Can any of us claim seriously to feel at all confident of sharing the feelings of a poor Roman Jew — or a Roman senator’s well-heeled wife — as they sat together in a threatened domus ecclesia (a house church) in the mid-sxities AD and listened as Mark or some literate friend read the agony scene in Mark’s gospel — Jesus terrified in the lonely hours before his arrest — while, a few yards away, Nero’s or Galba’s police combed the streets for bodies to feed an imperial craving for scapegoats? Or try imagining the contrary pulls on a young Greek sailor as he paused near the harbor in Ephesus, by the great temple of Artemis with its many-breasted statue of the godess, and then chose to follow a gently importunate man from the Jesus sect up a blind alley into a dim room to hear the ancient Beloved Disciple recount Jesus’ fourth and last appearance after death. Now try to convey your imagined experience to others less resourceful than you.

Such exercises are both entirely legitimate and also laughable; they smack more of the ludicrous Hollywood fumblings in Quo Vadis or Ben Hur. In fact, we have no firm notion of how it felt to exist in Rome, Palestine, or Asia Minor some two thousand years ago — burdened with all the assumptions and hopes of our past lives; then confronted in words by the flaming demands of a recently dead, maybe resurrected Jew named Jesus with a ravenous will to change us and the Earth.

Reynolds Price, “General Preface” to Three Gospels