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The Final Days of Jesus

The Holy Sepulchre By Berthold Werner

I liked this book, The Final Days of Jesus. Its author, Shimon Gibson, is an archaeologist based in Jerusalem. He has dung up bits of the ancient city, shimmied into ancient mortuary caves and even found an ancient shroud, so he knows what he is talking about. With a name like Shimon I guess that he is Jewish, but he takes his profession seriously, so his book is mostly religion neutral, although there is a mournful note when he writes about the destruction of the second Temple in 60 C.E.

Temple Mount by Yupi666

Temple Mount by Yupi666

The book begins with that walk down from Galilee. At the end of this trek (no fifteen mile drives to the mall in those days), He stays at Martha and Mary’s house in Bethany. There is a rich crop of Beth villages around Jerusalem: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethabara, and Bethphage (which apparently means “house of green figs.”) Gibson discusses in some detail the rituals of purification and anointing at that time and shows that Jesus’s anointing by Mary is consistent with the practices of the time.

We then walk down the steep slope of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem, its skyline dominated by the Temple “which dazzled those who entered the city from afar” as it “gleamed all over with gold and polished stones.” The well-to-do had nabbed the hills of Upper Jerusalem for their palaces and forts while Jesus characteristically stayed with the people in Lower Jerusalem.

Dividing the city in two is the Tyropoeon Valley: Tyropoeon apparently means cheese-makers who, of course, were blessed in the beatitudes according to the Life of Brian. In Lower Jerusalem is the Siloam Miqwa’ot (ritual purification pool of Siloam). Gibson describes the care to separate the pre and post purified with different steps and even different sides of the street. In an age before antibiotics and immunization, and the prevalence of diseases like leprosy, a concern about hygiene is understandable.

Gibson downplays two events of Holy Week: Jesus’s arrival on Palm Sunday (p18) and when Jesus chased the money lenders out of the Temple precincts (p48). He argues that anything smacking of insurrection would have swiftly been jumped on by the forces of law and order, both Jewish and Roman. The Last Supper Gibson reckons took place somewhere near the Siloam Miqwa’ot and not in the tourist stop off, the Cenacle, whose Gothic arches were clearly built in Crusader times and is just too big. Why wouldn’t Jesus and the Disciples just have hunkered down there rather than schlep up the Mount of Olives? Gibson suggests that the real room was too small and they were just camping out like many other Passover visitors. The choice of Gethsemane as that evening’s camp site would have been down to its proximity to the lower city and its accessibility through the Siloam Gate. It would also have been comparatively comfy as the whole hill was an olive grove: the name ‘Gethsemane’ is derived from the Aramaic for “olive press.” Once He had been arrested, Jesus would have been taken down the Kidron Valley into the city and up to Caiaphas’s house somewhere in the Upper City.

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Madaba map by By Brandmeister

Joseph Caiaphas, High Priest and chairman of the Sadducees, belonged to an influential family and held the job from 18 to 36 CE. It was given to him by one Roman, Valerius Gratus and fired from it by another, Vitellius, Governor of Syria, at the same time as Pilate was removed as Præfectus.” We know that Pilate really existed as there is an inscription mentioning him on a piece of stone found at Caesarea. Also, we’ve found the Caiaphas family tomb. Both fellows were career bureaucrats whose lives, their rise and fall was routine for the time, except for that minor nuisance around 30 CE which, for them, was probably simply a matter of keeping the riffraff in their place. I wonder what they would make of their fame down the ages principally due to the man they had had executed.

Gibson puts Christ’s trial in a complex of buildings near Herod’s Palace called the Essenes’s Gate, which had been built to provide a quick escape for the royals should the masses become too revolting. Here is the nice tie to the visionary folk, who lived at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and shared many of Jesus’s ideas. The gate complex centered around a small courtyard with a raised platform, so would have suited Pilate for a quick summary trial. If it really was the location of the trial, then the story about Barabbas and the guilt of the Jews cannot be true. The Essenes’s Gate was far too small for a decent crowd to claim the guilt of Christ’s murder for themselves and their children. Neither was there a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover Time. Sad to say that the Holocaust, centuries of pogroms and hatred may be all down to a few lines by a scribe trying to suck up to the Romans.

Gibson describes the horrendous business of crucifixion in some detail including the bent nail left in some poor sod’s ankle. During the siege of Jerusalem in 60 C.E. the Roman soldiery got so bored with nailing people up they “amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” What must the screaming and groaning have been like?

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

Golgotha Cross Section by Yupi666

The Roman soldiers probably did not think much of the Jewish religion. After all, Alexander the Great and his Greeks had beaten the Jews in battle, and then Pompey’s legions had done it all over again. Any normal people would have signed up for the winning gods. The Romans and Greeks believed in essentially the same capricious, amoral Marvel characters. As ingénues, those Romans didn’t realize that they were just the latest in a long line of military powers – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians – who had been awesome in the day, and were no more. The Jews and their faith would outlive them too. Nowadays, we also prefer Marvel heroes and Mammon, and don’t have much time for the meek or the venerable.

The location of Golgotha, the site of both the Crucifixion and the tomb in the garden, Gibson reckons has always been known, as it was on a prominent outcrop overlooking a main route to the city, all the better to show off Rome’s might. It was pointed out to the Roman emperor Constantine’s mum, Helena, when she visited the city in 326-8 C.E. As she had bought the empire’s piggy bank with her, she brought up everything and anything to do with Christ, including those pieces of the true cross carried by the Frankish kings of Jerusalem, some 800 years later. She had her son tear down the temple to Athena which was standing on the hill of Golgotha and build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has been a place of pilgrimage and veneration to our times.

The big question is did Jesus just die that horrific death, knowing his life and work destroyed in the maw of imperial justice, or did God stretch out his hand and bring him back to life? This is a matter of belief: science, in the form of archaeology, cannot  answer yea or nay. For most of its existence the Christian tradition has stood by Jesus at the Siloam Pool with the humble folk. In time, of course, the folk from the upper city came down to help (themselves). The official religion of Constantine shattered into many fragments and became such strangers that epic bloodshed was countenanced by the words of the Good Shepherd, mildest of men. But it wasn’t all bad; even a Borgia pope left the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel and Barbarini – the pope who had Galileo summoned to the Holy Offices of the Inquisition – sponsored Allegri’s Miserere Mei.

 

Both chapel and chant are some of the artillery of art made for the Counter Reformation. That shock and awe campaign flowered into Baroque and is in part theatrical and therefore man made. I have had many sublime theatrical experiences: the sunrise in the Tennessee Williams play, Camino Real: Much Ado in the garden of St. John’s, Oxford when the toasting summer had run dry of Pimm’s,

Clown Song in Twelfth Night
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

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