Here is another modern Gospel forgery that has over the years won over readers who have thought it was authentic. It’s intriguing stuff: an eyewitness account of Jesus’ death!
Again, this is taken from my book Forged: Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperOne, 2010).
An equally interesting modern apocryphon, The Crucifixion of Jesus, by an Eye-Witness, deals not with the beginning of Jesus’ adult life, before his ministry, but with its ending and aftermath.  The account comes in the form of a letter written, in Latin, seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion, from a leader of the mysterious Jewish sect of the Essenes in Jerusalem to another Essene leader who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. All elements of the supernatural are completely stripped away from the account’s description of Jesus’ life and death. Jesus is shown to have led a completely human life and to have died a completely human death. But not on the cross. Jesus survived his own crucifixion and lived for another six months.
The account was first published in German, in Leipzig, in 1849. English editions, all claiming to be authentic, were published in 1907, 1919, and 1975. There were also translations into French and several into Swedish.
The Latin letter was allegedly discovered on a parchment scroll in an old Greek monastery in Alexandria by a missionary who thought that its message was dangerous, and so tried to destroy it. It was saved, however, by a learned Frenchman, who translated the account into German. The narrative was then brought to Germany by the Free Masons, understood to be modern-day descendants of the Essenes.
According to the account, Jesus himself was an Essene. When he was crucified, according to this “eyewitness,” he did not expire. He was taken from the cross and restored to life by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, fellow Essenes, who knew the secret arts of healing preserved by the sect. When the women visiting the tomb thought they saw angels, these were Essene monks wearing their white robes. The women misunderstood that Jesus had been raised, when in fact he had never died. He did die, however, six months later, from the wounds he had sustained.
It has not been difficult for scholars to expose this Gospel as another fraud. The “eyewitness,” allegedly an Essene, has no understanding of what the Essenes were really like. Today we know a good deal about this Jewish group, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were unavailable to the forger since they were discovered nearly a century after he produced his account. Nothing in the story corresponds to the historical realities of the group. For one thing, there is no way an Essene in Jerusalem would write his account in Latin, of all things.
There are other considerable problems. The account indicates that it was written seven years after the crucifixion, yet it explicitly mentions, by name, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were not written until forty to sixty years after Jesus’ death. Moreover, these books were not known as a group of writings (“the four Gospels”) until the end of the second century. Finally, the exclusion of everything supernatural in the account is a thoroughly modern, post-Enlightenment concern, not an ancient one.
And in fact a modern scholar has shown where this concern, and indeed, the entire story, came from. In 1936, a famous German scholar of the New Testament, Martin Dibelius, demonstrated that The Crucifixion of Jesus was virtually lifted, wholesale, from a now rather obscure work of historical fiction written by the German rationalist K. H. Venturini, The Natural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth (two volumes; 1800-02). Here too Jesus was an Essene, whose life had nothing supernatural about it, who did not actually die on the cross, but was revived by Joseph of Arimathea. The author of The Crucifixion of Jesus simply took Venturini’s two-volume work and condensed it into a readable booklet and tried to pass it off as a historical account, when in fact it was a modern fabrication.
- I have taken the translation from Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha, pp. 92-93.