Crucifixion was a common enough occurance in the brutal setting of the Roman Empire. The traveller might expect to encounter on his journeying a number of wayside crosses, the superscriptions on which would bear testimony to the offences of the victim, and the actual presence of which would bear testimony to the brutality of the regime which had followed and replaced the far superior culture of Greece. The agonies of the cross were commonplace, which makes it all the more significant that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth has become such a prominent feature in history. Biblical evidence clearly establishes that Jesus was by right of inheritance the King of the Jews, and that, according to the same Biblical records, was why he was put to death. Rome would not easily tolerate local Monarchies and it is significant that the method of execution employed in the case of Jesus was nailing to the cross rather than the much more common method of tying. Nailing was reserved for the more serious crimes, including treason against Rome. However, despite the fact that Pontius Pilate the Roman Prefect ( he never held the rank of Governor although it was clearly used as a courtesy title ) ordered that Jesus should be crucified, it is possible to see underlying the Biblical accounts a great unwillingness by Pilate to take this action. He obviously wanted Jesus to live, but hostility and threats by the people forced his hand. Did Pilate go as far as attempting to bring Jesus down from the cross alive? I believe that the evidence points to just such a scenario, points to the existence of what the Jewish scholar, Hugh Schonfield, has named the “Passover Plot”. Let me make it quite clear from the outset that I am viewing the event as a piece of history, purely and simply. I do not believe that there was in the crucifixion of Jesus anything of the later view that this happening was an act of delivery of mankind from sin.
In this article I shall tackle two persistent problems which arise out of the Biblical narratives of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the above mentioned question of a possible Passover Plot and the issue of whether or not Jesus survived the cross and was taken down alive. In other words, did a living Jesus leave the tomb because a living Jesus had been put into it?
Because the early church, under the influence of Paul, adopted the view that the suffering and death of Jesus was the instrument of human salvation, it is not surprising that great emphasis should be laid on the death, but the church has always been ambiguous on the significance of the resurrection in this process. Some congregations use the formula ” who by Thy death and resurrection hath redeemed us” whereas in other quarters the resurrection is kept out of the equation, the death of the Lord being the only relevant factor.
It is necessary for the purpose of setting my views in their context that I explain my belief about the historical Jesus. He was clearly of the Royal blood, his position as “Son of David” being emphasised many times in the Gospel record, and even the stories of his nativity, setting aside the unacceptable connotations of the virgin birth, emphasise strongly his royal lineage. He was the Messiah, the rightful heir to the throne of David, The title “Messiah” referred to the rightful King of Israel and had none of the concepts given to it by the Christian church. Incidentally, it may seem strange at first sight that Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, and Joseph was therefore not his father, and yet give detailed family trees of Jesus as a descendent of David through Joseph. The lists of descendents could not surely have been written by the two Gospel writers, but must be a later accretion from another source.
In the violent times during which Jesus lived there was a strongly nationalistic mood abroad, and a desire to see an uprising against the hated Roman yoke. It was the hope and belief of the Zealots that the Messiah, the Son of David, would come and lead them in a battle to secure freedom. Jesus, the heir of the Royal line, was that Messiah, and it must have been a great disappointment to many when the man with the potential to be their political and military leader refused the role and became a wandering prophet up in the northern province of Galilee. Worse still he became a pacifist and preached non-resistance – a gospel which the people certainly did not wish to hear!
(As background to the following paragraph I refer the reader to the article “Duality in the Gospels“)
In the absence of any response from Jesus to the constant demands from the people that he undertake the expected warlike role a second figure appears in the gospel records, a Messianic figure who was willing to carry out the tasks which Jesus refused. This man rode into Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover and behaved in a highly aggressive manner, carrying out such acts as whipping the moneychangers from the Temple (Matthew chapter 21, verses 12 and 13, Mark 11, verses 15 to 17, Luke 19, verses 45 and 46.) and, on the following Thursday evening, telling the disciples to buy swords even if it meant selling their clothes to do so (Luke 22, verse 36). The contrast with the Galilean Jesus who told his followers not to resist evil and to go two miles if a Roman officer used his right under law to make a male citizen carry his kit bag for one Roman mile could hardly be greater. Clearly a different person was involved, and as he would have to be of the Royal House of David to command the loyalty of the nationalistic Jews, the man who rode into Jerusalem on an ass must have been a son of Jesus. Jesus, learning of the rebellion by his son, travelled to Jerusalem and defused the situation by accepting the Crown, being anointed King at Bethany (Mark 14, verses 3 to 9)and then moving on to Gethsemane where he met his son and told him that his claim no longer had any validity. He, Jesus, was the King of the Jews.
On this basis the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, would have had a vested interest in supporting Jesus and keeping him alive. As long as Jesus lived his warlike son could have no standing under Jewish law, Jesus having been anointed King in the proper and constitutional way, so as long as Jesus lived Pilate could look for peace, the anointed King of the Jews exhorting his people to non-resistance. We might therefore expect that in the story of the arrest, trials and crucifixion of Jesus we would find political undertones, and we most certainly do.
The Jewish scholar Hugh Schonfield has dealt with this matter very admirably in his book “The Passover Plot” to which reference has been made above. My interpretation of events will differ somewhat from his, but we both share the conviction that there was a plot to bring Jesus down from the cross alive. It may well be that the plan succeeded and that the reason why a living Jesus left the tomb on Sunday morning was that a living Jesus had been placed in it on Friday evening.
Two events in particular point to the existence of a Passover Plot, the “betrayal” by Judas and the failure of the soldiers on duty at the crucifixion to break the legs of Jesus.
THE BETRAYAL BY JUDAS. The reaction of the disciples to the news given by Jesus that one of them would betray him is, to say the least, strange. We would expect any body of men, loyal to their leader, when faced with the news that there was a traitor in their midst, to respond angrily and try to find out who the offender was. That was not at all the way the followers of Jesus behaved. Each asked if they were to be the one to betray him! (Matthew 26, verses 20 to 23, Mark 14, verses 18 to 20, ) This only makes sense if they believed that Jesus wanted one of them to reveal to the authorities where he was. In other words, the betrayal was part of a plot to bring Jesus safely to the City centre. Luke takes a slightly different viewpoint and portrays Judas as totally guilty, but of the four Gospel writers Luke alone had absolutely no connection with Jesus while the Master was exercising His ministry and was therefore less well equipped than the others when it comes to describing traumatic events arising from and in that situation. I see the following as the most likely scenario. Jesus’ acceptance of the Throne would not have been popular with many of the more militant Jews, they having had a taste of what might have been from the brief presence of the second man of the Gospels, and he could not have passed safely through Jerusalem without escort. Someone, therefore, had to tell those in authority where he could be found. Either Jesus chose Judas for the task, or the traditional Jewish method of casting lots was employed, the assumption being that God would control the fall of dice or whatever so that His will was done, Whichever method was used it explains why the disciples allowed Judas to leave on his mission without protest. It is true that the arresting and escorting party were Jews, but I see no problem here. Even the more militant Jews would have wanted to bring Jesus safely to Pilate, in the hope that if the Roman Prefect executed Him no blame could be attached by one faction in the Jewish nation against other groups.
I admit to a problem, however, in another aspect. According to Biblical chronology the Last Supper took place before the change of character in Gethsemane indicated that Jesus had deposed his son. Yet the betrayal by a disciple would have had to be arranged after the events in the Garden as, given my hypothesis, the betrayal could only have been arranged by Jesus. I can only assume that the order of events in the Gospels has become confused. After all, the records which we know as the canonical gospels were written down at least a generation after the actual occurances, and at such a distance it is only to be expected that the order of events, as well as the happenings themselves, would be subject to the fallibility of human recollection.
THE FAILURE OF THE SOLDIERS TO BREAK THE LEGS OF JESUS. (John chapter 19, verses 31 to 34) This was most unusual, if not completely unknown, in Judea, for the breaking of a victim’s legs was a concession by the Roman authorities to the Jewish objection to bodies being left on a cross over the Sabbath. In the position adopted for crucifixion breathing could only be sustained by pushing up and down on the feet, so the breaking of the legs resulted in rapid expiry. The breaking of the victim’s legs was automatic and mandatory, and the failure to carry it out was not a decision that the officer in charge of the crucifixion party would have made on his own initiative. Even if the victim gave every appearance of being dead this act would be carried out to make sure. It is inconceivable that anyone other than Pilate would have given the order as a command to bypass the Law would require that the highest ranking person possible should take on the responsibility. This points us to one very likely scenario – Pilate wanted Jesus to be brought down alive from the cross.
But did Pilate succeed in this plan? We must move on now to the post-resurrection stories. It is a matter of great surprise to many Christians to be told that there is no account in the Bible of the resurrection, but it is a fact that there is not. We are not told what happened in the early hours of Sunday morning at the tomb. The Gospel writers take up the story in the dawning when certain women come to the tomb to complete the burial ceremonies and find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.
It has to be said that there is a wide measure of agreement between the four Gospel writers regarding what occured at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. There are only two major points of disagreement, both of which are not surprising considering the lapse of time before the record was set down. The two discrepancies are these. The three synoptic writers, Matthew Mark and Luke, maintain that a man coming in from the country, Simon of Cyrene, was forced by the soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus. ( This is recounted in Matthew chapter 27, verse 32, Mark 15 verse 21, and Luke 23 verse 26.) John, however, denies this (chapter 19, verse 17) and states that Jesus carried his own cross. Before that, at the trials, Luke maintains that Jesus was sent at one point for trial by Herod, he coming from the territory which lay under Herod’s jurisdiction, (Luke 23, verses 6 to 12) whereas the others mention only trials before the Jewish Council and then before Pilate. There is a slight variation from this pattern when it is mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of John’s Gospel that Jesus went to Annas first, then to Caiaphas, but there is considerable confusion in that chapter with the writer at one point having both Annas and Caiaphas working together against Jesus in the House of Annas, then portraying Jesus being sent by Annas to Caiaphas at another location!
This measure of agreement breaks down badly, however, when we come to the accounts of what occured after the resurrection. Right from the outset there is confusion. The writers are quite unable to agree on the identities of the women who came to the tomb, and the discrepancies are considerable. Matthew states that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary attended (chapter 28, verse 1) Mark adds a third woman, Salome, and identifies the other Mary as the mother of James. (chapter 16, verse 1) Luke widens the list of mourners considerably. He has the two Marys mentioned above, but between them he adds a new name, Joanna. (chapter 23 verse 55 to chapter 24, verse 11.) And it is not just these three, according to Luke. They were accompanied by an unspecified number of women who had travelled with Jesus from Galilee. John further adds to the uncertainty by stating that Mary Magdalene alone came to the tomb. (chapter 20, verse 1) Incidentally, the position which Luke affords to Joanna in the list puts her at a point normally occupied by a daughter of the deceased.
The confusion is continued when we turn to the alleged appearances of the risen Lord. Here Matthew (chapter 28, verses 9 to 20) states that the disciples first met the risen Master in Galilee and only that one meeting is referred to. There is no mention at all of any manifestation at Jerusalem apart from the very brief incident where Jesus manifests and tells the disciples to go to Jerusalem.. Mark also mentions a single meeting in Galilee, prophesied by the young man at the tomb, but prior to that speaks of a manifestation of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and also refers to the encounter between the Master and two disciples on the road to Emmaeus. (chapter 16) So far we might be excused for thinking that this is simply a case of individual selection, the writers picking out the occurances which especially appealed to them, but when we come to Luke’s account this reasoning will not stand up. Luke refers to the road to Emmaeus event in great detail and then mentions an appearance to Simon, not elsewhere recorded, afterwards stating that Jesus appeared again and commanded the disciples to remain in the City – so according to Luke there was no Galilean apparition at all! (chapter 24, verses 13ff) John has Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples in the Upper Room, and then more than a week later to Thomas. (chapter 20 verse 14 to chapter 21 verse 23) So a full week after the resurrection they have still not departed for Galilee. John then refers to a colourful encounter by the sea of Galilee in which Jesus directs the fishermen to a shoal of fish, but there is strong evidence that this is a later insertion, as the previous chapter ends as if it was the ending of the Gospel.
To me the most curious manifestation of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus lies in the fact that he was not recognised even by his closest friends. These stories have a ring of truth about them, for they create such difficulties that it is most unlikely that anyone would have made them up. If someone is going to create a work of fiction to promote their opinions then we would expect then to avoid any insertions which were difficult for their own cause. Yet here, time and again, we find that the risen Lord is not recognised. Even Mary of Magdala fails to recognise him in the garden, the disciples on the Emmaeus road do not see him as their beloved master and Peter and John, disciples who had been with Jesus for a considerable period of time cannot identify him on the shores of Galilee. If indeed Jesus had not died he would have been severly traumatised by the experience of crucifixion, especially as it was by nailing which would clearly inflict graver injuries than tying with a rope, and further traumatised by lying in a cold tomb for some thirty to thirty six hours ( Jesus was not in the tomb for the three days prophesied ) then his appearance was likely to have been considerably altered and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that these alterations, combined with the fact that the disciples were not expecting to see him alive, that led to their failure to recognise him. However, it is a strange series of events and something of a mystery still remains. So confused are the Biblical accounts of the post-resurrection appearances that we must admit to a great deal of uncertainty as to what actually happened.
A further discrepancy arises in the question of whether Jesus had undergone a physical resurrection and it was his body that appeared to those favoured with a sighting, or whether he was actually dead and it was his spirit that wandered abroad. In Luke chapter 24 verse 29 he denies that he was a spirit saying “A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see I have.” Yet he appears in locked rooms and vanishes suddenly out of the disciple’s sight, behaviour which we more readily associate with the manifestation of a spirit. (Luke24, verse 31, John 20, verse 26)
The situation is confused and the jury is still very much out on the issue of whether or not Jesus did die on the cross. I am convinced that there was a serious attempt to get him down alive, but we cannot say for certain whether the attempt succeeded. A persistent tradition tells of the risen Lord going to the east and dwelling there for many years before he died of natural causes in old age. Travellers are still shown the grave of Jesus in what was Persia, and it seems to me very possible that the bones of Jesus are really lying there. Perhaps one day we shall know the answer. But apart from academic interest it does not matter whether he died at Calvary or not. The manner of his death makes not one iota of difference to the force of his message and the outstanding quality of his life; it does not diminish for a moment the courage, humanity and dedication shown by the Great Teacher. What he said and what he did are the things that count. The manner of his death and rising again makes no difference at all to Christianity.
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