At our mission last night I mentioned the inadequacy of some recent books on the bible. One example is Bill O’Reilly’s, Killing Jesus, which many are reading this Lent. Check out this review by Fr. Paul Zilonka, CP, a Passionist scripture scholar who died recently. Paul sees O’Reilly’s book as part of the “Quest for the historical Jesus.” New historical studies can increase our understanding of the times of Jesus, but unfortunately they can cause us to miss the meaning the biblical authors wished to leave us.
In our catechesis last night, I spoke about the way our gospels, beginning with the passion narratives, came about. Here’s what I said:
We hardly can imagine what a shock the crucifixion of Jesus was to his disciples, to Peter and James and John and all the rest who came up with him to Jerusalem from Galilee. Last Sunday’s gospel. remember, was about the news of a tower that fell near the temple in Siloam, killing 18 people. Also, Pilate killed a number of people in the riot. In those days in Jerusalem news traveled fast, especially anything about Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leadership. It was a political city, and everybody’s eyes and ears were turned to what was going on.
Especially a crucifixion. Crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, and the Romans made sure everybody knew about it. They meant crucifixion to be a deterrent, a warning. They deliberately publicized it. The place where Jesus was executed, the Roman place for execution, was right outside the city gates on a main road on a raised ground the shape of a skull. Calvary. People going in and out of the city had to see it. They were meant to see it. The Romans made sure those to be crucified were marched through the streets to their execution. The crown of thorns the soldiers put on Jesus was an added touch: Don’t try to be a king here.
Today, with the help of archeologists and historians we can trace the last hours of Jesus very well, from Bethany in the eastern part of Jerusalem where he stayed when he came up for the Passover feast, to the garden on the Mount of Olives where he prayed and was arrested, to the place where the Jewish leaders questioned him in the upper part of the city, to the judgement place where Pilate condemned him, to the soldiers’ barracks where they scourged him and crowned him with thorns, to Calvary where he was nailed to a cross and crucified, to the tomb where he was buried, “a stone’s throw away.”
Today, if you stand on the walls of the Citadel, the ancient fortress on the highest point of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is close to where Jesus was condemned, you follow the route Jesus took his death and resurrection. You can see the Mount of Olives to the west; you’re standing near where Jesus was judged by Pilate; and looking over to your left you can see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over Calvary and his tomb.
His followers were shocked when he died. Luke’s story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus after his crucifixion describe their lost hope. “We were hoping he would be the one to redeem Israel,” they say to the Stranger who appears at their side. (Luke 24,13-35)
When he asks who they’re talking about, they’re surprised: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” Everybody knew what happened “ to Jesus the Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him.”
They tell him that “some women of our group have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
Then Jesus began to tell them that Moses and the prophets said the Messiah had to suffer to enter into his glory. Finally, he will reveal himself to them “in the breaking of the bread.”
When his followers first speak to the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas about the death and resurrection of Jesus, they use the same Old Testament scriptures. God has revealed this tremendous mystery to us, they say, it was promised in the scriptures. And we also have seen him. We hear that early proclamation in the preaching of Peter and the others in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.
Our four gospels come years later; they’re not accounts taken down that day. The gospel of Luke, for example, was written about 40 or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s an account that has been enriched by years of reflection on that happened when Jesus died and rose again. We shouldn’t miss the wealth of reflection it contains.