Yesterday, I attended religious services. While there, I heard a rendition of this song, "Were you there?"
I still think that Johnny Cash did that song better than anyone else. But Cash had a habit of taking other people's songs, and singing as if the song were his own.
I am reminded of what the story looked like to the soldiers present that day.
They were punishing a rabbi, reputedly a miracle-worker.
The rabbi from Nazareth had made enemies among the Sanhedrin, the religious council connected to the Jewish Temple. The High Priest and leaders of the Sanhedrin had captured the rabbi, and reported Him to the local Roman Governor for trial as an enemy to the Pax Romana.
A peace--not always an easy peace--existed between Imperial Rome and the Jews.
Both sides remembered Judas Maccabeus, a religious and military leader who had driven out the Seleucid empire, nearly two centuries previous. After the imposition of Roman rule, Imperial taxes or a census connected to taxes would lead to bloody riots in Judea.
The soldiers had heard stories: this troublesome rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, had a large following. The Sanhedrin felt threatened. There was no evidence that Jesus was raising an army to drive out the Romans...but large crowds followed Jesus. And there was lots of talk about a Kingdom of Heaven.
The Sanhedrin had convicted Jesus of blasphemy, and the Governor Pontius Pilate had initially opposed the execution. He offered the mob friendly to the Sanhedrin a choice between executing Jesus and executing an infamous thief and murderer. They clamored for the death of Jesus.
So the soldiers had their day of whipping, beating, and finally executing this rabbi.
After stripping Jesus, nailing him to the cross, and raising the cross into position, the soldiers divided his clothes among themselves. Above Jesus' head hung a sign, reading "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Two other men were executed alongside Jesus.
Late in the day, the sun darkened and an earthquake shook the region. The soldiers remained on-post. Near sun-down, they set about to break the legs of the crucified men. Though they would eventually die if left on the cross for days, broken legs would speed up their death. Jesus appeared already dead, and one soldier plunged a spear into Jesus' side to verify the death.
The officer in charge at the scene might have said "Surely this man was a just man!", or "surely this man was a Son of God."
It seemed an ignominious end to a lifetime of teaching and ministry.
Yet it was only the beginning of a movement that had large impact on the world, long after the end of the Imperial power that sentenced Jesus to death.