What have the Romans ever done for us?
OK, so this is the second in a series of posts sharing some of my reflections in response to the question, “Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?”
It’s quite a long post already, so first up, I’m not going to get into debates here about the historicity of Jesus – ie did he actually exist in the first place – this is not only well debated in other places, but it’s established opinion among scholars that Jesus of Nazareth did indeed exist. He was a real person in history. Given the weight of opinion on this, I’d say it’s only fair that people who hold the minority view (that Jesus didn’t exist), need to bring some convincing and as-yet-unknown evidence to the table.
So we start with the premise that Jesus lived. For the purposes of these blogs I’m fast-forwarding rather unceremoniously through his whole life to the next critical point in the question – his death. Did Jesus die?
Well, of course if he was a real person, then he must have died. Did he die of old age, disease or some other way? Christianity teaches that Jesus was crucified.
What’s crucifixion? Wikipedia is helpful here if you want the full details of the practise and common causes of death associated with it. Needless to say it was brutal, painful and effective in bringing people’s lives to an end.
Was Jesus crucified? All four accounts of Jesus’ life in the bible (the Gospels), tell that Jesus was crucified. You can find them online easy enough or look them up in Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23 and John 11-19. But what if you don’t believe the bible is telling the truth? What other evidence is there?
Actually there is other non-bible sources of historical evidence. In the Talmud, for example, it says Jesus was crucified on the night before the Jewish festival of Passover. And in Roman historical documents there is evidence too. The most famous (and I’d say pretty indisputable) was written by Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, he wrote “Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate.” Well, I’d say that’s pretty clear!
Bear in mind that the Talmud writers were heavyweights at recording events, and the Annals are considered to be the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing”. These aren’t whimsical ramblings, these are carefully researched and constructed documents that are considered historically reliable. Put this into the context that neither the Jews nor the Romans were on the side of Jesus or his disciples – they were simply recording historic events – and there’s no reason to believe that they simply ‘made it up’. So, for my money, I reckon it’s fair to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed crucified.
So going back to the question, “Did Jesus die?”, and accepting that he was crucified, it is very unlikely that he would have survived. Could he?
Well, yes, it was possible to survive crucifixion and in fact there is an account of three people who survived from the historian Josephus, who’s considered to be the best documentary source for the practice of crucifixion in Roman-era Palestine.
Josephus was a general who had command of Jewish forces at the time, and he personally pleaded directly to Titus, a Roman general, for a reprieve for three of his friends who’d been crucified. Apparently, Titus granted his request and ordered that Josephus’ friends be taken down and cared for by a doctor until they recovered. How nice of him. Two of these friends subsequently died, but the third did indeed recover, although it’s not known how long they had been crucified before they were let down.
The reason I mention this – and it’s the critical thing in this account – is that Josephus pleaded directly to Titus. I don’t reckon he could’ve done that if he was just some ordinary Joe. He could only do it, surely, because of his standing as a general. It would seem that someone’s only hope of surviving crucifixion was to be taken down early (ie before it finished you off) on the basis of someone important or influential making a case for your reprieve. Otherwise you were left to die. This is important, for me, in picking apart this question, because going back to the Talmud writings they say “And do you suppose that for (Yeshu of Nazareth – Jesus) there was any right of appeal?” If anyone could have spoken on Jesus’ behalf, surely they would have done?
Here’s another thing: yes Romans ‘gave us’ all the stuff in the famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – sanitation, roads, irrigation and fresh water etc – but one thing that mustn’t be forgotten is that Roman ‘civilisation’ came to prominence on the back of an awful lot of bloodshed. They really knew how to kill people. It wasn’t just something unsavoury that a civilised majority kept at arm’s length on the edges of society for the reluctant or specialised minority. No. Death was an integral part of Roman life. Soldiers were trained in it, civilians were entertained by it. Romans were brutal, determined, merciless. A great blog giving some delightful examples of this particular characteristic of Roman life is here. It ain’t pretty reading.
I recently visited Rome and came away profoundly disturbed by the stark contrast between the outward appearance of civilisation in the form exquisite art and impressive architecture, and the backdrop, or rather the foundation of murder, slavery, greed and savagery on which that ‘civilisation’ was built. Frankly, it not only surprised me, it disgusted me. One example, was on my visit to the Colosseum. Amongst other things, in its early days, the Colosseum had been used for re-enactments of sea battles, and was filled with water to enable this to happen. The tour guide explained to us that the arena came later, and was constructed over a network of tunnels, rooms and machinery that allowed different people, animals and scenery to be hoisted through the floor for the games. The word ‘arena’ is derived from the Latin word ‘harena’ – a type of fine sand. Why? The reason for this change, according to our archaeologist guide, was that the sand was the perfect solution to absorb all the blood. Nice.
What’s my point? Basically that Romans were serious experts at death. Crucifixion was an effective method among many they had of getting the job done. Without someone to make a case for Jesus’ reprieve, he would have died, I’m sure of it.
The bible gives extra details about what Jesus endured before he even got to be crucified, which is examined here – OK so it’s a Christian website, so there a lot of references to the ‘meaning’ of Jesus death, but if you’re a sceptic and want to strip that out, go ahead, I’m linking to it because I reckon it adds weight to the case that crucifixion was an effective method of killing (not terribly efficient, it has to be said, but I gather the torture of it was part of the punishment) – its gives the views of physiologists about what would’ve been going on with someone’s body during crucifixion, and how they would have died. The practises of the torture meted out to Jesus, as described in the bible, are backed up by historical records about how Romans treated criminals, and I’ve found a good summary here.
So, I think I’m done on this post for now. Did Jesus die? Of course. Did he die by crucifixion? I’m convinced that weight of evidence suggests that he did.
What’s next? Was he buried? …….(coming soon!)