Tom Holland’s Preface to “Dominion”

The preface to Tom Holland’s book “Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind” is probably, the best unintentional apologetic ever written. Here is an extract:

“Everything about the practice of nailing a man to a cross – a ‘crux’ – was repellent. ‘Why, the very word is harsh on our ears.’ It was this disgust that crucifixion uniquely inspired which explained why, when slaves were condemned to death, they were executed in the meanest, wretchedest stretch of land beyond the city walls; and why, when Rome burst its ancient limits, only the world’s most exotic and aromatic plants could serve to mask the taint. It was also why, despite the ubiquity of crucifixion across the Roman world, few cared to think much about it. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest power on earth, was what counted – not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Criminals broken on implements of torture: who were such filth to concern men of breeding and civility? Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely. The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few detailed descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. The corpses of the crucified, once they had first provided pickings for hungry birds, tended to be flung into a common grave. In Italy, undertakers dressed in red, ringing bells as they went, would drag them there on hooks. Oblivion, like the loose earth scattered over their tortured bodies, would then entomb them. This was a part of their fate. Nevertheless, amid the general silence, there is one major exception which proves the rule.

Four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. Remarkably, they all describe the same execution: a crucifixion that took place some sixty or seventy years after the building of the first heated swimming pool in Rome. The location, though, was not the Esquiline, but another hill, outside the walls of Jerusalem: Golgotha, ‘which means the place of a skull’. The victim, a Jew by the name of Jesus, a wandering preacher from an obscure town named Nazareth, in a region north of Jerusalem named Galilee, had been convicted of a capital offence against Roman order. The four earliest accounts of his execution, written some decades after his death, specify what this meant in practice. The condemned man, after his sentencing, was handed over to soldiers to be flogged. Next, because he had claimed to be ‘the king of the Jews’, his guards mocked him, and spat on him, and set a crown of thorns on his head. Only then, bruised and bloodied, was he led out on his final journey. Hauling his cross as he went, he stumbled his way through Jerusalem, a spectacle and an admonition to all who saw him, and onwards, along the road to Golgotha. There, nails were driven into his hands and feet, and he was crucified. After his death, a spear was jabbed into his side. There is no reason to doubt the essentials of this narrative. Even the most sceptical historians have tended to accept them. ‘The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him.’ (Quote from Vermes, Geza: Jesus: Nativity, Passion, Resurrection (London, 2010)). Certainly, his sufferings were nothing exceptional. Pain and humiliation, and the protracted horror of ‘the most wretched of deaths’: these, over the course of Roman history, were the common lot of multitudes. Decidedly not the common lot of multitudes, however, was the fate of Jesus’ corpse. Lowered from the cross, it was spared a common grave. Claimed by a wealthy admirer, it was prepared reverently for burial, laid in a tomb and left behind a heavy boulder. Such, at any rate, is the report of all four of the earliest narratives of Jesus’ death – narratives that in Greek were called euangelia, ‘good news’, and would come to be known in English as gospels. The accounts are not implausible. Certainly, we know from archaeological evidence that the corpse of a crucified man might indeed, on occasion, be granted dignified burial in the ossuaries beyond the walls of Jerusalem. Altogether more startling, though – not to say unprecedented – were the stories of what happened next. That women, going to the tomb, had found the entrance stone rolled away. That Jesus, over the course of the next forty days, had appeared to his followers, not as a ghost or a reanimated corpse, but resurrected into a new and glorious form. That he had ascended into heaven, and was destined to come again. Time would see him hailed, not just as a man, but as a god. By enduring the most agonising fate imaginable, he had conquered death itself. ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth . . . “

Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (pp. 12-13). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

Please read the whole preface, it’s well worth it.

What makes Tom Holland’s preface special in my mind is how he manages to bring out the stark difference there is between the Christian inspired mindset that everyone in the West shares – believer or non-believer – and what exists in other cultures and in antiquity.

I have shared on this before but I think Tom articulates it in a way I haven’t been able to. We lived in the Middle East for a while and interacted with people whose worldview was informed by Islamic values. I have worked with people whose worldview is informed by Hinduism. Some of the conclusions they come to about how to treat people and what is right and wrong still have the power to shock anyone brought up in the West. However, even in those societies you would struggle to find someone who was not in some way affected by the teachings of Jesus Christ. It can be hard to imagine anyone thinking that a poor person, or someone from another cast being labelled as inferior is “right”.

In reality we have the Sermon on the Mount and other words of Jesus -His Spirit – to thank and acknowledge for the state of much of the world as it currently is: prosperous, peaceful, healthy and doing wonders.

There is something wrong with an evangelical gospel that fails to acknowledge the astonishing good that has come into the world and been spread far and wide by Christians operating in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are not in first century contending with a culture that is alien to the gospel, full of repression, bullying and fear. We are in the 21st century amongst a people infused by Christian values living in freedom and, on the whole, understanding that to lay your life down for someone is the ultimate expression of love for them.

There are many people who know God and live righteous lives in our communities who are put off by the message they hear from so many evangelical pulpits. These people feel judged simply because they are not “in” the church or conforming to some form of evangelical religion and speech. But the knowledge of the Lord has covered the earth like the waters of the sea. We would do well to remember that when trying to bring some Christian good news to those who are in need.

One of the biggest needs the man in the street faces is that he is unaware of Who he owes his thanks to for the freedom, electricity, warmth and general opulence of the Western world. Tom Holland does an excellent job explaining this.

Oh that more Christians understood this truth!

One more extract from the preface to finish off:

“To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. This is no less true for Jews or Muslims than it is for Catholics or Protestants. Two thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable – indeed the inescapable – influence of Christianity. Whether it be the conviction that the workings of conscience are the surest determinants of good law, or that Church and state exist as distinct entities, or that polygamy is unacceptable, its trace elements are to be found everywhere in the West. Even to write about it in a Western language is to use words shot through with Christian connotations. ‘Religion’, ‘secular’, ‘atheist’: none of these are neutral. All, though they derive from the classical past, come freighted with the legacy of Christendom. Fail to appreciate this, and the risk is always of anachronism. The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past.”

Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (pp. 21-22). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

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