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Stephen Mansfield Interview: Bestselling Author Challenges "Anti-Semitic Lie" in "Killing Jesus"

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Stephen Mansfield

Stephen Mansfield is a New York Times bestselling author and popular speaker best known for his groundbreaking books on religion, history and contemporary culture. He pastored a church in Texas, hosted a radio program and began acquiring a reputation as a popular speaker of both depth and humor. The Columbus, Georgia native moved to Tennessee in 1991 where he pastored what at that time was one of the nations leading mega churches, worked among the Kurds of Kurdistan, completed a doctorate and served as a political consultant.

The author’s first book, on Winston Churchill, was a Gold Medallion Award Finalist. He also wrote widely acclaimed biographies of Booker T. Washington and George Whitefield, as well as a number of other highly regarded books on history and leadership. In 1997, the governor of Tennessee commissioned Mansfield to write the official history of religion in Tennessee for that state’s bicentennial.

“I think God is almost having fun in a sense that he’s allowing these people to write down their remembrances of one of the most disturbing, harried and distracted times of their lives, and we get four distinct versions. But, normally, you’re dealing with the “Mary at the tomb” account. I think it’s also more dramatic for people, but it’s not likely that’s the case. She’s not described as being anywhere nearby in the other versions, so it’s interesting. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the Gospels – the differences in the resurrection stories.”

In 2002, Mansfield left the pastorate after twenty years to write and lecture. Not long after, he wrote The Faith of George W. Bush which spent many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was a source for Oliver Stone’s acclaimed film, W, which chronicled Bush’s rise to the presidency.

Mansfield wrote The Faith of the American Soldier, Benedict XVI: His Life and Mission, The Faith of Barack Obama, The Search for God and Guinness, The Mormonizing of America, Where Has Oprah Taken Us? and Lincoln’s Battle with God. His latest book, Killing Jesus, is a gritty portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus which has received praise for being thoroughly researched and movingly written.

The bestselling author is the founder of The Mansfield Group, a successful consulting and communications firm that specializes in training leaders to communicate well. He is also the founder of Chartwell Literary Group, a firm that creates and manages literary projects.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen, I thoroughly enjoyed the book Killing Jesus. Since Bill O’Reilly has one coming out with the same title in September, who thought of the name first?

Stephen Mansfield: Well, I don’t know when he thought of it, but I do know that we had signed a contract to write the book before he even came out with Killing Kennedy before we even knew there was a brand. I had submitted the manuscript before he announced Killing Jesus. I like him. I’m not in competition with him. Only a fool picks a fight in front of four million people on television every night. But I think we were working on this long before he got around to it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand his book is headed for television. Are there plans for your book on the small or big screen?

Stephen Mansfield: Yeah. They’re talking to a number of people about that right now because the book is written in that sort of novelistic, graphic manner so it suggests film. The publisher and my agent are working on all that. I’m not paying much attention to it, but there’s definitely film interest at this point. I think Bill’s book is going to be on the National Geographic Channel, so that’ll be great. If he does TV, and maybe if ours goes to a film of some kind, I think that will be a great combination.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you prefer an unknown actor in the role of Jesus?

Stephen Mansfield: Yes. I think an unknown because it kind of gets in the way, and the star’s performance becomes the issue. Suppose we had Brad Pitt. It would be great to have a big name, but then everyone is watching Brad Pitt be Brad Pitt or be Jesus rather than just the actual issues. I wouldn’t mind having “known” people around in other cast roles, but I don’t think you want somebody famous playing Jesus. By the way, many people would be afraid of what is now known as the “Caviezel Effect,” which is that once Jim Caviezel played Jesus, he couldn’t get anything else to do for a while.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jim really was phenomenal in The Passion of the Christ.

Stephen Mansfield: He was amazing, but he did have some difficulties afterward, as you know.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen, were you raised in a Christian home?

Stephen Mansfield: My father was a military officer, and we went to military chapel occasionally, so I had kind of that God and country military kind of upbringing, but no specific denominational flavor. If you’re familiar with the military, you know that you’ve got Catholic Chapel, Jewish Chapel and Protestant chapel. We went to Protestant Chapel. It’s very generic. I had never thought in terms of Baptist, Methodist or Episcopal. It really wasn’t until I went to college that I even knew what denominations were in a sense.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your parents teach you about the death and resurrection of Jesus in the traditional sense that it was totally orchestrated by God?

Stephen Mansfield: Neither of my parents were deeply devoted Christians. My mother came from a Presbyterian background, and my father came from a Methodist background. Then we just attended that generic Protestant service for years. But when my parents would’ve explained anything like that to me, it would have been the traditional story that God sent Jesus and intended for him to die, the orchestrated type of thing. That’s the only perspective I would’ve been given in my childhood.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did that change for you in any way as you grew to adulthood?

Stephen Mansfield: Well, I certainly began to respect the human side of the story as you can tell from the book. But I still, as a Christian, believe that God in some way sacrificed his son. Now exactly what the dividing line is between free will and pre-destination is we’ll be discussing until we get to that lecture series in heaven. But, no, it hasn’t changed dramatically since my childhood.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you interpret the Bible literally, or do you find that some stories were told as parables or metaphors?

Stephen Mansfield: I believe there’s a great deal of symbolism in scripture. I think that when you’ve got symbols like a woman riding a beast that symbolizes Rome, there are obviously symbols. I think most of the stories that are described as being actually human beings doing things actually were. I don’t have any problem believing that Jesus walked down a road or a guy climbed up a tree to see him. Now as far as Adam and Eve and so on, I think those things probably are more symbolic than otherwise. But I think much of what is on the pages of scripture is just a human story that has divine implications.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me how you became interested in writing about Jesus’ final days.

Stephen Mansfield: I heard a lecture years ago by a Vatican scholar, and he was an expert in both the Roman legal system and the actual methods of crucifixion used in the Roman era. I was just fascinated because it was one of the first times I’d heard anybody bring sort of secular knowledge of the culture to bear on scripture where scripture, in my experience, had been read pretty much in isolation. You know, you read it in Sunday school, maybe your parents read it to you, and you saw it as divine literature. You didn’t really think that it was embedded in a human story.

This launched me in sort of a lifetime hobby really more than anything else of reading whatever I could get my hands on about the crucifixion, fascinated with Roman law and fascinated with the exact techniques for all of this, fascinated with the medical side of it, even down to what parts of the body were pierced and why the Romans settled on piercing one part rather than the other, etc.

I continued on my own walk of faith and in reading scripture, I began to realize how much Josephus, Tacitus and the Sanhedrin writings and other things that we know from other cultures, helped illustrate what was going on in scripture because in the Bible, we’re given fairly spare accounts like “and they flogged him” and “they crucified him.” What does that mean? We’re not really told.

We’re not given the gritty details. So I thought that I could help flesh this out in a way that a Mel Gibson really couldn’t do in a film because the story’s actually a bit bloodier than that. As time went on and I studied this over the years, especially as I began to have a little bit of visibility as an author, I thought, “One day when the time is right, I’d like to have a publisher agree for me to write a book like this.” That time finally came.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is your basic message of the book that there were only a certain handful of Jews that wanted Jesus crucified dispelling the legendary story that all Jews killed him?

Stephen Mansfield: I think my main message is that it’s a bigger story than you know. I think if I had to wear a t-shirt or if we were going to brand this thing, it would be that it’s a bigger story than you know. It’s bigger in terms of its gore, bigger in terms of its implications, bigger in terms of the drama that was unfolding at the time and even bigger in terms of the fact that it was a conspiracy that had lasted for years in his life. They tried to kill him from the beginning, so that’s why I used the word “conspiracy.”

But then, yes, there are many sort of spinoff subjects that I’d like emphasizing like challenging the anti-Semitic lie that all the Jews hated Jesus and that they bear the spiritual curse for centuries for him having been crucified in Jerusalem, and therefore the Holocaust is justified, blah, blah, blah. I’m glad that I’m also able to establish the historicity of the events. All of those are the subtopics I’m delighted to talk about and some other theological issues, but the main issue is it’s bigger, it’s grodier, it has more implications than you know and draws people of every religious and non-religious background into the story for its own power.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How were King Herod and Pontius Pilate intertwined with the Jewish people and with Jesus?

Stephen Mansfield: Herod, of course, was the Roman appointed King of the Jews. He was a violent, bloody man and died of horrible diseases, as the book says in the beginning. Herod and Pilate had some serious falling out over some legal issues and some military incursions and so on. Pilate was probably your typical, non-religious, cynical Roman statesman governor politician.

Herod was sort of a voluptuary. He reveled in sensation and sensuality. So what he wanted from Jesus when Jesus came before him was experiences. He wanted to see a miracle and wanted to see something dramatic happen. Pilate was just trying to get the job done and not enrage Tiberius who had said, “Make nice with the Jews from Rome.”

The Jews themselves were obviously pushing for something that Pilate didn’t think was according to the law. So you have these two men who actually healed an old rift in the process of trying Jesus and considering the evidence and so on. It’s quite a dichotomy between the two. We know that in the decades after, they did cooperate on a number of things, and it all came about because of this interaction over Jesus.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a parallel between the corrupt politicians and religious leaders in Jesus’ time and those of today?

Stephen Mansfield: I don’t think there’s any question. I don’t necessarily believe that all power corrupts, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but I think whenever you have a religious authority or political authority unchecked by principles, it’s used for self-aggrandizement in the case of the temple and those who tried Jesus. It was a family of high priests who sort of manipulated all of this.

I think we see the same kinds of things today. I just opened the paper this morning, for example, and the Justice Department went and illegally tapped twenty phones of the Associated Press. You’ve got the IRS making it difficult for conservative organizations in the last election. On both sides of the spectrum, you’ve got over-intrusion of authority and governmental power. You’ve certainly got churches and pastors misbehaving today.

I think what the story of Jesus tells us is that none of this is new, that this is the nature of humans, that this is the kind of human beings we are, and this is what political and religious structures of authority continue towards. It’s a good warning for us today. We’re seeing a lot of that kind of thing. I could go further than that into the Catholic pedophile scandals. We see it in any kind of religious stream, but it’s a really good warning for us to hang on to.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It is indeed. One thing that many people may have forgotten was that Jesus was not just whipped before crucifixion, he was scourged. I believe that has only been depicted correctly in The Passion of the Christ.

Stephen Mansfield: Even that depiction … I think Mel (Gibson) went as far as he could and got criticized for going as far as he did. But we have a description, for example, from Josephus, of a man who survived a scourging. A scourging, of course, was not just a whipping, a lacerating of the skin, but it was a tearing away of the flesh with straps of leather that had sheep bone and rocks sewn into them. The idea was to embed this into the flesh by the whipping action and then rip it away.

The one man that Josephus said survived it no longer had any skin over his rib cage. And shortly after the scourging, you could see his organs until that area healed up. It’s very gross to talk about, but this is what Jesus endured before he was even crucified. The process of crucifixion was not primarily about killing a man. It was about torturing him publically in a horrible way that would cause the populous to be terrorized. His endure was far beyond what most people were sentenced to and what these forms of punishment were was far beyond what most folks bear envisioning. We’re still thinking of Mutiny on the Bounty, and it’s really much closer to some horrible horror film than it is just a simple whipping on a ship or something.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You discuss the fact that the Romans stripped Jesus down. Was he completely naked during the scourging?

Stephen Mansfield: We don’t know for sure. The Romans would have. Part of the problem is you don’t know whose law was prevailing. For example, the rabbis begged for the victim not to be naked because that would have been a shame in the Jewish context. But again, he’s in a Roman court with only Romans around him when he was whipped. So was he naked? We just don’t know. Is he naked on the cross? Probably not because that’s out in public, and the Sanhedrin members are there, and they’re not talking about him being naked. They’re sort of railing against him, so had he been naked, that would’ve been their issue. I’m thinking he wasn’t naked at that moment.

But then other things about Jewish law did not prevail. For example, it was Romans that scourged Jesus not the Jews, and the Jews had a principle of forty lashes minus one, but the Romans did not. They called their scourging the “almost death,” and they would take the victim right to the edge of death. If the person revived after being splashed with water or something, they’d keep on scourging him, so it’s hard to know from this distance which law prevailed. My suspicion was that Jesus had a loincloth on the whole time because he was out in public, and the Romans would have been sensitive to Jewish sensibilities on that. But I think that probably the scourging did not happen under Jewish law, which makes it even worse.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In every depiction, Jesus is wearing a loincloth.

Stephen Mansfield: Yes. It’s hard to know. The only thing that makes me fairly sure about that is that Sanhedrin members are right there at the cross. If Jesus had been naked, they would’ve been screaming at the Roman officials to put something on him. That was a big offense to the Jews. But they’re not talking about that. They’re railing against Jesus and saying that if he’s really the son of God, he could save himself. Obviously, the naked issue was not something in their minds, so I’m thinking it didn’t happen then.

If he was naked during scourging, we just don’t know. It was hidden away in a court with only Romans, so he might well have been naked. Frankly, given the nature of scourging, had he worn some little loincloth, it probably would’ve been ripped off anyway. So it’s something we can’t know, but that’s my suspicion … probably eventually unclothed for the scourging, almost certainly not unclothed in the crucifixion, which was more public, and by a city gate.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m always interested in the tiniest of details in something like this (laughs).

Stephen Mansfield: Me, too. We talk about such things when it comes to Lincoln, so why don’t we talk about it when it comes to Jesus?

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it usually John’s account of what happened at the tomb that is depicted on television and in films?

Stephen Mansfield: It is. But John’s version stops very suddenly, and we have to rely on the other versions. In fact, what I’ll probably get the most grief for is in the last chapter where I describe the fact that there are four different versions of what happened. But I don’t think there’s anything serious or anything that would affect doctrine in any way.

I think God is almost having fun in a sense that he’s allowing these people to write down their remembrances of one of the most disturbing, harried and distracted times of their lives, and we get four distinct versions. But, normally, you’re dealing with the “Mary at the tomb” account. I think it’s also more dramatic for people, but it’s not likely that’s the case. She’s not described as being anywhere nearby in the other versions, so it’s interesting. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the Gospels – the differences in the resurrection stories.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have found evidence of Jesus’ life in sources outside of the Bible. Has that been of interest to your fans?

Stephen Mansfield: I think they’re pretty happy. I think the reason is that I’m pretty careful not to go beyond what’s actually asserted, what’s actually substantiated. We definitely have much evidence for the existence of Jesus in secular literature outside of the Bible. For the crucifixion, we have several very clear statements from very imminent people. Again, from Josephus, Tacitus, the Sanhedrin documents, etc. So I think that folks are a little tired of religious exaggeration, over imaginations and just saying wild things.

What I’ve done is almost gone the other way. I’m very earthy, gritty, tied to the sources. You’re walking the streets of Jerusalem. I don’t get into a lot of conjecture about things that we can’t be fairly certain about. In fact, I even used some techniques like I don’t think I mention by name any disciple. I don’t think I do … except Jesus. I’m trying to so strip away everything but the actual story of Jesus, and I think people like that technique, and they like the fact that I stayed very close both to scripture and to the historical support for scripture.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This seems to be the ultimate “killing” book, Stephen. What in the world could be next?

Stephen Mansfield: I’m not starting a brand. I don’t want to continue in that vein. I think this is one of the most important events in history obviously. I think that it’s one of the most understated. It’s something we hear, those of us who are churchgoers, in Good Friday or Easter sermons, but how can a pastor describe the things that I’ve been describing? I don’t think that people know it very well.

I think they react a bit to Mel’s bloody depiction, but it was actually worse on that score, and then there are many things that I think people don’t have in their minds. One of those is that I think Jesus is sort of doing a counter demonstration in what we now call the Palm Sunday. You know, the procession into the city … and there is Pilate coming in the opposite side of the city. Clearly, this is intended to make a statement. Clearly, this is sort of a throw down between two kingdoms. I think that’s fascinating. It’s something that should be instructed to us today as we “speak truth to power.”

All of that is valuable, and I said what I had to say (laughs). I don’t plan to write anymore in this vein. I’ve always been fascinated with the Lincoln assassination and so on, but there’s a difference between what you love and contemplating what you’re going to write about. I’m done on this score. I enjoyed doing this book, and now I’m done.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on another project?

Stephen Mansfield: Yes. I have a small book coming out in the next year that’s on men. It’s really fun. It’s called Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men. It’s sort of a meditation on some of the great men of history and kind of a fun, rowdy application of those principles to men today.

But the thing I’m working on most right now is a series of novels in which I take fictional murder mysteries and embed them in the genuine history and culture of century cities. So you read the novel, you enjoy a ripping good yarn, and hopefully when it’s done, you know Ephesus, you know Corinth and you know Jerusalem. I’m real excited about that. I think people are going to have fun with it. It’s going to be a painless way to learn some of the history that I’ve been talking about behind the story here.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds great. Are you living in Nashville now?

Stephen Mansfield: We split our time between Nashville and Alexandria, Virginia, just outside of DC. I’m in Alexandria right now, about two miles from the nation’s capital. I come out here to feed my crab cake addiction.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your wife, Beverly, is a songwriter and producer in Nashville?

Stephen Mansfield: Yes, she is. She’s produced many tours and albums and written a lot of songs and has been very successful. Our kids are there also, so we go back and forth and split our year between the two cities.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen, thanks for the enlightening conversation. I can’t wait for the film!

Stephen Mansfield: (laughs) Sounds good. We’ll pop some popcorn.

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