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MURDER AT GOLGOTHA
A Crime Scene Gone Cold?
NEARLY TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO Jesus Christ was murdered in full public view, during daylight hours, in what was most likely the year A.D. 30. The crime scene was a hill called Golgotha, the "Place of the Skull," just outside the city of Jerusalem in the then Roman-occupied province of Judaea.
In ways that no one could have anticipated at the time, the murder would turn out to be the most famous in all history. In the course of subsequent centuries it changed the lives of millions of people on every continent of the world. It inspired Michelangelo to sculpt his Pieta, Leonardo to paint his Last Supper, and Handel to write his Messiah. In ways that Jesus could never have wanted, it also led to the persecution of Jews, to Christians killing fellow Christians over doctrinal differences, and to ongoing strife with the younger religion called Islam.
Jesus' murder would also become the most reenactedin all history. Beginning with humble miracle plays back in the Middle Ages, such reenactments developed in our own time into highly developed dramatizations for cinema audiences. And never was any reenactment more dramatic and realistic than Mel Gibson's 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ.
I am still in a state of shock, having sat through two hours of almost uninterrupted, gratuitous brutality." "Graphic beyond belief ... How anyone will be able to sit through this thing is the real mystery." "The film is unrelentingly violent. It's blood-soaked. Jesus gets so whipped you can see his ribs, blood spatters all over the cobblestones, and the sound is frighteningly realistic. And it doesn't stop after a pivotal scene or twoit goes on and on and on.
These are just a small sample of reviewer reactions to a film whose maker intended it to be as true and accurate a re-creation of the original events as humanly possible, a re-creation "directed by the Holy Ghost."
But was Gibson's The Passion of the Christ truly divinely inspired? Was it the closest that we can ever get to a re-creation of the last hours leading up to the Golgotha crime scene?
Mel Gibson's chief inspiration, and the bloody imagery that caused such revulsion amongst cinema audiences, derived not from the Christian gospels or historical sources but from the mystic visions of an early nineteenth-century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, as recorded by a poet, Clemens Brentano. And,very sadly for Gibson's otherwise brilliant achievement recreating on celluloid what Emmerich "saw" in her mind, any critical evaluation of these visions reveals them as lurid, hyperimaginative fantasies typical of the type of personality psychologists define as "hysteric." They have no sound historical or medical foundation.
What makes this situation all the sadder, given the huge energy and investment that went into the Gibson movie, is that today more than at any time in history we have forensic technologies that can reveal so much of what truly happened. Gibson was actually offered such forensic expertise, but turned it down in favor of the Emmerich fiction. The fact is that, even after such a long time lapse, the Golgotha of around A.D. 30 has far from gone entirely cold as a crime scene. Written testimony, topographic data, medical expertise, forensic techniques, and archaeology can all shed some surprisingly strong light on what really happened.
Accordingly, a searching revisit to the original events is the prime purpose of this book. As if from the viewpoint of a crime scene investigator, we will be questioning and reexamining every assumption about the last hours of Jesus' life, likewise about the manner and aftermath of his death. We will be resifting the Christian gospels as "witness" statements for which passages of these may be genuinely firsthand, and which have come down to us at second- or thirdhand. We will be looking at what is known from outside the gospels of how the Romans conducted their executions by crucifixion, how they fastened the victims to their crosses, and how long these might endure such an ordeal. We will be considering the possible authenticity of the various claimed relics of Jesus, such as the wood of the cross, the "crime" notice affixed to his cross, and the sheet in which his dead body was wrapped after being taken down from the cross. No possibly relevant clue will be dismissed out of hand. Likewise, nothingnormally taken for granted will pass without fresh questioning.
Some of the huge difficulties of such an undertaking should not be underestimated. Over the centuries since Jesus walked its streets, Jerusalem has been changed almost beyond recognition. Within forty years of Jesus' death Jews throughout Judaea revolted against Roman rule, and the Romans had the greatest difficulty resubjugating them. As punishment, when they retook Jerusalem they razed to platform level the magnificent Temple where Jesus had preached during the last week of his life. When two generations later the remnant of surviving Jews revolted a second time, the Romans destroyed much of the rest of the city. They purged it of its Jewish citizens, sending them scattering across the world, and rebuilt it to a completely new layout as an all-Roman city, Aelia Capitolina.
Subsequent captures by Arabic Moslems, by French Crusaders, and by Turkish Moslems all similarly contributed to a relentless cycle of rebuilding, destruction, and rebuilding once more. It has been estimated that Jerusalem has been conquered thirty-seven times since its foundation, with no less than eleven changes of its dominant religion since Jesus' time. Present-day Old City Jerusalem is a noisy, bewildering maze, partly covered over, its alleyways teeming with small shops and stalls. It abounds with guides for the very simple reason that even those who arrive in the city armed with guide books can rarely find their way to, or identify, the sites they may have travelled thousands of miles to see.
While at above-surface level, nearly all the Jerusalem buildings that Jesus might have known have long since disappeared during the last few decades, Israeli archaeologists have unearthed many of their buried remains. These findings will be helpful to our crime scene investigation. Whenever anyone wants to build a new house or office block in central Jerusalem, there is a near guarantee that digging down to foundation level will reveal long- buried ancient ruins. The Israeli government rightly insists on bringing in archaeologists whenever this occurs, and as a result of their endeavours, more has been discovered about the Jerusalem of Jesus' time during the last four decades than at any previous time in history.
And as well as possible archaeological evidence, written evidence from witnesses of the period survives. Very few events of ancient times have four, different, near-contemporary accounts of what occurred, yet that is certainly what we have in the form of the gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is true that theological studies have long shown that these documents are not entirely the immediate, first-hand, eyewitness statements that we might wish for. Indeed, during the nineteenth century a whole clique of German Protestant theologians made quite an industry of representing these as written by people who had never known Jesus at first hand, and who had lived long after the events.
But the recent Israeli archaeological findings have been showing the writings to be of greater value as testimonies than many have given them credit for. For instance, ruins of the building with five porticoes, where Jesus is described as healing a paralyzed man, have cometo light during excavations. Referred to as "Bethzatha" in the John testimony (John 5:2), a number of clues show this to have been the very setting John mentions. This is but one of many indications that the gospels were written not long after Jesus' death, from the recorded reminiscences of (though not necessarily by) people who had been in Jerusalem with Jesus, who had attended his healings, who had listened to his preachings, and who knew how he was killed.
And whileeven in the case of Roman emperorswe may often know details of these lives only from copies of lost original documents made by medieval scribes, Jesus is better documented in near-contemporary manuscripts. Experts can often accurately date manuscripts to within a couple of decades, using clues from the way handwriting and punctuation have changed over the centuries. In the case of the events of Jesus' life, manuscript scraps identifiable as from the Matthew and John testimonies have been found that are datable to within a century of Jesus' lifetime. Three fragments from a papyrus copy of the gospel of Matthew, found in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century, and preserved in Magdalen College, Oxford, England, have been dated by German specialist Carsten Thiede to around A.D. 70. And a single scrap from a papyrus copy of the gospel of John, preserved in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England, is generally accepted by scholars to date no later than the second century, and quite probably from about A.D. 120. From the crime scene investigation point of view, we may consider the gospels as testimoniesattestations by individuals with a good claim to be consulted for their insights onthe original eventsand this is how we will refer to them from now on.
It has also long been fashionable to pay no attention to any of the various so-called relics of Jesusfor example, certain scraps of wood which are supposed to be from his cross, nails which are supposed to have been driven through his hands and feet, the notice affixed to his cross describing him as "King of the Jews," and the Shroud in which he was wrapped after death.
This disregard is on the grounds that they are almost bound to be fakes, due to widespread forgery of such items in the Middle Ages. The great Reformation leader Martin Luther forcefully encouraged this dismissive attitude towards relics back in the sixteenth century. German theologians reinforced it during the nineteenth century, and it has prevailed until quite recently.
But now, thanks to the availability of evermore sophisticated forensic techniques, relics associated with Jesus' killing can be examined rather more dispassionately, and altogether more authoritatively, more than ever before. And as we will see, some turn out to have far greater credibility and evidential value than has previously been supposed.
The final issue that we will be addressingone that inevitably raises the biggest questions of allconcerns what can have happened to the body of Jesus, so that it disappeared, seemingly without trace, less than two days after its burial? In the case of most investigations of a killing, there is at least a body that can be subjected to autopsy, and from which all sorts of clues can be drawn as to the circumstances of death. But in the case of Jesus thewitness testimony is quite emphatic that his body vanished in some strange way from the tomb in which it had been laid while it was being closely guarded. The same witness testimony also speaks of him making appearances to the disciples in which he seemed to be very much alive, andparticularly puzzlingbeing seen eating solid food, yet also passing through solid, closed doors.
This is indeed some very strange stuff to be dealing with. And inevitably we should not expect to be able to come up with all the answers. Nevertheless, let the crime scene investigation begin ... .
MURDER AT GOLGOTHA. Copyright © 2006 by lan Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.