Today, the new movie, Risen, hits theaters. It stars Joseph Fiennes as one of two Roman soldiers dispatched by Pontius Pilate to find the recently crucified (now missing!) Jesus of Nazareth. In a previous article it was mentioned that the film is already being treated like a documentary by some Christians.Whether or not the film actually lives up to its stated goal of being the “biblical story of the resurrection, as seen through the eyes a nonbeliever” is not my concern here. What I would like to address is the film’s tagline; which is proudly displayed on marketing posters and cardboard advertisements, and boldly reads: Witness the Manhunt That Changed the Course of Human History.
It’s this claim (that a manhunt was launched that changed the course of history) that I would like to deconstruct/turn a critical eye toward in this article.
First, witness. Are viewers actually going to witness the footage of a manhunt? No; this is a fictionalized portrayal by Hollywood of a fictional event. There was not some archeological dig that discovered an ancient film reel of Roman soldiers searching for a missing person in 33 A.D. So to be clear, the only witnessing a viewer of Risen will have done is the witnessing of a 21st century film, created by Hollywood, for the express purpose of entertainment and propagating religious mythology.
Second, manhunt. This fictional portrayal is to be of a supposed manhunt for the missing body of Jesus of Nazareth. In what remains I intend to set to rest the fallacious idea that there ever was such a manhunt; thus showing that this film is nothing more than a fictional tale that is based on an even older fiction. Recent work by historians has shown that the idea of a manhunt for the missing body of Jesus most certainly did not happen. For there to have been a manhunt there had to be a missing body. For there to have been a missing body there had to be a living body in the first place. Both assumptions (a living body then gone missing) stand on rather shaky ground.
Jesus of Nazareth, if he ever existed, was supposedly crucified by the Romans and then placed in a tomb which was then found empty three days later. But modern Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has shown that it was improbable that Jesus would have been buried after crucifixion. “What normally happened to a criminal’s body”, says Ehrman, “is that it was left to decompose and serve as food for scavenging animals” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God). Quoting a conservative Christian commentator Martin Hengel, he says that, “Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild animals and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete.” In short, the evidence shows that what normally happened to the body of a crucified person was for it to be left on the cross to be slowly decomposed and eaten by animals as part of the punishment.
“But,” the apologist will say, “the gospels claim that an exception was made in Jesus’ case.” Yes, this is the claim made by the gospels, and Ehrman admits that exceptions were indeed made; but this was certainly not the norm, and would only have occurred as a favor to an elite family on or around a Roman holiday such as the Emperor’s birthday. And Jesus’ family was certainly not in the “elite” category. On top of that, the gospels do not even make the claim that it was Jesus’ family that wanted the body; instead they make the even more improbable claim that it was a non-family member of the Sanhedrin. So based on common crucifixion practice, and who the Romans were likely to bestow favors on, we can conclude that it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ body ever left the cross (unless by way of scavenger’s mouth). Historically speaking, we simply “don’t know what happened to the body of Jesus” after crucifixion. And we certainly can’t know whether or not a tomb was discovered as empty because we don’t know whether there even was a tomb in the first place!
This prior discussion about what happened to the crucified body is itself built on an assumption; namely, that Jesus actually existed in the first place. A growing body of research, led by Richard Carrier, is showing that this assumption actually has a very low probability of being true. At best (for the apologist) Jesus actually existed and was crucified (but decayed on the cross), and at worst, he never existed in the first place. So the idea of a manhunt for the missing Jesus almost certainly never happened. And if the manhunt never happened, then it could not have changed the course of human history.
Risen is nothing more than a fictional film based on an even older fiction (that Jesus existed and was then crucified and buried). Any Biblical scholar, historian, or half-way intelligent human being can easily conclude that there is not a shred of truth to the claims this film tries to pull over the viewers’ eyes. Fortunately, free speech protects the rights of the filmmakers to spread their deception; but it also gives us the opportunity to speak out, critiquing and calling out this film for what it is — nothing more than a fictional tale built on the back of an even older fictional tale.