From the introduction…
This is a history of the last week of Jesus’ life.
It’s not a book of theology (although you can’t easily divorce the one from the other). It’s not a book of spirituality (although I think it has a spiritual impact). It’s not a work of fiction (although there will be plenty of times when our imagination can be invited out to play). It’s not a book of esoteric conspiracy theories (although it does involve a conspiracy). It’s a book of history. A book of what we know about the life and times of Jesus and how that helps us to understand the stories. It is a book about the city and the people, the time and the place – a book about a week that changed the world entirely.
Some readers might be sceptical about seeing see the word ‘history’ applied to this story at all. These days, we’re used to hearing that the whole thing is a myth or a metaphor, that the characters are inventions, that it is one enormous symbol. History? Not possible. Best leave it. Treat the whole thing as a story.
But the truth is that there are real, historical facts to be explored. 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 known. And, as we delve into the 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. It’s not exactly what we expect, this story. As a Christian, I went into this book prepared to give a guided tour of a city I knew well, only to find that there were alleys and side-streets that I had never explored, avenues and squares that I never even knew existed. It’s a darker, more complex story than we realise, a tale of politics and double-dealing, of betrayal and compromise, of remarkable, earth-shattering events, of apparent failure and astonishing triumph.
It matters, this stuff, you see. Because, if you don’t know the true history, you are at the mercy of other people’s inventions. If we don’t – both Christians and non-Christians alike – make an attempt to understand the culture of the times, to find out what really happened, then other people will make it up. And they’ll use this story in a thousand different ways to claim a thousand different things. They’ll get Jesus to say things he couldn’t possibly have said, to obtain things he never would have wanted. They’ll take the story and use it to screw money out of TV viewers, to justify positions of power, to peddle theories about the end of the world. They’ll distort it to justify racism and bigotry. And they’ll use this story – the greatest story of non-violent love in history – to justify acts of violence on a scale that has never been seen.
Yes, this stuff matters.