Reasons to question the historicity of the crucifixion

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by Neil Godfrey

Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the direction of Pilate is very commonly cited as a “bedrock fact” of Christian history. I have previously shown that early Christianity was not united on Pilate’s role in the crucifixion: there was an early widespread belief that the Jewish King Herod was responsible. I would be very interested to hear any responses at all from those who do hold to the crucifixion itself as a “bedrock fact of history” pointing out the methodological and other fallacies behind the following series of posts demonstrating (I believe) that the crucifixion is at the very best an event of questionable historicity.

Reasons for questioning its historicity:

  1. The earliest references to the crucifixion present it not as an historical event but as a theological doctrine, a point of faith, a matter of religious belief.

  2. The crucifixion is itself always portrayed in canonical literature as a theological event with a theological meaning, and its power lies in its paradoxical relationship with conquest and victory. Attempts to appreciate its reality in terms of historicity or human horror are latecomers to the discussion.

  3. The first gospel narrative of the crucifixion portrays it as a theological drama. Mark’s crucifixion is a mock Roman triumph, and teases out OT allegories. So even by the time the crucifixion is narrated as, in part, a human drama, it is shrouded in allegorical and theological trappings.

  4. The authenticity of the first non-Christian references to the crucifixion have to be questioned on several grounds, including the fact that their existence is unknown in all other surviving records up till the fourth century.

  5. The least controversial earliest non-Christian reference to Christianity (Pliny) fails to mention both the name of Jesus and the crucifixion.

One regularly reads among books discussing the historicity of Jesus that the crucifixion of Jesus is a bedrock established historical fact. No-one would have any reason to make up such a story about someone being crucified like a criminal or subversive, and who was nonetheless still venerated as the Messiah long afterwards, so the argument goes. There are further elaborations of this argument from “the criteria of embarrassment”. Tacitus is also regularly invoked as a pagan witness.

I would like to expand on or support each one of the above points — by examining the evidence in ways historians of nonbiblical topics normally do — and show why each ought to be considered at the very least grounds for pausing before routinely assuming that the crucifixion of Jesus was indeed “a bedrock historical event”.

1. The earliest references to the crucifixion present it not as an historical event but as a theological doctrine, a point of faith, a matter of religious belief.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

Here the death of Jesus (we don’t know yet if it was by crucifixion or other means) is presented as an article of faith, something to be “believed” in order to believe anyone else who died will also live again. The death of Jesus is presented as a datum of faith of the same kind and nature as his resurrection. To believe in one is to believe in the other — the two are “an item” in this first testimony of the “death of Jesus”.

Galatians 2:19-3:2

For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

Galatians 6:17

From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

If Paul’s letter to the Galatians were the only reference to the crucifixion of Jesus I doubt that anyone could possibly conclude that it was an historical event. Even the life of Christ is as much a metaphor and theological tenet here as is the crucifixion. Paul gives no hint that there was a historical Jesus who was crucified for historical reasons. Rather, there was a death of Jesus that had a deeply personal religious, even mystical, meaning. The crucifixion was something that could be “portrayed before the very eyes” of the Galatians. Compare how Paul himself appeared among the Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians 2:7

But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children

Which brings us to back to possibly the earliest letter of Paul. Here also appears the claim that the Jews did indeed kill Jesus:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:

Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:

Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.

If there were no doubts hanging over the authenticity of this passage then the historical crucifixion of Jesus would indeed have very strong support. But there are doubts about its authenticity, including some among scholars who do not question the historicity of Jesus or the crucifixion itself:

The Jews “Who Killed the Lord Jesus”

What then are we to make of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, about the Jews “who killed the Lord Jesus”? Well, many scholars (e.g., Mack, Koester, Pearson, Meeks, Perkins, Brandon: see the Bibliography at end) have tended to make short work of it, dismissing it as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. They do so on two grounds.

One is what they consider to be an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16, an event which happened after Paul’s death. Here is the passage in its entirety, courtesy of the New English Bible:

“14You [referring to the Christians of Thessalonica] have fared like the congregations in Judea, God’s people in Christ Jesus. You have been treated by your countrymen as they are treated by the Jews, 15who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God’s will and enemies of their fellow-men, 16hindering us from speaking to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all.”

This finality of God’s wrath must refer to an event on the scale of the first Jewish War (66-70), when the Temple and much of Jerusalem were destroyed, not, as is sometimes claimed (e.g., by R. E. Brown), to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (apparently for messianic agitation) by Claudius in the 40s. This gleeful, apocalyptic statement is hardly to be applied to a local event which the Thessalonians may or may not have been aware of several years later. Besides, Paul’s reference in verse 14 (which many take as the end of the genuine passage) is to a persecution by Jews in Judea, and even the killing of Jesus was the responsibility of Jews in that location. Offering a local event in Rome as a punishment for either crime seems somehow inappropriate. There are also those who question whether any such persecution of Christians took place prior to 70 (see Douglas Hare, The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p.30ff.), indicating that perhaps even verse 14 is part of the interpolation, by someone who had little knowledge of the conditions in Judea at the time of Paul’s letter. (Pearson, below, suggests this.)

It has been pointed out that there are no different textual traditions of 1 Thessalonians without the disputed passage. Since this is so, it is claimed, the insertion would have to have been made very early (soon after 70), when there would hardly have been enough time for the evolution from the mythical to the historical Jesus phase. But this is an unfounded assumption. Recently (see The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, Epp and MacRae, eds., 1989, p.207f.) some scholars have abandoned the old idea that the first corpus of Pauline letters was assembled no later than the year 90. They now see such a collection as coming around the time of Marcion in the 140s. Even though a few individual letters, like Romans and the two Corinthians, do seem to have been known by the turn of the century to people like Ignatius, the first witness to the epistle 1 Thessalonians in the wider Christian record (beyond the writer who used it to compose 2 Thessalonians, probably in that city) comes no earlier than that first corpus.

Thus the interpolation in 2:15-16 could have been made considerably later than 70. Even into the second century, Christian anti-Semitism remained high and the catastrophic events of the first Jewish War were very much alive in the memories of both Jew and gentile in the eastern empire. The inserted passage could have been made in the letter’s own community, before it entered the corpus. It is even barely conceivable that verse 16 refers to the outcome of the second Jewish Revolt (132-5), when Bar Kochba was crushed, Jews were expelled from Palestine, and a Roman city was built over the ruins of Jerusalem.

The second reason scholars tend to reject this passage as not genuine to Paul is because it does not concur with what Paul elsewhere says about his fellow countrymen, whom he expects will in the end be converted to Christ. The vicious sentiments in these verses is recognized as an example of “gentile anti-Judaism” and “foreign to Paul’s theology that ‘all Israel will be saved’.” (See Birger Pearson: “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review 64 [1971], p.79-94, a thorough consideration of the question.)

We might also note that in Romans 11, within a passage in which he speaks of the guilt of the Jews for failing to heed the message about the Christ, Paul refers to Elijah’s words in 1 Kings, about the (largely unfounded) accusation that the Jews have habitually killed the prophets sent from God. Here Paul breathes not a whisper about any responsibility on the part of the Jews for the ultimate atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. This would be an inconceivable silence if the 2:15-16 passage in 1 Thessalonians were genuine and the basis of the accusation true.

Cited from Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle, supp03

My point is not to dismiss the likelihood of historicity on the grounds of a single debatable verse. My point is to demonstrate, here and in future posts, that by normal standards or rules of historical evidence (at least according to standards outside the guild of biblical studies) that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is simply not “bedrock” by any means.