TGIGF! Yeah, verily, Thank God It's Good Friday again... The Christmas season is now long past, the holiday merriment is remembered only as a credit-card bill yet to be paid, the celebration of promised hope has faded with a return to the banality of amoral mundanity, and a new season is upon us. Suffering and death (contra the Docetist approach) are before us and it's time for cross training. Let's get our nails done, arrange for the finest of galls and vinegars to be made available, and imagine the cool (and cruel) signs and wonders of two millenniums ago. Forsooth, let us Wang our Chung and hurry the harrowing! Damn, I miss Christmastime...
Christian scripture (and the early second century CE account of the Roman historian, Tacitus) would have us believe that an upstart from Galilee was crucified under Pontius Pilate, ca. 33 CE, for the crime of treason (i.e. political agitation, unpaid taxes, and claiming to be “King of the Jews”). Questioning the historicity of the Passion narratives is outside the scope of this column, however, many hold that a good and kind teacher named Jesus (var. Iesus, Iēsoűs, Yēšűă‘, & Yĕhōšuă‘) met his end in Roman occupied Jerusalem, and his followers and some others believe that his death occurred on the cross. Regardless of whether the teacher's crucifixion was factual fiction or fictitious fact, an event accurately remembered and described or invented stylized verisimilitude, within a century or two of his passing the cross symbol had became an object of veneration by Christians.
Though the ancient Romans had other execution methods (e.g. poena cullei or “punishment of the sack,” that is, sewn in a sack with a dog, a monkey, a snake, and a rooster and tossed into the sea), crucifixion as summum supplicium was and is a particularly horrible way to die. As narrative antecedents go, we acknowledge Spy Wednesday and Judas's decision to betray Jesus, Maundy Thursday with foot washing and The Last Repast, and then ...a lot of back and forth before that difficult walk to Calvary (var. Gűlgaltâ or Kranion, “The Skull”) on Good Friday.
It's remained problematic for historians and archaeologists that of the many ancient accounts of crucifixion, there's little extant physical evidence of the executions, as was the wont of the Romans. It was the ultimate insult for a crucified criminal's body to remain on the cross until the decayed flesh fell from its bones and there was nothing left for a family to bury. In a couple of weeks, with the upcoming finale of the Starz television series, Spartacus, we might expect a depiction of the Roman response to The Third Servile War (73–71 BCE) and the crucifixion of 6000 rebellious slaves along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. Oops, I should have prefaced SPOILER ALERT for those not familiar with Appian's Civil Wars... The truism (of unknown origin, but attributed to Winston Churchill) that “History is written by the victors,” is germane to any discussion of Roman crucifixion, as Christians sorta'-kinda' “defeated” the Romans after Constantine's 313 CE Edict of Milan which protected Christians from professing and practicing their faith and effectively ended Roman persecution and (early) Christian martyrdom. However, before that victory, Nero is said to have crucified many Christians, as well as used their burning bodies (vivicombustion) to illuminate his gardens. Then, there was the Diocletianic or Great Persecution which started in 303 CE, took the lives of an estimated three thousand or more Christians, and only ended when Constantine showed mercy. So, back to the cross...
Following the tortuous reasoning of Wayne
LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice
President of the NRA, laissez-aller studies have
suggestively shown that crosses don't crucify people,
...people crucify people. While Herod and his lil'
step-hottty, Salome, blamed (read: beheaded) the
Messenger, other than a few hematophagous Eastern
Europeans, no one faults the wooden cross upon which
Jesus is said to have had a really bad Good
Friday. Indeed, the wearing of a cross was a
popular fashion accessory well before the advent of the
blasphemous Madonna of Michigan.
Yet, despite the narrative
necessity of the cross in the gospel tragedies, few
mentions survived the 363 CE hypercritical editing of
the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, who “canonized”
the twenty-seven books of the so-called New
Testament. Thank goodness we have the Director's
Cut, and the Extras and the Gag Reel included in the
Blue-ray box set are most interesting, as well.
One might imagine, as teased in Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, that we wouldn't have Christ without the cross, just Jesus the teacher (and, in a novel extension, settled down with a wife or two and a family). As we break eggs to make an omelet, so too did Jesus (according to scripture) sacrifice himself upon the cross so that humankind would be forgiven for ...stuff. The status of the cross, that constant and dependable Christian icon, has been often relegated to a mere theological or theatrical property. But, traditions exist which imbue the cross with eternal BFF characteristics. Yeah, it's almost as if they were made for each other...
There's been talk over the years that the cross will
precede or accompany Jesus when he returns (var. The
Second Coming or parousia), and, of course, this
presupposes that the cross has been a BFF with Jesus for
the last two millenniums. Actually, according to
some, this appears to be the case.
Questionable testimony (i.e. Yosef ben Matityahu, a.k.a.
Josephus) allows for the occasional relaxation of the
Roman practice of insisting that the crucified remain
upon the cross until there is nothing left to bury, and
with the gospel tales of Joseph of Arimathea and his
donated sepulcher, we read that the body of Jesus was
begged from Pilate and entombed with some
Linens-N-Things for three days (or so). As the
canonical New Testament tells it, the “Things” were
myrrh and aloes. However, extra-canonical writings
allege that the cross somehow accompanied Jesus into the
sepulcher. What a loyal BFF!
Coincidence being that rarest of asides, there's nothing
funny about Shimon (“Simon”), that Galilean fisherman
who took the name Peter (Gk Petros), denied knowing
Jesus three times the night of Maundy Thursday and Good
Friday, and was crucified upside down in Rome during the
reign of Nero. Two letters supposedly written by
Peter are included in the canonical New Testament,
though there are many apocryphal texts which were
composed in his name. The pseudepigraphical Gospel
of Peter, which features the cross as an
animate object, is believed to date from the late second
century CE, though some claim the unknown author made
use of a “proto-gospel” which was written before the Gospel
of Mark, ca. 70 CE. In this short work
(or, at least, that part which has survived), during the
night before the Sabbath the Heavens opened and two men
descended and opened the sepulcher, emerging moments
later carrying a third man. According to the text,
Roman soldiers and curious locals witnessed the cross
following the three men from the tomb. Then,
because an animate cross isn't special enough, a voice
from Heaven was heard, asking “Hast thou preached unto
them that sleep?,” to which the cross answered
“Yeah...” Such a good cross! I'd like to
believe it was rewarded with a fine wax and a thorough
Cross training can be a difficult endeavor (those who crucify themselves are doing it wrong), still the rewards seemingly last forever. It takes a certain type of individual to accomplish the task and I doubt we'll see the likes of Jesus again. Or, if the Believers prove correct, maybe one day.
Waitin' for the Bunny,