After College of Idaho history professor Dr. Mark Smith transitioned from his ten-year role as the College’s vice president of academic affairs back to his position as a full-time faculty member, he knew he wanted to jump into a new research program combining his expertise in ancient Roman history and archaeology. His choice in research at that time has ultimately led to the publication of his new book, “The Final Days of Jesus: The Thrill of Defeat, The Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution,” which examines the trial and death of Jesus Christ in the historical context and culture of the Roman Empire.
“Something that had long been a curiosity of mine had been the mechanics of capital punishment in the Roman Empire,” Smith said. “In the course of doing that research, I had to look very closely at the better documented cases, especially the trial and execution of Jesus, and I started to realize there were a number of confusions going on in the field.”
Smith worked together in a collaboration with one of his students, Jess Hershey, who had also expressed an interest in the subject. The two examined primary sources between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. to explore as many cases of Roman executions as possible. Hershey produced a research paper on the subject of Roman capital punishment, while Smith drew upon her research for a journal article in 2014.
At the time, Smith had no intention of writing a book examining Jesus’ death. However, after reading what religious and Biblical scholars had contributed to the topic, Smith believed he could add a specific historical context, as many of the scholars who had studied the execution were rarely historians. Smith felt his research may clear up misunderstandings surrounding the topic while fitting it into context with the Jewish and Roman politics and culture of the period.
“I had long had this concern that if you ask most people who killed Jesus, they’ll say it was the Jews,” Smith said. “That is not only wrong factually and historically, but it is also awful in its consequences, because the claim that Jews killed Jesus has served as justification for all kinds of anti-Semitism throughout the years.”
Smith said that, although examinations of the trial and execution had been covered extensively by religious, theological and Biblical scholars, he believed his background in history and archeology combined with his own research in religious studies could fill in gaps that the other disciplines left in their wake.
“An analogy one of my colleagues made is that in the great house of academia, historians are the plumbers,” Smith said. “If we’re doing our job right, everything flows smoothly and other colleagues can do their jobs effectively. If, however, we don’t do our job right, smelly stuff starts to back up and fill the house.”
While Smith wrote a large portion of the book fairly quickly, preparing 300 pages of the manuscript’s first draft during a five-month period on sabbatical, it took about three years, and the contributions of many students and colleagues, for the book to reach completion. The book project also provided another opportunity to collaborate with another C of I student: Mckayla Stevens. Smith assigned the book throughout the writing process for some of his classes at the C of I, which he said provided excellent insight and feedback while proving that the book could be accessible to both a scholarly and popular audience.
“I hope this book is a happy medium,” Smith said. “I wanted to write something that was accessible to the thoughtful popular reader while remaining meaningful and contributing to serious scholarly discussion. I’ve found it makes a really good textbook, so I think I’ve succeeded in reaching the most important audience: C of I students.”
Published through The Lutterworth Press in Cambridge, the book was released as an e-book this January, and the paperback edition will be released on Feb. 22. As a follow-up to the book, Smith published an article in the online academic journal “Bible and Interpretation” entitled “The Final Days of Jesus and the Realities of Roman Capital Punishment: What Happened to All Those Bodies?” This article is a condensed version of one of the chapters of the book as well as his previous research on capital punishment with Hershey, and is available to read for free at this link: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2018/02/smi428014.shtml.
Smith said the release of the book offers a sense of opportunity, including the potential of publication in additional academic journals and an open door toward revisiting the subject depending on scholarly responses.
“I couldn’t have predicted this book,” Smith said. “I haven’t held the paperback yet, but I’m sure it will be an interesting visceral experience. I have a strong sense of appreciation for all the people in this community and beyond who gave me feedback over the years.”
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