by Pastor Doug Kings

Palm Sunday is a little over a week away. It is the start of Holy Week, followed by Easter. While central to Christianity, the meaning of these ancient stories and Bible texts has always been fluid, and today their relevance have never been more in question. For most people Easter is more likely to generate thoughts of bunnies, eggs and family gatherings than Christ’s resurrection. In response to this, trying to somehow turn back the clock to a previous time is fruitless. The challenge must be to discover what these stories mean and how they speak in our time. The next few weeks my Reflections will be based on a series I created a few years ago to address this question, edited to reflect new learnings and my own evolving thoughts. I look forward to your responses.

A week from Sunday is the start of Holy Week, the church’s reflection on the death of Jesus. Traditionally, various events recounted in the gospels are commemorated at services during that week, including Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his disciples, his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the priests and Pilate, and his crucifixion.

Most Christians, as well as many people outside the church, will regard this as a recounting of historical events. They would likely be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, to learn that most biblical scholars today (excluding fundamentalists, of course) regard little if any of it that way. “You mean someone made this all up?” a person might ask. Well, many people were likely involved but, basically, yes.

Academic biblical scholarship has been going on for over two centuries. For much of this time, scholars were reluctant of publicize their findings out of fear of how they would be received within the church. As a result, scholars discussed their work among themselves but only a small portion leaked out to the general public. After World War II, critical biblical scholarship became standard fare in seminaries, yet pastors-in-training knew to keep most of this to themselves.

Much has changed in the church and today we may be able to tolerate more biblical honesty. The biggest change is that most people will not be in worship during Holy Week or on Easter. The culture’s attachment to these stories is much weaker that it once was, and many people don’t even know them. This may, however, give the church some much needed freedom and fresh air.


The biggest problem with reconstructing the life of Jesus is that we simply have so little reliable information. The earliest writings after Jesus’ death are the letters of Paul, and he tells us little if anything about the historic Jesus. The gospels were written 40-80 years after Jesus and are not eye-witness accounts. In fact, we have nothing in writing from anyone who actually knew or even saw Jesus.

While this might seem surprising, it really isn’t. In a recent biography of Cleopatra, who lived about a generation before Jesus, the author laments how fragmentary are the sources for her life. Cleopatra was one of the most powerful persons in the world. Her life intertwined with the greatest of Rome’s rulers. Yet the information we have was written many years later, almost all by people attempting to discredit her. Indeed, reconstructing the life of any important person of antiquity is almost impossible in detail, and often difficult even in broad outline.

The difficulty in reconstructing the life of Jesus isn’t surprising then. Scholars today agree that Jesus came from the furthest margins of society: a Jewish peasant who lived in the backwater of a backwater: the region of Galilee on the fringe of Rome’s despised province of Judea. To observers at the time, Jesus would have been one of a dime-a-dozen wandering mystics, teachers, holy men, and miracle workers common to the region. If Cleopatra could barely get her story told, Jesus didn’t stand a chance.

This is why the biblical events of Holy Week are now seen as literary fiction. The basic plot is certainly plausible. For whatever reason, Jesus went to Jerusalem, got himself in trouble with Roman authorities by creating a commotion in the temple, which then led to his arrest and execution. But someone as insignificant as Jesus would never have rated the tumult or attention depicted in the gospels.

The details of that story are now viewed as the product of early church evangelists and writers. Their source, rather than eyewitnesses, was primarily the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Following a long and respected religious tradition, biblical stories were used to provide the interpretive framework for this new religious event: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Whatever its cause, Jesus’ arrest would have led to a minimal legal proceeding followed by a quick execution. Public crucifixions were literally almost everyday occurrences. As one entered Jerusalem, it would have been normal if repulsive to pass rotting corpses hanging on crosses. Most victims were not buried because wild animals and the elements quickly disposed of the bodies.

Nor is it clear that Jewish authorities would have ever been involved given that Jesus did little if anything to merit their intervention. Calling yourself the messiah (if Jesus even did that) might get you labeled as crazy, but it wasn’t a capital offense. Crucifixion was solely an imperial form of execution for the purpose of intimidation of the populace. It was, as scholars have said, state terrorism.

As we read a novel or watch a movie, most of us easily enter the story as if it is real, and temporarily suspend our awareness that what is being depicted is the creation of the writer or director. The same is true for our hearing of the Holy Week narratives. Nonetheless, it is likely that the gospel writers and early church knew little or nothing about the events surrounding Jesus’ death. What is hinted at in the gospels themselves may have been truer than we realize: Jesus may well have died alone and abandoned—and largely unnoticed.

The earliest years after Jesus’ death are a blank slate. We know next to nothing about them. What we can surmise, though, is that some of his followers had experiences which convinced them that Jesus was yet alive, and the first of these may well have been women. “I have seen the Lord.” He lived now in God’s heavenly realm, yet somehow his Spirit also remained with his followers on earth. As the community of disciples spread, and after most of his original followers had died, the story of Jesus was fleshed out, not to reconstruct the events, but in order to better proclaim the “good news.”

For us a narrative like Holy Week now hides as much as it reveals. We are distracted by its over-the-top dramatics and flagrant anti-Semitism. Biblical scholars are helping us regain some perspective, shifting our attention from his death to his life as what is most important for us today. Yet this is something that perhaps even Mark, the earliest gospel, understood. For at its very end the angel at the tomb directs the women to go back to Galilee, the place of Jesus’ life and ministry. “There you will see him.”

Blessings in your life and ministry.