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9 April 2017

The greatest day in history: a day of defeat? (part 1)

Richard Blake (LT pics 2016) Richard Blake Church member
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This is part 1 of a three-part series examining the historical evidence which supports the Biblical account of the Easter story. Part 2 and part 3 will be published later this week.

There can be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in Judaea when Tiberius Caesar was emperor of Rome. We have excellent manuscript evidence including quite early copies of contemporary accounts of his life, written by eye-witnesses. Three of these are Jewish and another was written by a Greek physician and historian who observed and recorded with the utmost care.[1]

There is supporting evidence from the historian Josephus, a Jewish near-contemporary who wrote favourably (although not a Christian believer [2]), and from the Roman Tacitus (below) who was fiercely critical of this new faith but even more contemptuous of emperor Nero who brutally persecuted Christians in Rome.[3]

Tacitus (© Egisto Sani, used under a Creative Commons licence)

To quote Tacitus:

. . . a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus the founder of the name had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment. . . .[4]

Tacitus obviously thought that crucifixion should have put paid to this nonsense (as he regarded it). And honestly, how could anyone continue to believe in Jesus as divinely special after his horrific lingering death on a Roman gibbet – condemned by the religious leaders of his nation and by the occupying colonial power who saw him as a trouble-maker? For Jews, there was a special horror about anyone dying on a ‘tree’ or ‘pole’ or ‘cross’ because that manner of execution implied a death under the curse of God.[5] So no matter how good his life and sublime his teaching, crucifixion spelt the end of any hope that Jesus might have been divine. He died – but wouldn’t God be immortal? He perished as a criminal under God’s curse, when the Messiah was supposed to reign as king for ever under the blessing of God.

‘It’s all very sad,’ we might say. ‘And of course things shouldn’t have ended this way – but Jesus the great teacher and healer simply could not have been the promised Messiah’ – could he? Hopes smashed. Dream over. Only the memory of a brilliant teacher whose example would one day transform the standing of women, children, widows, the sick or insane, foreigners, and all despised minorities. Quite a legacy and deserving universal respect but for two crippling disadvantages.

First, he had claimed the power to grant eternal life – but he ended up in a tomb which would obviously blow that idea to shreds. And, well, haven’t we always been afraid that truth and love and gentleness get crushed and smashed and comprehensively trashed by ruthlessness, greed, lies and the abuse of power? Would that it were different! Jesus taught otherwise, but his torn disfigured body drained of its lifeblood just demonstrates that his kind of message gets drowned out and that this sort of Messiah (and the God who sponsored him) is a loser – doesn’t it? So we might reason . . .

Surely no followers of Jesus would ever dare show their face in public (except for that heroic band of women and a couple of high-society figures who dared offer burial to this discredited teacher). His disciples had plenty of enemies. They were terrified of the Jewish authorities who wanted to get rid of this noxious messianic heresy. And what if the Romans were planning to mop up all remnants of this dangerous nationalist terrorist cell (as they might suppose them to be)? The disciples' own sense of shame at their desertion of Jesus, their disappointment (with God maybe), their resentment at Jewish cruelty and Roman brutality, their utter confusion and total dismay would paralyse them.

That’s what Tacitus expected, but something else happened instead. ‘The pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea the home of the disease, but in the capital itself [ie. Rome].’

Now this is fascinating! Whatever could have breathed new life into the ‘Jesus phenomenon’? The New Testament shows how those once defeated, disillusioned and frightened disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive – not that he had somehow cheated death by recovering from crucifixion, but that he had beaten it, conquering its power and starting the process that would will lead to death’s destruction! And that is good news indeed since everyone fears death.


This is part 1 of a three-part series about The greatest day in history:

  • Part 1: A day of defeat?
  • Part 2: A magnificent triumph
  • Part 3: An invitation today

Footnotes
  1. Gospel writers Matthew, Mark and John were Jewish, Luke was Greek.
  2. Flavius Josephus, Jewish by birth, was prominent in the disastrous revolt against Rome that led to destruction of Temple and Jerusalem in AD 70; he surrendered to Vespasian – soon to be emperor – and became his secretary. Famous for his works The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. He refers to Jesus in Antiquities Book 18, chapter 3: ‘when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day . . . and the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.’
  3. Tacitus (lived about 55–120 AD) perhaps the greatest of Roman historians, wrote multi-volume works, the Histories and the Annals covering the reigns of Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
  4. Tacitus, Annals, Book XV, chapter 44. Christus is Latin form of Greek word Christos meaning ‘Anointed One’ or ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew.
  5. Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13.

Picture credit: Tacitus (© Egisto Sani, used under a Creative Commons licence)

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