Simon the Cyrenian, the man who carried Jesus’s cross.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 April

Mark 15.21, Matthew 27.32, Luke 23.26.

Enroute to Golgotha, leading Jesus to the place they’d crucify him, the Romans decided he was inadequate to carry his crossbeam.

Movies and art, following St. Francis’s lists of the stations of the cross, depict Jesus falling over a bunch of times. The gospels don’t, but who knows?—maybe he did. He had been up all night and flogged half to death. Between sleep deprivation and blood loss, carrying a hundred-pound crossbeam would’ve been too much for anyone. (No, not the 300-pound full cross we see in paintings, such as the El Greco painting in my “Stations of the Cross” image. Even healthy convicts would’ve found that unmanageable.)

The Roman senate made it legal for soldiers to draft conquered peoples—basically anyone in the Roman Empire who lacked citizenship—into temporary service. Jesus referred to this law when he taught us to go the extra mile. Mt 5.41 So the Romans grabbed an able-bodied passerby to carry Jesus’s crossbeam. And since he later became Christian and his sons became bishops, the writers of the gospels mentioned him by name: Simon the Cyrenian (or “of Cyrene”).

Mark 15.21 KWL
The Romans draft a passerby,
a certain Simon the Cyrenian who’s coming from the fields,
the father of Alexander and Rufus,
so he’d carry Jesus’s crossbeam.
 
Matthew 27.32 KWL
Coming out, the Romans find a Cyrenian person named Simon.
This man, they compel
to take up Jesus’s crossbeam.
 
Luke 23.26 KWL
While the Romans lead Jesus away,
taking hold of Simon, a certain Cyrenian coming from the fields,
they lay the crossbeam upon him
to carry behind Jesus.

Jesus given a robe and crowned with thorns.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 April

Mark 15.16-20, Matthew 27.27-31, Luke 23.11, John 19.2-3, 5-6.

People became Roman soldiers for all sorts of reasons. Some because the Roman army was a path to Roman citizenship. Some as punishment: It was either military service, or slavery and prison. Some for the adventure, or to get rich, or because they couldn’t imagine any other job options. Some because how else are you gonna get to crucify barbarians?

So it’s safe to figure the soldiers under Pontius Pilatus weren’t there to make friends with Judeans. On the contrary: Over time they likely grew more and more tired of Judeans. Especially those Judeans who were bigoted against gentiles, or were outraged over the Roman occupation. The Romans gave ’em legitimate reasons for not liking them: Soldiers tended to abuse their power so they could steal and extort. Lk 3.14 And bullies look for any excuse to justify themselves, so they were happy to return the hostility.

Given the opportunity to abuse a Judean and have some evil fun at his expense, the soldiers took advantage of it. That’s why they beat the crap out of Jesus. Crucifying him wasn’t enough for them: First they had to play a little game they called “the king’s game.”

Mark 15.16-20 KWL
16 The soldiers lead Jesus inside the courtyard,
which is the Prætorium.
They summon the whole unit.
17 They dress Jesus in “purple,”
and place a braided garland on him—of thorny acacia.
18 They begin to salute Jesus: “Hail, king of Judeans!”
19 They strike Jesus’s head with a staff,
and spit on him,
and bending the knee, they’re “worshiping” him.
20 While they mock Jesus, they strip the “purple” off him,
dress him in his own robe,
and send him away to crucify him.
 
Matthew 27.27-31 KWL
27 The leader’s soldiers then, taking Jesus into the Prætorium,
called the whole unit to him.
28 Undressing Jesus,
they drape him in a crimson coat.
29 Weaving a garland of thorny acacia,
they put it on Jesus’s head,
and a reed in his right hand.
Kneeling before him, they ridicule him,
saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
30 Spitting on him, they take the reed
and strike Jesus on the head.
31 While they mock Jesus, they take the coat off him,
dress him in his own clothes,
and lead him away to crucifixion.
 
Luke 23.11 KWL
Considering Jesus worthless,
Herod with his soldiers mockingly dressing him in campy clothing,
send him back to Pilate.
 
John 19.2-3 KWL
2 The soldiers, braiding a crown of thorny acacia,
force it on Jesus’s head.
They put a “purple” robe on him.
3 They’re coming to Jesus and saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
—as they give him punches.

Jesus confuses Pontius Pilate.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 April

Mark 15.1-5, Matthew 27.1-2, 11-14, Luke 23.1-4, John 18.28-38.

So I already wrote about Pontius Pilate, the ἡγεμών/igemón, “ruler” of Judea when Jesus was killed—the Roman military governor, or præfectus, “prefect.” After the Judean senate held their perfectly legal trial and sentenced Jesus to death, according to the Law they were to take Jesus outside the city, throw him off a cliff, then throw stones down on his body. But because of the Roman occupation they weren’t allowed to execute anyone. The Romans had to kill Jesus for them.

But first the Judean leaders needed to convince Pontius it was in Rome’s best interests to execute Jesus. The prefect wasn’t just gonna execute anybody the Judean senate recommended. Especially over stuff the Romans didn’t consider capital crimes, like blasphemy against a god the Romans didn’t respect. So what’d the Judeans have on Jesus?

Simple: He declared himself Messiah. Did it right in front of everybody.

Mark 14.61-64 KJV
61 But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? 62 And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. 63 Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? 64 Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.

Messiah (i.e. Christ) means “the anointed,” and since you only anointed kings, it straight-up means king. Jesus publicly declared himself Israel’s king. That, the Romans would consider treason: The king of Judea was Caesar Tiberius Divi Augusti, princeps (“first citizen”) of Rome. Caesar would have a vested interest in putting any antikings to death. So that was the charge the senate brought with them, and Jesus, to the Roman prefect.

The senators hauled Jesus to Antonia, a fort Herod 1 had built next to the temple (and named for his patron, Marcus Antonius) so soldiers could watch the Judeans worship… just in case any riots broke out. There, they presented their unrecognized true king to Pontius.

Mark 15.1 KWL
Next, in the morning, the head priests,
consulting with the elders, scribes, and the whole senate,
carry and deliver the bound Jesus
to Pontius Pilatus.
 
Matthew 27.1-2 KWL
1 As it became morning, all the head priests and people’s elders
gathered in council regarding Jesus,
and how they’d put him to death./dd>
2 Binding him, they led Jesus away
and handed him off to Pontius Pilatus, the leader.
 
Luke 23.1-2 KWL
1 Getting up, the crowd leads him to Pontius Pilatus.
2 They begin to accuse Jesus,
saying, “We find this man twisting our nation,
preventing taxes to be given to Caesar,
calling himself ‘Christ’—which means king.”

In all the gospels, Pontius questioned Jesus… and came away unconvinced this man was any threat to Rome whatsoever. In Luke and John, he didn’t even believe Jesus was guilty of anything. But the Judean senate wanted Jesus dead, and got plenty of the locals to say so too. In the end, Pontius pragmatically gave ’em what they wanted.

“Why’s this guy not defending himself?”

Getting convicted of treason back then meant execution. (Still often does.) For non-Romans like Jesus, execution meant crucifixion, one of the most painful, disgusting ways to die humans have ever invented. So the fact Jesus didn’t fight his charges, and said nothing, made Pontius wonder what on earth was going on here. Everybody else he ever interrogated would either fight the charges or justify them. Not simply accept crucifixion as their inevitable lot.

Yet in the synoptic gospels, Jesus responded to his charges with two words and nothing more: Σὺ λέγεις/su légheis, “[If] you say so.”

Mark 15.2 KWL
Pilatus interrogated Jesus: “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”
 
Matthew 27.11 KWL
Jesus was stood before the leader,
and the leader interrogated him, saying, “You’re the king of Judea?”
Jesus was saying, If you say so.”
 
Luke 23.3 KWL
Pilatus questioned Jesus, saying, “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”

Some interpreters like to turn Jesus’s words into more of an affirmative declaration; more like “You said it, buddy!” Others figure it was more contrary: In one of these verses The Message goes with, “Your words, not mine.” Lk 23.3 MSG In John’s telling of the trial, Jesus’s response sorta sounds more like the “Your words, not mine” idea—because his response was more of a “I am a king, but not the sort you’re thinking of.”

Yep, John tells a very different version of events. Jesus interacts with Pontius way more. I’ll start at the beginning.

John 18.28-38 KWL
28 So the senators bring Jesus
from Joseph bar Caiaphas to the prætorium.
It’s morning. They don’t enter the prætorium,
lest they be defiled instead of eating Passover.
29 So Pontius Pilatus comes outside to them,
and says, “You bring me a certain accusation against this person.”
30 In reply they tell him, “We’d never hand him over to you
unless he were an evildoer.”
31 Pilatus tells them, “Take him yourself. Judge him by your Law.”
The Judeans tell him, “We’re not allowed to kill anyone.”
32 Thus Jesus’s word could be fulfilled—
which he said to signify which kind of death he was about to die.
 
33 Pilate enters the prætorium again, calls Jesus,
and tells him, “You’re the king of Judea?”
34 Jesus replies, “You say this on your own?
Or do others tell you about me?”
35 Pilate replies, “Am I Judean?
Your ethnic group and head priests turn you over to me.
What do you do?”
36 Jesus replies, “My kingdom’s not from this world.
If my kingdom’s from this world, my servants should fight
lest I be turned over to the Judeans.
My kingdom doesn’t yet exist now.”
37 So Pilate tells him, “Therefore you’re not a king.”
Jesus replies this: “I am a king.
I had been born into it. I came into the world into it.
Thus I might testify to truth.
All who are of the truth, hear my voice.”
38 Pilate tells him, “What’s ‘truth’?”
 
That said, Pilate goes out again to the Judeans
and tells them, “I find nothing in him of cause.”

Note in John, Jesus didn’t just answer Pontius with “If you say so,” but a statement of exactly what he means by “kingdom.” Clearly he’s not talking about a political government, but a moral one. We follow King Jesus, not because we’ll get into serious legal trouble if we don’t, not because (as dark Christians gleefully claim) we’ll go to hell when we don’t. We follow Jesus ’cause he’s truth. Jn 14.6 ’Cause we love the Father and want access to him. And we can’t get to the Father any other way than via Jesus.

Yeah, such a kingdom would totally overturn the Roman Empire. And within the next three centuries, that’s exactly what it did. But Caesar had nothing political to fear from such a kingdom. Which is why Pontius didn’t see anything wrong with it.

Not that Pontius necessarily understood Jesus. “What’s truth?” exposes this fact. Pontius had no time for abstract philosophy: He just wanted to know whether Jesus was worth crucifying. Would Caesar want this guy dead or not? Once Pontius had his mind made up—“So you’re not a king” Jn 18.37 —he didn’t really care what else Jesus had to say. “What’s truth” is a very important question, but notice Pontius didn’t stick around to get Jesus’s answer. Phooey on truth; he didn’t come to Judea to get an education from some obscure Galilean rabbi about epistemology. (He came there to get rich, if anything.) So in John, Pontius isn’t confused; just unconvinced Jesus is worth killing.

In Luke he likewise made up his mind right away.

Luke 23.4 KWL
Pilate tells the head priests and the crowd,
“I find nothing of cause in this person.”

Whereas in the other gospels, Jesus said nothing, and Pontius couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t fight harder to avoid a gory death on the cross.

Mark 15.3-5 KWL
3 The head priests are accusing Jesus of many things.
4 Pilate is questioning Jesus again,
saying, “You answer nothing! Look at all they accuse you of!”
5 Jesus no longer answers anything.
So Pilate is amazed.
 
Matthew 27.12-14 KWL
12 Jesus answers nothing
in the accusation against him by the head priests and elders.
13 Then Pilate tells Jesus, “Don’t you hear
how much they testify against you?”
14 Jesus doesn’t answer him for even one word.
So the leader was greatly amazed.

It was just strange enough for Pontius’s B.S. detector to go off: “Doesn’t seem to wanna die, but isn’t fighting it. What’s going on here? Why’s he acting this way? Why isn’t he fighting the charges? What, does he wanna get crucified?… Nah; he can’t; that’s nuts.”

Justice wouldn’t be done today.

For Jesus, the suffering came from the fact he knew he wasn’t gonna get justice that day.

It was sunrise when the senate brought him to Pontius. It was noon when he was finally led out to be crucified. Six hours of waiting. In between, getting mocked and flogged. He knew the end was coming, but the wheels of bureaucracy were turning mighty slow that morning.

But he knew Pontius believed him innocent. Knew Pontius recognized him as no threat to Rome. Knew regardless, Pontius would be of no help. The proper purpose of government is to establish justice, but corrupt governments and parties everywhere, presume it’s to seize and hold power. Pontius was just this kind of corrupt. He figured he was only in Judea to make sure Rome (and he) got their money. He’d kill anyone who got in Rome’s way. Jesus might be innocent, but if Pontius didn’t kill Jesus, he might spark a war and lose his job—which he desired more than justice. So much for justice.

The fact Pontius had Jesus executed regardless, with full knowledge he was executing someone he considered innocent—his whole hand-washing demonstration Mt 27.24 was all for show and we know it—makes Pontius just as guilty of Jesus’s death as the senate. Any antisemite who wants to blame the Jews alone for Jesus’s death is an idiot. Pontius, a gentile, could easily have saved him… and didn’t care enough to make any more than a token effort.

So this was how Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilatus: Knowing he’d get no proper hearing, no justice, because the powerful didn’t care. Nobody did. He had no advocate. He was alone.

It’s all the more reason Jesus takes the position of our advocate before his Father. 1Jn 2.1 It’s why he sent the Holy Spirit to help us when we’re not sure how to defend ourselves. Mk 13.11 He’s not gonna abandon us. He never promised us we’d never suffer; on the contrary, we will. Jn 16.33 But he’ll be with us through the suffering, providing us all the help and comfort he never got when he suffered.

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

by K.W. Leslie, 11 April

In both the Nicene and Apostles Creed, a certain Roman official gets mentioned by name—specifically so the creeds can cement Christ Jesus’s death at a specific point in history: Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου/stavrothénta te ypér epí Pontíu Pilátu, “and he was crucified for us under Pontíus Pilátus.”

The KJV renders this name Pontius Pilate, which Americans usually pronounce 'pɑn.tʃəs 'paɪ.lət, and since the bible tends to call him Pilate, we presume that’s his family name. Other way round: Romans did their names the same way eastern Asians do. Pontius poʊn'ti.us is the family name, his nomen; and Pilátus pi'læt.us is the personal name. The bible’s authors tended to go with personal names, y’notice.

Pontius ruled Jerusalem and Judea on behalf of Rome for a decade, from the years 26 to 36. He was the fifth governor of Judea. The reason we know so much more about him than his predecessors or successors, is obviously ’cause Jesus was executed under his rule, so he has our attention. We know of him from the gospels, from historians Flavius Josephus and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, and from contemporary philosopher Philo of Alexandria.
The Pilate stone, on display in Jerusalem. Wikimedia
Plus in 1961 archaeologist Antonio Frova found the Pilate stone, a limestone block with “Pilatus” on it, dating from Pontius’s term, whch confirms he’s not fiction.

Unfortunately after Jesus’s death and resurrection, a lot of Christians made up a lot of fanfiction about him. It means Pontius’s history beyond these first-century sources isn’t all that reliable. But I’ll briefly go over what we have.

Pontius was a member of the Pontii family, a plebeian-caste family from south central Italy. A number of Pontii held high positions in the Roman government, including consul; a few later became leaders in the ancient Christian church, and are considered saints. Pilatus means “skilled with a javelin,” so either he (or one of his ancestors, whom Pontius was named for) got named that because of military skill. And Pontius did have to serve in the Roman cavalry before he could hold office. He was married, Mt 27.19 and later Christian tradition named his wife Prókla (Latin, Prócula) and made a saint of her. Even later traditions named her Claudia, and claimed she was related to the Caesars… although probably just to write dramatic fiction.

Pontius took office in 26. That’s the same year Caesar Tiberius retired to Capri and left his job largely to his Praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. So there’s some question whether Lucius appointed Pontius instead of Caesar. But after Caesar had Lucius executed for treason in 31, he didn’t prosecute or fire Pontius, so clearly he didn’t consider Pontius to be mixed up in Lucius’s business.

Holy Week: When Jesus died.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 April

Today is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week. It’s also called Great Week, Greater Week, Holy and Great Week, Passion Week, Easter Week (by those people who consider Easter the end of the week), and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.

It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April of the year 33.

DAYDATEJESUS’S ACTIVITY
PALM SUNDAY. 9 Nisan 3793
29 March 33
Jesus entered Jerusalem; the crowds said Hosanna. Mk 11.1-11, Mt 21.1-11, Lk 19.28-44, Jn 12.12-19
HOLY MONDAY. 10 Nisan 3793
30 March 33
Cleansing the temple of the merchants; cursing the fig tree. Mk 11.12-18, Mt 21.12-19, Lk 19.45-46, Jn 2.13-17
HOLY TUESDAY. 11 Nisan 3793
31 March 33
Jesus taught in temple. Lk 19.47-48, 21.37
HOLY WEDNESDAY. 12 Nisan 3793
1 April 33
Still teaching in temple.
MAUNDY THURSDAY. 13 Nisan 3793
2 April 33
The last supper; Jesus washes his students’ feet. Mk 14.12-26, Mt 26.17-30, Lk 22.7-39, Jn 13.1-14.30
GOOD FRIDAY. 14 Nisan 3793
3 April 33
Jesus arrested, tried, condemned, executed, and entombed. Mk 14.27-15.47, Mt 26.31-27.61, Lk 22.40-23.56, Jn 15.1-19.42
HOLY SATURDAY. 15 Nisan 3793
4 April 33
Sabbath and Passover while Jesus lay dead. Pilate orders a guard for the tomb. Mt 27.62-66, Lk 23.56

And the week had started so well….

Of course Jesus rose on Sunday the 5th, the day Christians now designate as Easter.

Different Christians observe Holy Week in different ways, depending on custom. The churches I grew up in, usually had a somber service on Good Friday, and a just-as-somber service on Easter Sunday, ’cause they usually had some sort of passion play where most of the service was focus was on Jesus getting killed. Lots of weeping. Lots of repentance and conversions. Happy ending, ’cause Jesus is alive, but the focus was more on him dying for our sins. Lots of churches tend to focus on the sad bits, ’cause we humans get depressing like that.

But many churches—properly—spend Holy Week on the sad bits, and Easter Sunday and the weeks thereafter rejoicing. Because Jesus is alive.

Jesus’s pre-trial trial.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 April
John 18.12-14 KWL
12 The mob, the chief, and Judean police
then arrest Jesus and bind him.
13 They first bring Jesus to Annas,
for he’s the father-in-law of Joseph bar Caiaphas,
who’s head priest that year.
14 Bar Caiaphas is the one who recommended to the Judeans
for one person to die, rather than all the people.
 
John 18.19-24 KWL
19 The head priest then asks Jesus about his students,
and about his instruction.
20 Jesus answers him, “I’ve freely spoken to the world.
I always teach in synagogue and in temple,
where all the Judeans come together.
I never spoke in private.
21 Why do you ask me this?
Ask those who’ve listened to what I speak to them.
Look, they’ve known what I say.”
22 Once he says this, one of the police standing by
gives Jesus a slap, saying, “This you answer the head priest?”
23 Jesus answers him, “If I speak evil, testify about the evil.
If good, why beat me?”
24 So Annas sends Jesus away,
having bound him for Bar Caiaphas the head priest.

In the synoptic gospels, right after Jesus’s arrest, the Judean police and their posse took Jesus to the head priest’s house. But in John they didn’t. John’s the only gospel where they took a little side trip first… to the former head priest’s house. That’d be Khánan bar Seth, whom historical records call Ananus, and whom the KJV calls Annas. John relates it’s in the courtyard of Annas’s house where Simon Peter denounced Jesus.

Backstory time. Ever since the time of the Maccabees, the head priests had also been the kings of Judea. (Or, using the title Israelis had used for their kings, the Messiah. Yep, that title.) Their dynasty ended with Herod 1, who overthrew his father-in-law Antigonus Mattathias in 37BC, and took the throne. Herod became king, but because he was Edomite not Aaronite, he couldn’t be head priest; only descendants of Aaron could be head priest, y’know. Lv 6.22 But Herod claimed the right to appoint the head priest—and did. In fact he appointed a bunch of head priests. He kept firing them when they wouldn’t do as he wished.

And once the Romans took Judea from the Herods, they did the same thing. Annas became the 11th appointed head priest since Herod took over. (He’s actually the ninth guy to hold the job. Some of the previous head priests had non-consecutive terms.) Annas was appointed by the Syrian legate Publius Sulpicius Quirinius in the year 6, and stayed in office till the year 15. He’s a descendant of King John Hyrcanus, so while he was still in the royal family, he wasn’t a contender for the throne.

Bible commentators aren’t always aware that Herod and the Romans kept swapping out head priests, and assume Annas was the hereditary head priest, like all the head priests before Herod’s time. So they aren’t so surprised when Annas’s five sons, son-in-law, and grandson become the head priest after him: Isn’t it supposed to be a hereditary job? And yeah, originally it was… but now it wasn’t, and hadn’t been for decades, and the fact Annas managed to keep his family in power for nearly sixty years is pretty darned impressive.

Annas’s successors include:

  • Eleazar, his son (16-17CE)
  • Joseph bar Caiaphas, his son-in-law (18-36)
  • Jonathan, his son (36-37)
  • Theophilus, his son (37-41)
  • Matthias, his son (43)
  • Jonathan again (44)
  • Annas 2, his son (63)
  • Mattathias, his grandson (65-66)

He wasn’t the only guy with a political dynasty though. Four sons and a grandson of Boethus, another descendant of Aaron, were also head priest. Including Joazar bar Boethus, Annas’s direct predecessor.

The legality of Jesus’s trial.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 April

When you read the gospel of John, but skip the other three gospels—the synoptics—y’might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. In John:

  • Jesus gets arrested.
  • He’s taken right to the former head priest Annas’s house for an unofficial trial.
  • From there, to Joseph Caiaphas’s house.
  • Then to Pontius Pilate’s fortress.
  • Then to Golgotha.

No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution. Same as would be done in any country with no formal judicial system: They catch you, they interrogate you, they free or shoot you.

But both Judea and Rome did have a formal system. John doesn’t show it because the other gospels do. John was written to fill in the gaps in the other gospels’ stories—which include Jesus’s formal trials. There were two: The one before the Judean senate, and the other before the Roman prefect. The senate, presided over by head priest Caiaphas, found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. In contrast Pontius publicly stated he didn’t find Jesus guilty of anything—but he didn’t care enough to free him, and sent Jesus to his death all the same.

Was Jesus guilty of blasphemy? Only if he weren’t actually the Son of Man. But of course the senate absolutely refused to believe that’s who he is.

Either way, Jesus actually was guilty of sedition. I know, I know: Christians wanna insist Jesus is absolutely innocent. He never sinned y’know. But this “sedition” has nothing to do with sin. Jesus is the legitimate Messiah, the king of Israel and Judea, anointed by God to rule that nation and the world. He’s Lord. But that’s a threat to everyone who figures they’re lord—particularly the lords of Israel at that time. To Caiaphas, Herod, and Caesar, “Jesus is Lord” is sedition.

To leadership today it still is. Many of them don’t realize this, ’cause they don’t think of Jesus as any real threat to their power. Especially after they neuter him, by convincing his supporters he’d totally vote for them and their party—and his so-called followers buy it, and follow their parties instead of Jesus. So it stands to reason our leadership isn’t worried about Jesus. Yet.

But in the year 33, Jesus was tangibly standing on the earth, in a real position to upend the status quo, and was therefore a real threat to the lords of Israel at the time. Whether we’re talking emperors, prefects, tetrarchs, senators, synagogue presidents, or scribes who were used to everyone following their spins on the scriptures. To all these folks, Jesus was competition. And needed to be crushed.

Following Jesus instead of these other lords: Sedition. Still is. But not against God’s Law. It’s only against human customs, so Jesus isn’t guilty of sin in God’s eyes; stil totally sinless. Relax.

Thing is, Christians don’t wanna think of Jesus as guilty of anything. We wanna defend him against everything. We don’t wanna think of his conviction and trials as valid. We don’t wanna imagine his execution was a function of a corrupt system; worse, that perhaps our own existing systems are just as corrupt, and if his first coming had taken place today, we’d’ve killed him too. Nor do we wanna recognize sentencing him to death is in any way parallel to the way we depose him as the master of our lives, and prioritize other things over him. We don’t wanna think of his trial as a simple miscarriage of justice; we’d rather imagine it as illegal.

This is why, every Easter, you’re gonna hear various Christians claim Jesus’s trial wasn’t legal. That the Judeans had broken all their own laws in order to arrest him and hold his trial at night, get him to testify against himself, and get him killed before anyone might find out what they were up to. It certainly feels illegal: If you ever heard tell of a suspect arrested at midnight, tried and convicted at 2AM, and executed at noon, doesn’t the whole thing smell mighty fishy?

Nope, Jesus didn’t sweat blood.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 April
Luke 22.39-46 KWL
39 Coming out, Jesus goes to Olivet Hill as usual.
The students also follow him.
40 Once they’re in the place, Jesus tells them,
“Pray not to enter into temptation!”
41 Jesus withdraws from them about a stone’s throw away,
and taking to his knees, he’s praying,
42 saying, “Father, if you want, take this cup away from me!
Only not my will but yours be done.”
43 [A heavenly angel appears to Jesus, strengthening him.
44 Being in agony, Jesus is praying more fervently.
His sweat becomes like drops of blood,
falling down to the ground.]
45 Rising up from the prayer, coming to the students,
Jesus finds them sleeping from the grief.
46 Jesus tells them, “Why do you sleep?
Get up and pray, so you might not enter into temptation!”

Before his arrest, Jesus went to Gethsemane and spent some time in intense prayer. ’Cause he didn’t wanna get beaten and tortured to death. Who would?

In Mark, Jesus only has three of his students come along with him to pray, and has to go back and awaken them thrice. In Luke it appears to be all of them, and he only comes back to chide them once. Yeah they’re tired; they just had a big Passover meal and a lot of wine, plus a walk uphill, plus it’s late. But Jesus warned them his time was coming, and they needed to pray—not for him, but themselves. They’d be tempted to do a lot of dumb stuff as a result. (In fact that’s exactly what we see them do. Shoulda prayed.)

Certain preachers love to quote the Luke version of the story, because they love to point out how Jesus was so incredibly stressed out by his soon-coming passion, he was sweating blood. You saw that in verse 44. Here it is again in the KJV:

Luke 22.44 KJV
And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Turns out this is an actual medical condition. It’s called hematidrosis (from the Greek for “bloody sweat”) or hematohidrosis (“bloody water”). It’s rare, but possible. Blood vessels under your skin break from stress, and blood comes out your pores. It looks creepy. But not a lot of blood comes out of you this way, so it’s largely harmless. Might cause a little dehydration, so drink some Gatorade; you’ll be fine.

Preachers find this fascinating. And they love to point out how Luke, the traditional author of this gospel, was a physician! Cl 4.14 So he’d know all about such medical conditions, right? Including this one.

Though more than once, I’ve heard a preacher claim hematidrosis actually isn’t a harmless condition: They insist it’s life-threatening. That’s why Jesus needed an angel to strengthen him in verse 43: He was on the verge of bleeding out. After all the verse says great drops of blood. Jesus was already dying, and he hadn’t even been arrested yet! You don’t want him dying before the Romans killed him; for some reason that might bungle the atonement. I’m not sure how, but they’re pretty sure it woulda.

Okay. As you can tell from the title of this article, they’re wrong. Not just about how dangerous hematidrosis is or isn’t. They’re wrong about Jesus sweating blood in the first place. The verse doesn’t say that.

Jesus prays at Gethsemane.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 April
Mark 14.32-41 KWL
32 Jesus and his students came to a field
which was named Gat Semaním/“oil press.”
Jesus tells his students, “Sit in this spot while I can pray.”
33 Jesus takes with him Simon Peter, James, and John.
He begins to be surprised—and greatly troubled.
34 Jesus tells them, “My soul is deathly sad.
Stay here, and stay awake.”
35 Going a little ahead, Jesus is falling to the ground,
and is praying that, if it’s possible, can this hour pass him by?
36 Jesus was saying, Abba! Father! Almighty you!
Take this cup away from me!
But not what I want. What you want.”
37 Jesus returns and finds his students sleeping,
and tells Peter, “Simon, you sleep? You can’t stay awake one hour?
38 Stay awake and pray!—lest you might come to temptation.
A truly eager spirit—and weak flesh.”
39 Jesus goes away to pray again,
praying the same words.
40 Returning again, Jesus finds his students sleeping,
for their eyes are very heavy.
They had not known what to answer him.
41 Jesus returns a third time and tells his students,
“You sleep now and rest. It’s enough.
The hour comes—look!
The Son of Man is handed over to sinful hands.”

The first of St. Francis’s stations of the cross was when Jesus was given his cross. (Duh.) But Jesus’s suffering began earlier that day, so St. John Paul’s list also began earlier—with Gethsemane, the olive garden on Mt. Olivet, where Jesus prayed he might not go through the crucifixion.

It comes up in the synoptic gospels. It’s not in John, whose author had to do things his own way:

John 18.1 KWL
When he said this, Jesus with his students went over the Kidron ravine,
where there was a garden. He and his students entered it.

John Paul recognized this is the beginning of Jesus’s passion, not when he was sentened to death later that night. ’Cause that’s what the gospels depict: He went into the garden to pray, and suddenly he was blindsided with emotion. It freaked him out a little. He wanted to pray; he wanted his kids to pray for him. But as people do when they’re up past their bedtime praying (and not just kids; don’t just blame this on their spiritual immaturity), they fell asleep on him. Three times.

Still, Jesus was really agitated, and John Paul recognized it’s this psychological trauma that marks where Jesus’s passion began. Not just when he was taken away to die.

Stations of the cross: Remembering Christ’s suffering.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 April

In Jerusalem, Israel, Christians remember Jesus’s death by actually going down the route he traveled the day he died. It’s called the Way of Jesus, the Way of Sorrows (Latin, Via Dolorosa), or the Way of the Cross (Via Cručis). When I visited Jerusalem, it’s part of the tour package: Loads of us Christians go this route every single day, observing all the places Jesus is said to have suffered. Really solemn, moving stuff.

But most of us Christians don’t live in or near Jerusalem, and some of us can’t possibly go there. For this reason St. Francis of Assisi invented “the stations of the cross.” In his church building, he set up seven different dioramas. Each represented an event which happened as Jesus was led to his death. The people of his church would go to each diorama—each station—and meditate on what Jesus did for us all.

Yeah, this is a Catholic thing, ’cause Francis was Roman Catholic. But it’s not exclusively Catholic: Many Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists use stations of the cross too. Be fair: If a Protestant invented it, you’d find Protestants doing it everywhere. ’Cause it’s a really useful idea.

It’s why I bring it up here. The stations of the cross are a clever, more tangible way to think about Jesus’s death, what he went through, and what that means. It’s why lots of Catholic churches—and a growing number of Protestant churches—keep the stations up year-round. Could take the form of paintings, sculptures, or stained-glass windows. Christians can “travel the Way of Jesus” any time we wanna contemplate his death, and what he did for us.

If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, he made sure to include all the traditional stations in his movie. As do Catholic passion plays, reenactments of Jesus’s death. Protestant passion plays too, though we tend to skip most of the events we don’t find in the gospels. ’Cause as you’ll notice, some of Francis’s stations came from the popular culture of early 1200s Italy. Not bible.

The 14 stations.

Originally Francis arranged seven stations. Sevens are really important in medieval Christian numerology: Days of the week, years between sabbath years, the sevenfold Spirit of God. Rv 4.5 Supposedly the number represents something complete, like God’s creation week. Christians are still ridiculously fond of sevens. So here ya go: The first draft of the stations of the cross.

  1. Jesus is given his cross.
  2. Jesus falls down.
  3. Jesus encounters his mother.
  4. St. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face off.
  5. Jesus falls down again.
  6. Jesus is crucified.
  7. Jesus is laid in his tomb.

No, the gospels never mention Jesus falling down. I know; you totally thought he did fall down, didn’t you? Everybody depicts it: Paintings, movies, passion plays; Jesus is always keeling over. Sometimes with his hands strapped to the crossbeam so he can’t catch himself, so his face smacks right into the pavement stones. It’s a good example of how Christian popular culture has some not-as-biblical-as-you-think things in it.

St. Veronica is less familiar to Protestants. She’s a bleeder Jesus cured, and according to legend she was there in Jerusalem as Jesus was led to his death. As he passed, she let him wipe his bloody face on her veil, and it miraculously turned into a photorealistic image of him. Nope, this story’s not in the bible either. But in Francis’s part of Italy, it was a huge fad for churches to have a “veronica,” a cloth with Jesus’s face painted on it. So into his stations it went.

Different churches fiddled with the stations, their order, and their number. Some of ’em created thirty stations. The current “standard set” consists of 14 stations: Two sets of seven. (Gotta love those sevens.) Sometimes they add a 15th station, representing Jesus’s resurrection. Anyway here they are.

  1. Jesus is condemned to death.
  2. Jesus is given his cross.
  3. Jesus falls down.
  4. Jesus encounters his mother.
  5. Symon of Cyrene takes Jesus’s cross.
  6. St. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face off.
  7. Jesus falls down a second time.
  1. Jesus speaks to the “daughters of Jerusalem.”
  2. Jesus falls down a third time.
  3. Jesus’s clothes are stripped off.
  4. Jesus is nailed to the cross.
  5. Jesus dies.
  6. Jesus’s body is removed from the cross.
  7. Jesus’s body is put in the tomb.

What’s with Jesus falling down thrice? Because three’s another important number in medieval Christian numerology. You know, like the trinity; the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the three days and nights Jonah was in the whale; Jh 1.17 Jesus’s three temptations and third-day resurrection… I could go on, but you get it.

As you move to each station, custom is to pray a little something at each. Catholic congregations tend to go like so:

LEADER. “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.”
EVERYONE. “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

A lot of Christians—myself included—figure the bible is more historically accurate than tradition, so we prefer to stick to the gospels, ’cause we know they actually happened to Jesus. For our sake, St. John Paul came up with scriptural stations of the cross in 1991. Personally I like John Paul’s list better. It’s more thorough.

  1. Jesus prays in Gethsemane. Mk 14.32-42, Mt 26.36-46, Lk 22.39-46, Jn 18.1-2
  2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested. Mk 14.43-52, Mt 26.47-56, Lk 22.47-54, Jn 18.2-12
  3. Jesus is condemned by the Jewish senate. Mk 14.55-65, Mt 26.59-68, Lk 22.63-71, Jn 18.19-24
  4. Jesus is denied by Peter. Mk 14.66-72, Mt 26.69-75, Lk 22.54-62, Jn 18.15-18, 25-27
  5. Jesus is judged by Pilate. Mk 15.1-15, Mt 27.11-26, Lk 23.1-25, Jn 18.28-40
  6. Jesus is flogged; crowned with thorns. Mk 15.16-17, Mt 27.26-29, Lk 23.16, Jn 19.1-3
  7. Jesus is mocked; led out to be crucified. Mk 15.18-20, Mt 27.27-31, Lk 23.11, 25, Jn 19.4-16
  8. Simon of Cyrene takes Jesus’s cross. Mk 15.21, Mt 27.32, Lk 23.26
  9. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem. Lk 23.27-31
  10. Jesus is crucified. Mk 15.22-26, Mt 27.33-37, Lk 23.32-38, Jn 19.16-25
  11. Jesus speaks to the repentant thief. Lk 23.39-43
  12. Jesus speaks to his mother and beloved student. Jn 19.25-27
  13. Jesus dies. Mk 15.33-39, Mt 27.45-54, Lk 23.44-49, Jn 19.28-30
  14. Jesus’s body is taken down and entombed. Mk 15.42-47, Mt 27.57-61, Lk 23.50-56, Jn 19.38-42

These bits are also in The Passion of the Christ—and for that matter, most of the other, less-gory Jesus movies.

Each Eastertide I write a few articles about the stations. It’s important to look at what Jesus did for us. And not just during the Easter season.

Let’s not skip it because it’s so horrible, because we don’t wanna dwell on sad things. The reason Easter is so awesome is because Jesus conquered his horrible death. In dying, he took our sins to the grave with him. That, at least, is something to celebrate about Holy Week.