A friendly commentary on the Bible from an atheist

Monday, May 15, 2006

How Jesus Survived the Crucifixion

By Chris Brand

A) After the Resurrection

While the Gospels offer ample testimony to Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances, they leave a nagging question about the crucial first day of Jesus' new life. Whether to Mary Magdalene - in St John's account - or to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus seems to have been initially unwilling to identify himself. Indeed, it appears from both of the accounts offered that in these early encounters he may have been in disguise. Mary mistakes him for a gardener; and the two disciples walked with him for several miles without appreciating anything but his considerable knowledge of Old Testament prophecy. Further, his having to be `constrained' (Lk. XXIV 29) to stay with his disciples in the evening suggests that Jesus had a purpose on the road to Emmaus that is quite consistent with such furtive behaviour. Quite simply, he may have been fleeing the country. Allowing ourselves the liberty of a materialist interpretation of the Ascension, it is possible that he went on to do just that: having survived one crucifixion, who would willingly put himself at risk of another? Prior to that, his object was at least to leave Jerusalem. And the plan he adopted seems to have been to have a reunion with the disciples in Galilee (Matt. XXVIII 10). But, if Jesus was fleeing, what made him adopt the attention-getting role of a resurrected man?

Whatever the time-scale of Jesus' post-Resurrection ministry, it seems that it was his discovery by the disciples at Emmaus that tempted him to risk one final coup. On finding that the disciples were indeed prepared to accept the possibility that he might have risen from the dead, Jesus - after at first `vanishing out of their sight' (Lk. XXIV 31), possibly to manufacture some stigmata - clearly resolved to give a convincing impression that his own prophecies had been fulfilled. It may seem unlikely that Jesus would - or could - have manufactured the necessary symptoms of a recent crucifixion. Certainly, as some scholars have recently pointed out, it is unlikely that the Romans would have driven nails through the hands - rather than wrists - of a crucified man. But, according to the Gospel records of the stigmata, there is at least some possibility that he did not possess them during his first two post-Resurrection appearances. First, they are not mentioned; secondly, there is a remarkable change in Jesus' attitude to receiving bodily contact over his first resurrected day. To Mary Magdalene, Jesus says "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father" (Jn. XX 17). But on his re-appearance to the disciples after `vanishing' from Emmaus, he advised them to "handle me and see" (Lk. XXIV 39). In fact, the Gospels contain no explicit record of anyone taking up that invitation - not even Thomas, eight days later. But Jesus' change in attitude is at least consistent with the notion that the exploitable potential of the disciples' gullibility was only apparent to him after the careful sounding-out on the journey to Emmaus. In short, there is some reason to believe that Jesus' early encounters with his disciples led him to change his mind about revealing his physical condition.

Whether such fanciful stories have any validity must in turn depend on just what his condition was. What could Jesus have initially had to hide? If the Gospel records of Jesus eventually displaying his stigmata are to be given any credence, then to suggest that he had not died during crucifixion does not square with his change of heart. Why need he have waited? The same question arises for the traditional Christian interpretation. To account for Jesus' reluctance to reveal himself on his triumphal day, we are driven inexorably to consider a third alternative. Perhaps Jesus had not been crucified at all? Perhaps he had escaped crucifixion but, as a result of his chance meetings, had come to realize that none of his disciples would be likely to challenge the attractive version of the previous three days that he eventually proceeded to offer them? (More charitably, it is likely that the disciples' own enthusiasm at his re-appearance would have placed him in as embarrassing position: he might thus have felt socially constrained to provide a Messianic performance.) Even Thomas may not have been beyond succumbing to emotionally-charged intimidation from whatever combination of Jesus and the other disciples. Too diffident, perhaps, to subject Jesus to a proper medical at such a time, he preferred to simply acknowledge "My Lord and my God".

Just who could have rolled the stone from the tomb and removed the other body that Joseph of Arimethea had originally put there is a crucial problem to which we will return. It could have been Jesus himself - with helpers such as Joseph and Nicodemus. Even if he had not intended to reveal himself, he might have felt that the mere disappearance of his `body' from the tomb might ensure the perpetuation of his legend during the self-imposed exile that he anticipated. Removal of the body into the councillors' safer keeping would have prevented its identification by any suspicious Jews or Romans. If we accept St John's account of Jesus' meeting with Mary, this is a reasonable hypothesis which gives Jesus a motivation for visiting the tomb. Alternatively, we shall see that there are two other possibilities. One is perhaps unlikely in that it might seem to burden Jesus with the murder of a most trusty friend. The other is calculated to preserve the maximum integrity for both Jesus and his disciples; and its likelihood can only be seen as part of a coherent story of what had happened to all the major figures of the Gospel story during the previous three days. Even if such an opening of the tomb could have been arranged, we must clearly first consider what further reason we have to accept the tentative possibility that it was not Jesus' body that had been buried. In fact, it is only in the course of such a fresh look at old evidence that it is possible to show not only how the Resurrection happened but why it had to happen.

B) The Crucifixion

Ruling out the remote possibility of Jesus having genuinely survived a crucifixion without actually dying, it now behoves us to examine the hypothesis that he never went to the Cross at all. What evidence do the Gospels offer as to whether he attended the Crucifixion? While there is virtual unanimity that three women were witnesses to the Crucifixion, there is disagreement between the Gospels as to how near to the Cross they were. St Mathew and St Mark record them as being `afar off', whereas St John says they were `near' or `by' the Cross; St Luke does not commit himself. Having regard to the majority opinion - as also to likely Roman practice at crucifixions - it would seem reasonable to believe that these observers from Jesus' Galilean ministry were probably not in a very good position to observe just who was actually being crucified. Additionally it should be remembered that - as is the case for religious attendance in our own day - many of the adult followers who were keen enough to make the trek to Calvary were probably middle-aged women (Lk XXIII 27). Without spectacles, the vision of many of them would have been poor; and, doubtless, those who had known Jesus well would have been so distraught with grief as to be quite incapable of reliably recording what proceeded. Mary Magdalene may have been rather younger: only she, amongst the three explicitly mentioned as being present, was not a mother. But, by the traditional Christian account itself, she was no expert at identifying Jesus when she saw him: she mistook him for a gardener on Resurrection morning. Moreover, it would be in accordance with tradition to suppose that Jesus - or his substitute - was so mutilated prior to crucifixion that he would have been less than readily recognizable to even an attentive and reliable observer.

Three further considerations were relevant to an assessment of whether a substitute could have passed for Jesus during the Crucifixion. The first is that it is by no means clear that Jesus was as well known a figure in Jerusalem as Christians are inclined to assume. Even the Jewish authorities themselves - concerned as they supposedly were at his preaching - had to resort to Judas to identify the man they wanted to arrest after Jesus had overthrown the tables of the moneychangers in the basement of the Jerusalem temple. It was not enough for them to be told his hiding-place: Jesus had to be personally identified - by a kiss from Judas. Secondly, had a substitute for Jesus been provided at some stage in the Crucifixion story, the planner of such an operation would certainly have tried to ensure that the substitute was a reasonable physical and psychological match. Of course, it would have required great good fortune to get all the necessary details right - or to get all the discrepancies omitted from the historical record: and at least one mistake seems to have been made. According to St John, the man on the Cross was not sufficiently obliging to refuse the sour wine that was offered him (Jn XIX 29, 30 (New English Bible)). He thus failed to fulfil Jesus' pledge that he would `drink no more of the fruit of the vine till he drank it new in the kingdom of God' (Mk XIV 25). This contradiction clearly went unobserved during the Crucifixion: a further testimony is thereby provided to the absence of the most vital witnesses. Thirdly, quite straightforwardly, it will be remembered that the Gospels themselves testify directly that all the disciples had forsaken Jesus at the time of the arrest (e.g. Matt. XXVI 56). The amazing absence of the disciples from the publicly accessible events of Calvary may further testify either their treachery or their complete ignorance that any arrest had ever taken place; but it certainly deprives the traditional account of the Crucifixion of an important source of confirmatory evidence.

The only exception to this general account is provided by St John. But his account of Jesus' conversation from the Cross with `the disciple whom he loved' (Jn XIX 26) is problematic in three ways. First, it does not identify Jesus with any certainty. In saying "Woman, behold thy son" and - to the disciple - "Behold thy mother", the man on the Cross may just have been commending a weeping, but unrelated woman to the care and attention of a younger man. The first saying does not definitely indicate that the crucified man thought Mary was actually his own mother. Secondly, one might take the commands to reveal a mistaken assumption of kinship between John and Mary. This would constitute direct evidence that the man on the Cross could not have been Jesus. Thirdly, the scene is none too plausible anyway. How could a man dying of lumbar collapse talk to anyone at all - yet alone to a person who, if she was Jesus' mother, would have been standing `afar off' according to St Mathew and St Mark? As with St John's chapter-long account of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane - which occurred, according to the other Gospels, while Jesus was physically apart from his disciples and while they were asleep - it is frankly reasonable to suspect St John of a vivid imagination. Of course, Jesus is supposed to have said other things on the Cross - either to the two thieves crucified with him or to nobody in particular. But these were not long-distance conversations; and their content - which may subsequently have been relayed by the soldiers guarding the Cross - was not such as to be peculiarly characteristic of Jesus. After all, if we suppose that some innocent bystander had been substituted for Jesus by Pilate or whomever, would we not expect him to say at his crucifixion something like "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me" - or words to that effect? Further, if Jesus' proper place had been taken by some unfortunate who was himself of a religious-paranoid disposition, why should such a man not have undertaken to `forgive' the more agreeable of his co-crucifixees?

In fact, the only point at which there appears to have close contact between Jesus' followers and the man who was crucified occurs on the removal of the corpse to the tomb. But, even here, St John records that the councillor who was able to approach Pilate to have the body removed from the Cross was only a `secret' disciple (Jn XIX 38). It is perhaps unlikely that a man in such a position would ever have been able to afford much time to consort with humble Galileans. And the same might surely be said of Nicodemus - if St John's lone account of his appearance is correct: he had only once previously seen Jesus, and that was at night for fear of his position. Moreover, these two Jewish worthies may well have belonged to the priestly castes who were not allowed to handle the dead in person: in that case, only their servants would have been in close contact with the body. Alternatively, two such capable and responsible dignitaries would have been ideal partners in one of the most successful conspiracies of all time. For their unique position would have been that they could have been expected to guard the body from the prying eyes of suspicious Jews by virtue of their civil authority and contacts with Pilate; while also guarding it from anything but a major enquiry by the civil authorities on the grounds that Jesus had already suffered enough indignity. (It can remain a matter for speculation whether they would have been subsequently embarrassed by the Resurrection. But Jesus would at least have aimed to oblige them by keeping out of the way of both Roman and Jewish authorities until his final disappearance -- if the Resurrection had occurred in the way in which any of the disciples might have planned it. In the event, as we will see, such speculations are idle and the dignity of the councillors would have had many Jewish defenders so long as they kept silent about the real goings-on in the sepulchre.) They would certainly have had little difficulty in keeping the secret from the women who attended Jesus' interment: for, by the time the grief-stricken women were on the scene, the body had already been dressed and wrapped in linen. But it may seem preferable to assume complete innocence of a substitution on the part of Joseph and Nicodemus. The councillors were hardly familiar with Jesus; the man they took from the Cross had been disfigured by the Roman soldiers; and there are other figures who can be called on to play the role of resurrection-men. Even had the disciples planned to steal away the substitute body so as to give the impression of a Resurrection when the real Jesus finally re-appeared from hiding, we shall see reason to trust the Gospels' indignant assertion that this was not how the Resurrection happened.

C) The Trial

Since it may have passed unobserved, it is perhaps only fair to remark that - by contrast with the events of Resurrection day - the events that constitute the central Crucifixion story seem to stand in only occasional need of any kind of re-interpretation. Thus the above account - or collection of possible accounts - may look rather like a piece of special pleading. Doubtless, with very little imagination one could re-interpret a great many supposed historical events so as to put their central characters in a new and unsavoury light. Such efforts would be unworthy of the name of even the most speculative historical revisionism. The only point in new stories or theories is that they cope with problems that arise with existing accounts. In this respect it is with greater satisfaction that the serious revisionist can proceed to consider the Gospel record of Jesus' conviction and sentencing. For here - as with Jesus' re-appearances - there are once more some very substantial problems demanding explanation.

The paradoxes to be considered take us back one stage further. Although it may be only barely plausible to suggest that Jesus was never crucified, we shall now see rather reason to believe that he was never tried or even arrested. Now, one strong link does not make a chain; but one weak link is enough to allow a break. It is just at the point where the Crucifixion - Resurrection story is forced into the light of society's legal processes for establishing truth that we find a particularly weak link.

Although the person best placed to arrange a substitute was undoubtedly Pontius Pilate, there is little reason to think that he took such action. He had a motive; but conflicting considerations of justice and expediency would also have carried weight with him. And his opportunity would have been limited once he had shown Jesus to the mob in an attempt to appeal for mercy. Moreover, to suppose that a substitution might have occurred so late in the day would still leave unresolved two other major paradoxes of the trial. Peter's denials and the character of the accused during the court hearings suggest that Jesus may never have appeared at his trial at all.

The Gospels again give little help in establishing just how their record of the court proceedings might have been obtained: as during the arrest and crucifixion, the disciples are largely conspicuous by their absence. Only St John records that any disciple other than Peter was in attendance. This `disciple' is supposed to have had the rather surprising distinction of being `known to the high priest'; and indeed of being on such good terms with the Jewish authorities that he was able to secure Peter's admittance to Caiaphas' court (Jn XVIII 15, 16). As with Joseph and Nicodemus, the reliability of such a witness in making an accurate identification is at least open to doubt. A similar question-mark hangs over Peter's testimony. The Gospels are in general agreement that Peter never got very near to the centre of the action at court. So it could simply be claimed that he was in no position to make a trustworthy identification. This might explain why Peter's denials lay themselves open to the very general interpretation that he was denying ever having been a disciple of Jesus. For example, when Peter says "I know not the man" (Matt. XXVI 72), it might be supposed that he was talking of his previous relationship with Jesus rather than of his knowledge of the accused man in court. But in that case his denials could have occurred without his ever seeing the accused man at court. This would render less credible the traditional view that at least one intimate acquaintance of Jesus had some contact with him after the arrest. But there would have been little point in Peter denying discipleship of `Jesus of Nazareth' if he had not simultaneously implied that he was a disciple of the defendant. On balance, it is far more likely that Peter's denials explicitly referred to the particular man whose trial he and others were witnessing: that is, Peter was denying that he knew the man they had all seen. It is regrettable that the Gospels do not make this point clear. Yet this is only one among many failures to get the details right: there are flat contradictions as to the recipients of the denials, and as to the number of times the cock crew before Peter recognized his failing.

In view of Jesus' explicit warning to Peter during the Last Supper, it seems reasonable to suppose that only a very real doubt in Peter's mind as to his relationship to the accused could have led him into the three denials. Just such a doubt could most easily have arisen if the man undergoing trial had not been Jesus at all. Despite Jesus' prophecies, Peter found he could do no other than - as he later thought of it - `deny his Lord'. He just did not recognize the man. His eventual sudden upsurge of guilt is attributable to his accepting, once conviction had occurred, and once Jesus' `before-the-cock-crows' prediction had appeared to be fulfilled, that the convicted man must indeed have been Jesus. Peter would not have been the first to prefer interpretations that are ideologically convenient to the evidence of his own senses.

Quite apart from what the accused might have looked like at court, Peter might well have been amazed at what he had to say for himself. Here too, it is not just the absence of information in the Gospels that provides scope for re-interpretation. At this historic point, with the eyes of the world focused on him, the supposed Messiah was remarkably unwilling to rise the occasion. Throughout the Gospel records, it is clear that the most common action taken by the defendant was to `hold his peace' or to `answer nothing' in the face of the charges leveled against him. At least on some occasions, it appears that his reticence may have been calculated to annoy: "Answerest thou the high priest so?" (Jn XVIII 22). It is likewise remarkable that the accused so frequently answers the charge of claiming to be the Christ with a mere "You say that I am" (New English Bible). From the moment of arrest onwards, the accused shows the bitter resignation of man who recognizes that he is involved in a `put-up job'. His refusal to deny Messianic status might appear a natural part of a general refusal to co-operate in a rigged trial. In so far as he is recorded as extemporating on the theme that he is the Son of God, it is in terms that might have come naturally to any other messianically inclined compatriot. The only reference made to any detail of Jesus' ministry is that the defendant does admit to having preached in the temple; but, by the same token, so must many other Jewish evangelists of the time. The fact that Barabbas - whom Pilate eventually released to the mob in preference to Jesus - had been found guilty of murder in the course of sedition further testifies to the presence in Jerusalem at the time of the many revolutionaries whose efforts were finally to culminate in the Diaspora. The degree to which the Jesus of the trials one of many dissatisfied spirits is perhaps further witnessed by the absence of any mention in court - in his defence - of his `render-unto-Caesar' speech. The clear impression of the Gospel accounts of the trial scenes is that few people had any clear knowledge of Jesus or of his pronouncements in the temple. The real Jesus was a minor figure whose mistake had been to fail to make crystal clear that - though he could have done it - he would not actually destroy the temple (MK XIV 57-61). The authorities had to rely on Judas to identify their man with a kiss; and they then found it hard to provide evidence against him. Only at the end of the hearing before Caiaphas was the prosecution able to lure the accused into the ‘blasphemy’ that was to justify his death-warrant.

Even the accused's `blasphemy' in court seems to have taken a most non-assertive form. Although St Mark records the reply "I am" (MK XIV 62) to Caiaphas' question "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?", the other accounts represent Jesus as going out of his way to make a rather weaker claim. In Matt. XXVI 64 the reply is: "The words are yours. But I tell you this: from now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven." It is hard to believe that this utterance does not really mean: `You're wrong at the moment. But just you wait and see.' Why the "but" unless some important modification is being made to the claim? A precisely similar problem arises with account of the replies to Pilate in John XVIII 33-37. Dealing with the enquiry as to whether he is "the King of the Jews", the accused - apart from going through the familiar `Thou sayest it' routine - asserts in particular that his kingdom is not of the present world and that his mission in life has been merely "to bear witness unto the truth". But it was just a few days previously that the real Jesus had prophesied in regard to `the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds with great power and glory' that `the present generation will live to see it all' (MK XIII 24-31 (N.E.B.)). Even if we can believe that these remarks were recorded by some competent observers - including, presumably, some close associates of Pilate - they leave us far from clear as to the precise nature of the accused's testimony. If the records are to be trusted, it seems that the accused - though behaving in a fatalistic and superior way that could hardly fail to annoy - at least made little effort to urge the `strong' claims as to his identity that we know from the Gospels to have been so characteristic of Jesus himself.

It is thus no wonder that Pilate found no fault in the prisoner whom he received from Caiaphas and whom he forwarded to Herod for a second opinion. Pilate must have been reluctant to crucify a man whose revolutionary fervour was so restrained that he would not even regularly incriminate himself. Unfortunately for Pilate, Herod's court was equally unsuccessful: the accused reverted to his previous silent treatment. Once more, Pilate was required to face the music. Just what was his real view of the prisoner is left uncertain by the Gospels. His final labeling of the accused as `the King of the Jews' - despite his prisoner's reservations about such a title - suggests that he was finally contemptuous of both the man and his accusers. But, in any case, it is unlikely that it was Pilate who provided the substitute for Jesus that our present story requires. The evidence already given is more compatible with the suggestion that Jesus was saved from crucifixion by another figure whose character has been blackened by the traditional Christian story to an even greater degree than the character of Pilate.

D) The Arrest

Judas, the disciple who was responsible enough to be treasurer and perhaps even conscientious enough to hang himself when he realized the enormity of his crime, appears to have been a most practical man. Having both the motivation and the opportunity to save his Master from the consequences of his rash preaching in the temple, he seems to have planned ahead. Alone amongst the disciples at a time when they were having to take special precautions to meet without being arrested - see the `secret hideout' arrangements of Lk XXII 1-13 - Judas saw the possibility of acting as a false agent. Far from betraying Jesus, Judas' approach to the chief priests established him as an agent and revealed the crucial opportunity for duplicity in such a role. Maybe the authorities took some persuading, but what Judas seems to have been able to arrange was that they should arrest whomever he identified for them. In accordance with this possibility, we might suppose that Judas never had any intention of betraying his Lord.

An alternative is that Judas changed an original plan of betrayal after the embarrassment of discovery or near-discovery at the Last Supper. But this would leave us with the double problem of explaining both Judas' initial lapse from grace and a subsequent repentance in addition to his final suicide. It is even more economic than the traditional account to assume that Judas had only one major change of heart - and that this precipitated his death. Like the other disciples, Judas had not bargained for a crucifixion - or a resurrection. At least, on this supposition it is easier to explain Judas' overwhelming remorse when the man of his choosing finally went to the Cross. If Judas' death was indeed by his own hand, it would have had a cause that the traditional story obscures. Judas, on our account, was not a man who would give up just when things were going according to plan. Perhaps he did not give up - perhaps the Gospel writers too easily believed the account of his death that was offered by the Jewish authorities? Alternatively - and adhering more closely to the traditional Christian version of events - he could be considered to have underestimated the concern of the authorities at revolutionary preaching. Thus he may have believed that the substitute for Jesus would escape with a light sentence. In that case, he would have finally had good reason for finally going back to the chief priests to confess "I have brought an innocent man to his death" (Matt. XXVII 4 (N.E.B.)).

Why should he admit to betraying an `innocent' man if it was Jesus whose arrest he had arranged? However regretful Judas may have been at betraying his Lord - if he did in fact do that - it is not clear why he should have thought he was innocent of such blasphemies as admitting to Messianic status or of seditious hopes of a kingship that would shortly come. It is a classic case of religious hypocrisy that, while Christians should properly have been proud of Jesus' `guilt' of the claims that he made, they have typically appeared to lament the contribution of Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod to the arrangement of a theologically necessary crucifixion. Perhaps Judas, too, was having it both ways: believing that Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah while simultaneously asserting his `innocence'? Fortunately, there is an alternative to resting a story on such self-contradiction. Judas' statement makes much greater sense if he had indeed sent an innocent man - albeit one selected to be like Jesus in revolutionary religious opinionation - to an unanticipated death.

As things turned out, Judas' choice of the timing of the arrest enabled the crucial substitution to be made without even the disciples realizing what had happened. In the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane in the small hours of the morning, and with the disciples either asleep or fleeing, Judas would have had sample opportunity to direct attention to the wrong man while still convincing the arresting agents that he had indeed led them to the right place. Whether Jesus himself was co-operative at this stage is not clear: we might imagine that he would have had to be virtually forcibly persuaded to abandon temporarily his prophesied crucifixion. But the man who was eventually arrested did not go without at least a little protest at the indignity of the arrangements. The complaint at being `arrested like a common thief' is at least surprising if it came from the mouth of Jesus. After his rampage at the temple, and having gone into hiding for the Last Supper, why should he have complained at being thus ferreted out? At every least, such a complaint would have been ungracious from the lips of a man whose life's mission was the Crucifixion. It has to be admitted that the real Jesus would have drawn attention to himself at the arrest by healing of the stricken Malchus. But we have already resolved that the miracle of the Resurrection is less convincingly demonstrated by recourse to other miracles than by an account which makes no such assumptions. As to the fighting that went on at the arrival of the police, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the substitute's own friends and associates would have put up a passably heroic struggle against his arbitrary arrest.

While the traditional account of the arrest presents few paradoxes on its own that justify a major re-interpretation, it would seem to be weak enough to accommodate quite easily a revisionary story that lends coherence to the many other problems that have been mentioned. To adduce Jesus' last pre-Crucifixion miracle to support it is hardly good enough. As we must now see, the account that we have offered does more than resolve the paradoxes mentioned so far. It also explains what must surely be the biggest problem surrounding the traditional story of the Resurrection. To anticipate what follows, it gives the most obvious motive for the Resurrection to just the people who had the power to bring it about. Just what happened to Jesus between his evading arrest and his appearing after the Resurrection must be a matter for speculation. Since the Gospels record him as keeping away from contact with the Jewish and Roman authorities after the Resurrection, it seems reasonable to assume that he went into temporary hiding which he only left when Judas' confession of what had really happened made him simultaneously a wanted man and a candidate in the eyes of faithful for the status of being newly resurrected.

E) The Resurrection

If the Crucifixion was a case of mistaken identity in one way or another, a number of important pieces of the Gospel jigsaw slip neatly into place. Certainly, some of the traditional pieces are inevitably displaced a little; but they are often either irrelevant pieces for the open-minded materialists or pieces that only owe their existence to St John's Gospel. Only St John fails to have Jesus identified personally by Judas; only St John records Barabbas as being merely a `bandit' - thus not admitting the presence in Jerusalem of dangerous criminals; only St John supplies an extra disciple to accompany Peter at Caiaphas' court; only here do we read of a conversation between the crucified man and a favourite disciple; and only St John's lengthy account of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances suggests that Jesus did not flee the country just soon as he could. But there is one further unique Johannine story that our account has positively incorporated: Jesus' appearance at the tomb to Mary Magdalene. From the point of view adopted here, St John's other idiosyncratic stories might helpfully be dismissed; but this story is well worth retaining. It establishes - according to taste - either the general unrecognizability of Jesus or his use of disguise on the day of the Resurrection. At the same time, its retention is a reminder of a most important loose and that must now be tied up. What was Jesus doing at the tomb?

As already mentioned, a possibility is that he had gone to assist Joseph - and perhaps Nicodemus - to roll away the stone and remove the body. But this view has three major disadvantages. First, it puts Jesus in a dishonourable light. On the account that has been offered Jesus might be thought to have been almost forced into a `resurrection' by the circumstances of Judas' shrewdness and the disciples' gullibility and emotional dependence. But this could hardly be so if Jesus actively helped to conceal the evidence of the substitution. Having already tried to redeem the honour of Judas, it would seem hard if the alternative was to blacken Jesus' character. For this reason alone, it would be nicer to assume that Jesus - at a loss to know what was happening as a result of his disciples' contrivances - simply went to the tomb to find out what was going on. Even better, he might have wished to play his own last respects to the man (or, more particularly, ideological rival) who had died in his place.

Secondly, and more self-interestedly, to suppose the involvement of Joseph and Nicodemus in the substitution plot might seem to risk an ever-widening circle of disciples who were `in the know.' Now, given that the rest of Jesus' ministry was conducted either in secret or at some distance from Jerusalem, it could perhaps be supposed that Jesus' disciples were so physically separated after the great events in Jerusalem that some of them never heard the true account of the Resurrection that the conspirators could have made available. On this view it would have been the non-conspiratorial disciples who would have been responsible for the later promulgation of the myth. But this is at least a risky assumption that is perhaps best not made.

For, thirdly, if any of Jesus, Joseph or Nicodemus had been involved in removing the body, they would at least have had to evade, overpower or bribe the watchmen placed outside the tomb by the chief priests and Pharisees (Matt. XXVII 62-66). Now, according to the Gospel account, the soldiers placed on guard were certainly not beyond the reach of bribery (Matt.XXVIII 15). But it is also clear that they were directly responsible to the Jewish authorities. As the traditional Christian account has it, it would surely have been more than their jobs were worth to allow the tomb to be tampered with. Like the other points against the multiple-conspiracy view, this disadvantage is clearly not insuperable. Yet, as with the traditional story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the points seem to add up to make the account implausible.

An unlikely possibility that avoids the second of these disadvantages is that it was Judas himself who helped Jesus to remove the substitute's body from the tomb. But this would involve the assumption that the Gospels are inaccurate as to the timing of Judas's death. And, even had two men been sufficient to remove the stone from the sealed tomb, it would remain to be explained why Judas died at all. If his plans had come to fruition - and his plans would presumably have included a mock confession to the Jewish authorities - why should he ever have committed suicide? A truly iconoclastic revisionary might suppose that Jesus had known of the conspiracy from its inception: this might help explain how the arrest was staged. But though Jesus might reasonably be considered to have suffered grandiose delusions of a paranoid nature, there is no reason to believe that he was the kind of psychopath who could have finally brought himself to arrange a `suicide' for such a valuable friend as Judas.

It is for such reasons that we must proceed to the one every credible story of the disappearance of the body from the tomb and of the subsequent the truth of the Gospel record of Judas' confession and the councillors' good faith, there is only one way in which Christianity as we know it could ever have got off the ground. It is perhaps one of history's greatest ironies: `Jesus' was `resurrected' by the Jews.

Merely in answer to the question `who had the opportunity?' the Jewish authorities emerge as the most likely candidates. Throughout the watch on the tomb, it is clear that they were in control. It was the chief priests and Pharisees who asked Pilate for a watch to be set; it was they who supposedly received the report of the guards and issued the bribes that were designed to ensure that any story of a resurrection would be given little credence. Later, too, it was their police-work that obliged the disciples to remain in hiding after the Resurrection (Jn XX 19). As Pilate's own deference had originally made clear, the whole business was a Jewish matter in which the Roman authorities had little interest; and so it was to remain after the Crucifixion. Had the Jewish authorities wanted to remove the body from Joseph's tomb after the Crucifixion, they would have had all the time, all the men, and all the authority they needed. Of course, they would have had to bribe the soldiers to promulgate a rather different version of what happened: every detail of our revised story of the Crucifixion-Resurrection makes this likely.

Lest this is not clear, it is worth considering the last major paradox of the Gospel record of the Crucifixion. It was not until the Sabbath - the day following the Crucifixion - that it occurred to the Jewish authorities to ask Pilate for a watch to be placed at the tomb (Matt. XXVII 62). To say that Jesus had only predicted his own resurrection for rather later is hardly to meet the problem of their lack of preparation. If their fear was truly that the body in the tomb would be stolen (Matt. XXVII 63), they surely had little reason to suppose that the disciples would obligingly delay the theft until the third day? It is more reasonable to suppose that the thought of mounting a guard on the tomb occurred to them only after the Crucifixion: and the account that we have offered of Judas' behaviour makes it clear that their motivation would have been.

Far from wishing to keep the body safely in the tomb - though this may have been their first reaction till they found that the women were to return to anoint the body - Judas' revelation (whether voluntary or under torture) that an innocent man had been crucified would have made it imperative to get the body removed into secrecy as quickly as possible. Not only was the reputation of the Jewish authorities with Pilate at stake - after it had already been tarnished by their wilful refusal to have Barabbas crucified instead of the man sent to Pilate as Jesus. Even more importantly, a removal of the body from the tomb would have had to be arranged in order to partially undermine the stories of Jesus' `resurrection' that would otherwise gain credence on his being found alive. Once the real Jesus was discovered, the tomb would have had to be opened anyway - by the Romans, in the course of an official enquiry; then the substitution would have been revealed. So it became clear that there was little to be gained from even the most secure guarding of the tomb. Of course, the Resurrection could have been denied by the production of the body in the tomb. But the cost would have been the exposure of the injustice done to an innocent man. In this most embarrassing situation, the Jewish authorities had only one course of action open to them: to save face with both Romans and their own faithful, it simply had to appear that Jesus' disciples had stolen the body. Viewed historically, they blundered in underestimating the credence that the disappearance of the body would lend to a Resurrection story and in overestimating the likelihood that would subsequently be attached to their official version of events. But these were ordinary, weak people invested with authority they took to be unchallengeable. As far as they were concerned, Judas' revelation made some semblance of a `resurrection' inevitable. And, in fairness to them, interest in Jesus went markedly underground for more than a generation.

Clearly, the best `witness' of this `body theft' would have been some heavily bribed Roman soldiers whose story could not be attributed to Jewish anti-Christian prejudice and who could hardly reveal their own corruption. Only two further measures lay within the authorities' power. Though they could not actually afford to arrest the real Jesus without exposing their initial mistake, they could at least hound Jesus and his disciples from Jerusalem as quickly as possible. In this way, they could have hoped to prevent any rapid dissemination of the news of Jesus' survival. Secondly, one other step would have been mandatory. It is hopefully pardonable to suggest at this stage that the Gospel writers - misguided by the Jewish authorities and entirely without malice - might have got one detail of the Crucifixion-Resurrection story quite wrong. If they did, it makes our already-superior account of Judas' nature and motivations just that much better; and it clearly makes no crucial difference to the plausibility of the traditional Christian story. For the fact is that if Judas had not committed suicide, his murder would have been singularly convenient to the Jews. To suggest that a murder may have been more nearly the truth removes from Judas the unnecessary slur of a grotesquely fatalistic emotional over-reaction to what he had intended as only a moderately serious offence committed out of passionate and intelligent loyalty to his Master; and it shows more clearly the tragedy of Judas - an ordinary man overpowered by the engulfing waves of religious fervour and human history. Double agents are rarely understood; and they get little sympathy when they are discovered and their careers are brutally foreshortened. Judas is a classic case. It has always been easier to see him as a treacherous figure whose conscience finally took an exacting toll than as the brains behind Jesus' survival and the unwitting instigator of the myth of the Resurrection.

In the short term, the Jewish authorities were fortunate enough to be able to make the required arrangements. So successful were they that St Matthew tells us that the proffered story was "commonly reported among the Jews until this day" (Matt. XXVIII 15). But, perhaps like Jesus himself, what the Jews had not bargained for was the faith of the disciples that kept alive the tiny flame of an incredible alternative. Once there were no longer any survivors to tell the dampening story of what had really happened - even had the original conspirators been honest enough to do so - that flame was to ignite the Roman world. Eventually, after 314A.D., Emperor Constantine would cleverly insist on an agreed formulation of Christian doctrine to become a suitably non-revolutionary religion for his empire; but the main building block of Christianity, the Resurrection, was probably supplied by the Jews.

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