EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT HOW JESUS SURVIVED
Author Michael Baigent outlines his theory of why and how the hoax was done
When morning came, he returned to Jerusalem. This time he began to teach in the Temple, narrating parables to the crowds who had come to listen and, by so doing, irritating the hostile priests
who were intent on monitoring his activities. It was during this second day that a crucial
of paying taxes to Caesar.
Jesus knew well the reality of f U j
the political situation in Judaea under the domination of the ■nT3H Romans. The later writers of the Gospels also knew the sensitive ^yuLJ nature of this issue. According mjpPi to Matthew’s account (22:17), the Pharisees and Herodians-both supporters of the pro-Roman establishment—went up to Jesus and asked him bluntly and plainly:
“Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Now, we must be clear, this was an extremely loaded question. In the context of the times, it was fundamental, even explosive. It had been the question of tax and the refusal to pay it that triggered the first rebellion against the Romans in A.D. 6 by Judas of Galilee; that rebellion had opened up half a century of bloodletting. To the Zealots— and to many less-committed Jews—the tax was the symbol of all that was wrong with Rome. We can be certain that Jesus knew the implications of the answer—as would have the
event occurred, one that directly concerned a vitally important problem in Judaea: the question
later readers of the Gospel accounts. Jesus would have had to tread carefully, since whatever answer he gave was going to get him in trouble with one or the other faction. To answer yes would get him in trouble with the Zealots, and to answer no would bring condemnation from the Romans and their supporters among the priesthood.
So what did Jesus do? We all know the answer. He asked for a coin. They gave him a Roman denarius. Jesus looked at the coin and asked, “Whose head is this? Whose name?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Very well,” replied Jesus. “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:19-22).
At that time, and at that place, this was not just a clever and cute retort—the Judean equivalent of a modern sound bite—but an outrageous and provocative challenge to the Zealots.
Imagine the problem: the Zealots, whose entire focus was the removal or destruction of Rome’s hold over Judaea, had organized a dynastic marriage between Joseph, a man of the royal line of David, and Mary, of the priestly line of Aaron, in order to have a child, Jesus— the “Saviour” of Israel—who was both rightful king and high priest.
Jesus is brought up to fulfill his role, he enters Jerusalem as a messiah, he acts in accordance with all the prophecies, he does everything that is expected of him—until this crucial moment. Up until this point, the Zealots would have been very pleased with the way things were going. But then, in an unexpected move, their messiah abruptly switches gear: “Pay the tax,” he is saying. “It means nothing.” For his true kingdom—as he often stressed—was not of this world.
The Zealot supporters of Jesus must have been apoplectic with rage, speechless at this sudden and public turn of events. Their carej Cfll fully constructed messiah had rejected them—had betrayed them.
I«Wmf And so, in fury, they would reject him.
They had to get rid of Jesus so that a more amenable leader could take over—perhaps his brother James, who was more in tune with the political aspirations of the Zealots. Certainly, after the removal of Jesus from the scene, James was leading the community of messianic Jews in Jerusalem.
It is also not hard to suppose that the Zealots set Jesus up-if they couldn’t have a leader, then at least they could have a martyr. He knew they had to betray him-and it is interesting that the man who has been recorded as the traitor, Judas Iscariot, was undoubtedly a Zealot Sicarii. He was, we can suggest, a traitor to Jesus but a patriot to the Zealots. He did what they wanted. He pointed out Jesus to the armed guards who came to make the arrest. And as he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane jesus asked (as rendered in the
original Greek), “Am I a Zealot, that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs?” (Matthew 26:55). Jesus thus reveals—and incidentally, so does the writer of the Gospel of Matthew—that he knew the political reality of the time.
If the Sadducee priesthood wanted to be rid ofjesus 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 the millennia—it was only acknowledged as fraudulent by the Vatican and excised from the teachings as late as i960. 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 ofjesus, 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 the example recovered by archaeologists reveals that a nail might be riven 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
HE MAY HAVE BEEN
ON IHE CROSS,
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 breakjesus’s legs, “he was dead already” (John 19:31-33)-
Clearly it would be difficult to survive a crucifixion, but it was not impossible. Josephus, for example, reports that he came upon three of his former colleagues among a large group of crucified captives. He went to Titus asking for mercy, begging that they might be taken down. Titus agreed, and the three men were brought down from the cross. Despite professional medical attention, two of them died, but the third survived.
Could Jesus have survived just like the survivor in Josephus’s report? There are traditions in Islam that say so. The Koran’s statement “They did not crucify him” could as well be translated as “They did not cause his death on the cross.” But the Koran is a very late text, even though it undoubtedly uses earlier documents and traditions. Perhaps more relevant for us is a statement by Irenaeus in the
late second century; in a complaint about the beliefs of an Egyptian Gnostic, Basilides, he explains that this heretic taught that Jesus had been substituted during the journey to Golgotha and that this substitute, Simon of Cyrene, had died in Jesus’s 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 DidJesus 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.”
There is a curious incident recorded in the Gospels that may be explained by this hypothesis: while on the cross, Jesus complained that he was thirsty. A sponge soaked in vinegar was placed on the end of a long reed and held up to him. But far from reviving Jesus, the drink from this sponge apparently caused him to die. This is a curious reaction and suggests that the sponge was soaked not in vinegar, a substance that would have revived Jesus, but rather in something that would have caused him to lose consciousness—some sort of drug, for example. And there was just this type of drug available in the Middle East.
It was known that a sponge soaked in a mixture of opium and other compounds such as belladonna and hashish served as a good anesthetic. Such sponges would be soaked in the mixture, then dried for storage or transport. When it was necessary to induce unconsciousness—for surgery, for example—the sponge would be soaked in water to activate the drugs and then placed over the nose and mouth of the subject, who would promptly lose consciousness. Given the description of the events on the cross and the rapid apparent “death” ofjesus, it is a plausible suggestion that this use of a drugged sponge was the cause. No matter how carefully a “staged” crucifixion might have been carried out (one intended for Jesus to survive), there was no way to anticipate the effect that shock might have had upon him. Crucifixion was, after all, a traumatic experience, both physically and mentally. To be rendered unconscious would reduce the effect of the trauma and thus increase the chance of survival, so the drug would have been a further benefit in that regard too.
There are some further points that are striking: John’s Gospel mentions that a spear was thrust into Jesus’s side and that blood came out. Taken at face value, we can conclude two things from this observation: first, that the
spear was not thrust into the brain or heart and so was not immediately life-threatening. And second, that the flow of blood would seem to indicate 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 influentialjoseph 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.
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 (l6:l)
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, “mother ofjames”—brought spices and ointments with them when they came to the tomb after the Sabbath had ended.
It is also curious that Jesus just happens to have been crucified next to a garden and a tomb, the latter at least owned by Joseph of Arimathea. This is all rather convenient to say the least. Could it be that the crucifixion itself was private? Perhaps in order to control witnesses to what was occurring? Luke (23:49) informs us that the crowds watching were standing at a distance. Perhaps they were kept at a distance? In fact, the description of the events of Golgotha suggests that the site of the crucifixion was in the Kidron valley, where there are many rock-cut tombs to this day and where is also located the Garden of Gethsemane, which may have been the private garden involved and one with which Jesus was familiar.
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 corpse. 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 the word for both statements—to have both Joseph and Pilate speaking of he 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 to 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. M
Excerpted by permission ofHarperCollinsfrom The Jesus Papers. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Baigent.