the Sanhedrin and friend of Jesus, the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea.
Technically, how could a crucifixion have been faked? Just how could Jesus have survived? Was it possible at all to survive a crucifixion of any length of time?
Crucifixion was not so much an execution as a torturing to death. The procedure was very simple: the victim was tied, hanging to the crossbar, while his feet were supported on a block at the base of the cross. His feet were also usually tied at the block, although at least one example recovered by archaeologists reveals that a nail might be driven through each ankle. The weight of the hanging body made breathing very difficult and could be managed only by constantly pushing upwards with the legs and feet to relieve the tension in the chest. Eventually, of course, weariness and weakness overcame the ability to keep pushing. When this happened, the body slumped, breathing became impossible, and the crucified person died — by asphyxiation. This was reckoned to take about three days.
As an act of mercy — only the brutal Romans could come up with such a definition — the legs of the victim were often broken and so deprived of any strength whatsoever to maintain the weight of the body. The body would drop, and death by asphyxiation rapidly followed. We can see this in the New Testament. John reports that the legs of the two Zealots crucified beside Jesus were broken, but when they came to break Jesus’s legs, “he was dead already” (John 19:31-33).
On a side note, a statement in the Koran, “They did not crucify him,” could be translated as “They did not cause his death on the cross.” More relevant is the teachings of a heretical Egyptian Gnostic that Jesus had been substituted by Simon of Cyrene on his way to Golgatha and died in Jesus’ stead.
But if Jesus survived without being substituted, how could it have happened? Hugh Schonfield, in his The Passover Plot, suggests that Jesus was drugged — sedated on the cross such that he appeared dead but could be revived later, after he had been taken down. This is by no means such a wild idea, and it has received a sympathetic hearing. For example, in a television program on the crucifixion broadcast by the BBC in 2004 called Did Jesus Die? Elaine Pagels referred to Schonfield’s book, which, she noted, suggested that Jesus “had been sedated on the cross; that he was removed quite early and therefore could well have survived.” And, she concluded, “that’s certainly a possibility?”
The hypothesis forwarded was that Jesus was drugged with a sponge soaked in a sedative mixture of opium and other compounds such as belladonna and hashish when he cried out “I thirst.” Vinegar would have revived him whereas the drink from the sponge apparently caused him to die. Such a drug concoction, which was available and used in the Middle East for medical procedures, would have rendered Jesus unconscious and therefore spared much of the trauma and mental anguish crucifixion surely inflicted upon him. Then there was the incident of the spear thrust into Jesus’ side, not his heart or vital organ, where it is reported that blood and water poured out, indicating that Jesus was still alive.
All that remained then was for Jesus to be taken down from the cross, apparently lifeless but in reality unconscious, and taken to a private tomb where medicines could be used to revive him. He would then be whisked away from the scene. And this is precisely what is described in the Gospels: Luke (23:53) and Mark (15:46) report that Jesus was placed in a new tomb nearby. Matthew (27:6) adds that the tomb was owned by the wealthy and influential Joseph of Arimathea. John (19:41-42), who generally gives us so many extra details, adds that there was a garden around this tomb, implying that the grounds were privately owned, perhaps also by Joseph of Arimathea.
John also stresses that Jesus was taken down quickly and put into this new tomb. Then, in a very curious addition, he reports that Joseph of Arimathea and a colleague, Nicodemus, visited the tomb during the night and brought with them a very large amount of spices: myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). These, it is true, could be used simply as a perfume, but there could be another equally plausible explanation. Both substances have a medicinal use – most notably, myrrh has been used as an aid to stop bleeding. Neither drug is known to have a role in embalming dead bodies. Mark (16:1) and Luke (23:56) touch obliquely on this theme as well, adding to their story of the tomb that the women — Mary Magdalene and Mary, the “mother of James,” brought spices and ointments with them when they came to the tomb after the Sabbath had ended.
. . . . But there is yet another oddity that we need to note: in the Gospel of Mark, Joseph of Arimathea is described as visiting Pilate and requesting the body of Jesus. Pilate asks if Jesus is dead and is surprised when told that he is indeed, for his demise seems very rapid to Pilate. But since Jesus is dead, Pilate allows Joseph to take the body down. If we look at the original Greek text, we see an important point being made: when Joseph asks Pilate for Jesus’s body, the word used for “body” is soma. In Greek this denotes a living body. When Pilate agrees that Joseph can take the body down from the cross, the word he uses for “body” is ptoma (Mark 15:43-45). This means a fallen body, a corpse or carcass. In other words, the Greek text of Mark’s Gospel is making it clear that while Joseph is asking for the living body of Jesus, Pilate grants him what he believes to be the corpse. Jesus’s survival is revealed right there in the actual Gospel account.
If the writer of this Gospel had wished to hide that fact, it would have been very easy for him simply to use one word for both statements — to have both Joseph and Pilate speaking of the ptoma, the corpse. But the writer chose not to be consistent. Could this be because it was too well known a fact for him to get away with any manipulation of it? This had to wait for the translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin: in the Latin Bible – the Vulgate – the word corpus is used by both Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea, and this simply means “body” as well as “corpse.” The hiding of the secret of the crucifixion was completed.
Again, it takes only a slight shift of perspective, a standing aside from the theological dogma, to see the crucifixion in a new way. That is, to see how Jesus could very well have survived.
Jesus alive in A.D. 45?
Then there’s this: Jesus is reported to have been alive in A.D. 45, twelve years after his crucifixion. When this tidbit of historical information came into Michael Baigent’s hands in the form of a letter from an undivulged source, he immediately set out to find “incontrovertible evidence that Jesus survived and was living long afterwards.” But his efforts were to no avail.
Then there’s the Stations of the Cross plaque still on the wall of the church at Rennes le Chateau.
“. . . an image that reveals something very heretical indeed. . . . One image, for example, shows a woman with a child standing beside Jesus; the child is wearing a Scottish tartan robe. . . . But the most curious of all is Station 14. This is traditionally the last of the series illustrating Jesus being placed in the tomb prior to the resurrection. At Rennes le Chateau the image shows the tomb and, immediately in front of it, three figures carrying the body of Christ. But the painted background reveals the time as night. In the sky beyond the figures, the full moon has risen.”
This indicates that the Passover had begun — and no Jew would have handled a dead body after the Passover had begun as it would make him ritually unclean. The scene also suggests that the body of Jesus was not being placed in a tomb but was being carried out secretly under the cover of night.
The significance of this story lies in the fact that the priest of Rennes le Chateau, Abbe Sauniere, discovered the story of Jesus’ survival in documents he found while renovating the church in the early 1890’s. His bishop, upon seeing the documents, sent him to Paris to meet with experts at the Seminary of Saint Sulpice, where he spent three weeks. He returned with access to considerable wealth, sufficient to completely renovate the church and build a road to the village up the hill. The implication is that his silence was bought.
It is important to note that the Stations of The Cross at Rennes le Chateau were painted under the direct supervision of Abbe Sauniere. He appears to be telling us that he knows — or a least believes — that Jesus survived the crucifixion.
As a final note to close this post, I will tell you about a most interesting event Michael Baigent discloses in this chapter. In researching the origin of the letter he had received mentioned above, he came upon Canon Alfred Lilley (1860–1948) who was Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral in Oxford, England. He was an expert in medieval French and was often consulted on difficult translation work. He was invited to Paris to the Seminary of Saint Sulpice to assist in the translation of a “strange document (or documents).” The scholars working on the translation asked for help because of the outrageous nature of the text which they thought that perhaps they were misunderstanding. His friend, a Rev. Bartlett, who had invited him to go to Paris, reports on the outcome:
“They didn’t know that it was close to the bone . . . . Lilley said that they wouldn’t have a long and happy life if certain people knew about it. It was a very delicate matter. Lilley laughed over what was going to happen when the French priest told anyone about it. He didn’t know what happened to them [the documents], but he thought that they had changed hands for a large sum of money and had ended up in Rome.” In fact, Lilley thought that the Church would ultimately destroy these documents.
Lilley was quite certain that these documents were authentic. They were extraordinary and upset many of our ideas about the Church. Contact with the material, he said, led to an unorthodoxy. . . . “By the end of his life,” Bartlett explained, ” Lilley had come to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Gospels that one could be certain about. He had lost all conviction of truth.”
A group of “Modernists” that included Lilley wanted to “revise the dogmatic assertions of the church teachings in the light of the discoveries made by science, archaeology, and critical scholarship.” Baigent concludes with this observation.
Many theologians were realizing that their confidence in the historical validity of New Testament stories was misplaced. For example, William Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, was once asked to write on the life of Jesus. He declined, saying that there was not nearly enough solid evidence to write anything at all about him.”
I will leave it there for now. Until my next post Easter Sunday morning, then,
Be love. Be loved.