In today’s excerpt – at the time of Christ, Passover was a religious observance that brought Jews from throughout the world back to Jerusalem and turned the city into a colorful, teeming and dangerous spectacle:
“At Passover, Jerusalem was at its most crowded and dangerous. … In the Upper City, across the valley from the Temple, the grandees lived in Grecian-Roman mansions with Jewish features: the so-called Palatial Residence excavated there has spacious receiving-rooms and mikvahs. Here stood the palaces of Antipas and the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. But the real authority in Jerusalem was the prefect, Pontius Pilate, who usually ruled his province from Caesarea on the coast but always came to supervise Passover, staying at Herod’s Citadel.
“Josephus guessed that two and a half million Jews came for Passover. This is an exaggeration but there were Jews ‘out of every nation,’ from Parthia and Babylonia to Crete and Libya. The only way to imagine this throng is to see Mecca during the haj. At Passover, every family had to sacrifice a lamb, so the city was jammed with bleating sheep – 255,600 lambs were sacrificed. There was much to do: pilgrims had to take a dip in a mikvah every time they approached the Temple as well as buy their sacrificial lambs in the Royal Portico. Not everyone could stay in the city. Thousands lodged in the surrounding villages, like Jesus, or camped around the walls. As the smell of burning meat and heady incense wafted – and the trumpet blasts, announcing prayers and sacrifices, ricocheted – across the city, everything was focused on the Temple, nervously watched by the Roman soldiers from the Antonia Fortress. …
“The towering, colonnaded Royal Portico [was] the bustling, colourful, crowded centre of all life, where pilgrims gathered to organize their accommodation, to meet friends, and to change money for the Tyrian silver used to buy sacrificial lambs, doves, or, for the rich, oxen. …
“Crucifixion, [the favored form of public execution in the region], said Josephus, was ‘the most miserable death,’ designed to demean the victim publicly. Hence Pilate ordered Jesus’ placard to be attached to his cross – KING OF THE JEWS. Victims could be tied or nailed. The skill was to ensure victims did not bleed to death. The nails were usually driven through the forearms – not the palms – and ankles: the bones of a crucified Jew have been found in a tomb in north Jerusalem with a 4.5-inch iron nail still sticking through a skeletal ankle. Nails from crucifixion victims were popularly worn as charms, around the neck, by both Jews and gentiles to ward off illness, so the later Christian fetish for crucificial relics was actually part of a long tradition. Victims were usually crucified naked – with men facing outwards, women inwards.
“The executioners were experts at either prolonging the agony or ending it quickly. The aim was to not kill Jesus too quickly but to demonstrate the futility of defying Roman power. He was most probably nailed to the cross with his arms outstretched as shown in Christian art, supported by a small wedge, sedile, under the buttocks and a suppedaneum ledge under the feet. This arrangement meant he could survive for hours, even days. The quickest way to expedite death was to break the legs. The body weight was then borne by the arms and the victim would asphyxiate within ten minutes.”
Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore Title: Jerusalem Publisher: Knopf Date: Copyright 2011 by Simon Sebag Montefiore Pages: 105-6, 112