Did Jesus Die?

The BBC Four programme Did Jesus Die? (Monday 21 July 2003 10 pm-11 pm; repeated Tuesday 22 July 11 pm-12 am) focussed on the central issue of the crucifixion and resurrection. It noted that whereas many parts of the New Testament differ about Jesus' teaching and preaching ministry, and about the resurrection and ascension, they are quite similar about the crucifixion.

The central problem with the crucifixion is that Jesus dies too quickly. He is dead say within six or eight hours unlike the days it takes to die from suffocation brought about by being unable to support oneself and the strain of breathing. Crucifixion is not brought about by the wounds to hands and feet. It is known that people have survived crucifixion, often left for dead.

The Roman soldier who said truly he is the Son of God is the one who testifies that he is already dead, and his death followed application of a sponge and vinegar. The other two had their legs broken to hasten death.

When a sympathetic Jospeh of Arimathea takes Jesus to the tomb he goes with healing herbs rather than embalming herbs. Why would he have done this? Then follows the various accounts of the resurrection.

The point was properly made, surely, that a body that resuscitated would have seemed like a miracle to the Jews of the day. To recover from that would have demonstrated great power, an intervention to recover from God. Whether this did involve such as is experienced in terms of Near Death Experiences is speculation. This hardly matters.

Certainly the resurrection here and appearances that follow are written with a Church-political edge, as the programme included - who meets whom and so on. I have always seen the literary side that Jesus is not recognised before important things are revealed. There is Luke where they do not know who it is until he speaks of the prophets up to himself, until he consumes with them the bread and wine (the ritual of the Church community, that which was not going to happen until the Kingdom of God comes according to the Last Supper).

The question is what did Jesus do next? The point was made that the second coming is a purely Christian idea, whereas most other ideas come from Judaism (e.g. resurrection itself). The texts are quite mundane about the second coming, they are at great variance about an ascension. So was Jesus simply saying he would come back, as he was going away?

I have always take the view that Jesus would be crippled somewhat by his experience on the cross. So the texts of the appearances are hardly that of a person on the cross. It looks like a transformed body and not one that is limited to humanity. Paul calls what he has heard about and experienced a spiritual body. I have taken the view, on balance, that there was some sort of experience that grew into a tradition. Paul had his guilt laden experience (who knows if it was earthquake matched or not, with electrical elements) and transformation that universalised the Jewish faith of his background, done through this personality from the one God. Circumcision was ended as a necessity, women could evangelise and lead (I believe that with Paul everything changed, the anti-women aspects were later hierarchical inserts) and all were as one.

What this film stated, and with obvious credibility, is that had Jesus recovered. The opposition said all the resurrection involved was he body being taken by followers (to recover further - that that's all it was). So presumably Jesus recovered himself, with the wounds (just like those acquired these days by re-enactors in the Phillipines who spend one hour nailed to a cross each Easter).

Jesus could not have continued in Palestine the Jewish centred ministry that was his entire focus. As for supposed movements to France: all the French elements of the film were most unconvincing. I do think Jesus probably had sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. They may have married (this is the view of Bishop John Spong), although there is the other suggestion once by Bishop Hugh Montefiore that Jesus was homosexual. Nevertheless, Mary going to France is unlikely never mind Jesus.

Jesus, if alive, was a marked man, and to go the way Paul did later on (and Paul never met Jesus) would have been impractical. He could have been identified, arrested and crucified a second time. However, the silk and spice roads lead out of the Roman Empire.

As I write, I am reading the Martin Palmer book The Jesus Sutras about the mission to China by an Eastern Christianity separated from the main traditions in 632 CE. This mission with a fairly unitarian and slightly variant set of Christian beliefs eventually joined its concepts with Taoism and Buddhism once it had set up monasteries and attracted believers. This Christianity was to fade away with the demise of Kubla Kahn. This Christianity came from Afghanistan and parts of Iraq going into China from a high route on the map.

Jesus a Buddhist by training?!! This programme suggested, however, that not only did Jesus go to Kashmir but his missing teenage years to young adulthood were spent under the influence of Buddhism also outside the Roman Empire. The story comes from a Russian writer in the 1800s. Notoviyich wrote The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. He discovered source material in a monastery in Tibet. An ancient Buddhist text speaks of Isa. He came from a poor family in Palestine and arrived in India when fourteen and was educated into Buddhism before he returned to Palestine aged twenty nine. Further support comes with comparing Jesus and religions. Buddhism shows agreement with Jesus where Jesus differs from Judaism: teachings and miracles like loving your enemy, the meek inheriting the earth, walking on the water, righteous living storing treasure in heaven that cannot be stolen. Buddhism then was 500 years old so there is a question of traditions, concepts and locations. The programme also made parallels between Buddhists finding a child Lama and the Three Wise Men from the East.

I do not remember the gospel account that says these Three Wise Men reported back to Buddhists so that they could take the teenage Jesus away with them!

To me this is far too strained and circumstantial, and is even far fetched. The birth narratives have no historical anchor whatsoever. The main ruling adminstrative personalities were not together present at that time and the census is a mystery in historical terms. In any case there is more connection between Zoroastrianism and developing Judaism than Buddhism, but certainly Buddhist ideas could well have come down the same routes from the east. Yet Jesus, as the programme said in another place, was not being followed by 24 hour news cameras, and therefore no one needs to account for the so called missing years.

The programme would have been strengthened by cutting out the material on France and a childhood spent under some Buddhist monks. Of course the provenance and timing of the Notoviyich source isn't given, and there are many parallel teachings across religions. So this Buddhist association carries little weight: nice fanciful ideas and a ripping yarn for a multi-faith age.

Plus there is much to suggest that Jesus did not know whether he was a Messiah or not until perhaps at the end of his (pre-crucifixion) ministry, if he thought this at all. His ministry developed, some gospel texts suggest, whereas monks would have given him high leadership ideas early on.

Far better, however, is the notion that he was the charismatic preacher Issa or Jus Asaf (it means Leader of the Healed) who arrived in Kashmir in around 30 CE. At the burial place where the shrine originates from 112 CE the high sign states: Ziarath Hazrati Youza Asouph and it is also the burial place of Syed Nazir-u-Din in the 400s CE. Jus Asaf died when he was eighty, and just before his death claimed to be the Galilean Messiah. Although both stones face north-south in the Islamic tradition, the burial place has him facing east west in the Jewish tradition instead of north south as above him in the Muslim tradition. It is marked on land by carved footprints which bear the scars of crucifixion, especially one nail through two feet, the left on top of the right. Being a sacred site, it is not possible to go alongside the coffin of Syed Nazir-u-Din to reach the east-west coffin. The bones of the possible Jesus Christ are out of reach from examination. Perhaps, though, not allowing excavation keeps the story more active than if scientists examined the bones.

Jesus' focus was only on the people Israel so the question is why he would have gone east. The film's explanation was a possible search for the missing tribes of Israel (as well as leaving Roman jurisdiction). Ten of them had been removed by the Assyrians in a north east direction in the 700s BCE according to the mythic history of the Jews. Only the tribe of Judah was left in Palestine. The people in that part of Kashmir call their tribe Ben e Israel and claim descent from one of the lost tribes. Of course people can claim all sorts of origins and associations for legitimising purposes, just as Islam claims Abraham was involved with the Ka'ba or Adam was active in the area, or indeed the construction of the Qu'ran itself into a miraculous perfect book. Nevertheless here we have folk memories and mythic histories which dig in the same ditch although likely in different times and different ways. Folk stories of varied origins love to make connections with powerful myths elsewhere.

My view has been the same as Elaine Pagels' "working assumption" given in the programme. The resurrection appearances experienced by some are of the form as have happened throughout the ages (different words describe depending on cultural settings and base assumptions): a death is followed by a loved one seeing that person again afterwards. The person looks more real than apparition; the Alistair Hardy Centre in Oxford has shown how these appearances of impact give people hope. Such appearances, called then resurrection, soon becoming a tradition, began the Church, and there was the second coming ahead. So this speculation is that the core of the resurrection appearance is bereavement among those who had lost their nerve and who were therefore restored.

The reason I like the story here presented (minus the French material, minus the Buddhists to the child piece) is the simplicity. The hours on the cross are too short (ahead of the Sabbath), the healing herbs are taken by the sympathetic Saduccee, the man recovers in some out of the way place (e.g. one of the locations given for an appearance in one gospel), and then has no option but to leave, if for the time being (after all, did he not think the Kingdom of God was coming soon?).

The problem with the latter account is that he really must have been a fish out of water in Kashmir. Who was he talking to then? Were they ever a lost tribe: hardly. What would they have understood about him? Kashmir is a strange place to arrive. Thomas went to India for missionary purposes), it is said. Jesus who might find a lost tribe could never have returned to Palestine as the Romans continually occupied it - the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would have been when Jesus was around 70 years old.

Mythic history is more myth than history, and a huge problem with all these constructions is that they create stories and accounts of a Jesus far in excess of the scant historical detail. All this adds to the mystery around the Jesus events at the end of his time in Palestine, either by death or by leaving. This is because what happened in any detail is a mystery, not a holy mystery but an historical hole. Out of such gaps myths are made, a Jesus of the gaps.

It is still a sweet story that Jesus could have travelled to Kasmir. What happened to Mary then? Presumably she did not go to France!

Adrian Worsfold

BBC Four's Did Jesus Die

Blue highlights above are for main arguments made in the programme.