Return to Transcripts main page


The Mystery of Jesus

Aired December 25, 2013 - 18:00   ET



LIAM NEESON, NARRATOR, "THE MYSTERY OF JESUS": Nearly 2,000 years ago, historians tell us, in a remote outpost of the Roman empire, three men were crucified on a hill. Two of the men were thieves.

The third man's crime was marked by the sign nailed to his cross. "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

Jesus himself insisted his throne was in heaven, not of this world. But that didn't matter, the Romans saw him as a political nuisance. To his fellow Jews, he was just another failed Messiah.

No one even thought to record his death.

The story of Jesus has transcended generations and cultures. The tale of a routine execution that gave birth to a new religion.

Yet, from that unlikely beginning, a great faith was born. And today, some two billion people believe Jesus was the Son of God.

But even as billions of people pledge themselves to follow Jesus' teachings, we have known almost nothing about Jesus the man. No other great religious figure, from Moses to the Buddha to the Prophet Mohammed, is so shrouded in mystery.

AMY-JILL LEVINE, PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: It's very difficult to classify Jesus within a single category, whether he was a sage or a healer or a teacher or a charismatic figure. And I suspect the most accurate response to the question, who was Jesus at the time, would be a mixture of all of these different identifications.

NEESON: The startling discovery of what some claim to be the burial box of Jesus' brother James, reopened the biggest detective story of all time -- the mystery of Jesus, the man.

The plain limestone container, called an ossuary, is inscribed with a tantalizing clue in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The public was enthralled. From people who flock to see the ossuary on display, to Biblical scholars around the world. Could this be the first physical evidence that Jesus walked the earth? So when the Israeli authorities alleged eight months after its discovery that the ossuary's inscription was forged, the centuries-old quest for the historical Jesus became ever more urgent.

Did he have a real brother? Was Mary really a virgin? How did Jesus live, and why did he have to die?

Who was Jesus the man? Why is the greatest story ever told also the greatest mystery never solved?

Almost all we know about Jesus' life comes to us from the four books of the Gospels called Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Yet the Gospels were written anywhere between 40 and 70 years after Jesus died, and with an eye to converting people.

DR. BART EHRMAN, CHAIR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA: The Gospels weren't meant to be historically accurate accounts in the way we would think of. They weren't written according to our standards of biographical accuracy. They were meant to proclaim the good news of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

NEESON: One of the stories that historians are debating is the Christmas card scene of his humble birth in a manger, heralded by a star in the east and attended by three wise men.

It's only mentioned by Matthew and Luke, and they don't always agree. So, is any of it true? Scholars say yes -- to a degree.

DR. CLAIRE PFANN, PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF THE HOLY LAND, JERUSALEM: When we look at the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, we can see that there are about 12 pieces of information, 12 facts, that they share in common, that they both know about Jesus' early years.

They both know that his mother is Mary, that the father or step- father is Joseph, that they're from the family of David, that the birth took place in Bethlehem. So they have this string, a skeleton of information about the very formative years of Jesus and his conception. But they don't have much beyond that.

NEESON: Sadly, the birthplace of the man Christians call the Prince of Peace is often a war zone, as it has been for centuries, from the Romans to the Crusaders to the present-day clash between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the manger that generations of pilgrims have sought out is a bit of a shock -- a stone grotto that doesn't look much like a cozy stable.

Caves like this one pockmark the region where Bethlehem lies. But one scholar suggests that we've got the wrong address. There is another Bethlehem, one that borders Joseph and Mary's home territory of Nazareth.

BRUCE CHILTON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE OF ADVANCED THEOLOGY, BARD COLLEGE: That suggests to me that this is the Bethlehem that we ought to be looking at, instead of Bethlehem of Judea.

NEESON: It is unlikely that this argument is going to trump the centuries of tradition that point to the Bethlehem of faith.

REV. THOMAS FITZPATRICK, DIRECTOR, PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL INSTITUTE, JERUSALEM: It is a historical place, revered for centuries by the faithful. It is the place where it is celebrated Jesus was born.

That's enough for me in my devotion. It's not enough for me and -- as a scientist.

NEESON: And what of the other great tradition of the first Christmas, the star in the east? Was it a myth? Or did it really exist?

Astronomer Michael Molnar may have found the answer on a 2,000- year- old coin he bought a few years ago for $50. On one side Molnar noticed the astrological sign for Aries, which stood for Judea in ancient astrology. On the other side was the god Jupiter.

MICHAEL MOLNAR, ASTRONOMER & AUTHOR, "THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM": When I came across the coin that showed me that Aries the ram was the sign of the Jews, and I asked myself, well, what event would have happened in Aries the ram?

NEESON: So, armed with a computer and charts of the ancient heavens, Molnar started plotting the course of Jupiter in the constellation of Aries around the time of Jesus' birth. And he suddenly hit the mother of all celestial alignments.

MOLNAR: According to the beliefs of 2,000 years ago, if you have the sun, Jupiter and moon, accompanied by Saturn, in the sign of Aries the ram, this created the conditions for the birth of a divine and immortal person.

NEESON: If there was a star in the east, that would have been it. Just when, exactly, did this star appear? Molnar did some more calculations.

MOLNAR: The computer came back with only one answer. It said it happened only once in Aries the ram. That was April 17th, 6 B.C.

NEESON: Christmas in April? Jesus born six years before we thought? It's likely true, since King Herod, who went on a murderous rampage when he heard of Jesus' birth, died in 4 B.C.

But after his birth, Jesus largely disappears from view, and the mysteries of his early life deepen. Who were Jesus' parents? His brothers and sisters? Just how did Jesus grow up?

LEVINE: Jesus was probably doing what most other teenagers were doing -- honing their job skills, meeting other people, helping to support the family, learning what he could about his community and his tradition.

NEESON: His tradition was Jewish, and his community was the village of Nazareth in rural Galilee. Just as the ancient prophets had said, the Messiah would be a Nazarene.


NEESON: Nazareth in the first century was just a small town in rural Galilee, a world away from cosmopolitan Jerusalem 100 miles down the road.

Yet it was here, the Gospel of St. Luke tells us, that an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and told her something extraordinary. She was going to be the mother of God's son.

But what do we know about this woman who would change the course of history?

REV. N. THOMAS WRIGHT, BISHOP OF DURHAM, CHURCH OF ENGLAND: We don't know very much about Mary. We get little tantalizing snapshots. And from those tantalizing snapshots, she appears to be a lively, intelligent, but basically down-to-earth woman.

NEESON: And maybe not a woman at all when she bore Jesus, but a girl with a remarkable life ahead of her.

PFANN: Mary was very young when she became pregnant with Jesus. She was probably just in her mid-teens, which meant that by the time Jesus was doing his public ministry, maybe she was 45.

NEESON: Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, is perhaps the most mysterious figure of all. By the time Jesus has begun his public ministry, Joseph has vanished from the story. That has led to speculation that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, was many years older than Mary.

Life in the Nazareth of Jesus' day was hard. Today, a group of Biblical scholars and archeologists have built Nazareth village, to give a better sense of just what daily life in the Nazareth of Jesus' time was like.

EHRMAN: There were no paved streets. There were no luxuries of any kind. The houses are made of field stones that are insulated with mud and straw. It was a very basic kind of hand-to-mouth existence.

NEESON: It was also an existence that closely followed the rituals of Jewish life. In fact, the only time the Gospels mention Jesus as a boy is during a visit to the temple in Jerusalem.

This visit would have made an enormous impression on a devout 12-year- old from the hinterland.

WRIGHT: Jerusalem was the place where, particularly at festival times, people always hoped that maybe, now, God was going to do something dramatic. And that sort of sense is in the air that you get there and it's going to happen. The new thing is going to be born.

PFANN: Jesus sat with the teachers of the law, the great rabbis, the ones who ran the academies in Jerusalem, and had deep, detailed discussions about the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, with them. And these teachers and rabbis looked at this kid and said, this kid has a real gift. We should sign him up. Let's get him to enroll. He's wasted up there in Nazareth.

NEESON: It was a mission, the Gospels say, that Jesus thought more important than his earthly family. For when they had departed for Nazareth, Jesus was still in the temple.

LEVINE: And on the way home, Mary and Joseph suddenly realized, after a few days, that Jesus is missing. This always struck me as somewhat like "Home Alone."

And they come back and they discover him in the temple. And Mary is very upset and says, how could you do this?

PFANN: Jesus, in his 12-year-old, know-it-all state says, "Well, didn't you know, I needed to be about my father's business?"

And he understands that his destiny is somehow here. The temple is where he belongs. Discussing these religious issues is what he is supposed to do.

NEESON: How could Mary and Joseph fail to notice Jesus was missing? Did this mean that the family was so large that a child like Jesus could just disappear? The Gospels speak of Jesus' four brothers -- James, Josephs, Judas and Simon -- and at least two sisters.

But many believed that Mary remained a virgin all her life, and that these siblings were either stepchildren from Joseph's earlier marriage, or cousins.

Scholars who have read the texts closely say that doesn't seem to be the case, and they don't need the controversial ossuary to make their point.

EHRMAN: The word that's used of James and Jesus' other siblings, the Greek word for brother, is the word for brother. Some people thought, well maybe they're cousins, for example. Well, there is a Greek word for cousin, and that's not the word that's used here.

NEESON: The theological questions are profound, and the debate is a difficult one, especially if you're a Jesuit and a scientist, like Tom Fitzpatrick.

FITZPATRICK: I don't know if we're ever going to get to a definitive answer that satisfies every question or every person on this. It's been a very important doctrine, a mystery for the church, over 2,000 years. It's not the most important doctrine.

NEESON: Just as fascinating as Jesus' family tree is the debate over just what Jesus looked like. This certainly isn't a matter of doctrine, but it has always been a source of intense speculation. The centuries-old guessing game that science tells us is way off the mark.

RICHARD NEAVE, MEDICAL & FORENSIC ARTIST: I could never reconcile myself to him having long, blond hair and blue eyes, because he comes from a part of the world where people are basically rather swarthy, with dark hair and dark eyes.

NEESON: So, what then does science say is the true face of the Son of God?


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta, at the CNN headquarters.

Now in the news, much of the country, digging out from under a deep blanket of snow and ice. But brace yourself, more snow is expected tonight. Roads and airports already snarled with holiday travelers.

And utility workers are busy across New England trying to get the power back on before the next storm hit.

And you can expect a big U.S. military buildup in Afghanistan next year. That according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Visiting Kabul today, Mullen said between 20 and 30,000 more U.S. troops could be in Afghanistan by summer to counter the growing Taliban threat.

President-elect Barack Obama is working with congressional Democrats to get the economy moving again. They set Christmas as the unofficial deadline to come up with a list of spending projects.

Vice president-elect Joe Biden predicts the plan will cost about $700 billion over two years.

And if you're going to Barack Obama's inauguration, here are security rules you need to know. Strollers will not be allowed near the U.S. Capitol. No Tents on the National Mall. Chairs, a big no-no along the parade route. Also leave thermoses, coolers and backpacks at home.

They won't be allowed at the Capitol or along the parade route.

Coming up in the CNN NEWSROOM, the question many women are asking, and some men, too. Who's making Michelle Obama's inaugural gown? Top designers are clamoring for the job. We'll reveal some details for you at the top of the hour.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Those are the headlines. "CNN PRESENTS: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS" continues.


NEESON: Trying to figure out what Jesus really looked like has preoccupied Christians for centuries. And legions of artists have stayed busy trying to supply the answer.

But the difficulty in trying to flesh out the image of Jesus is that his contemporaries considered his message, not his looks, all important.

Also, Judaism forbids the worship of images and idols, especially of someone claiming to be God. Of course, that did not stop Christians from imagining how Jesus looked.

He was first depicted as a triumphant sun god, like Apollo. Since then, Jesus has been re-imagined by every generation. And movies have never tired of portraying him, from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to the brooding artist in "Jesus of Montreal," to the smiling Buddy Christ of the film "Dogma."

LEVINE: Jesus is not, as far as I can tell historically, the blond, blue-eyed, Max von Sydow version, or even Jeffrey Hunter, who we get from the movies.

FITZPATRICK: I think that he would have looked very much like what we know by the term "hippies."

NEESON: Now we may be able to literally put some flesh on the bones of centuries of guessing. That's what the noted medical and forensic artist Richard Neave did when Biblical scholars gave him a copy of a skull from the first century, found in present-day Israel.

They wanted to get an idea of what a man of Jesus' time and place might have looked like.

NEAVE: It's a strong skull. And to live satisfactorily, especially the kind of life that Jesus led, you're going to have to be a fairly tough, rugged kind of fellow.

You know, he walked miles. He carried his staff. He could be flogged. He could carry his cross.

I mean, you know, that takes a lot of physical strength and determination. And so, he's not a wimp.

NEESON: Neave has spent nearly 30 years reconstructing the heads of mystery people -- anonymous murder victims, ancient archeological finds and suicides.

But how would he approach a recreation of a face from 2,000 years ago?

NEAVE: It's done in exactly the same way as you would handle a forensic case. There's absolutely no difference, except that in this case, a nice, clean, prepared cast, rather than the original skull.

Then you make a copy of that, and that's mounted onto a metal stand. Pegs are inserted into the skull at specific anatomical points. And these indicate the average thickness of tissue that you're going to get, say, there or there or there.

NEESON: Neave's skull was rendered into an image by the BBC, and further developed by the artist Donato Giancola, with the help of Neave and Biblical scholars. The result is a startling image -- nothing like the Jesus that history has imagined.

NEAVE: The nose is quite prominent, and a full mouth, a youngish face, between 30 and 40, I suppose.

NEESON: Neave stresses that his Jesus head is not "the" Jesus head. At best, it represents a face that Jesus himself might have seen or had. And still it attracts debate.

NEAVE: I've had one or two comments from people suggesting that it doesn't look anything like Jesus, which of course doesn't surprise me. They actually -- some of them do go on to say that they know exactly what Jesus does look like, because they took a photograph of him only three weeks ago.

NEESON: Even though science has given us a better idea of what Jesus might have really looked like, Jesus' face wouldn't matter were it not for what he said and what he did, and, the Gospels tell us, in a surprisingly short time -- just three years.

What was the message of this carpenter's son from Galilee? And why did it get him killed?


NEESON: When Jesus suddenly reemerged into the public eye, so the Gospels tell us, he was about 30-years-old. And he had a powerful mission: to rock the ancient world with his teachings.

His public ministry would last just three years. But in that brief span, this obscure Galilean (ph) carpenter would rouse such passion, that his followers would call him not just The Son of Man, but the Son of God.

So who was Jesus? A faith healer? A rebel? A messiah?

DR. BART EHRMAN, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA: Some scholars think that he was principally to be understood as a Jewish Rabbi. Some think that he was better understood as a social revolutionary, or even a political revolutionary. Some people think that he was an ancient philosopher, a Jewish philosopher.

And probably the majority of scholars continue to think that he was best understood as a kind of Jewish apocalyptic prophet.

NEESON: But Jesus the prophet was not alone in his search for souls to save. Scholars tell us the landscape was teeming with Jewish groups, each with there own take on God's word. One such sect, the Essings (ph), were Apocalyptic Jews who lived in the dessert by the Dead Sea. When their writings were discovered in the caves of Kumron (ph) in 1948, we suddenly gained startling new clues about Jesus' own spiritual roots.

DR. CLAIRE PFANN, UNIVERSITY OF THE HOLY LAND, JERUSALEM: We have from Kumron just a small bit of a manuscript that shows us that there were other Jews, just before the time of Jesus, who were waiting for a Messiah, who would exert miraculous and healing power, and who would also have the power to raise the dead. And Jesus embraces that messianic expectation.

NEESON: And it began with a baptism, as the Gospels tell us, performed by the man who tradition and scholarship say was Jesus' cousin, and boyhood friend. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness wearing camel skins, eating locusts, and wild honey, and baptizing people in the Jordan River to cleanse them of their sins.

This was a radical new spin on the Jewish purification bath. John was turning an ancient ritual into a new sacrament.

PFANN: John the Baptist, he recognized Jesus at the baptism. And he said, this is the man I've been waiting for. This is the person I am preparing the way for. And he expected Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel.

NEESON: And that's the message Jesus took to the Jewish people. The Gospels tell us he returned home, found his first disciples among Galilean fishermen. And soon, he called attention to himself by casting out demons, and healing the sick.

DR. AMY-JILL LEVINE, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: Those healings would have attracted greater and greater crowds. And those crowds then would have provided the base for Jesus' other teachings. Was Jesus a healer and an exorcist? I think so, quite a good one in fact.

NEESON: A healer, an exorcist, and soon a miracle worker. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus' first big public miracle was at the wedding at Kana, turning water into wine, and saving his friend's party. Science can never say whether a miracle really happened. But scholars say there would be no mistaking the message that Jesus was sending.

LEVINE: In turning water to wine at the wedding of Kana, he is saying, I am the bride-groom of the great Messianic banquet that God is going to have one day. And the bride-groom has arrived on the scene.

NEESON: The miracles kept coming, the loaves and fish, raising Lazarus from the dead, walking on water, and repelling Satan. But magicians and healers and exorcists were everywhere in the Middle East in those days.

LEVINE: We have various accounts of miracle workers, both Pagan as well as Jewish, in the first century. The book of Acts presents, for example, other exorcists who were not part of Jesus' contingent, but they do seem to be successful exorcists.

REV. N.T. WRIGHT, BISHOP OF DURHAM, CHURCH OF ENGLAND: We can put Jesus on a continuum of other healers, but he still breaks the mold. He does more than they do and more frequently.

NEESON: And more than miracles, Jesus reached beyond social boundaries to include woman prominently among his disciples. One woman who followed Jesus has become second only to his mother in the story of his life. Yet Mary Magdolin has not exactly been regarded as a virgin.

LEVINE: Christian tradition depicts Mary Magdolin as a prostitute. But she's never called a prostitute in the New Testament, or indeed in the first couple of centuries of Christianity. The most we know about her is that she is independent. Luke tells us that she was possessed by seven demons, and had been exorcized by Jesus. So perhaps she followed him because he had performed a healing for her.

Other than that, Mary is in independent woman. Prostitute? No reason to think so.

NEESON: But what was she to Jesus? Could Jesus have been married to Mary Magdolin, as some legends have it? Or to anyone else?

LEVINE: We have no indication in the Gospel tradition that Jesus is married. Would it have been unusual for a Jewish man to have been unmarried? No, not at all.

NEESON: Whatever the details of Jesus' personal life, to his fellow Jews what he said was as important as what he did. He gave them a radical agenda, scholars say, one in which society's outcasts could play a central role. Its manifesto promised that the powerful will be brought low, and the meek would inherit the earth. The Sermon on the Mount was an edgy message at a volatile time.

WRIGHT: The thought of Jesus going up into the hills with his followers, and giving them special teaching has a kind of a revolutionary flavor to it. My goodness, we're being prepared to do something. This is not just some lessons that will help us say our prayers a bit better, though it will. It will go much more than that. It's setting an agenda for a whole movement, and how it is going to go.

NEESON: The Gospels tell us that Jesus as the Messiah had healed Japeel (ph) for the masses. Here, finally, was someone who could liberate the Jews from a century of Roman rule.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jews in particular thought that this land that they occupied had been given to them by God. The idea that some other power was controlling this land was considered not only to be a political nightmare, it was also thought to be theologically blasphemous.

LEVINE: And if Jesus is preaching the Kingdom of God, he is clearly preaching something antithetical to the Normative Kingdom, which is the Kingdom of Rome.

NEESON: And if that wasn't enough, the Gospels tell us, Jesus then took his disciples and his message to Jerusalem, the heart of Judaism, and of Roman political power. The fuse was primed. The people wanted a savior.

PFANN: And as they sit here on this mount of olives, where we are today, they say OK, now are you going to set up the kingdom? We are waiting. We want to rule.

NEESON: And then, no sooner had Jesus ministry begun, it was over. Jesus was now reviled as a common criminal, deserted by the people who had once hailed him as the Messiah. Was it prophecy or politics that set Jesus out to die?



NEESON: Jesus came back to Jerusalem, the Gospels tell us, during Passover. As a devout Jew, he had been to the Great Temple many times before with his family. But now he came at a politically charged time, with a provocative message.

LEVINE: Passover is the feast of freedom. The city has swelled with well over a million pilgrims. There is a concern for Roman occupation. Pilot has brought his troops into the city. Anybody who talks about the Kingdom of God, and even more, anybody about whom the word goes out, this is a new king, is clearly a political liability.

NEESON: And not just a liability to the Romans, but to the Jewish Hierarchy, led by their high priest, Ciaiphus (ph). In one of the most vivid passages in the Gospels, a furious Jesus enters the temple to cleanse it of the many changers he finds there.

PFANN: Overturning the temple tables, of the money changers, and all of the offerings that were being sold, which was the necessary business of temple work, was a direct prophetic assault on the religious institution. In a way he was saying that a new era was beginning. This was about as much as the religious authorities could take. And they put together a plot to turn him over to the Romans.

NEESON: But first Jesus would fulfill the ritual duties of his religion and eat the Passover seder with his friends, a meal known today as the Last Supper.

WRIGHT: According to our earliest accounts, he knew that he was in trouble and was likely to be arrested. And so he took these symbolic foods of the Passover meal, and installed new significance in them.

NEESON: It is a communion recreated today in churches everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is my body, which will be given up for you.

WRIGHT: It's difficult to know if he actually said these things. Our reports are decades later. But I think he certainly had a last supper. And he may well have anticipated that he was going to be killed soon thereafter.

NEESON: And according to the Gospels, that's exactly what happened. Betrayed among the olive trees in the garden of Giseminy (ph) by his own disciple, Judas Hiscariot (ph). Throughout Christian history, Judas has been made the art villain in Jesus' death. Yet, just what did this trusted disciple betray?

EHRMAN: It's possible that Jesus taught the disciples privately that when the Kingdom comes, you will be the rulers, and I, of course, will be the King of this coming kingdom. If that's what he was teaching them, then everything else falls in place. What Judas portrays to the authorities is that Jesus was teaching this in private. The authorities used it as a charge to bring to Pontius Pilot.

NEESON: Pontius Pilot was the Roman Governor of Judea, who had power of life and death over his Jewish subjects, and often used it. REV. BRUCE CHILTON: Pontius Pilot, the very year that Jesus entered into Jerusalem, was in a very difficult political position. And as a consequence of that, he agreed to help Ciaiphus, and to pin the whole blame for what had occurred within the temple, a disturbance there involving Jesus, on Jesus himself.

NEESON: Scholars think that the most accurate part of the Gospels comes here at the end, the eyewitness details of his death by crucifixion, perhaps the most gruesome form of capital punishment ever devised.

CHILTON: It was a case of a state organized around the principal of terror. And you pointed this terror at anyone who was seen as posing a threat or posing a potential threat. That certainly applied in the case of Jesus.

NEESON: And to many others. The Romans crucified up to 10,000 people during Jesus' lifetime, often people just like himself.

EHRMAN: It wasn't unusual at all to have somebody, even a prophet, arrested, and executed. Even in the Gospels, he's killed with two other people that morning. Probably they too were troublemakers. And the next day, Pilot probably ordered a couple of other people killed.

NEESON: The crucifixion has always been depicted as an awful death. Modern forensic science tells us that it was even worse than we imagined. After three decades as a medical examiner in New York, Dr. Frederic Zuggerby (ph) has investigated hundreds of homicides. But his research into death by crucifixion is as chilling as anything he has ever seen. A death that began with a ferocious scourging by Roman soldiers using a metal tipped whip.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bits of metal would literally enter the skin, even up to the front of the body. The weight would carry it to the front and rip, rip blood vessels, skin. The pains were literally brutal.

NEESON: Zuggerby says his agony was compounded when Jesus was then forced to carry the 50-pound cross beam out of Pilot's fortress, and through these streets of Jerusalem, today called the Via De la Rosa, "the Way of Sorrows."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the condition that Jesus was in at this time, the shocking condition which is now being built up, the crowning of thorns adding more shock, Jesus would be stumbling. He would be unsteady on his feet. He would fall. He would get up, fall.

NEESON: Finally, Jesus arrived at a hill outside the city walls called Gargotha (ph), which means the place of the skull, a site that today is covered by the ornate church of the Holy Sepulcar.

In Jesus' day, this holy place was a killing field, where a team of Roman soldiers awaited their victim, and quickly set about their grizzly task.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The members of it would hold their legs across their body, their arms, while they nailed the nails into their hands.

NEESON: Though some victims lasted a week, Zuggerby calculates that Jesus spent about six hours on the cross. Then it was finished.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I were to write a death certificate, I would say the cause of death was due to shock, which causes cardiogenic shock, or the failure of the heart as a pump. And that would be the cause of death.

NEESON: While politics has a hand in Jesus' death, scholars say so too did prophecy. They note that Jesus' followers believed the prophecies of ancient scripture, that a political Messiah, a glorious Earthly king, would come to free them from Rome. But Jesus had a new prophecy, one that was very different from what they had expected.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He begins to teach them that the Messiah must suffer and die, and that he would go up to Jerusalem. He would be tortured. He would be beaten. He would be crucified. He would die. And he would rise again. This was not an expectation that they had for the Messiah.

NEESON: So, the Gospels say, when the disciples showed up at Jesus' tomb three days after his death, and found it empty, they were astonished. Jesus said he would rise from the dead. Had his prophecy been fulfilled?


NEESON: Christianity's defining moment came three days after Jesus' death, when the Gospels tell us he rose from the tomb, and appeared to his downcast followers. In fact, scholars believed the Gospels were written backwards, starting with Jesus' death, because those were that facts that the apostles knew the best, and the facts that launched their faith.

EHRMAN: What makes Jesus different isn't that his message was different. What makes him different is that after he was executed, his followers claimed that he was raised from the dead. Christianity begins when Jesus' followers proclaim his resurrection.

NEESON: But the resurrection is also the point where science stops and faith begins. Skeptics have explained the resurrection as a mass hallucination, or as a tale told to comfort Jesus' followers. But none of those theories explain the mystery of faith.

WRIGHT: The belief that dead people don't rise was absolutely universal across the whole ancient world, with the exception of the Jews, who said that, at the moment, dead people don't rise, but one day there will be a resurrection, either of all the righteous, or possibly of everybody. The best historical explanation for the rise of the early Christian movement is that Jesus really was raised from the dead on the third day.

NEESON: While science may not explanation the resurrection of Jesus, it can illuminate his life, even to believers. REV FITZPATRICK: I'm one of those persons, anyway. Look at the secular world and say, there's wonderful things going on there. And they can be a help to us, even talking about who Jesus is.

Good, let's recognize that. Let ourselves be tested by the world. We can only be helped.

WRIGHT: Bring in as much of the other evidence as you can, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), coins, archaeological data. Let's do the history thing properly. And then this figure emerges in three dimensions. And we say, my goodness, this is not just a religious icon. It is not just a wild-eyed revolutionary. It is somebody who is all of that, and much, much more. And he's enormously compelling.

NEESON: Perhaps more compelling in today's world, where religion more often than not seems to be a source of conflict.

PFANN: Jesus as a historical figure provides no appointed dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, because the Islamic world excepts him as a prophet. The Christian world excepts him as Son of God. And clearly, he was a Jew. We will not agree, from synagogue to church to mosque, on what he represents. But at least we all have some claim upon him, and that's the basis of conversation.

NEESON: So historians will continue to dig for clues in the dust of the Holy Land, sifting through new evidence, and reexamining the old, all to capture the essence of this Jewish rabbi who so changed the world.

And faithful Christians will continue to rely on Jesus' own words to doubting Thomas, words that define the mystery of faith: "blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe."