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Good Friday

08 April 2022

Isaiah 52.13-end of 53; Psalm 22*; Hebrews 10.16-25 or Hebrews 4.14-16; 5.7-9; John 18.1-end of 19

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WEST of Cambridge, there is a place that — according to road signs and maps — is called Caxton. But locals refer to it as “Caxton Gibbet”: a gibbet still stands at the crossroads between Ermine Street and the Cambridge-St Neots road.

That careful positioning reminds us that, in times that we think of as less enlightened, it mattered that punishment was not only done, but was seen to be done. Gibbeting was a disgusting penalty: hanging the body of a malefactor from a hook, or in an iron cage, to decompose and disintegrate. In England, the death penalty ceased to be a public spectacle in 1868, but, in some parts of the world, public executions continue to be the norm. Justice is a matter that concerns all a nation’s citizens; so there is logic, if not much compassion, in such a practice.

There was never a chance of the Roman authorities’ turning a blind eye to insurrection. The moment that they were convinced that Jesus might lead an insurgency, he was sure to be condemned. It is easy to condemn the fickleness of crowds who, less than a week before, had cheered his entry into Jerusalem. But in our time, too, there exist regimes in which guilt consists not in what protesters do, but in what they may do if not crushed at once. Once again there is logic, but no compassion.

Jesus was crucified in public, no doubt with the aim of deterrence; but not at a crossroads. Instead, it happened at a place called (in Aramaic) Golgotha, meaning “the place of a skull” (19.17). The Latin is translated by the word calvaria, which simply means “skull”. Christians soon concluded that this name indicated a place that was domed in shape — a hill, in other words. This cannot be proved; but the importance of making executions as visible as possible certainly points that way.

Between John and the other Gospels there is a key difference of detail. The Synoptics all affirm that the cross was carried by someone called Simon, who bumped into that pitiful procession on its way to Calvary. Yet John insists that Jesus carried it. Ingenious solutions have been proposed, which rely on the cross’s being in two pieces, or being carried by two men. But neither can be harmonised with John’s insistence that Jesus carried it “by himself”. That does still leave the option that he did so for part of the way, but that Simon carried it either before or afterwards.

Such details are the bread-and-butter of New Testament scholars, a gift to opponents of the faith, and often an irrelevance to worshippers. On a day such as Good Friday, how can such (relative) trivia be important? In truth, detail is never unimportant when the USP of your faith is that it is historical fact. So, when evidence is discovered corroborating the Passion, it is treasured. The marble inscription found in 1961 at Caesarea Maritima and bearing the name of Pontius Pilate is just such a piece of evidence. Christians take it for granted that Pilate was as real as the Emperor Augustus, but, until that inscription was found, there was no early evidence to prove it, apart from the Gospels themselves.

We have another inscription in the Passion. All four Gospels mention it as giving the substance of the charge against Jesus. All four refer to Pilate’s recording Jesus’s crime in Roman terms, not Jewish: revolution, in other words, not blasphemy. And all four give different wording for it — ammunition for sceptics who would empty the Passion of theological truth, claiming that it is a story designed to explain away the “failure” of the Jesus movement.

But look at the matter from another angle, and the reverse is true. Yes, each one is slightly different. But what the four versions have in common is much more powerful than what distinguishes them. The man being crucified is labelled “The King of the Jews”. Pilate refuses to change the inscription to suit the Judaean authorities, tacitly refusing to collude in their vendetta against Jesus, while at the same time doing his duty to Rome by crushing all challengers. The studied ambiguity of his attitude (a mirror, perhaps, to that in John 18.37) is encapsulated in his famous question, “What is truth?” The man whom Pilate crucifies does not speak the answer. He is the answer — “I am the Truth” (John 14.6).

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