bookmark_borderNorman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 4

Part of Geisler’s case for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” is based on the spear-wound story, which is found only in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel.
One general reason for doubting the historicity and reliability of the spear-wound story is this:
GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable
(GR3) is supported by various cautions and doubts expressed by Raymond Brown (a leading N.T. scholar who is an expert on the Passion Narratives) in the opening pages of The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 (hereafter: DOM1).
1. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. (DOM1, p.4)
There are no eyewitness accounts of the trials and crucifixion of Jesus. That is to say, the Passion Narratives in the four gospels are NOT accounts written by eyewitnesses to the events described. Nor are the accounts hearsay evidence based on reports or testimony of eyewitnesses of the events.
2. Available to us are four different accounts …in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John…(DOM1, p.4)
There are contradictions and inconsistencies between the Passion Narratives of the four gospels, so we know that most of the PNs are less than 100% accurate and reliable.
3. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John…(DOM1, p.4)
There is a significant gap of time–a number of decades–between the events described in the Passion Narratives and the writing of the Passion Narratives. That is time for memories to fade or to become distorted and time for oral tradition to evolve and develop, creating non-historical events and details in the process. That is time for oral traditions to shape and influence memories of eyewitnesses of the events and alter the memories of others about the oral testimony of eyewitnesses.
4. …the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. (DOM1, p.4)
Brown is indicating that not only are the authors of the gospels NOT eyewitnesses, but that these authors got their information from oral and written traditions, i.e. from people who were also NOT eyewitnesses.
5. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating. (DOM1, p.4-5)
To get back to historical facts about Jesus, we must go through two layers of speculation: (1) speculation about the contents of preGospel tradition based on careful analysis of the PNs, (2) speculation about actual historical events and details concerning Jesus’ arrest, trials, and crucifixion (based on the speculative reconstruction of preGospel tradition behind the PNs).
6. The overall view of the passion presented by each evangelist [i.e. author of a gospel] is a major factor in our study. Comparing the four PNs, we see a general similarity in narrative sequence but considerable difference in content. Each evangelist has organized the material to serve a different presentation of the passion. Interpreting that view must take precedence over speculation about earlier tradition or the situation of Jesus. Thus, for instance, Mark/Matt, Luke, and John report three different sayings as Jesus’ last words from the cross. (DOM1, p.5)
It is not clear in this paragraph WHY interpreting the “overall view” of an author of a PN “must take precedence” over speculation about preGospel tradition or the historical facts behind the preGospel tradition. However, Brown is indicating here that when the contents of the PNs differ this is often attributable to differences in beliefs or purposes between the different authors of the PNs. This shows that the contents of the PNs are significantly shaped by bias on the part of the authors.
One reason why understanding the bias or “overall view” of the passion held by a particular author of a PN should take priority over historical speculation is that the attempt to reconstruct a preGospel tradition ought (if one is interested in historical truth and objectivity) to take into account the general viewpoint and BIAS of the author of each PN. When a particular event or detail fits rather neatly with the BIAS of the author of a PN, that is a red flag, an indication that we should suspect that particular event or detail is fictional or a possibly a distortion of information derived from the bias or views of the author.
7. The evangelists wrote some nineteen hundred years ago in a social and thought world quite different from our own.  Literalist interpreters of the Bible seem to think that the Gospel texts can be read as if Jesus were addressing himself to audiences of today.  In fact, however, Jesus was a Jew of the first third of the 1st cent. AD who spoke, thought, and acted as such. …we cannot understand it [Jesus’ mindset] in the way we understand our own thought world.  The same would be true of our relationship to the evangelists, although with added difficulties, for we know more of Jesus than we know of them.  For instance…whether they were Jews or Gentiles we are not sure. (DOM1, p.6)
In order to reconstruct the preGospel tradition behind the PNs, we need to take into account the beliefs, experiences, biases, and purposes of the authors of the gospels. But we don’t know who wrote the gospels and we have very little solid information about the authors of the gospels. This makes it more difficult to determine which events or details in the PNs were likely to have been invented or distorted by the authors of the gospels. Also, because we don’t know who wrote the gospels, we don’t have independent data on the honesty, integrity, reliability, rationality and objectivity of the authors. Any such character traits must be inferred from careful reading and comparison of the gospel texts.
 8. Readers of this commentary will be reminded repeatedly that we are dealing with narratives. The division of the commentary into acts and scenes is meant to underline my view that the passion accounts are truly dramatic narratives. …Indeed, at times John even supplies elements of staging, e.g. , in the outside-inside organization of the Pilate trial. …That fact must play a role in our interpretive judgments. For instance, an impressive number of happenings occur in threes.  In Mark/Matt in Gethsemane, he first comes with the body of disciples and speaks to them; second, he takes along Peter, James, and John and speaks to them; last, he goes off by himself and speaks to God.  After he has prayed, Jesus returns three times to find the disciples sleeping. In all the Gospels Peter denies Jesus three times.  In Mark the crucifixion scene involves the third, sixth, and ninth hours; and in the Synoptics Jesus is mocked three times as he hangs on the cross, even as in John three groups of people deal with the crucified Jesus.  The use of “three” is a well-known feature of storytelling, most familiar to English-speaking audiences in jokes (English-Irish-Scot, priest-minister-rabbi; etc.). Scholars rightly assume that it is unlikely that everything happened so conveniently in threes, and so seek to reconstruct the preGospel history.(DOM1, p.11-12)
In other words, some events and details of the PNs are fictional and serve literary or dramatic purposes. Brown is suggesting that the PNs be viewed as something like plays. In a play about an historical figure, we do NOT expect every event and every detail in the play to be historical and accurate. In such plays we expect the author of the play to take a certain amount of liberty with the facts and data in order to create a good play, to keep our attention, to move the audience, and to make some significant points, or raise significant issues. Brown is suggesting that the authors of the Gospels intended the PNs to be treated something like plays, not to be treated like careful and objective news reports.
9. Neglecting the narrative form of the passion can give rise to questions that miss the mark, e.g. how can the evangelist know what the Synoptic Jesus prayed for in Gethsemane when the disciples were asleep? Such a question…fails to understand the literary nature of what is being related. In most narratives the omniscient narrator tells the readers things about the protagonist without ever explaining where this information was gained. …a memory that Jesus cried out to God when facing death (Heb 5:7) may, to suit the conventions of narrative, have been filled in dramatically from memories of Jesus’ style of praying. (DOM1, p.12)
Because the PNs are dramatic narratives that are similar to a play, the words of Jesus (and others) may in some cases be invented by the author, who, based the invented words on information or beliefs about things that Jesus (or other figures) said at other times and at other places.
There were no tape recorders or video cameras in first century Palestine, and very few people could read and write. So, preserving the actual specific words spoken by a person at a specific time and place was extremely difficult and unlikely. This fact in conjunction with Brown’s point about the literary and dramatic nature of the PNs means that we can place little confidence in the words attributed to Jesus and other people who speak in the PNs. The words may have simply been invented by the author of the PN or by the storytellers who passed on the preGospel tradition upon which the PN was based. The author or storyteller may have only intended to provide words that are fitting or appropriate for Jesus to have spoken, based on things that they believe Jesus said on other occasions.
10. In this commentary I shall work with the understanding that the Gospels are distillations of earlier Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. The individual evangelists organized what they took over from such a background in order to communicate to their audiences an interpretation of Jesus that would nourish faith and life (as John 20:31 states explicitly). (DOM1, p.13)
The Gospels are not based on transcripts from the trials of Jesus, nor on interviews of eyewitnesses to the trials or crucifixion of Jesus. They are based on “Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus”. In short, they are based on religious propaganda. Furthermore, the authors of the Gospels were not attempting to carefully analyze this propaganda to separate out fact from fiction, history from legend; they themselves were engaged in creating religious propaganda.
So, we have a double-helping of bias here. The source is religious propaganda which is then organized, revised, and edited in order to produce texts that are themselves religious propaganda. So, we start out with what is presumably already a mixture of fact and fiction, and then make significant changes to that “information” which reshape the questionable materials on the basis of Christian beliefs, theological views, and for the sake of dramatic and literary purposes that have nothing to do with constructing an accurate historical account of the events.
I think the above ten points are sufficient to show that even the somewhat conservative views of Brown about the PNs are fairly skeptical and that if we take Brown’s scholarly conclusions and views seriously, we ought to have significant doubts about the historical reliability and accuracy of the PNs.
Anyone who is interested in the question of the historical accuracy and reliability of the PNs should read at least Section 1 of DOM1 (p.4-35).
Christian apologists such as Geisler, are like the Sales & Marketing department of Christianity. N.T. scholars such as Brown, are more like Engineering & Manufacturing. You will find a great deal more honesty and straight talk about the Bible from leading mainstream N.T. scholars than you will ever find among Christian apologists.

bookmark_borderNorman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 3

In previous posts I have argued that only two of Geisler’s eight reasons for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” are worthy of serious consideration. One of those two reasons is based on the spear-wound story, which is found ONLY in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel (John 19:31-37).
There are many reasons to doubt the historicity and reliability of the spear-wound story, but I have started with four general reasons:
GR1. The gospels are historically problematic
GR2. The Fourth gospel is the most historically unreliable of the gospels
GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable
GR4. The Passion narrative of the Fourth gospel is historically unreliable
(GR1) and (GR2) were covered in Part 2.
GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable
Two books that I would recommend on this subject are Who Killed Jesus? by John Crossan, and The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 by Raymond Brown. Crossan takes a more skeptical position on the Passion Narratives (PNs) than does Brown:
“Basically the issue is whether the passion accounts are prophecy historicized or history remembered,” said John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I’m 80 percent in the opposite direction.” (New York Times, March 27, 1994, National section)
[quoted in Who Killed Jesus, p.1]

I other words, Crossan believes that most of the content of the PNs is fictional, because it was derived from interpretation of Jewish scripture, not from memories nor from eyewitness testimony about the events, while Brown (allegedly) believes that most of the content of the PNs is historical, because it was derived from memories or reports of people who were followers of Jesus who were present during the events of Jesus’ final week.
One reason why Crossan is more skeptical than Brown is that they have different views about the Fourth gospel. Crossan believes that the PN in John is based on Mark’s PN:
That general understanding of John’s composition means that, for me, he is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus but not for the passion and resurrection stories. …The result is that I find only a single independent source, Mark, behind all four of the New Testament passion stories. I remind you that journalistic ethics and historical reconstruction must tread very carefully when they have but a single independent source. In looking at anything from John’s passion (and resurrection) story, I emphasize with equal force both Synoptic dependence and Johannine creativity. (Who Killed Jesus, p.22)
Brown, on the other hand sees the PN of the Fourth gospel as a second source that is independent of Mark’s PN. However, Brown acknowledges that scholars disagree on this issue: “Yet there are many scholars who argue for Johannine dependence on Mark [in terms of John’s PN]…” (The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1, p.55)
Brown is more conservative than Crossan in his views about the PNs, but I think Crossan may be exaggerating the difference between his skepticism and the views of Brown. In the opening pages of Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown expresses many cautions and doubts about the historical reliability of the PNs. Brown may be less inclined to see stories and details in the PNs as fictional, but he takes a fairly skeptical view of the PNs as sources for historical information. If Geisler had read and taken seriously the points and cautions made by Brown in the first 35 pages of The Death of the Messiah, then Geisler would probably never have put the spear-wound story forward as being a strong reason for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.
John P. Meier, a leading Jesus scholar, called Raymond Brown’s work The Death of the Messiah (Vol. 1 & 2) “The benchmark by which any future study of the Passion Narratives will be measured.” (from back cover of paperback edition of The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1). N.T. Wright also has high praise for these volumes by Brown: “Massive, hugely learned, yet clear and accessible. This will be a landmark for at least a generation.” (The Original Jesus, p.152). Anyone who is interested in the question “Did Jesus actually die on the cross?” ought to read at least the first section of The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1.
There are 877 pages in Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah (hereafter: DOM1), and 731 pages in Volume 2. Section 1 of Volume 1 actually begins on page 4, and the second paragraph of section 1 is perhaps the most important paragraph in the entire massive commentary:
The subject for discussion is the passion of Jesus. Understandably there is a desire to know what Jesus himself said, thought, and did in the final hours of his life. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating. (DOM1, p.4-5)
Thus one of the world’s leading N.T. scholars, a scholar who knew more about the PNs than almost any other scholar in the history of mankind, tells us that whenever we try to infer or reconstruct the preGospel tradition that lies behind the PNs in the four gospels “we are speculating” and that attempting to get to actual historical facts about Jesus based on such inferences about preGospel tradition is even more speculative. Furthermore, we are told this right up front, on the opening page of Section 1 of a commentary on the PNs that spans over 1,600 pages.
If Geisler had just read the first couple of pages of DOM1, and if he had taken Brown’s view of the PNs seriously, he would have been much more hesitant and cautious about the historicity of the spear-wound story, which is found only in the gospel of John.
In the next part of this series I will lay out many of the cautions and doubts put forward by Brown in the opening pages of DOM1.
Read more: https://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2014/07/20/norman-geislers-case-for-the-death-of-jesus-part-2/#ixzz38eU6dAmd