Good religious novels give me insights and information unavailable to those who only read scholarly works. Esther: The Star and the Scepter makes sense of the crazy culture in that Bible book. For instance: why a nice Jewish girl would enter a Gentile king’s harem. (Girls were simply arrested and charged with being gorgeous.) And the film One Night with the King explained that the new girl’s night with the king was not a deflowering but a date so that Xerxes could decide whether she would be a suitable queen. Fiction also explained why the beauty treatments lasted for six months. It was so girls could lose their unfashionable suntans and go to charm school.
Or Horace Mann explained how Laban could have pulled the wool over Jacob’s eyes about Leah. Doctor Doolittle and the Secret Lake suggests that Noah was probably Royal Zookeeper of a continental empire. With 600 years to perfect his profession, Noah would have become the greatest ecologist who ever lived or ever will. He also had time to amass a large fortune–Einstein allegedly said that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. And your humble scribe suggests that Noah built the Ark on credit. Why not float a loan to float alone? The loan would have been liquidated along with the bankers! But you still need a fortune to borrow enough to build a yacht like that, as you would know if you visited the Ark Encounter in Kentucky.
A Tale of Two Cities, Picture of Dorian Gray and The Prince and the Pauper all lifted their leitmotif from the Vicarious Atonement and make unsurpassed sermon illustrations. By way of contrast, The Robe might have been a great movie, but the novel’s author should have learned something about his subject before lifting his pen. A different novel called attention to the fact that The Robe was seamless like the High Priest’s robe, and suggested that the Blessed Virgin had woven it for Him. Who else but His mother would have meditated so deeply, believed so correctly–or cared so much?
Most moving of all, however–and one that should become an epic movie called The Man who Crucified Christ–is The Centurion by Leonard Wibberley. If you can find this 55-year-old novel in your library system, read it before it leaves the shelves forever. I expected something funny after reading Wibberley’s “Mouse that Roared” series, but it is dead serious, which is not the same as orthodox. Like most novelists, he feels compelled to suggest that Judas’s motives weren’t jet black. And he’s Anglican. But once you sift out the chaff….
The Centurion is based on one simple proposition. You can verify it with Bible software. There are at most two centurions in the four Gospels, and quite possibly only one. There is no way to prove that there were two, so Wibberley crafted a narrative based on the 50/50 possibility that there was only one, and that Pontius Pilate detailed that single centurion to keep tabs on Jesus.
Centurions were the equivalent of top sergeants or lieutenants. In many countries even today there is no distinction between the military and the police. So the Centurion was not just a soldier; he was also a top cop at the cop shop. It would make sense that Pilate would detach one particular senior officer to keep track of someone like Jesus who could easily lead a riot or an actual insurrection. Memories of the Maccabees….
The fact that He wouldn’t do so on Palm Sunday is, rather evidently, the reason the Jerusalem mob went so quickly from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!” He could have brought back the kingdom of David and Solomon and expelled the hated Romans. There were nine million Jews in an empire of 60 million and millions more outside. Independence and freedom were a definite possibility–but Jesus refused to give it to them. Hanging was too good for Him, and beheading would have broken a Bible prophecy that not a bone of Him should be broken. Stoning and stabbing were too humane. Make Him accursed in the eyes of all Israel! “A person left hanging on a tree is cursed by God, ” Dt 21:23. Crucify!
It would also make sense that the more the Centurion saw of Jesus, the stronger his faith in Him became.
You will immediately object: How could the same centurion whose servant was healed, who built a synagogue and loved God’s people, whose faith was greater than any found in Israel, be the man who crucified Christ? The explanation becomes the climax of the novel, and it is worth quoting Pilate’s command to him verbatim:
“I order you to crucify this man,” said Pilate. “You yourself and no other. And that because you unthinkingly, as I choose to believe, brought a slight upon Rome by going to him in your full uniform, with all the badges of your office, and begging a Jew for some service connected with your private servant. Rome does not beg, particularly of the Jews. Therefore wipe out this slight on your country and on your comrades, and take him and crucify him.”
“You order it, Excellency?” asked the centurion.
“I order it,” said Pilate. The look on the centurion’s face moved Pilate and he said, more gently, “Come, Centurion. Consider … The man must be crucified, in any case. You have not brought about his death. You are only the instrument of it. If you have some attachment to this rabbi, it must not interfere with your duty as a soldier. But you may ask yourself privately whether it is dishonorable to assist a friend into death who must die anyway. You may find, without violating the letter of the sentence, methods of speeding his end and shortening his agony, which others might not think of.”
When the centurion made no comment on this, he said sharply, “Well, Centurion, do you obey your orders?”
“I obey them, Excellency, though I destroy myself,” said Longinus. [The centurion was not in charge of the scourging. “I shall scourge him and release him,” Pilate had said, and the death squad needed no further orders.] But the Centurion had to carry out what even the Romans called “the extreme penalty” in person.
Did he know that all three of them must be taken down before the Sabbath? We don’t know. If not, the malefactors might just have been roped, and an excuse given for Jesus to be nailed–what of a riot that might rescue Him?–and nails would cause death faster via continuous blood loss.
What else could the Centurion have done by way of “speeding his end and shortening his agony”? A long journey through life and Scripture brings together some light from the ancient East. And from some arcana from an infamous bar in old New Orleans that I heard about in a French restaurant, and a North Dakota Russian German.
By careful study and comparison of the various times when Jesus was offered “vinegar” on the Cross, we make some important discoveries. Most importantly, it wasn’t vinegar; it was offered three times; and it was spiked.
Numberless pious preachers with nothing more than a King James Version have assumed that the vinegar mixed with gall was part of the punishment. The ESV Study Bible continues this mistaken tradition at Mt 27:34. “This was one more mockery in which the wine was mixed with gall, a bitter herb which could even be poisonous.” Obviously not, because (a) poison would be preferable to crucifixion and (b) if it was part of the mockery then Jesus wouldn’t have been allowed to refuse it. It would have been forced down His throat, which is easy enough to do with a liquid; you just pinch the nose shut. What was the vinegar? What was the gall? Neither was part of the punishment. If He was allowed to refuse it, what was going on here?
First the vinegar. As I told my ESL students in Ukraine, to understand English really well you need to audit a quarter of French. If you do so you will discover that “vin egre” is just the French for “sour wine.” 400 years ago when King James authorized his great translation, that would have been understood. Sour wine is not dry wine; dry wine is vin sec but sour wine is vin egre, wine that bacteria are turning into wine vinegar.
We need to understand one more thing about both wine and wine vinegar when they are mentioned in the Bible, indeed around the Mediterranean. They were usually diluted before being drunk. And that people preferred well-diluted wine vinegar to tepid cistern water from rain that had fallen months earlier and got a little more contamination from every bucket that was lowered.
In Bible times they had neither coffee nor tea and they lived in a hot climate where rain only falls a few weeks per year. Unless it was fresh from a well, water didn’t taste very good. So if people could afford it they would flavor their water with a splash of wine or wine vinegar. This is not an off-the-wall idea. In Europe I flavored my own drinking water with a tablespoon of cider or wine vinegar or straight lemon juice for years and still prefer it thus. Don’t sneer until you try it. All three are tastier than club soda and good for you. So it’s not surprising that the Roman death squad had, not vinegar, but vinegar water in their gourds and a sponge in their kit to wash the blood off themselves. Unless you think Roman death squads carried around a bottle of balsamic so as to season Caesar salads.
So, in reverse order: The third time this “sour wine” was offered it was after many portents and several of the Seven Words. The Centurion could get away with publicly lifting a wet sponge on a stalk of hyssop so as to let Jesus suck in enough moisture to be able to speak. After all, it could have been a confession or a betrayal. Among the other agonies of crucifixion, of scourging or of any wound that bleeds heavily, there is a raging thirst like you can’t imagine.
The second time, the vinegar-water was only offered–out of mockery–and not given. Jesus said “I thirst!” “Come and get it!” a soldier might have said, holding it out. Wibberley, who did his homework, said that most of the soldiers would have been Syrian mercenaries who hated the Jews and were cruelly willing to mock and flog one when they had an excuse.
But the first time … the first time, as we’ve heard so often–it was mixed with gall. For centuries this has been assumed to be part of the punishment. Let’s examine that assumption, starting not with what we think the gall was but with something the Bible says about it in Lamentations. This seems to be a hidden prophecy of Christ, because in v 3:15 the same Someone who speaks in Psalm 22 may be speaking through the prophet: “[God] hath filled me with bitterness, He hath made me drunken with wormwood.” The operative word is “drunken”–intoxicated–drugged. And the Messianic Psalm 69:21 mentions gall as the food that went along with vinegar as drink. Symbolic, or literal? Elsewhere gall and wormwood are almost synonyms. It is characteristic of alkaloids to be very bitter. Very … bitter … intoxicants … painkillers. You could look alkaloids up. Is that what we’re talking about here?
By the kind of blessed coincidence that God sometimes arranges for me, 40 years ago I was conversating in a North Dakota churchyard with pious old Jake Kemmet. I picked a clover and bit a floret, then another plant that turned out to be minty. Why not go three for three? But when I plucked a whitish herb, he said, “Nein! Nein! Bitter! Wermut!” Literally, “no, no, that’s wormwood. It’s bitter!” What made this a blessed coincidence is that a regular customer at the French restaurant where I’d once worked had told me about the absinthe bar in old New Orleans. Only thus would I have seen the connection between wormwood, Wermut and vermouth.
This bar used to be the notorious dive that the most hopeless of alcohol addicts orbited. Absinthe was the type of vermouth they guzzled –“Wermut” vermouth–spiked with absinthe, wormwood, Wermut, gall, whatever you want to call it. Who wants their liquor with such bitters? People who were addicted to absinthe vermouth, that’s who. It became illegal in many countries, because the bitterness came from a bitter but addictive alkaloid–a.k.a. a narcotic, a painkiller.
At last we understand why we were told about the gall. It was NOT part of the punishment or Jesus wouldn’t have been allowed to refuse it. The “vinegar” was not vinegar and the gall was not galling. And we are told about the ingredients because it is extremely significant.
The Centurion, in short, offered Jesus what help he could–diluted sour wine spiked with painkiller. But Jesus only took a taste. He rejected it, not because it was too bitter, but so as to drain a far bitterer cup to the dregs. That was the cup of the Centurion’s sins. And yours, even if they are as serious as crucifying Christ.
We don’t know exactly the Centurion’s path to saving faith. It probably started out with the cynicism you may recall from the Roman officer in Ben Hur–“Your God will not help you any more than the images I pray to help me. But I might.” Paganism was morally, spiritually and intellectually bankrupt. It was offensive to decent people–think of Jupiter torturing Prometheus endlessly for the “crime” of benefitting mankind. Thinking pagans realized that only a single God with a single will could provide a basis for moral values, otherwise murder and rapine could become virtues just by crossing the street to a different god’s temple. A large number of pagans, like the Centurion, became “righteous Gentiles” and “proselytes of the gate” who followed Judaism in all points except circumcision.
The Centurion knew of Christ’s miracles. Then the healing of the centurion’s servant from a distance demonstrated that Jesus did what even the greatest gods could not. Jesus did what only an omnipotent God can do–heal without medicine and without a messenger. Even the Mayo Clinic can’t help you without sending you either material or advice for therapy. Even Oral Roberts needed you to “put your hands on the radio and be healed.” Jesus had to “speak the word only.”
The centurion was obeyed not because he was a man with authority but because he was a man under authority, speaking for authority. The mighty Roman Empire was personified in him. So he knew that Jesus could “speak the word only” because it was the God of Creation acting through Him.
And then there was the behavior of Jesus as He was being crucified. I wrote of this last week in “Fit to be Tied.” (See footnote for free download.) If nothing else had done it, the behavior of Jesus there would have made a believer out of the centurion. Otherwise he would have fallen on his sword or hanged himself like Judas, in terror and utter despair and bottomless grief and the unbearable guilt and shame of having crucified the Son of God.
But he didn’t. He became a disciple. He joined the church. And how can we possibly deduce that?
It’s actually quite simple, if you think it through. How else would we know about the drugged wine? You think that maybe Roman soldiers carried drug-spiked wine when they were on duty? Only the Centurion had it or knew about it. We can infer that the centurion was present to report the conversation with Pilate, who certainly wouldn’t have met with a prisoner alone. But who besides Jesus knew that the wine was drugged? Would Jesus have bragged about it? Who else could have told it to the Apostle?
Why–the man who drugged the wine, of course. The man who crucified Christ. When you go to heaven, you can ask him about it.
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