Monday, March 14, 2005

241 The Anniversary of The Passion

As the anniversary of The Passion comes around, I’m seeing images from the film appearing in Easter meditations, web sites and magazines. The passions last year about The Passion have dimmed. Millions of people saw it; few were converted because it was primarily shown to believers. Although only time will tell, it was not an effective evangelism tool.

It should be noted that there are still Christians who think the film was just awful and too violent (usually those who didn’t see it), and non-Christians who think it is anti-Jewish (many of those didn‘t see it either). I’ll leave them to their squabbles, but for those Christians whose complaints have been the extra-Biblical sources Gibson used in his research about the crucifixion, I suggest here that if a preacher’s topic is the twenty-third Psalm, he’s probably looked at some extra-Biblical sources about sheep breeds, the Holy Land pastures and dangers, and what shepherds do for a living. If he’s preaching on Martha and Mary, I hope he’s done his research on just what running a household meant 2000 years ago (just a guess here, but the men usually don‘t research this part of that New Testament story, but women pastors do).

However, this morning I was reading a book that is twenty years old, “The Empty Cross of Jesus” by Michael Green (IVP, 1984). To set the stage for Jesus’ death he writes about the use of a cross in Roman times. First he quotes Cicero as it being a most cruet and terrible punishment, and supplies the information that it was a humiliating death reserved for slaves and the lowest of the low. After describing several types of crosses, he comments that it is widely believed that Jesus was executed on the Latin cross (crux inmissa). Then he moves on to a description that could be the background for Gibson’s movie.

“The condemned man was invariably scourged, and men were known to die under that punishment alone, so severe were the wounds inflicted by this cruel cat-o’-nine-tails inset with pieces of metal. It is possible that Jesus suffered this punishment (Matt. 26:67; John 19:1). Thereafter, he had to carry the patibulum of his cross, and was led out under armed guard to die. . . He might have his wrists tied or nailed to the patibulum and then be hauled by ropes up on to the stipes which was already firmly fixed in the ground. More commonly the cross was put together on the ground, the condemned man bound or nailed to it, and the whole thing then erected and dropped into a pit that had been prepared to receive it. The degradation of the criminal was completed by his very clothes being taken from him. He was exposed naked on the cross. The cause of his being there was written above his head and fixed to the cross; and he was left there to die slowly in intense agony from exhaustion, thirst, and wounds.

The criminal had, of course, no recourse but to curse, spit and urinate on his tormentors. Often the kindler execution squads would offer a draught of drugged wine before nailing the man up. . . sometimes a rough sedile or saddle was fixed to the cross. This offered support to the crucified man, and often prolonged his life. By raising himself up on his lacerated feet and the saddle he could give some respite to heart and lungs which were put under immense strain by the position of the crucifixion. When the torture was deemed to have gone on long enough, or in order to ensure that the man was dead, the soldiers would perform the crurifragium, or breaking of the legs. This meant that the man, if still alive, could no longer hoist himself and would soon expire. The physical effects of crucifixion were appalling. Of all deaths it is the most lingering and agonizing. . . The agony of crucifixion was terrible beyond words. But it was not uncommon.”

Green goes on to describe the wounds, circulation, chest pain, etc. At the back of the book there is a bibliography, but he has not referenced his sources, which is not uncommon in a non-scholarly book. Even so, he has done some research on what transpired during a crucifixion, and why it was used as punishment. And with crucifixion being as common as it was (one incident involved 2,000 men at once), there are probably a number of extra-Biblical sources, all to checked against each other since no one has observed one today.

I suspect the real complaint conservative Christians have with this movie is Gibson’s Catholicism. And we know what the basis is of the other complaints from non-Christians. They not only don’t want Jesus in the public square, but they don’t want him in privately funded, block-buster movies either. They want Jesus to just go away and be a nice, meek and mild hillside preacher who gets people to share their food and be nice to each other so we can end wars. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians are also working toward that end.

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