Was Jesus Crucified?

The Koran

Was Jesus crucified in fact or in semblance? The Koran says, semblance:


  • "And for their saying, 'Verily we have slain the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, an Apostle of God.' Yet they slew him not, and they crucified him not, but they had only his likeness. And they who differed about him were in doubt concerning him: No sure knowledge had they about him, but followed only an opinion, and they did not really slay him, but God took him up to Himself.  And God is Mighty, Wise!"
  • (Sura 4:156).

The Bible

The Bible says, fact.

Rogier van der Weyden, Deposition
Deposition, Rogier van der Weyden

The Bible authors are convinced it was Jesus who died upon that cross, then rose again:

"Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole." (Acts 4:10);
"But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water." (John 19:33-34);
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4);
"Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it." (Acts 2:22-24);
"And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice...And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost." (Mark 16:34-37, Matthew 27:46-50).

This is not a negotiable issue for the apostles and their circle: "The other disciples therefore said to him, 'We have seen the Lord.' So he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.' And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, 'Peace to you!' Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.' And Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!'" (John 20:25-28).


Scandal of the Cross

Easter Morn

If Christ did not truly die, then neither did He truly rise from the dead. But if Christ is not risen, the Christian's hope is baseless:

"And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise...And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" (1 Corinthians 15:14-17).

Fanny Crosby, who was blind, trusted that she could know the Lord when she saw Him, even without the use of her unaccustomed sight: "When my life-work is ended and I cross the swelling tide, When the bright and glorious morning I shall see, I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side, And His smile will be the first to welcome me. I shall know Him, I shall know Him, And redeemed by His side I shall stand, I shall know Him, I shall know Him By the print of the nails in His hand." (My Savior First of All).

If there is no cross, there is no resurrection. And the Islamic 'Gospel of Barnabas' insists upon this very point, that Jesus never rose from the dead: "And he reproved many who believed him to have died and risen again, saying: 'Do ye then hold me and God for liars? For God hath granted to me to live almost unto the end of the world, even as I said unto you. Verily I say unto you, I died not, but Judas the traitor.'" (Gospel of Barnabas, Chapter 221.) Jesus is not the 'first-fruits' of those who sleep; He never died. There is no good news on Easter morning.

Rebutting the original docetists, Irenaeus points out that what was not assumed was not healed, that if the Lord did not take on flesh and truly die, we have no grounds for hope: "And if any man will not receive His birth from a virgin, how shall he receive His resurrection from the dead? For it is nothing wonderful and astonishing and extraordinary, if one who was not born rose from the dead: nay indeed we cannot speak of a resurrection of him who came into being without birth. For one who is unborn and immortal, and has not undergone birth, will also not undergo death. For he who took not the beginning of man, how could he receive his end? Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death?" (Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Chapter 38-39). Of course, Mohammed was not arguing that Jesus was immortal and unborn; he understood this element no better than the other tidbits he incorporated into the Koran.

The Bible says so much more than that Jesus of Nazareth died upon a cross. It says that the First and the Last died upon the cross:

"Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death." (Revelation 1:17-18).

A crucified Lord is a "scandal:" For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block [skandalon] and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Muslims believe, in principle, in the resurrection of the flesh:

"It needeth not that I swear by the day of the RESURRECTION,
Or that I swear by the self-accusing soul.
Thinketh man that we shall not re-unite his bones?
Aye! his very finger tips are we able evenly to replace.
But man chooseth to deny what is before him:
He asketh, ‘When this day of Resurrection?’
But when the eye shall be dazzled,
And when the moon shall be darkened,
And the sun and the moon shall be together,
On that day man shall cry, ‘Where is there a place to flee to?’
But in vain — there is no refuge —
With thy Lord on that day shall be the sole asylum." (Koran, Sura 75).

But they can point to no instance, no first-fruits, where this has already happened. Muslims believe it because it's said, in a book. Christians believe in the resurrection because they know, 'He is risen indeed.' Muslims believe in the resurrection, basically because Christians believe in it. But they do not believe in the reason, the grounds for the Christian belief:



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Where Does This Come From?

The denial that Jesus truly suffered on the cross is by no means original to the Koran. Mohammed did not invent this, he heard it. Although their conviction as to the identify of Jesus is as far as the east is from the west from that of the unlettered Arabian prophet, the gnostics, for their own reasons, denied the reality of the crucifixion:

  • "And I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me, yet I did not die in reality but in appearance, in order that I not be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. . .For my death, which they think happened, happened to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. Their thoughts did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the rulers and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance."
  • (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, pp. 469-470, The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer).

Knowledge, falsely so-called

They were fully convinced that Jesus is God, but unable to comprehend that God incarnate could die upon a cross. One would expect Mohammed ibn Abdallah, who considered Jesus a mere prophet, to reject their viewpoint. Can it be that Koran is a true grab-bag, incorporating information from here and there for no other reason than that Mohammed happened to have heard it?:

  • "And when He was hung on the tree of the cross, at the sixth hour of the day darkness came over the whole earth.
  • "And my Lord stood in the midst of the Cave, and filled it with light, and said:
  • "'John, to the multitude below, in Jerusalem, I am being crucified, and pierced with spears and reeds, and vinegar and gall is being given Me to drink. . .
  • "'But this is not the cross of wood which thou shalt see when thou descendest hence; nor am I he that is upon the cross — [I] whom now thou seest not, but only hearest a voice.
  • "'I was held [to be] what I am not, not being what I was to many others; nay, they will call Me something else, abject and not worthy of Me. . .
  • "'Thou hearest that I suffered; yet I did not suffer: that I suffered not; yet I did suffer: that I was pierced; yet was I not smitten: that I was hanged; yet I was not hanged: that blood flowed from me; yet it did not flow: and in a word the things they say about Me I had not, and the things do not say those I suffered.'"

  • (The Vision of the Cross, The Acts of John, quoted in 'The Gnostic Crucifixion,' George Robert Stowe Mead, pp. 2-4).

Incredibly, some modern Muslim apologists are well aware of the Koran's gnostic heritage, and even advertise it themselves: “The book 'Siet the Elder,' which is another scripture of those scriptures, quotes Jesus (PBUH) saying, “It was another one who drank bitterness and vinegar, not me; it was another one who carried the cross on his shoulders; it was another whom they put the thorn throne on his head. I was excited in heaven, laughing at their ignorance”. . .Therefore, history in some of its lines speaks the truth, proving what the Holy Quran said about Jesus’ (PBUH) rescue, and the crucifixion of another person.” ('Was Jesus Crucified for Our Atonement?' Monqith Ben Mahmoud Assaqar, Ph.D., p. 41). It must be understood what this means. Gnostics are polytheists by definition: if you believe an evil god created the world and a good god sent Jesus to rescue us from the evil god, then you believe in two gods at a minimum. Of course most gnostics believed in many more than two gods: some counted 360 of 'em. Certain Muslims would rather stand with rank polytheists than admit Mohammed ibn Abdallah erred in accepting information from a tainted source.

The concerns of the original Docetists are remote from anything Mohammed ibn Abdallah believed about the Lord. They understood Him to be God the Word, "Now what those things are I signify unto thee, for I know that thou wilt understand. Perceive thou therefore in me the praising of the Word (Logos), the piercing of the Word, the blood of the Word, the wound of the Word, the hanging up of the Word, the suffering of the Word, the nailing of the Word, the death of the Word. And so speak I, separating off the manhood. Perceive thou therefore in the first place of the Word; then shalt thou perceive the Lord, and in the third place the man, and what he hath suffered." (Apocryphal Acts of John, Section 101). So they state unequivocally:

"Be ye also persuaded, therefore, beloved, that it is not a man whom I preach unto you to worship, but God unchangeable, God invincible, God higher than all authority and all power, and elder and mightier than all angels and creatures that are named, and all aeons. If then ye abide in him, and are builded up in him, ye shall possess your soul indestructible." (Apocryphal Acts of John, Section 104).

It is precisely for this reason that they could not abide the thought of Him suffering. The adoption of their view of the crucifixion by Mohammed should put the nail in the coffin of any idea that the teachings of the Koran were assembled according to any doctrinal or polemic agenda, rather than at random as sources offered material.

So far as any first original can be found for this belief, it is in Simon the Samaritan, a man the apostles cursed to his face:

“And so (it was that Jesus) appeared as man, when in reality he was not a man. And (so it was) that likewise he suffered — though not actually undergoing suffering, but appearing to the Jews to do so — in Judea as ‘Son,’ and in Samaria as ‘Father,’ and among the rest of the Gentiles as ‘Holy Spirit.’” And (Simon alleges) that Jesus tolerated being styled by whichever name (of the three just mentioned) men might wish to call him.” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book Six, Chapter 14, p. 164 ECF).

Though Simon came to be covered with an accretion of legendary material, he was a historical person, mentioned in the Book of Acts.

Simon the Samaritan

The docetists were in error, but they did believe strongly that Jesus was God, so much so that modern-day opponents of Christianity, like Marcus J. Borg of the 'Jesus Seminar,' can find no worse accusation to hurl at Christianity than docetism:

"Many of us have been asked by Christians who are quite sure they are orthodox, 'Do you believe Jesus was God?' But this view is actually one of the earliest Christian heresies, known as docetism. . . .Most Christians would deny being docetic, if they've heard the term. But Christians have commonly seen Jesus as having divine knowledge — that's why he could walk on water, heal the sick, change water into wine, raise the dead, and so forth." (Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, p. 9).

Of course it is absurd to accuse Christianity of docetism, although it is true that the docetists believed very strongly in Jesus' deity, as do Christians. That the Koran vacuums in material distinctive to this ancient heresy ought to perplex thinking Muslims.


What Then?

The Koran explains that God caught up the uncrucified Jesus into heaven: "...and they did not really slay him, but God took him up to Himself." (Sura 4:156). The Islamic Gospel of Barnabas takes this tack:

"When the soldiers with Judas drew near to the place where Jesus was, Jesus heard the approach of many people, wherefore in fear he withdrew into the house. And the eleven were sleeping.

"Then God, seeing the danger of his servant, commanded Gabriel, Michael, Rafael, and Uriel, his ministers, to take Jesus out of the world.

"The holy angels came and took Jesus out by the window that looketh toward the South. They bare him and placed him in the third heaven in the company of angels blessing God for evermore." (Gospel of Barnabas, Chapter 215.)

Many Muslims believe that there He remains, until His return at the end of days to perform the functions assigned Him by the Koran.

Why did Mohammed adopt this perspective? Mohammed wishes to argue that Jesus is a man and not God; docetism begins from the opposite premise. For some believers, the Lord's trip down the birth canal was a problem, owing to existing cultural concerns,

"For there is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul, as man observed at birth, to whom alone, one might almost say, Nature has given not even a clean passage to the light; but, defiled with blood and covered with filth and resembling more one just slain than one just born, he is an object for none to touch or lift up or kiss or embrace except for someone who loves with a natural affection." (Plutarch, De Amore Prolis, Section 3, p. 349).

If Plutarch, a pagan, recoiled from the blood and filth of the birth process, how much more did those educated in the holiness code, which inculcates an aversion to blood. For practitioners of the Mosaic holiness code, a God stained with blood and defiled by death is inconceivable. His deity so filled the docetists' sight as to eclipse His humanity, leaving Him an insubstantial phantom. For the Bible, it is not 'either/or,' but 'both/and:'

God or Man?

Jesus Christ: God or man?

Mohammed's knowledge base was constricted, and thus the information that finds its way into the Koran is a random assortment: it's there because that is the version of the story Mohammed heard from one of his informants, whether Salman the Persian, or the Christian slave-girl from Egypt, Mary. But can he have been unaware of the orthodox understanding of the crucifixion? Is it possible he actually selected this heterodox view, aware of the alternative? If so, why might the docetic denial of the crucifixion have appealed to him?

To judge by the context of Sura 4, one answer may be anti-semitism. Mohammed did not share Mary's attitude, "He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly." (Luke 1:52). He does not root for the underdog. His sympathies are with the winners not the losers, which is why he saw vindication in the Muslim victory at Bedr, and set such a terrible course based on that precedent. Of course to Christians the cross is a sign of victory, it is Jesus' triumph over death. But Mohammed could not tolerate a fellow prophet suffering visible humiliation at the hands of his enemies.

Mohammed's bitter resentment of the Jews stems, not from indifference, but from the disappointment of unrequited love. When he removed from Mecca to Medina and came in contact with the Jewish tribes, he soaked up what they had to offer, importing a trove of Rabbinic lore into the Koran. But the Jewish audience members who sought to entangle him in contradiction too often succeeded. Mohammed did not have by his side a Bible, and if he had, he could not have read it. Only God could have prevented this latter-day prophet from contradiction with the Bible,— but God did not prevent it. From that time to this, the Muslims have embarked on a centuries-long argumentum ad baculum against the people of the book. The Jews found themselves, with their lists of contradictions between the Bible and the Koran and other baggage, expelled from the Arabian peninsula.

The Arab tribes had drawn upon Mohammed's services as a mediator of their disputes. His approach was compromise: splitting the difference. But this approach failed catastrophically when tried against the absolute demands of religion. The Meccan idolaters threw in his face the disputes between the monotheists, who agreed idolatry was vain and the Meccan gods false, but on not much more. Mohammed, in his patient way, sought to bring them together: if only the Christians would abandon their extreme claims for Jesus, and the Jews meet them halfway and admit Him as a prophet. But no one bought it, so his grand scheme to unify the monotheist faith came to nothing; he ended by adding one more dissenting sect to the roster:

Mohammed resented the Talmud's slurs against Mary; the "grievous calumny" of Sura 4:155. He puts in their mouths the boast, "we have slain the Messiah" (Sura 4:156). But the joke was on them: they didn't have him. This, of course, misses the point all around; no one, Jew nor Christian, can be satisfied with this resolution. So the unending argumentum ad baculum goes on.

Muslims find it incomprehensible that God would allow His commissioned prophets to face defeat or an ignominious death. Still, Islam does not ultimately teach a 'prosperity gospel,' where the good receive only good things in this life. Though he seemed to be tilting in this direction after the victorious battle of Badr, Mohammed leaned the other way after the inconclusive battle of Ohod. Many modern Muslims pick up on the idea that no bad thing can happen to a prophet (how they reconcile this belief with the Bible, for example Hebrews 11:37, is unclear). If God was unwilling to have a bad thing (crucifixion) happen to Jesus, He was certainly willing enough to have a bad thing (death of his only biological son, Ibrahim) happen to Mohammed ibn Abdallah, purportedly a prophet greater than Jesus. Even worse, there is some suggestion in the Muslim sources that Mohammed may have died as a delayed result of an attempted poisoning:

"When the apostle had rested Zaynab d. al-Harith, the wife of Sallam b. Mishkam prepared for him a roast lamb, having first inquired what joint he preferred. When she learned that it was the shoulder she put a lot of poison in it and poisoned the whole lamb. Then she brought it in and placed it before him. . .Marwan b. 'Uthman b. Abu Sa'id b. al-Mu'alla  told me: The apostle had said in his illness of which he was to die when Umm Bishr d. al-Bara' came to visit him, 'O Umm Bishr, this is the time in which I feel a deadly pain from what I ate with your brother at Khaybar.' The Muslims considered that the apostle died as a martyr in addition to the prophetic office with which God had honored him." (The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, A. Guillaume, p. 516).

A man with blood on his hands needs to be careful what he puts in his mouth! If Mohammed, reputedly the seal of the prophets, can die by violence, murdered by a poisoner, then what is the problem with the Lord's crucifixion? Of course no one in that time and place had the competence to perform a credible autopsy, so we'll never known Mohammed's exact medical cause of death or whether this attempted poisoning incident in any way weakened his health and contributed to his untimely demise. Still some Muslims find it credible that it did, thus undermining their rationale for cancelling the historical fact of the crucifixion. Mohammed seems to have seen no positive value in suffering, though the prophets see it otherwise:

Where might Mohammed have encountered the idea that Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross, but did not in reality suffer? The Manichaean religion, a combination of gnostic Christianity with Buddhism and other things, was popular in the East (Manes was a Persian), and the Paulician heresy raged for some centuries there, with Byzantine policy alternating between toleration and persecution. The Paulicians agreed with Mohammed that Christ only appeared to suffer: "The New Testament, however, is Holy Writ, but Christ was not a man, but a phantasm — the Son of God who appeared to be born of the Virgin Mary and came from Heaven to overthrow the worship of Satan. . .Such are the outlines of Paulicianism as they have reached us. . ." (Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Volume I, Kindle location 1664). Mohammed of course did not believe that Christ was a "phantasm," but was evidently unaware of where some of the stuff he picked up actually came from.

Often it seems it is fruitless to examine too carefully a set of ideas,— the contents of the Koran,— which is at bottom no more than a random assemblage, an odd assortment of tales and teachings which an unlettered man in an uncivilized corner of the world happened to hear. Sometimes it seems that it's in there, when all is said and done, because he happened to hear it that way. But on a point of such importance, one must wonder.


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Pagan Testimony

While pagan historians have no special credibility, it's worth noting that they concur that Jesus was crucified: "Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular." (Tacitus, Annals, Book XV, Chapter 44). Certainly it says little favorable about Roman administrative competence if they got the wrong guy. None of the pagan critics who address Christianity seem to have heard either of the substitution theory, or of the rescue theory, both of which are popular in today's Islam in an effort to salvage Mohammed's teaching:


Judas Iscariot

The original version of the 'Not Him' story was told by people whose perspective was anything but matter-of-fact, however it has been adopted, for no particular reason, by a people, the Muslims, who perceive their corrected version of 'Jesus' as entirely realistic and defensible to the secular-minded. Thus comes a need for de-mythologizing the story, which becomes a simple error, one party substituted for another. Because if it was not Jesus who hung upon that cross, than who was it? Naming Simon of Cyrene as the patsy leads to protest; how is that fair? Thus one popular Muslim answer is 'Judas Iscariot,' as explained in the Islamic 'Gospel of Barnabas:'

"Whereupon the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus. And he, having awakened us, was seeking where the Master was. Whereupon we marvelled, and answered: 'Thou, Lord, art our master; hast thou now forgotten us?'

"And he, smiling, said: 'Now are ye foolish, that know not me to be Judas Iscariot!'

"And as he was saying this the soldiery entered, and laid their hands upon Judas, because he was in every way like to Jesus." (Gospel of Barnabas, Chapter 216).

According to this view, the lengthy passion narratives in the Christian gospels are all the records of a delusion, because, "And why say I that the chief priests believed Judas to be Jesus? Nay, all the disciples, with him who writeth, believed it; and more, the poor virgin mother of Jesus, with his kinsfolk and friends, believed it, insomuch that the sorrow of every one was incredible. As God liveth, he who writeth forgot all that Jesus had said: how that he should be taken up from the world, and that he should suffer in a third person, and that he should not die until near the end of the world." (Gospel of Barnabas, Chapter 217). Pilate sought to save this lost man, gibbering that he was not Jesus but Judas, because "it were impious to slay a madman." To no avail; Judas is doomed, because, "But God, who had decreed the issue, reserved Judas for the cross, in order that he might suffer that horrible death to which he had sold another." (Gospel of Barnabas, Chapter 217). It would be putting it very mildly to conclude this nonsensical story does not confirm the gospel. According to this view, the Christian Church goes on to establish itself atop an error built upon a misconception, because if Jesus did not die, then neither was He resurrected.

While 'Barnabas' substitution theory still has many present-day advocates, the 'swoon' theory that was devised during the German enlightenment and revived by the Ahmadi sect in nineteenth century India seems to be gaining in popularity: "'I do not find the evidence for the resurrection persuasive. If someone said to me that a man had died and was then seen alive three days later, I would have to ask, 'Are you sure he was really dead?'" (Muslim apologist Shabir Ally, quoted p. 162, Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus). The swoon theory in its turn is obliged to discount a considerable amount of evidence, such as the soldier piercing the Lord's side with a spear, and so it would appear that some contemporary Muslims have sought a way around this confusion by simply abandoning the unlettered Arabian prophet's anomalous and indefensible denial of the crucifixion:


Reza Aslan

In the end, one must ask, why? Why is the story of Christ's crucifixion told wrong, from the Christian perspective, in the Koran? For the most part, the Koran is not a tightly edited book. It is a compilation of folklore from various sources. The editor and compiler, Mohammed, did not believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate; and yet missionaries today will use stories from the Koran, like the 'Clay Birds,' to prove His deity. How is this possible? Because the people who made that story up in the first place certainly did believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, and the story has not been sufficiently modified so as to disable that inference. Yet in the end, the stories in the Koran are there because Mohammed liked them. He heard, from someone who had somewhere encountered one of the docetic 'gospels,' that Jesus did not die upon the cross. This appealed to him. Why? He must have known, if only from the ubiquity of the cross as a decoration on Christian churches, that Christians believe to the contrary that Jesus did die upon the cross, and rose again.

Wish fulfillment is a powerful motive; the desire for a thing to be true is half-way there, for some people, to believing it is true. Let me give an example. The Franklin expedition was sent out by the British empire in 1845 to nail down the 'missing link' of the Northwest passage. While threading through the Arctic archipelago, the vessels got stuck in the ice. The next summer's thaw was not enough to free them; the crew must have wondered if the open, navigable channel which had first beckoned them down that way was more of a rarity or a fluke than the normal course of nature. They spent another winter, but in spring of 1848 resolved to walk out, heading toward the Great Fish River and the Canadian mainland. The British government knew none of this; they knew only that the expedition had not been heard from. Realizing that, having only three years' worth of provisions on board, the men were upon the expiry of that time period likely to starve in the desolate desert of the frozen North, the Admiralty almost immediately sent out a rescue fleet, supplemented by private ventures.

On one of these vessels was Inuit translator Adam Beck. After encountering a travelling band of Inuit, he told a gruesome tale:

"Smith was so startled by what he heard that he took Snow aside: Beck was reporting a massacre of Royal Navy sailors. That's what the friendly Inuit had told him earlier in the day, Smith relayed to Snow. Two ships had wrecked farther up the coast, and the men who made it ashore, including officers with gold bands on their caps and other naval insignia, were later killed. . .The survivors, some armed with guns but without ammunition, camped for a time in white tents or huts, separate from the Inuit, who eventually killed the exhausted and weak sailors with darts or arrows." (Paul Watson, Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, Kindle location 1909).

The Inuk translator even went so far as to sign a deposition: "Beck later swore to his account of the murder in a signed deposition, made in front of a magistrate at Godhavn, on Greenland's Disko Island." (Paul Watson, Ice Ghosts, Kindle location 1915). So why is 'Inuit massacre' not the canonical account of the failure of the Franklin expedition? Why is this the path not taken? Charles Dickens believed it, but few others, then or now. Its explanatory sweep and power is immense; otherwise inexplicable moves on the part of the survivors, who seem to have broken up into small groups of one or two, become plausible.

It is not remarkable that the story told to a fellow Inuk was not repeated to the authorities. Police expect to hear stories prone to variation; that is after all what attracted their attention to Lizzie Borden, that she changed her story. Nor is the geographic confusion remarkable; a map is a high-tech product, a planar projection of the earth's surface. People do not automatically know how to produce one or to read one already produced. Certain elements of its appearance may be conventional, like placing 'North' at the top; but there is nothing conventional about the thing itself. The Inuit were unable to produce a map, for the same reason they were unable to fire a rocket to the moon. Most people unschooled in Euclidean geometry, when asked how to get there from here, will produce a linear itinerary rather than a planar map: "Before the rise of Greek scholarship, there was no science of geography in the ancient world. What maps were made were not necessarily drawn on two-dimensional planes; some were linear, consisting of individual roads (later known as itinerae), which provided information useful to a traveler." (Atlas of Bible History, Kindle location 697). People should not misinterpret itineraries as if they were maps.

By all ordinary considerations, the circumstances are suspicious, and the eivdence points in one direction. As all concede, the Inuit were the last to see Franklin's men alive. The Inuit were subsequently found to be in possession of loot from the doomed voyage: "[Charles Francis] Hall itemized Franklin relics found in the possession of the Inuit, including a mahogany writing desk that'had been recently in use as a blubber-tray.'" (Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Owen Beattie and John Geiger, p. 94). At a minimum the Inuit are shown to be grave robbers; and they certainly were that, "A medal with the name of John Irving engraved on it was found at the site, though the grave had been 'despoiled by the natives some years before.'" (Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Owen Beattie and John Geiger, p. 97). They were grave robbers, as all concede; they carted off the property of dead men with gleeful abandon, even if they had to disinter them to get at it. Were they more? Did they watch the people they planned to pillage and plunder drop one by one, or did they hasten the process? The Inuit were not entirely convinced at the time that the 'kobluna,' the white men, were human beings; the word might mean something like 'blight.'

Most of the 105 men who abandoned the ice-bound vessels were sailors. They knew the ropes of a tall-masted sailing ship, but they cannot have been more than novices at Arctic survival. Neither would they have had even basic hunting skills; at that time in Great Britain, hunting was the preserve of the aristocracy. There were men on board who could tell you your latitude by looking at the constellations; others would have got lost going around the block. Sticking together is only fair to the seamen who need guidance; and it seems at first they did. In fact they made it down to the mainland, near to the mouth of the Great Fish River, their intended escape route. But there their progress stopped. Completing this arduous trek took them from late April to late May, when the migrating geese come back to the arctic. What happened at the stopping point, and why did they thereafter split into small groups?

Any group of men, fleeing from another larger group, will scatter. The prison escapees whose tight planning and coordination enabled them to escape from prison, will nonetheless part company when they hear the bloodhounds. Splitting up increases the odds that some will make it to safety. Why were the dead, at the killing ground, not buried? The same reason the Roman dead at Cannae went unburied; the field was in the hands of the enemy.

Later Inuit travellers, while not implicated in the massacre, saw the death site not long after the event. Witnesses described approximately thirty dead bodies, some strewn about at random, some of them partially cannibalized. "Later that same spring, but before the sea ice broke up, Inuit discovered the corpses of some thirty dead white men. . .'Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents; others were under the boat which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions.'. ." (Watson, Paul. Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition (Kindle Locations 2484-2485). W. W. Norton & Company.) Of the body of an officer found on a nearby island, it is said, "'. . .his double barrelled gun lay underneath him.'" (Watson, Paul. Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition (Kindle Location 2486). W. W. Norton & Company.) Does this death scene look like a massacre, corroborating Adam Beck's accusation, or is it simply what it looks like when men die of starvation?

So what does it look like when people die of famine? Do we know? Of course. After the Russian Bolsheviks, encountering opposition in collectivizing the countryside, decided to 'liquidate the kulaks as a class,' entire Russian villages could be entered by the wary traveler, where profound silence greeted you: they'd long ago slaughtered all the farm animals, and no humans were left alive either. But did they all gather in the town square and fall face down, ker-plop, together, dying en masse? Of course not; people die one by one in a famine. One would not be surprised to find no more than one dead body 'scattered about,' the second-to-the-last man to die having been buried by the last man, the third by the second, etc., in a shallow grave of course. It's a very quiet type of disaster, and the subsequent scene does not look like a massacre. Why did the Franklin crew's death scene, or rather that of the thirty to forty men who fell there, not look like Russia under the Bolsheviks if, as is affirmed by the canonical version of their deaths, they died of starvation?

Does anyone camping out where predators, like wolves and polar bears, might be lurking, ready to nuzzle their way into a tent in the dead of night, leave food uncovered? So why did the last of the Franklin men to die camp out in the midst of this gruesome charnel house? If they didn't have the strength to sequester the raw meat of their partially butchered companions, to what advantage was the nutritional boost of cannibalism? Is it not more likely those men who were butchered were cannibalized by the same who killed them, not by their friends? Inuit tales report such at item on the menu on other occasions: "Once numerous, the Ukjulingmiut were nearly wiped out by famine: 'Some froze to death, others starved, and the bodies of the dead were eaten by the living — in fact many were killed to provide food, for these poor people were driven almost mad by their sufferings that winter'. . ." (Ice Ghosts, Kindle location 2891). If Franklin's men were successful at shooting migratory geese (this region can be almost devoid of life at some seasons, at others, large flocks of migratory birds darken the skies), as the witnesses report, then why did they need to resort to cannibalism? If they did so resort, then why did they starve?

Nevertheless, they say that the survivors of the Franklin expedition practiced survival cannibalism. If so, one must wonder why no one survived. They cannibalized their friends, or committed cannibalistic gestures, at least, and then immediately thereafter starved to death? With thirty mostly uneaten bodies in the fridge? We know what a site looks like where survival cannibalism was practiced: the site where Uruguayan Flight 571, carrying a rugby team, crashed in the Andes is known. Was it a charnel house, with half-eaten corpses strewn around? Of course not! If only to spare their own feelings, no corpses were visible. In fact when first found, the survivors hoped to get by pretending they had lived all that time on cheese which had been on board; only later did the truth come out. (If ever there was a case to be made by the 'slippery slope' argument, it's survival cannibalism. The rugby team were scavengers, not predators; they killed nobody, only ate them after they were in no position to mind. But it's hard not to imagine, in such an environment, that if you began to droop a bit, people would start looking at you funny.)

Perhaps the men were sleeping in their encampment when the Inuit stole in amongst them, and began shooting with bow and arrows. That would explain why some of the deceased were found lying beside a loaded gun; they died defending themselves and their friends. Those who could, scattered and escaped. If they later regrouped, they realized their original plan, to retreat southward along the Great Fish River, was no longer viable; all any pursuing Inuit had to do was leap-frog them, taking advantage of their greater familiarity with the terrain, set a trap and then lie in wait. Pursuing a known and already advertised course is not the way to evade and escape detection. That road closed, they had no recourse but to drift back to the ships.

Years ago I saw a TV show about the Franklin expedition. At that time the popular theory was that the men suffered from lead poisoning and acted irrationally as a result. It is certainly true that the canonical version of events requires that you believe a lot of irrational things; maybe they should have handed out lead pills before the show: for instance that men died of starvation while in possession of 40 pounds of chocolate. They were saving it maybe for a special occasion? While there is evidence of lead exposure, a better procedure would be to ask, under what circumstances were the men's actions rational?

Cold and starvation are two interlocking problems which aggravate one another; in order to raise enough body heat to combat the constant heat loss to the frigid environment, caloric intake must be raised not lowered. While the men's lead levels were elevated, this is not uncommon in exhumed nineteenth century corpses; exposure to lead in the solder used in fresh water piping, lead paint and other things, possibly even the solder used to seal their tinned food, left elevated levels compared to what is common in the present day, but not high enough to cause symptoms of psychosis or hallucinations.

The decision to abandon the ships is often assumed to have been irrational, but what was their condition after two winters locked in ice? Ice can act like a nut-cracker on a trapped ship, its compression breaking the hull into pieces. Unlike their first winter in the Arctic, where they found a sheltered location, for the second and third they were trapped by accumulating ice in the middle of the channel, with nothing to block the howling winds blasting down from the north in the relentless arctic winter storms. Was there damage to the masts and rigging? Were any of the holds flooded, were the vessels sea-worthy? If the ships were riding so low in the water that it was the considered opinion of those knowledgeable in these matters that the only thing holding them up was the sea ice by which they were held fast, and that they would soon founder if freed from it, that is in fact what happened. The vessels did not get far, whether they were drifting or piloted by a skeleton crew, before they sank, although at least one may have remained afloat for several seasons, at least one was reboarded, and at least one was piloted into safe haven before its loss.

The possibility of extrication by overland march was discussed by Franklin with his wife even before the expedition boarded their ships. While this window of opportunity still remained open, the surviving commanders seized it. If they had waited for the outcome of a summer's sun, then possibly by late summer the ice holding their vessels in a vise would have parted; but possibly not. If not, then as the winter storms moved in, the possibility of travelling overland that season would close; winter is not an opportune time for travel in the arctic. But the men, who had three years' worth of provisions on board, could not have maintained the strength to walk out after a winter of short rations, if any rations; trusting to the bounty of Mother Nature is not a smart choice in those environs. The assumption that there was something wrong with their canned goods arises partly from the real fact that there were quality control issues with their vendor, but mostly from the assumption that the men starved to death, in which case there must have been something wrong with the food. But what if there wasn't? Even if the food was fine, there was only three years' worth of it; the time clock would have run out by next spring; the possibility of walking overland to civilization would have evaporated, untaken. Then what? Wait for rescue? Wait to die? It's not irrational that they decided to desert their vessels, while they still retained freedom of action.

The crew's removal and transport, to King William Island, of items from the ship was one of the mainstays of the 'lead poisoning' theory. But as far as removing items from the ships: why not? If the venture south failed, if some as yet unknown geographical barrier prevented the journey into areas where the Hudson Bay Trading Company was active, what could be then done but to return and try to scrounge together a hut from wood and other building materials recovered from the ships? Certainly they could not survive another arctic winter in their tents. King William Island would then be their unsinkable aircraft carrier. On the unwarranted assumption that the men were already starving when they left the ships, it does look peculiar that they would haul heavy sledges across the ice, carrying items they cannot have intended to bring with them on their southward trek. But what if they were not starving? What if these were vigorous young men eager to get going, to their promised destination, where they could drink down fresh water in great gulps? What if they understood the utility of a backup plan?

Caching currently unneeded supplies is standard operating procedure in the arctic. When personal items were recovered from the Inuit, upon payment of course, not only did they have in their possession items like the gold braid and insignia of rank of a British naval officer which one cannot imagine the rightful owners ever willingly traded for food or anything else, but they also had shiny, mysterious things like disassembled scientific equipment, which admittedly neither they nor the surviving crew had the slightest possible use for. Since it is in their interest as well as that of the British to travel light, why did they want such things? Who knows, but if experience had taught the crew that such things were useful as trade goods, why not take them along? It may be they had too much that was held too desirable by the Inuit; like the little boy in a bad neighborhood who proudly wears an expensive pair of sneakers, they were just asking for trouble. The fact that Inuit were found in possession of items whose rightful owners were deceased would not normally be a point in their favor; indeed it might excite suspicion.

The Inuit, reportedly, remember Sir John Franklin, who died in 1847, as a friendly, genial spirit who gave them gifts. They remember the crewmen quite differently. For generations elders warned the young not to venture alone onto King William Island, because wrathful spirits, the ghosts of the deceased Franklin expedition, lay in wait for vulnerable Inuit children. For what are these unhappy ghosts seeking pay-back? If the Inuit never did them any harm, why are they mad? While I don't personally believe that the spirits of murder victims haunt the location where they were murdered, dealing retribution, the Inuit do seem to believe that, and their fear is almost a confession. If they never did these men any harm, why do their angry spirits still to this day desire retaliation?

Fear and resentment are powerful motivators to massacre. The Red Army murdering the Polish officers at Katyn forest, the Americans massacring Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, were motivated by these factors. The Inuit, according to testimony, blamed the Franklin Expedition for diminishing the reserves of game on which their lives depended, which they believed 'the spirits' provided:

“The winters that finished off Franklin and his 128 men were so severe that they became part of Inuit legend. They would long lay blame on the qalunaaq, the white men, for unleashing malevolent spirits upon the island. When American Charles Francis Hall gave up small-town newspapering to go north and hunt for the Franklin Expedition in the 1860s, an Inuit mother told him two shamans, or angakkuit, had cast a spell on the area where the ships were abandoned: 'The Innuits wished to live near that place (where the ships were) but could not kill anything for their food. They (the Innuits) really believed that the presence of Koblunas (whites) in that part of the country was the cause of all their (the Innuits’) trouble.'”

(Watson, Paul (2017-03-21). Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition (Kindle Locations 218-223). W. W. Norton & Company.)

When confronting accusations of massacre, arm waving and hollering are unhelpful; it is not even true that technologically backward 'savages' are the only people who commit massacres; Germany when it perpetrated the Holocaust was the most technologically advanced nation on earth. But if anyone thinks technologically backward people are not capable of committing a massacre, just because they are technologically backward, there was never a proposition that more defied empirical confirmation. They're going to have to serve up a whole plate full of lead pellets before they'll get people to believe that. History does not so teach. The ground of North America ran wet and red long before any European landed in these parts.

Inuit ideas about the prevalence of game were not naturalistic but mediated by magic and taboo; however there might be a kernel of truth to the original accusation, in that the successful hunting of Franklin's men left less game available for the Inuit. The sudden appearance of over a hundred hungry mouths to feed in an area already poised on the knife-edge of starvation was a real problem, whether analyzed correctly or not. Unlike the Laplanders, the Inuit never domesticated the animals on which they fed, the caribou and the musk ox; if they had, generous plenty might have superseded scarcity. But as things were, they found it necessary to practice infanticide. It's the old conundrum, ". . .there are five people trying to survive on a life raft designed for only four. If one person isn't thrown overboard, then everyone will die." (I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, Kindle location 3346).

At what point did relations turn sour, after Sir John died? Did the crew, frazzled from cabin fever after two solid winters trapped in their quarters, offend or harm the people somehow? (As is the case with many other of the indigenous North American languages, 'Inuk' (singular) and 'Inuit' (plural) just mean 'people' or 'human being;' these words are not a tribal self-designation. Which makes you wonder, what other folks are.) Reportedly the Inuit blamed the British for the lack of game right from the start. In fact the crew of the Franklin expedition were in direct competition with the local Inuit for what little game was available; the population in the area had spiked when they came along. But Inuit ideas about the abundance or scarcity of game are not mediated by any realistic or naturalistic conceptions. Rather, they thought the 'spirits' were angry at the white men, and that is why the 'spirits' were not sending many large animals. If competition were the issue, the fact that the men were willingly and voluntarily leaving the area should have been the final word.

Within several generations the Inuit would abandon the hunting technologies they were using at first contact,— the bow and arrow,— and adopt the technology the Franklin men were using, the rifle. Hunting with fire-arms is far more effective, and it must have been frustrating to see the prize animals taken, with little effort, by these interlopers. Why couldn't the matter be composed by giving the Franklin team a big send-off, and enthusiastically waving good-bye? It may be that if the 'spirits' must be appeased, nothing short of killing the departing men would suffice. They already blamed the men, while living, for the shortage of game, because their presence offended 'the spirits' who donated the game; the events which subsequently unfolded made them blame the spirits of the deceased themselves for all manner of ill, and even to avoid travelling on the island:

“A restless spirit trapped in the land of the living 'does all it can to persecute those that are to blame for its life after death having been ruined,' Knud Rasmussen wrote. 'Only very great shamans are now and then fortunate enough to kill these evil spirits.'”

(Watson, Paul (2017-03-21). Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition (Kindle Locations 5268-5270). W. W. Norton & Company.)

Shamans are the instigators of this line of reasoning. How it works can be seen from the example of Apollonius of Tyana. This 'wise man' convinced a mob of desperate people, suffering under a plague, that a lonely homeless man was the cause of all their troubles. They beat him to a pulp, so that nothing recognizable as human remained. This is how that profession operates: they scapegoat any available passer-by, friendless and powerless enough to avoid any blow-back. You may be sure the scapegoat the shaman's bony finger points to will never be anyone rich and famous, with friends in the government! It may be some helpless, isolated old lady, or a group of strangers in a jam whose own people were not visibly coming to their aid. Thereby people frustrated by some inconvenience or disruption in the course of nature can enjoy the relief of 'understanding' why it happened; not only that, but the shaman gives them something they can 'do' about it: kill the evil scapegoat. This makes the customer glad, he wanted to know what he could do, and is relieved to hear there is a remedy in his hands. There usually isn't much of anything human beings can do about bad weather! That's the magic of shamanism. It may be the troubling situation, disease, famine, crop failure, or whatever, will have resolved itself; circumstances do tend to revert to the mean. However if the suggested remedy does not work, the shaman can just offer up another victim, whoever in the area happens to be friendless and unprotected. It's a living.

Apollonius of Tyana

So why, given the broad explanatory power of the 'Inuit massacre' theory, is it almost universally rejected? Why was it mocked, scorned and ridiculed right from the start? Why is it preferable to believe that the Eskimo Adam Beck was a liar or a lunatic than that he was an honest man? Today political correctness will not allow it, but in that expansionary phase of the British empire, they would not have automatically discounted the possibility of hostile natives. If these people had been far-sighted enough to see what was coming, then maybe they'd all have been hostile. First these folks come giving out colored beads, and offering friendly handshakes; next thing you know they're collecting taxes! However the 'Inuit massacre' theory wasn't what the British wanted to hear. The prediction one might have made at that very date on the basis of Adam Beck's testimony: these men will never be found, they are dead and their vessels have sunk, has in fact proved true. But not to the credit of his theory.

The men who heard Adam Beck's accusation were there to rescue Sir John Franklin's men, they had not come all that way for nothing. Lady Jane Franklin wanted them rescued and the psychics she consulted assured her it was still possible, and so they preferred to believe Adam Beck was a liar and the men were still alive, somewhere out there, awaiting rescue. It was wishful thinking. Their desire made fact out of fiction. Not one soul was ever rescued from that doomed voyage.

When Mohammed ibn Abdallah began to receive visits from the spirit world, he wondered if his visitors were friendly or unfriendly. He was equally as much afraid as eager to move forward under their tutelage. He finally decided his visitant was the angel Gabriel. Medieval Jews like Moses Maimonides believed that all prophets encountered an angel: "Here a principle is laid down which I have constantly expounded, viz., that all prophets except Moses receive the prophecy through an angel. Note it." (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, p. 255); "When prophets speak of the fact that they received a prophecy, they say that they received it from an angel, or from God; but even in the latter case it was likewise received through an angel." (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, p. 268); "But a prophet only receives divine inspiration through the agency of an angel." (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, p. 408). An angel, you can trust.

Another piece of evidence that comforted and reassured him came in the form, evidently, of the 'prosperity gospel.' After the Muslims' success at the battle of Bedr, he became elated; surely he must be in the right, if he is killing his detractors rather than they killing him. He was so successful, how could he be wrong? From that day to this, the argumentum ad baculum has been the final resort of Muslim apologetics. But the pagan Nero Caesar killed his enemies, and he was not in the right. The cross stands straight ahead, barring the road against this line of reasoning. This is why Mohammed was relieved when, hearing the old docetic fable, it became possible to pull it down.