In the realm of biblical archaeology it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to provide an objective historical reality to figures of the Old and New Testaments.
While this may not necessarily be a problem for those who are satisfied to rely on faith alone or the literal truth of the Bible, it leaves a yawning and troubling gap in the historical record for historians.
Author Ralph Ellis has made it his life’s work to reconnect events and persons from the Bible with empirical facts. Though he makes clear that his interest is from a purely areligious perspective, any endeavour that puts the foundations of a religion under scrutiny is unavoidably contentious – and his latest book, Jesus, King of Edessa, could be the most controversial of all.
Was Jesus Christ, in fact, a little-known warrior king of Syria who led a failed Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire? Was the New Testament actually a work of political propaganda on behalf of Emperor Vespasian that portrayed his beaten foe as a passive messiah to quell further rebellion?
These are bold claims indeed, but they are argued with conviction and a wealth of supporting evidence. Including gospel evidence, which records Jesus as being a king who jailed alongside rebels who had committed murder in the Revolt.
Based on a 30-year quest that has taken the author all around archaeological sites and dusty archives in the Near East, the book puts forward a plausible explanation for the true identity and genealogy of the biblical Jesus
Previous books by Ellis have made the case for a connection between the patriarchs and events of the Old Testament with the Pharaohs of Egypt, in that they were historically one and the same, much as the 1st century AD chronicler Josephus Flavius attests. And Jesus, King of Edessa – the third and final book in his ‘King Jesus’ trilogy – follows a similar line in exposing a forgotten or erased dual identity.
Essentially, Ellis contests that although Jesus has long been placed in the public consciousness as a lowly pauper, in reality he was a son of King Abgarus of the Syrian kingdom of Edessa. The master of a small realm, but with a large treasury and lofty ambitions.
His son, King Izas-Manu, became a minor prince of Judaea and, according to Josephus, the instigator of the Jewish Revolt of AD68 – 70. This Jesus-Izas aimed to seize upon instability within the Roman Empire left by the death of Nero and take control of the levers of power.
However, he was defeated by commander-cum-emperor Vespasian and, as the history books are always written by the victors, deleted from the historical record. The emperor, Ellis contends, then instructed historian Josephus Flavius to distort Jesus-Izas Manu and his motives to avoid future uprisings in a book that has come down to us today as the New Testament.
Ellis points to startling parallels between Izas and Jesus, such as the traditional royal plaited crown of thorns that the kings of Edessa were pictured wearing; the similarities in their names, as well as the figurehead of a king leading the Jewish people in revolt.
He also calls upon overlooked accounts by Syriac historians of the period that provide an alternate perspective on the events surrounding the revolt from that of Josephus or the Bible.
Ellis describes his latest work as “The book the Catholic Church has been dreading for 1700 years”, which should give an idea of how explosive are the claims he makes within its 500-plus pages.
If he’s right then our understanding of Jesus will be completely overturned. For a start it would shift Jesus in the historical timeline from the AD30s to the AD60s, and make him a key figure in the Great Jewish-Roman War. And the huge implications for the identification of King Izas Manu as the Christian saviour and the basis of orthodox Church teachings can only be imagined.
Ellis has painstakingly cross-referenced all his findings, and the inclusion of maps, photographs of key locations and religious and historical artefacts, and even video links, brings the text alive for the curious reader.
They’re not claims to be taken lightly – to put it lightly – and whether you end up agreeing with the conclusions or not, Jesus, Kind of Edessa puts forward a fascinating case for consideration.