‘Forbidden History: Uncovering the Historical Jesus.’ Really?

Juan de Juanes, ‘The Last Supper’ (circa 1562)
Juan de Juanes, ‘The Last Supper’ (circa 1562)

As Christians, we have good grounds for believing that the facts presented in the Gospel accounts are true — even when a Christianity-busting programme such as “Forbidden History: Uncovering the Historical Jesus” bursts onto our TV screens. Grace Dalton considers why the programme is not the devastating demolition it claims to be, and why, as Christians, we need not be fazed by it.

Several weeks ago, my grandmother, audibly distressed, mentioned a forthcoming documentary in which the key tenets of what we believe about Jesus would be nullified. I’d hear the radio version of the television advert she’d seen, and it’s been replayed ad nauseam for weeks since.

“Watching ‘Forbidden History: Uncovering the Historical Jesus’, I was struck by the terrible irony, that under the pretence that it will reveal something, the programme is astonishingly ignorant of academic Christianity.”

The programme is the first episode in a new series of “Forbidden History”, which I’d seen reporting on claims of ownership of the Holy Grail. Those claimants were clearly tragically trapped in wishful thinking. But watching “Forbidden History: Uncovering the Historical Jesus”, I was struck by the terrible irony, that under the pretence that it will reveal something, the programme is astonishingly ignorant of academic Christianity. It’s not “Forbidden” to explore the vast cornucopia of online lectures and articles exploring differing views on the Early Church and credibility of the New Testament texts, but this documentary ignores these, and unquantifiable work by Biblical scholars.

 

The programme is preceded by an eerie warning: “This show contains views on religion that some may find disturbing” — as though we were about to be given information that has the potential to be upsetting. This makes the arrogant assumption that we’ll lap up what they tell us — perhaps in the way they presume that we’ve gullibly accepted Christianity previously.

“What historical evidence lies in Jerusalem to prove that the crucifixion of Jesus really happened?” Jamie Theakston asks to dramatic violin music. “But who was He?”

 

A crew of supposed experts make confident proclamations to whet our appetite for the programme to come.

“Lynn Pinkett implores, ‘There are two things to know about Jesus: 1) He really existed. 2) He was not remotely like the Jesus of the Gospels’ — an oddly fervent assertion, for which she supplies no evidence later in the documentary.”

Lynn Pinkett implores, “There are two things to know about Jesus: 1) He really existed. 2) He was not remotely like the Jesus of the Gospels” — an oddly fervent assertion, for which she supplies no evidence later in the documentary. Her subtitle tells us that she’s the author of “The Real Jesus” as though this were some evidence of authority. Rather, it evidences that she has commercial interest in hurling dramatic vagaries around. Will not someone truly keen to understand the real Jesus at least read the work of scholars with doctorates?

Dr Matt Green — “We know for absolute certainty that He was baptised and crucified, between those events cultivated a following.”

 

After the titles, Jamie begins his journey to the Holy Land. The interjecting snippets continue; Dr Green now tells us, “Personally, I wouldn’t say that Jesus, as evoked in the Bible, did exist, in that way, because He did all sorts of miracles, and kind of floated up to heaven and back down again. I don’t think any of that happened. But I think that we can say that the historical Jesus — as in, someone for whom there’s empirical evidence that He existed — is true.” Bizarrely incorrect of course: the Bible doesn’t tell us that Jesus came “back down again” after His ascension. But this statement betrays the presumption of naturalism on which all of his evaluation rests. Later in the programme, whilst Jamie Theakston walks through Jerusalem, his guide tells Theakston about the nearby pool of Bethesda, which is the site for one of Jesus’ healings. Dismissively Theakston replies that he doesn’t want to discuss miracles, he wants real historical evidence. What then did he mean when he began the programme by asking if there’s any historical evidence that what we read in the Gospels truly happened? If he considers anything to do with the miraculous to be ahistorical, how can he claim to be searching for historical evidence of miraculous events?

 

“Andrew Gough’s dismissal of Josephus’ reference to Jesus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3) neglects the fact that historians have long debated whether the passage is authentic. The common consensus is that it has an authentic nucleus.”

Another supposed expert, Andrew Gough, confidently proclaims that Josephus recorded everything — but not Jesus. How he knows that everything that was going on is included in Josephus’ work, and that there weren’t other omissions is unclear — how can one ascertain that a historical record is exhaustive when one was not there themselves? But he then tells us that there is one reference from Josephus; however this uses the word ‘Messiah,’ which Gough insists is proof that this statement was added later, and can’t be by originally by Josephus — since as a Jew, he wouldn’t have referred to Jesus as ‘Messiah.’ To me, this presumption seems unjustified — the followers of Jesus were Jews and came to confess Him as Messiah. One might well refer to a figure by the term which they’re known by most commonly within their community, whatever they think of them themselves, to distinguish them from others with the same first name. So, a writer of Jewish heritage could potentially refer to Jesus as Messiah; because he’d in fact realised that He was, or simply because this is was how He was locally famous, as well as to set Him apart in references from others with the first name of Jesus.

In fact, Gough’s dismissal of Josephus’ reference to Jesus neglects the fact that historians have long debated whether the passage is authentic. The common consensus is that it has an authentic nucleus; so, Gough’s arrogant dismissal is deceitful. The passage in question reads:—

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3[1]

“Whilst many amongst the Jewish people at the time expected the Messiah to vanquish their Roman oppressors, God had not promised them this — not at the Messiah’s first coming. Rather, as the New Testament repeatedly expounds, the Messiah came to save from sin, to deliver eternal liberty (Hebrews 9:27‑28).”

“The Messiah was meant to be a great military leader who’d kick the Romans out… He failed on that count, totally,” Pinkett sneers derisively, entirely ignoring the version of Jesus that is presented in the Gospels. Whilst many amongst the Jewish people at the time expected the Messiah to vanquish their Roman oppressors, God had not promised them this — not at the Messiah’s first coming. Rather, as the New Testament repeatedly expounds, the Messiah came to save from sin, to deliver eternal liberty. “The whole idea that He was the Son of God was grafted on, by Himself or His followers,” Pinkett continues — but this is an entirely null statement, with no reasoning or evidence offered. Is she suggesting that Jesus and His apostles proclaiming His deity nullifies the claim? Would she not expect the Son of God to declare His identity? Would she not expect that witnesses to His miracles might become followers, such that, as she scoffs, Jesus’ status as Messiah was announced by followers of His? And why on Earth would He or His followers graft the idea on when all that it brought them was death? Note also — no other prophet or founder of a major religion claimed to be from God as Jesus did.

 

“We know for a fact that Tacitus existed,” Theakston announces as he begins to consider other writers at the time. I don’t doubt that Tacitus existed — but how can Theakston be so adamant of this when he deems historical writings so tenuous that he can entertain the idea that all of those discussing Jesus are false?

“The New Testament manuscripts are, by several fundamental measures, more credible than other historical works of similar age. One measure of reliability of historical works is the number of copies discovered, and another is the proximity of the date of discovered copies to the date of the authorship. Around 5,800 ancient Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament have been discovered.”

Dominic Selwood then opines, “It’s extraordinary, because religion demands certainty, the one thing that we don’t have with Jesus is certainty.” I wonder: why is he qualified to determine what “religions demand”? Which religions does he feel have certainty that Christianity lacks? For that matter, which ancient history is so very certain in contrast to the events of Jesus’ life? The New Testament manuscripts are, by several fundamental measures, more credible than other historical works of similar age. One measure of reliability of historical works is the number of copies discovered, and another is the proximity of the date of discovered copies to the date of the authorship. For example, Tacitus — of whom Jamie Theakston is so confident — wrote his Histories around 100 AD; just a handful of manuscript copies of which are available, dated to c. 800—1000 AD. Of the celebrated classic, The Iliad, by the beloved ancient Greek storyteller Homer, there are between 600 and 2000 manuscript pieces, but the earliest of these is dated to 400 years after the authorship.[2]

Around 5,800 ancient Greek manuscript copies of the New Testament have been discovered,[3] but there are also over 4,000 Slavic manuscripts[4]; over 10,000 Latin Vulgate NT manuscripts; over 2,000 Armenian manuscripts; and translations into other languages besides. The earliest surviving manuscript is estimated to have been written around 130 AD, having been authored between 50 and 100 AD.[6]

Ignoring the New Testament as potential evidence of events is truly nonsensical. Thus, when Selwood tells us that the “first Gospels were written 60 years after” (i.e., c. 90 AD) the events described, he’s contradicting and concealing from his audience the conclusions of more highly accredited scholars, as well as ignoring the fact that other books of the New Testament are believed to have been written earlier than the Gospels.[7]

 

“One might even contend that the apocryphal Gospels serve as further support for key events. Had Jesus not truly died and risen — or as mythicists contend, not even existed — why would so many separate writings attest to Him?”

One of the other ‘experts,’ Tony McMahon, claims that Jesus followers had believed that He’d return soon, and consequentally didn’t write down accounts of Jesus immediately; at which point scribes then got scribbling, and suddenly there were “40-50 Gospels,” not only four. How ironical! — he clearly believes this to be true — thus implying that the four canonical Gospels included are themselves accurate. One might argue that this serves (ever so slighty) to affirm the integrity of the early Church — the reason that the New Testament canon was assimilated was to purge erroneous interpretations. Indeed, one might even contend that these additional, apocryphal Gospels serve as further support for key events. Had Jesus not truly died and risen — or as mythicists contend, not even existed — why would so many separate writings attest to Him? But this is not the place to delve further into the apocryphal Gospels — we have briefly considered these in articles elsewhere.

 

For Christians, the precise location of the tomb that Jesus walked out of is simply not the matter of significance, but it becomes the focus of much of the programme.

“Jamie Theakston asks whether it would be typical for a Jew of Jesus’ standing to be buried in such a tomb — ignorant, seemingly, that what Christianity teaches is that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council, buried Jesus in a tomb owned by his family, which would have been far grander than the typical burial site of a carpenter.”

As a tour guide takes Jamie Theakston to view the ‘Garden Tomb,’ Theakston asks whether it would be typical for a Jew of Jesus’ standing to be buried in such a tomb as that — ignorant, seemingly, that what Christianity teaches is that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council, buried Jesus in a tomb owned by his family, which would have been far grander than the typical burial site of a carpenter. The tour guide then declares that the Garden Tomb can’t be Jesus’ burial place after all, since the New Testament tells us that Jesus was placed in new tomb, and the Garden Tomb is dated to 800 years BC. It seems odd that the New Testament is entirely ignored for most of the programme, but still used to refute what we’re expected to have thought might be evidence.

“You go there today and it just sort of feels right,” comments Andrew Gough of the Garden Tomb. This is utterly bizarre — sceptics will brutally scorn believers for holding faith based on feelings; so are we now to rely on feelings to determine truth? I would then argue that, for billions of people, it has ‘felt’ right that Jesus is the Messiah — but of course, when we feel that something “is right,” this is deemed meaningless by atheists, including Lynn Pinkett later in the programme.

Next, Theakston and his tour guide take us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (CoHS), where we see scores of tourists, excited at being at what is apparently considered the most likely burial site. The Stone of Unction, the slab rumoured to be that on which Jesus’ body was prepared is seemingly thought by some to thus be holy, and the pilgrims keenly rub their souvenirs on it. It’s abundantly clear that the programme is endeavouring to portray Christianity as foolish superstition. The reality is, of course, that only a tiny minority of Christians entertain myths like this — and those that do are influenced to do so by culture rather than Christianity. Websites dedicated to informing tourists about the CoHS make no mention of it. But will some viewers presume that rubbing souvenirs on a stone to attain blessing is representative of Christianity?

At this point, Selwood interjects that because the Romans demolished Jerusalem, holy sites such as that of Jesus’ death and burial were lost and that the CoHS was created by the Byzantines 300 years later. This is a significant deviation from the view of historians — The British Museum, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Jerusalem Post and other sources state that the Church was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and later destroyed by the Persians. The site had first been built on by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, as a temple for Venus,[8] deliberately seeking to cover over Jesus’ tomb, but that the Christian Emperor Constantine replaced this temple with a Church, that was connected with a Church built nearby at Golgotha.[9]

The Chapel of Adam is located just below the purported site of Golgotha. According to the tour guide, legend has it that the rock containing Adam’s skull was underground below the cross, and a drop of Jesus’ blood ran down causing Adam to momentarily resurrect. Again, this superstition is not mentioned on websites for the Church, and would be rejected by almost every Christian, but some viewers of the programme will be further misled into thinking that Christianity is nonsense by description of this myth.

“When the tour guide mentions Jesus’ death at Golgotha, Jamie Theakston retorts, ‘But I thought that Jesus was crucified on Calvary?’ which at least gave me a laugh out of the programme. Had he truly never heard of Golgotha? It is, of course, simply the Greek version (based on an Aramaic word) of the Latin name of Calvary.”

When the tour guide mentions Jesus’ death at Golgotha, Jamie Theakston retorts, “But I thought that Jesus was crucified on Calvary?” which at least gave me a laugh out of the programme. Had he truly never heard of Golgotha? It is, of course, simply the Greek version (based on an Aramaic word) of the Latin name of Calvary; both translate as ‘Place of the skull’.

Dr Matt Green describes the area of the purported holy sites as “Disneyland for Christians,” and one of the particular aims of the programme is clearly to mock the tourism sector that’s grown out of believers’ appetite for personal taction with the precise premises of Jesus death and resurrection. But this is all a diversion; highlighting the folly of this tourism industry brings us no nearer to knowing whether Jesus rose. In fact, it’s arguably somewhat pagan to obsess over sites and souvenirs.

Gough remarks that the Bible says that sites should be outside the city walls, not within, so that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot be the true site. “A rational mind [would realise that the CoHS is a]… symbolic representation of a story which itself is allegorical… [which]… would have happened outside of city walls not within” — yet, as Theakston had already told us earlier in the programme, the original city walls from Jesus’ time were further inward than the current city walls. No rationale is offered to support the presumptuous assertion that that the New Testament’s account of Jesus is allegorical.

“The tour guide responds, ‘That’s a tough one, have to say no. If you want to believe it, it’s truth.’ A perfect specimen of the relativism that’s so pervasive today. But it cannot be that contradictory notions are simultaneously true. Either Jesus returned to life or He didn’t.”

As another local tour guide leads Theakston around, he mentions the pool where the New Testament tells us that a crippled man was healed by Jesus. But Theakston immediately replies that he wants to ignore the “miraculous, get some actual historical proof… Is there any archaeological evidence of Jesus’ existence?” The tour guide responds, “That’s a tough one, have to say no. If you want to believe it, it’s truth.” A perfect specimen of the relativism that’s so pervasive today. History — in fact all aspects of reality — relies upon the truth that there will often by differing opinions on what has happened. But it cannot be that contradictory notions are simultaneously true. Jesus returned to life or He didn’t.

 

Andrew Gough proclaims, “There were dozens of Messiahs, aware of OT prophecies.” Yet as all Christians who’ve dipped their toe into apologetics know, many of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled were entirely out of Jesus’ control. He had, for example, no influence (humanly speaking) over where He was born, nor the circumstances surrounding His death and burial — yet in these He fulfilled numerous prophecies. Meanwhile, He made no attempt to fulfil the expectations that many of His contempories had of the Messiah. Had He been dishonestly attempting to convince people that He was who they’d been longing for, He’d surely have put some effort into opposing the tyrannical Romans.

Dominic Selwood: “He was a political agitator; He would have been thrown out for the dogs.” Quite what he means by this eludes me. Is he truly ignorant of the New Testament’s repeated statement that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, or can he simply not think of any point to raise against it? That political agitators were typically thrown to the dogs is of no meaning whatsoever; if Joseph of Arimathea took the body, then it has no bearing on whether the claims that Jesus was seen alive again can be trusted. But even if the assertion is true that his body was thrown out for dogs, why then is the programme centred around finding Jesus’ burial site?

 

What people don’t understand — Lynn Pinkett bemoans — is that Jesus was not important, since Pilate apparently executed three hundred would-be Messiahs. “Jesus was just one of them,” she flippantly declares. But why then (does she suppose?) that His following, in the face of severe persecution, persisted and grew into the world’s largest religion? Why would the number of people crucified tell us anything whatsoever about Jesus’ diety or lack thereof? It’s a non sequitur — Jesus is worshipped because of the significance and uniqueness of His rising from the dead, not because anyone was claiming that His execution was unique.

 

“In perhaps the most bizarre part of the programme, we’re told about the Talpiot tomb — about which a documentary was produced by James Cameron in 2007, entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. Theakston tells us that it was soon thereafter found to be a hoax, and not to be that of Jesus after all.”

Next, in perhaps the most bizarre part of the programme, we’re told about the Talpiot tomb — about which a documentary was produced by James Cameron in 2007, entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. Theakston tells us that it was soon thereafter found to be a hoax, and not to be that of Jesus after all. Gough laments that it could have been the greatest discovery — his frustration strongly suggests that he’s fervently keen for his worldview to be proven true, more than he’s keen to uncover the truth. The same seems true of Lynn Pinkett, who comments sneering that this discovery of Jesus’ bones — as though entirely ignoring that the tomb had been exposed false — shows “how wrong the Church was, doesn’t it?” To clarify, she’s arguing that a discovery which has, according to this very programme, been proven false, is evidence against the Gospel. It truly is peculiar. Adding to the eccentricity, Andrew Gough remarks that the invalidation of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” was particularly upsetting given “all James Cameron’s credibility.” That he deems James Cameron credible evidences utter ignorance of scholarship — he’s equating skill as a film director with reliability in examining fact, ignoring the fact that James Cameron has no relevant qualifications. (Then again, neither does Gough.)

Googling Andrew Gough brings up his profile on a website for “The College of Psychic Studies” — quite how someone involved in this has been considered a reasonable contributor for a factual history documentary is beyond me. On his own website, he describes himself as a “London-based writer, and TV presenter of historical mysteries” — no mention of any academic qualifications whatsoever can be found. In Forbidden History: Uncovering the Real Jesus, the title given to him is “Editor of Heretic Magazine” — but examining its website shows that it’s not a publication, essentially only a blog, which hasn’t been updated in nine months.

Tony McMahon also lacks academic credentials, and blogs as the “Templar Knight”.

This is a recurrent theme throughout the documentary — we are being presented with the opinions of history enthusiasts, not scholars — and amongst the ostensible experts speaking to the audience, only Matt Green is described on screen with a doctorate — and online one can see that his area of expertise is recent British history, not the ancient Middle East. Notably though, as the most qualified of the speakers, he also happens to be the most sympathetic to the historicity of Christianity.

 

“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.”

Eric Meyers, biblical archaeologist, quoted in Kristin Romey, ‘The Search for the Real Jesus,’ in National Geographic (December 2017), p.42

Yet Theakston now announces that he “got in touch with [a] self-proclaimed agnostic and writer”; we see Theakston interview him in Australia via Skype. It’s unfathomable that it would be necessary to use a guest on the other side of the planet when they’ve not even any credentials. Theakston might as well have vox popped passers by. The agnostic student declares over Skype that he thinks it most likely that Jesus never actually existed. This conspiracy theory has become almost amusingly widespread amongst the public in recent years, though it lacks support amongst historians. In a National Geographic feature on Jesus last year (far more credible), the biblical archaeologist Eric Meyers stated, “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.”[10] And the Guardian last year featured a piece by Dr Simon Gathercole, Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge, which concluded: “These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question — which goes beyond history and objective fact — is whether Jesus died and lived.”[11]

 

Again, we now see Dr Matt Green telling us that Jesus “probably existed, not the Son of God as far as we know.”

He’s already declared his naturalism, so of course he won’t consider Jesus to be the Son of God — rendering the programme’s supposed purpose void.

“By comparison to most documentaries on mainstream channels, ‘Forbidden History: Uncovering the Real Jesus’ is oddly lacking in scholarly credibility, and in place of balance displays internal contradiction throughout. I can only hope that its inadequacy is abundantly clear to viewers.”

Lynn Pinkett now imitates Christians, then scorns that “they’re confusing their emotions with the facts; the Jesus that existed was just a man” — although we’ve just been told that He probably didn’t exist. Why not conclude that atheists’ emotions drive their conclusions?

Gough: “It sounds a bit harsh to say we’ve been hoodwinked. But we have.” The arrogance is painful. Given that he’s the editor of a “magazine” — blog — that profits from convincing people of his view, is he not potentially hoodwinking people?

Theakston concludes that it doesn’t matter that there’s probably no evidence for Jesus. “Is faith enough?” — arrogantly implying that his gang have proven an ‘absence of evidence.’ In reality, they’ve simply been ignoring it — other secular documentaries might at least have critiqued it.

Ultimately, “Forbidden History; Uncovering the Real Jesus” cowardly ignores the rationale that Christianity is in fact based upon; bickers about trivialities; and employs an eclectic medley of underqualified atheists to implore baseless doctrine. Apologies, my own feelings are getting the better of me. But truly, it’s irrefutable that by comparison to most documentaries on mainstream channels, this programme is oddly lacking in scholarly credibility, and in place of balance displays internal contradiction throughout. I can only hope that its inadequacy is abundantly clear to viewers.

 

 

Note
The best way to stay informed of new content on here is to follow us on Twitter (@etimasthe) or to ‘like’ our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/etimasthe.

 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus#Testimonium_Flavianum

[2] Graeme D. Bird, Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad: The Witness of the Ptolemaic Papyri. Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC, 2010

[3] Robert B. Stewart (ed.), The Textual Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue. Fortress Press, 2011

[4] Henry R. Cooper, Slavic Scriptures: The Formation of the Church Slavonic Version of the Holy Bible. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003

[5] J. K. Elliott, The Translations of the New Testament into Latin: The Old Latin and the Vulgate

[6] For example, one of the earliest New Testament books, 1 Thessalonians — which is in fact a letter to a church — is believed to have been written around AD 50. See Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaties: 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Tyndale Press, 1971: p.15. For an estimate (fairly conservative) of the dates of authorship of the New Testament books, see http://gracedoctrine.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/NT-Book-Dates.jpg, on the page http://gracedoctrine.org/the-bible-pt-5-outline-of-the-new-testament-books/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre#Construction

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kristin Romey, ‘The Search for the Real Jesus,’ in National Geographic (December 2017), p.42

[11] Dr Simon Gathercole, ‘What is the historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived and died?’, in The Guardian, 14 April 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/14/what-is-the-historical-evidence-that-jesus-christ-lived-and-died

Add a Comment