The Monty Python comedy team has produced some memorable skits and films, but they have never shied away from attacking the Christian church and pseudo-Christian concepts, such as the so-called Holy Grail. Their 1979 film, The Life of Brian, drew heavy criticism from some Christians because of its mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion. In the film, a man named Brian lived at the same time as Jesus and was repeatedly mistaken for Him.
Julian Doyle, editor and researcher for that film, recently published a book to share his thoughts on the events from the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem up until the Resurrection.1 Following the approach of many skeptics before him, Doyle sets out to disprove the accuracy of Scripture by calling attention to alleged contradictions and embellishments in the biblical accounts of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
A detailed critique of every error promoted by Doyle will not be provided here—it would take an entire book since nearly every page is littered with blunders—so this review will briefly address his overall approach. Then we will evaluate several of his arguments to show how his attacks on Scripture collapse under scrutiny. This review will conclude with some remarks about the importance of the events targeted in Doyle’s book.
Critique or Comedy?
While reading the book, I often questioned whether Doyle wanted to be taken seriously or if he intended to write something comical. For example, the book’s front cover includes the title, Crucifixion’s a Doddle, but the spine titles it Crucifiction’s a Doddle. Doddle is not a common word in the United States. Essentially, Doyle is mocking the Crucifixion by saying that it’s no big deal. In America, we might say, “It’s a piece of cake” or “a walk in the park.” Notice the difference in spelling crucifixion/crucifiction to give the impression that the event was made up. This was likely done intentionally, but after reading the book and seeing dozens of misspellings, punctuation, and grammatical errors, perhaps this is just another error. To give an idea of the carelessness in these areas, consider the following: the back cover is missing periods after three sentences, apostrophes are added when they are not needed (“Python’s” should be “Pythons” on page 49) and not included when they should be (“High Priests house” should be “high priest’s house” on page 217—also notice the capitalization errors), the Hebrew text on page 90 is going in the wrong direction, and Gethsemane is spelled with a “y” at the end on page 44 (just one of numerous misspellings). Those are just the minor errors in Doyle’s work, but they highlight a lack of attention to detail, a trend that continues in his historical claims that are of far greater concern.
Doyle’s methodology is absurd, touting one debunked conspiracy theory after another.
Doyle’s methodology is absurd, touting one debunked conspiracy theory after another. The bibliography states that the book owes everything to the works listed, which is a virtual Who’s Who? of conspiratorialists and historical revisionists, including two books by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh—their book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, was the inspiration for Dan Brown’s wildly popular The Da Vinci Code. Many of his conspiracies are rooted in the work known as Slavonic Josephus, a late version (if it is fair to call it that) of Josephus that virtually no scholar believes was written by Josephus.
I do not recall an attempt by the author to interact with the wealth of biblical scholarship available on the topics. Such an effort would have quickly destroyed his goal of creating another conspiracy theory full of crude and outlandish claims about Jesus. The closest he comes to biblical scholarship is citing of a couple of liberal scholars, including Elaine Pagels, a liberal scholar who promotes the oft-repeated and thoroughly debunked notion that the early church squelched competing versions of Christianity, particularly Gnosticism.
Another bizarre approach promoted by Doyle is the frequent implication that the Bible is wrong because none of the books or movies ever depict certain events it describes. Consider just some of the following claims:
I want to stop a moment and clarify this journey to Jerusalem because in every book, documentary or film about the event, Christian or otherwise, the story is always told erroneously. (p. 24, about the Triumphal Entry)
My only comment is that, when something is a bit weird it is just never talked about or shown in films. And this is definitely weird so is always cut out of films! (p. 26, about God speaking from heaven in John 12)
I do like the way biblical films skip this little gem of a moment. (p. 45, about the young man who fled naked from the scene of Christ’s arrest described in Mark 14:51–52, although Doyle mistakenly claims that it is verse 50)
Matthew is clearly not going to be outdone by this and he gives us a great moment that you will not have ever been told about and one that is never, not ever, shown in films! (p. 56, regarding the raising of many saints who then appeared to people in Jerusalem, recorded in Matthew 27:51–53, or just verse 51 if we are to trust Doyle)
Frankly, it has no bearing on the veracity of Scripture when a book or film about the Bible ignores certain details. Film crews are not the arbiters of what Jesus did or did not do, although one could hardly gain that insight from Doyle’s book, since chapter 10 is titled “The Surprise Witness” and is a reference to the alleged expertise of the Monty Python comedy team. He argues that the insights they learned during their own crucifixion scene in The Life of Brian disproves the historicity of the biblical accounts.
Taking Up the Challenge
At the end of his introductory comments, Doyle states, “You will find the style of this book as easy as I can make it and I assume no previous knowledge, so everything is explained, but don’t imagine that makes the facts presented any less true, and I challenge any academic to find fault in them. And I would be so bold as to say, that the extraordinary conclusions this book comes to are self evident when one presents the facts” (p. xxvi).
[Doyle’s] approach has been effective in persuading those who know very little about the Bible and are looking for reasons to reject it.
It is interesting that Doyle challenges academics to find fault with the “facts.” I sincerely question whether he has even read academic writing concerning the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many of his wild assertions have been dismantled time and time again, but this approach has been effective in persuading those who know very little about the Bible and are looking for reasons to reject it.
Besides concocting strange conspiracies, Doyle focuses on pointing out alleged contradictions between the four Gospels, from the events leading up to the Triumphal Entry, all the way through to the Crucifixion and Resurrection accounts. Not once does the author give the biblical writers the benefit of the doubt or offer any explanation from the dozens of books that have been written to address these supposed mistakes. Instead, Doyle expands the molehill of the slightest discrepancy into a mountain of contradiction.
A good example of this can be found in his attempt to identify the disciple described as “Judas (not Iscariot)” in John 14:22. Doyle implies that Christians seem to be unaware of this person. He proceeds to show a listing of the disciples in Matthew 10:2–4 that does not mention a second Judas, although he lists it as only verse 3. (You may have noticed that he frequently makes the mistake of listing the reference for one verse while quoting multiple verses.) Regarding this other Judas, Doyle uses the so-called Gospel of Thomas, written approximately 150 years after Christ’s death, to provide “absolute proof” (p. 31) that the other Judas is actually the disciple Thomas, whom Doyle claims to be the twin brother of Jesus. Now Thomas is described as “the Twin” in John 11:16, 20:24, and 21:2. But there is a much simpler explanation as to the identity of this other Judas. Take a look at Luke’s listing of the disciples:
He chose twelve whom He also named apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; James and John; Philip and Bartholomew; Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor. (Luke 6:13–16, emphasis added)
By comparing the listing of the disciples found in the Gospels, it is easy to see that Matthew and Mark call the other Judas by another name, Thaddeus (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18). Why would they call him by a different name? A likely explanation is that they used the name to avoid confusion with the betrayer. Other disciples were called by two names (e.g., Simon is also named Peter, and Matthew is also called Levi), so we should not be surprised to find others who went by multiple names.
The other alleged contradictions raised by Doyle can be answered as well. However, perhaps Doyle is confused about what qualifies as a contradiction. After all, he wrote, “I should also warn you that strangely, some contradictions could possibly be, both true” (p. 33).
Conspiratorialists frequently make up historical details to deceive others. Doyle regularly plays fast and loose with the facts. For example, in an attempt to show that biblical writers copied their stories from ancient gods and heroes, he refers the reader to a legend told about when Pythagoras came upon some fishermen with a net full of fish (p. 15). Since Pythagoras did not want the fish to die, he asked the fishermen if they would set the fish free if he guessed the number they had caught. Upon guessing successfully, the fish were returned to the water. And how many fish were in the net? According to Doyle, it was 153 fish, the very number of large fish caught by the disciples in John 21. Obviously, John copied this number from the story of Pythagoras, right? Wrong. In the story of Pythagoras, we are never told what number he guessed, only that he guessed the number correctly. So Doyle, like many other conspiratorialists, embellished the story to make it seem as if John copied it. Oh, perhaps we should also mention that the story we have of Pythagoras was penned by Porphyry two centuries after the Gospel of John was written.
Doyle claimed that the “Eucharist in the Last Supper is another event that causes people to think Jesus never existed” (p. 32). He goes on to cite a statement from Justin Martyr who complained that the followers of Mithras copied and distorted the example of Jesus. Yet Doyle claims that it was the Christians who copied from the Mithraic religion, and uses Justin Martyr’s words as support. Well, here is the quote from the church father, and you can decide if Doyle properly comprehends Justin’s words.
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.2
Doyle goes on to say that followers of Mithras were then offered wine mixed with water and a wafer with a sign of the Cross on it. This is pure conjecture, as is most that is “known” about Mithraism, since nearly all of our information about the ancient religion comes from images carved into rock. Christ Mythers (those who believe Jesus never existed) often claim that Christ being born of a virgin was also copied from Mithras, yet Mithras was allegedly born out of solid rock.
One of the most prominent errors found throughout Doyle’s books is his mishandling of Scripture. He frequently misrepresents what the text states, ignores the context, or simply picks which parts to believe while dismissing other sections that go against his point. Let’s briefly look at several examples of his mishandling of Scripture.
On page 32, he claims that the only reason Joseph would have traveled to Bethlehem was to appear poor so that the Romans would not tax him as much. Yes, there you have it. Joseph was a tax evader. The Bible tells us that Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem at the time of the census because he was of the house and lineage of David (and he may have actually been from there—that’s apparently where he sought to move after returning from Egypt, see Matthew 2:21–22). Critics often assert that the Romans did not require people to return to their hometowns for a census, yet we have found written records outside of the Bible indicating that Rome occasionally did include this requirement.
On page 214, Doyle states that the Resurrection is not found in Mark’s Gospel. However, even if we do not count Mark 16:9–20, a portion that is not found in many early and reliable manuscripts, it is simply false to say that the Resurrection is not in Mark. Then how do we explain the angel’s words in Mark 16:6? “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.” Mark records Jesus prophesying that He would rise from the dead as well (Mark 9:31, 10:34). If we do not include the book’s last 12 verses, then Mark does not record any post-Resurrection appearances, but he still writes about the Resurrection.
On page 61, Doyle alleges that the Resurrection narratives in the Gospels are a hopeless mess. “If you think the crucifixion as described in the bible is baffling, this is nothing compared to the total confusion that follows the two nights in the tomb. So confusing that films often blur over the events.” Once again, who cares if films do not handle the accounts properly? However, there are no contradictions to be found in the Resurrection narratives of the Gospels. See my article, “Christ’s Resurrection—Four Accounts, One Reality,” or my book, In Defense of Easter, to see how these “contradictions” can easily be reconciled.
Related to Christ’s Resurrection is the unique passage in Matthew 27:51–53 where we are told that the bodies of many saints were raised after Christ’s death, and then, following His Resurrection, went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people. Much has been made of these verses in the past several years, and skeptics love to mock this account. Here is what Doyle has to say on page 56. “Matthew is clearly not going to be outdone by this [Luke’s recording of the temple veil being torn in two] and he gives us a great moment that you will not have ever been told about and one that is never, not ever, shown in films . . . a mass resurrection of Zombies! What a chance for filmmakers to make a name for themselves. Or is it just too silly for words. Well what do you expect from Matthew?!”
Apparently, Doyle thinks that mockery qualifies as a rebuttal.
Apparently, Doyle thinks that mockery qualifies as a rebuttal. Skeptics frequently belittle the biblical accounts of people being raised from the dead by calling them zombies, but this is disingenuous. Nothing could be further from the truth. When people were raised in Scripture, they were not brought back as some mindless, undead creature. They were restored to life as they knew it before, with mind and body intact. In the case of Jesus, He was raised in a glorified body and would never die again.
The central argument in Doyle’s book is that Jesus was not even crucified. He even asserts that The Life of Brian film proved the falsity of the biblical accounts of the Crucifixion. Let’s look quickly at some of his supporting arguments.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not outside the walls of Jerusalem (p. 64).
- No one but an Olympic strong man could carry the entire Cross to the place of execution (p. 67).
- There is no way that Jesus would be dead after three hours on the Cross (pp. 66–67).
- People in the Philippines undergo crucifixion every year in memory of what Christ did, and they live through it without problems (pp. 69–70).
- The images and movies do not accurately portray the way a crucifixion victim was nailed to the cross (pp. 71–72).
- Romans left the bodies on crosses, so they would not give the body of a crucified victim to someone who asked for it (pp. 68–69).
- Jesus was stoned by the Jews for blasphemy (pp. 74–85).
If you are a Christian, I trust that you have not had your faith shaken to its core on the basis of Doyle’s arguments. Let’s briefly tackle each of these claims in order.
The location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has no bearing on the veracity of the biblical accounts since that site was chosen in the fourth century. However, many researchers and archaeologists contend that the location of this church is outside of where the city wall was at the time of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Many Christians believe that Jesus and other crucifixion victims only carried the crossbeam, known as the patibulum, to the place of execution. The Greek term used for cross in the Gospels can refer to the entire cross or just the crossbeam. Perhaps Doyle would be pleased to learn that this is shown in some of the films, although most of the iconic images of Jesus show Him lugging the entire Cross.
The Bible tells us that Jesus was on the Cross for about six hours, not three as Doyle alleges. Mark 15:25 states that Jesus was crucified at the “third hour” (i.e., 9:00 a.m.) and Matthew 27:46–50 states that Jesus died at about the “ninth hour” (i.e., 3:00 p.m.). To arrive at a total of three hours on the Cross, Doyle uses John 19:14, which mentions that Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion around the “sixth hour.” There have been a number of proposed solutions to this alleged contradiction, including the idea that Matthew and Mark used the Jewish reckoning of timekeeping and John used the Roman.3 Could a man die after being on a cross for only six hours? It is true that a crucifixion victim could live for days on a cross, though they did not always survive so long. There are a couple of factors to consider regarding Jesus. First, He was severely beaten and flogged before being crucified. Second, and most importantly, He decided the time of His death, and He did not give up His life until He had fulfilled every prophecy He needed to fulfill to that point (John 10:17–18, 19:30).
The people who are crucified in the Philippines do not undergo the same treatment when they reenact the Crucifixion. They are not severely flogged first, and they are not forced to support all of their weight on the nails driven through their flesh since their arms are tied tightly to the cross.
Once again, it does not matter if movies and images do not accurately convey the crucifixion scene. Doyle rightly points out that in the one archaeological example we have found of crucifixion, the spike is driven through the heel sideways, as opposed to the common depiction of the nail going through the top of the foot and into the upright beam of the cross. He would be happy to know that the recent film Risen depicted the Crucifixion in this manner. However, Doyle’s argument proves too much, since the remains of the crucifixion victim with the spike through the heel were found in an ossuary, a bone box, which contradicts the claim that crucifixion victims would not be given proper burial.
Would the Romans allow a person condemned to crucifixion to be given a proper burial? Critics and skeptics frequently assert that Christ’s body would have been left on the Cross or thrown into a shallow grave, but this claim ignores Roman laws, Jewish laws, and Jewish customs regarding executions and burials. Roman law dictated that “the bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives . . . [and] should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.”4 Jewish law required the same-day burial of anyone who was hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22–23). And Josephus tells us that “the Jews are so careful about burial rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to be crucified are taken down and buried before sunset.”5
Finally, Doyle attempts to prove that Jesus was actually stoned to death by the Jewish leaders for the crime of blasphemy. It is true that Jesus was condemned by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy (Mark 14:64). Although, He was not guilty of blasphemy since He truly is God, just as He claimed to be. However, the Jewish leaders said they were not permitted to execute a person at that time, as they reminded Pilate in John 18:31. They needed Roman authorities to carry it out, thus guaranteeing that Jesus would be crucified instead of stoned. On a few occasions, a mob unsuccessfully sought to execute Jesus by other means (throwing Him off a cliff in Luke 4:29 or stoning Him in John 8:59 and 10:31), and a mob did succeed in stoning Stephen in Acts 7. There is considerable debate about whether the Jewish leaders could have carried out the execution, as they did with Stephen; however, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus was crucified.
From the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached that Jesus had been crucified. He proclaimed this before a large gathering of Jews in Acts 2, and then before the council in Acts 4. No one objected to these claims and said that Jesus was just stoned, and there are no ancient Jewish or Roman writings that deny Jesus was crucified. The Roman historian Tacitus affirms that Jesus suffered “the extreme penalty” (crucifixion) under Pontius Pilate. The same is true for nearly every historian who has written on the life of Jesus.
All four Gospels teach that Jesus was crucified, as do many other books in the New Testament.
Most importantly, all four Gospels teach that Jesus was crucified, as do many other books in the New Testament. Since these writings are inspired by the Holy Spirit to be without error, then we can be absolutely certain that Jesus was crucified.
Much more could be written to refute the nonsense promoted in Doyle’s book. At times, it seems best to ignore books and arguments like these so that they are not given any publicity. However, in our day, false ideas like Doyle’s can spread rapidly through blogs and websites. Just in the past few months, I have heard several skeptics make many of the same arguments found in this book. So even though many Christians may choose to avoid these foolish claims, we need to be prepared to answer them because so many people, particularly young people, are being deceived through the lies and embellishments promoted in these works.
The Bible records the true history of what happened in and around Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, lived a sinless life and died on the Cross in our place. His sacrificial death paid the penalty we deserve for our rebellion against our holy Creator. Then three days later, Jesus rose victoriously from the dead and showed Himself alive “by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). All who turn from their sin and place their faith in Jesus Christ will be forgiven and live eternally with Him. “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).