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March 29, 2004
Today's eMo is a meditation on the gospel text for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.


That an event should be so important to us and so unimportant to the rest of the world at the time is disconcerting. No Roman historian of the first century records the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. One Jewish historian does, and later Christian copyists of his work may have dressed it up a little, to make it more compelling -- in the copies that have survived, for instance, the text states flatly "He was the Messiah," which Flavius Josephus probably did not believe, since his work gives no other evidence of his being a Christian. For the rest of the world, it just wasn't news. Israel was a backwater, far from the center of things. And such deaths were a dime a dozen.

This is exactly the scandal of the Passion of Christ: not that it was unique, but -- precisely -- that it wasn't. Almost everyone who came into contact with Jesus didn't believe in Him. Even those who knew him well slipped a little -- or a lot -- when the going got rough. Certainly there was nothing about His death that would have changed anybody's mind.

And yet it was the stories of his death that Christians first circulated. The earliest New Testament stories about Jesus are these. The resurrection stories came later on. They were like we were after the destruction of the World Trade Center: the telling and retelling, over and over. The surreal collapse of the towers, first one and then the second, over and over on a billion television screens until we just couldn't stand to see it any more. They didn't have television in the first century, thank God.

Of course, this wouldn't have been televised anyway. It wasn't big enough to attract the networks. Maybe somebody who just happened to be standing around with a camcorder might have caught the crucifixion of Jesus, a first-century graduate student in film, working on a documentary about the Roman occupation of Israel. He might have caught it. Maybe. Is that Him? we would say today, scrutinizing the ancient videotape, freezing the frame to zoom in close on the battered face. I'm not sure it's really Him. It might be somebody else. We don't know for sure.

Even if we had seen everything, it would remain a mystery. Like our deaths are a mystery, even when they happen right before our eyes. All our deaths. And what happens after them.

* Flavius Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian who mentions Jesus, has his own website, of course. Here is his paragraph about Jesus, as it has survived the centuries:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
- Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 ยง63
(Based on the translation of Louis H. Feldman, The Loeb Classical Library.)

Read more about what he wrote, and what scholars think about what he wrote, at
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