Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Easter Story--A Different Possibility: Did Jesus Really Die?

What you are about to read is blasphemous, heretical, and quite possibly true.

The Gospel of John is an enigma.  It can seem quite mystical and sometimes appears to be inconsistent.  Surface reading can lead to some strange and often misleading conclusions, but not nearly as strange as reading between the lines and at deeper levels.

The story ahead comes from the perspective of a man known in the gospels as Joseph of Arimathea, a very rich man.  He was a member of the ruling Jewish council, the Sanhedrin.  He was also a secret follower of the man called Yeshua (Jesus to you and me).  He had to keep his connection with Yeshua quiet because the High Priest Caiaphas and most of the council wanted Yeshua, whom many believed to be the promised Messiah, to be put to death for blasphemy.  Why, he claims he is the Son of God!  The Promised One of the Most High.  How dare he!  

Joseph knew that there is no place in Jewish law that provides for the death penalty in such cases. So Caiaphas and the others demanded that the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate order Yeshua’s death based on the charge that he was creating insurrection among the people of Judaea. He was therefore guilty of sedition and of plotting to overthrow the Roman government.  

The Jewish populace, most of whom loved Yeshua and saw him as sent from God, had no idea that the council was making such insidious plans.  Pilate was not particularly enamored with the idea of putting Yeshua to death by crucifixion, which was what the council wanted.  But neither was he interested in having any kind of uprising, which he feared the Jewish leaders would incite if he did not meet their demands.  He was in this God-forsaken part of the world because he was not in the best stead with Caesar.  An uprising would bring the power of Rome down upon him and he would most likely end up somewhere even worse, perhaps in a Roman prison out on the frontier.  If he sent this Yeshua to the Jewish puppet king Herod, maybe he wouldn’t have to deal with it. 

Unfortunately, Herod did not play along and returned the ball, so to speak, to Pilate’s court.

Pilate’s wife told him she had had an ominous dream about the man Yeshua.  “We must have nothing to do with him,” she declared.  “This whole exercise will bring us to no good.”

“What am I to do,” thought Pilate.  “The council is demanding an execution.  If I don’t crucify this man, they will stir up the crowd, perhaps create a riot; I will not have that.  And still, I do not want his blood on my hands.”

Enter Joseph of Arimathea.

“Joseph, my old friend.  What brings you to the palace?” Pilate queries.

“Pontius, we have known each other for some time now.  Let me speak bluntly.  I know that Caiaphas and the council have demanded that you crucify the man Yeshua, whom many call the Messiah.”

“Oh, yes,” groans Pilate.  “They seem to have me over a barrel.  I don’t know what to do.”

“I believe I have the solution,” says Joseph.  “I and my fellow council member Nicodemis are both secret admirers of Yeshua.  He teaches love, not hatred; spirit of the law, not the letter.  He is not out to lead a rebellion against Rome.  He has said himself that we should render unto Caesar that which is his due.  The council has lied to you.  They do not speak for the people.  They want him dead for their own selfish political purposes.  But they cannot condemn him to death by our law.  That’s why they have sought to make it a Roman problem.  But, Pontius, he must live!”

“What part do you want me to play in this,” Pilate asks, hesitantly. “Whatever it is, it must be very quiet and low key.”

“It will be,” Joseph reassures the Roman governor.  “All you have to do is let me have Yeshua’s body after the crucifixion.  I will take care of the rest.”

“You may have it,” declares Pilate.  “But I thought you wanted him to remain alive.”

“He will,” Joseph states emphatically.  “You can believe that.  First, I will convince the council to have you crucify Yeshua on Friday.  That way, his body will have to be removed from the cross before sundown, since that is the beginning of the Sabbath and also the Festival of Passover.  According to our law, no dead body may remain outside of the grave after sundown Friday.”

Pilate remarks, puzzled, “I still don’t understand how you intend to keep Yeshua alive.  Even a short period on the cross can be fatal.”

“It won’t be easy and timing is everything, but there is a way,” says Joseph.

“You do what you must, Joseph.  As for me, I will play my part as a dutiful Roman and then I wash my hands of the entire matter.”  Pilate is doubtful.  “Let your Jewish God be in charge from this point onward.”

“Be assured, He is.”  With that, Joseph departs from Pilate and begins the necessary preparations.

“Nicodemis, you have contacts among the merchants.  We will need to secure about a hundred pounds of aloe, myrrh, and many of the fragrant spices used by the physicians to heal wounds.  Have them delivered to the new tomb I have carved on my property not far from Golgotha.  Do it secretly and quietly.  We don’t want to arouse the suspicion of any other council member.  Also, you will need to concoct some of the sleeping potion produced from the hyssop plant.  Yeshua will have to be rendered unconscious as soon as possible, once he is on the cross.  He may resist any attempt to knock him out so we will have to do it before he has a chance to refuse.  Can you arrange to get all of that?”

Nicodemis responds, “I am certain it can all be arranged secretly.  All will be as you wish.”

Joseph, being quite influential as well as rich, is indeed able to persuade the Jewish council to seek to have Yeshua crucified on the Friday before Sabbath.  He also arranges with Pilate to have one of the Roman centurions, named Longinus, assigned to oversee the execution.  Unknown to even Pilate, Longinus is also a secret follower of Yeshua.  Joseph admonishes both Nicodemis and Longinus to tell no one of this plan, not even Yeshua’s closest disciples.  “They are already frightened of the authorities and they are bound to panic at the last minute.  Don’t even tell Peter.  His faith is a little shaky right now.  I heard the Master say that Peter would even deny him when the crucial moment arrives.  We must carry out this operation by ourselves.  Don’t even tell the women.”

The Jewish council finally drags Yeshua before them and demands that he recant.  “Admit that you are not the Son of God and we will let you off with a light punishment,” Caiaphas commands.

“I cannot,” Yeshua replies gently.

“Then, by the authority of Rome, it is to the cross with you, oh mighty king of the Jews!  Let us see if your father, the devil, can get you out of this one, you who claim to do miracles.”

They turn Yeshua over to the Romans who flog him and place a crown of thorns upon his head. They drape him in a crimson cape and put a twig in his hand. “All hail, Yeshua, king of the Jews.  Let him who would depose Caesar be put up on his deserved throne, the Roman cross!”

They lead him away, forcing him to drag his own instrument of torture to the site of execution, Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Meanwhile, Joseph and Nicodemis are waiting at Golgotha for Yeshua’s execution procession to arrive.  As soon as it reaches the destination, the Roman soldiers immediately lay Yeshua down on the cross, driving nails through his wrists and ankles, then tying him to the wooden beams, and hoisting it upright.  Yeshua lets out a low but audible groan.  His mother and brothers and sisters and some of his women companions kneel at his feet, weeping bitterly.  “Behold, your son,” he whispers to his mother. 

Yeshua cries out for water.  Immediately Nicodemis lifts up a long stake with a sponge on one end and places it near Yeshua’s parched lips.  It is saturated with the narcotic Joseph has told Nicodemis to prepare.  “Drink,” he insists.  “Drink quickly.”  Yeshua, not realizing it is a drug, takes a small mouthful from the sponge, swallows it, and turns his head away.  “No more,” he moans.  “No more!”  He then looks upward toward heaven, blood streaming from where the Romans have placed the crown of thorns, and, eyes growing heavy, cries out, “My God, my God!  Why have you turned your back on me?”  With that, his head drops slowly to his chest.  He faintly utters, “It is finished” and passes into unconsciousness.  The sky darkens. . .

“Is he dead?” Nicodemis asks, nervously.

“He can’t be,” whispers Longinus.  “He hasn’t been on the cross long enough.  Let me pierce his side slightly so I can tell Pilate that he is indeed dead.”  With that, Longinus touches his spear to Yeshua’s side.  Immediately, there is a flow of blood and plasma, caused by shock.  But he is not dead.  Blood does not flow from a corpse, even within a few minutes after death.  “You see,” whispers Longinus.  “The blood still flows.  The Master lives.  He is only unconscious.”

As the small group of followers disbands and the Roman soldiers divest Yeshua of his garments, Joseph anxiously whispers to Nicodemis and Longinus, “Quickly!  We must get him down off the cross at once!  Now!”  The three of them rapidly lay the cross down on the ground, and pry the spikes from Yeshua’s wrists and ankles.  “Get him to the new tomb before it gets dark.”  They hurry away with the body of their Master.  Once inside the tomb, and away from prying eyes, they begin their most urgent work.  They cleanse the body with clean water and then oil it.  Afterward, they apply the aloe and myrrh and other spices to Yeshua’s wounds and set splints to his fractured limbs.  When they finish, they wrap him in fresh linen strips.  They then cover him with a new white linen sheet and lay him gently in the corner of the tomb.  Joseph reminds them: “He must have absolute rest and no one must know he is alive.  The next 48 hours will determine if we got him off the cross in time.  He is in shock and must stay warm.  Longinus, arrange to have this tomb guarded by your own men tonight and tomorrow.  Can you do that?”

“Without a problem,” Longinus assures Joseph.  “I must tell you, though,  Pilate is a little concerned about Yeshua coming down off the cross so quickly.  We didn’t even break his legs, as is the custom when we wish the prisoner to die sooner.  Pilate is concerned Caiaphas will ask embarrassing questions.”

“Well,”  answers Joseph, “Caiaphas wouldn’t dare question Caesar’s representative.  And even if he would, by the time he gets around to it, hopefully Yeshua will be far from Jerusalem.”

“But Joseph,” Nicodemis speaks up, “The council already thinks the disciples are planning to steal the Master’s body.  They are already suspicious.”

“That’s right,” Longinus agrees.  “Not only will I place Roman guards but I will put an official Roman seal on the tomb.  That way, Caiaphas will think we’re with the council in this crucifixion.”

“Again,” said Joseph, “The next 48 hours will determine if it has all been worth it.

* * *

Sunday morning, Mary of Magdala, one of Yeshua’s closest followers and companions, and another woman follower, go to the tomb to grieve.  They had watched while the three men had carried the body away.  When they arrive, they see that the tombstone has been rolled aside.  As they glance into the tomb, they see immediately that it is empty, except for the grave linens.  Letting out a frightened gasp, Mary spots a figure, draped in a hooded cape, standing among the bushes.  She takes him for the gardener.  “Oh, sir, where have they taken the Master?” she cries.  “Where have they taken my Lord?”

“My dear sweet child, why do you seek the living among the dead?  Did your Master not tell you that he would arise from the tomb?”

Immediately, Mary recognizes the voice of her Master, Yeshua.  “My Lord!  My Lord!”  She and her companion fall at Yeshua’s feet.  “You are truly alive,” they cry, as they try to grasp at his ankles.

“Do not touch me yet.  I am not quite ready to stand steadily before the Throne of God.  You must go and tell the others what you have seen.  Tell them that their Master has indeed walked out of the tomb as he said he would.  Tell them to go to Galilee and that I will meet them there.  For today God has performed a miracle and you have been witness to it.  The Son of Man has emerged triumphant from the grave.  THE WORLD IS FORGIVEN.  THE LIGHT HAS COME!”

* * *

There are those who would say that unless some sort of supernatural event happened on that Sunday nearly 2000 years ago, no miracle really occurred.  But is it really less miraculous that the hand of God may have worked through ordinary human beings to save the truly human Yeshua from dying on the Roman cross?  Is it less wonderful that he walked out of the tomb because his devoted followers devised a plan to save their Master?  Do we have less reason to celebrate His life and His teachings because he arose naturally from the tomb rather that being resurrected supernaturally from the dead?  This rendering of the Easter Story makes it possible for all of us to truly relate to Yeshua, to Jesus, as one of our own, not some mythical God-man who lowered Himself by coming to Earth to save a wretched and lost humanity, but a kindred spirit who understands our pain and fear, who discovered firsthand the way to Enlightenment, to a direct experience of God’s Presence within us, manifesting AS US.  He demonstrated what it means to live totally within the Christ Mind. 

So, did Jesus resurrect from the dead supernaturally, or did a brave little band of followers take it upon themselves to risk their own lives to save the life of their Master?  We may never know for certain.  But it remains a wonderful possibility.  We love you, brother Yeshua.  Blest be the name of the Lord.  HE IS RISEN!

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