Many in history have argued that Jesus did not die on the cross1. Jesus prays to avoid his fate in Matt. 26:39, and in Heb. 5:7 says "during the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard" (NIV). Belief that Jesus didn't physically die existed amongst the earliest Christians2 (as well as some modern ones, such as the Christian Scientists3) and Qur'an 4:157 also states that Jesus only appeared to be killed, but was not crucified at all. There are respectable and mainstream scholars who also believe it2. There are three main forms of story in which Jesus survives the crucifixion:
Survival: A popular idea in modern times is that Jesus simply survived. Ancient historians and scribes noted on many occasions people who had been mistaken for dead, sometimes for days, before recovering4. Crucifixion was intended to last several days2 but Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Sabbath. It was customary to remove the victims that evening. The gospels contradict themselves; John says Jesus was crucified at noon, while Mark says it was the third hour, or 9:00 a.m. (John 19.14, Mark 15.25). In either case, Jesus hung for just three to six hours. He was mistaken for dead, and recovered later.
Drugged and Rescued: There are some strange details involving Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy secret follower of Jesus. Joseph "boldly" approaches Pilate and collects Jesus' body - after followers applied a sponge to Jesus' face using a pole (Mark 15:36-37,42-45, Matt. 27:48-50,57-59).4. This is why the Roman Centurion and Pilate were both so surprised that Jesus died so quickly.
Substituted: Several early Christian communities didn't believe that Jesus was crucified at all. Documents such as The Second Treatise of the Great Seth and The Book of Thomas the Contender (both rediscovered amongst the Nag Hammadi scrolls) and the teachings of Basilides, have Jesus substituted on the cross. Early Christian texts recorded that it was Judas, Thomas or Simon of Cyrene who was actually crucified.2,5,6
There are enough contradictions and oddities between the Gospel accounts, combined with a complete lack of historical evidence for any of it, that ultimately it is not possible to really know what happened.
Historical evidence shows us that crucifixion was intended to be a slow torture, lasting for several days2; some people survived up to 10 days4. Dr Richard Carrier reminds us that Pliny the Elder of the first century records several times when people have been mistaken for dead, and the first century historian Josephus witnessed survivors of crucifixion, and there have been a great number of ancient scribes who recorded similar types of mistakes in history4. Jesus, however, was crucified on the eve of the Sabbath, and it was customary to remove the victims that evening, which is what they done according to John 19:31-34 (quoted below for ease of reference). Jesus didn't spend several days on the cross; instead, he spent several hours. Even though this is surely one of the most important events to happen to Jesus and his followers, the gospels contradict themselves on the timing of the crucifixion. John says Jesus was crucified at noon, while Mark says it was the third hour, or 9:00 a.m. (John 19.14, Mark 15.25). In either case, Jesus spent three to six hours hanging from a cross, not days.
Their short stay on the cross is the reason why the centurions set out to break the legs of those hung out for Crucifixion (John 19:31-34). If they can't use their legs to relieve the pressure upon their chests they will therefore die much quicker. They were surprised to find Jesus already dead (or so they thought). They speared him instead. Tellingly "a sudden flow of blood and water" emerged; but such a flow is not consistent with death. Jesus had died just a few minutes before the Centurion speared him or could easily have been alive and merely unconscious. The local Roman governor, Pilate, who presides over all the crucifixions, was so surprised that Jesus was dead already that he checked it was true with the Centurion (Mark 15:42-45).
“It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea ... asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.”
Mark 15:42-45 (NIV)
“Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”
John 19:28-34 (NIV)
Some historical notes from the extensive examples given by Dr Carrier:
“Most interesting of all is an ancient Jewish document called the Tractate of Mourning (Semahot), which describes the very reasons for the tradition of going to the tomb on the third day...: "One should go to the cemetery to check the dead within three days, and not fear that such smacks of pagan practices. There was actually one buried man who was visited after three days and lived for twenty-five more years and had sons, and died afterward"7. In other words, misdiagnosis was actually common enough that an entire tradition was developed to make sure people were not buried by mistake [...]. The Romans also delayed funerals for the very same reason8. Moreover, Celsus, a medical encyclopedist of the 1st century, estimated that even the best doctors erred in misdiagnosing death roughly 1 in 1000 times (De Medicina 1.109-17), a sentiment corroborated by Pliny (NH 2.619-31). Worse doctors, and non-doctors, must then have erred far more often still.”
Once his body was removed, the theory goes, his consciousness returned, and, as they say, the rest is history.
During Jesus' short time on the cross, some of the gospels have him attended by some friends (background: The Crucifixion in the Bible's Gospels: Differences and Contradictions). In Mark 15:39 and John 19:28-30 they do something for Jesus that is placidly described as giving him a horrible drink. What happens when he receives it? Strangely, he immediately expires. It is so strange that the Centurion who is observing exclaims an accolade to God (Mark 15:36-37,39). There is clearly something going on with the story that we, the readers, don't know. Many thinkers have pondered how easy it would have been to drug or poison Jesus and cause him to fall unconscious, as part of a planned rescue plot. "It is far from unheard of", writes one historian, "for the crucified to be rescued by loved ones who might bribe the soldiers"2.
“... one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to save him. And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.”
Matthew 27:48-50,54 (NIV)
“Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down, he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.”
Mark 15:36-37,39 (NIV)
“Later, ... Jesus said, "I am thirsty." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, It is finished. With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
John 19:28-34 (NIV)
It is difficult to know where to look for evidence to either support or discount this idea. But there is a hint in the Gospels of exactly the right kind of person - someone practicing secrecy who was rich enough to acquire medicine or a drug to knock someone out:.
“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body...”
Matthew 27:57-59 (NIV)
“It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. ... He gave the body to Joseph.”
Mark 15:42-45 (NIV)
And a bit more about Joseph:
“Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate´s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night.”
John 19:38-39 (NIV)
For lack of evidence, Joseph and Nicodemus are prime culprits. Their plan wouldn't have required Jesus' own consent; knock him out, save him, and then continue with their mission. This makes sense, given the sense of confusion and loss when Jesus' followers discovered prophecies were not going to be fulfilled. Peter had already demanded that Jesus not play along and allow himself to be disposed of by the Romans (resulting in the famous, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" retort to Peter (Matthew 16:23). Did Joseph and Nicodemus take matters into their own hands? There is no particular evidence saying they did, but then again, there is no particular evidence that Jesus really died, either.
“Graves and Podro advance a complicated but attractive theory that Jesus was taken down from the cross alive and he recovered from his wounds. It was therefore in the flesh that he appeared to his friends. He warned Mary not to touch him, since, being in his burial shroud, he was ritually 'unclean'. He can allow Thomas to touch him some time later, as he was no longer unclean. It is interesting to note how these students of the New Testament propose to restore the Text: 'When they had dined, he saith unto Thomas reach hither thy finger and touch my hand and my side, and learn whether or no I be a bodiless spirit. And be not faithless but believe in the power of God. Thomas answered: Nay, master, but I have seen, may the Lord forgive me my unbelief! Jesus saith: So be it. But more blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed!'”
Once the anthropologist James George Frazer wrote the highly influential (but partially flawed) book The Golden Bough in 1890, a new wave of ideas spread through the educated world about the linkages between the stories about Jesus, and similar stories found in other world religions. The novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote The Man Who Died:
“It portrays Christ as surviving his crucifixion and recovering to turn his back upon his old life, followers, and message. He finds sanctuary, and happiness, in a temple of the great goddess, Isis, where he personifies the resurrected Osiris and makes sacred love with the priestess. [...]
[In later years he] fashioned a bridge of his own between religion traditions by interpreting the Book of Revelation as a representation of the initiation ritual into a pagan mystery religion.”
"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" by Ronald Hutton (1999)10
Michael Baigent veers into some unverifiable territory in some of his writings, but, his text quoted below on the strange events of the sponge is a good summary:
“The sponge was soaked not in vinegar, a substance that would have revived Jesus, but rather in something that would have caused him to lose consciousness. [...] It was known that a sponge soaked in a mixture of opium and other compounds such as belladonna and hashish served as a good anesthetic. Such sponges would be soaked in the mixture, then dried for storage or transport. When it was necessary to induce unconsciousness - for surgery, for example - the sponge would be soaked in water to activate the drugs and then placed over the nose and mouth of the subject, who would promptly lose consciousness. Given the description of the events on the cross and the rapid apparent "death" of Jesus, it is a plausible suggestion that this use of a drugged sponge was the cause. [Although unpredictable it would] increase the chance of survival. [...]
All that remained then was for Jesus to be taken down from the cross, apparently lifeless but in reality unconscious, and taken to private tomb where medicines could be used to revive him. He would then be whisked away from the scene. And this is precisely what is described in the Gospels: Luke (23:53) and Mark (15:46) report that Jesus was placed in a new tomb nearby. Matthew (27:6) adds that the tomb was owned by the wealthy and influential Joseph of Arimathea. John (19:41-42), who generally gives us so many extra details, adds that there was a garden around this tomb, implying that the grounds were privately owned, perhaps also by Joseph of Arimathea.
John also stresses that Jesus was taken down quickly and put in this new tomb. Then, in a very curious addition, he reports that Joseph of Arimathea and a colleague, Nicodemus, visited the tomb during the night and brought with them a very large amount of spices: myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). These, it is true, could be used simply as a perfume, but there could be another equally plausible explanation. Both substances have a medicinal use - most notably, myrrh has been used as an aid to stop bleeding. Neither drug is known to have a role in embalming dead bodies. Mark (16:1) and Luke (23:56) touch obliquely on this theme as well, adding to their story of the tomb the women - Mary Magdalene and Mary, "mother of James" - brought spices and ointments with them when they came to the tomb after the Sabbath had ended.”
"The Jesus Papers" by Michael Baigent (2006)
Other religious traditions have taught that Jesus survived. We have already seen that Qur'an 4:155 states that Jesus was not crucified (although it looked to some like he was); The Ahmadiyya sect of Islam teaches that Jesus "lived to teach again, outside Israel"2. Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon says that Jesus visited the Americas after the crucifixion (3 Nephi 11-26), although it is arguable that this is just a vision rather than a physical occurrence.
There were many forms of ancient Christianity, resulting in a great number of gospels, books, scrolls and writings, many of which tell completely different stories to those that are now reflected in the New Testament (which was itself only compiled 200 years later). Stories of a dying-and-resurrecting god-man had been around for hundreds of years before Jesus. The story of Jesus is very much like the story of Dionysus. A version of the Dionysus myth premiered in 405BCE, called The Bacchae, in which "King Pentheus, whose name means 'Man of Suffering', is raised up on a tree and torn to shreds in the place of Dionysus"11. Christians also wrote accounts of the crucifixion wherein Jesus is substituted.
Some early Christian communities in the 2nd century believed that Simon of Cyrene had been substituted for Jesus on the cross while Jesus laughs at them from a distance2,11. In the The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, found amongst the Nag Hammadi scrolls and dating from the 3rd century, Jesus openly mocks those who thought that he was crucified:
“Another... was the one who drank the gall and the vinegar: it was not I. It was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. [...] I was rejoicing in the height over all the riches of the archons... laughing at their ignorance.”
“... one of the most disturbing versions of the crucifixion to be propounded by a Gnostic teacher [in] the now lost writings of Basilides, as retold by Irenaeus. The New Testament accounts indicate that on the road to crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus' cross (see Mark 14:21). According to Basilides, Jesus used the opportunity to pull a supernatural switch, transforming himself to look like Simon and Simon to look like himself. The Romans then proceeded to crucify the wrong man, while Jesus stood to the side, laughing at his subterfuge (Against Heresies 1.24.3).”
How is it possible? Although some gnostic texts have Jesus actual able to transform into different physical shapes, there are other more down-to-earth explanations. Many ancient Christian texts actually had Jesus have a twin brother, Thomas, or Judas. Another Nag Hammadi scroll, The Book of Thomas the Contender is one such text.
“It was a widespread tradition amongst early Christians that Jesus had a twin brother who resembled him in every detail. This caused Literalists a great many problems, as the obvious object to their claims that Jesus had literally resurrected from the dead was that his twin brother had been crucified in his place. This has led some scholars to conclude that this legend must be based on historical fact...
The authorship of The Gospel of Thomas is attributed to Didymos Judas Thomas. The Aramaic name Thomas and the Greek name Didymos both mean 'twin'. The author's name is thus 'Judas the twin'. This suggests that in the original Jesus story, Judas the betrayer of Jesus symbolized the eidolon which betrays the Daemon.”
With this in mind, it can be seen that parts of the gospels make somewhat more sense. The reason Judas had to betray Jesus to the Romans with a tell-tale kiss is because they couldn't tell Jesus apart from his twin. Because we are accustomed to the traditional reading of the contradictory accounts of the New Testament, such explanations sound ridiculous: but what is more ridiculous - the resurrection, or, a simple case of mistaken identity as Jesus turned the tables on Judas?
Many have believed, including some of the first Christian communities, that it was Judas, Thomas or Simon of Cyrene who was actually crucified, with Jesus merely going into hiding for a few days.