Then the court proceedings were interrupted by Claudia Procula, the wife of Pontius Pilate with her plea for Jesus.
Pilate decided to solve the problem and save Jesus by letting one prisoner go, being sure they would choose Jesus as there was no evidence against him. Here he made a great error of judgement but he was “twitchy” - he had only 6,000 soldiers to keep the peace over 250,000 Jews. A mob had gathered outside the courtroom and the Sabbath was the next day, the first day of a week-long holiday when no Jews would work. The Jews cried for Barabbus to be released.
Pontius did not want another protest or uprising on his hands. He took an immense risk in offering to release Jesus, for it would have left him open himself to a charge of treason, but he tried. Everyone in the Roman world was twitchy about the emperor, mad, paranoic Tiberius who had power of immediate life-or-death over all of them.
Pontius had to go along with this decision, and he made it clear the decision to condemn Jesus was not his, by washing his hands.
The crucifixion was recorded in the Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus several years later. A “man called Christ” (which means Messiah) was executed in the reign of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate. Tacitus never named him. I find it strange, when so many Jews had been crucified un-named during the Roman rule, that Tacitus only singled out this one incident.
In Roman days, once one was judged and condemned, the sentence was carried out immediately. Jesus was taken from the courtroom, stripped naked by soldiers, whipped, and forced to carry his heavy cross himself to his place of execution, wearing only a loin-cloth. These were Roman-designed elements, taking place fully in public, to warn the population.
When Jesus was suffering on the cross he was given refreshment on a sponge held up to him on a reed, thought to be a mixture of vinegar and gall (or snake venom) which would have caused unconsciousness. It could have been opium or belladonna. However, the word “reed” is a weak translation, and the vinegar/anaesthetic mixture was passed up to him on the point of a spear which belonged to the centurian called Petronius. Did Mary Magdalene herself persuade the centurian to take pity on her suffering lover? Before that Jesus could talk and asked “the disciple that he loved” to look after his mother. This was Lazarus, Mary of Magdalene’s brother.
The soldiers came to break the legs of the Jewish rebels to facilitate their deaths. With feet fixed a crucified man could push up and relieve the pressure on his chest, just to keep himself alive although he knew death was inevitable, but with legs broken the victim died quickly of asphyxiation, and so leg-breaking was considered humane.
They did this by hammering the victims’ knees with mallets. After the first two they came to Jesus but he was apparently already dead. Pilate asked Petronius to prove Jesus was dead and the soldier proved it by plunging a sword into his side.
It breaks my heart to imagine Mary Magdalene witnessing all this. She was three months pregnant at the time.
Permission was asked by Joseph of Arimathea directly to Pilate, and not to the Jewish elders, to put Jesus in his tomb. and it was given without question.
Then Jesus was put in the tomb by moonlight, after only three or four hours on the cross, when it usually took days to die. (Bodies were not necessarily claimed by relatives; some were simply left where they were until eaten by rats and vultures.)
It was unlikely the tomb was in Jerusalem because in 16AD there was a prohibition against new tombs for hygienic reasons. Only a few sarcophagi from the first century have been found. So Jesus could not have been buried where today is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, immediately west of the Temple Mount. Neither could he have been buried underneath the Temple and his body removed later by the Knights Templar of the 12th century, to be buried in the Languedoc, as some people believe.
Bodies were placed in burial chambers naked; archeological excavations have never found traces of cloth, although St. John says that Jesus was wrapped in a sheet. Bodies was placed in the tomb for a year, after which the bones were placed, with the skull on top, in an ossuary.
Tombs were cut into the soft limestone of the district, and had an entrance little more than a hole in the cliff, leading to a rectangular room with a pit in the centre where people could stand upright. From the central chamber were short tunnels in which the ossuaries containing the bones were stored, sometimes with a name scratched on them, for identification, rather than a memorial. We know this method of burial was specific between 50BC and 70AD, at which date the Romans destroyed Judea.
On the Saturday after the crucifixion was a frantic visit to Pontius Pilate from Caiaphas. He requested that Roman guards should be put in front of the tomb, for the Jews were afraid Jesus would escape and make exactly the claim later Christians made for him; that he had risen from the dead. He had approached Pilate on Saturday the Sabbath, so it must have been important, and the guards were posted.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb at dawn on the Sunday, the earliest possible moment according to the Law. It was common practice to visit a tomb three days after somebody had died, ever since the Babylonian Talmud recommended the practice, for a check at one time found somebody alive who then lived for another 25 years and “sired many sons”. The Jews had not the medical knowledge to diagnose death with complete certainty. It says in Matthew (28, 1) that Mary Magdalene went to “see the sepulchre”.
Can you imagine Mary's feelings; she waited the previous long 36 hours thinking; “Oh God, let him be alive. Oh God, there’s just a chance. He might be alive, oh, let him still live!” People did sometimes survive crucifixion. A passage in Josephus, who wrote about 90AD, tells us Josephus was on a mission for Titus (who put down the Jewish Revolt about 70AD) when, to the south of Jerusalem, he saw prisoners who had been crucified. Three he recognised and begged Titus, weeping, to take them down. Titus gave orders and gave them a doctor. Two died but the third survived.
Did Mary know of other cases? No Roman records exist now of those thousands of Jews crucified during the Roman occupation.
Then she saw the empty grave and assumed someone had taken Jesus away; somewhere who had done the three day check before her? Then she saw him.
Once Jesus in the tomb had recovered consciousness, and realised where he was, he had escaped. The stone had not been fixed. He had managed to evade the Roman guards, who were dozing at their posts, a scene much recorded in Christian history, and was hiding in the garden.
When Mary found him, he had recovered consciousness after a horrific ordeal of torture. He was bruised all over, wounded in the hands, feet and side, and traumatised. No wonder he said “Don’t touch me” or “Don’t embrace me”.
He was probably half-naked which could have been why he hid and did not try to make his own way back to safety. Then he instructed Mary to go and tell the disciples what had happened. They were hiding in Bethany, about a mile away.
The disciples were afraid for their own lives. When she arrived with her news that she had seen Jesus, they simply did not believe her – especially Peter. She started crying. “My brother Peter, do you think I just made it all up and I’m lying?” Matthew intervened. “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. If the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her?”
They were all afraid and, as we would say today, stressed out. “Do not weep and do not cry,” she said. “His Grace will protect us.”
“They did not spare his life, why would they spare ours?” the disciples asked her, speaking about the Romans. She tried to reassure them that they were safe. The reference to this meeting in the New Testament is shockingly brief. “She went and told them that she had been with him. And they, when they heard that he was alive, and she had seen him, believed her not,” says Mark, 16, 10-11.
Going up to Heaven
The Bible tells us Jesus had risen from the dead and 40 days later, ascended into heaven. This passage of Jesus being taken into Heaven, about the resurrection that is the king-pin of the Christian faith, is short and casual with no real description of this stupendous event. It looks as though it was artificially inserted to explain Jesus’s disappearance.
Except for Jesus’s ascension, neither Mary or Jesus appeared in the Acts of the Apostles, the book in the Bible that tells us what happened after the crucifixion. It is bizarre that Mary Magdalene never appeared at all, as she was the Apostle of the Apostles.
Jesus and his disciples had lots to organise. He had to disappear, for his own sake and for the sake of all his followers. It wasn’t just the Romans that were after him, but the Pharisees, and they had vowed to kill Lazarus, his bother-in-law, Mary’s brother. He had claimed to be King of the Jews; it was treason; if he escaped the death penalty, the Roman authorities would be obliged to find him. Meanwhile, Herod had threatened to kill him.
He was obliged to become a political refugee. He disappeared 40 days after the crucifixion.
In St. John’s Gospel, 20, 15-17, Jesus was talking to the disciples as though he must leave them. In St.Mark, 16, 14-17, it seems as though he was saying goodbye. In the last verse of Matthew Jesus says; “And I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He didn’t want to leave his friends – but he had to.
He and Mary Magdalene both disappeared at the same time; they went away together. She had stood by him through thick and thin. She wasn’t going to leave him now.
They went first to Alexandria in Egypt which was a traditional refuge for persecuted Jews. If both Jesus and Mary Magdalene had studied at the great library of Alexandria, as indicated by their many connections with Egypt and Egyptian religion they would have known the town and the Jewish community. It is a historical fact that passenger ships sailed daily from Alexandria across the Mediterranean to the ports of France.
In Narbonne at the time, three-quarters of the population was Roman, like Lyon it was a mini-Rome, and Romans took their holidays at Rennes-les-Bains. It seems Mary and Jesus were more Roman than Jewish and so they lived at Rennes-les-Bains.
Mary had her child by Jesus, a daughter called Tamar, born in September 33AD.
Mary and Jesus could not have parted
In the sixteenth century a crop of pictures appeared of Mary Magdalene, being taken into Heaven by angels to visit Jesus after the Ascension. In one she was specifically pregnant, in the other she was in a sort of sensuous daze.
I believe she would have followed him to the end of the world and beyond. I have no doubt, that wherever he went, she went with him.
Sharing a Gallery
first - "Behold the Man" - the famous 19th century painting. But who are the two women standing on the right?
second - Césaire's belt, 5th century. The design on the buckle, of the guards dozing at their posts, is a popular one in Christian art.
third - a modern version of the legend that Mary was carried up to heaven by angels to see Jesus
fourth - 16th century version - Mary is obviously pregnant
fifth - 19th century version on the same theme
sixth Mary meets the risen Jesus. the only picture I have ever seen of him wearing just a winding sheet.
seventh - late 19th century crucifix in the cemetary of Alet-les-Bains