Now, at the end, Jesus again pulled himself up to the top of his cross. Again he spoke. “Father,” he cried, “into your hands I commit my spirit!” One of the soldiers came around to the front of the cross to take another look. Then he went back and lay down on the rock. From Jesus’ lungs came a final cry: “It is finished!” The body sagged on the cross. Jesus willed himself to die. A sound went through the air as though a herd of animals had stampeded underground. A fresh breeze expelled its brief breath on the wildflowers. The earth trembled and a small crack fissured the earth from the west toward the east and split the big rock of execution and went across the road and through the gate of Jerusalem and across the town and through the temple, and it split the big inner veil of the temple from the top to the bottom and went on east and rocked the big wall and split the tombs in the cemetery outside the walls and shook the Cedron and went on to the Dead Sea, leaving fissures in the earth, the rocks and across the mountains. The centurion and some of the soldiers jumped to their feet in alarm. They came to the front of the cross and looked at him and at the darkened sky and the crack across the big rock. The centurion bowed his head. “Assuredly,” he said to the others, “this man was the Son of God.”That excerpt about the final moments of Christ's life comes from the 1957 bestseller The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop, a book I just flicked onto my Kindle. In his Introduction to the 1977 edition of the book, Paul L. Maier wrote:
It is not irreverent to wish that Jim Bishop had lived two thousand years ago instead, so that the New Testament might have contained five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Bishop. His fifth evangel would have been vastly different from the other four in that he would have taken care of all the little details missing in the standard Gospels, which unfold their great story by focusing only on the major events. The Day Christ Died comes close to what Jim Bishop might have written under those circumstances. Ever the meticulous journalist with panoramic vision, Bishop searches where even scholars sometimes forget to look, and supplies us with all the colorful data from everyday life in first-century Palestine to make “the greatest story ever told” more credible and alive than would seem possible on the printed page.Bishop (1907-1987) was a literary wizard when it came to making historic events "credible and alive," a style which he brewed through years as a reporter, editor and columnist. TIME magazine once called him "The Golden Hack," saying that the "silver-haired Jim Bishop, 49, talks in terse, side-of-the-mouth sentences that often sound as if he read Hemingway before writing, also brings to his craft an Irish eye for sentiment and a memory for 'all the important little tiles of fact on every story of consequence.'" (Bishop was also a very prescient reporter; according to this page, on the day I was born he published a column called "A Beautiful Young Man.")
I was surprised to find I didn't already own The Day Christ Died since I've been a long-time fan of Bishop's work, starting with The Day Lincoln Was Shot, the author's first bestseller written in 1955. I can still remember the very look and feel of that book: a paperback which had been transmogrified into a hardback by the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming. As best I can remember, I was in junior high when I checked out the book, took it home and started reading it right away. By the time my mother called me to dinner, I was deep into John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy; by breakfast the next morning, the bullet was already lodged in Lincoln's head. The Day Lincoln Was Shot was one of those transformational books--a reading experience which shaped and altered the course of my entire life. In those pages, Bishop showed me how dusty historical facts can be sparked to life by a style that borders on the fiction. He revealed the possibilities of turning truths into half-truths without sacrificing believability.
In one sense, Bishop's trademark "Day" books* should be read as fiction, just as The Executioner's Song and In Cold Blood cannot be completely held accountable to the truth. Indeed, for as much as it adheres to the written record of the Gospels and Bishop's intense research, The Day Christ Died could easily be called "cruci-fiction." Just look at how vividly Bishop brings to life the loud crack of the earthquake at the moment Jesus gives up the ghost. The Gospel of Matthew gives it one verse: "And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent." Bishop adds the thundering herd of animals and the "brief breath on the wildflowers." Accurate? Maybe not. Memorable? You better believe it.
*Which also include The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Day Christ Was Born.