Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Horrors of Crucifixion and Amnesty International

Amnesty InternationalThis week in my Historical Jesus class we came to one of the topics that I never particularly enjoy teaching, not because it is lacking in interest but because it is such a profoundly disturbing topic.  If there is one thing that we know about the Historical Jesus with a degree of certainty, it is that he died by crucifixion.  If we don't know that, we really don't know anything.  But if we do know that, what are the details of what we know about crucifixion in general?

When discussing Jesus' crucifixion, I like to explore the archaeological and the literary evidence for ancient crucifixion.  That means drawing attention to the blood-curdling accounts from Seneca, Cicero and Josephus, among others, with help from Martin Hengel's little book, and adding to those Joe Zias's work on Crucifixion in Antiquity.  When I showed the students a picture of the heel bone of Jehohanan, the sole archaeological evidence of a crucifixion victim, with the nail still embedded, there was an audible sense of horror at what must have been involved in that crucifixion.  It brings home to students the unspeakably cruel nature of the punishment.

If, like me, you are a sensitive person, discussing forms of ancient torture with some degree of detail is not a pleasant experience.  There is an anxiety in drawing attention to something so horrible from the past.   When I was teaching this a few years ago, I found myself making some kind of remark about the cruelty, the sadism of the ancient figures we were discussing.  And then I paused for a moment.  The conceit of the academic who studies antiquity allows the indulgence of separating oneself from the past.  The distancing is, of course, necessary and often desirable if one is to understand the past.  But appreciation of the horrors of antiquity can at the same time awaken us to similar horrors in the contemporary world.  And here there is something we can do about it.   Why not use the reminder of evil in antiquity to stimulate us to action about the evil in the contemporary world?

Like 2.2 million others, I am a member of Amnesty International and I attempt, often inadequately, to make my small contribution to ending human rights abuses around the world.  

I don't often discuss politics on this blog.  It's not the blog's topic, and I am not expert enough to provide incisive political comment.  I leave that to those who are more skilled and knowledgeable than I.  But on occasions like this, with the reminder of such inspeakable human cruelty, I break with protocol, as I do in the classroom too,  and share my own commitment to joining those who campaign for internationally recognised human rights for all.  

1 comment:

Brian Mooney said...

As another AI member, I especially appreciate what you wrote. I try to involve my students in environmental science in some sort of course-related AI activity (such as to help environmentalist persecuted abroad for their work). Bravo!