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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.


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