by Christine Urio
When a historical backdrop is brought to a book as renowned and controversial as the Bible, it allows the cultural implications to enhance one’s understanding.
Looking at the Bible in its historical context permits a deeper and broader understanding, without killing its spiritual nature, said Stephen Mansfield during a recent lecture at Mount Saint Mary College (MSMC).
“I speak as a Christian but love to bring history to life,” he said. “I love that we’re having these discussions and it’s such a hot topic.”
There are unique and contemporary themes emphasized in the Scripture and evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion outside of the New Testament—these are real events and characters of a different culture and time.
“There are ample references in literature to the Crucifixion,” said Mansfield. “People of other faiths acknowledge the Crucifixion as an historical event.”
Jesus was hunted all his life; from the moment Herod found out about his birth he was under a death sentence—“a constant conspiracy woven through the Gospel that is often over looked,” Mansfield said.
Early prophecies of Jesus’ life speak of these conspiracies.
The Slaughter of the Innocents inspired much art and demonstrated how great art centers around this aristocracy. Despite the mass slaughter depicted in the painting, only six to eight boys were killed.
“It is more significant in its implications of Jesus under this death sentence all the time,” said Mansfield.
This historical approach resonated with the audience positively.
“I had no idea what to expect at first, but Stephen Mansfield’s way of explaining the history took me back to that particular time period,” said senior Megan Capurso.
Mansfield said during this age, the main reason Jesus was hated was because of a clash of kingdoms: he represented a threat to a corrupt political and religious order, for religious leaders of the Jews were appointed by Rome.
Society was run by high priests Annas and Caiaphas, who controlled aspects such as trade, animals sacrifices, and who became a priest.
The temple was a symbol of power in the ancient world.
When trade was moved into the gentile’s temple, it disregarded the only place they had to pray. When Jesus clears the temple, he is opposing the political and spiritual corruption of the time, said Mansfield.
“Jesus had the power to threaten the temple, trade, and up stir people, becoming a theological and political threat,” he added.
“Jesus is not just saying to stop doing business and pray, he’s quoting ‘My Father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all nations’ from Issah: 56,” said Mansfield. He is essentially addressing racism and callousness of hearts, opposing social and political inequality.
During Palm Sunday, Jerusalem swells in its population capacity.
“From Roman documents we know the approximate time Jesus comes into the city, reenacting Saul, saying he’s a king,” said Mansfield.
Coming from the west is Pilot, leading his troops as a means to demonstrate power.
“It’s a smack down between a king and God—the earthly world and the spiritual world,” he said. “It adds a dimension of times and Jesus’ life; he declares a kingdom that will overthrow the present kingdom, proclaiming the kingdom of God, and challenging corrupt order that’s making pagan sacrifices in the name of God.”
According to Mansfield, it is helpful for us to know just how horrible Jesus’ crucifixion was, for films are dramatic and unable to capture what people do not know about the story. From the history of what Jesus endured, it is not possible for it to be reenacted on the screen, even in bloody R-rated films.
“A scourging is not a whipping,” said Mansfield. “The Romans intended a scourging to be a punishment of its own, calling it an ‘almost death,’ for victims were taken to this point and revived just to be beaten again.”
A lector was a professional scourger who used a leather strap with an iron ring holding rocks or bones at the end to create a cut in the victim; the idea was not to lacerate, but to tear flesh away.
“Most died or were horribly maimed,” he said. “Occasionally one survived and lived without skin on their ribcage, and their organs could be seen the rest of their lives, like in the Civil War.”
Mansfield said the Romans studied an approach to torture and studied crucifixion for centuries. “They did not want something too fast; they wanted a public form of torture, using it as a tool of state terror and oppression,” he added.
During a crucifixion, the nails were most likely impaled through the wrist instead of the hand, and the body only stood about six inches off the ground.
“One could have lived a week—the Romans wanted you to suffer in a horrible and visible way,” he said.
A trademark of a crucifixion was the Dance of Death. The Romans loved this because in order to breathe, the victim would have to apply pressure on his feet and rub his bare back, which was already missing flesh, against the wood of the cross in order relive pressure from the lungs.
“Jesus would spend time going up and down and the crowd would make sexual innuendos, sneer, joke, and mock, telling him to save himself” said Mansfield. “When Jesus asks his Father to forgive them, he is bleeding and in trauma, going through a cardiac event.”
Because it is gruesome, such details of the Crucifixion tend to be spared during mass.
“Although this is connected to our redemption, this is why we don’t get up on Easter Sunday and tell this story,” he said.
Despite the gory aspects of the presentation, students found it enjoyable and informative.
“I enjoyed the Killing Jesus presentation very much, and through the talk I was able to gain a deeper insight to Jesus’ passion and crucifixion.” said Capurso. “The details and the history that Stephen Mansfield provided helped me to understand Christ’s suffering more because I never knew many of the details until I went to the presentation. This new insight and history will definitely help me in my prayer life, especially during the seasons of Lent and Holy Week.”
Remembering the crucifixion also helps Mansfield.
“It keeps me in my place,” he said. “Before I was even a thought, my sins are up there on the cross. We ought to know it and talk about it.”