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)
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: