Last year the film Assassin 33 A.D. (AKA Black Easter Resurrection) was released. The plot hinges around a terrorist plot to go back in time to 1st century Palestine and assassinate Jesus of Nazareth and the disciples and hence change the course of world history. Of course, a plucky band of young people – including the inventor of the time machine – have to go back to stop them and the resulting apocalypse. Sounds plausible, as far as these things go.
I’m not particularly interested in this film, though when I can get my hands on it I will watch it as part of the Bible and Popular Culture research, but what I am interested in is the way that time-travel and religion, and in particular, Christianity interact with each other in fictional narratives.
Science fiction short stories are one location that happens in and there have been some classic tales of the years, as have TV and comics. We’ll highlight a few of those below.
I remember reading this back in primary or intermediate school as part of an anthology of science fiction short stories. It was originally published as a short story in the Sunday Times in the UK, before being republished in a variety of different anthologies after that. I have no idea what anthology I read it in, but probably in the last 70s.
In this story, time machines allow travel back to various historical events, of which the crucifixion of Jesus is a popular attraction. The protagonist in the story, Simon Falk, realizes at some point that the of the crowd responding to Pilate’s choice about who to free – Barabbas or Jesus – are tourists who have been prompted to chant for “Barabbas” by the tour company. There is the ironic set up of the future shaping the past, and perhaps a different set of events might have happened but for future intervention. Generates some nice reflection around divine providence and free will in historical perspective.
Michael Moorcock’s story, Behold the Man, precedes Kilworth’s Golgotha by a few years, firstly as a 1966 novella and then as a fuller novel in 1969. Moorcock plays more with the Jesus story than Kilworth (who maintains the continuity of the Jesus story) by introducing a protagonist who takes the place of Jesus of Nazareth. The story’s main character, Karl Glogauer, who suffers from a number of mental health and other conditions, travels back in time to 28AD and gets stranded there. Once in the past, Glogauer finds things are not as the Bible tells and sets about to insert himself in the story to ‘fix’ it, even down to his own crucifixion (and theft of his body). Thus, the timeline is maintained and history unfolds as it always has.
The shorter form of Behold the Man won the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novella. Moorcock’s work set the scene for a variety of later similarly-themed works in short story, novel, and comic form.
In this novel we’re introduced to a world which appears, to all intents and purposes, similar to ours. The key difference here is that Jesus of Nazareth led a successfu armed revolt against the Romans establishing a theocracy. He is later killed by crossbow, which becomes a sacred symbol much like the cross does in our history. The time-travel element occurs when in the future the protagonist, Haldane IV, returns to the past as “Judas Iscariot” to kill Jesus. Haldane instead captures him and returns to a future which looks now much like our one does.
The story has a number of similar themes as other dystopian novels, such as 1984 and Brave New World, and which are similarly picked up in more contemporary works such as the graphic novel Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman (See later).
Other notable mentions
Some other stories that explore similar themes of religion and time-travel include:
An audiobook from Big Finish Productions that pitches the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), Erimem, and Peri into the fourth century (315AD) setting of the First Council of Nicaea.
Not exactly time-travel in the usual sense of the word, but in this episode the SG-1 team gate to a world which has been populated with a medieval Christian European society by the Goa’uld Sokar.
A science fiction series with a crime/thriller element thrown in as the charismatic founder of a tech-giant seeks to bring back his dead daughter through manipulation of the fabric of the universe. His team develop a system that can observe any moment and location in time and space, including the crucifixion of Jesus.
Hickman’s Pax Romana sees the Catholic church in the future fearing for the survival of the Catholic faith. In reponse to that, the Vatican develops time-travel and sends an armed force back in time to 312AD (the time of Constantine). The force, commaned by a cardinal, is charged with making sure that history is established in a firm footing for a longer lasting Catholic theocracy. When the cardinal is killed early on that mission is diverted by the agendas of the different soldiers.