Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 20

Before I continue to examine the historical reliability of Chapter 19 of the Fourth Gospel, let’s take a step back and consider some historical evidence from outside the Gospels on the question of whether Jesus was stabbed in the chest with a spear while on the cross:

In addition the Gospel of John reports that one of the guards pierced Jesus to confirm that he was already dead (see John 19:34-37), a practice likewise mentioned by Quintillian, a Roman historian in the first century.
(Michael Licona, from “Can We Be Certain that Jesus Died on a Cross?” in Evidence for God, p.166)

There are at least two problems with Licona’s claim:
1. Quintillian was not a Roman historian,
2. Quintillian probably did not write the passage that Licona references.

I’m a bit surprised that Licona made the first error, because in a previous book defending the resurrection that he co-authored with Gary Habermas, the claim about Quintillian was more circumspect:

The Roman author Quintillian (A.D. 35-95) reports of this procedure being performed on crucifixion victims.
(The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.102)

However, in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, no actual quote is provided; the footnote gives only the following reference:

53. Quintillian, Declarationes maiores  6:9.

From the fact that Quintillian is referred to merely as a Roman “author” one can reasonably infer that Quintillian was NOT an historian, and one would be correct to draw that inference in this case.  Furthermore, the fact that no actual quote is given in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, as well as with the reference to Quintillian in The Historical Jesus (by Habermas, see p.74), and also in The Son Rises (by William Craig, see p.38) should raise suspicions that the evidence is not as clear as Licona and Habermas and Craig would like us to believe.  This reasonable suspicion turns out to be correct as well.

The fact that Licona refers to Quintillian as a “Roman historian” indicates that Licona literally does not know what he is talking about.  If Licona simply understood the meaning of the title of the work that he cited, he should have known that Quintillian was not an historian, but was instead a rhetorician:

As we have received them in the textual tradition, the Major Declamations are a collection of nineteen entire fictitious courtroom speeches of accusation or defense which were composed sometime during the Roman Empire.  These controversiae, as they are technically termed, were composed by one or more professional teachers of rhetoric, although they have been ascribed since late antiquity to Quintillian (ca. 40 AD — ca. 96 AD)., the noted orator, teacher, holder of the Imperial Chair of Rhetoric…
For nearly six centuries the capstone of any young Roman male’s education in preparation for a career in either public service or private gain was the school of rhetoric.  There, under the tutelage of a professional rhetorician, he spent the years of his teens composing and delivering practice speeches.  These declamations, as they were called, fell into two categories: suasoriae, speeches of advice to historical figures, and controversiae, the more elaborate and demanding practice judicial speeches intended for advanced students.  In these, the teacher assigned a hypothetical court case involving usually one law or sometimes two, and a specific situation regarding a supposed violation, with the requirement that the student compose and, after suitable revision, deliver a full speech for one of the parties to the case.
(Lewis Sussman, The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian: A Translation, p.1)

Licona was not quoting from a Roman historian named Quintillian, rather he was quoting from a practice speech for a fictitious court case composed by an unknown Roman rhetorician who wrote the speech at some unknown date during the Roman Empire, and which was later ascribed to a famous Roman orator and rhetorician named Quintillian.

Although Licona demonstrates his own ignorance about the source he is quoting from, he does at least, give us the quotation (in a footnote), unlike Habermas and Craig:

As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.

Note that there is no mention that a Roman soldier is the one who does the piercing.  Note that there is no mention of a spear being used to do the piercing.  Note that there is no mention of the location of the piercing on the body of the victim.  Note that there is no explanation of the purpose of the piercing (i.e. it is not stated to be a test for determination of death nor to be used as a coup de grace).  Given the lack of details and clarity, it is now obvious why Habermas and Craig don’t bother to actually quote this passage from Declarationes maiores.

But the evidence is even weaker and more ambiguous than that, because the translation given by Licona may well be incorrect.  There is only one modern  full English translation available of the Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian, and that translation does not agree with the translation provided by Licona.  Lewis Sussman has provided the only modern full English translation of this work, and here is how he translates the passage in question:

But bodies are cut down from crosses, executioners do not prevent executed criminals from being buried…
(The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian, translated by Lewis Sussman,p.75)

Note the absence of the key word ‘pierced’.  The Latin word ‘percussos’ is translated by Sussman as ‘cut down’ rather than as ‘pierced’, though the word can have both meanings.

So, we have a passage not written by a well-known Roman historian of the first century, but rather written by an unknown teacher of rhetoric sometime during the Roman Empire.  And we have a passage that does not clearly describe a Roman soldier piercing a victim of crucifixion in the chest with a spear as either a test for determining death or as a coup de grace, but rather we have a possible reference to some person or other  piercing a victim of crucifixion on some body part or other with some implement or other for an unknown reason, and the best available translation does not even mention piercing, but rather speaks of cutting down the victim, meaning removing the victim from the cross.

So, the next time you read a Christian apologist citing some ancient historical source but not providing the actual quote, you can reasonably infer that the actual quote is probably unclear or ambiguous.  And even when the apologist gives the actual quote, you need to be suspicious of the accuracy of the quote, especially if they are giving you a translation of a quote that was originally in another language.

INDEX of Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus posts:

About Bradley Bowen
  • Chris

    A damning critique. Despite the centuries of intense effort put into biblical studies, time and time again it seems that in the resulting 'consensus,' all is not as it appears.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Thanks Chris.

    I believe that Christians bear the burden of proof when they claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

    Two key claims are:

    1. Jesus died on the cross on the day he was crucified (Friday of the week of Passover).

    2. Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday.

    We are all aware of the contradictions and historical problems concerning claim (2).

    But if we grant for the sake of argument that (2) is true, then we immediately have a very powerful reason to doubt and reject (1), and the burden of proof for (1) becomes extremely difficult to meet.

    Yet, William Craig typically writes only about a paragraph in defense of (1), and he is supposed to be one of the leading defenders of the resurrection!

    Habermas and Licona do a much better job defending (1) than William Craig, but still we have this sort of sloppy unthinking CRAP about the 'Roman historian' Quintillian given as proof of a key point (the spear wound) concerning the alleged death of Jesus on the cross.

    This is what you get from the very best of the defenders of the resurrection! Don't even get me started on the popular Christian apologists…

  • Bradley Bowen

    I have started a series of posts about Messianic prophecy on my own blog. One example, that I will eventually get around to discussing is a passage from Psalms.

    In Science Speaks, Peter Stoner comments on an alleged Messianic prophecy from Psalms:


    8. "For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet"(Ps. 22:16).

    The Jews are still looking for the coming of Christ; in fact, He might have come any time after these prophecies were written up to the present time, or even on into the future. So our question is: One man in how many, from the time of David on, has been crucified?


    Here Stoner interprets the mention of "pierced…hands and…feet" as being a reference to crucifixion.

    This suggests a plausible alternative interpretation of the passage that Licona quotes from the Major Declamations Ascribed to Quntilian. Here is the translation that Licona provides:

    "As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced."

    I have argued that the use of the term "pierced" may well be an incorrect interpretation. Since Sussman is an expert translator of Latin works, I favor his translation over that provided by Licona. Assuming that one or the other of these two translations is very likely to be correct, we can reasonably assign a probability of .6 to Sussman's translation and a probability of .4 to the translation given by Licona.

    But even if Licona's translation were correct, it does not follow that the passage from the Major Declamations is referring to a Roman soldier piercing the chest of a victim of crucifixion with a spear. In the context of a comment relating to crucifixion, the word 'pierced' might well be a reference to the piercing of hands and/or feet with nails that occurs in the process of crucifying the victim.

    I think this is at least as plausible an interpretation as the one implied by Licona. If it is very likely that either Licona's interpretation or my alternative interpretation is correct, then we could assign a probability of about .5 to each of these interpretations.

    But piercing might well be a test for death without requiring the use of a spear or the stabbing of a person in the chest. Poking or stabbing someone in the arm, leg, belly, or face would also serve the purpose of checking for a pain response. So, another interpretation would be that this passage merely refers to poking or stabbing with some sort of pointy stick or object to check for a pain response.

    Such a reference would provide only very weak support for the claim that Jesus was firmly stabbed in the chest with a spear, creating a deep wound in his chest.

    So we have at least three plausible interpretations of this passage, assuming the correctness of the translation provided by Licona:

    1. piercing refers to piercing of hands and/or feet by nails when victim is attached to the cross

    2. piercing refers to poking or stabbing the victim to check for pain response.

    3. piercing refers to stabbing the victim in the chest with a spear (either to check for pain response or as a coup de grace).

    I think each of these alternatives gives a plausible interpretation of the passage, and it is very likely that one of these three interpretations is correct, so let's assign equal probabilities to each alternative: .33

    So, given that the correctness of Licona's translation has a probability of about .4 and the correctness of his interpretation, given that translation, is about .33, the probability that Licona is right that the passage in the Major Declamations refers to the stabbing of the chest of a victim of crucifixion by a Roman soldier using a spear is .132 or about one chance in ten.

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