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6th century portrait of Jesus Christ

5 biggest mysteries of Jesus' life

You know about the virgin birth, the disciples, the crucifixion and the resurrection, but there are some aspects of the story of Jesus which have remained tantalisingly ambiguous, enigmatic and mysterious across the millennia…

Image: Public Domain

1. The lost years

The Bible is clear about the circumstances of Christ’s birth and his period as a teacher and miracle-maker. But it says absolutely nothing about the years in between. The last time we see young Jesus in the New Testament is when he’s 12 years old. Then, all of a sudden, he’s around 30 and commencing his ministry.

Which begs the question, just what did Jesus get up to as a teenager and young adult? The most likely (and least sensational) answer is he simply worked as a carpenter alongside his earthly father, Joseph. Indeed, passages in the Bible explicitly refer to onlookers being dumbstruck that a mere ‘carpenter’ and ‘carpenter’s son’ is exhibiting miraculous powers.

But some rather more colourful theories about Christ’s formative years have come up over the centuries. One is that he travelled to India, explored the Himalayas, and even studied Hinduism and Buddhism. Another is that he came over to Britain in the company of a wealthy patron (and future follower), Joseph of Arimathea.

Such scenarios are roundly dismissed by serious historians, and it could be argued that if anything significant happened during these years, they would have been recounted in the Bible. You can’t help wondering, though…

2. Jesus’ marital status

We know from the Bible that Jesus had a mum, an (earthly) dad, and a bunch of half-siblings. But did he have a wife? There’s nothing in canonical scripture to suggest it, but that hasn’t prevented generations of readers from pondering the question.

The prime candidate as a possible wife has always been Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s most devoted followers. After all, she was present at his crucifixion and burial, she was the first person he visited following his resurrection, and she’s mentioned more times in the gospels than any of the apostles.

Books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code havepopularised the theory that Mary was Jesus’s secret wife, while in 2012, the world was rocked by news of an ancient scrap of papyrus bearing the words, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife”’.

Initially thought to be a piece of an apocryphal gospel, the fragment is now regarded as a clever forgery, but speculation around Jesus’s personal life will likely continue for as long as the Bible is read.

3. The true cross

Relics have always been a huge draw for Christian pilgrims, and few are as revered as the ‘true cross’ – the very wood on which Christ suffered and died.

According to true cross lore, this venerated object was rediscovered in Jerusalem in the 4th century after St Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, ordered a pagan temple in Jerusalem to be torn down and the land beneath it excavated. After that point, purported fragments of the true cross popped up everywhere – they were carried into battle, proudly put on show in special containers known as reliquaries, and even worn as jewellery.

As the 16th century theologian John Calvin wryly put it, ‘If all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.’

While the authenticity of true cross fragments will always be open to debate, their appeal is as strong as ever, with the Pope even gifting King Charles III some pieces for his coronation.

4. Jesus’s appearance

The iconic image of Jesus, a fair-skinned, bearded man with long wavy hair, doesn’t come from the gospels, which give no clue as to Christ’s physical appearance. Indeed, the earliest depictions of Jesus in art often showed him as clean-shaven with short hair, and the ‘standard’ appearance of Christ slowly evolved over several centuries.

Just after the turn of the new millennium, a team led by Richard Neave – an expert in forensic facial reconstruction – took a more scientific approach to the conundrum. Utilising cultural and archaeological data, including 1st-century Semite skulls, they were able to reconstruct what a typical man of that time and place would have looked like.

The resulting image of a burly, olive-skinned with a broad face and prominent nose is a far cry from the stereotypical depictions in Western art and film. But the truth of the matter is, what the real Jesus really looked like is one question nobody will ever be able to answer.

5. The Holy Grail

The object known as the ‘Grail’ was originally a serving dish which appeared in a medieval Arthurian romance. But the word later became synonymous with Jesus’s cup at the Last Supper, which Joseph of Arimathea later used to catch drops of Christ’s blood at the crucifixion.

The Bible itself places no special significance on the drinking vessel. It’s mentioned by the writers of the gospels in accounts of the Last Supper, and that’s the end of it. There’s certainly no suggestion that the vessel could bestow special powers such as eternal life, and the whole Joseph of Arimathea/blood-catching story was actually made up by a medieval French poet named Robert de Boron.

While the Grail legend can be definitively traced back to works of chivalric literature, the cup of Christ has never ceased being an object of awe and fascination among believers and non-believers alike, with even the notorious Nazi Heinrich Himmler trying in vain to find it in 1940.