May 19, 2010
From Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article, “What Did Jesus Do?”:
Belief remains a bounce, faith a leap. Still, the appetite for historical study of the New Testament remains a publishing constant and a popular craze. Book after book—this year, ten in one month alone—appears, seeking the Truth. Paul Johnson has a sound believer’s life, “Jesus: A Biography from a Believer,” while Paul Verhoeven, the director of “Basic Instinct,” has a new skeptical-scholar’s book [Jesus of Nazareth]. Verhoeven turns out to be a member of the Jesus Seminar, a collection mostly of scholars devoted to reconstructing the historical Jesus, and much of what he has to say is shrewd and learned.
… Jesus seems to have an intimation of the circumstance he has found himself in—leading a rebellion against Rome that is not really a rebellion, yet doesn’t really leave any possibility of retreat—and some corner of his soul wants no part of it: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take away this cup from me.” Mel Gibson was roughed up for roughing up Jesus, in his “Passion of the Christ,” but, though Gibson can fairly be accused of fanaticism, he can’t be accused of unfairness: in the long history of human cruelty, crucifixion, practiced as a mass punishment by the Romans, was uniquely horrible. The victim was stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, then whipped bloody, and then left to die as slowly as possible in as public a manner as conceivable. (In a sign of just how brutal it was, Josephus tells us that he begged the Roman rulers for three of his friends to be taken off the cross after they had spent hours on it; one lived.) The victim’s legs were broken to bring death in a blaze of pain. And the corpse was generally left to be eaten by wild dogs. It was terrifying and ever-present.
Verhoeven, citing Crossan, offers an opening scene for a Jesus bio-pic which neatly underlines this point. He imagines a man being nailed to a cross, cries of agony, two companion crosses in view, and then we crane out to see two hundred crosses and two hundred victims: we are at the beginning of the story, the mass execution of Jewish rebels in 4 B.C., not the end. This was the Roman death waiting for rebels from the outset, and Jesus knew it. Jesus’ cry of desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—though primly edited out or explained as an apropos quotation from the Psalms by later evangelists, pierces us even now from the pages of Mark, across all the centuries and Church comforts. The shock and pity of failure still resonates.