Sample text for Crime scene Golgotha : revisiting the most famous crime scene in history / Ian Wilson.

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The Victim Profile

In any crime scene investigation the case file will generally have the victim’s name written on its front cover. So should the name on our victim’s file be “Jesus Christ”?

The short answer is no. So commonly is “Jesus” used in the English language, even as an expletive, that many suppose it to be the name that Jesus was actually called by those who knew him. But this is forgeting that the language which Jesus, his parents, and his disciples spoke between themselves was Aramaic, which was to Hebrew as modern Italian is to classical Latin. To reflect this, Mel Gibson set The Passion of the Christ’s dialogue partly in Aramaic, and in the movie Jesus’ disciples correctly address their master as “Yeshu.” Because our testimonies were written first in Greek, then in Latin, “Jesus” is simply the form these adopted from “Yeshu.”

Similarly, “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “Messiah.” In Hebrew this means the “anointed one”, and it was the title that Jewish kings traditionally received after the ritual anointing that was the equivalent of their being crowned as king. Because the coming of a new Messiah/Christ was the Jewish people’s great hope for freeing themselves from Roman rule, Jesus would never have openly advertised himself as Jesus “Messiah” or Jesus “Christ.” Or, at least, not until he was fully prepared to take the consequences. To the people of his own time he would simply have been known as “Yeshu son of Joseph,” after his father, or “Yeshu of Nazareth,” after his hometown, this latter notably being the form that our testimonies preferred.

In any crime scene investigation, one important task is to build up a profile of the victim, because information about his social and psychological background can yield clues to the motives for someone wanting him killed. Though Jesus lived at a time before birth certificates, there is general agreement amongst the witness statements that his mother was named Mary. Three of the same four sources---the exception being John---name Mary’s husband as Joseph, whose occupation according to Mark 13:55 was that of a carpenter. Despite Joseph’s relatively humble status---also, two lengthy attestations that he was not Jesus’ biological father---both the Matthew and Luke witness statements provide Jesus with an ancestral pedigree, via Joseph, stretching back to the royal dynasty of Israel founded by King David, and indeed beyond. So Jesus theoretically had some royal blood flowing through his veins, assuming that Joseph did play some part in his paternity.

Amidst such genetic uncertainties, can we at least be sure when Jesus was born? No, not exactly. According to the Matthew testimony, he was born during the reign of Herod the Great. But as Herod died in 4 B.C. after reigning well over thirty years, Jesus would have to have been at least four years old at the time that the official Christian calendar has him being born, in the year A.D. 1. The Christian calendar that we use today is in fact based on a number of miscalculations made by a sixth-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who took no account of when King Herod reigned. Dionysius fixed the day of Jesus’ birth as December 25, a date that had earlier been chosen, not because it had any scriptural authority but because it conveniently coincided with a popular Roman holiday. And he calculated the year as A.D. 1, and not, as often supposed, A.D. 0, sometimes called “the year dot,” which has never existed, except in popular imagination.

Inevitably, such confusions over the year and day when Jesus was born have implications for our trying to work out exactly how old he was when he died. But these simply cannot be helped, and nothing suspicious needs to be inferred from this lack of hard information. In antiquity, if an individual sprang into the limelight late in his life, only then to have that life tragically cut short, the memories of those who knew him concerning when, how, and where he was born could often be very vague. In such circumstances it was not uncommon for biographers to invent sometimes fanciful birth stories, as certainly occurred in the case of Egyptian pharaohs and Middle Eastern emperors.

And the silence about Jesus’ birth in the Mark and John testimonies---both of which would have been written as the accounts of Jesus’ life and death for their individual, early Christian communities---may be rather more valuable than the apparent knowledge exhibited in the Matthew and Luke versions. In these latter the birth stories are notably never alluded to again. Additionally noteworthy is that the original Hebrew of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah’s coming carries no expectations that this individual would be born by anything other than normal means. Only when these prophecies were translated into Greek for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews did the Greek word parthenos come to be used for the young woman who would give birth to the Christ. And as parthenos carries the specific meaning of “virgin,” so those communities rightly or wrongly came to expect that the Christ/Messiah could only be from a woman who was a virgin intacta.

We are on more certain ground concerning Jesus’ district of origin. As all testimonies agree, this was Galilee, a Roman province that lay well over a hundred miles north of Jerusalem. In contrast to Jerusalem’s surroundings, much of which are desert and semidesert adjoining the lifeless, lethally saline Dead Sea, Galilee was altogether more fertile and agricultural in character. Its “Kinnereth’ or Sea of Galilee, teemed with fish, providing a good source of income for resourceful fishermen. Its population was comprised of predominantly country folk, farmers, fishermen, and farm laborers. These spoke with a strong Galilean accent, which, to the sophisticated, urban Judaeans of Jerusalem, made them sound like country bumpkins. Jesus’ teachings, with their allusions to the size of mustard seed, to the watering of donkeys, to the nonfruiting of a fig tree, and to a hen gathering her chicks under her wings (these within just a single chapter), are full of imagery reflecting his upbringing amongst such rustic people. And whereas the Judaean southerners were often inclined to collaborate with their Roman occupiers, recognizing their enjoyment of many commercial benefits from living under Roman rule, Galileans had a reputation for their being tiresome, boorish troublemakers.

What do we know about Jesus’ immediate family members? Of his mother Mary our information is extremely limited. History has no way of determining whether Mary really was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth, but the Mark witness statement and data from two early church historians, Tertullian and Hegesippus, indicate that she and Joseph subsequently had quite a large family. There seem to have been another four brothers, and at least two sisters. Some people, maintaining that Mary was always a virgin, insist that these people must have been cousins. But the four testimonies make clear enough that these were brothers and sisters in the normally accepted sense. There can also be little doubt that Mary was relatively young when she gave birth to Jesus. This is because the later testimony is firm and consistent that she was still alive at the time of Jesus’ death, and actually present to witness this in all its horror. Joseph, on the other hand, is described as having been a widower before his marriage to Mary. And he is never mentioned in any context later than a time when Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy.

One brother of Jesus, James---known as James the Righteous, to distinguish him from the disciple of the same first name---stands out as an individual of some importance because he is mentioned in sources even outside the testimonies of Jesus’ close supporters. Historical writers, such as Hegesippus and later Eusebius, make it clear that James was the first leader of the followers of Jesus who would stay on to promulgate Jesus’ message in Jerusalem, as distinct from carrying it elsewhere around the Roman Empire. And the well-respected Jewish historian Josephus, who lived just a generation after Jesus’ murder, described how in A.D. 62 a Jerusalem High Priest had James killed with much the same ruthlessness as had been meted out to his brother three decades earlier.

Curiously, no surviving written testimonies describe what Jesus looked like. As an orthodox Jew he would probably have been bearded, for unlike the Romans, who were punctilious about being clean-shaven this was not the case with the Jews. Probably his living amongst an agricultural community in which food was plentiful, as in Galilee, would have ensured that he would have been well built. Certainly he seems to have liked his food, because numerous episodes in the testimonies refer to him enjoying sometimes lavish meals accompanied by wine. In Mel Gibson’s Passion Jesus was represented as a tall, handsome Caucasian to conform to mystic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich’s vision:

The complexion of our Lord was fair ... and slightly tinted with red, but his exposure to the weather during the last three years had tanned him considerably ... His neck was rather long, with a well-set and finely proportioned head; his forehead large and high; his face oval; his hair, which was far from thick, was of a golden brown color, parted in the middle and falling over his shoulders; his beard was not any great length, but pointed and divided under the chin.

In actuality, whether Jesus was tall or short, bearded or clean-shaven, nothing in the written records provides us with authoritative information.

We are little better informed concerning of how he dressed. Whereas his contemporary, John the Baptist, raised many an eyebrow by going around dressed only in animal skins, Jesus was certainly not of that mold. He is described as publicly reading from the scriptures and teaching in synagogues and the Jerusalem Temple, settings in which it was characteristic of Jews to take care to be seen wearing their Sabbath best. There was an occasion in which he was forcibly expelled from one of the former, but it was for what he said, not for any breach of the dress code. One of the clearest glimpses that we get of how he dressed would come at the very end of his life, when he was stripped of his garments immediately prior to his crucifixion. Clothes were expensive commodities in the ancient world, and one of the perks of his executioners was for their prisoner’s clothing to be shared amongst them. According to the John gospel, Jesus’ undergarment “... was seamless, woven in one piece from neck to hem.”

Whatever this garment actually looked like, it was sufficiently valuable that we are told his executioners decided to toss for it, rather than just cut it up between them. In his teachings Jesus would urge his listeners not to pay too much attention to how they dressed. However, there is never any suggestion that he was unkempt or slovenly.

What about clues from his childhood that this was someone who might, as an adult, turn out to be rather unusual? The Luke testimony embodies what may be a vestige of somebody’s memory---very likely his mother Mary’s---along these lines:

Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old they went up for the feast as usual. When the days of the feast were over and they set off home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was somewhere in the party, and it was only after a day’s journey that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere.

It happened that three days later they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers listening to them, and asking them questions. And all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. They (his parents) were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you”. He replied “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house”? But they did not understand what he meant. (Luke 2:41--50)

This passage has been quoted in full partly because every parent can relate to and sympathize with such an incident occurring with their offspring. The child goes missing while the family is out shopping, or on an outing. Panic sets in. At first there is enormous relief when he is found safe and well. Then follows the reproach: “How could you have done this to us!” Whether Jesus was grounded or was punished afterwards is not recorded, but his reaction was definitely not that normally expected from a twelve-year-old. And hardly surprisingly, his parents had no idea what he meant by it.

But while this is the first recorded instance of Jesus exhibiting a mind of his own---and clearly a very questioning and unworldly one---it would be very far from his last. And it is surely ironic that it would be in this very same setting---the Jewish Temple---that Jesus would similarly question an authority rather higher than that of his parents, and with tragically fatal consequences.

Copyright © 2006 by Ian Wilson

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Jesus Christ -- Trial.
Jesus Christ -- Crucifixion.
Jesus Christ -- Resurrection.