Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross

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by Neil Godfrey

Stéphane, Marc. 1959. La Passion de Jésus : Fait d’histoire Ou Objet de Croyance. Dervy-livres Besançon, impr. Jacques et Demontrond.

The French historian Marc Stéphane took up the question of the existence of Jesus and after engaging with the critical scholarship of his day, in particular that of “anti-mythicists” Alfred Loisy and Charles Guignebert, as well as mythicist Prosper Alfaric, and after delicately warning devout believers that he was not seeking to undermine their faith but was endeavouring to write an argument from a point of view that believers were free to ignore, wrote his own perspective on the question.

In brief, and to zero in on points I think are of more interest to many today, Stéphane

  1. Argued that the Gospel of Mark was the first to create a narrative of Jesus in a historical setting, drawing upon other writings such as the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul; fleshing out various images in these writings into narrative form;
  2. This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE;
  3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
  4. The Ascension of Isaiah, in a Latin manuscript, conforms with the standard Jewish law that an executed criminal’s body would be hung on a tree as a public warning; that is, the hanging of a body on the tree an act that followed the execution; this was the standard Jewish understanding of what it meant for a body to be cursed by hanging on a tree;
  5. In one manuscript line of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have called out at his moment of death, “My God, my God, why have you cursed me?” — thus adhering to what Paul wrote about the fate of the Son of God;
  6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters): the lack of background and explanatory setting, characters and crowds just come and go as needed for each piece of story, the story is written in the style of a master narrator, breathlessly bringing his audience along with him “immediately” scene by vivid scene; the stylized structuring of three-fold sections throughout the narrative, especially with the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the Passion; and also the many anachronistic and unrealistic details of the narrative itself (e.g. Pharisees are portrayed unlike the sect they really were, and Pilate is also depicted most unlike his actual self);
  7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death and place the crucifixion in a Roman setting: this further involved the need to have a Roman magistrate issue the final order for the crucifixion, and the name Pontius Pilate was well enough known and came conveniently to hand;

Seven points. I’ll stop there. Why spoil God’s design!


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross”

  1. Excellent, Neil. I have to smile when I read a post like this, as it brings to light yet another writer from way back when ( long before the plethora of ”modern” half-baked apologists arrived on the scene) who sought to show just how the Jesus tale is so much nonsense.

    And my smile broadens even more at the thought of Tim O’Neill and his ilk gnashing teeth at yet another ”myther”(sic) who had the temerity to suggest the gospel writer was – as the line in Life of Brian goes – ”…. making it up as he goes along!”

    1. That would be Galatians 3:13 where Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23 from the Septuagint, which uses a Greek word that can mean “tree”, “wood”, or “cross” but the Hebrew version uses the word for “tree”.

  2. “6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters):”

    I’m not understanding here. Did Mark have or not have “the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters?” This seems to be saying, to me, that he didn’t have them as reference.

  3. Bam! This guy agrees with me.

    I think the author of Mark used Jewish Wars and got the name “Pilate” from that, which doesn’t have “Pontius”. Luke 3:1 used “Pontius Pilate” where the author was using Jewish Antiquities but used only “Pilate” when using gMark.

  4. 2. “This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE (he here aligns with Earl Doherty who argued that the persecution motif of the gospel helps establish a date from around the 90s)”

    If Doherty was referring to the alleged Domitian persecution, then he may have been off the mark –

    Domitian and the Persecution That Didn’t Happen


    1. No, he made no reference to any supposed Domitian persecution. He drew upon many factors to make an assessment of the date and came down, as a kind of compromise he felt the various details forced upon him, to around 90 ce.

      I have withdrawn my reference to Doherty in the post because I cannot find what I thought was his reference to the implied Jewish persecution of Christians around 90 ce (i.e. the curse on heretics; the birkat ha-minim) in connection with dating Mark in either of his books. Perhaps he made the connection in a forum post sometime, or perhaps I am misremembering.

  5. Does Stepháne have examples of Jews of Roman occupied Judea being permitted to expose the corpses of executed convicts to living trees? Did Herod the Great do this?

    I guess Stepháne must address this, but who better knew standard Jewish staking practice – especially for purposes of discrediting humiliation – than high priest and Zadokite Alexander Janneus/Yannai? http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0145%3Abook%3D13%3Awhiston%20chapter%3D14

    for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified (ἀνασταυρῶσαι, ‘staked’); and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes.

    I don’t think there were 800 trees growing on the grounds of the palace.

    Jerusalem had became familiar with live staking shows no later than Antiochus IV “for they were whipped with rods, and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified (ἀνεσταυροῦντο ‘staked’) while they were still alive and breathed…hanging their sons about their necks as they were staked (ἀνασταυρόω) “

    1. As I recall his point, it is that “Mark” is historicizing the things believers knew from such writings as those of Paul.

      Paul said that Jesus became cursed for others by being hung on a tree. It is that passage in Galatians that “Mark” is historicizing. And that passage in Galatians is a reference to the shame of an executed criminal being hung up on a tree for public display. The corpse is strung up.

      “Mark” is historicizing theological claims found in Paul and probably similar writings or teachings.

      Marc Stéphane is well aware of Roman practice and the history of Alexander Jannaeus and this contrast leads him to draw a an explanation for the difference between the Roman practice and the Jewish claims in their writings — and why “Mark” changed the theological teaching to a manner of execution that cohered with what readers knew from experience.

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