Sunday, December 16, 2018

Are the Gospel Crucifixion Scenes Eyewitness Accounts?

Everyone agrees that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross, right? Maybe. But even if that’s true, widespread agreement on a claim does not make it true. Human beings are neither infallible nor omniscient, and all too often people accept what they’ve been told uncritically and believe what they’ve been told is true without actually looking into the relevant facts. After all, that’s more and more what public schooling seems designed to do. Some things never do change.

But the inclination to exploit this gaping human defect is not reserved to the public sector. It’s been going on for millennia and can be seen in action today in Sunday schools across the world as well. The belief that Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem under Pilate and at the instigation of chief priests, comes to us pre-packaged in a set of narratives whose authors are nowhere around to answer questions. So to examine the stories we have at our disposal, we’re left to our own devices. Thus it’s instructive to compare what those narratives say against each other and explore the context in which we find them, not least with regard to the writings that came before those narratives.

The earliest layers of New Testament writings, namely a number of epistles (though not all) ascribed to the apostle Paul, pre-date the composition of the gospel narratives by decades. What we find in those early letters is strikingly different from the stories we find in the gospels. And these differences suggest that by the time the gospel narratives were penned, the views that early Christians had of Jesus had essentially evolved, sometimes as a result of new material being added to fill in gaps clearly present in the earlier layers, sometimes as a result of attempts to smooth out differences between competing factions whose rivalry was already a driving force evident in those earlier layers, and sometimes as a result of “corrections” to the overall view of Jesus favored by one faction or another.

Then there are instances in which later traditions apparently missed certain things in the early letters that clearly conflict with what we find in the narratives. As an example of this latter category of differences, consider what we read in Romans 13:1-3, where the author makes the case for paying taxes to the state:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
On this, G.A. Wells makes the following point (Can We Trust the New Testament? p. 35):
Had Paul believed that Jesus suffered under [Pontius] Pilate, he would hardly have said that the governing authorities punish only wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-7). The author of 1 Peter, who regarded Jesus as without blemish, likewise declared that imperial governors “punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right” (2:13-14). Christian writers of later date, who did believe that Jesus had been brought before Pilate, are noticeably less positive in their assessments of governors. Thus the author of the Pastoral epistles, who declares at 1 Tim. 6:13 that Jesus “witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate,” urges that supplications be made to kings and all other authorities “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life” (2:1-2).
The point being that, if it were in fact the case that “rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil,” as the earlier layer insists, such genuflection to government authorities, as the later layer recommends, would not be necessary. And the point serves as a telling clue: in Paul’s day, earthly rulers were seen to be on the side of good given their providential appointment (“Colossians 1:15… places Jesus’ crucifixion in a supernatural milieu,” Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, p. 102, i.e., not in an earthly setting presided over by human rulers), while later versions of the Jesus story result from efforts to provide some semblance of a historical backdrop to his punishment, thus necessitating earthly players. Thus we have the introduction in later layers of the New Testament of Pontius Pilate.

It’s important to emphasize at this point that, while the early letters do in fact affirm that Jesus was crucified, they provide no account for the crucifixion itself. Specifically, the epistles do not indicate where Jesus was crucified, when Jesus was crucified, or any circumstances surrounding his crucifixion which we can identify as suggesting a time, place or series of historical events that lead up to it. Basically the early epistles state the barest basics: Jesus was crucified, he was resurrected, and because of this, salvation has been made available to the faithful. From what we read in the epistles, Jesus’ crucifixion could have happened in the distant past relative to Paul’s lifetime.

Could there have been events in times before the early epistles that may have inspired stories of an innocent man who, in spite of “witness[ing] the good confession,” was put to death by crucifixion? Indeed there were!

Flavius Josephus provides the following relevant account (Antiquities, 13.14.2) of Alexander Jannaeus, the Hasmonean king who reigned over Judea from 103 to 76 BCE:
Now as Alexander fled to the mountains, six thousand of the Jews hereupon came together [from Demetrius] to him, out of pity at the change of his fortunes. Upon which Demetrius was afraid, and retired out of the countrey. After which the Jews fought against Alexander: and, being beaten, were slain in great numbers, in the several battels which they had. And when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein. And when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem: and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them. 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: and while they were living he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. This was indeed by way of revenge for the injuries they had done him: which punishment yet was of an inhuman nature…
Wells points out (The Jesus Legend, pp. xxvii-xxviii) that such
periods of persecution [he also cites atrocities of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria in the 2nd century BCE] are alluded to in the Jewish religious literature (for instance in the Dead Sea Scrolls); and Jannaeus’s crucifixion of 800 Pharisees left a strong impression on the Jewish world. [The apostle] Paul’s environment, then, would have known that pious Jews had been crucified long ago, although dates and circumstances would probably have been known only vaguely.
There’s also the account, also in Josephus, of one Publius Quintilicus Varus, a Roman general under Emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 BCE to 14 CE). In around 4 CE (some sources suggest an earlier date), Herod the Great died, leaving his kingdom to his three sons. Herod Archelaus, who was, shall we say, less than popular, inherited Judea, and a massive (some sources call “messianic”) revolt among the Jews ensued. Varus was called in as fixer. According to Josephus (Antiquities, 17.10.10):
Varus sent a part of his army into the countrey, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt: and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty; and some he dismissed. Now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.
With mass crucifixions of Jews such as these (and there apparently were others around this time as well), there must have been numerous oral traditions alluding to such atrocities, shaping a cultural consciousness probably not unlike the kind of fears we find today of nuclear holocaust, depletion of natural resources, “climate change,” the return of Elvis, and the like, spurring tales of authoritarian persecution, apocalyptic woe, and of course, ultimate divine vengeance. The times were ripe for messianic hope, and no doubt this encouraged many to find indicators wherever they could (especially in sacred literature) that their hopes were not in vain, but in fact soon to be realized.

So even without appealing to divine forces, it’s not difficult to hypothesize that there was some significant momentum behind motivations among some individuals living in the first century CE to pen accounts of a dying and rising savior who fit the bill, given circumstances that would have been familiar to those living in the culture of the times.

Given the remarkable dearth of detail in the early New Testament letters about the time, place and events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, many thinkers have raised cogent suspicions that the early epistle writers did not have in mind anything of the sort that we find in the gospel narratives, and that the latter actually represent efforts, for theological and apologetic purposes, to flesh out a historical setting for Jesus’ passion. A chief concern motivating the composing of the gospel accounts seems to be a desire to stave off the view, likely circulating at the time, that Jesus’ followers were merely hallucinating their Jesus. Indeed, if Jesus’ death and resurrection were really just a cosmic event and not a physical reality, then Christianity is open to the charge of being nothing more than a form of mass delusion on a par with rival cults of the day. And even though believers then just as today are perfectly content to imagine Jesus standing right beside them (see for example Carr vs. Cole), such a practice actually undermines apologetic goals. When it comes to vindicating the faith to an unbelieving world, a real flesh-and-blood Jesus is far superior to a Jesus that is merely imagined (and therefore imaginary – as Steve Hays has pointed out, “An imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus”), even though we’re told that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50).

So in a way, given Christianity’s many rivalries in the day and its clashes with authorities, it was inevitable that some in the believing community would seek to locate their object of worship in a historical setting, as we find in the gospel narratives, but not in the early epistles. “Seek and ye shall find,” reads Matt. 7:7 (and this parallel in Luke; John suggests otherwise here and here). After all, if you were sitting in a pew listening to preachers go on about the existential significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, wouldn’t you at least be curious about the time, place and circumstances of what is being characterizes as a bigger-than-life event? In such a case, the early epistles are utterly anticlimactic, and the development of stories, filled with legends as they’d have to be given the lack of details available to anyone faced with such a task, would practically be inevitable.

It should not surprise us, then, that when we do get to the gospel narratives, what we find there does not bode well for the claim that we have eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ crucifixion.

The gospel crucifixion accounts are found in the following texts:
The accounts we read here are not given as personal recollections of events which their authors witnessed firsthand. The authors do not even claim to be documenting something they themselves witnessed. On the contrary, these accounts have more of a novelistic character, everything narrated in the third person (e.g., A happened, then B happened, next C happened, later D happened, and so on) as opposed to a personal account (e.g., I saw A, then I remember B happening after that because I saw C, and I was doing X and clearly remember D, and E said to me, and then I did F and saw G… etc.). This in itself raises my suspicions, but to compound these suspicions are the following two fundamental facts:
1. The accounts in Matthew, Luke and John are essentially re-writes of the account found in Mark, and  
2. The account in Mark is essentially a re-write mostly of Psalm 22, which Mark quotes verbatim at points but does not cite.
Let’s look at these in turn.

First, we have the conspicuously striking similarities between all four accounts, with few noteworthy differences. The features that are similar all appear in roughly the same sequence, as though three were copying or paraphrasing the one, and those features which are unique to a single account either cause problems for apologists or at any rate raise our eyebrows in puzzlement.

Let’s look at the core of each of the four variations of the crucifixion scene from the gospels: Mark 15:21-24:
Then 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. And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. Then they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it. And when they crucified Him, they divided His garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take.
Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink. Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots
Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus. And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him. But Jesus, turning to them, said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For indeed the days are coming in which they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts which never nursed!’ Then they will begin ‘to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?”
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.
Apologists are often content to point to the striking similarities shared by these four passages as unassailable indications of the “harmony” between the gospels (printed bibles do just this in appendices), thus presumably underscoring their authenticity as documenting real history. This would be like a professor of a graduate class citing the nearly verbatim quotations in three of his students’ theses of a fourth student’s thesis, without giving the latter his due credit, as evidence that what all four theses state must therefore entirely true, not as a tell-tale sign of plagiarism. Of course, the fact that the fourth gospel, John, not only omits the part of Simon the Cyrenian (apparently a passerby casually strolling along the procession who was randomly picked out) carrying Jesus’ cross for him, his account actually states explicitly that Jesus was “bearing His [own] cross,” apparently with no help whatsoever. John, per his own theological ideology, wanted to make sure that his Jesus bore the full weight of humanity’s sins, with no mortal help whatsoever.

On this latter point, Price points out (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, p. 321):
John found the notion that Jesus did not or could not carry his own cross untoward, even offensive, perhaps thinking it made nonsense of any appeal for would-be disciples to take up their own crosses and follow Jesus. So he changed it.
An excellent point! Consider the following instruction which the Synoptics put into Jesus’ mouth:
Mark 8:34: “When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”  
Matthew 10:38: “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”  
Luke 14:27: “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”
Indeed, how coherent would it be, on the one hand, for Jesus to insist that his followers take up their own cross in order to follow him, and yet, on the other, when it comes time for Jesus to face his crucifixion, someone else is selected to bear Jesus’ cross for him? I surmise not very!

Price also notes (Ibid.):
Apologists seek to harmonize the two accounts [i.e., the Synoptic version in which Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross vs. the Johannine version in which Jesus carries his own cross] by simply splitting the difference, as if Jesus started out with the cross on his shoulder, then dropped it, whereupon the Romans yanked Simon out of the crowd and ordered him to take over. But this will not do. This is the one alternative excluded by both the Johannine and the Synoptic versions, each of which is quite clear.
Price is right: there’s no suggestion in any of the relevant passages that Jesus and Simon tag-teamed the transport of the cross beam. To interpret such a scene out of what’s given in the texts is to go beyond the texts themselves and insert a detail which is nowhere given in either of the texts purely for the purposes of vindicating both as historically reliable. Besides, even if one favors the idea that Jesus pooped out due to exhaustion and weakness, thus necessitating that someone else forward the cross to the execution venue, wouldn’t this still fly in the face of the Synoptic instruction to carry one’s own cross? Isn’t that the whole point of the instruction, that one “endureth to the end” (cf. Mt. 10:22, Mt. 24:13, Mk. 13:13, et al.) regardless of the extremity of hardship?

Luke’s account is unique in giving Jesus a speech (23:27-31) to those who followed him to the scene of his execution, including “women who also mourned and lamented him.” His words are not words of gratitude and reassurance, but rather a message of doom and dread, even vindictiveness, going so far as to encourage self-pity on the part of those present at the scene, reading as one shrouded in riddles. And yet, we’re presumably supposed to expect that the hearers of these words actually understood this teaching, when throughout much of the gospel of Mark Jesus’ teachings land on persistently confused ears, particularly among his faithful followers! It’s one thing to tell people that woe cometh; it’s another completely to forecast the coming of a horrific end without any indication of how faithful followers can protect themselves from the destruction allegedly coming. This speech is surely not what we would expect to hear on the occasion which is supposed to give mankind all this hope for the final riddance of sin and eternal future redemption. Moreover, the contrast between the content of this speech and its addressees on the one hand, and the words that Luke has him mouth at 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do”) couldn’t be starker: Jesus wants those who have strung him up in spite of his innocence to be forgiven, and yet those who have come to mourn his execution are to weep for themselves for having given birth to children!

But what was Luke’s source for this speech he puts into Jesus’ mouth? Did someone attend Jesus’ crucifixion with a notebook and jot this down as he was saying it? That seems quite unlikely, given the situation, and of course the passage, even on the most generous reading, nowhere suggests this. Rather, a plausible inference is that this speech is an allusion to the sacking of Jerusalem. Hence Wells sees in this speech “a good example of the way Luke represents the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as a punishment for the Jews’ treatment of Jesus” (Who Was Jesus? p. 153). Thus, if there is a riddle here, perhaps this is how it’s best solved. As a meager bonus, it tells us that the passage itself, if not the entire gospel, could not have been composed prior to the aforementioned event, an event which would have destroyed countless records as well as masonry.

As to the similarities between the accounts, I think it’s also noteworthy how devoid of specifics each gospel account treats the actual crucifying part. Each account is in agreement in mentioning Jesus’ crucifixion completely in passing, as if it were a trifling matter:
Mark 15:25: “and they crucified him…”  
Matthew 27:35: “Then they crucified him, and divided his garments…”  
Luke 23:33: “And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him…”  
John 19:18: “where they crucified him…”
We’re not told how many nails were used, how many hammer blows were needed to secure Jesus to the cross frame, how Jesus reacted to the hammer blows, how any of followers of his in attendance reacted to the spectacle, whether it was a windy day, a hot day, etc. I could see such treatment of something if it were completely incidental and insignificant to the overall plot, such as the following:
“And when he put his hat back on…”  
“And after he put it in his pocket...”  
“Then he took his seat…”  
“where he set his book down…”
But here the accounts are telling us that Jesus Christ is finally getting nailed to the cross. Isn’t this singular event supposed to be centrally important to the climax of the greatest story ever told? It seems that the gospel writers really didn’t have any more details of Jesus being fixed to the cross than did the authors of the early letters. That’s not what we would expect if the writers of the gospels had the benefit of input from eyewitnesses!

Again, what we likely have here is the transmission of a tradition that had been handed down to whoever in the end decided to take up the pen and flesh out a Jesus story, beginning with Mark, who had no information about the actual moment of crucifixion other than the sequence of scenes attending the crucifixion – which we’ll get to below.

What we don’t have in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are statements like the following, which would lend credence to the view that the they have the backing of someone who actually witnessed the drama:
“Our Lord was clearly in pain, but he did his best not to show it. He knew we were all still very loyal to him, so he didn’t want to let us down by letting the pain overwhelm him. In fact, I don’t think he let out one shriek or scream, enduring every moment almost as if he were pleased with what was happening. There were a few moments when I thought he would falter, but he was very strong. Then they raised up the cross above us. The sun was scorching that day, so I know he was in maximum torment. It was an awful sight to behold. I hope I never see anything like it again!”  
“I remember his face was very severe given the pain inflicted by the hammer blows…”  
“His speech was vindictive and biting, snarling at those who came to watch him die, seething with venomous stings and biting words.”  
“I saw a defeated man, pitiful in every way imaginable, dutifully accepting his sentence, but still offering words of hope to his followers, inspiring many, me included!”  
“What the authorities did to Jesus was unconscionable! He was completely innocent of the crimes he was charged of committing, and he was put to death unjustly. But even as they nailed him to the cross, which I watched with mine own eyes, he neither did rebuke his handlers nor cursed them for their deed. I’ll never forget this as long as I live, and I’ll tell everyone I meet that Jesus was a good man and we should all [blah blah blah]…”
It’s instructive to compare what we have in the gospels and their treatment of Jesus’ crucifixion with a passage in Josephus’ autobiography in which he recounts witnessing people he knew personally suffering crucifixion:
I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician's hands, while the third recovered.
Albeit not a blow-by-blow (excuse the pun?) of the actual attaching of a victim to a cross, Josephus shows how a person of the times could write about an experience he himself has witnessed, using the first person singular (“I” instead of a series of indefinite “he’s” and “they’s”), calling out firsthand apprehension of the event in question (“I saw… and remembered”) and his own actions and emotions. By contrast, what we get in each gospel, with conspicuous, even eye-raising uniformity, is a rather dispassionate, matter-of-fact, even indifferent, retelling of a story, ironically with less passion than a commercial for toothpaste.

So already what we have on its face value in the gospels does not bear the hallmarks of actual witness accounts. But compounding this even further is that, when we start to scratch that surface, we find that the similarities noted above do in fact have a common source. And that common source is not an actual event that the authors witnessed, but rather ancient poetry. I’m speaking of course of the Psalms, especially the 22nd Psalm as well as other ancient verse, sources far, far removed from the Jerusalem of the first century C.E.

Here I’ll quote Robert Price at length (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, pp. 321-22):
Let us outline the crucifixion step by step. First, Jesus is attached to the cross, presumably with nail, based on Ps. 22:16, “They have pierced my hands and feet.” Second, the soldiers divide his garments (Mark 15:24), a detail derived directly from Ps. 22:18, “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.” Third, the gloating mockers “wag their heads,” an odd phrase, and one derived from Ps. 22:7, “All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads.Fourth, the very taunts of the priests (“Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross, that we may see and believe!” Mark 15:32) echo those that stung the Psalmist: “’He committed his cause to Yahve; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Ps. 22:8). Matt. 27:43 supplements the mockery here: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the son of God.’” Where did Matthew get this? His own or others’ memories of the event? No, from Wis. Of Sol. 2:12-20 (which perforce he condensed): “But let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he makes it hard for us, and opposes our works, and upbraids us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself the servant of the Lord. He became to us a living reproof of our thoughts. He is grievous for us even to behold because his life is unlike that of other men, and his ways are alien to us. He disdains us as base metal, and he avoids our ways as unclean. The final end of the righteous man is he calls happy, and he claims that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us see what will happen at the end of his life! For if the righteous man is God’s son, he will uphold him, and he will rescue him from the grasp of his adversaries. With outrage and torture let us put him to the test, that we may see for ourselves his gentleness and prove his patience under injustice. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for surely God shall intervene as this fellow said he would!”  
Fifth, there is Jesus’ cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is of course the opening line of Psalm 22, only Mark does not say so. Luke deems these words unbecoming, so he changes them – to something Luke knew Jesus had actually said on that occasion? No, he took it (“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” Luke 23:46) from Ps. 31:5. John explicitly cites Ps. 22:18 about the garments and tacitly uses Ps. 22:14 (“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are dislocated; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast”) as the basis for his unique detail of the soldier stabbing Jesus’ side, “and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). John also makes Jesus’ thirst and its rough satisfaction with vinegar (John 19:28-29) a prophetic fulfillment, unwittingly pointed to Ps. 69:21 (“They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” as the probable origin of the whole motif, which also appears in the Synoptics (Mark 15:36, Matt. 27:34, Luke 23:36).
It should be clear, then, that instead of relying on firsthand memory or eyewitness testimony of an actual event, the authors of the gospels were taking passages from Psalms 22 and other pieces of wisdom literature to weave together a scene in their passion sequences. And since the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are based on Mark, they are clearly not independent accounts of an actual historical event. Otherwise, why base an account of an actual historical event on another account rather than on firsthand memory, and likewise why assemble a scene from pieces taken from sacred literature if the scene so depicted actually happened? To point to the gospel crucifixion scenes and call them accounts of an actual event borders on the same silliness as Monty Python’s grail-hunting troupe entertaining the suggestion that the inscription on the cave wall was illegible because its author had been dictating.

Instead of actual history, the gospel crucifixion scenes are essentially an artistic literary creation, whose roots probably go back long before Christians today could tolerate given their urgent desire to believe that Jesus was actually crucified in the time of Pilate ca. 30 C.E. The “evidence” we have in the gospel accounts is actually evidence that the story is a yarn woven from writings passed down from generations in the past and cherished as though they had some divine message hidden in them for the current times, when in fact that could not have been the case. Psalm 22, for example, as Price point out (Ibid., p. 321)
is quite clearly what is called an Individual Lament psalm, a song sung by or on behalf of someone in extremity who feels himself forsaken by God, he knows not why, but still has faith and appeals to the Almighty to rescue him now, in the eleventh hour, promising to appear in the temple afterward with “a new song” (a Thanksgiving Psalm) and an offering to present, which he means to share with the poor invited for the occasion. He promises he will testify to all of them on that happy day how God finally rescued him from his undefined plight – undefined, as in all such psalms, so as to be applicable to anyone in trouble.
Thus, as an Individual Lament psalm intended “to be applicable to anyone in trouble,” Psalm 22 was not a “prophesy” that was later fulfilled when Jesus was crucified, but rather an open-ended poem about any kind of suffering that was later “processed” (I have in mind one of those Playdoh extruders) into the scene we find in Mark’s gospel, which in turn was later picked up and re-fashioned in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.

The conclusion, then, is unavoidable, namely that the crucifixion scenes in the gospels in fact cannot be historical accounts, but rather variations on a tradition (or set of traditions) inspired by scripture exegesis. The texts to which we have access today in the New Testament, actually serve as evidence for the conclusion that the gospels do not have the benefit of eyewitness support, but in fact are assemblages pieced together from strands taken from ancient text and re-interpreted to fit current traditions. The earliest epistolary layers of the New Testament fail to place Jesus’ crucifixion in any specific historical setting, indicating neither time nor place for this central element of Christian doctrine, while the gospel accounts themselves are simply variations of ancient wisdom texts re-imagined for theological and apologetic purposes of the day. Unfortunately, this has grave implications for the Christian worldview: If there were no crucifixion of Jesus, then there was no resurrection of Jesus. And if there were no resurrection of Jesus, then sadly, the fundamental beliefs of today’s Christians are all in vain.

by Dawson Bethrick


Jason mc said...

Interesting stuff! Apologists surely have ways to explain away clear inconsistencies in the gospel stories. They've had centuries to think of them. I can think of another one to deal with Simon of Cyrene. If Jesus created the universe, then he created Simon, so any heavy-lifting apparently performed by the Cyrenian can be quite properly, ultimately attributed to Jesus. John's gospel emphasises Jesus's divinity. Downplaying the parts played by mere mortals would be thematically coherent.

Merry Christmas!

Jason mc said...

From Wikipedia: "The Cyrenes were famous at the time as a sect of hedonistic, atheist philosophers, and as part of a failed military uprising (that i[s], a military messiah rather than a spiritual one)."

I suppose this school of philosophy, a precursor to Epicureanism, was influential for a while.

Unknown said...

Hey Dawson,been a long time-hope you're well.
Chris DiDonna