The Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 2

The Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 2 July 19, 2014

A challenge (or two) to my previous post “The Case for the Death of Jesus” came from a reader “hardindr”. Another reader, Tom Hanson, commented “Personally I’m with hardindr.” So in this post I will respond to comments from hardindr, with the intention of also responding to Tom Hanson’s concerns.

Here is the first comment by hardindr:

All of these lengthy blog entries on this subject have confused me. Does the author of them seriously believe that it isn’t a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died, and more specifically, that he didn’t die by crucifixion? I can think of no serious biblical scholar (except for a few mythicists) who think otherwise. I am not sure if this is a gag or not.

The second sentence is a question. It appears to be a rhetorical question, a sentence in the form of a question but that is actually intended to make an assertion. Here is the question:

Q1.Does the author…seriously believe that it isn’t a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth…didn’t die by crucifixion?

I think hardindr was a bit confused by the double-negative in this question, and actually intended to ask the following question:

Q1A. Does the author seriously believe that it isn’t a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion?

If we take this to be a rhetorical question that is just a round-about way to make an assertion, then the claim being made by hardindr would be this:

1A. It is a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion.

I take it that the phrase “died by crucifixion” means “died as a result of crucifixion”. If that is correct, then hardindr is asserting this claim:

1B. It is a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died as a result of crucifixion.

To be fair to hardindr, I suppose that the question might well have been intended BOTH as a sincere question AND as a way of making an assertion. hardindr wants me to clarify my position, to take a stand one way or the other on a key issue.

So, first I will treat the question as a sincere one, and attempt to give a clear answer to it:

Q1B. Does the author seriously believe that it isn’t a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died as a result of crucifixion?

I would like to give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer to this question, but the phrase “a historical fact” is problematic, as is the term “Jesus of Nazareth”, not to mention “as a result of crucifixion”. Some definition or clarification will be needed before I can give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer to (Q1B).

But before we get into definitions and clarifications, let me try to briefly state my point of view. The following claim is an ordinary claim requiring only ordinary evidence to establish:

(AOS) Jesus was alive and walking around unassisted on Easter Sunday.

The next claim is also an ordinary claim:

(DOC) Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday.

Christian apologists assert this claim:

(JRD) Jesus rose from the dead.

(JRD) implies the following conjunction:

(DTA) Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday AND Jesus was alive and walking around unassisted on Easter Sunday.

(DTA) is an extraordinary claim, and to establish (DTA) requires extraordinary evidence. That means that extraordinary evidence must be provided in order to establish (DOC), as well as to establish (AOS). To establish (JRD) one must establish (DTA), and since to establish (DTA) requires that one must produce extraordinary evidence for (DOC), it follows that one must provide extraordinary evidence for (DOC) in order to establish (JRD).

The sketchy and dubious nature of the gospels make it virtually impossible to produce extraordinary evidence for ANY claim about Jesus, including (DOC). Thus, any attempt to establish (JRD) is bound to fail, because the available evidence is not good enough to be considered extraordinary evidence for (DOC).

I seriously believe that Jesus of Nazareth might not have existed. If Jesus did not exist, then (obviously) the claim “Jesus of Nazareth died as a result of crucifixion” is false, or at least NOT a true claim, since in that case the expression “Jesus of Nazareth” would not refer to any actual human being. However, I seriously believe that it is probable that Jesus of Nazareth existed, even very probable that Jesus existed. If I had to estimate a probability, I would say the probability that Jesus existed is about .8 (eight chances in ten).

Let’s set aside, for the moment, my doubts about the existence of Jesus. Suppose that he did exist. Does it follow that Jesus was in fact crucified? It depends on how you understand the name “Jesus of Nazareth”.

The name of a famous person could be defined or analyzed in terms of some key actions or events that are associated with that person. Since the crucifixion is a central event in the gospels, which are our primary sources of information about Jesus (assuming that there was a Jesus), it is tempting to define “Jesus of Nazareth” in such a way that ONLY a person who had been crucified in Jerusalem around 30 C.E. could COUNT as being “Jesus of Nazareth”. In that case, the assumption that “Jesus of Nazareth existed” would logically imply that Jesus was in fact crucified in Jerusalem around 30 C.E.

But that seems to be cheating, to beg some important questions in this context. In this context, where I’m challenging the existence of Jesus and also the crucifixion of Jesus, it would seem better to define or analyze the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” in a way that did not presuppose the truth of the traditional or widely held views that I am challenging. It is better to keep our key terms and concepts neutral, at least in relation to the issues that we wish to debate. We need an understanding of “Jesus of Nazareth” that does NOT assume that Jesus was crucified, nor that he died as a result of crucifixion, nor that he was crucified in Jerusalem in about 30 C.E.

Suppose we define “Jesus of Nazareth” in a way that does not beg the questions at issue here. Setting aside my doubts about the existence of Jesus, would I then agree that Jesus was crucified? Again, I seriously believe that Jesus (assuming he did exist) might not have been crucified. However, I believe that Jesus probably was crucified, given that he existed, and I believe that it is very probable that Jesus was crucified, assuming that he existed. I would estimate this probability to be about .8.

What about the claim that Jesus died as a result of crucifixion? I’m not so sure about this claim. Even if we assume that Jesus existed and also assume that Jesus was crucified, I’m not certain that Jesus died AS A RESULT of being crucified.

Jesus might have been tied rather than nailed to the cross, and then died as a result of blood loss from other injuries (e.g. scourging), or Jesus might have been drugged or poisoned while on the cross (either by an enemy who wanted to ensure his death or to cause him additional pain or by a follower/sympathizer who wanted to mercifully put Jesus out of his misery or who was trying to give Jesus a drug for pain relief but unintentionally gave too large a dose causing death by overdose) and his death was caused by the drug or poison, or Jesus might have died as a result of a spear being thrust into his side (when he would have survived for two or three more days otherwise), or Jesus might have died on the cross because of having his legs smashed with a mallet (contrary to the 4th gospel) which caused massive internal bleeding, or Jesus might have appeared to die but was still alive when removed from the cross only to be killed by asphyxiation when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped him up in 75 pounds of linen and spices, or Jesus might have appeared to die on the cross, but was still alive when removed from the cross, and one of his female followers noticed he was still alive when he was buried and came back for him later and nursed him back to health (and then he died some years later from pneumonia). I cannot rule out any of these scenarios, and yet in none of them is the death of Jesus caused by his crucifixion.

Furthermore, we don’t know how crucifixion causes death, and since performing scientific experiments where human beings are crucified in order to observe what happens as they die would be clearly unethical, we probably never will know how crucifixion causes death. Given our medical ignorance about crucifixion, and given that there was no autopsy performed on Jesus, it will be difficult to show that it is very probable that Jesus died as a result of crucifixion, even given that Jesus existed and that Jesus was crucified, and even given that Jesus died while on the cross.

But we could just DROP the whole qualification “died as a result of crucifixion” and revise the question to be about the TIMING of Jesus death:

Q1C. Does the author seriously believe that it isn’t a historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth died while he was hanging on a cross?

I seriously believe that Jesus might have been crucified but survived his crucifixion, given that Jesus did exist and was crucified. However, if Jesus did exist and was crucified, then it is probable that he died on the cross, perhaps even very probable that he died on the cross. I would estimate the probability that Jesus died on the cross to be about .9, given that Jesus existed and was crucified.

Estimated Probability that Jesus existed: .8
Estimated Probability that Jesus was crucified (given his existence): .8
Estimated Probability that Jesus died on the cross (given his crucifixion): .9

Estimated probability that Jesus died on the cross: .8 x .8 x .9 = .576 or about .6

A probability of .6 seems too low to be considered “a historical fact”.
So, I’m inclined to seriously believe that the claim “Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross” is NOT an historical fact.

Furthermore, suppose that William Craig or Norman Geisler or Gary Habermas are able to convince me that (AOS) is a fact, that Jesus was alive and walking around unassisted on Easter Sunday. In that case, I have a new bit of historical data, data that has implications for my probability estimates. Once I know or firmly believe that (AOS) is true, then my probability estimate for (DOC) will necessarily be lowered. I would lower it down to just about 0. The truth of (AOS) would be very strong evidence that (DOC) was false, evidence that would surely outweigh the weak and dubious evidence for the death of Jesus on the cross that we find in the N.T.

To be continued…
===============================
Probability Tree Diagram (to supplement my response to hardindr current comments):

B: John is a bachelor.
D: John will go out on a date with a woman (who is not his wife) sometime in the next month.
~B: It is NOT the case that John is a bachelor.
~D: It is NOT the case that John will go out on a date with a woman (who is not his wife) sometime in the next month.

P(B&D) means “The probability that: John is a bachelor AND John will go out on a date with a woman (who is not his wife) sometime in the next month.”

P(D|B) means “The probability that John will go out on a date with a woman (who is not his wife) sometime in the next month, GIVEN that John is a bachelor.”

P(B & D) = P(D|B) x P(B) = .8 x .8 = .64

Probability Tree for Jesus:

E: Jesus existed.
C: Jesus was crucified.
~E: It is NOT the case that Jesus existed.
~C: It is NOT the case that Jesus was crucified.

P(E & C) means “The probability that Jesus existed AND Jesus was crucified.”

P(C|E) means “The probability that Jesus was crucified, GIVEN that Jesus existed.”

P(E & C) = P(C|E) x P(E) = .8 x .8 = .64

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