Familiarity with the Bible is good, but it can also lead to our missing important details. Let me explain.
Being familiar with Scripture leads us to anticipate what we know comes next in the text, and sometimes we miss the shocking, ironic, or funny aspects of the Bible. Since we know what’s coming, we often miss out on details that are right in front of us, such as Jesus being funny. Have you ever thought about the imagery of a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle? It’s hilarious.
One important aspect of the New Testament that’s often overlooked is its embarrassing details. It’s highly unlikely the writers of the New Testament would have made up stories or events that could cause people in their culture to think less of the apostles, the early church, their mission, or Jesus. Because we find multiple details that would have been embarrassing to the early Christian movement, we can conclude the writers were being brutally honest, even at the expense of embarrassing their cause.
Some of the most unflattering portrayals come from Jesus’ crucifixion and the events surrounding it. All four Gospels depict the disciples as weak and scared. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks the disciples to keep watch and pray, yet they keep falling asleep (Matt. 26:38–46). Peter deserts Jesus hours after vowing he would die with him. Then, to make matters worse, Peter denies he even knows Jesus when questioned by a servant girl (Mark 14:66–72). It isn’t only Peter who lets Jesus down. All the disciples flee after Jesus’ arrest (Matt. 26:56).
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his closest disciples are nowhere to be found. Embarrassingly, it’s two members of the Sanhedrin, Joseph and Nicodemus, who give Jesus a proper burial, not his closest disciples or his family (John 19:38–40). It gets worse.
Not only are the disciples depicted as cowards, but Jesus himself isn’t portrayed as a cultural hero. To see this, we need to understand the heroic martyrdom stories that were circulating during Jesus’ day.
Jewish martyrdom stories from the intertestamental period are plentiful. In 2 Maccabees 7, seven Jewish brothers are tortured and eventually killed because they won’t break Jewish Law by eating pork. These brothers show tremendous courage as they face their impending death. The first brother says, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” He is then tortured by having his tongue cut out, head scalped, and hands and feet cut off. Then he is thrown into a searing hot pan. Not a pleasant way to die.
Seeing this, each of the remaining brothers faces his fate with courage and expresses his unwavering faith in God. They tell their torturers God will judge them and they won’t see resurrection. They say God gave them their hands and tongues, and they fully expect God to restore these body parts that were cut off. Brave words.
In 4 Maccabees 6:1–30, after being scourged, beaten, burned, and having stinking fluids poured down his nostrils, Eleazar makes a courageous statement. He tells the Lord that he’s been tortured for keeping the Law, even though he could have forsaken it and saved himself.
These accounts of Jewish martyrs are the kind of folklore the disciples grew up hearing and admiring. If they were making up hero stories, the stories would have looked similar to those of their cultural heroes. But when we compare the Jewish martyrdom stories with Jesus’ crucifixion and the events surrounding his torture and death, we see a very different picture.
Before his arrest, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). Agonizing over his impending death on the cross under the wrath of God, Jesus asks God to provide a way out. He doesn’t ask for a way out only once, but three times. This would have been off-putting to the earliest readers because it didn’t line up with their expectations of a hero.
While on the cross, Jesus prays for God to forgive his killers (Luke 23:34). This is a far cry from the speeches of judgment and condemnation from the previous Jewish martyrs.
Instead of declaring he will never forsake God’s Law, Jesus proclaims, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46).
These details about the disciples and Jesus were culturally unflattering in their day, especially when compared with well-known Jewish martyrdom stories. But these embarrassing details are a good thing. Here’s why.
Since the disciples, who were trying to convert people to Christianity, recorded these embarrassing details, we can conclude they were being extremely honest about what happened. They didn’t sugarcoat anything. They gave us the raw details, even though it could damage their cause.
The embarrassing details of Jesus’ death and the events surrounding it lend credibility to the accuracy of the disciples’ testimony. The stories of Jesus’ crucifixion are embarrassing, and that’s a good thing.