Forbidden History’s Uncovering the Historical Jesus: A Critique

A critique of the groundless claims of the Forbidden History episode “Uncovering the Historical Jesus”.

One would think that a channel called the History Channel would present accurate and reliable documentaries on historical subjects with qualified experts and that what they say is likely to be true. This is not the case. Some of their programs are more reliable, but they have also given us Ancient Aliens which I have discussed in other articles and posts. I have also been watching History Channel’s Hunting Hitler, American Ripper  and JFK Declassified: Tracking Oswald which basically involve the cast running around, looking for evidence and speculating, but never actually proving anything. At least there is some good photography  and I got to see some interesting scenery.

One of the many problems with Ancient Aliens is that the “talking heads”, which they interview, claiming that the monuments from the ancient world could not have been built by humans so they must have had help from aliens, have no qualifications in ancient history, archaeology and engineering.  They do not have the expertise to make such claims. At the same time, real experts, who have been studying these sites for decades, are ignored.

This problem is also apparent in the History Channel’s Forbidden History which, as the title suggests, deals with alternative and speculative historical matters. In “Uncovering the Historical Jesus”,  the first episode of season, which is presented by Jamie Theakston, they interview Matt Green, Tony McMahon, Dominic Selwood, Lynn Picknett and Andrew Gough who have no qualifications in New Testament history.

In fact, they have all appeared in previous episodes of Forbidden History. Andrew Gough has appeared in every one! The producers did not go to universities to find some specialists in ancient history and the New Testament and get their expert and accurate opinions. They chose to rely on the same old professional “talking heads” who are not qualified to speak on the historical Jesus, they do not even appear to be well-read laymen, and it shows.

For example, Dominic Selwood says the first Gospels were written 60 years after Jesus. Matt Green says they were written 150 years later. Tony McMahon claims there were 40 to 50 gospels and only 4 made it into the New Testament. Andrew Gough says the Gospels are allegorical and not historical.

In contrast, most  mainstream New Testament historians believe the last of the Gospels, Luke and John, were written in the 90s AD, around 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Many conservative scholars believe Luke was written  in the early 60s AD.

As I have discussed in There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel, there were other later Gnostic writings on Jesus which were called “gospels” but there were not 40 of them and they were not really “gospels”. Since the 1992 publication of What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard Burridge, the consensus has been that the New Testament Gospels were meant to be biographies of Jesus. They are not allegorical. They were intended to describe what they believed actaully happened.

Likewise, “gospel” means “good news”. They were news because they told about something that happened – Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. The “Gnostic Gospels” are not news. They do not tell of what Jesus did, rather they consist of Gnostic teachings which were not the sort of thing Jesus would have said.

In the introduction the presenter Jamie Theakston poses questions such as were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and was Jesus really crucified or was he smuggled out of Jerusalem alive? It sounds like the writers have read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. However, there is no attempt to answer these questions in the program. It reminds  me of when I watched Suicide Squad and I got the impression they had changed the script halfway through making the film.

When historians talk about the historical or the search for the historical Jesus, they do not mean whether or not Jesus existed, but how historically accurate is the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament. Did he really claim to be the Son of God and Messiah? This is something which the makers of Forbidden History do not make clear or do not understand.

Non-Christian historians and some of the talking heads usually believe that the “real” historical Jesus was either a political rebel or an apocalyptic prophet or preacher. Tony McMahon says Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was crucified by the Romans. However, the Romans did not crucify people for being preachers or prophets. Eyal Miron, Marty Friedlander and Dominic Selwood say Jesus was really a political rebel.  The Romans would have crucified Jesus for this but if Jesus was a political threat, his disciples would have also been regarded as a threat and they should have also been crucified. The New Testament account, that Jesus was not a political rebel, but the Jewish leaders pressured Pilate into crucifying him, is more plausible.

Instead, the program gives the impression that there is some doubt among historians about the existence of Jesus. Jamie Theakston claims that “a number of academics from across the world can find no evidence for the existence of Jesus”.

There may be “a number” but it is not a big number and these academics do not necessarily have qualifications in ancient history and New Testament studies, which would make them qualified to comment on whether or not a person from the ancient world existed. The only person I am aware of with a PhD in ancient history who denied the existence of Jesus is Richard Carrier, an atheist.

The fact that so few (i.e one) qualified historians doubt that Jesus existed show how unfounded the suggestion that Jesus did not exist is. There is no debate among historians whether Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity, who was crucified, existed, Of course, he did. However, they do not necessarily believe that he was the Son of God who died for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Jamie Theakston interviews Raphael Lataster, an associate lecturer in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. I have to confess I had never heard of him so I did learn something from this program. Raphael Lataster claims that jesus probably did not exist and that Paul did not talk about a historical Jesus, but the “celestial son of man”.

Paul never used such an expression. He clearly believed that Jesus was a real person who had been killed a few years earlier. He says he met his brother James (Galatians 1:19).

Raphael Lataster claims that someone like Paul, but not Paul, founded Christianity. He will not accept the historical evidence for Jesus, but wants us to believe  some nameless person, for whom there is no evidence, founded Christianity instead.

He also made a garbled comment about looking for a statue of Jesus as evidence. The Jews did not make statues of people.

Jamie Theakston says that we would assume that the Jesus of the Bible, his miracles, trial and crucifixion  would be part of the historical record, but they’re not, the historical Jesus is something of a mystery. He does not explain what the thinks the “historical record” is. So much of our knowledge of the ancient world has been lost. We cannot go to Rome and look up the archives of the Roman Empire. There are a lot of big holes in the historical record.

Lynn Picknett points out that Jesus was not that important at the time. We should not expect a lot of references to him in the surviving historical sources. After all, two other people were crucified on the same day as Jesus. Roman historians do not mention them.

Jamie Theakston says that Jesus was mentioned by the ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus but he seems to think there should be more. (I have discussed these and other ancient non-Christian references to Jesus in The Historical Jesus and New Atheists and the existence fo Jesus . )The Jewish historian Josephus mentioned Jesus twice. One passage mentions his brother James. The other is controversial because Josephus says Jesus was the Christ, something a Jew would not say. Most historians believe this passage was altered by a later Christian scribe. Others, including Andrew Gough, believe all of the passage is a forgery, but he does not comment on the other Josephus passage which mentions Jesus. He also claims that the passage in Tacitus which mentions Christ is a forgery. I do not know any  historian who would agree with that.

As already mentioned, the Gospels were ancient biographies of Jesus. The Gospels, the rest of the New Testament and other early Christian writings, which mentioned Jesus, are writings from the ancient world. Surely, they are part of the “historical record”. I suppose if you are going to ignore most of the historical evidence, you will think Jesus is not in the historical record.

Much of the program consists of Jamie Theakston looking at the sites associated with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in Jerusalem, with two guides Eyal Miron and Marty Friedlander who actually know what they are talking about. However, there is no discussion of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee before Jerusalem, which any examination of the historical Jesus should include.

They show us the Garden Tomb which Eyal Miron points out could not the tomb of Jesus because it was built 800 years earlier while Jesus’ tomb had  been a new tomb which had never been used (John 19:41).

Then we see the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Like other History Channel programs, we at least get to see some interesting scenery. Jamie Theakston says that while the church is right in the heart of Jerusalem today, in Jesus’ time it would have been located outside the city walls so it could be the crucifixion site. Nevertheless, both Tony McMahon and Andrew Gough say it could not be the site because it is  inside the city wall.

Did they get paid for this?

Dominic Selwood objects that the church was built 300 years after Jesus’ death, however Eyal Miron explains that the church was built on the site of a tomb which was part of a cemetery from the time of Jesus. Even if the fourth century Christians did not identify the exact tomb of Jesus, they were most likely in the right area. It may have been a few metres from the official site.

They show us the Talpiot Tomb which contained an ossuary (stone bone box) with an inscription which said, “Jesus son of Joseph”. The 2007 James Cameron documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus suggested it once contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth so he could not have risen from the dead.

Andrew Gough says it is a “fraud”. No, it isn’t. It is the ossuary of someone else called Jesus. It was a common name.

Likewise, Dominc Selwood claims the Talpiot Tomb and the James Ossuary are “bogus archaeology” and “fake”. The James Ossuary is purported to be the ossuary of Jesus’ brother James. Its authenticity has been disputed by some, but it has not been conclusively proved that it is a fake.

Jamie Theakston wants to know what archaeological evidence there is for the existence of Jesus. Marty Friedlander tells him that the Gospels’ references to Jerusalem are historically accurate, what they said was there was there, such as the Pool of Bethseda. Jamie Theakston says this not prove Jesus was there and there is no tangible evidence Jesus was ever in Jerusalem. Jesus was one of over 200,000 Jews who visited Jerusalem during the Passover nearly 2000 years ago. What archaeological evidence is he supposed to have left? Serious historians would not make such a statement.

Other episodes of Forbidden History have included “The Lost Treasure of the Templars”, “The Bloodline of Christ”, “The Mystery of the Giants” and “Top Secret Nazi UFOs”. Clearly, they do not have high standards of historical evidence, but when it comes to Jesus, their demands for evidence are unrealistically high.


Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene Married?


According to Family Search I am a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene through the Merovingian kings of France, however I have heard that Internet family tree sites are not that reliable.

In 1982 the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants became the Merovingian kings  and that there was a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which preserved the nowledge of this marriage and their descendants.

Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, popularised this belief. It claimed to be based on fact and drew heavily on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The name of the character Leigh Teabing was derived from the authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

I have addressed the claims of The Da Vinci Code in

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part One

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Two

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Three

I wrote those posts in 2004. This post summarizes what they said about the supposed marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and also includes some recent developments.

For a start, there is no ancient secret society, the Priory of Sion, which believes they know the truth about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Merovingians. The Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by Pierre Plantard and three others. It was originally a tenants’ association and ran a business transporting children to schools and nurseries until Plantard was arrested for the abuse of a minor and the Priory was disbanded.

In the early 1960s Plantard reformed the Priory of Sion which he now claimed had been founded in Jerusalem in 1099. It supposedly preserved the knowledge of the descendants of the Merovingian kings of Dark age France which included Plantard.

In 1993 Plantard admitted in a French court that he made the whole thing up.

Pierre Plantard

A good website on the real story of the Priory of Sion can be found here.

Moreover, Plantard only claimed to be a descendant of the Merovingians, not Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh came along and said that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I have read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail several times and I cannot see how they came to this conclusion. There is no historical evidence. They appear to have just made it up. They admit,

“Of course we couldn’t ‘prove’ our conclusions. As we repeatedly stressed in the book itself, we were simply posing a hypothesis. Had we been able to prove it, it wouldn’t have been a hypothesis, but a fact, and there would have been no controversy.” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Arrow, London, 1996, p 8)

Plantard claimed to have been a descendant of the Merovingians. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln turned him into a descendant of Jesus Christ.

Plantard died in 2000. Even before The Da Vinci Code was published, it was clear that the supposed facts, which it was based on, were a hoax.

The earliest evidence for Mary Magdalene is the New Testament Gospels. Mary Magdalene was one of the female followers of Jesus during his ministry and supported him financially (Luke 8:1-3, Mark 15:40). Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2, Mark 19:9). She was one of the women who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). She saw Jesus’ body being put into the tomb (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47). She was one of the women who discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1,9, John 20:1). She told the disciples the tomb was empty (Mark 16:10, Luke 24:11, John 20:2). The resurrected Jesus appeared to her (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:9, John 20:11-18).

That is all that the earliest evidence says about Mary Magdalene. It does not say she and Jesus were married. It also does not say she was a prostitute as is often suggested.

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene by Alexander Ivanov, 1835

Mary Magdalene is sometimes identified with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12), the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:37-50) and Lazarus’ sister, Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-2, 12:1-3). The New Testament does not say any of this. Mary Magdalene could not have been Mary of Bethany. Bethany was near Jerusalem, while Mary Magdalene’s name suggests she came from the village of Magdala in Galilee.

The fact, that Mary Magdalene was identified by where she came from, suggests she was not married to Jesus or anyone else. Ben Witherington writes,

“In a culture where there were no last names, a geographical designation was one of the ways to distinguish people with the same first name, and it appears that the geographical designation was regularly used of those who never married, especially women who could not use the patronymic (“son of..”; as in Simon bar-Jonah, which means”Simon, the son of John”). In the Greek New Testament, for example, in Luke 8:1-13 Joanna is identified by the phrase “of Chuza”, which surely means “wife of Chuza’, but in the same list Mary is said to be “of Magdala”. Had Mary of Magdala been married to Jesus, she would have been identified in the same way as Joanna, not with the geographical designation.” (Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 2004, p 17)

Other New Testament figures, Paul and John the Baptist, also do not appear to have been married. There were first century jewish groups, the Essenes and the Egyptian Therapeute, which practised celibacy. It may not have been the norm, but it was not implausible that Jesus was not married.

It is only in the writings of the Gnostics that Dan Brown and others can find “evidence” of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Gnostics were  heretical groups which believed that the Creator God of the Jewish Bible was a false god and that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to bring knowledge (gnosis in Greek), rather than forgiveness and salvation from sin.

The Gnostics had their own “Gospels”. Dan Brown claims they were the “earliest Christian records” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, London, 2004, p 331). This is simply not true. Even the most liberal unbelieving New Testament scholars agree the New Testament Gospels were written in the first century AD, while the Gnostic Gospels were written in the second century and later. As a rule, historians believe that the earlier a historical document is – the closer to the events its describes – the more historically accurate it is. The New Testament is the earliest and most reliable evidence for information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The later Gnostic Gospels should be considered as less accurate and reliable.

I have argued here that the Gnostic Gospels are not really Gospels at all. The New Testament Gospels were ancient biographies of Jesus. The Gnostic Gospels were not biographies. They consist of Jesus teaching Gnostic beliefs which were not the sort of thing a Jew would say.

Even modern-day academic supporters of Gnosticism agree that the Gnostics were not intending to write history. They were putting their Gnostic beliefs into the mouths of Jesus and others. Elaine Pagels has written,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other  cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine that the author in the situation attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin, London, 1990, p 47)

Dan Brown and his supporters do not seem to get this and treat the Gnostic Gospels as though they are historical accounts. He quotes the Gospel of Philip,

“And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were deeply offended by this and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

This may sound like there was a romantic relationship between them. However, the  manuscript of the Gospel of Philip is badly damaged. It actually says,

“And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. The […] her more than […]the disciples […] kiss her on her […] often than the rest of the […] They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (Bentley Layton (translator), The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p 339)

The damaged page of the Gospel of Philip

We cannot tell where Jesus is supposed to have kissed Mary Magdalene. It could have been on her cheek. Where Jesus is said to have kissed her is irrelevant because the author of the Gospel of Philip was not intending to portray what actually happened. Their Gospels were not meant to be taken literally. The kiss symbolized passing on spiritual knowledge or gnosis (Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p 216)

In Gnostic writings, such as the Gospel of Philip, Pistis Sophia and the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as wiser than and in conflict with the twelve disciples. She appears to symbolize the Gnostics while the twelve disciples represent the orthodox church. When Jesus kissed and loved Mary Magdalene more than the disciples, it refers to the Gnostic claim that Jesus had passed his true teachings on to the Gnostics, not orthodox Christians. It does not mean there was a romantic or sexual relationship between them. The Gnostic Gospels do not say they were married.

Dan Brown claims that because the Gospel of Philip says Mary was Jesus’ companion, this means she was his wife, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days literally meant spouse.” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

Actually, any Aramaic scholar will tell you that the Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic, and was a translation of an earlier Greek text. The word for “companion” is a loan word from the Greek “koinonos’ which appears in the new Testament  and clearly does not mean “wife”, i.e. Luke 5:10, 2 Corinthians 8:23, Philemon 17.

In the 370s AD Ephiphanius of Salamis wrote that a Gnostic sect the Phibionites had a book,  Greater Questions of Mary, which said that Jesus took Mary Magdalene up a mountain, produced another woman out of her side, had sex with her and ate his semen (Ephpiphanius, Panorion 26:8:2). Eeewww! Again, this is not something historical and meant to be taken literally.

Our main source for the Merovingian kings is History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (538-594). Gregory said nothing about Mary Magdalene coming to France and becoming the ancestor of the Merovingians. In fact, in another work, The Glory of the Martyrs, Gregory recorded that Mary Magdalene had been buried in Ephesus in modern Turkey (Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Martyrs, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1988, p 47)

In the 11th century the Cathars or Albigensians appeared in southern France. They had similar beliefs to the Gnostics. Around 1212-1218 Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay wrote that the Cathars believed “the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem was evil; and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine.” (Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, Historia Albigenesis 10-11)

As I have said, the earlier a historical text is to the events it describes, the more accurate it is considered to be. It is only over 1000 years after Jesus and Mary Magdalene lived that we find a reference to a belief that they had an actual sexual relationship. Since the Cathars drew on ancient Gnostic beliefs, perhaps they, like Dan Brown and others, took the reference to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene literally and built on it.

In the 12th century legends appeared that Mary Magdalene had travelled to the south of France. Dan Brown claims she gave birth to a daughter Sarah who was the ancestor of the Merovingians (The Da Vinci Code, p 342). The medieval legends about Mary Magdalene do not say this.

There were other legends about Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome who travelled to France separately and landed at another location. They had a black servant Sarah the Egyptian who became the patron saint of the Gypsies. Brown appears to have confused these two legends and merged them (Dan Burstein (editor), Secrets of the Code, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004, p 36-37).

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment

In 2012 Professor Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced she had come across a papyrus fragment which came to be known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. This was apparently a fourth century Coptic translation of a second century  […]Greek text which said,

“The disciples said to Jesus […] deny. Mary is [not] worthy of it. Jesus said to them , My wife. She is able to be my disciple […]”

It does not say which Mary, but it appears to mean that Jesus called Mary Magdalene his wife.

Karen King received another papyrus fragment from the same source, a fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John in Coptic. Christian Askeland, who had written his PhD on the Gnostic Gospel of John, compared King’s fragment with another manuscript of the Gnostic Gospel of John called the Codex Qau. Hershel Shanks writes,

“What Askeland found was astounding. The text of CGJ replicated every other (every second) line from a leaf of the Codex Qau, which was discovered in 1923 in an ancient Egyptian grave and is therefore universally recognized as authentic. Moreover, for 17 lines the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in King’s possession were identical to the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in the Codex Qau. Whoever had penned the fragment of CGJ in KIng’s possession had obviously copied the text of CGJ from the Codex Qau. He or she simply copied the beginning of every other line from the Codex Qau. The forger even copied a typo in the online edition from which he copied. It therefore seems almost certain that the fragment of GCJ in King’s possession is a modern forgery.

So what does this have to do with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”? Answer: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is written in the same hand and with the same writing instrument as the fragment of CGJ. It came to King with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Moreover, both fragments are written in Lycopolitan, a relatively late dialect of Coptic. In short, whoever penned the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” also copied the fragment of CGJ. If one is a forgery, the other is a forgery.” (Hershel Shanks, “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ “. Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2015, p 58)

In an article “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife” in The Atlantic in 2016 Ariel Sabar showed that the forger of the fragment was Walter Fritz who had studied Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin. He had also managed several internet porn sites featuring his wife and other men. Karen King agreed that the fragment was most likely a forgery.

In 2014  The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson was published. They claim to have decoded a sixth century Jewish manuscript  Joseph and Aseneth about the Old Testament Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth and it is really about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene before his public ministry . They basically swapped the names of Joseph and Aseneth with Jesus and Mary Magdalene because  … because that way they get to write a book saying Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.  They think  it is acceptable to find an ancient text about a married couple, change the names and say they have proved it is about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In a review Robert Cargill, Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, commented,

“By the same allegorical logic, you could swap the names of Samson and Delilah and claim that Mary Magdalene cut Jesus’ hair. Or swap out Adam and Eve and conclude that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the primordial couple. Or read David and Bathsheba allegorically and end up with Jesus having a son named Solomon, who is guarded by the Priory of Sion, and … well, you get the idea.”

Jacobovici and Wilson also claimed that the song “Until the End of the World” by U2 “refers to Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a bride and groom.” Actually, the song is about Jesus and Judas Iscariot. This only shows that believers can make anything about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.




National Geographic on The Search for The Real Jesus

National Geographic’s December 2017 issue contains an article “The Search for the Real Jesus” by Kristen Romey which discusses the archaeological evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. It can be read online here. It was more positive than I was expecting in a secular magazine. It showed that the archaeological evidence tends to support, and does not contradict, the New Testament’s account of Jesus.

Some skeptics claim that Jesus never existed. I discussed this in New Atheists and the existence of Jesus.  Romey describes it as “an explosive question that lurks in the shadows of historical Jesus studies: Might it be possible that Jesus never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention?” (p  42-43)

It is not really an “explosive question” because there is no debate among historians about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Romey agrees the suggestion is groundless and is not supported by scholars. She quotes Eric Meyers of Duke University,

“I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure.” (p 42)

Romey writes, “Even John Dominic Crossan , a former priest and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial scholarly forum, believes the radical skeptics go too far. Granted, stories of Christ’s miraculous deeds  healing the sick with a few words, feeding a multitude with a few morsels of bread and fish, even restoring life to a corpse four days dead – are hard for modern minds to embrace. But that’s no reason to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was a religious fable.” (p 42)

It is not completely accurate to say that modern minds find it hard to embrace accounts of the miraculous and supernatural. The majority of people in the modern or postmodern world still believe in God, gods or the supernatural in some form. Those who reject the supernatural are in the minority.

It is hard for some scholars to accept the supernatural details in the life of Jesus not because science has somehow disproved the supernatural and modern people no longer believe in the supernatural.  They reject the supernatural details because of their preconceptions, their naturalistic, anti-supernatural worldview.

Historians and archaeologists agree that Jesus existed, but not all of them believe Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. New Testament historians  talk about the quest or search for the historical Jesus, which basically seeks to answer the question, how much of the New Testament  portrait of Jesus is historically accurate and how much (if any) did the early church make up? I have discussed this in The Historical Jesus. Romey describes this division,

“Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus and those who think the real Jesus – the man who inspired the myth – hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis. Both camps claim archaeology as their ally, leading to some fractious debates and strange bedfellows.” (p 43)

This is not really accurate. Bart Ehrman states that”most scholars in both the United States and Europe over the past century have been convinced that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil, now controlling the world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God.” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 270)

There is some truth to this, but not in the way that Ehrman is suggesting. God did intervene in history, evil was defeated and the old world did end in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God was established in the Church, in the lives of Christians where Jesus is king.

Likewise, there are also some skeptical scholars who still accept that Jesus performed miracles or appeared to perform miracles (Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, Zondervan, Michigan, 2006, p 363-365, 368)

Romey discusses the archaeological evidence for the events of Jesus’ life. She says that some scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke differ (p 46). New Testament scholars talk about the criterion of multiple attestation to determine the authenticity of events in the Gospels. If an event is recorded in more than one source,  it is more likely to be authentic. The fact that the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are not identical suggests that there are two independent sources for Jesus’ virgin birth at Bethlehem.

Romey writes, “Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah.” (p 46)

However, if Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem, his followers would have believed he was the Messiah.

Romey writes that archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child;

“Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call.” (p 46)

Romey then turns to Nazareth. She does not mention it but some skeptics used to claim that Nazareth did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. Their claims have been disproved by archaeological discoveries  showing that Nazareth was there before Jesus was born (Robert Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, Nelson Books, Tennessee, 2015, p 98-100).

The modern “search for the historical Jesus” tends to focus more on Jesus’ Jewish background. Romey writes,

“Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small agricultural village in southern Galilee. Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms – as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic prophet, or even a Jewish jihadist –  plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission….. Others imagine the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture molding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991 John Dominic Crossan published a bombshell of a book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the theory that the real Jesus was a wandering  sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore striking parallels to the cynics.” (p 46)

The Cynics were basically ancient Greek hippies. Romey continues,

“Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired by archaeological discoveries showing that Galilee – long thought to have been a rural backwater and an isolated Jewish enclave – was in fact more urbanized and romanized than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital.” (p 47)

According to Crossan, Sepphoris was a Gentile city where the young Jesus was exposed to the ideas of Greek Cynic philosophers and he became a Jewish Cynic.

There are problems with Crossan’s theory. There is no evidence there ever were any Cynics in first century Galilee. Moreover, the archaeological evidence shows that Sepphoris was Jewish. Romey writes,

“At least 30 mitzvahs, or jewish ritual baths, dot the residential quarter of Sepphoris – the largest domestic concentration  ever found by archaeologists. Along with ceremonial stone vessels and a striking absence of pig bones (pork being shunned by kosher-keeping Jews), they offer clear evidence that even this imperial Roman city remained a very Jewish place during Jesus’ formative years.”(p 60)

As Craig Evans, Professor at Acadia Divinity college, put it,

“All this evidence leads to the firm conclusion that Sepphoris in Jesus’ day was a thoroughly Jewish city. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think there may have been Cynics loitering in the streets of Sepphoris on the lookout for Jewish youths from nearby Nazareth.” (Craig Evans, Jesus and His World, The Archaeological Evidence, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2013, p 26-27)

All these attempts to reinvent Jesus do not make sense in that they do not explain why Jesus was crucified. The Romans did not crucify people for being Cynic philosophers, religious reformers or apocalyptic prophets saying the world was going to end. They would have crucified Jesus for being a revolutionary or “Jewish jihadist” and trying to overthrow Roman rule. However, if that had been the case, the Romans would have crucified his followers who would have also been revolutionaries. Instead, they left them alone and they went on to found the church.

The fact that the Romans crucified Jesus while leaving his followers alone, suggests that they were not a political threat and Jesus had not taught or encourage them to overthrow Roman rule. The New Testament account, that Pilate did not believe Jesus was a threat, but the Jewish authorities, who were offended by his teachings and claims, pressured him into crucifying Jesus sounds more credible.

Moreover, there were times when Jesus condemned violence (Matthew 5:39, 26:52). He did not sound like a political revolutionary.

The theory, that Jesus was  a revolutionary, and all the other theories about who the supposed historical Jesus really was, basically have to ignore or explain away all the passages where Jesus said and did things which contradict their theories. They come up with different and contradictory ideas about who Jesus “really” was because they do not want to belive what the actual historical documents, the New Testament, say Jesus was, the sinless, miracle-working Son of God. The so-called search for the historical Jesus often rejects the historical evidence.

Getting back to Romey’s article, she also discusses the 1968 discovery of a first century house in Capernaum, Galilee, which was used as a meeting place and later converted into a Christian church. It cannot be proved but some scholars believe this was Peter’s house described in Matthew 8:14 (p 60-61).

She also mentions the discovery of the “Jesus boat” at the Sea of Galilee which dates to the first century AD, although we cannot know if it was one of the boats Jesus used in the Gospels (p 64).

Some skeptics claimed  that there were no synagogues in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime, so the Gospel accounts of Jesus visiting synagogues must be wrong. However, Romey reports that in 2009 archaeologists discovered a first century synagogue in Magdala, Galilee, Mary Magdalene’s hometown (p 64-65).

I have written about synagogues from this period here.

Romey writes about archaeology and the death of Jesus,

“I marvel at the many archaeological discoveries made in Jerusalem and elsewhere over the years that lend credibility to the Scriptures and traditions surrounding the death of Jesus, including an ornate ossuary that may contain the bones of Caiaphas, an inscription attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate and a heel bone driven through with an iron nail, found in the Jerusalem burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.” (p 68)

Some skeptics claimed that the victims of crucifixion were not buried, so the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial are wrong, Again, the archaeological evidence has disproved the claims of the skeptics (p 65).

The article also contains a good fold-out chart showing how the site of Jesus’ tomb was transformed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the centuries.

Archaeology cannot prove that everything in the New Testament happened or that Jesus was the Son of God. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence tends to support the New Testament accounts and does not contradict it.