The Day Christ Died is an unjustly neglected book about the Passion of Our Lord, written in 1957 by the American Catholic journalist Jim Bishop. Coming across a copy of this gem in a thrift store, where I’ve found many a forgotten treasure, I noted that it was first published sixty years ago this May. This is a popular religious work—a bestseller in its day—that has inexplicably fallen by the wayside. Its author was neither a theologian nor a historian but a newspaperman with a knack for terse description. James Alonzo Bishop was a working stiff, born in Jersey City in 1907 to a police lieutenant. Dropping out of school after the eighth grade, he worked his way up from milkman to copy editor at The New York Daily News, The Daily Mirror, and Collier’s Magazine; later he was executive editor of Catholic Digest and Catholic Book Club. He died 1987.
Perhaps what gave his writing its razor-sharp urgency was that it often arose from practical necessity. According to his New York Times obituary, he started to write his book The Day Lincoln Died when he was $3000 in debt. Bishop’s inspiration to become a writer came from no loftier source than watching his father fill out his police reports. “[He would] tell his story so neatly and concisely,” Bishop said, “that he made it sing for me.” It was Bishop’s habit to read Hemingway, whose terse and simple style he admired, before writing.
Bishop specialized in hour-by-hour accounts of the deaths of famous men, writing the aforementioned The Day Lincoln Died as well as The Day Kennedy Was Shot and FDR’s Last Year. As if to cover both the sublime and the ridiculous, he also penned a biography of comedian Jackie Gleason. To research his book on the death of Christ, Bishop traveled to the Holy Land where he visited the Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, and other sites, talking with clerics of various faiths. As Bishop explains in his preface—characteristically entitled “For the Record”—he met in Rome with Pope Pius XII, who expressed approval of the intention behind the book, as well as with President Eisenhower, who had himself recently visited the Holy Land.
The Day Christ Died attempts to flesh out the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (“four fine journalists,” as Bishop calls them in his preface) with a novelist’s imagination. The book alternates an hour-by-hour narrative of the events from Holy Thursday to Good Friday with a series of “Background” chapters dealing successively with “The Jewish World,” “Jesus,” and “The Roman World.” This structure makes for a remarkably lucid unfolding of the story and conveys, in a way comprehensible to the average reader, the cultural context of the Gospels. Bishop describes the Seder ceremony which Jesus celebrated with the apostles on Holy Thursday, explains the organization of the Sanhedrin, elucidates the cult of false Messiahs that existed at the time. He recreates detailed descriptions of such places as Fortress Antonia (the rampart from which the Romans subjugated Jerusalem) and the Temple. He fills in the psychology of such characters as Judas, Annas, and Caiphas. Not least of all, Bishop includes a painstaking, clinically accurate description of the pains that Our Lord endured on the Cross. All this is presented engagingly and with an eye for colorful detail, so that the reader is placed directly in the swirl of events.
Bishop’s book is an affirmation of the historical, instantiated reality of Christ. Its journalistic ambiance is also characteristic of the time in which it was written. This was the era of radio and television series like Dragnet and You Are There, of the great cinematic epics, Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis. It was a period of religious flowering in America, much of which found its way into the popular culture. During his Holy Land research, Bishop met with a Catholic priest who was able to “recreate the final day in the life of Jesus in infinite detail, so that it unreels like a motion picture.”
As an example of Bishop’s cinematic storytelling, here is his description of the Cleansing of the Temple, coloring in the personality of Our Lord even while narrating the scene:
Anger in this man was rare. When it came, it had the dark silent quality of an oncoming thunderstorm; it could be seen before it broke. He reached to the ground without a word and picked up some pieces of rope. Of these he made a whip with knotted ends. His apostles watched and they looked at each other but asked nothing.
Then he walked across the big marble court, flailing before him with the cords in his big right hand. He saw the surprised faces of the money-changers, and then he saw fear as they jumped from their tables and ran. He kicked the tables over, and the stacks of burnished coins tinkled and rolled over the big slabs of marble…. Jesus was breathing deeply and his face was flushed as he came upon the men of the market. “Get these things out of the way!” he shouted. “Do not turn my Father’s house into a market place!”
Later, Bishop movingly conveys the immense pressures weighing upon the Son of God in the Garden of Gethsemane:
The man side of his nature was not reconciled to death. Thoughts of it, after thirty-four years of living within the body, were sickening. And yet, this had been his choice. He would come here and die for man… The Lord, said Isaias, would lay down upon him all the iniquities of mankind, and now, the weight of countless sins pressed upon his shoulders as he knelt again to tell his Father that he would accept the cup.
In the book’s final page (which we shall not spoil here), Bishop both sums up the tragic weight of the Passion and points toward the hope of Easter in the most simple and eloquent way imaginable. So successful was The Day Christ Died that Bishop followed it up in 1959 with the much shorter The Day Christ Was Born; both books have been collected together in a single volume published by Galahad Books.
The Day Christ Died is the work of both a trusty reporter and a sincere disciple. Jim Bishop was at heart a Catholic who believed in the veracity of the Gospels. There is no biblical revisionism here, no reductive attempts to purge the miraculous out of scripture. In an age of self-serving sensationalism, “fake news,” and deconstruction of orthodox faith by self-styled experts, such humility is heartening. And Bishop, a man who never went beyond the eighth grade, writes more elegantly than the bulk of today’s scribes, many of whom have mastered the art of saying nothing in as many words as possible (for which we have academia to thank). St. Thomas à Kempis says in The Imitation of Christ, “Do not be influenced by the importance of the writer, and whether his learning be great or small, but let the love of pure truth draw you to read.” The Day Christ Died is a reminder of an era when individual genius was king and journalism was sacred.
Editor’s note: The image of Christ above was painted by Philippe de Champaigne between 1644-46.