Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart,
At the Cross: Meditations on People Who Were There
(InterVarsity, 1999)

In At the Cross, Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart offer up meditations on 11 men and women intimately connected with Jesus's crucifixion. They essentially attempt to examine the meaning of Jesus's sacrifice in multiple ways by considering the perspective each of their chosen subjects has to offer in terms of those fateful hours.

The title is something of a misnomer, in my opinion, because most of the individuals examined here were not literally there on Golgotha to witness Jesus's death -- yet they all offer different and potentially instructive viewpoints on this pivotal event in world history. Each chapter is complemented by selected poems, essays or stories that were apparently chosen to help put the reader in a more meditative mind.

Only two disciples are examined here, one of whom is the betrayer, Judas Iscariot. His is, of course, a negative lesson to be gleaned from these pages. Peter's situation, on the other hand, is exceedingly instructive. Having failed Jesus by denying him thrice on the night of his master's arrest -- and having to face the excruciating guilt that came crashing down on him after the fact -- he went on to lead Jesus's post-ascension church. Caiaphas, the high priest most responsible for Jesus's arrest and execution, is presented as the man who wouldn't live with Jesus, while Pontius Pilate's inability to make up his mind concerning Jesus's crime and punishment is presented in a short but revealing historical and political context.

Mary of Bethany, excoriated by some of Jesus' own disciples for anointing him with expensive oils prior to his final journey to Jerusalem, is praised for having the foresight that all of the Twelve lacked. Nicodemus, whom I rarely even associate with the crucifixion, is likewise held up as an example for braving the rebuke of his peers (he was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, after all) to bring an extraordinary amount of spices with which to prepare Jesus's body for the tomb. The authors transform Nicodemus from an almost forgettable participant in post-crucifixion events to a proverbial key to the door of the true kingdom of God.

Of the 11 Biblical personages examined in these pages, only two -- Mary Magdalene and "the disciple Jesus loved" -- were actually there to watch Jesus's suffering and death on the cross. The centurion at the foot of the cross is presented as an accidental witness. Why, the authors ask, would this man who had seen untold numbers of crucifixions in his years of service make the bold statement that "Truly this man was the Son of God!?" And what of Simon of Cyrene, the only man to literally take up Jesus's cross, and Barabbas, the true criminal who should have been executed instead of Jesus? The authors succeed in introducing further insight into Jesus' death by examining events through their eyes. I daresay the disciple Jesus loved is of particular significance to the authors. I know that Bauckham has written extensively on the subject of this disciple (see, for example, Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, The Narrative, History & Theology in the Gospel of John), and At the Cross helps explain his interest in this person. Bauckham rejects the notion that this disciple was John, the son of Zebedee, or a member of the Twelve at all. Leaving aside the controversy over the Beloved Disciple's identity, the important point in the context of this book is the authors' classification of him as the "perceptive witness" whose personal knowledge of Jesus's life and death make him an ideal author.

With such a range of experiences and perspectives to draw upon, Bauckham and Hart have given us a work that should prove insightful to Christians wishing to grow in their faith. Relatively short and straightforward, it combines history and theology in a reader-friendly way that is rich with insight.

book review by
Daniel Jolley

16 April 2011

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