Tag Archives: Crucifixion of Jesus

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »

Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses from Dunn on Price

Just two points from James D. G. Dunn’s response to Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views are addressed here. Maybe will address more over time in other posts. Dunn’s responses are lazy and insulting dismissals of Price’s arguments, not rebuttals based on logic or evidence, as remarked upon in recent comments. It is instructive to compare Price’s own response to Dunn’s chapter in the same book. No insult. No cavalier dismissals. But a pointed rebuttal from the evidence, scholarship and all tied together with rigid and nonfallacious logic. Price’s responses to Dunn make for much more interesting reading. I should highlight them more with posts in the future.

Meanwhile, the two points I address here are Dunn’s insult and avoidance of what Price’s stated about

  1. the varying dates and scenarios for Jesus’ crucifixion in the early Christian evidence, and
  2. the question of Paul’s meeting James the brother of the Lord read more »

Overimaginative images of Jesus on a cross?

Evangelical Textual Criticism discusses the successfully defended thesis of Gunnar Samuelsson that the ancient textual evidence fails to support our image of Jesus dying on a cross. From the ETC site:

Last Friday Gunnar Samuelsson successfylly defended his thesis “Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion” at Gothenburg University (supervisor Samuel Byrskog).


This study investigates the philological aspects of how ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic texts, including the New Testament, depict the practice of punishment by crucifixion. A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The terminology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few. The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every wordbook and dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary. The immense knowledge of the punishment of crucifixion in general, and the execution of Jesus in particular, cannot be supported by the studied texts.

The same blog site offers contact details for purchasing the dissertation, and additional notes from its concluding chapter. There is also a discussion of the archaeological evidence.

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Recognizing the Triumphant Conqueror in Mark’s crucifixion scene

Continuing from Reasons, 3 . . .

This post owes almost all of its details to T. E. Schmidt’s Jesus’ Triumphal March to Crucifixion. So if you’ve read that there is no need to read this. I have a few additional points here, but nothing substantial. I only attempt a slightly different perspective, that’s all.

Firstly, I am going to try to avoid using the word “irony” in connection with Mark’s narrative here, since I have recently been alerted to the fact that the literary use of irony is a relative latecomer in the history of literature, and that what authors of Mark’s era were taught and practiced was the good old Aristotelian gradually unfolding “recognition” scenes. These were the stuff of ancient Hellenistic creative literature.

Paul makes the analogy between Christ and the Roman Triumphator plain and direct in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

The Triumphators’ followers were saved, and some of his prisoners were sent off for execution.

The conquering general or emperor was hailed as the epiphany of God. Initially he was the god Dionysus, but later was identified with Zeus. The crowds who came to see this event would repeatedly cry out “Triumpe”, a call for the god to make himself manifest.

The Roman Triumphal March

Mark 15:16

Then the soldiers led him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison.

The Praetorium was, in Rome, the common designation for the place and personnel of the imperial guard. It was the imperial guard who made and unmade emperors. (It could also refer to a military HQ in general, but throughout this post I am going to be assuming Mark was written in Rome for a Roman audience.)

The soldiers call for the whole cohort of 200 men minimum. It is unimaginable to think of 200 soldiers being called out to make fun of one man. It appears that Mark is signalling to his readers that Jesus about to embark of a triumphal procession as a sign of his power over all his enemies, and he is doing this by bringing in the props that were used for a Roman emperor’s procession.

Mark 15:17

And they clothed him with purple, and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on his head,

The Roman emperor wore purple. It was a colour forbidden to lower ranks. Schmidt remarks that in Jerusalem the only purple cloak available for this mockery of Christ would have been Pilate’s, and Pilate is hardly likely to have lent his out for this occasion to be spat on.

Mark instead is signalling to his readers in the know that Jesus is the true imperial conqueror, in particular at this very moment.

The Roman triumphator would be clothed in purple, wear a crown of laurel, and hold a staff in his right hand. Another anomaly here is the notion that there would be right nearby a handy clutch of thorn branches for soldiers to make an impromptu crown. The details are signalling to the reader that this moment of humiliation is in fact the moment of Jesus’ Triumph over his enemies.

Mark 15:18

and began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

Before embarking on the triumphal procession the Roman conqueror would stand before his soldiers to receive their adulation. Again, this is the author’s way of adding more detail to verify the truly conquering identity of Jesus, though this is obviously hidden from the actors in the narrative.

Mark 15:20

And when they mocked him . . .

This point is not discussed by Schmidt, but I think it is a significant detail nonetheless. Roman triumphators, even though appearing as a god, would be accompanied in by those whose task it was to mock, ridicule and insult them in their ears — in order to remind them, we are informed, that they were but men. To keep them humble.

Mark 15: 21

Now they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear his cross.

The triumphal procession included the sacrificial animal being led by its executioners carrying the double-bladed axe, the instrument of their execution.

Not mentioned by Schmidt, and a detail that is testified (in a historical novel by Heliodorius) a good century after this narrative was written, is that these butchers or executioners of the triumphal sacrifice were taken from the countryside. That was their “craft”, after all — butchering their animals for sale.

Again not mentioned by Schmidt, but I can’t help but wonder about the names Alexander and Rufus in this context. Who was Alexander but the archetypical Greek conqueror, and who is Rufus (meaning Red) but the Roman conqueror in such a procession whose face was painted red in imitation of Zeus for this march. And Simon a Cyrenian, is, of course, the namesake of the Simon who failed Jesus at this moment. Instead of taking up his own cross and following Jesus, he is assisting with the execution of Jesus.

Mark 15:22

And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of the Skull/Head.

Schmidt explains that a more accurate translation is Head rather than Skull. Citing Schmidt, here:

Mark may be offering this translation simply to heighten the sense of the macabre. But there is a remarkable coincidence in the name of the place that may constitute another allusion to the triumph. Dionysius of Halicarnassus records the legend that, during the laying of a foundation for a temple on a certain Roman hill, a human head was discovered with its features intact. Soothsayers proclaimed:

“Romans, tell your fellow citizens it is ordered by fate that the place in which you found the head shall be the head of all Italy,” (and) since that time the place is called the Capitoline hill from the head that was found there; for the Romans call heads capita.

The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, or more simply the Capitolium, was the terminus of every Roman triumph. The procession would wind through the streets to the Forum, culminating in the ascent of the triumphator to the place of sacrifice—the place named after a death’s-head. The name “Golgotha” (head) may simply be a linguistic and historical coincidence, but to an audience prepared by the context of Mark’s gospel to look for double meanings, it would be a glaring and meaningful coincidence: Golgotha was the Capitolium (head) to which the triumphator ascended.

I used to disagree with Michael Turton’s suggestion that Mark’s gospel was indicating that Jesus was crucified in or at the Temple. I am not so sure I should disagree any longer. If Mark was writing for a Roman audience, and this is often suggested by scholars, then he gives no reason to think that his readers would picture any scene other than Jesus being crucified at the Jerusalem temple. It is worth recalling that some early Christian texts (e.g. the last part of the Ascension of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation) did indeed say that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.

I know the suggestion seems crazy, but surely that is only because of our familiarity with all the paintings of the crucifixion scene — AND because of our convictions that there is an historical basis to this fabulous story. (It would also make a little more sense of the remark that “someone noticed” that the temple veil was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death.)

Mark 15:23-24

Then they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but he did not take it. And when they crucified him. . .

Expensive wine is offered at the moment he is to be sacrificed, but he does not take it. Roman readers familiar with the Roman triumphal procession knew that at the moment of the sacrifice of the bull the emperor was offered wine, which he poured out on the bull itself. The bull was the god dying and the emperor was the god living at this moment of the pouring out of the wine.

Mark 15:27

And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and the other on his left.

Roman readers would have recognized this from triumphal processions also — as in the following examples of Triumphs:

  1. Tiberius took his seat beside Augustus between two consuls
  2. Claudius in his triumph with his sons-in-law supporting him on either side
  3. Vitellius placed his conquering generals, Valens and Caecina, on either side of him
  4. Vespasian rode with his son Titus on one side in his chariot and with his other son, Domition, riding on his other side

Historical or rhetorical?

It ought to be obvious that the original author was not interested in narrating history. Historical reconstruction is not on his agenda. The whole structure is composed of implausibilities and oddities (the fact of the crucifixion itself with Pilate releasing a rebel and crucifying Jesus just to please a crowd, the crown of thorns, cloak of purple, 200 soldiers called out for one man, offering a very expensive wine — not a pain killer — with myrrh; and more is to follow, with noon turning to dark, etc.) that serve to inform insider readers that Jesus was, at this moment of humiliation, undertaking his conquering procession.

And this, note, is the first narrative of the crucifixion after Paul’s many references to it as a theological (only) event.

Reasons to question historicity of crucifixion, 3

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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“When Jesus went out with a loud voice” revisited – – – wikipedia footnote

I earlier blogged about the “last shout” of Jesus before he left this world (When Jesus went out with a loud voice . . .) and one reader responded by saying that the shout itself was a miracle that proved the divine power of Jesus, at least to the nearby centurion. The argument is that at the point of final asphyxiation a loud shout would normally be impossible.

I personally think such a “miracle”, if that were the case, is quite anticlimactic in comparison with the sun turning black at the time of a full moon and a bodily resurre

ction, unless, perhaps for a physician. But since then, while reading for another blog post, I came across the following in the Wikipedia entry on Crucifixion:

Justus Lipsius: De cruce, p.

Experiments by Frederick Zugibe have, however, revealed that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly-increasing discomfort and pain. This would correspond to the Roman use of crucifixion as a prolonged, agonizing, humiliating death.

“Christ crucified” — Was Paul’s message really anti-imperialist as Borg and Crossan assert?

In a recent post I mentioned a new publication, The First Paul, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I said it contained some interesting bits, but also some bits that one might suspect are arguably on the dubious side of method and logic. I discussed a positive for my first post, now for a negative.

In the first-century setting of Paul and his hearers, “Christ crucified” had an anti-imperial meaning. Paul’s shorthand summary was not “Jesus died,” not “Jesus was killed,” but “Christ crucified. This meant that Jesus had been crucified by imperial authority . . . . In Paul’s world, a cross was always a Roman cross.

Rome reserved crucifixion for two categories of people: those who challenged imperial rule . . . and chronically defiant slaves . . . The two groups who were crucified had something in common: both rejected Roman imperial domination. Crucifixion . . . carried the message, “Don’t you dare defy imperial authority, or this will happen to you.

To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus — and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. (p. 131-2)

I admit I have much more to read on this topic, including a few books in my personal library like the twelve year old Paul and Empire by Richard Horsley which I am embarrassed to confess I still have only half read. So the argument of this post is restricted solely to the discussion as found in Borg and Crossan’s new popular book.

I have been recently blogging about the ostensibly pre-gospel passages about the crucifixion of Jesus (latest post here), arguing that this foundational event is entitled to be questioned as to its historical status, widespread opinion among biblical scholars notwithstanding. My conclusions differ radically from Borg’s and Crossan’s as cited above. So time to address their claims:

Paul’s shorthand was not “Jesus died” . . . Really?

Yes, “crucified” is the term used in chapters 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians. But this is scarcely enough to persuade anyone familiar with Paul’s letters as a whole to think that for Paul the central act of the gospel embedded an intrinsically anti-imperialist message. In fact, it seems B’s and C’s claim here is based entirely on two chapters in but one of Paul’s several letters.

1 Corinthians

By the end of the letter it seems Paul decided to tone down this supposedly “anti-imperialistic” rhetoric and let the Jesus followers off the hook by reminding them that they were acting out Jesus’ death only in their ritual meals, not his crucifixion:

11: 26 . . . you do show the Lord’s death till he come.

2 Corinthians

In chapter 5 Paul writes three times that “Jesus died” without a hint of “anti-imperialist” crucifixion.

5:14 . . . if one died for all . . .

5:15a . . . he died for all . . .

5:15b . . . him who died for them . . .


1:1 . . . who raised him from the dead . . . [darn it! Paul just missed an excellent opportunity to drive home his anti-imperialist gospel by pronouncing God’s Yes to Jesus and No to Empire: why did he not think to write, “who raised him from the crucifixion!”? What happened to God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the imperial power that crucified him?]

2:20 . . . I am crucified with Christ . . . [Gosh! So Paul deserved those floggings in Acts, and he really was justifiably executed as an anti-imperialist rebel in the end?]

2:21 . . . if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain . . .

3:1 . . . Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you . . . [Why did governor Pliny not pick up on such anti-imperialist sentiment when he asked Trajan how to handle the Christians?]

5:11 . . . if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. . . . [Whoah a minute here! Does Paul really mean that the anti-imperialist message of the cross can be nullified by preaching circumcision??? Yet that is what acceptance of Borg’s and Crossan’s assertion would lead to! Ditto for 6:12.]

5:24 . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. . . . [So drunkenness and fornication are sending anti-imperialistic messages?]

6:12 . . . they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. [See 5:11 above.]

6:14 . . . But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. [This passage simply makes nonsense any attempt to read into the crucifixion an anti-imperialist message.]


Maybe it was because he was writing a letter to Christians in the imperial centre of empire, but Paul makes but one solitary reference in this letter to Jesus being crucified. But hold on, the fact that he was writing to Rome should not decide the matter in this case, because in the same letter he actually says that Christians are to see themselves as subject to a daily “crucifixion with Christ”. Is he really writing to devotees living in the shadows of the imperial palace to acknowledge that they are “anti-imperialists” by their daily conduct? See 6:6 below:

5:6 . . . Christ died for the ungodly

5:8 . . . Christ died for us

5:10 . . . the death of his Son . . .

6:6 . . . our old man is crucified with him . . .

14: 9 . . . Christ both died, and rose . . .

14:15 . . . for whom Christ died

1 Thessalonians

4:14: . . . Jesus died and rose again . . .

5:9-10 . . . our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us . . .


2:8 . . . even the death of the cross

3:10 . . . being made conformable to his death . . .

3:18 . . . enemies of the cross of Christ . . .

If “Christ crucified” were Paul’s shorthand for his gospel in order to stress its anti-imperialistic message, it appears from the above citations that this was a point he did not wish to emphasize very often, and even sometimes a wording he wanted to infuse with an alternative meaning, probably just to throw the secret police off the scent! 🙂

Did Imperial Rome really hold the crucifixion patent at the time of Paul?

The answer to this question depends on our starting assumptions. If we assume before commencing our enquiries that the Jesus story and Paul’s mission as per the Book of Acts are truly based heavily on historical accounts, then the answer will be “Yes”. Paul according to this assumption knew only Roman rule and that only Roman rulers administered crucifixion.

But if we attempt to put ourselves into the minds of first century moderately informed people, then we will know we have to allow for the idea of crucifixion having many provenances. Popular “novels” of the era not uncommonly include a dramatic crucifixion scene as part of the adventurous plot, including:

In the influential philosophical treatise, Timaeus, Plato describes the gateway between the corruptible realm where our earth resides and the incorruptible divine realm as a cross, in reference to where the celestial equator and ecliptic intersect.

Neighbouring peoples such as the Persians and Seleucids had carried out crucifixions. I cannot know if Rome’s neighbours at the time of Paul did, but crucifixion was not unique to Rome. Jews, in particular, would have held a cultural memory of how one of their kings, Alexander Jannaeus, had crucified 800 Pharisees. Josephus records this for us.

Paul speaks of “princes of this world” as crucifying Jesus, suggesting that it was not Rome but some other powers (compare the information we glean from Daniel) responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

A near Jewish contemporary of Paul and Jesus was Philo who also wrote about the crucifixion in ways surprisingly similar to Paul’s usage — allegorically, although not with any hint of anti-imperialist connotations.

Where is Philo?


So often I see Philo referred to in scholarly studies of biblical matters in order to clarify the intellectual context of the times. Curiously he has been overlooked by B and C. Here is Philo’s paragraph 61 from section XVII of On the Posterity of Cain and his Exile:

(61) Now the soul that subjects itself to bodily compunctions has the beforementioned inhabitants. Acheman, being interpreted, means, my brother, and Jesein means “outside of me,” and Thalmein means, some one in suspense; for it follows of necessity, that the body must be thought akin to the souls that love the body, and that external good things must be exceedingly admired by them, and all the souls which have this kind of disposition depend on dead things, and, like persons who are crucified, are attached to corruptible matter till the day of their death. (62) But the soul that is united to virtue has for its inhabitants those persons who are preeminent for virtue, persons whom the double cavern has received in pairs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeckah, Leah and Jacob, virtues and those who possess them; Chebron itself keeping the treasure-house of the memorials of knowledge and wisdom, which is more ancient than Janis and the whole land of Egypt, for nature has made the soul more ancient than the body, that is than Egypt, and virtue more ancient than vice, that is than Janis (and the name Janis, being interpreted, means the command of answer), estimating seniority rather by dignity than by length of time.

A discussion of Philo’s allegorical use of the crucifixion image can be found on pages 186-7 of David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion available on Google Books. If this Jew living under the same Roman imperial power as Paul did not associate “crucifixion” with imperialist or anti-imperialist sentiments, why should we think that Paul was compelled to do so?

Back to Borg’s and Crossan’s context of 2 Corinthians

After noting all these other passages above from the widely accepted genuine Pauline corpus, it is tempting to have a second look at the context of those passages B and C use to argue their case for an anti-imperialist message in the crucifixion.

1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

If Paul were writing at a time of various seditions and troubles preceding the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, how plausible is it, really, to suggest that Jews found an anti-imperialist gospel an offence of some sort? One would think from Josephus’s account of the various anti-Roman movements in the lead-up to the war that such a gospel would have been enthusiastically endorsed by a vast bulk of the Jews.

2:8 . . . [the princes of this world] would not have crucified the Lord of glory [Compare Daniel chapters 10 and 12 which reveal that there are divine or angelic Princes of Persia, Greece and Israel]

I am reminded of the claim of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel of John 19:10-11

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

Paul clearly could not have had anything like the “tradition” that reached the author of the Gospel of John, since Paul speaks explicitly of plural princes of the world crucifying Jesus while the gospel has one human governer under the power of God alone or a single agent of God. More likely Paul had access to a narrative or treatise or group-think that could be traced back to Psalms 2: 2

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed. . .

(The author of the Gospel of Pilate may well have used this verse too when in the surviving opener of the manuscript he appears to have pictured Herod and Pilate sitting together at the judgement of Christ.)

Long time anti-imperialist bias

11 08_6972 John Dominic Crossan
Image by Lynceus via Flickr

Crossan’s earlier work, The Historical Jesus (and its popular format, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography), was often criticized for letting show his Irish Catholic anti-

British-imperialist heritage. Methinks nothing has changed in that respect, and just as Crossan’s Jesus happened to preach Crossan’s politics, so Crossan’s Paul preaches Crossan’s politics as his gospel! How else to explain such a powerful assertion about a political message underpinning the phrase “Christ crucified” on the basis of so few citations and in defiance of so many more?

Methinks there is a stronger case for a non-historical origin for Paul’s use of the crucifixion image, but that’s another story.

But there’s more (maybe later)

I had intended the above point to have been covered in 6 lines when I started, and to follow up with B’s and C’s use of Acts and pitiful 20th century social analogies to justify their additional claims about the meaning of Paul’s message of both crucifixion and resurrection. But I’ve run out of beer and need to take a break.

The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.

I was about to start the next post in my series attempting to justify seriously questioning the “bedrock fact” status of the crucifixion of Jesus when I came across a new publication by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul : Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

There are some interesting enlightening details in it, and, (sorry to say, but Borg and Crossan are big enough to take and deserve it) some incredible howlers of both method and

conclusions that I would never have expected in a work by scholars of such high repute. Maybe this is because they were leaning more to accessing a popular reading public than the scholarly guild with this one. I am reminded of earlier posts where I have expressed some disgust against scholars who know better yet see fit to short change their popular readership like this. For my most recent protest, see my remarks on Pagels and King in A Spectrum of Jesus Mythicists and Mythers. I’ll address one of these lower high school level howlers in a future post. But first, something good and interesting from the book. (Anyway, I guess that’s one of the reasons for my blog — to attempt to make a bit more accessible some of the thinking of scholars on these sorts of topics.)

On page 127 they write:

For many centuries, the death of Jesus has been understood by most Christians as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, as a substitutionary atonement, as this theological understanding is called.

This way of seeing the death of Jesus is very familiar. Most Christians today, and most non-Christians who have heard anything about Christianity, think that the cross means, in slight variations:

Jesus died for our sins.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died in our place.

Jesus is the payment for sin.

For this understanding, the notions of punishment, substitution, and payment are central. We deserve to be punished by God for our sins, but Jesus was the substitute who paide the price. The issue is how we may be forgiven by God for our sin and guilt.

Then follows what must be a bombshell for most fundamentalists in particular:

But this understanding is less than a thousand years old. (p.128)

So where did it come from?

Borg and Crossan answer: It came from a theological treatise, Cur Deus Homo? = Why Did God Become Human? by Anselm of Canterbury, first published in 1097.

Anselm of Canterbury
Image via Wikipedia

This is Anselm’s argument:

  1. All people have disobeyed God. So all people are sinners.
  2. Someone has to pay for our sin. Forgiveness means that compensation must be made for the offence or crime. If no payment was required for sin, then it would imply God does not think is anything very important.
  3. Since God is infinite, our debt to him is also infinite. But we are finite, so are incapable of paying the price owed.
  4. Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.

And this has been the understanding of Christianity in general ever since! Well, I never knew that! Just Kipling Just So story, only it’s probably true! 😉

Mel Gibson and his “patron pope”, John-Paul II who apparently loved his The Passion of the Christ movie, have both preached the same Anselm Cur Deus Homo? doctrine.

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Grounds to question the crucifixion as bedrock fact, 2

Following on from Reasons to Question the Historicity of the Crucifixion . . . .

By examining the supposedly earliest evidence first, and the later evidence later, (sounds silly to even have to spell out such a basic methodology) one can see how a theological idea and image eventually became historicized.

Continuing  . . .  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.

Last post looked at Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. Now for 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 1:13, 17-18, 22-25

Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? . . . . For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. . . . For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

I do not see how it is possible to read a criminal or religious trial and execution into the above references to the crucifixion of Christ, unless by overfamiliarity and divine fiat.

These are among the earliest references to the crucifixion of Jesus, according to the most widely accepted dating (that is, that the Pauline letters were composed from the mid first -century c.e.).

The notion of the crucifixion of Christ at this point is that it is a spiritual power and form of divine wisdom.

It is not as if we have any evidence that there was a real criminal trial and execution over which early disciples of Jesus were confused and embarrassed, and that they later rationalized as some form of “spiritual power” or “wisdom”. Note, it is not the resurrection that infuses spiritual power or wisdom, but the crucifixion. One could understand confused and embarrassed followers pointing to earlier miracles or the subsequent resurrection on which to rationalize and vindicate their faith. But that is not what we find here at all.

The second half of the above is even less consistent with the concept of an historical event.

The reason the Jews rejected the message of the crucifixion was because it was not a public miracle. “The Jews require a sign” — for this reason the crucifixion was “a stumblingblock”. To judge by Paul’s statements here, it is as if there never were any conflict between Jesus and “the Jews” over blasphemous claims or violations of legal codes or envy over Jesus’ abilities to pull in large crowds. As far as Paul is aware, the reason the Jews do not accept Jesus as their Messiah is because the sign of his Messiahship was not a public miracle.

Had there been an historical crucifixion somewhat along the broad outline we read in the decades later canonical gospels, surely the reason the Jews rejected Jesus was because they believed he was a blasphemer or demon-possessed deceiver and spoke against the Temple and taught people to violate of the Mosaic law.

The reason given here for the Greeks rejecting the Messiahship of Jesus is just as problematic if we insist on a gospel like narrative of a crucifixion.

Paul’s reason for the Greeks rejecting Jesus was because they could not see any philosophical wisdom in a crucifixion. Note that there is no hint in Paul’s mind that a crucifixion might actually indicate criminality of the victim.

Paul is saying that Jews and Greeks do not accept the crucifixion because it was either not a public miracle or it was not a philosophical tenet. That speaks volumes for what the message of the crucifixion was and was not. It was a theological concept claiming to be a miraculous power and secret wisdom for those who were called by God to understand. It was not an historical event involving a trial over violation of civil or religious laws.

If we insist on arguing that Paul’s view was a rationalization and attempt to deny a real historical event, then we are in danger of arguing from mere assumption and in defiance of the earliest evidence.

(I understand that sometimes later evidence can point to earlier events, but it must also be consistent with the earlier evidence. Mere assumption and hypotheses pulled out of imaginative airs cannot replace material evidence.)

1 Corinthians 2:1-2

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Paul’s message about the crucifixion was “the testimony of God”. It was not the testimony of men or other apostles or eyewitnesses or official reports or the grapevine. It was not the testimony of a Jesus in a vision. It was “the testimony of God”.

This testimony of God was “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Jesus Christ, and him crucified, was not from eyewitness or second or third hand historical testimony. It was a message from God.

1 Corinthians 2:7-8

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Here Paul returns to the message or testimony of God, and the wisdom of God which he earlier explained was “Christ crucified”.

Had the princes of this world known the wisdom of God they would not have crucified Christ. Princes of the world. Not the governor Pilate of the Jews. Not King Herod or the Jewish Sanhedrin of the Jews. Pauline letters elsewhere speak of struggling against higher powers in spiritual warfare. Daniel (and apocalyptic Second Temple authors) understood Princes of this world to be angelic powers.

Of course one can interpret this to mean that the angelic powers directed Pilate to crucify Jesus. But that is to read the earlier evidence through the theology and narrative of the later evidence.

Let’s see first of all how much understanding we can gain of Paul’s message by examining it one archaeological layer at a time and slowly working our way up.

Reasons to question the historicity of the crucifixion

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.

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