2009-07-03

Reasons to question historicity of crucifixion, 3

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by Neil Godfrey

I began this series with

  1. Reasons to question . . .
  2. Grounds to question . . .

Historicity of the crucifixion cannot be in doubt simply because Paul writes of the crucifixion as a theological event. But when the theological meanings attributed to the crucifixion defy historical realities, then we are entitled to question the historicity of the event. In my last post on this I presented this fact in relation to Paul’s first letter to Corinth: a historical crucifixion simply does not sit with mere ‘foolishness’ to Greeks nor ‘unimpressive weakness’ for the Jews. See the previous post (Grounds, above) for details.

Nor am I arguing that these factors disprove the historicity of the crucifixion. Of course they don’t. But in the absence of any historical context in these earliest references to the crucifixion, and in the presence of mystical and angelic direct involvement in the event, then it is simply not honest with the evidence to claim that the crucifixion is “a bedrock fact of history”.

Moving on to Romans.

Paul begins his discussion of the death of Jesus here by pairing it with the sin of Adam (Romans 5).

In the next chapter Paul teaches that the Christian’s “old man” is crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Again, the crucifixion of Christ is portrayed as an everpresent reality with which humanity within the earthly sphere can continue to relate.

In Romans 7 Paul argues that the mere fact of the body is a form of death, because it is enslaved to sin. Similarly in Romans 8, it is death to have the mind of the flesh. The hope of Christians is some form of mystical identification with an everpresent reality of a crucified and resurrected Christ.

The same can be shown for other letters of Paul, or those attributed to him. (That is, we are omitting the Pastorals which, I believe, have sufficient reasons for most scholars to question their authenticity as from Paul’s hand.) I’ll avoid here the repetition of all of these. The facts are in everyone’s Bibles to read for themselves.

The first crucifixion narrative — the Gospel of Mark

Many modern texts place the Gospel of Mark twenty to ten years after the letters of Paul. There are several significant points to note about this narrative when we are evaluating its value as a source for an historical event underlying the narrative.

  1. Mark’s account contains reasons to believe it was written as fictional recognition scene — that is, if followed the common novelistic style of playing winks with his readers who pick up his clues about the identity of Jesus at this crucial moment, while at the same time composing a narrative in which the actors remain dim-witted. In other words, the author’s interest is rhetorical, not historical.
  2. Early accounts also suggest the crucifixion story was driven by a need to find a fulfilment of a particular OT scripture regarding the Son of Man, and to preach variant theologies.
  3. The narratives surrounding the crucifixion are riddled with historical implausibilities and inaccuracies.
  4. Subsequent noncanonical literature flatly contradicted some of the core details of Mark’s account, and some appeared to deny a crucifixion at all.
  5. Subsequent theological debates were about the theological meaning of the crucifixion, with no interest in its historicity, or using historical data to support their theological arguments.
  6. All subsequent nonChristian references to the crucifixion as an historical event add nothing more than what was believed among proto-orthodox or orthodox Christians, and appear to have been unknown until some centuries after they were supposedly first penned.
  7. One, possibly two, earliest nonChristian (Roman) references to Christianity make no reference to a crucifixion, even though they had every reason to bring up as much hostile detail as possible.

I’ll start with #1 first — in the next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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