The History Channel’s new series Bible Secrets Revealed tackles the mysteries of the Bible over the course of six weeks. Bible Secrets Revealed airs on Wednesdays at 10 pm EST on the History Channel. Live tweet the show at #BibleSecretsRevealed.
Have questions while watching each episode? Submit them to consulting producer Dr. Robert Cargill, archaeologist and assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, by clicking here to send an email. Read Bible Secrets Revealed viewers’ questions and Dr. Cargill’s answers here.
Episode 4, “The Real Jesus,” aired on December 4, 2013.
Summary of Episode 4 by Dr. Robert Cargill
The fourth installment of Bible Secrets Revealed discusses the person and ministry of Jesus.
“The Real Jesus” Act 1: Jesus’ Early Life
Act 1 opens with the issue of the year of Jesus’ birth. Many people do not realize that Jesus was not born in “Year 1” according to our modern calendar (despite the church’s best efforts to align the calendar with Jesus’ birth”), but some time between 7 and 4 B.C.E. If Jesus was born during the time of Herod the Great, as is stated in the Gospel of Matthew, he would have had to have been born prior to 4 B.C.E., the year Herod died. When we add to this the fact that it took time to travel in the ancient world, and that the visit from the Magi to Herod and then to Jesus therefore wasn’t immediate, as well as the fact that those who calibrated the calendar didn’t account for “Year Zero” (that is, the calendar goes from 1 B.C. to 1A.D. without taking into account the first year of Jesus’ life), then we end up with a date likely between 7 and 5 B.C.E. I’ve written on this subject previously at Bible and Interpretation.
The show then addresses problems with the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Why would “Jesus of Nazareth” be said to have been born in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth, the hometown of his parents? It was likely to fulfill a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in the “City of David,” which is Bethlehem. So Luke tells the story of Joseph traveling to Bethlehem for a census to be counted in the place of Joseph’s birth—something that has absolutely zero precedent and/or evidence in antiquity.
An additional problem with the date of the birth of Jesus arises when the Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was born during the time of Quirinius, who was not appointed Legate of Syria until 6 C.E., meaning that either Matthew’s or Luke’s dating (or both) of the birth of Jesus is incorrect. Herod the Great and Quirinius never ruled at the same time and were, in fact, about ten years apart.
The episode then asks about Jesus’ so-called “lost years”—the period of Jesus’ childhood about which the Bible is silent. The gospels focus mainly on Jesus’ adult ministry. Only the later addition of the birth narratives, which our earliest gospel—Mark—did not bother to include, caused a perceived “gap” in the story of Jesus’ life when in reality no gap existed. The story of Jesus simply began with his adult ministry.
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We also learn that Jesus had siblings. Jesus had four brothers named in the Bible (James, Joses, Judas and Simon), along with some sisters (Mark 6:3). This would not be a problem, except for the rise of the tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which argues that she not only immaculately conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but that she remained a virgin throughout the remainder of her lifetime. This conflicts with the Bible, which says specifically that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Interestingly, Catholics traditionally solve this problem by arguing that the supposed “brothers” mentioned in Mark 6 are actually “cousins,” while the Greek Orthodox tradition solves this problem by arguing that Joseph was married prior to being married to Mary. According to the tradition, it was with his deceased wife that Joseph had “James and Joses and Judas and Simon,” meaning that the brothers mentioned in the Bible are half-brothers of Jesus by a previous marriage, allowing Mary to be a perpetual virgin. The show then suggests that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke draw on a prophecy from Isaiah 7 to portray Jesus as an answer to prophecy, meaning that the virgin Mary was understood not just to be the “young woman” Mary, but as a woman who had not had sex and who therefore immaculately conceived Jesus—making the birth of Jesus much more auspicious. The context of the prophecy is actually dealing with a threat against Jerusalem in the late 8th century B.C.E. In the documentary, I refer to the “time of Hezekiah.” The clip should more specifically refer to King Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father, who, according to the Bible, feared that Jerusalem would be lost to an alliance between Pekah, King of Israel, and Rezin, King of Aram, around 732 B.C.E. (2 Kings 16:5). Thus, Ahaz agreed to become a vassal of Tiglath-Pileser III (2 Kings 16:7–9), who protected Judah by wiping out Damascus and Aram—and killing King Pekah of Israel (2 Kings 16:9). The rest of the Kingdom of Israel—including its capital in Samaria—was conquered by Sargon II around 720 B.C.E. While Jerusalem was spared during the time of Hezekiah’s father, Jerusalem again comes under threat during the reign of King Hezekiah of Israel around 701 B.C.E., when Assyrian King Sennacherib lays siege to Jerusalem (Isa 36–39/2 Kings 18–20).
This is the context of the prophecies in Isa. 7:14–16 and Isa. 37:30–32. They deal specifically with threats against Jerusalem in the late 8th century B.C.E. These prophecies offer reassurance that the city would survive. First, the prophet Isaiah speaks to King Ahaz in Isa. 7:14–16:
Isaiah is essentially saying, “Look, a young woman is with child now, but by the time he knows good from evil (i.e., reaches adulthood), life will be good for him, and he’ll be eating curds and honey from his own land.” The prophecy is a poetic way to communicate to the king that Israel will survive this present threat, and children born this year will enjoy the fruits of their homeland—that is, Jerusalem will not be conquered.
A similar prophecy is given to Hezekiah when the Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem around 701 B.C.E. Isa. 37:30–32 reads:
Recent scholarly publications have argued that Hezekiah’s Tunnel was not built by Hezekiah but by his predecessor or his successors. Click here to reexamine the dating of Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Bible History Daily.
Once again, Isaiah employs the same metaphor as he does in Isa. 7:14-16—that of Jerusalemites eating the produce of their own land—to foretell the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat. And, of course, both predictions came to pass, and Jerusalem was spared from both threats in the late 8th century B.C.E.
However, during the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E., many Jews were looking back to the books of the prophets to see if they could be reinterpreted to speak to the Jews’ present time and struggle. This is precisely what happened to Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa. 7, when, as we’ve discussed earlier, the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew word almah to the Greek word parthenos allowed the gospel authors Matthew and Luke to reinterpret the “virgin” of Isaiah 7 as a woman who conceived without sex and gave birth to a savior, who they interpret as Jesus. But this is a reinterpretation of a prophecy that originally had a specific context speaking to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
The special nature of Jesus’ birth by Mary is perhaps underscored by the lack of emphasis offered to the siblings of Jesus mentioned by name in the Bible, which would serve to emphasize Jesus as the Son of God and not just one of the sons of Mary.
The show then transitions to a discussion on the Nag Hammadi and Gnostic gospels, which contained documents that sought to supply answers to some of the holes in the story of Jesus. One such gospel is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which essentially depicted Jesus as a magical boy who killed anyone who upset him. However, since the stories about Jesus are so scandalous and make Jesus look like a little bully, the gospel was left out of the canon.
“The Real Jesus” Act 2: Jesus and Mary MagdaleneAct 2 opens with a discussion of John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus (and his ministry). The show points out that Jesus’ originally separate ministry really took off with the beheading and death of John the Baptist. There is then a discussion about the ministry of Jesus and the makeup of his followers, specifically targeting the poor and marginalized. The show also points out that it was women who largely supported Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ relationship with one woman in particular, Mary Magdalene, is highlighted. The show suggests that Mary may not only have been an important disciple, but a financial benefactor of Jesus’ ministry (see Luke 8). However, the show then highlights the special relationship between Jesus and Mary written about in several of the Gnostic gospels, some of which suggest that she may have been married to Jesus.
While the Bible never calls Mary Magdalene a prostitute, the documentary suggests that the later attempts to conflate Mary Magdalene with the unnamed “sinful” woman mentioned in Luke 7, and the resulting popular conception of her as a prostitute, may have been a deliberate attempt to downplay the reputation of Jesus as a drunkard and a “friend of sinners” and portray him instead as a much more “righteous” individual.
Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute? Was Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus? Birger A. Pearson addresses these popular notions in the article “From Saint to Sinner” in Bible History Daily.
“The Real Jesus” Act 3: The Radical Teachings of Jesus
Act 3 opens with Peter’s Great Confession and asks whether Jesus actually understood himself to be the Messiah. Does the Bible ever record him as claiming to be the Jewish Messiah? The answer is exacerbated by Jesus’ intentionally ambiguous choice of the Aramaic term “bar enosh,” or “Son of Man,” to describe himself. The term was both the common way of saying “a person,” but had also become a loaded Messianic term because of its use in Daniel 7:13.
The show then focuses on his radical, apocalyptic teachings, which saw all people as created as equals, and which proclaimed another kingdom of Heaven that would supplant the Roman Empire and it’s social order. In this new kingdom, common people were equal to the powerful and wealthy. It became a following of outcasts based on Jesus’ populist teachings. But does this constitute a political agenda? While Jesus didn’t speak of a military uprising, the fact that he was declaring the coming of a new kingdom would have been interpreted as sedition by the Romans and therefore would have been seen as a political threat.
“The Real Jesus” Act 4: The Passion Week
Act 4 opens with a discussion of the Passion Week in Jerusalem and asks if Jesus knew he was going to die. The show points out that Jesus basically acts out the royal inauguration of the ancient kings of Israel mentioned in Zechariah 9. Marching down to the Gihon Spring and riding into Jerusalem on the back of the royal donkey would be the equivalent of marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC on Inauguration Day. Thus, the reenactment of the coronation of the king of Israel would have been understood as a rebellious act.
Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in Matt. 21:13 (and in all 4 Gospels) appears to have been the singular episode that most precipitates his death. It is also the one episode that records Jesus as brandishing a weapon (a whip of cords in John 2:15). The show asks if this is further evidence that Jesus perceived himself as a political figure like a king seeking to establish an alternative kingdom here on earth, or a non-political figure like a prophet, who spoke only of reform in this world and/or of a kingdom in another world.
The show also questions whether the trial that condemned Jesus would have taken place as described in the Bible. Many scholars question whether such a trial—which would have been illegal according to Jewish law (at night, on or approaching the holy day of Passover)—actually took place as described. Regardless of what one concludes about Jesus’ trial, most conclude that he was executed for the crime of sedition, which lends evidence to the argument that he was at least perceived by the Romans as leading a political rebellion.