JOHN THE BAPTIST AND THE FOX OF GALILEE
John’s parents, Zacharias, a priest in the Temple, and Elizabeth lived in the village of Ein Kerem, just outside the city. Zacharias was probably one of the humble priests who drew lots for their duties in the Temple, a far cry from the Temple grandees. But John would often have visited the Temple as a boy. There were many ways to be a good Jew and he chose to live ascetically in the wilderness as Isaiah had urged: ‘Prepare the way of Yahweh in the desert.’
In the late 20S AD, John started to win a following first in the deserts not far from Jerusalem – ‘all men mused in their hearts of John whether he were the Christ or not’ – and then later further north in Herod Antipas’ Galilee, where he had family. Mary was a cousin of John’s mother. When she was pregnant with her son Jesus, she stayed with John’s parents. Jesus came from Nazareth to hear his cousin preach and John baptized him in the Jordan. The cousins started to preach together, offering remission of sin in baptism, their new ceremony adapted from the Jewish tradition of ritual bathing in the mikvah. However, John also started to denounce Herod Antipas.
The Tetrarch of Galilee lived majestically, his luxuries funded by tax-collectors who were widely hated. Antipas constantly lobbied the new Roman emperor, Tiberius, Augustus’ morose stepson, to grant him his father’s full kingdom. He named his capital ‘Livias’ after Augustus’ widow, Tiberius’ mother, a friend of the family. Then in AD 18, he founded a new city on the Sea of Galilee named Tiberias. Jesus, like John, despised Antipas as a venal debauchee and Roman stooge: ‘that fox’, Jesus called him.
Antipas had married the daughter of the Nabataean Arab king Aretas IV, an alliance designed to ensure peace between Jewish and Arab neighbours. After thirty years on his little throne, the middle-aged Antipas fell fatally in love with his niece, Herodias. She was the daughter of Herod the Great’s executed son Aristobulos and was already married to a half-brother. Now she demanded that Antipas divorce his Arab wife. Antipas foolishly agreed, but the Nabataean princess did not go quietly. To huge crowds, John the Baptist taunted this adulterous couple as a latter-day Ahab and Jezebel until Antipas ordered his arrest. The prophet was imprisoned in Herod the Great’s Machaerus Fortress across the Jordan, 2,300 feet above the Dead Sea. John was not alone in these dungeons for there was another celebrity prisoner: Antipas’ Arab wife.
Antipas and his courtiers celebrated his birthday at a banquet with Herodias and her daughter, Salome, who was married to the tetrarch Philip. (The mosaic floors of Machaerus’ banqueting hall are still partly intact – as are some of the cells beneath.) Salome ‘came in and she danced and pleased Herod’, perhaps even performing a striptease of the seven veils,* so gracefully that he said: ‘Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt and I will give it thee.’ Prompted by her mother, Salome replied, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Moments later, the head was brought up from the dungeons, borne into the banquet on a charger and given ‘to the damsel and the damsel gave it to her mother’.
Jesus, realizing that he was in danger, escaped to the desert, but he frequently visited Jerusalem – the only founder of the three Abrahamic religions to have walked her streets. The city and the Temple were central to his vision of himself. The life of a Jew was based on study of the prophets, observance of the Laws and pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which Jesus called ‘the City of the Great King’. Although the first three decades of Jesus’ life are unknown to us, it is clear that he was steeped in knowledge of the Jewish Bible and everything he did was a meticulous fulfilment of its prophecies. As he was a Jew, the Temple was a familiar part of Jesus’ life and he was obsessional about the fate of Jerusalem. When he was twelve his parents took him to the Temple for Passover. As they left, Luke says he slipped away from them and after three worrying days ‘they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them and asking them questions’. When he was tempted, the devil ‘setteth him on the pinnacle of the temple’. As heunveiled his mission to his followers, he stressed that the playing-out of his own destiny had to take place in Jerusalem: ‘From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples how he must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things … and be killed and be raised again on the third day.’ But Jerusalem would pay for this: ‘And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh … Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.’
Supported by his Twelve Apostles (including his brother James), Jesus emerged again in his Galilean homeland, moving southwards as he preached what he called ‘the good news’, in his own subtle and homespun style, often using parables. But the message was direct and dramatic: ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Jesus left no writings and his teachings have been endlessly analysed, but the four Gospels reveal that the essence of his ministry was his warning of the imminent Apocalypse – Judgement Day and the Kingdom of Heaven.
This was a terrifying and radical vision in which Jesus himself would play a central part as the mystical semi-messianic Son of Man, a phrase taken from Isaiah and Daniel: ‘The Son of Man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’ He foresaw the destruction of all human ties: ‘And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death … Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’
This was not a social or nationalistic revolution: Jesus was most concerned with the world after the Last Days; he preached social justice not so much in this world as in the next: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Tax-collectors and harlots would enter God’s kingdom before grandees and priests. Jesus shockingly evoked the Apocalypse when he showed that the old laws would no longer matter: ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’ When the world ended, ‘the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of his glory’ and all the nations would gather before him for judgement. There would be ‘everlasting punishment’ for the evil and ‘life eternal’ for the righteous.
However, Jesus was careful, in most cases, to stay within Jewish law and in fact his entire ministry emphasized that he was fulfilling biblical prophecies: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ Rigid adherence to the Jewish law though was not enough: ‘except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven’. Yet he did not make the mistake of directly challenging the Roman emperor, or even Herod. If the Apocalypse dominated his preaching, he offered a more direct proof of his sanctity: he was a healer, he cured cripples and raised people from the dead and ‘great multitudes were gathered together unto him’.
Jesus visited Jerusalem at least three times for Passover and other festivals before his final visit, according to John, and had two lucky escapes. When he preached in the Temple during Tabernacles, he was hailed by some as a prophet and by others as the Christ – though snobbish Jerusalemites sneered, ‘Shall Christ come out of Galilee?’ When he debated with the authorities, the crowd challenged him: ‘Then they took up stones to cast at him but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple, going though the midst of them.’ He came back for Hanukkah (the Festival of Dedication), but when he claimed ‘I and my Father are one, then the Jews took up stones again to stone him … but he escaped’. He knew what a visit to Jerusalem would mean.
Meanwhile in Galilee, Antipas’ discarded Arab wife escaped from the dungeons of Machaerus to the court of her father, Aretas IV, the wealthiest King of Nabataea, the builder of the remarkable Khazneh shrine and royal tomb in ‘rose-red’ Petra. Furious at this insult, Aretas invaded Antipas’ principality. Herodias had first caused the death of a prophet and had now started an Arab–Jewish war which Antipas lost. Roman allies were not permitted to launch private wars: the Emperor Tiberius, who bathed in increasingly senile debauchery in Capri, was irritated by Antipas’ folly but backed him.
Herod Antipas now heard about Jesus. People wondered who he was. Some thought him ‘John the Baptist but some say Elias and others, one of the prophets’, while his disciple Peter believed he was the Messiah. Jesus was especially popular among women, and some of these were Herodians – the wife of Herod’s steward was a follower. Antipas knew of the connection to the Baptist: ‘It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.’ He threatened to arrest Jesus, but significantly some of the Pharisees, evidently friendly towards him, warned him: ‘Depart hence: for Herod will kill thee.’
Instead Jesus defied Antipas. ‘Go ye, and tell that fox’ that he would continue healing and preaching for two days and on the third he would visit the only place where a Jewish Son of Man could fulfil his destiny: ‘It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.’ His sublimely poetical message to the son of the king who had built the Temple is steeped in Jesus’ love for the doomed city: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee: how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.’46
JESUS OF NAZARETH: THREE DAYS IN JERUSALEM
At the Passover of AD 33,* Jesus and Herod Antipas arrived in Jerusalem at almost the same time. Jesus led a procession to Bethany on the Mount of Olives, with its spectacular view of the gleaming snowy mountain of the Temple. He sent his Apostles into the city to bring back an ass – not one of our donkeys but the sturdy mount of kings. The Gospels, our only sources, each give slightly different versions of what happened in the next three days. ‘All this was done’, explains Matthew, ‘that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled’.
The Messiah was prophesied to enter the city on an ass, and as Jesus approached, his followers laid down palms before him and hailed him as ‘Son of David’ and ‘King of Israel’. He probably entered the city, like many visitors, through the southern gate near the Siloam Pool and then climbed to the Temple up the monumental staircase of Robinson’s Arch. His Apostles, Galilean provincials who had never visited the city, were dazzled by the grandeur of the Temple: ‘Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’ Jesus, who had often seen the Temple, replied, ‘Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’
Jesus expressed his love for and disappointment in Jerusalem but he foresaw the abomination of desolation. Historians believe that these prophecies were added later, because the Gospels were written after Titus had destroyed the Temple. Yet Jerusalem had been smashed and rebuilt before, and Jesus was reflecting the popular anti-Temple traditions.* ‘Destroy this Temple and I shall build another not made by human hands,’ he added, echoing his prophetic inspiration, Isaiah. Both saw beyond the real city to a heavenly Jerusalem that would have the power to shake the world, yet Jesus promised to rebuild the Temple himself in three days, perhaps showing that it was the corruption, not the Holy House itself, that he opposed.
By day, Jesus taught, and healed sick people at the Bethesda Pool just north of the Temple and at the Siloam Pool to its south, both crowded with Jewish pilgrims purifying themselves to enter the Holy House. At night he returned to his friends’ home in Bethany. On the Monday morning, he again entered the city but this time he approached the Royal Portico of the Temple.
At Passover, Jerusalem was at its most crowded and dangerous. Power was founded on money, rank and Roman connections. But the Jews did not share the Roman respect for military kudos or cold cash. Respect in Jerusalem was based on family (Temple magnates and Herodian princelings), scholarship (the Pharisee teachers) and the wild card of divine inspiration. In the Upper City, across the valley from the Temple, the grandees lived in Grecian-Roman mansions with Jewish features: the so-called Palatial Residence excavated there has spacious receiving-rooms and mikvahs. Here stood the palaces of Antipas and the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. But the real authority in Jerusalem was the prefect, Pontius Pilate, who usually ruled his province from Caesarea on the coast but always came to supervise Passover, staying at Herod’s Citadel.
Antipas was not the only Jewish royalty in Jerusalem. Helena, the Queen of Adiabene, a small kingdom in today’s northern Iraq,* had converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem, building a palace in the City of David, donating the golden candelabra over the doorway of the Temple sanctuary and paying for food when there were bad harvests. Queen Helena too would have been there for Passover, probably wearing the sort of jewellery recently discovered in Jerusalem: a large pearl inlaid in gold with two drop pieces, each with an emerald set in gold.
Josephus guessed that two and a half million Jews came for Passover. This is an exaggeration but there were Jews ‘out of every nation,’ from Parthia and Babylonia to Crete and Libya. The only way to imagine this throng is to see Mecca during the haj. At Passover, every family had to sacrifice a lamb, so the city was jammed with bleating sheep – 255,600 lambs were sacrificed. There was much to do: pilgrims had to take a dip in a mikvah every time they approached the Temple as well as buy their sacrificial lambs in the Royal Portico. Not everyone could stay in the city. Thousands lodged in the surrounding villages, like Jesus, or camped around the walls. As the smell of burning meat and heady incense wafted – and the trumpet blasts, announcing prayers and sacrifices, ricocheted – across the city, everything was focused on the Temple, nervously watched by the Roman soldiers from the Antonia Fortress.
Jesus now walked into the towering, colonnaded Royal Portico, the bustling, colourful, crowded centre of all life, where pilgrims gathered to organize their accommodation, to meet friends, and to change money for the Tyrian silver used to buy sacrificial lambs, doves, or, for the rich, oxen. This was not the Temple itself nor one of its inner courts but the most accessible and public section of the entire complex, designed to serve like a forum. In the Portico, Jesus attacked the Temple establishment: ‘Is this house, which is called by thy name, become a den of robbers?’ he said, overturning the tables of the money-changers while quoting and channelling the prophecies of Jeremiah, Zachariah and Isaiah. His demonstration attracted attention but not enough to warrant any intervention by Temple guards or Roman soldiers.
After another night in Bethany, he returned to the Temple† the next morning to debate with his critics. The Gospels cite the Pharisees as Jesus’ enemies, but this probably reflected the situation fifty years later when their authors were writing. The Pharisees were the more flexible and populist sect, and some of their teachings may have been similar to those of Jesus. His real enemies were the Temple aristocracy. The Herodians now challenged him about paying taxes to Rome, but he replied adeptly, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’
Yet he did not call himself the Messiah, emphasizing the Shema, the basic Jewish prayer to the one God, and the love of his fellow men: he was very much a Jew. But then he warned the excited crowds of the imminent Apocalypse that would of course take place in Jerusalem: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God.’ While Jews held various views on the coming of the Messiah, most agreed that God would preside over the end of the world, which would be followed by the creation of the Messiah’s kingdom in Jerusalem: ‘Sound in Zion the trumpet to summon the saints,’ declared the Psalms of Solomon, written not long after Jesus’ death, ‘announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news for the God of Israel has been merciful.’ Hence his followers asked him: ‘Tell us what shall be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?’ ‘Watch therefore for ye know not what hour your Lord will come,’ he answered, but then he spelt out the coming Apocalypse: ‘Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be famines and pestilences and earthquakes,’ before they saw ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds of heaven with power and great glory’. Jesus’ inflammatory gambit would have seriously alarmed the Roman prefect and high priests, who, he warned, could expect no mercy in the Last Days: ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’
Jerusalem was always tense at Passover but the authorities were even more jumpy than usual. Mark and Luke state, in a couple of neglected verses, that there had just been some sort of Galilean rebellion in Jerusalem, suppressed by Pilate, who had killed eighteen Galileans around the ‘tower of Siloam’ south of the Temple. One of the surviving rebels, Barabbas, whom Jesus would soon encounter, had ‘committed a murder in the insurrection’. The high priests decided to take no chances with another Galilean predicting their destruction in an imminent Apocalypse: Caiaphas and Annas, the influential former high priest, discussed what to do. Surely it was better, argued Caiaphas in John’s Gospel, ‘that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not’. They made their plans.
The next day Jesus prepared for Passover at the Upper Room – the Cenacle, or Coenaculum – on the western hill of Jerusalem (later known as Mount Zion). At the supper, Jesus somehow learned that his Apostle, Judas Iscariot, had betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver, but he did not change his plan to walk around the city to the tranquil olive groves of the Garden of Gethsemane just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple. Judas slipped away. We do not know if he betrayed Jesus out of principle – for being too radical or not radical enough – or out of greed or envy.
Judas returned with a posse of senior priests, Temple guards and Roman legionaries. Jesus was not instantly recognizable in the dark, so Judas betrayed him by identifying him with a kiss and received his silver. In a chaotic torchlit drama, the Apostles drew their swords, Peter lopped off the ear of one of the high priest’s lackeys and a nameless boy ran off stark naked into the night, a touch so eccentric, it rings of truth. Jesus was arrested and the Apostles scattered except for two who followed at a distance.
It was now almost midnight. Jesus, guarded by Roman soldiers, was marched around the southern walls through the Siloam Gate to the palace of the city’s éminence grise Annas, in the Upper City.* Annas dominated Jerusalem and personified the rigid, incestuous network of Temple families. Himself a former high priest, he was the father-in-law of the present incumbent Caiaphas and no less than five of his sons would be high priests. But he and Caiaphas were despised by most Jews as venal, thuggish collaborators, whose servants, complained one Jewish text, ‘beat us with staves’; their justice was a corrupt money-making scam. Jesus, on the other hand, had struck a popular chord and had admirers even among the Sanhedrin. The trial of this popular and fearless preacher would have to be conducted shiftily, by night.
Some time after midnight, as the guards built a fire in the courtyard (and Jesus’ disciple Peter thrice denied knowing his master), Annas and his son-in-law assembled their loyal Sanhedrin members – but not all of them, because at least one, Joseph of Arimathea, was an admirer of Jesus and never approved his arrest. Jesus was cross-examined by the high priest: had he threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days? Did he claim to be the Messiah? Jesus said nothing but finally admitted, ‘ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven’.
‘He hath spoken blasphemy,’ said Caiaphas.
‘He is guilty of death,’ answered the crowd who had gathered despite the late hour. Jesus was blindfolded and spent the night being taunted in the courtyard until dawn, when the real business could begin. Pilate was waiting.47
PONTIUS PILATE: THE TRIAL OF JESUS
The Roman prefect, guarded by his auxiliary troops and watched by a tense crowd, held court on the Praetorium, the raised platform outside Herod’s Citadel, the Roman headquarters near today’s Jaffa Gate. Pontius Pilate was an aggressive, tactless martinet out of his depth in Judaea. He was already loathed in Jerusalem, notorious for his ‘venality, violence, theft, assaults, abuse, endless executions and savage ferocity’. Even one of the Herodian princes called him ‘vindictive with a furious temper’.
He had already outraged the Jews by ordering his troops to march into Jerusalem displaying their shields with images of the emperor. Herod Antipas led delegations requesting their removal. Always ‘inflexible and cruel’, Pilate refused. When more Jews protested, he unleashed his guards, but the delegates lay on the ground and bared their necks. Pilate then removed the offending images. More recently he had killed the Galilean rebels ‘whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices’.48
‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ Pilate asked Jesus. After all, Jesus’ followers had acclaimed him king when he entered Jerusalem. But he answered, ‘Thou sayest it,’ and refused to add anything more. But Pilate did learn he was a Galilean. ‘As soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction’, Pilate sent his prisoner to Herod Antipas as a courtesy to the ruler of Galilee, who had a special interest in Jesus. It was a short walk to Antipas’ palace. Herod Antipas, says Luke, ‘was exceeding glad’ for he had wanted to meet John the Baptist’s successor for a long time ‘and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him’. But Jesus so despised the ‘fox’, killer of John, that he did not even deign to speak to him.
Antipas played with Jesus, asking him to perform his tricks, presented him with a royal robe and called him ‘king’. The tetrarch was hardly likely to try to save John the Baptist’s successor, but he appreciated the opportunity to interview him. Pilate and Antipas had long been enemies but now they ‘made friends together’. Nonetheless, Jesus was a Roman problem. Herod Antipas sent him back to the Praetorium. There, Pilate tried Jesus, two so-called thieves and Barabbas, who, says Mark, ‘lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him’. This suggests that a handful of rebels, who perhaps included the two ‘thieves’, were being tried with Jesus.
Pilate toyed with releasing one of these prisoners. Some of the crowd called for Barabbas. According to the Gospels, Barabbas was released. The story sounds unlikely: the Romans usually executed murderous rebels. Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion while, according to Matthew, Pilate ‘took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person’.
‘His blood be upon us and our children,’ replied the crowd.
Far from being a mealy-mouthed vacillator, the violent and obstinate Pilate had never previously felt the need to wash his hands before his blood-letting. In an earlier dispute with the Jews, he had sent his troops in civilian disguise among a peaceful Jerusalem crowd; at Pilate’s signal, they had drawn their swords and cleared the streets, killing many. Now Pilate, already faced with the Barabbas rebellion that week, clearly feared any resurgence of the ‘kings’ and ‘pseudo-prophets’ who had plagued Judaea since Herod’s death. Jesus was inflammatory in his oblique way, and he was undoubtedly popular. Even many years later, Josephus, himself a Pharisee, described Jesus as a wise teacher.
The traditional account of the sentencing therefore does not ring true. The Gospels claim that the priests insisted they did not have the authority to pass death sentences, but it is far from clear that this is true. The high priest, writes Josephus, ‘will adjudicate in cases of dispute, punish those convicted of crime’. The Gospels, written or amended after the destruction of the Temple in 70, blamed the Jews and acquitted the Romans, keen to show loyalty to the empire. Yet the charges against Jesus, and the punishment itself, tell their own story: this was a Roman operation.
Jesus, like most crucifixion victims, was scourged with a leather whip tipped with either bone or metal, a torment so savage that it often killed the victim. Wearing a placard reading ‘KING OF THE JEWS’ prepared by the Roman soldiers, many of them Syrian-Greek auxiliaries, and bleeding heavily after his flagellation, Jesus was led away, on what was probably the morning of 14th of Nisan or Friday 3 April 33. Along with the other two victims, he carried the patibulum, crossbar, for his own crucifixion, out of the Citadel prison and through the streets of the Upper City. His followers persuaded a certain Simon of Cyrene to help bear the crossbar while his women admirers lamented. ‘Daughters of Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘weep not for me but weep for yourselves and your children,’ because the Apocalypse was imminent – ‘the days are coming’.
Jesus left Jerusalem for the last time, turning left through the Gennath (Gardens) Gate into an area of hilly gardens, rock-cut tombs and Jerusalem’s execution hill, the aptly named Place of the Skull: Golgotha.*
JESUS CHRIST: THE PASSION
A crowd of enemies and friends followed Jesus out of the city to watch the macabre and technical business of execution, always a spectacle that fascinated. The sun had risen when he arrived at the execution place where the upright post awaited him: it would have been used before him and would be used again after him. The soldiers offered Jesus the traditional drink of wine and myrrh to steady his nerves, but he refused it. He was then attached to the crossbar and hoisted up the stake.
Crucifixion, said Josephus, was ‘the most miserable death’,† designed to demean the victim publicly. Hence Pilate ordered Jesus’ placard to be attached to his cross – KING OF THE JEWS. Victims could be tied or nailed. The skill was to ensure victims did not bleed to death. The nails were usually driven through the forearms – not the palms – and ankles: the bones of a crucified Jew have been found in a tomb in north Jerusalem with a 4½-inch iron nail still sticking through a skeletal ankle. Nails from crucifixion victims were popularly worn as charms, around the neck, by both Jews and gentiles to ward off illness, so the later Christian fetish for crucificial relics was actually part of a long tradition. Victims were usually crucified naked – with men facing outwards, women inwards.
The executioners were experts at either prolonging the agony or ending it quickly. The aim was to not kill Jesus too quickly but to demonstrate the futility of defying Roman power. He was most probably nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched as shown in Christian art, supported by a small wedge, sedile, under the buttocks and a suppedaneum ledge under the feet. This arrangement meant he could survive for hours, even days. The quickest way to expedite death was to break the legs. The body weight was then borne by the arms and the victim would asphyxiate within ten minutes.
Hours passed; his enemies mocked him; passers-by jeered. His friend Mary of Magdala kept vigil alongside his mother Mary and the unnamed ‘disciple whom he loved’, possibly his brother James. His supporter Joseph of Arimathea visited him too. The heat of the day came and went. ‘I thirst,’ Jesus said. His female followers dipped a sponge into vinegar and hyssop, and raised it to his lips on a reed so that he could suck on it. Sometimes he seemed to despair: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ he called out, quoting the appropriate scripture, Psalm 22. Yet what did he mean by God forsaking him? Was Jesus expecting God to unleash the End of Days?
As he weakened, he saw his mother. ‘Behold thy son,’ he said, asking the beloved disciple to care for her. If it was his brother, this made sense, for the disciple escorted Mary away to rest. The crowds must have dispersed. Night fell.
Crucifixion was a slow death from heat stroke, hunger, suffocation, shock or thirst, and Jesus was probably bleeding from the flagellation. Suddenly he gave a sigh. ‘It is finished,’ he said, and lost consciousness. Given the tension in Jerusalem and the imminent Sabbath and Passover holiday, Pilate must have ordered his executioners to accelerate matters. The soldiers broke the legs of the two bandits or rebels, allowing them to suffocate, but when they came to Jesus he already seemed dead, so ‘one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side and forthwith came blood and water’. It may have actually been the spear that had killed him.
Joseph of Arimathea hurried to the Praetorium to ask Pilate for the body. Victims were usually left to rot on their crosses, the prey of vultures, but Jews believed in swift burial. Pilate agreed.
Jewish dead were not buried in the earth during the first century but laid in a shroud in a rock tomb, which their family always checked, partly to ensure that the deceased were indeed dead and not merely comatose: it was rare but not unheard of to find that the ‘dead’ were awake the next morning. The bodies were then left for a year to desiccate, then the bones were placed in a bone-box, known as an ossuary, often with the name carved on the outside, in a rock-cut tomb.
Joseph and Jesus’ family and followers brought down the body and quickly found an unused tomb in a nearby garden where they laid him. The body was sweetened by expensive spices and wrapped in a shroud – like the first-century shroud found in a tomb a little south of the city walls in the Field of Blood, still bearing clumps of human hair (but unlike the famous Turin Shroud, which has now been dated to between 1260 and 1390). It is likely that the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encloses both the place of crucifixion and the tomb, is the genuine site since its tradition was kept alive by local Christians for the next three centuries. Pilate posted guards around Jesus’ tomb at Caiaphas’ request ‘lest his disciples come by night and steal him away and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead’.
Up to this point, the story of Jesus’ Passion – from the Latin patior, to suffer – is based on our sole source, the Gospels, but no faith is required to believe in the life and death of a Jewish prophet and thaumaturge. However, three days after his crucifixion, on Sunday morning, according to Luke, some of Jesus’ female family and followers (including his mother and Joanna, the wife of Herod Antipas’ steward) visited the tomb: ‘They found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre and they entered in and found not the body of the Lord Jesus … As they were much perplexed, behold two men stood by them in shining garments and as they were afraid … they said unto them: Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen.’ The frightened disciples were in hiding on the Mount of Olives during the Passover week, but Jesus appeared several times to them and to his mother, saying to them, ‘Be not afraid.’ When Thomas doubted the Resurrection, Jesus showed him the wounds on his hands and in his side. After some days, he led them up to the Mount of Olives where he ascended to heaven. This Resurrection, which turned a sordid death into a transforming triumph of life over death, is the defining moment of Christian faith, celebrated on Easter Sunday.
For those who do not share this faith, the facts are impossible to verify. Matthew reveals what was surely the contemporary alternative version of events, ‘commonly reported among the Jews to this day’: the high priests immediately paid off the soldiers who were meant to be guarding the tomb and ordered them to tell everyone that ‘his disciples came by night and stole him away while we slept’.
Archaeologists tend to believe that the body was simply removed and buried by friends and family in another rock-cut tomb somewhere around Jerusalem. They have excavated tombs, with ossuaries that bear names such as ‘James brother of Jesus’ and even ‘Jesus son of Joseph’. These have generated media headlines. Some have been exposed as forgeries but most are genuine first-century tombs with very common Jewish names – and with no connection to Jesus.*
Jerusalem celebrated Passover. Judas invested his silver in real estate – the Potter’s Field on the Akeldama south of the city, appropriately in the Valley of Hell – where he then ‘burst asunder in the midst and all his bowels gushed out’.† When the disciples emerged from hiding, they met for Pentecost in the Upper Room, the Cenacle on Mount Zion, ‘and suddenly there came from heaven a rushing mighty wind’ – the Holy Spirit that allowed them to speak in tongues to the many nationalities who were in Jerusalem and to perform healing in the name of Jesus. Peter and John were entering the Temple through the Beautiful Gate for their daily prayers when a cripple asked for alms. ‘Rise up and walk,’ they said, and he did.
The Apostles elected Jesus’ brother as ‘Overseer of Jerusalem’, leader of these Jewish sectaries known as the Nazarenes. The sect must have grown because not long after Jesus’ death, ‘there was a great persecution against the church at Jerusalem’. One of Jesus’ Greek-speaking followers, Stephen, had denounced the Temple, saying that ‘the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands’. Proving that the high priest could order capital punishment, Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin and stoned outside the walls, probably to the north of today’s Damascus Gate. He was the first Christian ‘martyr’ – an adaptation of the Greek word for ‘witness’. Yet James and his Nazarenes remained practising Jews, loyal to Jesus, but also teaching and praying in the Temple for the next thirty years. James was widely admired there as a Jewish holy man. Jesus’ Judaism was clearly no more idiosyncratic than that of the many other preachers who came before and after him.
Jesus’ enemies did not prosper. Soon after his crucifixion, Pilate was sunk by a Samaritan pseudo-prophet who preached to excited crowds that he had found Moses’ urn on Mount Gerizim. Pilate sent in the cavalry who culled many of his followers. The prefect had already driven Jerusalem to the edge of open revolt; now the Samaritans too denounced his brutality.
The Governor of Syria had to restore order in Jerusalem. He sacked both Caiaphas and Pilate, who was sent back to Rome. This was so popular that the Jerusalemites jubilantly welcomed the Roman governor. Pilate vanishes from history. Tiberius was meanwhile tiring of Herod Antipas.49 But this was not the end of that dynasty: the Herodians were about to enjoy an extraordinary restoration thanks to the most adventurous of the Jewish princes, who would befriend Rome’s demented emperor and regain Jerusalem.