Craig’s “Historical Evidence” for the Death of Jesus

Anyone who asserts that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ takes on a burden of proof, and because this is an extraordinary claim, the proof required is extraordinary proof. Make a miracle claim and you take on a heavy burden of proof. So, when William Craig asserts that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’, he takes upon himself a heavy burden of proof, and part of that burden of proof is to provide powerful historical evidence for the claim that ‘Jesus actually died on the cross.’

It should go without saying that Jesus could NOT have risen from the dead until AFTER he had in fact died. So, proving the death of Jesus is essential to proving the resurrection of Jesus. But, as I pointed out in a recent post, in most of his books, articles, and debates on this subject, Craig simply ignores this question, and thus it appears that his case for the resurrection of Jesus is a complete failure. However, there is one book in which Craig devotes slightly more than two pages to defending the claim that ‘Jesus actually died on the cross.’ So, before I can show that Craig’s case is in fact a complete failure, I need to consider his two-page case for this historical claim.

It is obvious to me that it is absurd to try to argue for this historical claim in just two pages, but apparently this point is not obvious to everyone (e.g. Craig doesn’t get this), so I will walk through Craig’s attempt at defending the claim that ‘Jesus actually died on the cross.’ Hopefully, this will help others to see the absurdity of attempting to make a two-page case for this historical claim.

The book where Craig makes this case is The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. (hereafter: TSR). Based on the title, one would reasonably expect that a significant portion of TSR would involve Craig presenting historical evidence in support of the claim that ‘Jesus actually died on the cross.’ But what we actually find is that out of about 150 pages, only two pages are devoted to making a case for this key claim (about 1.5% of the book is devoted to this issue).

Furthermore, as we shall soon see, there is a glaring absence of historical evidence presented by Craig on this key question, which is no surprise given that he tries to build his case in just two scrawny pages. Craig’s case starts near the top of page 37 and concludes about 1/3 of the way down from the top of page 39. There is a little more than two pages of text in his case, which is organized into five paragraphs, containing a grand total of 35 sentences.

What is “historical evidence”? We usually think of historical evidence as being documents. There are personal documents, such as diaries, journals, and personal letters. There are also public documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, published speeches, books, articles, essays, poetry, biographies, plays, newspapers, novels, magazines, etc.

But other artifacts besides documents may also constitute historical evidence. For example: houses, buildings, furniture, carpets, tapestries, clothing, pots, dishes, cups, bowls, tools, machines, weapons, armor, boats, paintings, drawings, sculpture, mosaics, etc. Some of the best historical evidence we have is from photographs, sound recordings, and movies. (Obviously, there are no photographs, sound recordings, or movies of the actual crucifixion or burial of Jesus).

Finally, non-artifacts may also constitute historical evidence. For example: human skulls, skeletons, human hair, and even human skin (when a body is well preserved). Crimes are often solved by use of such historical evidence: footprints, fingerprints, hairs, blood, saliva, semen, and urine.

The first paragraph in Craig’s case is the longest; it contains 14 sentences, and it asserts many historical claims:

1. The theory [the Apparent Death Theory] failed to take seriously the extent of Jesus’ physical injury. In order to demonstrate this, let us review the events leading up to Jesus’ death and burial. Jesus was arrested on Thursday night and tried illegally by a night session of the Jewish court. During the trial, they spit on Him; they blindfolded Him and hit Him in the face with their fists. They turned Him over to the guards, who beat Him further. Up all night without sleep, Jesus was taken Friday morning to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who in turn sent Him off to the Jewish king, Herod, who after interrogation sent Him back to Pilate. Condemned before a crowd screaming for His blood, Jesus was given to the Roman guards, who whipped Him. They made a crown of thorns and shoved it down onto His head and beat Him with a stick. Jesus was then compelled to carry the heavy cross, on which he was to be crucified, through the streets of the city to the place of crucifixion. Unable to bear the load, He collapsed from exhaustion. Another man was forced to carry the cross the remainder of the way. Jesus was then laid on the cross, and nails were driven through his wrists and a spike through his feet. Judging from skeletal remains of crucifixion victims, this could have been done by first nailing the wrists of the victim to the cross, then twisting the body sideways and driving the spike through both ankles. In this contorted position, the victim was then raised up on the cross, and the cross was dropped into a hole in the ground. (TSR, p.37)

Many of these sentences make more than just one historical claim, so there are more historical claims than sentences. By my count, Craig makes about 30 historical claims in this opening paragraph:

1. The theory [the Apparent Death Theory] failed to take seriously the extent of Jesus’ physical injury. In order to demonstrate this, let us review the events leading up to Jesus’ death and burial. [claim 1]
Jesus was arrested on Thursday night [claim 2]
and tried illegally [claim 3]
by a night session of the Jewish court. [claim 4]
During the trial, they spit on Him; [claim 5]
they blindfolded Him [claim 6]
and hit Him in the face with their fists. [claim 7]
They turned Him over to the guards, [claim 8]
who beat Him further. [claim 9]
Up all night without sleep, [claim 10]
Jesus was taken Friday morning to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, [claim 11]
who in turn sent Him off to the Jewish king, Herod, [claim 12]
who after interrogation [claim 13]
sent Him back to Pilate. [claim 14]
Condemned before a crowd screaming for His blood, [claim 15]
Jesus was given to the Roman guards, [claim 16]
who whipped Him. [claim 17]
They made a crown of thorns [claim 18]
and shoved it down onto His head [claim 19]
and beat Him with a stick. [claim 20]
Jesus was then compelled to carry the heavy cross, on which he was to be crucified, through the streets of the city to the place of crucifixion. [claim 21]
Unable to bear the load, He collapsed from exhaustion. [claim 22]
Another man was forced to carry the cross the remainder of the way. [claim 23]
Jesus was then laid on the cross, [claim 24]
and nails were driven through his wrists [claim 25]
and a spike through his feet. [claim 26]
Judging from skeletal remains of crucifixion victims, this could have been done by first nailing the wrists of the victim to the cross,[claim 27]
then twisting the body sideways and driving the spike through both ankles.[claim 28]
In this contorted position, the victim was then raised up on the cross, [claim 29]
and the cross was dropped into a hole in the ground. [claim 30]
(TSR, p.37)

Craig makes many historical claims here. How much historical evidence does Craig provide in support of the many historical claims he makes here? Does Craig provide quotations from any relevant personal documents (e.g. diaries, journals, letters)? No. Does Craig quote any public documents? (e.g. legal documents, published books, speeches, biographies, essays)? No. How about other non-document artifacts (e.g. buildings, tools, coins, machines, weapons, clothing, utensils)? Nope.

There is only one brief hint at historical evidence in this paragraph. It is given in the second-to-last sentence of the paragraph: “Judging from skeletal remains of crucifixion victims…” What skeletal remains? What bones is Craig talking about? How many skeletons of crucifixion victims is he talking about? Two skeletons? Five skeletons? Ten? Two-hundred? Where are these skeletal remains now located? Who discovered and studied the remains? Where were the bones found? How old were the bones? How were the bones dated? How well preserved were the bones?

What are the credentials of those who did the “Judging” that Craig mentions? Did Craig himself examine these bones? If so, he is not an archaeologist, and he not an expert in human physiology, so his judgment would not be of much worth on this question. Craig provides no details, and no reference to any scientific or scholarly articles on the “skeletal remains”, so there is no actual specific historical evidence put forward here, only a hint at some possible but unspecified number of skeletons, discovered at an unspecified location by some unspecified archeologist, having some unspecified date established by some unspecified method…

My youngest daughter is in the fourth grade. This year she and her classmates have had more than one assignment to write a short factual essay. The teacher taught these fourth graders that when writing factual essays, they should specify the books, articles, and web pages that they used as sources of their information. If William Craig wants to do so, I could arrange for him to visit my daughter’s classroom and he could learn the importance of citing the sources of information that one uses when writing a factual essay.

There is not a single quotation or citation or end note for the thirty historical claims Craig makes in the first paragraph of his presentation of “historical evidence” for the claim that ‘Jesus actually died on the cross.’ But this childish and pathetic paragraph is precisely what we ought to expect from a two-page case for the death of Jesus.

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Craig, William. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981. Print.


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