Many have recommended Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, Killing Jesus: A History (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2013). I’ve slowly made my way through this enlightening work and have appreciated the historical details surrounding the events of Jesus’ life and death. It is particularly meaningful to read during the Lenten season and has prepared my heart for Jesus’ passion. Here are a few observations from this work I’d like to pass on as we near Holy Week:
The First Century was riddled with tension.
Everywhere you looked in the First Century, there were stark differences. Such drastically different religious and political worldviews often gave rise to heated conflicts often resulting in the slaying of innocent lives. Although the Jews and Romans worked to ease the tensions between the two groups, political manipulation was rampant, deceptive policies were normative, and corruption ran amuck, all which dwarf the political tensions we experience between political parties in the 21st Century North American context.
The Roman Empire was more ruthless than I ever imagined.
PBS provided an excellent series called The Roman Empire: In The First Century. Summarizing their findings, the enduring legacy of the Empire is identified: “The Roman Empire in the first century AD mixed sophistication with brutality and could suddenly lurch from civilization, strength and power to terror, tyranny and greed.” Ruling with an iron fist takes on new meaning when reading about the Romans and the extreme measures taken to enforce their way of dictatorship. Human life was of little consequence and value.
Remember when Herod issued a decree that all male children should be slaughtered because of the threat Jesus’ birth posed to the Roman establishment (Matthew 2)? It was commonplace for a ruler to order the execution of innocent men, women and children, depending on the fickle mood of whoever was in charge. This occurred with the beheading of John the Baptist at Herodias’ simple request in Matthew 14. No trial, no jury, no due process – just cold-blooded execution as a favor extended by a vengeful ruler. Of course, the most severe punishment reserved for the most hardened criminals was death by crucifixion, where suffering was pushed to its outer limits.
Jesus’ life and death was anything but commonplace.
Can you imagine sending your son to inhabit this kind of tense and violent situation? God did. Can you imagine living under the constant threat of death? Jesus did. Living in the First Century could be described as a no-win situation, and yet it served as the appointed time for Jesus’ life and ministry. When Jesus came, he showed the world a new way of life – one not rooted in fear, but love – in stark contrast to the systems of authority. He showed the world how to value human life, restoring the ethic of mutual dignity, respect and honor. Ultimately, it was a way of life he died to secure.
As we near Holy Week, let us reconsider how uncommon the life and death of Jesus was, especially in comparison to his First Century surroundings. Against the dark backdrop of a bloody and cruel world, Jesus offered his life so love would rule the day, redemption would be possible, and hope would spring up from the doldrums of despair. He gave his life so we might have life, experiencing it in all its fullness, beauty and abundance. Regardless of how many times I hear about the life and death of Jesus, I stand in awe of this sacrificial act of love. The story truly never gets old, and I am brought to a place where I echo the Apostle Paul in praise, who writes in 2 Corinthians 9:15, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”