Hazel McHaffie

The Longest Week

As it’s Easter week it seems appropriate to reference a seasonally apposite book I’ve just finished reading: The Longest Week by Nick Page.

It was a routine execution. A humble peasant became a political pawn in an unseemly power struggle and was accorded the kind of death reserved for slaves. It happened a couple of thousand years ago. And yet this death has become the lynchpin for our civilisation. We measure our calendar from it. Macabre as it may seem, the instrument of torture upon which this young man was brutally nailed and asphyxiated has become an ornament in buildings and around necks. And perhaps more incongruous still, today, shops and children’s nurseries are full of symbols associated with this story. We all know the bare bones, but few will have probed beneath the surface.

So, after hundreds of years of retelling, is there any room for another book on the subject? Well, yes, if it’s a book like The Longest Week which does so much more than recount. It recreates the events moment by moment, describing the settings, the people, the happenings yet again, but in vivid detail, fleshing them out with fascinating little-known facts, explanations, interpretations, significances, that cut through layers of myth and misrepresentation, to provide meaning and impact and challenge.

As Page himself puts it:
The streets of this story are paved with reality. The people who tread these streets are real historical characters who lived and breathed and worked and sweated, who inhabited a society about which much is unknown. And, as we delve into history, as we strip away the layers of pious iconography and theological interpretation, we discover a tale that, for all its spiritual significance, is characterised by some very real human passions. This is a story of fear and anger, of non-violent resistance and state brutality. It’s a story of the outcasts and the powerful, of processions and perfume, of feasts and festivals, of death and darkness and, ultimately, of triumph.

And through it’s pages, we feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of the seething streets of Jerusalem as the crowds amass for Passover, the brooding tension of the arrest and illegal trial as the battered prisoner staggers from ‘court’ to ‘court’, the sad bewilderment of the man’s followers and a faithful little band of women watching from a distance as their dreams and hopes disintegrate. And using writings from the time, as well as biblical references, the author helps us delve into the reasons why. Why Pilate gave consent to the humiliation and brutality, knowing the man Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter to be innocent. Why the soldiers put such venom into their beatings and mockery. Why the prisoner endured it all without protest. Why Peter managed to inveigle his way into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house but lost courage before dawn. Why the empty tomb caused such consternation and elation. Why any of it matters today.

Page’s own conclusion is:
‘This, then, is the message of the Longest Week. It’s not really about facts and dates and theories. It’s about one man and our response to his life. The real truth is that no one has ever been able to control Christ. He storms down the hills of our theories, wild and triumphant; he marches into the heart of our lives and starts overturning the received ideas that we have carefully organised into neat little piles. The historical Jesus who challenged the oppressive religious and political systems, who was passionately concerned with the plight of the poorest of society, who became, literally, one of the outcasts, who ridiculed authority and made their wisdom look foolish, who walked the road of love to its triumphant conclusion – he’s still there. He has slipped off the purple robe and climbed down from his throne and Is giving out bread and wine to all those who need it. He’s alive and he’s kicking: the great rebel, the leader of the upside down kingdom – Jesus Christ, Joshua ben Joseph – the Son of God.

Nick Page is an unofficial historian and self-styled information-monger, and author of 80 books. He loves to research subjects and bring them alive, to be provocative and challenging. His stated aim: ‘to write interesting stuff about things that matter’. It is interesting; it does matter. And this book has prompted me to think differently this Easter-time.

Isn’t that what books are all about?

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