More on Killing Jesus:
When I posted my review of Bill O’Reilley’s Killing Jesus this past Christmas Day, I did so with the nagging feeling that there was something else bothering me about that book. After a couple of weeks, I finally realized what it was. Since then I have thought of another issue regarding the book because I read Stephen Mansfield’s book of the same title (see Stephen Mansfield, Killing Jesus: The Unknown Conspiracy behind the World’s Most Famous Execution [Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013]) and Mansfield was guilty of the same mistake. This blog addresses those two issues.
First, both books fail to mention the sovereignty and will of God in the death of Jesus. The Four Gospels, and indeed the entire New Testament, refer time and again to the death of Jesus as the center point of God’s plan for our redemption. This theme occurs in the Old Testament as well. Jesus stated on several occasions that He would give His life as a sacrifice for our sins. The Four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are clear that this was the Father’s plan, and Jesus above all else came into this world to do His Father’s will. This means that Jesus was not a victim of circumstances, and the political/religious situation did not get out of control when the Roman and Jewish leaders conspired against Him. No, Jesus knew that He was born into this world to die for our sins and that it would be a cruel, painful, humiliating death. But Jesus’ love for us and His resolve to obey His Father’s will and accomplish His Father’s plan to redeem us compelled Him to endure unimaginable agony. I realize that both of these books are primarily works of history, but if the Four Gospels are going to be used as the primary sources (as they should be, and as the authors of both books did), then what the Four Gospels say about why Jesus died needs to be emphasized just as much as and perhaps more than how He died.
Second, both books delve into the gory details of the beatings and scourging that Jesus likely had to endure even before He was crucified, and the horrors of the process of crucifixion are given in detail as well.
The description of Jesus’ agony covers 10 pages in O’Reilley’s book and a whopping 48 pages in Mansfield’s (which is almost one-fourth of the main text of the entire book). Several ancient historians documented what a victim of a Roman trial and execution had to endure, and archeologists have uncovered the remains of numerous victims that provide physical evidence corroborating their testimonies. I am not questioning the accuracy of what these books say about this subject. My concern is that focusing on Jesus’ physical sufferings puts the emphasis in the wrong place, and the proper emphasis is on the fact that Jesus died both spiritually and physically for us. The physical pain Jesus endured does not save us. His death and resurrection save us.
The Four Gospels are very brief in recording the physical pains Jesus endured—quite a contrast to what is so often depicted in books and movies. I have studied the Roman practice of crucifixion in some detail myself, and I know that it is quite possible that “The Passion of the Christ” is an accurate depiction what actually happened to Jesus—in fact, it may have been worse. And then again, it may not. We simply don’t know because the Gospels writers did not provide these details.
Notice how brief the Four Gospels are on this issue:
* The beatings from the members of the Sanhedrin cover two verses in Matthew (26:67-68), one in Mark (14:65), three in Luke (22:63-65), and none in John (though John 18:22 does state that the servant of Annas, the high priest, struck Jesus).
* The scourging by the Roman soldiers, which was the most physically painful ordeal that a victim endured, covers only a single verse in three of the Four Gospels (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1). Luke’s Gospel does not mention this at all (though it is implied in 23:22), but one verse does refer to the ill treatment Jesus endured from Herod’s soldiers (Luke 23:11).
* The mocking by the Roman soldiers covers five verses in Matthew (27:27-31), five in Mark (15:16-20), none in Luke, and two in John (19:2-3).
* The act of crucifixion itself is also covered in a single verse in each of the Four Gospels (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18), though all Four Gospels provide some details about what Jesus and others said and did while He was on the cross.
* The mocking by those near the cross covers seven verses in Matthew (27:38-44), four in Mark (15:29-32), four in Luke (23:35-37,39), and none in John.
The brevity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering may come as a surprise to many since it is commonplace to provide gory and stomach-churning details about the horrors He endured, both in books and in films. Once again, I’m not questioning the validity of these accounts. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus endured horrible physical suffering. This shows us how much Jesus’ enemies hated Him and everything He stood for, just as some of the enemies of Christianity have ever since and have persecuted His followers in response. But those beatings are not what saved us—it is His actual death and resurrection that provide salvation for those who believe in Him. And ironically, it is not what Jesus’ enemies did to Him that provides salvation, it is what God did to Him:
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has cause the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. . . .
But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. (Isaiah 53:6,10; italics added)
Jesus died spiritually when He endured the infinite wrath of God during the three hours of darkness on the cross (see Matthew 27:45-46). This is when God caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him and when it pleased God to crush Him. This is the cup that Jesus dreaded so much and asked His Father to remove from Him (see Matthew 26:36-46)—the ugliness of becoming sin for us that we might live (see 2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus also died physically and arose from the dead to show His power over sin and death, which is the basis for the believer’s resurrection as well (see 1 Corinthians 15:12-28,50-58).
I fear that focusing on the Jesus’ physical sufferings beyond the scope of what the Gospels tell us can cause us to miss the message in the details they do provide. Here are three examples:
(1) After the Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court tried Jesus and found Him guilty of blasphemy, they declared Him worthy of death (Matthew 26:65-66). Then various members of the Sanhedrin abused Jesus by spitting on Him and hitting Him with their fists and slapping Him in the face. They challenged Jesus to be the prophet He claimed to be: “Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?” (see verses 67-68). There is great irony here. These Jewish leaders had “seated themselves in the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:2), claiming to be the modern spokesmen for God who explained the law of Moses and thus the will of God to the people. Jesus could easily have done what they asked, but He would not reward unbelief with a demonstration of His ability to prophesy and His knowledge even of their very thoughts. So He kept silent. Jesus’ time of prophesying, proclaiming the truth about salvation and the kingdom of God, had ended, and these Jewish believers had rejected the truth. Thus the irony is this: these wicked religious leaders called on this Man they hated so much to prophesy, and He was the greatest prophet of all. He was the Prophet like Moses that God promised He would send (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; see John 1:21,25,45; 5:46; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-26). These Jewish leaders then committed blasphemy by abusing Jesus and then had Him executed for blasphemy.
(2) When the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus in a purple robe, put a crown of thorns on His head, and knelt before Him, hailing Him as a King, this was great irony too. All Four Gospels record that the placard above Jesus’ head called Him “The King of the Jews.” The placard proclaimed the truth even though the Jewish leaders and Pilate didn’t recognize it as true and even though Jesus had told them He was the King. And then the Roman soldiers mocked Him by going through charade of adorning Him as a king and kneeling before Him. The irony is that this mockery will one day become reality. When Jesus comes back in glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16), these soldiers will bow the knee before Him once again and proclaim that He is Lord (see Philippians 2:9-11)—and so will those Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate.
(3) While Jesus was on the cross, some people mocked Him by telling Him to come down from the cross and save Himself like He saved others, which will show that He is God’s Son and the King of Israel. There is great irony here as well. At His arrest, Jesus stated that He could simply ask the Father and He would provide more than 12 legions of angels to stop His enemies from taking His life (Matthew 26:53). But the reason Jesus came into the world was to die for our sins so we could be saved by faith in Him. Thus the irony of their mocking Him is this: Jesus could not save us unless He refused to save Himself. He had to be crucified and remain on the cross until He died—and then rise again on the third day.
Finally, there are two more things about Ambrose’s book that bother me. The first one is that the subtitle is misleading (The Unknown Conspiracy Behind the World’s Most Famous Execution). The part that I take issue with is the claim of “unknown conspiracy.” Ambrose did not break new historical ground here. Students of the New Testament, whether scholar or preacher or layman, know from the historical accounts in the Four Gospels about the hatred that the Jewish leaders had for Jesus and why they conspired to have him executed. Ambrose did a great job of explaining this for his readers, and I’m sure that these details were unknown to many of them—yet this is hardly what the subtitle is referring to. There is nothing in Ambrose’s book that is uncovering aspects of this conspiracy that hasn’t been known to the Christian community from the beginning—for the simple reason that the details are provided in the primary sources, the Four Gospels themselves. The only reason this conspiracy would be unknown is because someone hasn’t read and studied the Four Gospels very closely.
The second one is much more disturbing. I was pleased to notice that Ambrose devoted 10 pages to the resurrection, compared to just a tad more than a full page in O’Reilley’s book. But I didn’t have to read far before disappointment set in. Here is the third paragraph of the Epilogue:
It seems that something of importance did happen two days after Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus put Jesus in a tomb. We can be forgiven if we are unsure about all the details. Even those who followed Jesus and watched him die were confused. Decades later, they still had not come up with an official version of the story. (page 197)
Ambrose goes on to claim that the Four Gospels contradict one another in some of the details about Jesus’ resurrection appearances and reports. An example of a contradiction, according to Ambrose, is that Matthew’s Gospel mentions two women going to the tomb while Mark’s Gospel says there are three (pages 198-99; see Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1). But Matthew does not say only two women went to the tomb; he simply mentions two of them and fails to mention Salome in his narrative, so this is hardly a contradiction of Mark. John’s Gospel mentions Mary Magdalene’s journey to the tomb, but John does not say she was the only woman to go there. He simply focuses on her. The Four Gospels have numerous accounts of the same event where one writer gives fuller details than the others. For example, Matthew and Luke mention two men living in the tombs in Gerasene who were demon-possessed and whom Jesus healed (Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39), but Mark’s lengthier account mentions only one of them (Mark 5:1-20). Another example occurs in one of the stories about Jesus’ healing the blind. Matthew’s account mentions two men who were blind (Matthew 20:29-34), while Mark and Luke mention only one man (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) and Mark alone provides the man’s name (Bartimaeus). These are hardly contradictions. Charges of errors and contradictions and inconsistencies have been made against the Four Gospels for centuries, so Ambrose’s view is nothing new. But evangelical teachers and scholars have responded time and time again with legitimate and logical interpretations that explain these so-called errors. What is so disconcerting about this to me is that a writer of Ambrose’s reputation and following, a New York Times best-selling author, has joined the ranks of those who charge the Four Gospels of being in error about the most incredible and important miracle in human history—the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason especially, and for others I have mentioned in this blog, I cannot recommend this book for the Christian community or for those investigating the Christian faith. There are numerous other books on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that are much more worthy of your time.