By Douglas Anele
Thus, the myth of a saviour in the form of a God incarnate who dies and comes back to life again is not unique to Christianity, as adherents of the religion ignorantly and boastfully claim. On the contrary, the mythical Jesus of the Gospels had formidable rivals for that role. According to Prof. Toynbee, first amongst them was Horus, the son of Osiris, God of Egypt, who subdued his fratricide uncle Seth; second, there was Mithras, an Iranian God whom the seer, Zarathustra, had demoted to the ranks of the devil but who, as a migrant from Iran to Asia Minor, had reasserted his divinity in cooperation with the Sun and the Fateful Stars. Seen in this light, it is reasonable to infer that Easter, like all the popular celebrations of Christianity, has its roots in ancient pre-Christian religious mythology.
We have already drawn attention to the contradictions in the Gospels’ account of what transpired from the arrest of Jesus to his purported crucifixion and ascension to heaven which constitutes the foundation of Easter. Now, let us look closely at the issue of whether Jesus, if indeed he was crucified as reported in the New Testament, actually died on the cross. It must be observed at the outset that, after almost two millennia of controversy and rigorous Christological research, there is no incontrovertible evidence to support the conviction that Jesus actually died on the cross and resurrected on the third day – and without this belief Christianity loses its centre of gravity and collapses. My iconoclastic perspective might be startling to innumerable Christians, and outrightly blasphemous to hardcore devotees of the religion.
Nevertheless, some eminent researchers, including medical doctors, have expressed scepticism about the alleged death of Jesus by crucifixion. For instance, in an interesting collection entitled Review of Religions, edited by Maulvi A. R. Dard and published in 1928, some of the views expressed therein show that the ancient “swoon theory” had not been completely abandoned. According to proponents of the swoon theory, Jesus only fainted or swooned on the cross, but eventually recovered and lived for many years before he died. Dr. Hugo Toll, Director of Stockholm Hospital from 1897 to 1923, brings forward medical and scriptural arguments to support the notion that Jesus was merely unconscious because of the excruciating but non-fatal nature of his crucifixion. He argues that if Jesus had died immediately after tasting or inhaling the vinegar given to him while on the cross (John 19: 29-30), blood and water would not have oozed from his body when one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear (John 19:34).
More recently, Michael Biagent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, suggest that “Jesus, quite unabashedly, modelled and perhaps contrived his life and purported crucifixion in accordance with [Old Testament] prophesies which heralded the coming of a messiah.” According to the Gospel of John, the legs of Jesus were affixed to the cross, thus attenuating the pressure on his chest muscles. Because Jesus appeared dead already, the soldiers present did not break his legs as they did to the other two men crucified with him in order to hasten their demise. Hence, in theory at least, Jesus ought to have survived for at least two or three more days on the cross; yet, he was on the cross for just a few hours before he was pronounced dead, which was why Pilate was surprised at the rapidity of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:44). Based on the Gospels, it is clear Jesus’ apparent “death” happened at a moment that is quite convenient and felicitously opportune to prevent his executioners from breaking his legs – the reason that he survived crucifixion, as prophesied in the scriptures.
For Biagent et al, the suspicious death of Jesus is too perfect, too precise to be coincidental. It must either be a later interpolation after the fact or part of a carefully contrived plan – there is evidence that the latter might, in fact, be the case. To start with, John 19:28-29 reports that while hanging on the cross Jesus, in order to fulfil the scripture, cried out that he was thirsty, whereupon a sponge allegedly filled with vinegar placed on a hyssop was offered to him. Shortly after receiving the vinegar, Jesus said “It is finished,” bowed his head, and gave up the ghost (John 19:30). But this story is puzzling, considering that vinegar is a temporary stimulant, and for a wounded man like Jesus, a sniff or taste of vinegar should induce a restorative effect.
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On the other hand, Jesus’ reaction could be better explained if, instead of vinegar the sponge was soaked in some kind of soporific drug – perhaps a mixture of opium or belladonna, for example, commonly used in the Middle East at the time. The idea that a soporific substance not vinegar was given to Jesus is quite compatible with an ingenious stratagem designed to simulate or produce a semblance of death when, in reality, the victim is still alive.
In popular Christian imagination, the crucifixion of Jesus was a large public event that took place in a public arena designated for execution and accessible to thousands of spectators. However, a closer analysis of John 19:41 indicates that Jesus was crucified in or immediately adjacent to a private tomb. According to Matthew 27:60, the garden and tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and secret disciple of Jesus. So, Jesus “death” was a private crucifixion carried out in a private property. Matthew 27:55 affirms that many women who followed Jesus right from Galilee to minister to him, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s children, watched the crucifixion from “afar off.” Of course, a private crucifixion in a private property leaves much room for elaborate deception or hoax – a mock crucifixion, an ingeniously stage-managed ritual. Meanwhile, the scene depicted by the Gospels concerning the whole episode suggests that only a few eye-witnesses were present.
Therefore, given the description in Matthew 27:46 that there was seismic event and darkness all over the land during the crucifixion and the fact the onlookers probably observed the event from a distance, it would not have been apparent who really was being crucified or if the victim actually died. Now, assuming that the elaborate events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus was an elaborate ritualistic charade, for it to be successfully executed required collaboration or collusion by an influential person in the Roman administration of Judea, for instance a high official like Pontius Pilate.
Based on available historical evidence, Pilate is reputed to be cruel, tyrannical, and corrupt: he could be induced to spare Jesus’ life for a huge sum of money and, perhaps, a promise of no further political agitation by supporters of the Nazarene. I submit that the rational reconstruction of the crucifixion in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is entirely plausible, such that anyone who reads it dispassionately in tandem with the research findings of most New Testament scholars, would come to the conclusion that Easter is based on a very shaky historical foundation.
On the other hand, Prof. James D. Tabor, a biblical archaeologist, believes that Jesus actually died as depicted in the Gospels. Yet, he acknowledges that Jesus most likely read some texts of Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah, and took the scriptures too seriously by applying them directly to himself, which is absolutely vital for comprehending his (Jesus) developing sense of messianic self-identity. Prof. Tabor’s portraiture of a plausible historical Jesus depicts him as a man who was convinced that the downfall of Satan, the unseen ruler of the world, was imminent. Known in Galilee as an exorcist and healer, his activities stirred opposition from leaders of the Herodians, Pharisees and Sadducees. But unlike other failed messiahs of his time who armed their followers to resist Roman military occupation, Jesus was convinced that if he acted in faith Jehovah would intervene. The divine intervention he hoped for did not happen.
After his death, his devotees revived faith in his cause. They believed that Jesus, though dead, would “in the end be vindicated, as would be all the righteous martyrs for the kingdom of God.” All said and done, the of Jesus story is a thoroughly human story, although, as Joachim Kahl emphasises, it is impossible to know for certain through historical research exactly what Jesus said or did. On my part, it is clear that even if there is solid evidence that the Gospels’ stories about the arrest, trial, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are largely fiction, Christians will neither abandon Easter nor the religion itself because their belief is not based on reason, in the first instance. For them, it is just a matter of faith, of dogmatic acceptance of pious legends, since they are incapable of investigating with open mind the probability that the foundations of their religion are thoroughly mythological!