Skeptic » Reading Room » What Really Happened to Jesus?

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


The Last Days of Jesus

What Really Happened to Jesus?

I was deeply disappointed that PBS chose to air the documentary film, The Last Days of Jesus, which was more suited to the spurious sensationalism of the so-called History Channel than the high quality we’ve come to expect from public television. Among other problems with this program was its lack of any sort of objectivity. It supports an elaborate conspiracy theory for which there is virtually no serious supporting data. In airing this film PBS gave tacit support of and lent respectability to what is essentially a fringe theory advanced by Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor.

Among the many problems with this show and the theory it expounds is that it portrays John the Baptist and Jesus as cousins involved in a plot to make John a High Priest and Jesus a Davidic king. Yet, it is only in the Gospel of Luke that they are represented as cousins. In Matthew 11:2–3 the gospel writer has John, while in prison, send two of his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you he who should come, or shall we look for another?” This is a rather odd question for John the Baptist to ask Jesus if he and Jesus were cousins and involved together in a revolutionary plot. It is also interesting to note that Josephus, who devotes a long paragraph to John the Baptist, does not mention Jesus in conjunction with John and, in fact, only alludes to Jesus indirectly in reference to the execution of James, who he characterizes as, “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chapter 9, item 1).

Tabor and Jacobovici also seem to be ignorant of what Josephus had to say about the reason why Herod Antipas executed John. Instead, they base their account on Mark 6, the story of Salome, daughter of Herodias, dancing for Herod Antipas on his birthday and him offering her anything she wanted and her asking for the head of John the Baptist. This is a fictional story trope known as “the rash vow,” in which a central character makes an excessive vow that results in someone’s death. It is known from the story of Jephthah having to sacrifice his daughter (Judges 11:30–40), Saul vowing death to anyone in his army who tasted food before evening and nearly having to sacrifice his son Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:24–45), and in classical mythology from the story of Idomeneus having to lose the kingship of Crete when he fails to sacrifice his own son according to his vow, similar to that of Jephthah.

Scene from The Last Days of Jesus

Professor James D. Tabor at the Olive Tree Park. Blink Films/AP Last Days © 2017

Not only is the story of Salome a fictional trope, Josephus gives a very different reason for the death of John the Baptist. According to Mark 6, Antipas arrested John because John publicly proclaimed that Antipas couldn’t lawfully marry Herodias, his brother’s wife. The documentary even says that Antipas didn’t suffer any official repercussions for divorcing his original wife, the daughter of the King of Nabatea, in order to marry Herodias. Josephus, however, says that his divorce provoked a war in which Herod lost an army to the Nabateans, and blames his loss on God’s wrath for putting John the Baptist to death. Josephus says Herod put John to death because he feared John’s growing popularity with the masses (Antiquities 18:5:2). Josephs makes no mention of John being arrested for denouncing Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife. Of course, the idea that Herodias’ daughter, a royal princess, was a dancing girl is absurd. Thus, what purports to be a documentary ignores history for the sake of an alternative story trope.

Part of the elaborate conspiracy theory of the film also involves placing Palm Sunday several months before the Passover and the Crucifixion. The sole support of this notion is that palm fronds are more readily available at that time of year. The conspiricists use this time period to explain why the people acclaimed Jesus on Palm Sunday, but demanded his death less than a week later. If months had passed then their change of heart was more reasonable. Actually, the most likely explanation for both Palm Sunday and Pilate offering to free Jesus is that neither event ever happened. What we have to believe to accept the historical validity of the Palm Sunday narrative is that the Romans stood idly by while Jesus was treated like a king—throwing garments and palm fronds down in his path so his donkey’s feet didn’t have to touch the ground—and crying out “Hosannah!” which is Aramaic for “Save us!” and, by extension, “Free us!”

Had this happened the Romans, and particularly Pilate, would have immediately attacked the crowd and taken Jesus prisoner. For example, in Antiquities 18:3:2 Josephus says that when a mob gathered outside his palace to protest his use of Temple monies to build an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem, Pilate secreted soldiers disguised as civilians among them who, on his signal, drew their hidden weapons and attacked the unarmed civilians, killing and wounding many. In Antiquities 20:5:1, Josephus relates how a messianic pretender named Theudas gathered his followers on the eastern shore of the river Jordan, saying that he could divide the waters so they could cross dry-shod, just as the Israelites under Joshua had done in their invasion of Canaan (Joshua 3:8–17). The Romans really didn’t have to do anything in this instance, since once the Jordan didn’t divide to allow his followers to cross dry-shod Theudas would have been discredited. However, the Roman procurator at the time, Cuspius Fadus, sent out a cavalry troop, which attacked, killed and captured many of them. They took Theudas alive and cut off his head. A similar fate would have befallen Jesus and the Palm Sunday throngs.

As to the story of Pilate offering to free a condemned prisoner, and the people demanding death for Jesus and the freeing of Barabbas, this too is an elaborate fiction. There’s no evidence the Romans would free a dangerous criminal like Barabbas, who is supposed to have been guilty of insurrection.

Scene from The Last Days of Jesus

Jesus and his disciples. Blink Films/AP Last Days © 2017

The film also claims that Jesus held the Temple hostage for hours, apparently based on the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Thus, it was necessary for the priests to take Jesus secretly at night with the help of a betrayer. Of course the gospels say nothing of Jesus holding the Temple, only that Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers—an act that would probably have resulted in his immediate arrest, and probably did. Hence, there was no need of a betrayer or of a secret arrest. The story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss is probably based on Joab treacherously killing Amasa while greeting him with a kiss (2 Samuel 20: 9–10). In fact, the entire Passion story is high drama and storytelling, rather than history. While making the pretense of telling a true history in place of myth, Jacobovici and Tabor have uncritically bought into the story tropes and created a quasi-historical drama of their own.

It is unfortunate that the highly respected PBS uncritically bought into their pantheon of educational films a baseless, fictional conspiracy story without any attempt at balance or objectivity. Shame on them for such sloppy work. END

About the author

Tim Callahan is Skeptic magazine’s religion editor and author of the books Bible Prophecy and The Secret Origins of the Bible.

19 Comments

  1. Bill Morgan says:

    The entire Jesus story is a MYTH!

    Christianity is a copycat myth based on older myths in Egypt and Samaria. There is no historical or archaeological evidence written by historians or discovered by archaeologists that the man Jesus Christ, and his 12 disciples were real living people, and that those events actually took place. No real historians wrote of J.C., during the first 60 years of the 1st Century. The Gospels are religious books written by priests and bishops who had a religious agenda. They are not historical books written by historians.

    It was not until the late 2nd Century that any Gospels appeared, and that was myth making financially supported by the Roman ruling class in Rome, who wanted to invent a new religion to replace Judaism, and politically consolidate the Roman Empire with a common religion which took some 300 years to accomplish.

    J.C. is a myth created by the Catholic Church, based on older myths that go back thousands of years BC. Tacitus 56-120 AD, Suetonius 69-122 AD, Pliny the Younger 62-113 AD, and Josephus 37-100 AD mention brief accounts of Jesus which are known frauds. The problem here is that they were writing history from 80 to 120 AD. So we have no historian writing of J.C. from 30 to 80 AD. This is a major problem. God becomes a man and comes to earth, and no historian writes about this for 50 years! Not believable.

    Yet a bigger problem is that these are known frauds written by the Catholic Church in the 4th century by Eusebius 264-340 AD and other bishops. Eusebius wrote, “It is an act of virtue to deceive and lie, when by such means the interest of the church might be promoted.” Pope Leo X is alleged to have said, “How well we know what a profitable superstition this fable of Christ has been for us and our predecessors.”

    BTW, I’m not an atheist. I’m an agnostic. An agnostic believes there may be a God or there may not be a God. I don’t know and you don’t know either. However, I hope there is a God, and if there is one, he or she would have nothing to do with organized religions!

    • Phil says:

      Bill “I hope there is a God, and if there is one, he or she would have nothing to do with organized religions!” Therefore you are an atheist.

      • Bill Morgan says:

        Phil, I disagree. I’m an Agnostic. There may or may not be a God. I don’t know and you don’t know either. An atheist says there is no God. Bill

        • Jim Wynne says:

          You’re free to characterize yourself as you see fit, but if you don’t believe in gods, you’re an atheist. Allowing for the outside chance doesn’t get you off the hook.

        • Bryan says:

          Gnosticism is about knowledge. Theism is about belief.

          If you don’t belief in god you are an atheist.
          If you think knowledge of gods existence is not possible then you are agnostic.

          Being unsure if he exists or not is neither atheism nor agnosticism. It is really quite simple. If you believe in god you are a theist. If you don’t believe in god you are an atheist. There is no other definition.

  2. Bob Clark says:

    When I read this article the first thing I did was check the date to see if it was April first. So this is not a cute joke but an actual Skeptic article. See the first comment for an articulation of what I mean.

  3. Ned McGarry says:

    It’s all made up, so who cares how well the movie kept to the original screenplay? But yea . . . . PBS should stick to factual stuff.

  4. Trish says:

    I always find it disappointing when a purportedly historical documentary rehashes the gospels. I would really like to see more skeptical work comparing New Testament claims to known history of the time, such as comparing how Romans are known to have conducted censuses- counting occupants of each address, just like we do today, as opposed to the bizarre idea that everyone had to return to their places of birth, which would have been pointlessly chaotic. Or, for example, the wealth of information about Herod’s reign, his unpopularity, and complete lack of evidence for the slaughter of male children under the age of 2. Instead we get people twisting themselves into pretzels in the attempt to confirm the incompatible and incoherent bible stories as factual history. So annoying.

    • David Ord says:

      A few books that PBS ought to have read before they aired such tripe:

      The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty (Amazon)

      Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Earl Doherty (Amazon)

      On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, Richard Carrier – an exhaustive and wonderful study that covers it all

      The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy – a Daily Telegraph book of the year.

      As for the arguments put forth for the existence of Jesus, anyone with any real knowledge of the Bible–I was a Christian minister years ago–can slay them in an instant. They are nonsense. The problem with those who claim to read the Bible literally is that they don’t read it literally enough. If they did, they would start asking questions such as: Who was the first to see the resurrected Jesus, and where did this take place? Peter, Mary–in Galilee, as the angels in Mark assert it could only be, or in Jerusalem by the garden tomb? If it really happened, do you honestly believe people would have ever forgotten who first saw him and where? And if this man fed thousands from a few bread buns, walked on the sea, raised a couple of dead people–one of them dead four days–do you for a moment think his mom and brothers and sisters would have gone to bring him home because they thought he was losing it, especially her having had a virgin birth??? And who would have deserted this man who controlled the very elements? It’s all myth, not a shred of it valid. Twelve disciples, the new twelve patriarchs of the new Israel. Jesus, alias the new Joshua, who takes them into the spiritual promised land because Moses failed. The parallels, for anyone who actually reads the Bible with open eyes, are all but endless.

  5. Don Fuller says:

    Look, folks. All religion is made up. It’s just made up. All of it. If we start with the desert religions, which includes those that follow the god of the alleged Abraham, I don’t have issues with the ancient Jews trying to make sense of what they saw around them. Survival was tough and there was little indication to them that the world was anything but a flat surface covered by a dome of sorts with various lights that scurried across said dome, or changed shape from time to time, or just glittered up there. They were doing the best they could. Then we get to Paul, who was either epileptic and had a bad fit or stopped off at a roadside tavern on the way to Damascus, got ripped on the local brew, had a helluva hangover and had a come-to-Jesus meeting; he wouldn’t be the last. And Paul just made it up. I mean, he just made shit up. And here we are today, with rationality and logic and reason pouring out all over and around us, and some people (many with college degrees!) base their viewpoints on an anthology of bronze-age fairy tales in which the main character is a lying, cheating, bloodthirsty, murdering, raping, pillaging, thieving, child-abusing, sexually-insecure, cowardly, dishonorable and completely untrustworthy jackass that no person in his or her right mind would ever want to associate with unless that jackass was locked up firmly behind very sturdy steel bars. Surely we can do better. And, for your information, I was raised in one of those towns that is known as a buckle of the Bible belt and if the church doors were open we were in it, so I have heard the Bible stories delivered with hell-fire and damnation. I gave it up and let it go and have found peace and morality. Plus, I no longer drop my hard-earned coin of the realm into their tax-exempt collection buckets, where everything they take in is skim. I gotta believe the Vegas casinos, the bookies, the drug dealers and the pimps have to be looking at the churches and the preachers and saying to themselves, “Man, we be in the wrong bidness.”

  6. Jenny H says:

    Such programs don’t need refuting . The whole Christian thing is SO ridiculous that logical arguments will not sway ‘believers’.
    Never even mind ‘religious’ arguments or scientific arguemnts. Just LOOK at the history or religions as a whole.
    Try Karen Armstrong’s “The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucious and Jeremiah”.

  7. Thys Human (Pretoria) says:

    There is no god, never has been – therefore there cannot have been a Jesus or whatever – except maybe a Hebrew activist and anti-Roman fighter but certainly not with that “christian”, Greek name!

  8. Harry says:

    Just a bunch of smug, self-satisfied atheists, trying to convince themselves of their own brilliance. Newsflash…Nobody CARES what you think. Everybody finds their own version of God. In your cases, it’s a void.

    • Don Fuller says:

      Well, Harry, it seems it’s not true that “nobody cares” what the atheists think; you seem to care enough to chime in and state your position. So, here’s a deal for you: You mention the nonbelievers as having a “void.” OK; fill it. How about one teensy-weensy bit of irrefutable, verifiable, observable evidence of any god you choose. Pick one. An Aztec god, Mayan god, Incan god; a god of the Vikings, the Greeks, the Romans; perhaps some god from Africa, the Far East; a god of those native to North America, Central America, South America; a god from China, India, Japan. Shucks, see if you can find a god from Las Vegas; I don’t care. Show a grain of sand, a sliver (from that mysterious cross?) of evidence of any god, and you’ll have filled that void. And, by the way, pictures of rainbows or puppies or smiling kids don’t count. Come on, we all know you can do it. Just show the evidence. After all, if one of those gods is said to be all-powerful, all-seeing and all-knowing, then he (or she or it) should already have read this and be hustling on the case to make his (or her or its) visible presence known. Come on, we all know you can make this happen. Fill that void.

    • Shane says:

      “Nobody cares” Writes Harry in grand self refutation.

  9. Dan says:

    I’m deeply disappointed that PBS chose to air this BS, and I’m just as disappointed that Skeptic ran an article attempting to refute theological claptrap with different verses of the same claptrap.

    I do appreciate the probably historically accurate information about the unlikeliness of Romans doing certain things. But doesn’t that just highlight the unreliability of the book?

    If you want to argue that some fan-fiction set in Narnia doesn’t jibe with the original works, do it on a fan-fiction blog. I don’t see how this has a place on Skeptic.

  10. Tim Callahan says:

    Dan, I’m trying to figure out what you’re talking about. The only verses I used from the gospels were those from Matthew relating to the followers of John the Baptist asking Jesus if he was the Messiah, a rather odd question if John and Jesus were cousins (as Luke asserts) and were together in a grand political plot, as Tabor asserts. My point in citing Matthew was that not even the other gospels than Luke asserted they were cousins or even knew each other that well.

    For the most part I cited Josephus, with respect to the actual history of John the Baptist and the character of Pontius Pilate, and pointed out that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was based on material from the Jewish scriptures.

    I happen to believe Jesus was historical — barely, which may be insignificant considering that the narrative material in the gospels was drawn form four basic major sources and a few minor ones. The four sources are: the Jewish scriptures, Jewish apocalypticism and events of the day seen through an apocalyptic lens, Greek literature (particularly Homer) and pagan mythology.

    What I see as the historical Jesus was a minor messianic pretender who was arrested with his own complicity, because he held the deluded belief that he was the “Son of man” character from the Book of Daniel and that he would be raised from the dead. I suspect that the history of his death was that he disrupted Temple business, claiming to be the Messiah, was promptly arrested by the Temple police, turned over to the Romans and promptly executed, just as Theudas, another messianic pretender, was, according to Josephus. In other words, there was no nighttime arrest, no betrayal with a kiss, no thirty pieces of silver etc.

    Physical resurrection was part of Jewish belief, particularly among the Pharisees and, of course, was part of the pagan mythology of dying and rising gods. It probably didn’t take long for these myths to be melded with the bare history of Jesus and Jewish messianic / apocalyptic belief. We know from the letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan that there were Christians in Asia Minor by the beginning of the second century. So, the synthesis was rather rapid.

  11. Tim Callahan says:

    Dan, I’m trying to figure out what you’re talking about. The only verses I used from the gospels were those from Matthew relating to the followers of John the Baptist asking Jesus if he was the Messiah, a rather odd question if John and Jesus were cousins (as Luke asserts) and were together in a grand political plot, as Tabor asserts. My point in citing Matthew was that not even the other gospels than Luke asserted they were cousins or even knew each other that well. John was important to the other gospel writers only as one (fictionally) endorsing Jesus as the Messiah

    For the most part I cited Josephus, with respect to the actual history of John the Baptist and the character of Pontius Pilate, and pointed out that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was based on material from the Jewish scriptures.

    I happen to believe Jesus was historical — barely, which may be insignificant considering that the narrative material in the gospels was drawn form four basic major sources and a few minor ones. The four sources are: the Jewish scriptures, Jewish apocalypticism and events of the day seen through an apocalyptic lens, Greek literature (particularly Homer) and pagan mythology.

    What I see as the historical Jesus was a minor messianic pretender who was arrested with his own complicity, because he held the deluded belief that he was the “Son of man” character from the Book of Daniel and that he would be raised from the dead. I suspect that the history of his death was that he disrupted Temple business, claiming to be the Messiah, was promptly arrested by the Temple police, turned over to the Romans and promptly executed, just as Theudas, another messianic pretender, was, according to Josephus. In other words, there was no nighttime arrest, no betrayal with a kiss, no thirty pieces of silver etc.

    Physical resurrection was part of Jewish belief, particularly among the Pharisees and, of course, was part of the pagan mythology of dying and rising gods. It probably didn’t take long for these myths to be melded with the bare history of Jesus and Jewish messianic / apocalyptic belief. We know from the letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan that there were Christians in Asia Minor by the beginning of the second century. So, the synthesis was rather rapid.

  12. barry atkinson says:

    Interesting. “Believers”, those having “Faith”, can now select (invent) their own personal god. Very convenient. The reason there is no longer much in the way of morality? No more hell? Every biped, no matter how vile, is salvageable and will eventually sit at god’s table, to include all pedophile persons of the cloth. Personally, have yet to see religion create morality. One has morality, or one does not, and religion offers a good excuse for one to treat others as one would not want to be treated. Have read most of the ancient authors, including Josephus. One author (quite old but not ancient) seems to have pulled it all together – Edward Emily Gibbon in ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ ( the six volume Bury text ). All one sees in a bookstore is the paperback covering the first three volumes on Rome itself. It is in the following three volumes that one will find Christianity, Islam, and of course Byzantium. And a scathing indictment of Christianity from a very skeptical and none too religious ‘Deist’.

Get eSkeptic

Science in your inbox every Wednesday!

eSkeptic delivers great articles, videos, podcasts, reviews, event announcements, and more to your inbox once a week.

Sign me up!

Donate to Skeptic

Please support the work of the Skeptics Society. Make the world a more rational place and help us defend the role of science in society.

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall, M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods. The lectures each range from 32 to 45 minutes.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience? If so, you know how compelling they can be. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

Copyright © 1992–2017. All rights reserved. The Skeptics Society | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. Privacy Policy.