There can be no doubt that the gospels present the crucifixion and a resurrection as central to Christianity. The Passion narrative supplies the script for a sacred drama that goes to the fundamental religious question, the meaning of death. The drama is art, the greatest art that human creativity can offer. Its theme continues to resonate whenever the Easter festival is held.
The narrative, beginning a few days before the crucifixion, occupies half of John's gospel. There is every reason to believe - against accepted opinion - that John's gospel was written first, and was written by Jesus himself. The consummate skill with which the words of its surface form give what had actually happened shows a mind of extraordinary brilliance. Recovering from the agony of what he had endured on the cross, and from his revival in the cave brought about by medical means, Jesus saw how his suffering could be transmuted into a story that would speak to many levels of understanding. For those for whom a story was the same as reality - the way a child perceives - there had been a real death and a miraculous resurrection from death. It acted as an assurance of an actual afterlife for believers. For others who had a better understanding of human physical limitations, and of the place of fantasy in hopes for a higher kind of humanity, it gave the true facts as an illustration of how strong the survival force is. Integrity, disciplined intelligence, active care for others, co-operate with the survival force, to produce an enduring afterlife for an individual's gifts to the world after physical life has ceased.
Jesus was a member of a political movement, one that had been founded a century before his birth. Its essential aim was to impose a form of Judaism on the pagan world, a Kingdom of God. In the time of Jesus, the Holy City and the Holy Land that had been intended as the centre of a theocratic empire were occupied by the Romans, and the nation's spiritual leaders were mere puppets of Rome. The purposes of the Kingdom of God had been so frustrated by the Roman power that a militant armed resistance had surfaced.
For the Romans, now established as an empire, Judea was a remote province to which procurators had to be sent, but so small and unimportant that they did not waste their best talent on it. Pontius Pilate had had a doubtful record, and was appointed there in AD 26, probably to send him out of the way. He started plundering the money dedicated to religion for secular constructions, and treated the religion with jeering disrespect. Himself based in Caesarea, the main port on the upper coast, he knew that Jerusalem was the revered religious centre, but on one occasion ordered his troops in battle dress to march through the city, carrying standards bearing effigies of the emperor. That was to bring the image of a foreign god into a city dedicated to the one true God. It was only after the Jews held a demonstration and threatened to commit public suicide that he gave way and withdrew his troops.
His offences drove all Jews together into opposition. The ascetics based at Qumran near the Dead Sea were well placed to use their buildings as the headquarters of an organised resistance. Within their ranks, some advocated continuing the methods established by Judas the Galilean, armed uprisings prepared for martyrdom, knowing that martyrdom had a powerful moral effect. The leader of this faction was Judas Iscariot, a less honourable successor of Judas the Galilean. A similarly militant, but broader point of view, was held by Simon Magus, whose interests went beyond Jerusalem. He had behind him the enthusiasm and funds of much of Diaspora Judaism, and was a greater danger to Rome. His party were the "seekers-of-smooth- things", educated in hellenism, aiming at cultural domination of the pagan world. A lesser leader was the man named Theudas, using many pseudonyms, including Barabbas and Saddok the Pharisee. He was now an aged man, a hero of the original resistance, who had worked with Judas the Galilean. These three together formed a triarchy on the model of the Roman triumvirate. Its Jewish version called them Priest (Simon, the leader), Prophet or Levite (Judas) and King, the lay leader (Theudas- Barabbas).
Associated with them by reason of his birth was Jesus, the descendant of the Davids. His father and grandfather had been part of the earlier form of the political movement in the time of Herod the Great (37- 4 BC). But another of their internal disputes was the question of whether the Davids should hold the position of the third man, the King. The descendants of the Herods were still very influential, with Agrippa working to have the Herodian monarchy restored. One faction did not want the Davids, leaving Jesus as a minor voice among the militants. From his own personal preferences, he made friends among Gentiles, and with them began to urge a more peaceful method of winning pagans to the worship of God. To Judas Iscariot in particular, his moderate views made him a traitor to the heroic military cause.
In December of AD 32 Pontius Pilate committed another of his offences against the Jewish religion, and when a protest demonstration was held, he sent his soldiers to beat up and kill the insurgents. In the words of Luke (Luke 13:1), Pilate "mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices." The triarchy of leaders escaped, hiding in the caves around Qumran. They survived there for three months, then when they thought the coast was clear came out to hold their regular council meeting in the Qumran buildings for the Passover feast, March AD 33. If Pilate knew where they were, it was his duty to bring troops down the Jericho road , some 40 kilometres from Jerusalem to Qumran, arrest them and execute them.
Judas Iscariot knew of Pilate's propensity for bribery, and he intended to survive. He had access to stores of money concealed in the Qumran vaults. On the Thursday evening, all the leaders met together in a room at Qumran for their regular communal meal and council. Judas was present, but at 9 pm he left the meeting, ostensibly for the purpose of overseeing the night watch. He summoned a messenger and sent him riding to Jerusalem. The messenger was to make his way to Pilate and tell him that if he came to Qumran immediately he would be able to round up the three leaders, thus restoring his credit with Rome, and would also find large amounts of money. In return for this information, he was to let Judas go free.
Pilate saw his opportunity and set out, arriving at Qumran on the Friday at 6 am. All he knew was that he had to try, condemn, and execute three leaders. But four of them were brought before him. During the night at the council the different factions had offered their opinions on how to deal with Rome, and one faction had denounced Jesus as a traitor. He was a threat to their solidarity in resistance. At the same time they expressed respect for the aged hero Theudas-Barabbas, who should not have to endure the cruel methods of Roman punishment. When Pilate arrived and they saw that crucifixions were imminent, this faction succeeded in their double purpose. In place of Barabbas they presented Jesus as the third man, the King, saying he was technically a member of the resistance, as indeed he was.
Pilate tried all four men over the next three hours. He condemned at once Simon Magus the ringleader. Then he interviewed Jesus, whose courteous style impressed him. There was, however, another faction that was determined to save Judas, who had been hiding in the grounds ready to receive Pilate. This faction urged that the three men crucified should be Simon Magus, Barabbas and Jesus. But they were overcome by the anti-Judas pro-Barabbas faction. A large bribe to Pilate from these settled the matter. Pilate "washed his hands", a way of saying that he had been given a nominal membership of the community, with the right to receive its money. His decision, announced at 9 am, was that the three men should be Simon as the Priest, Judas as the Prophet-Levite, and Jesus as the third man, the King. Judas' bribe would not be accepted, he would have to "give himself up to be hanged."
Pilate had the power to order summary execution in the case of insurgents against Rome. The usual method in such cases was crucifixion, a particularly cruel method intended as a deterrent. He was shown the place where large wooden crosses could be erected, on the long esplanade leading south from the Qumran buildings, ending in a point. The crosses were placed east-west, the one for the Priest in the centre, for the Levite on the east. The cross of the King was the third one in status, on the west side.
The three men were hoisted up on the crosses.
The reason why crucifixion was such a barbaric method was that it took days or even weeks to die. Josephus in Life, 420-421 records that he saw some men crucified, went away on a journey, and when he came back some of them were still alive. During the days they hung there, the men were utterly humiliated, naked except for a loincloth, their hands fastened to a crossbar so that they could not help themselves, their feet dangling, chained together. Under the buttocks, a narrow ledge gave enough support to be able to swing back and sit partly on it, but with acute discomfort.
When they were first hoisted up, the three men were offered a drink that was poison mixed with a sedative. The community, which included the Therapeutae or Healers, had a close knowledge of poisons and drugs. Suicide by taking poison was considered an honourable method of avoiding unendurable suffering, as was later illustrated by the zealots of Masada. Jesus and Simon refused the poison, believing that they must endure the pain until it became too intense.
The leader of the faction whose bribe had been successful was Antipas Herod, a relative of the Herod family. He was actually a friend and supporter of Simon Magus and of Barabbas. He had formed a plan to trick the obtuse Pilate and rescue his friends. He knew that Barabbas would not survive the hours on the cross that his plan required, so ensured his freedom. He also knew that Pilate was in trouble with Rome for his offences against Jewish ritual. It was fortunate that the crucifixions were happening on a Friday, the eve of the sabbath. Antipas knew of the law, quoted in the Qumran Temple Scroll, that a hanged man should not stay on the tree overnight (Temple Scroll 64:7-13). He told Pilate that it would be breaking the sabbath if the men stayed on the crosses after 3 pm, the hour when the sabbath, on a strict interpretation, began.
Instead, he urged, the method of execution should be changed to burial alive. The means of doing this was available, and would not break the sabbath rule. Down at the end of the esplanade, within the sabbath walking distance, were a pair of adjoined caves, reached by steps. The eastern one of the pair (called by the archeologists cave 7) could be used as a dungeon. It had no windows, its only opening being from the top, plugged by a large stone. The two main criminals, Simon Magus and Judas, could be placed there, to suffocate. Their legs should be broken so that they could not reach up and dislodge the blocking stone. Antipas did not tell Pilate of an airhole that could be opened from the western cave, and of reasons why supporters were permitted by their sabbath rules to come to the caves during the night.
Antipas probably intended that Jesus should be placed there too. But at 3 pm Jesus cried out "I thirst". There had been a pre-arranged plan, that if the physical suffering became too much, he was to ask for the drink of poison by means of this signal. He may not have been as robust as the other two men. A priest who had made this arrangement with him ordered that the cup of poison should be lifted up to his lips. It was "vinegar" that is, spoiled wine, wine spoiled by the addition of the poison and the sedative. Another record, that given in the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, says that it was at this stage, not the earlier one, that Jesus was given the poison.
It took about half an hour for the sedative to work, while the poison would take longer. At 3.30 Jesus' head dropped, drugged into unconsciousness. Standing near his cross was his close friend, John Mark, the Beloved Disciple. He had medical knowledge like the others. He knew that if Jesus was still alive, his blood would flow freely, for a dead body does not bleed. He produced a small medical lance and pricked Jesus' side. The flow of blood proved that Jesus was alive, and when the record was written John Mark added a medical oath stating that this was the case (John 19:35). He also knew that Jesus must be taken down quickly, for while his head was dropped he would not be able to breathe.
John Mark announced to those standing further away, including Pilate, that Jesus was dead. Jesus' brother James, also nearby, joined in the plan and distracted Pilate, leading him inside the grounds of the building. John Mark asked for the help of Theudas-Barabbas, grateful because Jesus had saved him from death. They quickly brought Jesus down from the cross, laying him on the ground.
They now saw how they could rescue Jesus also. The western one of the two adjoined caves below the end of the esplanade (called by the archeologists cave 8) was constructed differently. It also was closed by a stone at the top, but had two large windows, one on the west side, one on the south. It had an intermediate floor, with steps leading down from it. The upper part of this cave was used for cases of sickness, and the lower part was used as a sabbath latrine. So strict were the Essenes about sabbath observance that they forbade defecation on that day. Ascetics, forbidden to walk to their usual distant latrine after Friday 3 pm, would use this cave on Friday at 4 pm, then not again until Saturday at the same time. Its stone was removed for this purpose at 4 pm, and normally replaced at 6 pm.
Jesus, unconscious, was carried down to this cave at the time it was opened at 4 pm. He was placed on the bed used for a sick man, next to the common wall, his head to the south. Right beside him Theudas and John Mark placed a large jar containing 100 pounds of aloe leaves, a very large quantity. The juice of the aloe, when administered in large quantities, acts as a rapid purgative to expel the stomach contents. The jar of myrrh placed there also acts as a soothing ingredient.
Guards were posted at the top, their main duty to prevent the two criminals from escaping from the dungeon. One of them had not known that Jesus was alive, but when he was told was willing to help a man whom he had admired, especially when he too was offered a bribe. All knew that the only man with sufficient medical skills to administer the purgative and use other methods of resuscitation was Simon Magus in the adjoining cave. His broken legs would mean he had to be carried. The guards assisted the process of lifting him out and of letting him down into Jesus' cave. He was placed in a sitting position beside Jesus' head. Although his hands also had been nailed to the cross, so that he could not have handled a cup of the juice, he was able to squeeze the leaves with his wrists, letting the thick honey-like substance slide down Jesus' throat. Within a few hours the purgative worked, and Jesus recovered consciousness.
When he had sufficiently recovered, his friends Peter and John Mark assisted him out of the cave. He was able to walk because his legs had not been broken. The Gospel of Peter again gives an important detail, saying that two men went down into the cave and three came out, one of them leaning on the others. They brought him down to buildings further down the coast, where he was among friends.
Simon, placed back in the dungeon by the guards, saw his opportunity. He already had a reputation as a thaumaturge, in the style of some religious leaders of the time, claiming fake miracles. He could restore his political fortunes and claim ascendancy over all factions if he was believed to have performed a real miracle, bringing Jesus back from actual death. When the women arrived at the caves, intending to give nursing help, he convinced them that Jesus had been resurrected , and told them to spread the story. It was very effectively spread, throughout the whole of the community.
Judas, the traitor, was given no mercy by any faction. Late on the Saturday afternoon supporters of Simon and Jesus came to the dungeon cave, lifted him out, brought him into the adjoining cave with windows, and hurled him down the steep cliff side, to be smashed to pieces on the rocks below.
Throughout the Book of Acts, Jesus appeared repeatedly in "visions", to his friends Peter and Paul. It was the real Jesus, giving them practical directions for the conduct of their mission. The pesher device enabled these meetings to be presented as heavenly visions for the uncritical, while at the same time the detail, employing special meanings, was giving the actual history. It traced the movements of Jesus and his Gentile party out of Judea, first to Antioch, then to Ephesus and finally to Rome, where they began again as a new mission, using the name Christian.
(A more detailed presentation on the Resurrection with photos and word for word pesher is contained in Section 6 on this site.)
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