The description of Crucifixion in all the four gospels is very plain, all of them use obnoxiously laconic expressions: “Then they crucified him” (Matthew 27:33–34); “And when they crucified Him” (Mark 15: 22–24); “...there they crucified Him” (Luke 23: 33–34); “...where they crucified Him” (John 19: 17–18). You have to be careful reading these four passages or you will miss the reference to this rather ironic elevation of the messiah. There is no drama, no graphic details, no mention of nails going through Jesus’s palms and feet, no gory details—not even a word that is not essential for recording the mere fact that they crucified him. It is as matter-of-fact description as it comes. THEY CRUCIFIED HIM.
This seems strange given that all the movies made on the life of Jesus—in stark contrast to the gospel narratives—make this incident particularly poignant. We have seen Jesus screaming and writhing in pain as he lies nearly all naked on the wooden cross, even as a couple of soldiers hold him down while another one goes on doing his job of hammering in those 6-inch-long nails one by one.
Why such a difference in representation?
To my mind, this is because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not telling a “story”. They are not poets in any classical sense. They are not “creative writers” commissioned by a powerful monarch or a church to dramatize—or poeticize—the story of a god, or a hero. They are not constructing a beautiful myth with all sublimity and pathos. All four of them were possibly eye witnesses to the event; two of them, Matthew and John, most probably were. In any case, John was certainly there. What they were writing was not art. They were recording a real, historical, public event, which no doubt affected them personally.
When the Church became very strong, almost a hegemonic institution in the Western world, in the 4th century AD, it still did not replace these narratives with splendid epics that could compete with the classics across the globe. In the last two millennia, when the Church has had tons of money, it did not think it necessary to make them more “classy”. The bestselling authors of the world set aside all scruples when they use emotive sentences like “history is written by the victors” to assert that Christian Scriptures are nothing more than expressions of power politics. The four gospels were, after all, written by men who belonged to a subjugated nation. The gospels still told the story of, in words of Terry Eagleton, the “sick joke of a messiah” and did not transform him to a figure of grandeur. There is no triumphalism. There is humiliation, there is defeat, there is death. As religious mythology, gospel narratives do not stand a chance against the grand designs of epics, either Eastern or Western. The reason is that the “rough-and-ready” form of the gospels narratives was never supposed to work like epics, that is, to satisfy the aesthetic impulses of the elite or to induce somnolence in the masses. To the writers of the gospels, truth and fidelity to facts was paramount. Embellishments were left to the likes of A. Bhimsingh and Mel Gibson.
Indifference to suffering
What this style—or the non-style—of writing does do is to lay bare a central fact about suffering. It is all so matter of fact. It is this truth that makes it perennially appealing. While one suffers, the world goes along with its own chores, ambitions and cares. To my mind, what all these four gospel writers have achieved is a devastating insight into the nature of suffering. It doesn’t matter to the world that you suffer, a fact that becomes the basis of W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée De Beaux Arts”:
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
One wonders if this is not the most telling image of the crucifixion. Now, let a filmmaker show.