The central belief of Christianity, upon which its whole theological system is built, is that Jesus died on the cross, and was brought back from the dead, thus overcoming all known laws of nature, therefore suggesting divine involvement.
It is interesting to note therefore that the Gospel of John, even though it states that Jesus did indeed die (the actual words are “gave up his spirit”), paradoxically suggests, if one reads between the lines, that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross, and therefore did not need to be resurrected (resuscitated would perhaps be more appropriate). The Gospel of John does provide significant details not found in the other gospels, and “there is consensus among modern scholars that only the Fourth Gospel rests on an eyewitness account of the Crucifixion” (1).
Authors who have taken this idea seriously and investigated it are Hugh Schonfield in The Passover Plot (2) and following in his footsteps Douglas Lockhart (3), Michael Baigent/ Richard Leigh/Henry Lincoln (from here on referred to as BLL) in Holy Blood, Holy Grail (4), and Laurence Gardner in Bloodline of the Holy Grail (5), and (6). The purpose of this article is to examine how credible this claim is. I’ll begin with a summary of the reasons why it is made:
a) the length of time on the cross:
“Despite the agony, a man suspended with his feet fixed – and especially a fit and healthy man – would usually survive for at least a day or two. Indeed, the victim would often take as much as a week to die”. Jesus “should therefore, in theory at least, have survived for a good two or three days. And yet he is on the cross for no more than a few hours before being pronounced dead. In the Gospel of Mark (15.44), even Pilate is astonished by the rapidity with which death occurs” (BLL, p372). Gardner agrees with this point (p73), as does Schonfield (p184)
b) the breaking of the legs:
This is referred to in John 19.33. BLL say that this is “’not an additional sadistic torment… (rather) an act of mercy… which caused a very rapid death… He would quickly asphyxiate”. Again, Gardner agrees (p73). This interpretation is confirmed by the Gospel of John, where the Jews wanted to bring down the bodies quickly because of the Preparation for the Sabbath, “so they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed”. The legs of the other two were broken, but not those of Jesus because they “saw that he was already dead”.
c) the spear in the side:
John says that following this “at once blood and water came out”. “The fact that he bled (identified as blood and water) has been held to indicate that he was dead. In reality, vascular bleeding indicates that a body is alive, not dead” (Gardner, p73. He goes on to cite a medical reference in support of this view). There is no obvious explanation for this action by the soldier. It is not a test of life or death, because it is stated that Jesus is already dead. Is it just to make sure? The text says “instead” of breaking the legs, so it should have been an attempt to accelerate death, which is strange if he were already dead. In any case, as argued by Gardner, it showed that Jesus was alive, even though it was stated he was dead. At this point there is an interesting parenthesis, “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth”. So it would appear that John suspected that the reader would doubt what he was saying, so insists absolutely, whether he knew what he was saying or not, on the basis of eye-witness testimony, that Jesus was alive. Schonfield thinks, on the basis of the above mistakenly, that Jesus died because of the unexpected sword into his side (p206). (He believes that Jesus had been planning his survival of the crucifixion, but was “frustrated by circumstances beyond his control”.)
d) the role of Pilate:
BLL say: “According to Roman law at the time, a crucified man was denied all burial (7)… The victim would simply be left on the cross, at the mercy of the elements and carrion birds. Yet Pilate, in a flagrant breach of procedure, readily grants Jesus’s body to Joseph of Arimathea. This clearly attests to some complicity on Pilate’s part” (p375). (It is interesting to note that, according to the gospel accounts, Pilate does seem to go out of his way to try to save Jesus.) They go on to make the very interesting observation that in Mark’s Gospel Joseph asks Pilate for Jesus’s body (15.43), and the request is granted. However, in the original Greek version, “when Joseph asks for Jesus’s body, he uses the word soma – a word applied only to a living body. Pilate, assenting to the request, employs the word ptoma – which means “corpse”. According to the Greek, then, Joseph explicitly asks for a living body and Pilate grants him what he thinks, or pretends to think, is a dead one” (p376). (Isn’t it amazing what can get lost in translation?)
BLL conclude: “In the Gospels Jesus’s death occurs at a moment that is almost too convenient… It occurs just in time to prevent his executioners breaking his legs” (p373). They therefore suspect that it is “part of a carefully contrived plan”. They suggest that the sour wine (vinegar) given to Jesus (8), which (by some amazing coincidence) just happened to be there, was in fact a soporific drug, (in modern language an anaesthetic) which would give the appearance of death. (Gardner thinks it may have been mixed with some kind of poison.) In John, Mark, and Matthew, as soon as Jesus had received the wine, he ‘died’. If it were indeed sour wine or vinegar, it should have had the opposite effect, “a temporary stimulant, with effects not unlike smelling salts”. “Yet in Jesus’s case the effect is just the contrary. No sooner does he inhale or taste the sponge than he pronounces his final words and ‘gives up the ghost’. Such a reaction to vinegar is physiologically inexplicable” (BLL, p373, p374).
Gardner agrees with the conclusion that there is a contrived plan, and notes that nowhere in the gospels does it reveal who gave the vinegar, but John “specifies that the vessel was ready and waiting” (“A jar full of sour wine was standing there”) (p73). Schonfield talks about a “drug needed to give the impression of premature death… and the speedy delivery of the body to Joseph…” (p190).
The Gospel of John goes on to say that, after Jesus’s body has been handed over to Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus – a pharisee from earlier – arrived, bringing with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about an hundred pounds”. Gardner notes that myrrh was a form of sedative (why would that be needed for a dead person?), and wonders why there was such a vast quantity of aloes. “The juice of aloes… is a strong and fast-acting purgative – precisely what would have been needed by Simon (Jesus’s primary orchestrator and collaborator, see below) to expel the poisonous gall (venom) from Jesus’s body” (p76). (If that is true, then there is a very strange variation in Mark, where Jesus is first offered “wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it”, but when on the cross drank the sour wine, as above.)
That is the basic evidence for this point of view. (If any reader has credible medical, scientific, or historical information which contradicts any of the above, I would be grateful to receive it.) This all seems very reasonable; there seems to be “a complex and ingenious stratagem… to produce a semblance of death when… still alive” (BLL, p374). When the authors try to go further in support of this hypothesis, they seem not to be on such sure ground, and may jump too quickly to conclusions to support their hypothesis.
BLL believe that the crucifixion was not as public an event as we are led to believe. This means that witnesses could only watch from a distance, therefore some trickery could have been easily achieved. All four gospels say the scene was known as the Place of the Skull, three of them calling it Golgotha. “Yet the Gospels themselves make it clear that the site of the Crucifixion is very different from a barren skull-shaped hill. The Fourth Gospel is most explicit on the matter: ‘Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid’ ” (19.41). “Popular tradition depicts the Crucifixion as a large-scale public affair, accessible to the multitude and attended by a cast of thousands. And yet the Gospels themselves suggest very different circumstances. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Crucifixion is witnessed by most people, including the women, from ‘afar off’. It would thus seem clear that Jesus’s death was not a public event, but a private one – a private crucifixion performed on private property” (BLL, p374. Gardner argues along the same lines, p70).
If we examine these assertions more closely, things are not so clear cut as the authors suggest. The synoptic gospels refer to the Place of the Skull, Golgotha; in them I can find nothing which supports their suggested scenario. In Mark and Matthew no mention is made of the numbers present, but reference is made to “those who passed by”. Could that be true if it were conducted on private property? Matthew refers to a “whole cohort” of soldiers in the scene prior to the crucifixion, but it is not stated whether they all went to Golgotha.
These gospels do agree that the women looked on from a distance, but not most people. Soldiers are present, as are the chief priests and scribes (Mark), the chief priests, scribes and elders (Matthew), the elders (Luke). All these are close enough to address Jesus. Luke goes the furthest to stress the conventional scenario. He mentions the people who stood by watching, also “a great number of the people followed him (to the crucifixion)”. We are left to wonder therefore why the women were standing some way off. Perhaps they were not allowed to stand closer in a male-dominated, patriarchal society. Or perhaps they did not want to be too closely associated with Jesus. Or perhaps the whole scene was just too painful for them, and they chose to stand at a distance. Luke goes the furthest along this line of thinking; he refers to “all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”, then says “but all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (23.48-49). Incomprehensibly, Gardner cites this verse as evidence that “onlookers were obliged to watch the proceedings ‘from afar off’ ” (p70), even though Luke makes a clear distinction between the crowd and Jesus’s acquaintances.
I accept that Luke is probably the least reliable synoptist when it comes to historical details, but that is not the point here. It is simply not the case that the gospels in general support this hypothesis, as claimed. We are left therefore with the one detail from John: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid” (19.41). This is very interesting, and very possibly authentic if indeed “behind the Fourth Gospel lies an ancient tradition independent of the other Gospels” (9), and “the Gospel of John… appears to know a tradition concerning Jesus that must be primitive and authentic” (10). These two scholars are quoted by BLL, who observe: “This is not an isolated opinion. In fact, it is the most prevalent in modern Biblical scholarship” (pp345-346).
BLL and Gardner quite rightly make much of this. It is interesting to note, however, that immediately before the passage which is the source of their hypothesis, there is another passage which completely contradicts it, and indeed the other three gospels, “Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene”. They were so close that Jesus could speak to them privately. The authors fail to mention this.
The same passage (John 19.17-27) has some other interesting moments. Firstly, there is no mention of Simon of Cyrene, the passer-by who, according to all three synoptists but without any explanation, was compelled to carry Jesus’s cross behind him. Instead John insists, “carrying the cross by himself”. Why does he even bother to say that, when surely we would assume this to be the case? He agrees that the place is Golgotha, The Place of the Skull. (Why would a private garden be called that? Gardner mentions this, but sweeps the inconvenience under the carpet.) Also, unlike the other gospels, he completely omits any description of the two others crucified with Jesus. There is therefore no opportunity to speculate about zealots, insurrectionists (an issue raised in a previous article). He also suggests that the crucifixion was public, saying, “Many of the Jews read this inscription (King of the Jews), because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city”.
What are we to make of this, if we indeed are to accept the supremacy of John over the other accounts? My speculation, for what it is worth, is that the passage 19.17-27 appears to be very much in line with what later Christianity would require. It is possible therefore that it, or at least some of it, was either an editing, or a later addition. We know that this is true of at least one other passage in John, for example The Woman Caught in Adultery (8.1-11). There is also a strong suspicion that the Prologue was added later. The following passage (19.28-42), the one on which BLL and Gardner base their hypothesis, is more authentic, since it contains interesting historical details not mentioned elsewhere, and also contains the insistence on eye-witness testimony, as mentioned above. (There is no mention there that the “garden in the place where he was crucified” was called The Place of the Skull.)
Joseph of Arimathea
Who is this mysterious figure to whom the body of Jesus is entrusted? As Schonfield puts it: “He is one of the great mysteries of the Gospels… He enters the story unheralded, and after his task is fulfilled he disappears completely from the New Testament records” (p187). He is suspicious of the name (p188), and doubts its validity. He concludes: “We may agree to speak of him as Joseph of Arimathea, even if we cannot be positive that this was his name” (p189). However, he does not speculate on his true identity.
According to the gospels, he was wealthy and a secret disciple of Jesus. Matthew (27:60) says that he owned the new tomb and, if that is true, we can assume that he also owned the garden. If the Gospel of John has got it right, as above, then he owned the place where Jesus was crucified. BLL say that “a number of (unnamed by them) modern scholars argue that the actual site was probably the Garden of Gethsemane. If Gethsemane were indeed the private land of one of Jesus’s secret disciples, this would explain why Jesus, prior to the Crucifixion, could make such free use of the place” (p375) (11). (This all may be true but, if so, it seems very strange that this is also the place of his arrest. If Jesus is arrested on private land, then surely the owner might be considered a collaborator of Jesus, and at least brought in for questioning.)
BLL go on to try to uncover the identity of Joseph of Arimathea from the information in the gospels: “Given the prohibition against burying crucified men, it is also extraordinary that Joseph receives any body at all. On what grounds does he receive it? What claim does he have to Jesus’s body?” “The Gospels report only that he was a secret disciple of Jesus, possessed great wealth and belonged to the Sanhedrin… It would thus seem apparent that Joseph was an influential man. And this conclusion receives confirmation from his dealings with Pilate, and from the fact that he possesses a tract of land with a private tomb” (p376). They also note that “Medieval tradition portrays Joseph of Arimathea as a custodian of the Holy Grail… According to other later traditions, he is in some way related by blood to Jesus and Jesus’s family… (If true this would) have furnished him with some plausible claim to Jesus’s body” (also p376).
That is how far their investigations took them based on their own initiative. Their book was first published in 1982, and a further edition was published in 1996. I think it is safe to say then that they would be unaware of the contents of Laurence Gardner’s book, which was first published in 1996. He states: “Although Joseph’s allegiance to Jesus was a secret from the Jewish elders, it came as no surprise to Pontius Pilate, who accepted the man’s involvement in Jesus’s affairs without question. That same involvement was no surprise either to Jesus’s mother Mary, or to Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, or Salome. They all went along quite happily with Joseph’s arrangements, accepting his authority without comment or demur” (p71).
He goes on to name Joseph of Arimathea as Jesus’s brother James, which fits in with what BLL say, even though they do not make that final deduction. “It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Jesus was entombed in a sepulchre that belonged to his own royal family. Neither is it surprising that Pilate should allow Jesus’s brother to take charge; nor that the women of Jesus’s family should accept the arrangements made by Joseph (James) without question” (p71). He makes the obviously unverifiable suggestion that “when Mary first saw Jesus and thought he was the gardener, the inference is that she believed she was looking at James” (p78, where he does offer his reasons for saying this).
(An intriguing detail, which seems to have escaped the various authors’ notice, is that John continues: “Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (19.42). He is therefore saying that Jesus was put there for convenience, to avoid having to do forbidden work on the Sabbath. The implication is that at any other time he would have been put somewhere else, thus not in the tomb owned by Joseph/James. Where might that be?)
Can we trust Gardner? He is a controversial figure, claims to have inside knowledge. (I have discussed this in a previous article. Please refer to this if desired.) For what it’s worth, in my opinion his argument does make a lot of sense, his account is credible, which does not, of course, prove that it is true.
It is a reasonable hypothesis therefore, based upon a close reading of the Gospel of John, that Jesus survived the crucifixion, in which case his ‘resurrection’ appearances would obviously make more sense. If this is true, how do we explain the sequence of events which led up to this? My personal suggestion, on the basis that it is simple and makes the most sense, is that Jesus sincerely believed that he was the Jewish Messiah, and that he declared his kingship by riding into Jerusalem. He started his campaign of disobedience with the incident of the money-lenders in the Temple, fully expecting to be successful. At some point during the next few days, however, something made him change his mind; he realised, or suspected, that he was not going to succeed – perhaps he was not gaining the support from the populace that he expected. He had already done enough to expect crucifixion as a punishment, and therefore a contingency plan was hastily put together with his very closest associates, to cope with that eventuality. (It is of course possible that he had always had such a plan, in case his rebellion was unsuccessful. What is clear, however, is that most of his closest followers, some of the Apostles, and Mary Magdalene, knew nothing about it. This would suggest, though not conclusively, that it was a last minute, hastily put together plan.) We do not know for certain much about Jesus’s background, but we do know that he is portrayed as a faith healer and exorcist with extraordinary powers. It is therefore possible that he came from a community, or at least had been taught by people, with advanced knowledge of healing techniques, whose help he may have enlisted in his plan. Gardner agrees with the general thrust of that idea, and identifies Jesus’s principal collaborator, and mastermind of the deception, as Simon Zelotes, otherwise known in the New Testament as the Apostle Simon the Canaanite or Simon Magus, who he says was “Head of the Samaritan Magi and renowned as the greatest magician of his day” (p69) (12).
Hugh Schonfield, although in broad agreement with the other authors, has a different take on this story. He also believes that Jesus survived the crucifixion (at least in the short term), and that this was planned in advance, although much more carefully than in my suggested scenario – hence the title of his book The Passover Plot. The plan is elaborate because it has to conform to various prophecies made about the Messiah, one of which “could be interpreted… that the Messiah would survive his terrible ordeal. To this end it was essential that the duration of his sufferings should be reduced to a minimum. The planning of Jesus had contributed effectively to assuring this” (p185). BLL agree with him on that point: “Modern authorities agree that Jesus, quite unabashedly, modelled and perhaps contrived his life in accordance with such prophecies, which heralded the coming of a Messiah”. “The details of the Crucifixion seem likewise engineered to enact the prophecies of the Old Testament”. His demise is suspect: “It must either be a later interpolation after the fact, or part of a carefully contrived plan. There is much additional evidence to suggest the latter” (p373). Gardner also agrees that throughout the crucifixion procedure Jesus is attempting to fulfil Old Testament prophecies (see, for example, pp72-73).
Schonfield interprets Jesus’s frequent predictions of his death and resurrection in the gospels as evidence of this long-standing secret plan, which the disciples obviously fail to understand, since they are not party to it. (This is an interesting possibility. I had always assumed that these were later Christian inventions, to explain Jesus’s failure as the Jewish Messiah, by attributing to him a part in a divine plan.)
I’ll leave you with this interesting thought, although I don’t know quite what to make of it, and don’t want to read too much into it. The Nicene Creed, which was intended to standardise Christian belief following the Council of 325CE, makes no mention of Jesus’s death. Instead it says “He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven”. The Apostles’ Creed, which is dated no later than the fourth century, seems to correct this omission: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead”. The Athanasian creed, which is of uncertain date because it was falsely attributed to Athanasius – we can assume therefore that it was later than the Apostles’ Creed – returns to something closer to the Nicene version: “He suffered for our salvation; he descended to hell; he arose from the dead”.
(1) as (4), p372
(2) Published originally 1965. I am working from the 1993 Element edition.
(3) Jesus the Heretic, Element Books, 1997
(4) Published originally 1982. I am working from the 1996 Arrow edition.
(5) Published originally 1996. I am working from the 2002 Element edition.
(6) Since they are saying something approximately similar, it is worth noting to what extent they are aware of each other. Baigent/Leigh/Lincoln make one reference to Schonfield’s book, so presumably have read it. Gardner doesn’t mention it, but does mention Holy Blood, Holy Grail favourably.
(7) Their reference is Trial and Death of Jesus, H. Cohn, New York, 1971, p238.
(8) Jesus drinks the sour wine in John and Mark. In Matthew he tasted it but would not drink it. In Luke, the only gospel to name the source, the mocking soldiers offered him sour wine – it is not stated whether Jesus drank it.
(9) C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge, 1963, p423
(10) S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, Manchester, 1967, p16
(11) One reference they give for the last point is J. M. Allegro, The Treasure of the Copper Scroll, London, 1960, p100ff.
(12) Gardner’s account is very interesting: “The Gospels do not say who gave the vinegar to Jesus on the cross, but John 19.29 specifies that the vessel was ready and waiting. A little earlier in the same sequence (Matthew 27.34), the potion was said to be ‘vinegar mixed with gall’ – that is soured wine mixed with snake venom. Dependent on the proportions, such a mixture could induce unconsciousness or even cause death. In this case, the poison was fed to Jesus not from a cup but from a sponge and by measured application from a reed. The person who administered it was undoubtedly Simon Zelotes…” (p73).