If there is anything that separates the Christian faith from the multitude of other “-isms” and “-anities” competing in the marketplace of spiritual ideas, perhaps it is this: Christians — at least those faithful to what the Bible teaches — believe that Jesus of Nazareth, God in human form, died on a Roman cross, was buried and rose from the grave, and that He lives today.
No other religion of which I’m aware places this kind of emphasis on the death and resurrection of one man, albeit one Christians believe to be God the Son.
Attendant to this is the notion expressed poetically by the Prophet Isaiah that Jesus‘ death accomplished many things: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Christ’s death was no mere exercise, Christians believe, but rather a down payment on the redemptions of sinners and the healings of the sick.
Therefore, it’s little surprise that Christians have, from time to time, sought to know much more about the death of Jesus than the Bible records. Filmmaker Mel Gibson was criticized for the graphic portrayal of the Crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ,” and the recent cable miniseries smash “The Bible,” produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, was criticized in some quarters for its realistic rendering.
Neither of these versions, however, comes close to the gripping and compelling account brought to readers in “Killing Jesus,” a book by Stephen Mansfield, a best-selling author of books about the faith histories of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, released a few weeks ago by Worthy Publishing. It’s not light reading, but it’s an important book.
“The biblical text begs that we understand more than is written in the Gospels,” Mr. Mansfield, who divides his time between Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C., said in a telephone interview. “That’s the mandate: You want to honor your faith by knowing its history.”
“Jesus was striking at that ‘Sopranos’-like network, with the high priest [Caiaphas] and his father-in-law running this corrupt network. There’s the social justice Jesus that the left likes here, the moral prophet the right tends to prefer is here. Only if you draw organically from the soil of history do you capture all of this.”
“Scourging in the Roman world was a ripping away of the flesh, straps with bone and rock [and] flesh was torn away,” he explained. “We have many descriptions of this of people who had been scourged.”
Such treatment, Mr. Mansfield said, lines up with prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures: “In the Old Testament, you have descriptions of the suffering Messiah saying, ‘All my bones were exposed.’ This is what it would have been like. Anybody who is familiar with this knows it.”
Mr. Mansfield, a skilled storyteller, adds depth and context to the biblical accounts, and does so in a way that is respectful of the original text. Those reading “Killing Jesus” are likely to come away with a more complete picture of this pivotal event in world history. In part, that was the author’s goal.
“If you are a believer, if you are someone who takes the record as given in Scripture as authoritative and inspired, you need to dive in more deeply,” he said. “If you’re not a believer, you want to come to the crucifixion from a human, natural perspective that strips away the veneer.”
Mr. Mansfield's “Killing Jesus” manuscript was submitted to the publishers before popular Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly announced his forthcoming “Killing Jesus: A History,” due in September and co-authored by historian Martin Dugard. Though the two projects were developed independently of each other, Mr. Mansfield said he isn’t worried about taking on the best-selling Mr. O’Reilly.
“I hope we end up on the same shelf at the same time,” Mr. Mansfield said. “I’m just enjoying writing about what I want to write about.”
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.