April 23: The description of Jesus’s triumphal, palm-strewn procession into Jerusalem, his clash with Pontius Pilate and the Temple authorities, his agonised prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest by Roman guards, his torture, trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection is the most important Christian story of all.
Its power as a parable of suffering, sacrifice and transcendence is peerless, and this explains its extraordinary hold on billions of people all over the world.
Yet we don’t really know what happened when Christ was crucified. How can we separate myth from fact? How closely can we rely on the Bible’s account of those few days 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem? These are questions that have fascinated me over the many years I worked on my biography of the Holy City.
’The Passion of the Christ’: Actor Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus carrying the cross 2004 film. But how much is myth and how much reality?
With perfect timing, film-maker Simcha Jacobovici claimed this week that he had discovered the nails used in the Crucifixion in what is believed to be the tomb of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem.
Though his claims are unlikely, there are certainly some archaeological finds that can tell us more about the momentous events that first Easter.
Jesus always knew he was likely to die in Jerusalem. As we are told in the Bible, he informed his disciples how he ‘must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed and be raised again on the third day’.
Jerusalem was the place where Jewish prophets died and where Judgement Day would come.
Like thousands of other Jews from all over the world, he arrived there for the great festival of Passover in AD33.
During his three days in Jerusalem, Jesus preached in the Temple, making three key points: that the Temple would be destroyed; the Apocalypse was imminent; and the Temple aristocracy — which included Caiaphas and prince Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee — were corrupt.
In the Royal Portico of the Temple, Jesus challenged the ruling establishment: ‘Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers?’
That year, the authorities were even more jumpy than usual. In a couple of little-read verses of their Gospels, Mark and Luke recount that there had just been some sort of Galilean rebellion against Roman rule in Jerusalem.
We know only that it had been suppressed by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and 18 Galilean Jews had been killed. One rebel, Barabbas, had killed someone in the fight.
Reliable source material? Most of knowledge of Jesus’ Crucifixion comes from the Gospels - yet these were written 70 years later, under Roman supervision
Probably it was this event more than anything Jesus said — and the deadly tension that ensued — that sealed his fate.
On his arrest at the order of Caiaphas — who was Jewish, but a corrupt Roman ally hated by many Jews — Jesus was questioned about his beliefs. But the Jewish leaders were unwilling to try him.
The High Priests had the power to order the death sentence by stoning, but they clearly chose not to do so. Instead, Jesus was sent directly to face Roman justice.
The Roman prefect Pontius Pilate was an aggressive, tactless martinet, loathed in Jerusalem for his venality, violence, theft, assaults, abuse, endless executions and savage ferocity.
Guarded by his troops and watched by a tense crowd, he tried Jesus alongside two so-called thieves (probably rebels) and Barabbas.
The Gospels claim Pilate let the crowd choose to save Barabbas — an unlikely story given his implacable record of slaughtering Jewish dissidents — and that he then washed his hands after sentencing Jesus to crucifixion, declaring: ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person.’
This appears implausible, for Pilate was far from being a mealy-mouthed vacillator.
He had only just suppressed one Jewish rebellion and he feared any resurgence of the rebel leaders who had plagued Judaea since Herod the Great’s death 30 years earlier.
Jesus was inflammatory in his way, as well as popular, so Pilate would have wanted to see him off.
And would the watching crowd have taken responsibility for Jesus’s death so willingly in response to Pilate’s hand-washing, as the Gospels suggest? Again, this is unlikely. All these tales were clearly designed to shift the blame on to the Jews.
Re-enactment: Actors perform The Passion of Jesus to crowds in Trafalgar Square. The actors come from the Wintershall Estate, Surrey
The Gospels, written or amended after the destruction of the Temple, demolition of Jerusalem and downfall of the Jews in AD70, acquited the Romans because the writers were keen to show loyalty to Rome.
Yet sedition, the likely charge against Jesus, and the form of punishment tell us this was a Roman operation. Like most of those condemned to crucifixion, Jesus was scourged with a leather whip tipped with bone or metal, a torment so savage it often killed the victim.
Wearing a placard reading ‘King of the Jews’ and bleeding heavily after his flagellation, Jesus was led out of the Citadel prison carrying the patibulum — crossbar — for his crucifixion.
He went through the streets of the Upper City and left Jerusalem, turning left through the Gennath Gate into the hilly gardens and rock-cut tombs of Jerusalem’s execution hill, which was called Golgotha or the Place of the Skull.
A crowd of friends, enemies and ghoulish spectators followed Jesus out of the city to watch the morbidly technical business of execution.
When he arrived at the execution place, an upright post awaited him and his crossbar: it would have been used before him and would be used again after him.
The soldiers offered Jesus the traditional drink of wine and myrrh to steady his nerves, but he refused. He was then attached to the crossbar and hoisted up the stake.
Crucifixion, said the first century Roman Jewish historian Josephus, was ‘the most miserable death’: it originated in Persia 400 years earlier, was adopted by Alexander the Great and the Carthaginians, then the Romans used it as a means of projecting their power and demonstrating the price of defying it.
In 71BC, the Roman suppression of the Spartacus slave revolt culminated in mass executions: the Roman general Crassus crucified 6,000 slaves along the Appian Way outside Rome.
The practice continued on an industrial scale long after Jesus died. In AD70, when the Roman general Titus was besieging Jerusalem, he ordered any escaping Jews to be crucified around the city. Five hundred were crucified each day by the Roman soldiers, who enjoyed it so much that they nailed them up in grotesquely obscene poses.
Devotion: Orthodox Christian clergy carry a cross during the Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa, retracing the route Jesus walked
The hills around Jerusalem resembled a macabre forest of crucifixes on which tens of thousands of Jews were dead or dying. So vast was that mass crucifixion that the Romans exhausted all the forests around Jerusalem. They never grew back.
Death by crucifixion was intended to demean the victim publicly. This is why Pilate ordered the placard ‘King of the Jews’ to be attached to Jesus’s cross.
Victims could be tied or nailed. The skill was to ensure they did not bleed to death. The nails were usually driven through the forearms — not the palms — and ankles. The bones of a crucified Jew have been found in a tomb in north Jerusalem with a 4½ in iron nail sticking through the ankle bone.
Nails from crucifixion victims were popularly worn as charms around the neck by Jews and Gentiles to ward off illness, so the later Christian fascination for crucificial relics was part of a long tradition. Victims were usually crucified naked — with men facing outwards, women inwards.
Jesus was most probably nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched, as shown in Christian art, supported by a sedile (small wedge) under the buttocks and a suppedaneum (ledge) under the feet.
This arrangement meant the victim could survive for hours, even days. Crucifixion was a slow death from heat stroke, hunger, suffocation, shock or thirst.
The quickest way to expedite death was to break the legs. The body weight was then borne by the arms and the victim would asphyxiate within ten minutes.
According to the Gospels, hours went by as Jesus’s enemies mocked him and passers-by jeered. The heat of the day eventually passed into evening. ‘I thirst,’ Jesus said. A sponge was dipped into vinegar and hyssop, and raised to his lips on a reed, like a straw. He gave a sigh. ‘It is finished,’ he said, and lost consciousness.
Given the disturbances in Jerusalem and the imminent Sabbath and Passover holiday, Pilate ordered his executioners to accelerate matters.
The soldiers broke the legs of the two bandits or rebels — exhausted and with their full body weight suspended by their arms, they would struggle to breathe and quickly suffocate.
Passion: Menandro Penafiel, 34, falls to the ground while he is whipped by Roman soldiers in a reenactment in Boac town, Marinduque island, central Philippines
But when they came to Jesus he already seemed dead, so to make sure ‘one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side and forthwith came blood and water’. It may have actually been the spear that killed him.
Jesus’s most prominent supporter, Joseph of Arimathea, hurried to the Praetorium to ask Pilate for the body. Victims were usually left to rot on their crosses, the prey of vultures or packs of dogs, which jumped up at the bodies, but Jews believed in swift burial.
Pilate agreed since he did not want the body to rally discontent. Jesus was laid in a nearby tomb cut out of rock.
He would have been wrapped in a shroud, similar to the first-century one, still bearing clumps of human hair, found in 2009 in a tomb a little to the south of the city walls in the Field of Blood. It has a more simple weave than the famous, but fake, Turin Shroud, which has been dated to between 1260 and 1390.
Hallowed ground: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to on the site of the Crucifixion
Hallowed ground: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to on the site of the Crucifixion
It is almost certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which encloses the place of crucifixion and the tomb, really is the historically correct site where Jesus lay, since its tradition was kept alive by local Christians for three centuries following his death.
Jesus’s followers found his tomb empty three days later — his rising from the dead is the crucial element of the Easter story. This is a question of faith: you either believe it or you don’t.
For sceptics, the Gospels hint at rumours that either the family had reburied the body or the Romans had removed it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that it took so long for the crucifix to become the pre-eminent Christian symbol. For 30 years, Jesus’s followers followed his teachings while still worshipping in the Temple as Jews.
It was St Paul, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, who formed Christian theology by placing the emphasis on the Crucifixion and Resurrection, on the notion that Christ died for the sins of humanity. But it would still be 300 years before the Cross was adopted as the prime Christian symbol, when Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, formalised the symbolic power of the crucifix.
In AD329, he sent his mother Helena to oversee his building of a basilica at the site of the Crucifixion and tomb.
During these excavations, Helena, perhaps the first and most successful archaeologist, found the wood of the crucifix — the relic that became known as the True Cross or the Life-giving Tree — as well as some nails used in the Crucifixion.
She sent parts of both to Constantine in Constantinople and kept some for her own church in Rome. The Emperor had part of his horse’s bridle made out of these nails.
Helena’s discovery played a huge role in promoting the Cross as the Christian symbol and in launching the fashion for relics that quickly proliferated, along with a mass fervour to discover more of them.
Soon the Holy Sepulchre boasted everything from the sponge that mopped Jesus’s brow and the lance that pierced his side to the skull of Adam. Pilgrims would caress and hug the True Cross and even take bites out of it.
Before long the relic industry was established — and it was not just relics connected to Jesus. The heads of the saints proliferated, too. The skull of St James was buried in Jerusalem, but there were several around Europe as well.
John the Baptist’s head would become one of the most prized. There would be at least five shrines claiming to have the original: the shrine of John’s head in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is revered by Muslims.
Perhaps the most bizarre relic was the Divine Prepuce, or Jesus’s foreskin — there were at least 15 segments in churches around Europe and one in Crusader Jerusalem during the Middle Ages.
A number of these relics were destroyed during the Reformation; others were lost; some have been discredited; but many are still revered.
They make the archaeologists’ task in trying to establish the truth about the Easter story no easier. But perhaps that is no bad thing. For ultimately this is a question of faith as well as history.
In Jerusalem, as in religion, the faith matters more than the facts that we can never know for sure.
The mystery is part of the compelling nature of Jesus’s final days that ensure so many will celebrate Easter in churches and revere Jesus’s Passion all over the world tomorrow — and continue to do so for time to come.