'Dateline' Worried About Bigotry? 'Jesus Did Not Die on the Cross'

NBC's Dateline featured a researcher who makes a controversial claim: Mohammad was not really a proph--

No, that's not the controversial claim the researcher made, although it is just as inflammatory. The one Michael Baigent told to NBC was that Jesus did not die on the cross, a belief that undermines one of the central tenets of Christianity. After NBC Dateline's failed attempt at finding "redneck" NASCAR fans who would persecute fans in Muslim outfits, those at Dateline demonstrate that they themselves have succeeded in persecuting a religion.

Correspondent Sara James reports that Michael Baigent alleges a coverup.

A cover up, he contends, because his clues point to a radical conclusion: that Jesus did not die on the cross.

Baigent: I don’t think Jesus died at the crucifixion. I think he survived.

In the Bible, the story is told like this: Jesus spent his final hours on a hillside in Jerusalem. Sentenced to death, the peasant preacher was nailed to a wooden cross and left to die and was later resurrected.

The site would become holy to Christians around the world, now the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

What do we really know about what happened on that fateful day 2,000 years ago? The exact details of the crucifixion have always been steeped in mystery. What we do have are pieces of evidence from four different and sometimes contradictory gospels written at least 30 years after Jesus died.

James: So you believe even in the Bible, there are clues to what you believe is the truth.

Baigent: Absolutely. If we read them closely and ask the questions we can come up with a very, very different construction.

With the Bible as his source, Baigent reconstructed the story of the crucifixion and arrived at an entirely new version of events.

A secret deal with Pontius Pilate He says Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus’s death, actually made a secret deal to save his life.

Baigent: It was rigged. It was a fraud. I think the crucifixion was set up precisely to remove a particular political problem which both Pilate and Jesus found themselves within.

Pilate, Baigent argues, he needed to appease the crowd which was calling for Jesus’s death. But because Jesus had urged his followers to pay their taxes to Rome, Baigent argues Pilate also had an incentive to let Jesus live.

Baigent: It’s my hypothesis that he rigged the crucifixion such that Jesus would survive but very quickly removed Jesus from the scene.

According to Baigent, Jesus and his supporters were also in on this plot. Baigent acknowledges there no proof of his theory, but it was possible to survive crucifixion. There is at least one example in early historical records. The Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about finding three of his friends nailed to the cross.

Baigent: He pleaded with Roman authorities and got them brought down. Two of them died. One survived. If the crucifixion was arranged to allow a survival, it could be done.