A.D. the Series is a mishmash of nonsense

A.D. the Series is a mishmash of nonsense April 10, 2015

The Crucifixion” by Léon Bonnat – Musée du Petit Palais. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I started watching the series A.D. the other night as I was falling asleep. I only caught about fifteen minutes of it, which was enough for me to take to Twitter and voice some complaints. And, upon the suggestion of my friend Dan Arel, I decided to add some more in-depth commentary on the series.

About two minutes after the part I fell asleep to, I started to regret that decision.

My first complaint, and one that really needs to be emphasized as it is done the entire episode, is the continuous use of the word “Nazarene” to refer to Jesus. It is used throughout the episode to say that Jesus was from Nazareth, and the Gospel of Matthew (2:22) even says that the Hebrew Bible says the Messiah would be a “Nazarene”. Well, actually, it did not mean someone from Nazareth. The title “Nazarene” actually refers to a specific sect of Judaism that did not drink alcohol or cut their hair. Samson and Samuel were nazorites, the actual title that the Greek-writing author of Matthew botches as there is a single letter between the two, but Jesus was not. Also, Matthew is the only one that makes this case.

Other examples of referring to Jesus by his location, like John 1:45-46 and Acts 10:38, refer to Jesus being “of Nazareth”. You would also think people like Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, would have refrained from using this title, knowing what it actually meant.

Now the trial before the crowd, during Passover? This is completely absurd. Looking at the Passion narratives in the Bible, there is no mention of Jesus being tried in front of a mob. It is done, first, at Caiaphas’ house (Mk 14:53, Mt 26:57, Lk 22:66, Jn 18:19), and then he is taken to Pilate (Mk 15:1, Mt 27:1, Lk 23:1, Jn 18:28). Only in John does it say he is at Pilate’s private residence, otherwise there is no mention of a mob except after the conversations Jesus has with Pilate and the Sanhedrin.

By the way, does anyone else find it interesting that on Palm Sunday, the Jews who praised Jesus as “David’s son…Praise be to God”, (Mt 21:8-9, Mk 11:6-10, Lk 19:37-38, Jn 12:12-19), now want Jesus crucified (Mt 27:22-25, Mk 15:12-24, Lk 23:18-24, Jn 19:13-16)?

Pilate, despite how hesitant and moved he was portrayed to have been, historically had no respect for Judaism. He even acted to the point of almost causing several uprisings by the Jewish population. This includes attempting to desecrate the Jewish temple with images of Caesar.

He also had soldiers hide among them as they went to a, falsely attributed, burial site only to surprise the Jews and slaughter them (Jewish Wars 2.9.2-4).

Philo notes a time when gold shields, with Tiberius’ image, were placed in the Temple, causing another (near) insurrection (On the Embassy of Gauis book XXXVIII). The list goes on, but Pilate was hardly sympathetic towards Judaism, or an even smaller, apocalyptic sect of Judaism.

Another problem with the story is the back-and-forth that the priests and Pilate go through with feeling that Jesus either was dangerous or a nobody. First, Jesus was a relatively insignificant figure at the time. It was important for the Roman military, headed by Pilate in Jerusalem at the time, to keep the peace. There was a lot of money for them to make, and anyone disturbing the peace would have been taken care of swiftly.

We have accounts by Philo (Flaccus 81-84) that talk about using crucifixion as a means of crowd control, and often times as part of celebrations, in order to keep the peace during festivals. Many were executed, and were done without a second thought. So it seems silly to think that a group of religious leaders, familiar with Roman punishment, and an actual Roman officiant, would have been so concerned with one rogue vagrant during Passover.

Focusing on the apostles, I thought it was especially funny that the only person concerned with being identified was Peter. Yes, Peter denies Jesus three times, as the story goes, but the rest? Well, they were far less concerned. John (or, at least, who I assume was John) tells Peter, after Peter says he was “identified”, that Mary warned the rest to remain hidden so they would not be identified. This was also two minutes after they all were standing at the foot of the cross!

Historically, yes, it would make sense for them to be concerned. But would they have stood there to watch the crucifixion? According to Philo, no! Philo writes, in 38 CE (Flacc. 72),

…but friends and relatives of those who had truly suffered [been punished], merely because they sympathized with the misfortunes of their family relations, were arrested, scourged, tortured, and, after all these torments, as much as their bodies were able to hold, the last and lurking punishment was a cross.

Even though it was in the gospel accounts, it is completely inaccurate to assume anyone who sympathized with Jesus’ situation would have stood at the foot of the cross. That would have resulted in them being punished and crucified as well. Why do you think Peter ran?

Oh, but then Peter is perfectly okay with waiting three days in Jerusalem? Because “it is the least I could do, after all he’s done for me”? They would have fled; this is why Peter was afraid of being seen, this is why the other apostles hide and run when guards call after them. That part would have been historically correct, but it is hard to believe that, with the threat of possibly being identified, especially after the grand entrance Jesus made, and the over-turning of the tables in the football sized arena that was the money-changers’ station (all of which was part of the plan for how Herod set up the temple, by the way), they would have hung around to wait for something that was not even an idea Jesus, let alone any Jew, would have had for the Messiah.

Because, let’s be honest, it does not say anywhere in the Hebrew Bible that the Messiah was expected to rise from the dead, let alone die. Or die a criminal’s death. Or be a peasant. Or be born of a virgin…okay, I’m getting off topic now.

Now, Jesus dies on the cross (uttering “It is finished”, which is only told in John’s gospel). So what happens? Joseph of Arimathea offers to take him down and bury him. However, this also does not seem to make sense, both in terms of what the gospels say and historically. First, it says that all the Sanhedrin “tried to find some evidence against Jesus in order to put him to death,” (Mt 26:59, Mk 14:55, Lk 22:66, John only has him in front of “the high priests’ father”). After Jesus dies, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, offers to bury him. Right.

Perhaps the use of a tomb was a step in helping promote the idea that Jesus had been resurrected. There are a lot of “ifs” leading up to this point; among them that Jesus was not left on the cross, because, as Suetonius writes (Augustus 13.1-2), it was extremely rare for bodies to be taken down, even when people of great wealth or importance asked to take them down. Augustus reported, after being asked to do so for those that fought for Brutus, “That must be settled with the carrion-birds.” Even Tacitus wrote (Annals 6.29) that those who were executed in such a way “forfeited their property and were forbidden burial.”

Even if Jesus was given a burial, it is more likely he was placed in a shallow grave where animals were likely to get to him. As Augustus’ quote implies, and as other writings also offer, these people were criminals and were placed in shallow graves where animals, like carrion-birds (like vultures or crows) and wolves, would come and eat the rotting flesh (Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis 28.46).

Caiaphas inspecting the cross is also rather silly. First, during this time, numerous criminals were, not only being executed, but hung on crosses. That aside, even if Jesus had been removed, historically the cross, and even the nails used to secure him there, were likely to have been reused. The closest spot where the Romans could have secured any sort of wood to make the crosses was ten miles outside of the city (Josephus, Jewish War 5.522-23). With the high level of execution, coming across iron to make the nails for the criminals would have been equally as hard to come across. In all likelihood, that cross was being used if Jesus had been taken down from it.

Now, for a contemporary moment to reflect on this nonsense. People were up in arms when Osama bin Laden was laid to rest in the middle of the ocean, and other speculated as to whether he was actually dead as a result. They gave him a burial at sea because they did not want a territory for people to come and venerate bin Laden and consider the spot of his death holy territory. Assuming they gave any sort of similar consideration to Jesus, the same thing would have happened. But, again, it is highly unlikely they gave much thought to a charismatic preacher of the small Jewish sect that was a slight headache among the dozens of other individuals (one would think the two prisoners, called “thieves” which was a title often given to insurrectionists during this time, and Barabbas, another insurrectionist guilty of murder).

And as for the resurrection scene, Matthew I the only gospel that makes the case for the guards at the tomb. And, given what we know of crucifixion victims, and Pilate, it is highly unreasonable to assume any man power would have been wasted on guarding a peasants corpse. But, again, that is one big “if” following a succession of multiple “ifs” that are just as unlikely and unfounded in historical records.

One down. Let’s see where the next few episodes take us.

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