The Search for the Missing Corpse
The film Risen gets (2016) very high marks in all categories: screenplay, casting, writing, cinematography, character development, and even acting. I was especially impressed with actor Joseph Fiennes who played the main detective character, an ambitious Roman tribune named Clavius who was charged by Pontius Pilate with the difficult and unpleasant task of finding a missing corpse. That’s the main plotline. He eventually finds it but not in the condition he expected. As the clues bring him closer to learning the truth, and certainly once he discovers the body, it causes him to question his previous assumptions about reality and triggers a crisis of belief. As for the writing itself, some might assume the film simply uses the text of one of the four gospels, or a compilation of them, since they all contain accounts of the event upon which the story of Risen is based. But it does not. Rather, it uses the primary facts of the event to create a fictionalized mystery that is highly believable.
The corpse I’m referring to is the body of Jesus, and the event was the resurrection. I call it a mystery because of the way the plotline of the film is constructed to follow the dilemma of the missing body of Jesus. I call it a dilemma because that’s exactly what it was for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities, one that is well-portrayed by the film. That is the very word used in the film to refer to the problem that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate had on his hands. And indeed, the entire plot rests on the premise of this dilemma. It starts off with the historically well-attested crucifixion of Jesus and then, until about the 80% point, gives all its attention to the quandary of his missing body. The film is pointed on the fact that Jesus’s body was interred in a very specific tomb belonging to one Joseph of Arimathea instead of being tossed onto a pile of bodies as other victims were, or buried in a common grave from which a body was easy to exhume. The specific identity of the tomb was significant enough to have been recorded by all four biographers. Here’s one reference:
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. (Matthew 27:57)
Muslims, as you may know, believe in the historicity of Jesus but not his crucifixion, as per the Qur’an in Surah 4:157 which says “they killed him not, nor was he crucified.” It follows that without his death he could not have risen, so the resurrection of Jesus is also rejected by Muslims as moot. By contrast, three of the four gospel writers attest to the fact that Jesus foretold his resurrection at least three separate times before his crucifixion such as this quote recorded by Mark in chapter 9 and verse 31: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (See also Mark 8:31, 10:34 and Luke 18:33). After the fact, both an angel and Jesus apparently found it necessary to remind his disciples of his predictive words from earlier days. We see this at the site of the empty tomb and in Jesus’s wonderfully strange discourse with two of them on the road to Emmaus, which is recorded by the historical biographer Luke in his gospel (24:7 and 46).
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled…Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead…”
Jesus’s missing body presented the authorities who had him executed with a serious public relations problem: Since Jesus claimed to be the divine Messiah and King who would rise again from the dead, such an occurrence would unquestionably validate his claim. And, according to Matthew’s detailed account, they were well aware of Jesus’s predictions before that fact (27:62-66):
The next day…after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
This, of course, would be an unacceptable turn of events for both groups in authority, so naturally they took pains to prevent it. They officially sealed the tomb and posted Roman guards at the site. But alas! These measures failed. On the third day it was reported to the authorities that Jesus’s body was gone—the seal on the tomb had been broken and the huge stone displaced. A cover story was concocted that Jesus’s disciples stole the body, which was well portrayed in the film. But the facts did not fit the story. The film depicts the ropes that were sealing the stone as having “burst” or “exploded” and the stone itself blown away from the entrance in a clearly unnatural way. In one scene, Clavius observed all these clues for himself, and was clearly perplexed by them. Although the gospels do not give us some of these details (e.g. the presence and condition of the ropes), they are reasonably extrapolated from the details that are given. So I think the film writers took justified liberties to surmise and include them for us. Another detail that is given to us was the finding of the linen cloths, or shroud, in which Jesus had been wrapped. Both John and Luke record that they were found there by Peter and John (John 20:5-7 and Luke 24:12). One questionable detail that was inserted was the image of Jesus’s face on the shroud, which is not recorded in any of the gospel accounts. It is an obvious reference to the well-known Shroud of Turin, the authenticity of which is contested. Some scholars and lay-Christians would celebrate this insertion, while others would not. Either way, the image is a minor detail, and the film’s fictionalized investigation by the Romans in no way hinges upon it. The essential fact is the missing corpse.
As for the rest of the details offered by the chroniclers related to the disciples’ discovery of the event, the film ignores them. This does not bother me. Rather, the story follows the fictionalized but certain Roman investigation that would logically have ensued. Think about it. Fact 1: The Jewish authorities (according to both Old Testament and Jesus’s own prophecies in the gospels) wanted Jesus executed, but needed the Romans to achieve it. Fact 2: The Romans, in order to prevent Jewish unrest, complied and carried it out under Pilate’s reluctant authorization (also according to prophecy). Fact 3: A man whom they were all certain was Jesus was crucified with many attesting details, including the full participation of the Roman soldiers whose job it was to perform and verify the executions. This is essentially how the film begins, at the time of the crucifixion. After an initial battle scene in which Roman legionaries put down a small Jewish revolt (including Barabbas) under Clavius’s command, Clavius reports back to Pontius Pilate who informs him of the crucifixion already six hours old and sends him there to control the crowd.
Upon his arrival, the man they were certain was Jesus was already dead. (For the benefit of some Muslims who believe that Allah rescued Jesus by replacing him with Judas—who was made to appear like Jesus—the account by Matthew says that Judas had already hanged himself, chapter 27:3-8). At Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, Clavius was transfixed by the face of the so-called messiah and got a really good look at him that apparently burned his visage onto his mind and haunted his dreams. Fact 4: The man they all were certain was Jesus was in fact executed and, unlike ordinary victims, was interred in a rich man’s tomb, as we have already noted (according to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, 53:9.) Fact 5: The authorities knew of and feared the foretold resurrection of Jesus (i.e. an attempted theft of his body by his disciples) enough that they took pains to prevent it. They were fully aware of and concerned about what even the appearance of a risen messiah-figure would portend. Fact 6: What they feared had actually happened. It was a greatly vexing problem for both the Jewish and Roman authorities, and thus it became Clavius’s problem, which the film so masterfully depicts. His career was on the line. But what started as his problem became his salvation.
Click here for part 2 (April 11): CSI Palestine, part 2