Jesus: The Lost 40 Days—The History Channel

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
April 2011

The title of this program is based upon the forty days that Jesus allegedly walked the earth after his resurrection and before his ascension (Acts 1:3). Program personalities included Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and Paula Fredrikson, along with several ministers of various denominations. Computer imaging for the program was done by a team of experts led by Ray Downing.

Personally, I am a bit skeptical when I see the number forty in New Testament passages. This number has a long and varied history of being used in a symbolic manner. One of the program personalities alluded to this by saying that forty is an “evocative” number. Let’s review in a somewhat chronological order a sampling of the part the number forty plays in Scripture. We begin with the flood lasting forty days (Gen 7:17). Then the spies Moses sent to spy out the land of Canaan in preparation for the conquest of that land by the Israelites are said to have spied out the land for forty days (Num 13:25). The spies brought back a good report, but ten of the twelve said there was no way the Israelites would be able to conquer it (Num. 13:32-33). The punishment for the disbelief of the Israelites was to be for forty years, a day for each year the spies who were in the land (Num 14:34). Further, the life of Moses is divided into three periods of forty years. He lived in Pharaoh’s court for forty years, forty years in Midian, and forty years with the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus (Exod 2:10-15, Num 13:25, Deut 34:7). Then when we come to the period of the Judges after Israel entered Canaan, several judges ruled the Israelites either for forty years or multiples of forty: Gideon (Judg 8:2); Othniel (Judg 3:11): Deborah and Barak (Judg 5:31); Ehud (Judg 3:31) Further, if we add up all the years the judges were said to have ruled, we end up with just about twice the number of years that the period of the judges could possibly have lasted. Then in the New Testament, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is said to have been for forty days, although the earliest Gospel, Mark, tells nothing Jesus was tempted to do (Mark 1:13). All this is just a bit too neat and tidy for real life situations, in my opinion.

I am willing, at least for the sake of argument, to concede that a literal period of forty days may have elapsed between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension into Heaven. Do the non-canonical gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Mary Magdalene give us any help in the recovery of these forty days? The early church did not appear to think these, or the plethora of other non-canonical gospels, could be depended upon for information about Jesus. I say this in full awareness of the part that politics, doctrinal controversies, and other very human elements played in the canonization process. However, the stubborn fact remains that the church canonized four and only four gospels. The burden of proof would seem to lie on those who would use the non-canonical gospels in an authoritative fashion, it seems to me.

Perhaps the weakest link in the chain of evidence presented was its reliance upon the genuineness of the Shroud of Turin. One of the participants in the program conceded that by carbon 10 dating, the shroud was dated between 1260 and 1390 CE. By using a work of art that apparently depicted the shroud, he argued for the much earlier existence of the shroud, although the actual difference between the time of the work of art and the shroud was less than a century. A great deal of the argument rested on the genuineness of the shroud. Take that away and much of the argument crumbles.

Several careless statements or depictions also marred the presentation. For example, Mary Magdalene was said to have gone to Jesus’ tomb alone. This depends upon which Gospel one reads. Only John has her alone at the tomb. In Mark, she is in the company of Mary the mother of James and Salome (Mark 6:1). In Matthew, she is in the company of “the other Mary” (Matt 28:1). In Luke, she is in the company of Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the “other women” (Luke 24:10). Further, John 22:25 was taken as referring only to the “forty lost days,” though I find no basis for this in the text. Identification of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” as John and the author of the gospel raises serious questions, in my judgment. For John to have referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would be extremely arrogant. I think this is one of the strongest arguments that John, son of Zebedee, was not the author of the Fourth Gospel. Further, presenting a picture of Thomas placing his finger in Jesus’ wounds is something else which is not supported by the canonical gospels.

Having said all this, the computer imaging was fascinating, though I am not sure how much it proves; the discussions were thought provoking at many points. One participant raised the issue as to what constituted resurrection, i.e., whether it included bodily resuscitation or a different type of body. I would have liked to have heard this pursued at more length. I would also have been more interested in the “lost thirty years” between Jesus’ infancy and his earthly ministry, which is a total blank spot in the canonical gospels except for Jesus’ being taken to the temple when he was twelve years old.

Comments (2)

Forty or forth weeks is the time from a womans conception to birth, i.e. from 'darkness until light' which works well metaphorically in a biblical context. Pardon the time lapse, took me yrs to figure it out :-)

#1 - Joe Zias - 04/13/2015 - 11:12

What is the big deal in not taking Scripture literally that 40 days Jesus walked the earth after His Resurrection? He certainly wasn't on the Earth the evening of 49 days later when counting of the Omer to Shavout (Pentecost) had completed. The Day of ULB - that being a High Sabbath (a holy convocation) on Nisan 15 the day after which was Nisan 16 - the day of First Fruits (wave sheaf offering) and omer count began + 7 sabbaths the next day at sunset being Pentecost). This means Christ left the Earth 10 days before Pentecost. Note: Pentecost does not always fall on a Sunday. Christ died on Nisan 14 - the Day of Preparation (the real Lord's Passover - not the Feast of ULB on Nisan 15 which became the later Jewish "Passover" also) and was buried before the Jewish Passover Nisan 15. Christ was in the grave for 3 full days – the 15th, 16th and the 17th and rose on the third day (at the end of the 17th before sunset on the 18th) - the 18th being Day 1 of 40 days. The number of days in Nisan is 30 thus there were 13 days left in that month and therefore (40-13=27) means that the ascension of Christ on the Mount of Olives was Iyar 27. First Fruits Nisan 16 was the 3 day grave halfway period – day 2 Nisan 16 or the “middle earth” so to speak. Shavout or Pentecost fell the day starting at sunset after counting 49 days from Nisan 16 which is Sivan 6. The difference is 10 days. If there is any doubt - First Fruits is held on Nisan 16 (refer Josephus) and not the first weekly sabbath after the Day of ULB Nisan 15.

#2 - Alex Young - 04/06/2017 - 09:16

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