Crucifixion is a form of slow and painful execution. The victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead. Crucifixion was used by many ancient peoples; but the Romans used it extensively, as a form of punishment and terrorism, from the 6th century BCE until the 4th century CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine I abolished crucifixion in 337 CE out of respect for the “crucified Jesus.”

There is a general consensus among biblical scholars and historians of antiquity that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed crucified by the Romans around the year 30 CE. It happened under Pontius Pilate when he was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea between the years 26 and 36 CE.  What role did Jewish religious authorities play in this? Certainly, as a conquered people, Jews did not have the power to execute. Jesus’ crucifixion was clearly a Roman act, done in the Roman way. The Romans therefore, not the Jews, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is also a general consensus that many of the crucifixion details in the Gospels are imaginative religious imagery and embellishment. I touched on this briefly last week.

Depending on time and place, Roman Crucifixion methods varied considerably. It was always a gruesome, terribly painful, and humiliating event. Quite often the condemned person’s arms were tied and/or nailed to a beam, which the condemned person then carried to the place of execution. Once there the person was stripped of all clothing and the beam (crossbeam) was fastened to a post already in the ground. This is probably what happened to Jesus: he carried the crossbeam.

A crucifixion was an extremely torturous execution. The Roman philosopher and writer, Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE – 65 CE), tells us that Roman executioners got a kick out of ramming a stick upwards through the victim’s groin. Quite often the legs of the crucified were shattered with an iron club, an act designed to frighten onlookers and hasten the death of the victim.

New Testament writings about Jesus’ crucifixion do not specifically mention the shape of his cross, but writings from about the year 100 CE describe it as shaped like the letter T.

A cruel prelude to crucifixion was scourging, which led to severe blood loss and put the victim in a state of shock. The convicted then had to carry the horizontal beam (after scourging one would not have been strong enough to carry an entire cross) to the place of execution. Once there, a specialized crucifixion team stripped the person naked, made insulting and derogatory remarks about the condemned, and then finished the job. Roman soldiers had perfected the technique down to the last details.

Jesus’ crucifixion is described in all four canonical gospels, referred to in writings by Paul the Apostle, attested to by other ancient sources, and is firmly established as an historical event confirmed by non-Christian sources.

There are several details that are only found in one of the Gospel accounts. Only the Gospel According to Matthew mentions an earthquake, resurrected saints who then go into town, and Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb. Only Mark gives a time for the crucifixion (the third hour, or 9 am) and a centurion’s report about Jesus’ death. The Gospel According to Luke gives Jesus’ words to the women who were mourning and one criminal rebuking the other. The Gospel According to John (written about seventy years after the event, when most eyewitnesses would have been already dead) is the only account mentioning a request that Jesus’ legs be broken, a soldier piercing Jesus’ side (echoing a Hebrew Scriptures prophecy), and Nicodemus assisting Joseph with the burial.

How many of the biblical details describing Jesus’ crucifixion were actual historic events? Perhaps fewer than many people think. As I wrote last week, the Gospels were written to promote faith and to interpret the deepest meaning of the Jesus experience.

Let’s begin with events as narrated in the Gospel According to Mark, which gave us the first account of the crucifixion that we possess. Mark says it was the Passover that brought Jesus to Jerusalem. A week prior to his crucifixion, Mark says Jesus rode into Jerusalem in what we today call “the Palm Sunday Procession.” The crowds waved “leafy branches” and shouted words from the 118th psalm, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord.”

A week before Passover in the Middle East would have put the “leafy branches” procession in either March or April. However, in that part of the world, there are no leafy branches that time of the year. Perhaps we see here a bit of early Christian religious symbolism?

In the Jewish liturgical year, Sukkoth, the autumn harvest festival, does indeed have some leafy branch activities. Early Christian evangelists borrowed and moved these from the autumn to spring. During Sukkoth a procession through the streets and to the Temple was a major part of the celebration. The worshipers carried in their right hands a bunch of leafy branches made up of myrtle, willow, and palm which they waved while marching. They also shouted the words of the 118th Psalm. This was, however, during an autumn harvest festival. The gospel writers clearly moved the symbols from Sukkoth in the fall to the spring season of Passover.

Trying to convey the impact of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, the Gospels use powerful and dramatic imagery: darkness over the land, the earth shakes, rocks are split, tombs are opened, the dead are raised and walk into town; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

And what is the meaning of all of this?

What does Jesus’ crucifixion and death say to us today? All week I have been thinking about that tortured fellow on his lonely way to execution. It changes our entire perspective on human life. What courage. What commitment. What faith and love. What a frightening and awful way to die. Yet his death becomes our hope and encouragement. Powerful indeed. He gives us the courage to continue on our journey.


As my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, writes at the end of his Journey of the Magi:

I should be glad of another death.”


Transfiguration: A Preview of Easter

In this weekend’s liturgical readings, we have the account of the Transfiguration as written in the Gospel According to Matthew (17:1-9).

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

When telling a friend yesterday that I would be writing about Jesus’ Transfiguration, he chided me a bit and hoped I would reaffirm and stress it was an historic event. “Actually,” I said “when considering biblical belief, biblical events, and historical events we need to make some important distinctions….” He then muttered something about the “dangers of liberal theology.”

In any event, here, as a contemporary believer, is how I understand the Transfiguration…..

In the accounts of the Transfiguration, Jesus is suddenly changed and becomes a radiantly divinized Son of God, up on a mountain. The Synoptic Gospels describe it (Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28–36) and 2 Peter 1:16–18 refers to it.

The content of the narrative is richly symbolic with people and imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures, as we saw last week, when John baptized Jesus. Once again the three-level universe with God up in heaven, and speaking in a cloud. Jesus takes three key disciples up high in the mountains — getting as close as possible to God’s heavenly dwelling place. Moses you recall did the same thing when God gave him the Ten Commandments.

Then the wondrous vision occurs. Moses appears. He brought God’s people the law and led them up to the Promised Land. Now in this visionary experience, the radiant Jesus, standing with the old Moses, becomes the New Moses. God says: “This is my son. Listen to him.” Jesus is the new law-giver. And then of course we have an appearance of Elijah. Last week we saw that John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord, was an Elijah figure. Now we have the old Elijah, standing next to the Lord who has come at last. For Moses and Elijah, standing with Jesus, the great day has arrived. Up on the mountain of the Transfiguration, all messianic expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures are summed up and completed with the radiant Jesus.

As recorded in the Gospels, the Transfiguration becomes a deeply symbolic preview and a powerful faith affirmation of the Post-Resurrection Jesus. An important piece of Resurrection catechesis.

When editing their final versions of the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel writers felt their audiences needed some support and moral encouragement, as they began to contemplate Jesus’ sufferings and death. Yes I call it a catechetical moment: a reaffirmation of faith in Jesus raised from the dead….before the Gospel accounts become so heavily laden with suffering, rejection, pain, and death. (It is like saying: “don’t worry, in the end it will all come out OK for Jesus.”) A deeply symbolic visionary experience and a powerful re-affirmation of the Easter faith of historic people back then….as well as for us today.

So my friend asked me yesterday: “was it an historic event?” Actually I reminded him that in the Hebrew biblical tradition there was little interest in the fact of an historic situation. Those early believers were concerned about the meaning behind what happened. Their tradition — passed on of course to early Christian believers — is one of story telling. They combined history, allegory, and symbols to communicate their experiences. Asking “did it really happen?” is the kind of question that comes from a Western mind-set, not the Ancient Near East culture of Jesus and his followers. For that biblical faith culture, the main question was “what is the meaning in these things.”

I would suggest the Transfiguration is a powerfully symbolic testimony to the faith experiences of Jesus’ early followers. And they were really historic men and women.

As contemporary believers, we need to appreciate that biblical language (in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Christian Scriptures) is not the same thing as our scientific factual language. We are at times too empirical. We need to understand that faith truths are expressed in a variety of ways.

We will see later this Lent that the details of Jesus’ passion are not strictly-speaking literal history. We must ask: “what is the meaning of these things?” They are devout interpretations of the end of Jesus’ life. Testimonies of faith: showing evidence of creative growth and development over the years, as biblical authors began to fill in the blanks, in imaginative ways, and with a judicious use of the Hebrew Scriptures.

My belief? Yes. I believe we are on a journey with Jesus-raised-from-the-dead. He reveals God to us. He reveals authentic humanity to us. He is “Lord,” “Son of God,” and our brother.

As I told my old friend, our faith has nothing to do with being a progressive or a conservative Catholic. And it is not some kind of sugar-coated piety. It is anchored in real life, with all its ups and downs…..

Perhaps during these forty days, we can best read a narrative like that of the Transfiguration and then calmly reflect what it means to be a traveller with Jesus in 2014.

I often think about the faith experience of the disciples, on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize the Lord at first. When he disappeared, they commented: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us and opening the Scriptures to us?”

We continue on our Lenten journey.


Lent 2014: Thoughts about Jesus

What are you giving up for Lent?

For Lent 2014, I am giving up writing here about contemporary church events and people. I may come back to that, but right now I want to spend more time thinking about Jesus.

Back to the source!

This Lent I will offer my own historical and contemporary theological reflections on seven themes in our Christian tradition: Jesus’ Baptism, the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, and Being an Apostle. In no way will I simply rehash old stuff.

I intend to explore and explain who Jesus is for me today: the personal thoughts of a believer and an older historical theologian…..and I invite you to journey with me in your own exploration.

Jesus of Nazareth

Nearly all contemporary scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth (7-2 BCE to 30-33 CE) was an historic person. There are questions about how closely the biblical Jesus reflects the historical Jesus; but general agreement that Jesus was a first century Jewish teacher, was baptized by John the Baptist; and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Believers of course have a much fuller faith-picture of the man from Nazareth.

Baptized by John the Baptist

In the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark — which most contemporary scholars now regard as the earliest of our existing gospels, written around 66-70 CE, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome — we read about Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. There is no birth story and nothing about Jesus’ childhood. We are told that Jesus was believed to be the fulfillment of the hopes and the writings of the prophets.

Then Mark gives a description of John the Baptist that identifies him with the prophet Elijah.

According to the Books of Kings, Elijah (in the 9th century BCE) defended the Israelite worship of Yahweh over that of the Canaanite god Baal. At the end of his life, he was taken up to the heavens in a whirlwind with fiery horses and chariot. In the Book of Malachi, Elijah’s return is prophesied “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

John the Baptist was well known for calling people to conversion and marking their conversion with baptism, a ritual purification. Jesus, and probably some of his young friends (in their late teens or early twenties), felt a call from God to lead a more devout life of faith. In the beginning they were all followers of John.

John the Baptist, in Mark, wears the clothing of the prophet Elijah and is a man from the desert. He lives on Elijah’s diet of locusts and wild honey. By portraying John the Baptist as an Elijah-figure, Mark directs his readers’ attention to the messianic images that suggested that Elijah must come first to prepare the way for the messiah.

John the Baptist is used by the author of Mark to play this role in our oldest existing gospel. This is not strict history. This is interpretive theological painting; and the audience for whom the evangelist was writing could immediately understand the symbols being used.

Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. Jesus is pictured simply as an adult, a fully human male. Following the custom of the day, Mark introduces Jesus, by name, followed by his home town: “Jesus of Nazareth.” And then we see Mark’s first reference to something supernatural.

Mark says the heavens opened. Biblical authors pictured the earth as a flat disk floating in water, with the heavens above and the underworld beneath the earth. The firmament was a solid inverted bowl above the earth, which kept the waters from flooding the world. (When there was a need for water down below, God could open little windows and let the rains water the fields.) The realm of God was in the heavens above. The realm of humans was on earth down below.(On Ascension day a cloud comes down to get Jesus and take him up to the heavens; but we will explore that a bit later.)

Mark says the heavens opened, God’s Spirit came down and settled over Jesus like a dove; and a voice calls out from the heavens proclaiming Jesus to be God’s “beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Once again Mark draws from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Isaiah 42 we read: “here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” In Psalm 2 we read: “You are my son, today I have become your father.”

God’s Spirit does not come down on Jesus just for a short time. It dwells in Jesus permanently: Jesus of Nazareth becomes a God-infused human person. This was Mark’s way of explaining the source of the divine presence that was found in Jesus. (The later developing supernatural story of Jesus’ miraculous birth had apparently not yet been thought of or composed by anyone.)

Very quickly in the Gospel According to Mark, we see that John the Baptist and Jesus have a very different perspective on how God deals with the world. When John is arrested, we see Jesus and his followers, called by God, taking off in a new direction.

John the Baptist was rooted in Elijah’s vision of “the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” John was a fire and brimstone kind of preacher. When he looked at all the evil in the world, he saw a problem so radical that it would take some radical action from God to solve it. For John the Baptist, the coming of the Kingdom of God would have to be some sort of a divine catastrophic event to cleanse the world: “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

We see something very different in Jesus. In the perspective of Jesus, the coming of the Kingdom of God is not what God will do to us in some great and fearful day but what God expects us to do right here and right now. And this is “Good News.”

God is waiting for us. That is what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. We are called to do something in conjunction with God, because we live in the Kingdom of God. And it becomes very clear, as Jesus, after baptism, so quickly begins his public ministry. Living in conjunction with God —being a person of faith — is much more than being simply an observant religious person. “The Sabbath was made for humans,” Jesus tells his critics, and “humans were not made for the Sabbath…”

Throughout his public ministry, Jesus, the God-infused, continually reminds his followers and reminds us about what God is waiting for us to do. The words of Isaiah, a prophet close to the heart of Jesus, become the words of faith.

We see it already in Isaiah chapter one: “What are your endless sacrifices to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sick of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of calves. I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats….Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Take your wrong-doing out of my sight. Cease doing evil. Learn to do good. Search for justice. Discipline the violent. Be just to the orphan. Plead for the widow….”

Good News indeed!