Response to William Lane Craig – Part 15

Here is my main objection to William Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus:

In order to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, one must first prove that Jesus died on the cross. But in most of William Craig’s various books, articles, and debates, he simply ignores this issue. He makes no serious attempt to show that it is an historical fact that Jesus died on the cross.  For that reason, Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.

Here is WLC’s main reply to my objection:

The reason that I personally have not devoted any space to a discussion of the death of Jesus by crucifixion is that this fact is not in dispute. This historical fact is not one that is controversial among biblical scholars. 

Craig supports this point by giving examples of biblical scholars who express great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross: Luke Johnson and Robert Funk.

In Parts 2 through 8 of this series, I argued that the example of the biblical scholar Luke Johnson fails to support his point.  In Parts 10 through 14 of this series, I argued that the example of the biblical scholar Robert Funk also fails to support his point.  Given the skeptical views and assumptions of Luke Johnson, his great confidence in the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and Jesus’ death on the cross is NOT rationally justified, and the same goes for Robert Funk.

However, it is not just Luke Johnson and Robert Funk who have very skeptical views about the Gospels and yet who have great confidence in the crucifixion of Jesus and the death of Jesus on the cross.  The biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar hold similarly skeptical views about the Gospels and they too are confident about the crucifixion of Jesus and his death on the cross.  So, in this post I will take a closer look at this seemingly paradoxical view of Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar.

Given the skeptical views and assumptions of Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar concerning the Gospels, the only canonical Gospel that could provide significant evidence for the claim that Jesus was crucified and that Jesus died on the cross the same day that he was crucified is the Gospel of Mark.  But in Part 14 of this series, we saw that Funk and the Jesus Seminar believe that the Gospel of Mark is very unreliable, and that the Passion Narrative in Mark is extremely unreliable.  

Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Mark contains the crucifixion scene, and here is how Funk and the Jesus Seminar scholars view that passage:

All the ingredients of the Markan scene are present in the Psalm [Psalm 22].  All Mark had to do was to let his imagination roam in constructing the scene he did.

The picture of the crucifixion in Mark was constructed out of firsthand knowledge of crucifixions and scripture.  There may be traces of historical reminiscence in it, but it isn’t likely.  Anecdotes about Jesus’ execution had not been developed during the oral period, so whatever memories there may have been were not kept alive.  Four decades or more later, Mark and the other evangelists had to reinvent the scene.  As a consequence, the Jesus Seminar was unable to verify any of the details in this scene as a report of actual events.  A black designation was the result.      (The Acts of Jesus, p.156)

Recall the meaning of the use of black font in The Acts of Jesus:

black:   This information is improbable.  It does not fit verifiable evidence; it is largely or entirely fictive.  (The Acts of Jesus, p.37)

Despite this conclusion about the events and details related to the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, Funk and the Jesus Seminar agree that Jesus was in fact crucified in Jerusalem:

In the collective judgment of the Fellows,  the details of the crucifixion scene were inspired largely by Psalm 22 and related prophetic texts.  In spite of that firm conviction, none of the Fellows doubts that Jesus was crucified (v.24a).  They are confident that he was crucified in Jerusalem, at a site outside the old city walls.  Just about everything else in the story was inspired by some scripture.  (The Acts of Jesus, p.155)

So, in spite of the view that the Passion Narrative of Mark is extremely unreliable, and in spite of the fact that the Jesus Seminar believes that nearly every detail of the crucifixion scene was an invention of the author of Mark (i.e. nearly every detail of the crucifixion scene is fictional), the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar “are confident” that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.

This appears to be a case of special pleading.  It looks like Funk and the Jesus Seminar are simply too timid to question the very basic Christian belief that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.  But, what OBJECTIVE REASONS do the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar have for making an exception of this specific claim from the extremely unreliable Passion Narrative of Mark?  If all of the details of the crucifixion scene are fictional, then why not also doubt the crucifixion itself?  Where does the great confidence of Funk and the Jesus Seminar about Jesus’ crucifixion come from? Amazingly, no reason is given for this confidence that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem.  At least no reason is given in the section of The Acts of Jesus that deals with the crucifixion scene (see pages 155 & 156).

However, in a section that covers the opening verses of Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Mark, there is a justification given for a closely related judgment of the Jesus Seminar.  The second half of verse 15 of Chapter 15 of Mark was put into red font by the Jesus Seminar:

had Jesus flogged, and then turned him over to be crucified.  (The Acts of Jesus, p.152)

The use of red font here means that the Jesus Seminar was confident in the historicity of this part of the verse:

red:   The historical reliability of this information is virtually certain.  It is supported by a preponderance of evidence.  (The Acts of Jesus, p.36)

Most of the rest of the opening verses of Chapter 15 were put into black font by the Jesus Seminar, meaning that the other events and details were “improbable” and were “largely or entirely fictive”.  Given that Funk and the Jesus Seminar view the Passion Narrative of Mark as extremely unreliable, and given that they view most of Chapter 15 as “improbable” and “fictive”, where does this great confidence about the crucifixion come from?  What is it based on?

In this case, three reasons are given for their confidence about the crucifixion of Jesus:

The only completely reliable piece of information in this segment is that Jesus was executed on the authority of Pilate (the vote was virtually unanimous).  Both Josephus, the Jewish historian, and Tacitus, the Roman historian, attest to the reliability of this piece of information, as does 1 Tim 6:13.  The relevant part of v. 15 was accordingly voted red.  But the Fellows were almost as certain that no such trial took place as Mark represents it.  A majority of Fellows considered the notion that Jesus was put “on trial” before “rulers” as a story generated by the suggestions in Psalm 2, where kings and rulers array themselves “against the Lord and his annointed” (Ps 2:2). …The credibility of the Christian account of Jesus’ death required that there be a Roman trial and that it be presided over by Pilate, who was the governor or Procurator or Prefect (26-36 C.E.) at the time of Jesus’ execution.  For that reason Mark invented the story that appears in his gospel.   (The Acts of Jesus, p.152, emphasis added by me)

If the three reasons here seem vaguely familiar, that is because these three bits of evidence were also cited by Luke Johnson in defense of the historicity of key events in the Gospels.  I have already argued that these three sources fail to provide significant support for the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion or the execution of Jesus by order of Pilate.  For my criticism of the Josephus evidence, see Part 5 of this series.  For my criticism of the the Tacitus evidence and the evidence from I Timothy, see Part 6 of this series.

It should be noted that ONLY the passage from Josephus mentions crucifixion; neither the passage from Tacitus nor the passage in I Timothy mentions crucifixion.  Although the passage from I Timothy does mention Pilate, it does not even indicate that Jesus was condemned to die or that Jesus was executed.

The main problem with all three of these sources is that each of them was written a decade or two (or three, in the case of Tacitus, and possibly also in the case of I Timothy) after the Gospel of Mark and they are probably based on information/stories from early Christians who might well have been familiar with the Gospel of Mark and the story of Jesus’ trials and crucifixion as told in that Gospel.  In other words, these sources are probably NOT independent sources of information, but are rather derivative from the Gospel of Mark (or from the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke, which were in turn based on the Gospel of Mark).

In short, these three reasons provide only very weak evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, and this evidence is clearly insufficient to rationally justify the great confidence of Robert Funk and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar in affirming the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem and that Jesus died on the cross.  Because of the obvious problems with these three reasons, I can only conclude that the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, like Luke Johnson, were blinded by some sort of prejudice which prevented them from being more consistent in their skepticism about the Passion Narrative of Mark, and from seriously entertaining doubts about the historicity of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem and his alleged death on the cross.

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