"I AM: The Jesus Incident"

By John Schreiber

Summary

This 20-minute play is a modern newscast covering the Crucifixion of Jesus. It starts out with subtle humor, then pulls in the audience with its serious message as various characters wrestle with what they are discussing and reporting.

Staging notes

Staging is easy with three areas: stage right for the on-the-spot reports, center stage for the anchor, stage left for the interviews. The gender of reporters can, of course, be changed to fit the cast (Elizabeth Judah for Mark Judah, for example).
The play should be presented as an actual "crisis" news broadcast with a quick pace and an experienced cast that can portray the changing emotions in the script.

Background for the audience (this is often put in the program):
This play has a number of Biblical references:
Sanhedrin: the Jewish high court, comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees
Pharisees: teachers of the law; mostly from the middle class.
Sadducees: under Roman rule, these were the dominant members of the Sanhedrin. They usually were wealthier and rejected the idea of the soul and an after-life.
Portico: part of the temple in Jerusalem
Reference to Habakkuk: Jesus referred to Habakkuk 2:9 - 2:11 when he said in Luke 19:40: "I tell you," he replied, "if they [the people] keep quiet, the stones will cry out."
Reference to Zechariah: From Zech. 9:9: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." When entering Jerusalem before his arrest, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy on Palm Sunday.
Reference to Psalm 22:16 - 18: Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. . . . They divide my garments . . . and cast lots for my clothing.
Peter: The first disciple to say that Jesus was the Messiah, yet he ran from the guards at the Garden of Gethsemane and later denied Christ three times-just as Jesus prophesied. After the resurrection, Peter became a bold leader of the church.
The Passover: Independence Day for the nation of Israel. During their time of slavery in Egypt, God instructed the Jews to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death would "pass over" them. After this plague, Moses led the people out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. Jesus, crucified during Passover, became the new "Lamb of God."
The I AM references: In Exodus 3:14, God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
On many different occasions Jesus applied God's name to himself: "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I AM!" The Jewish leadership recognized immediately that Jesus was claiming to be God. That is why, in the next verse: "[T]hey picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds" (John 8:58). Jesus later said, " I and the Father are one." Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him (John 10:30).

Characters

(Doubling is very possible. Sam, the two Reporters, and Sanhedrin Press Secretary are the only characters that can't be doubled.)

Sam, a dignified, professional anchor
Jeremiah Gad, the front lines reporter
Roman Guard
Captain of Guard
Mark Judah, legal reporter
Sanhedrin Press Secretary, an official spokesman
Barabbas, rough-looking murderer
Peter
Roman Law Expert, an indifferent authority
Mary Magdalene

Script

(General chaos on stage as people rush to get a special announcement ready. Ad lib lines.)

SAM: We interrupt your viewing of The Ten Commandments with a news bulletin: the itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, who has been drawing huge crowds at his public appearances, who is on record as criticizing the Pharisees and Sadducees, and who has allegedly been speaking sedition against Rome, has been arrested in a local park near Jerusalem. Reporters are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane now, ready to bring you this exclusive coverage.
Who is this Jesus? Many had only heard rumors about him before his splashy arrival in Jerusalem last Sunday. His followers, suddenly mushrooming into the thousands, threw palm leaves along the main highway into David's City. When he appeared, he was riding, of all things, a donkey. Pharisees quickly pointed out that it was a publicity ploy that he stole from Zechariah. They also criticized his followers. Jesus merely replied, and I quote: "If these people become silent the stones will cry out." This only infuriated the scribes, who pointed out that he stole the line from Habakkuk. As one Pharisee complained, "You need a concordance to track this guy's comments." Reports circulated throughout the next few days of miraculous healings, veiled threats, vague references to death and eternal life. Jeremiah Gad of our station reported that Jesus had a small gathering for the Passover this evening which included his original 12 followers from the Galilee area. (Holds ear.) We bring you now to the Garden. Jeremiah Gad is there with this exclusive. Jerry, are you there?

JEREMIAH GAD: I can just barely hear you, Sam. Rumors are running wilder through this park than Galilean pilgrims during a pigeon sale at the Temple. Roman guards are everywhere and the Sanhedrin isn't talking to the press. I've pulled aside one of the guards. Could you describe what happened here tonight?

ROMAN GUARD: (Looks off, then JEREMIAH GAD directs his face to camera. The Guard- not too bright- grins.) We, uh, we came with a cohort of soldiers.

JEREMIAH: A full cohort for just one man?

GUARD: I thought it was sort of unusual, too. But he had his followers with him and there had been rumors of the temple being destroyed and some claims of immortality. Our centurion briefed us thoroughly: just the usual messianic complex profile, he said. (Shrugs) Whatever that means.

JEREMIAH: So how many people went to arrest Jesus?

GUARD: With the cohort, the Pharisees, some ambulance chasers . . . I'd guess around 600.

JEREMIAH: Did you find a mob of Jesus supporters when you arrived?

GUARD: It was really dark, but it seemed as if he only had about 10 men with him, and they started to fall back as we approached. We had one of his followers with us as an informant. He went up to Jesus and kissed him on the cheek: that was our signal to grab him: Jesus, that is.

JEREMIAH: What happened next?

GUARD: When asked if he was Jesus, he said, "I AM," and those of us in the front fell down.

JEREMIAH: (Shocked) Fell down?

GUARD: Well, we were knocked down, sort of. Like some force pushed us over.

JEREMIAH: A force pushed you over?

GUARD: (Looks at camera, back at JEREMIAH GAD; considers his reply): Then again, maybe someone just tripped.

JEREMIAH: What happened next?

GUARD: One of his followers had a sword and sliced off Malchus's ear.

JEREMIAH: Malchus?

GUARD: Yeah, Malchus is a slave of the high priest. Blood gushed all over, but, the funny thing was, Jesus walks right up to him, picks up the ear, and puts it back on Malchus like it was no big deal. Just like that, the ear's back on, and Jesus reprimanded his follower for using a sword.

CAPTAIN: (Physically pushing in) We need to make it plain that this is an unsubstantiated rumor; it was night and visibility was bad.

JEREMIAH: Didn't your men carry torches?

CAPTAIN: (Waving to other men) Get the press out of here.

JEREMIAH GAD: Captain, why all the soldiers? Was someone afraid Jesus would try to escape?

CAPTAIN: Get them out of here!

JEREMIAH: Or was someone afraid Jesus wouldn't try to escape?

CAPTAIN: (Furious) I said, get this guy out. Now!

SAM: Jerry? Jerry? For our Gentile viewers, the I AM statement that Jesus made may have been a reference to the sacred name of God which was given to Moses. (Looking at notes) I quote from the second book of Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, I AM has sent me to you." The scribes and Pharisees tell us that this was the basis of the sacred name of God, which we cannot mention on network television. If Jesus was making this sort of reference, you can be sure that it will not sit well with the Sanhedrin. We will bring you more updates as we become aware of them. We return you to The Ten Commandments.

(Blackout: recorded extract from The Ten Commandments. Then lights up.)

SAM: We interrupt your morning programming to present an update on the Jesus arrest. Our sources have confirmed that Jesus has been brought to Pontius Pilate. Jesus was taken last night to the home of Annas and then to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. He was found guilty as charged. Sources say he has been sent to the Praetorium. In a few moments, the Sanhedrin's Press Secretary will meet with us. Before he arrives, though, a little background on law from our legal reporter, Mark Judah. Mark, isn't it a little unusual to have a trial before the Sanhedrin in the middle of the night? I never heard of it.

MARK JUDAH: It doesn't have many precedents. I wasn't allowed into the chamber, but it appears that the Sanhedrin moved quickly. Various witnesses appeared and said that Jesus claimed that if someone destroyed the temple he could raise it up in three days.

SAM: Hardly a capital offense.

MARK: But to the Sanhedrin, that sounded like an open invitation to any fruitcake to chip a few stones out of the portico. Maybe they were afraid the Romans would take Jesus seriously. Anyway, something must have really frightened them because they went after him with everything in the book.

SAM: We're now being joined by the Sanhedrin's Press Secretary. Thank you for joining us at this early hour.

PRESS SECRETARY: Not at all. I'm glad to be here.

SAM: What were the results of the trial?

PRESS SECRETARY: Guilty.

SAM: (On the offensive) Some have thought you've gone overboard with this case.

PRESS SECRETARY: Nonsense. We just take heresy seriously. When you combine heresy with a charismatic leader, it makes for a dangerous mix.

SAM: Why does Jesus arouse such passion?

PRESS SECRETARY: He promises all manner of things to the poor, inheriting the earth and so forth, yet he violates all our customs. Eats with sinners, tax collectors pretty soon people start thinking he's the Messiah. We rulers sympathize with the poor, of course, but we all know that the Messiah wouldn't have a tarnished past with no education.

SAM: (Aggressively) Our sources report that he was seen by both Annas and Caiaphas before being brought before the Sanhedrin, and that when he was brought to you, he had been severely beaten.

PRESS SECRETARY: Now "severely" is a very subjective term. And as for some prior "interrogation," neither Annas nor Caiaphas wanted the Sanhedrin roused early in the morning without just cause.

SAM: (Holds ear, receiving message.) Thank you. We now bring you live coverage from our reporter in the field:

(Cut to scene with Mark Judah and Peter, stage right.)

MARK: Judas Iscariot has just rushed out of the temple's back door. He threw money down and looked very distraught. According to witnesses, it was Judas who betrayed Jesus to the authorities. However, we've cornered another disciple: Simon, a fisherman from Galilee. Simon - or do you prefer the name Peter? - could you tell us what the disciples are doing?

PETER: (Frightened) Disciples? What disciples? I don't know him.

MARK: But aren't you one of the Nazarene's inner circle of twelve?

PETER: I said, I don't know him.

MARK: One of the guards positively identified you.

PETER: (Shouting) I tell you, I don't know him!

(Rooster crows.)

SAM: (After pause) We now return you to our regular programming, an encore performance of The Ten Commandments

(Blackout: pre-recorded extract.)

SAM: We interrupt your programming to bring you directly to Pilate's temple for some breaking news on the Jesus crisis.

JEREMIAH: It's incredible. Pilate offered the crowd the choice between Barabbas, a known murderer, and Jesus, and the crowd, whipped into a frenzy, cried, "Let Barabbas go." I tell you, Sam, it's the most amazing thing I've ever seen. Pilate has just released Barabbas.

SAM: It's not unusual to release a prisoner on Passover.

JEREMIAH: True, but the crowd, which had been pro-Jesus just last Sunday, has turned on him today with a vengeance. Their messianic dreams have become a nightmare for Jesus. I have Barabbas with me: Barabbas, how do you feel about your new freedom?

BARABBAS: How should I feel? I feel great. Beyond anything I'd hoped for.

JEREMIAH: Do you know anything about Jesus who will now die instead of you?

BAR: I heard some things about him in prison, sounded like a nice guy. But I sure wouldn't have recognized him unless I'd known him well. He was pretty beat up. Face swollen. Back ripped up. Usual stuff from Romans.

JEREMIAH: Thank you, we-

BAR: (Grabbing the microphone) But I just don't understand this: what did Jesus do? He never killed anybody. Never stole anything. Why would the Romans have him die in my place?

JEREMIAH GAD: (Sobered) Back to you, Sam.

SAM: Our expert on Roman law has just joined us. Why would Pilate be benevolent at Passover?

ROMAN: Passover is your national holiday. Throughout the world, Rome seeks to be kind to all its subjects. Rome isn't Egypt, after all.

SAM: (Receiving message in earpiece) We take you now to Mark Judah who is on the road to Golgotha.

MARK: Thanks, Sam. The Imperial Communication Commission doesn't allow us to show you the scene, but I can tell you that Jesus looks really bad. The Roman soldiers beat him up again after the Barabbas incident. Blood covers his back where the Roman whip scourged him. His face is swollen and bruised from the beatings. And there's a crown made of thorns pushed onto his head. I've seen quite a few Roman beatings in my day, but this is one of the worst. Rumor has it that after the initial beating before Pilate the whole battalion had a go at him . . . Sorry, Sam, it's tough to describe this.

SAM: (Moved as well) That's fine, Mark, we understand. It reminds me of what ancient King David wrote: "Dogs have surrounded me . . . They have pierced my hands and feet." It's almost as if he prophesied this event

MARK: Wait a minute . . . he's down now. He can't stand any longer. The soldiers are grabbing a spectator, forcing him to carry the cross. Women are nearby, crying for Jesus. I don't think they're followers; they just haven't witnessed this level of brutality in the streets before. Jesus said something to them and they're leading him off now. Back to you, Sam.

SAM: (Shifting physically and trying to distance himself emotionally from events) Our expert on Roman law is still with us. Would you explain to our viewers the reason for this cross-carrying?

ROMAN: This method of humiliating the victim before execution has worked well throughout the Roman world. It prevents the grandstanding that sometimes comes from martyrs. They're too weak to do anything but die. You have to remember that crucifixion is designed to be brutal, to teach a lesson to all concerned.

SAM: For those who haven't seen a crucifixion, what's it like?

ROMAN: First the cross is laid on the ground. The criminal is stripped and laid on the cross. Soldiers usually nail the wrists first, where the two bones come together. The spikes go in pretty easily there. The feet are a little trickier. The soldiers have to bend the knees before attaching them to the wood.

SAM: (Growing more emotional) Why's that?

ROMAN: If the knees aren't bent, the dying man can't push up and get the air needed to breathe. He'd die pretty quickly from suffocation. With the knees bent, the victim is able to struggle for a long time, twisting on the cross, so to speak. Push up to breathe, hang to relax. Both actions are . . . are. . . um . . . pretty painful.

SAM: (Moved by this description) How long before the victim dies?

ROMAN: Criminals have been known to last for several days before fever and exhaustion take over. It depends on how badly the criminal was beaten beforehand.

SAM: Thank you. . . (Thoughtfully) "They have pierced my hands and feet . . ." (Emotional shift) Now we take you to Jeremiah Gad at Golgotha.

JEREMIAH: Sam, there are three crosses. Jesus has been set up between two thieves and they've put a sign above Jesus, written in three languages. Pilate ordered it made. It says, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

SAM: Is he mocking Jesus?

JEREMIAH: I'm not sure, Sam. Pilate may be mocking the Jewish leadership. Soldiers are dividing his clothes but they can't decide on the tunic. It's too nice to rip, so they're throwing some dice.

SAM: "They divided my garments among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots."

JEREMIAH: What was that, Sam?

SAM: Nothing, just a passage from Psalms I recall from my childhood. Go on.

JEREMIAH: Spectators are taunting him now. Even the scribes and Pharisees are getting into the act. One of the robbers is also ridiculing him. Wait a minute, he's talking to the other condemned man beside him. It's hard to hear, with the noise . . .

SAM: Jerry?

JEREMIAH (Pause): He said "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise." I don't get it, Sam. The man's dying and he's encouraging others. (Turning, bringing her on.) I have one of his followers, Mary Magdalene, with me.

MARY: (Weeping, distraught) I don't understand, I just don't understand.

JEREMIAH GAD: You believed he was the Messiah?

MARY: Yes, he is the Messiah. He delivered me from demons. He teaches compassion to others. He has healed countless people. He has sought nothing for himself. Don't you understand? (Grabbing his sleeve) He is the Messiah!

JEREMIAH: Then why would he go through this?

MARY (Near hysterics): I don't understand. Jesus doesn't have to do this. Why is he allowing this? Why is God putting him through this?

JEREMIAH: Putting God aside for a moment, if he were the Messiah, why would the chief leaders want to destroy the Messiah?

MARY: Who knows? Fear? Jealousy? People don't want to change. He said we all need to change, to turn our backs on sin, to be born again. People who think they have everything don't want to change.

JEREMIAH: Do you blame the Jewish leadership or the Romans for this?

MARY: Don't you understand what's happening here? All of us are to blame for this. Everyone has either rejected or deserted him.

JEREMIAH: (Uncomfortable with her emotions, he nudges her off.): Well, Sam, as you can see, emotions are running pretty high here at the scene. Lots of people jeering.

SAM: Any family members nearby?

JEREMIAH: We've had reports that his mother is here with a disciple. Those that aren't ridiculing Jesus are clustered closely together, holding each other up. Weeping. It's quite a moving spectacle, nothing like anything I've ever seen. (Glancing up) Odd . . . it's getting dark here. The whole area is growing dark . . . and quiet.

SAM: Well, it seems that the weather has temporarily interrupted our broadcast from Golgotha. Still with us is the Sanhedrin's Press Secretary:

PRESS SECRETARY: We can rest assured that this is the end of it. We know he wasn't the Messiah. He was just a con artist who swayed many innocent people.

SAM: How can you be so sure?

PRESS SECRETARY: The law says, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." The Messiah wouldn't be cursed. You can't escape the law.

SAM: (Growing more combative) What of Isaiah who wrote "He was pierced for our sins, he was crushed for our transgressions?"

PRESS SECRETARY: (Taken aback) Well, you can't start interpreting Scripture literally, now, can you? No, this is the end of the Messiah business for awhile. Temple business will resume uninterrupted. People can return without fear of running into all this talk of repentance in the Jordan River. Trade will continue for all of our Passover visitors.

SAM (Holding ear; slowly; moved): I've just received word that Jesus has died. His final words were "It . . . is . . . finished."

PRESS SECRETARY: Just as I said.

SAM: Hardly the last words of a defeated man. What of earlier reports about his return? Any comment?

PRESS SECRETARY: The Romans will verify his death. They have efficient means.

SAM: But there were prophesies that he would rise from the grave.

PRESS SECRETARY: Rubbish. Who ever heard of someone rising from the dead?

SAM: (Pouncing) There was that Lazarus incident.

PRESS SECRETARY: A calculated conspiracy to gain publicity. We're dealing here with the Roman Empire. Their victims stay dead. Pontius Pilate has already given orders to post soldiers at the grave. Nothing will get to that body. And even if some followers get close to the grave, they'd have to push a stone that weighs around two tons - uphill - in order to get in.

SAM (Listening to earpiece): Reports are coming in that one of your colleagues, Joseph of Arimathea, will be providing a tomb. Are you afraid that his followers will turn his tomb into a shrine?

PRESS SECRETARY: They can visit it all they like. A memorial never hurt anyone. Our country's full of them.

SAM: So you're sure that's the end of it?

PRESS SECRETARY: Absolutely.

SAM: Covering the events of these past few days, I'm still puzzled why Jesus aroused such passion. I understand how the poor could be fooled by healing tricks, the still unexplained fish-and-loaves-multiplying illusion, but from all our reports Jesus never did these things to gain attention. Rather, he told people to keep his miracles quiet. He seemed more interested in a person's heart than in national publicity. He genuinely seemed to want a person's repentance. Isn't that what the Pharisees want as well?

PRESS SECRETARY: Well, yes.

SAM: (Combative) So, why was the leadership against him?

PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously, he said he was God. I was there myself when he said "Before Abraham was, I AM." . . . Please excuse the blasphemy. Someone who says he is God is either a dangerous lunatic who has to be destroyed . . . or he's telling the truth.

SAM: So you're saying that his death will prove to the world once and for all that Jesus wasn't God.

PRESS SECRETARY: Exactly. Caiaphas himself said it was necessary for one man to die for the good of the people. Regrettable, but necessary.

SAM: Thank you for being with us, Mr. Secretary. We now return you to our regular programming, the documentary, Out of Egypt: Joseph's Bones.

(Blackout, then center lights up. SAM stands, loosens tie. MARK walks in, congratulates Sam.)

MARK: Congratulations. Highest ratings ever.

SAM: Couldn't do it without you reporters in the field. (Loosens tie, stretches) After these last few days, I'm looking forward to some time off. You know, Mark, it wouldn't surprise me if we hear of Jesus again. Everyone thought that he was down for the count after the Galilee campaign. They thought he was as good as dead after the Samaritan trip. Remember the story we covered on Lazarus?

MARK: You don't really think-

SAM: Don't you see? Jesus didn't really leave anyone much room to maneuver. He said that he was the Son of God. Either he was lying or he was - is - more than we ever imagined. If so, something big is yet to happen.

MARK: (Amazed) But that would mean that

SAM: Jesus said it himself: "Before Abraham was, I AM."

..

Copyright John Schreiber, all rights reserved.
Anyone wishing to produce this play is asked to notify John Schreiber in West Concord, Minnesota, USA, if possible. There is no charge. The script is also available as part of his short story collection Tales from 2 A.M. Email the author at: jamsch@frontiernet.net