Let’s begin responding to Kersten’s elaborate and speculative explanation that Christ traveled and ultimately died in India with the key question, did Jesus survive the crucifixion? The other lines of “evidence” that Kersten brings up: the relationship between Buddhist and Jesus’ teaching, the perversion of Paul’s theology, and the travels of Christ before his public ministry and then after his crucifixion are all based on extremely speculative explanations which are based mostly on legends that are many hundreds of years removed from the actual events. However, Christ’s crucifixion and what happened afterward is regarded by all as a historical event with several reliable accounts in the Gospels where the facts can be subjected to scrutiny.
In order to survive the crucifixion, Christ after going through several trials before Jewish authorities (Mk 14:55ff, 15:1), Herod (Lk 23:8-12) and Pilate (Mk 15:2; Lk 23:2-5; Mk 15:6ff), which included scourging (Mk 15:15), beatings with fists (Mt 26:67) and rods (Mk 15:19), and a crown of thorns forced on his head (Mk 15:17)… then crucified… somehow has to be able to recover after having appeared to die and then go and appear to his followers.
An excellent explanation of Roman crucifixion in general and Jesus’ trials, beatings, and crucifixion in particular can be found in the article by Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer: On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ in JAMA, V. 225, March 21st, 1986 pp. 1455-1463.
Now, the beatings and scourging at the hands of the Jewish and Roman guards was severe to say the least. Scourging was performed with a short whip of several strands that had either pieces of metal or glass tied at the end and was applied to the back while the victim was tied to a post or object. The whipping consisted of 39 lashes and the person administering the blows was well trained to execute maximum pain and damage by dragging the embedded metal or glass across the back shredding flesh and muscles often exposing the skeletal structure. It was not uncommon for people to die from this beating alone.
Jesus’ crucifixion involved having your body stretched out across the perpendicular beams, wrists and feet were nailed to the cross severing nerves and resulting in burning pain. In order to breathe, Jesus had to raise himself up by pushing on the nail through his feet, scraping his back against the raw wood. The body would drain of blood as the heart is forced to beat faster as energy is expended to breathe. Jesus would be dehydrating resulting in intense thirst. And the heart would have to beat at an extreme rate in order to compensate for the loss of oxygen due to the lack of blood. This was significant for Jesus because the soldiers did not need to break his legs (in order to hasten death by asphyxiation – Jn 19:33) because they thought him to be dead already. Jesus “premature” death was probably due to cardiac rupture or cardiorespiratory failure. The fact that “blood and water” poured out when Jesus was pierced by the Roman guard (Jn 19:44) would have certainly insured the death since it would have “probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart” (JAMA, p. 1463). This led the authors of the JAMA article to conclude:
“However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side… Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” – JAMA, p. 1463
Kersten believes that Jesus did not die after being crucified. In order to survive, he was drugged with a narcotic in his wine which put Christ in a comatose state after which he was revived by Joseph of Arimathea (a supposedly secret member of the Essene community and part of the plan) who helped in the resuscitation. This is essentially a variation of the “swoon theory”, one of several alternative
theories to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It’s important to note that other than Christ dying and then rising, this theory is the only real explanation that allows Christ to appear after the crucifixion because the historical details presented in the Gospels regarding the beatings and process of crucifixion are really not disputed.
So, how does Kersten come to these conclusions since there is no evidence in the text that Christ was drugged?
His first line of evidence is that when it says that the “sour wine” sometimes translated “vinegar” in John 19:29 that Jesus was given was actually not vinegar-wine at all. After all, if it was vinegar, it should have the same effect as smelling salts and should have temporary stimulating effect (p. 152). But instead, it had the opposite effect… Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:30). Kersten argues that the Latin word for vinegar is “acetum” which comes from “acidus” which means to be sour. And that what Jesus was probably given was a drink from the soma plant, asclepias acida, which was used by Persians and Indians and was considered a symbol of divine life, a drink of the gods, and the drink of immortality which had the effect of the appearance of death for several days after which one awakes to an elated state of higher consciousness (p. 153). Then to help Jesus revive… “If one assumes that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were secret lay members of the Essene Order, it is logical that they would have been well suited for the task of treating Jesus’ wounds and helping the healing process. As experienced healers, the Essenes were familiar with exotic drugs and remarkable methods of treatment.” (p. 171)
Several aspects of this explanation are hard to believe. First, what does a Latin rendering of “vinegar” have to do with anything in a Greek text? Second, there is no indication at all from the text that what was administered had any narcotic value at all or that any real amount was actually taken in. It is at best, an argument from silence. Third, there is no basis for Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to be secret Essenes. “If one assumes” in this case is a real stretch and strays so far away from evidence and continues a pattern of conjecture and speculation that is throughout the book.
Kersten’s second line of evidence is the Shroud of Turin which he feels is “more tangible than such speculation” (as to the question of whether Jesus really died) and believes to be the impression of Christ. He goes through many pages of explanation of how the wounds show that the victim was still bleeding after being wrapped up, which implies the heart is still beating, though blood loss would have been minimal so that it would not have been that bad for Jesus after all.
Now, there are also several highly questionable aspects to this explanation as well. First and foremost is the fact that NO ONE KNOWS WHO’S IMPRESSION IS ON THE SHROUD! One cannot place any confidence in the Shroud for anything pertaining to anyone. Second, the views he takes of the impressions on the shroud are highly contested in and of themselves. (See the “Wikipedia” site for a good overview of the controversy) Third, in order to make his argument for the fact that the Shroud is Jesus, he has to rely on controversial legends about the travels of the Shroud prior to the thirteenth century which is the earliest known reference to the Shroud.
I would have to say that Kersten offers an extremely complicated and speculative explanation for the crucifixion which goes way beyond the clear accounts given in the Gospels and held within Christianity since 33 AD. The crux for Christianity is whether or not Christ rose from the dead or not. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). It is not surprising then that the largest sections of the Gospels concentrate on Christ’s final week before his crucifixion, the crucifixion itself, and the resurrection. The gospel of Mark is dated to about 30 years after the crucifixion (50’s AD) and Luke and Matthew maybe 10 years after that. John of course was written near around the turn of the first century (60+ years at the most after the event). These accounts have withstood scrutiny for nearly 2000 years without any convincing argument or refutation against them. This is orders of magnitude more reliable than the impractical arguments Kersten raises and his reliance on speculation and legend.