Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 3: The Deadliness of Roman Crucifixion

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 3: The Deadliness of Roman Crucifixion June 29, 2019

In this series of posts I will defend the Survival Theory (TST) against the nine objections that Peter Kreeft puts forward in Chapter 8 of Handbook of Christian Apologetics (hereafter: HCA).   Kreeft’s nine objections to TST can also be found in an online article at the Strange Notions website.

(NOTE: Kreeft mistakenly takes aim at the Swoon Theory, but in Part 1 of this series, I argue that he must take on the more general skeptical theory that Jesus SURVIVED crucifixion.)

 

KREEFT’S FAILED JUSTIFICATION OF HIS USE OF GOSPEL TEXTS

In Part 2 of this series, I argued that seven out of Kreeft’s nine objections against TST are problematic because they are based on the questionable assumption that the Gospels are historically reliable (or that various passages in the Gospels are historically reliable).  Kreeft recognizes that his use of Gospel passages as proof of his historical claims is problematic and he makes an attempt to defend his use of those Gospel passages.

Kreeft makes two points in defense of his reliance on Gospel passages.  The first point is this:

But the swoon theory does not challenge the truths in the texts which we refer to as data…

In Part 2, I argue that this point is IRRELEVANT to the question of whether Kreeft should use various Gospel passages as proof of his historical claims.

Kreeft’s second point is AMBIGUOUS between two different statements:

(1) TST is a THEORY that assumes or implies the historical claims that Kreeft uses in his objections against TST.

(2) Some of the ARGUMENTS for TST assume or imply the historical claims that Kreeft uses in his objections against TST.

In Part 2, I argued that (1) is clearly FALSE, that (2) appears to also be FALSE, and that (2) is insignificant even if true.  Thus, on either interpretation, this second point fails to justify his use of various dubious Gospel passages as proof of his historical claims.  So, right off the bat, we can see that seven out of Kreeft’s nine objections are dubious, because they are based on historical claims that are questionable because they are supported by dubious Gospel passages.

 

OBJECTION #1: THE DEADLINESS OF ROMAN CRUCIFIXION

In future posts, I will go into more details about the problems with the seven objections that are based on dubious Gospel passages, but for now, let’s focus on one of the two objections that are NOT based on dubious Gospel passages: Objection #1.

Kreeft’s first objection against TST does not rest on dubious Gospel passages:

Jesus could not have survived crucifixion. Roman procedures were very careful to eliminate that possibility. Roman law even laid the death penalty on any soldier who let a capital prisoner escape in any way, including bungling a crucifixion. It was never done.  (HCA, p.183)

The Gospels do not specify “Roman procedures” for executions or crucifixions.  The Gospels do not specify what punishment was given to Roman soldiers who let a capital prisoner escape or who bungle a crucifixion.  The Gospels do not assert generalizations about the deadliness of Roman crucifixion or about how Roman crucifixion ALWAYS resulted in the death of a crucified person.  None of Kreeft’s historical claims in Objection #1 are based on a dubious Gospel passage.

The first sentence states the conclusion of the objection:

Jesus could not have survived crucifixion.

Kreeft has in mind specifically crucifixion as practiced by the Roman military.  The other sentences state historical claims that are reasons for believing the conclusion:

  • Roman procedures were very careful to eliminate that possibility.
  • Roman law even laid the death penalty on any soldier who let a capital prisoner escape in any way, including bungling a crucifixion.
  • It was never done.

Let’s clarify the historical claims that Kreeft asserts in this argument (clarifications in blue font):

1. Roman procedures were very careful to eliminate the possibility of a person surviving crucifixion.

2. Roman law even laid the death penalty on any Roman soldier who let a capital prisoner escape in any way, including bungling a crucifixion.

3. No Roman soldier ever let a capital prisoner escape or ever bungled a crucifixion.

THEREFORE:

4. Jesus could not have survived Roman crucifixion.

There is some AMBIGUITY in the logic of Kreeft’s argument.   Premise (3) is sufficient all by itself to imply the conclusion (4).  So, it is not clear whether premises (1) and (2) are supposed to provide independent support for (4) or whether they are supposed to provide evidence in support of premise (3), while premise (3) provides the main reason in support of (4).

Premises (1) and (2) appear to work together, in that they concern the related concepts of “willing” and “able”.  Premise (1) about procedures for Roman crucifixion supports the idea that Roman soldiers were ABLE to consistently bring about the deaths of victims of crucifixion, because they had excellent procedures to follow.  Premise (2) about the death penalty for bungling a crucifixion supports the idea that the Roman solders were WILLING to do a careful and thorough job of crucifying people who had been condemned to be crucified, because they had the motivation of avoiding the death penalty for bungling a crucifixion.

There are at least two different ways to diagram the logic of this argument.  First, we could take the first two premises to be an argument supporting the third premise, and the third premise to be the main reason supporting the conclusion:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatively, we could take the first two premises to provide one reason supporting the conclusion, and the third premise to provide an additional reason for the conclusion:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s consider the first interpretation of the logical structure first.  Premises (1) and (2) do work together to provide some support for premise (3), so this interpretation of the logical structure of the argument has some initial plausibility.  However, the combination of (1) and (2) provide only weak support for (3).

Even if we assume that (1) and (2) are true, there is still a significant chance that premise (3) is FALSE.  Suppose that the crucifixion “procedures” of the Roman military were excellent procedures, so that following those procedures would virtually guarantee that a person who was crucified would die before being removed from the cross.  In that case, premise (1) would be true.  Suppose that it was the case that any bungling of an execution by a Roman soldier, such that the condemned person was still alive after the supposed execution, would result in the death penalty for that Roman soldier.  This would mean that premise (2) was true.  The death penalty would provide a significant motivation for Roman soldiers to follow the excellent procedures of the Roman military for crucifixions (when crucifixion was the means used to execute the condemned person).  Does premise (3) follow from these assumptions?

3. No Roman soldier ever let a capital prisoner escape or ever bungled a crucifixion.

There are at least three different ways that (3) could FAIL to be the case, even if (1) and (2) were true.

First, even if a soldier is strongly motivated to follow the crucifixion procedures of the Roman military, the soldier might unintentionally FAIL to follow those procedures.  If the soldier was drunk, hungover, or physically exhausted, the soldier might fail to accurately remember some of the crucifixion procedures, even if he made a determined effort to follow the procedures correctly.  If the soldier had been poorly trained in the crucifixion procedures, then he might fail to follow some of the Roman crucifixion procedures, because of the poor training.  If the soldier was inexperienced in crucifixion, and his training in Roman crucifixion procedures took place a year or more prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, the soldier might fail to accurately remember some of the crucifixion procedures.  If the Roman soldier was very poor at learning military procedures, the soldier might fail to accurately remember some of the crucifixion procedures, even if the soldier had been fully and properly trained on those procedures.  There are MANY possible reasons why a Roman soldier might unintentionally FAIL to correctly follow some of the procedures for crucifixion, even if the soldier was strongly motivated to follow them.

Second, if a soldier was strongly motivated by the threat of the death penalty for letting a capital prisoner escape death, that could actually lead the soldier to intentionally FAIL to correctly follow some of the standard procedures for crucifixion.  A soldier might mistakenly believe that some of the standard procedures for crucifixion were faulty and that following those faulty procedures could result in failure to kill off the victim.  Because the law, according to Kreeft, is that the death penalty would be incurred for failure to kill the person who was condemned to crucifixion and NOT for failure to correctly follow standard crucifixion procedures, a mistaken belief of a soldier that some of the procedures were faulty would lead a soldier who was strongly motivated to avoid the death penalty to ignore or modify some of the procedures in an attempt to ensure the death of the person condemned to crucifixion, and thus to avoid the death penalty for failing to kill off the condemned person.

Third, the threat of the death penalty is NOT a guarantee that EVERY person will be strongly motivated to comply with the law in question.  If the death penalty could guarantee that EVERY person would comply with the law, then there would be no murders in states and countries that imposed the death penalty for murder.  But there are plenty of murders in states and countries that impose the death penalty for murder.  It is unclear whether the death penalty deters murder, and if it does deter murder, the deterrent effect is fairly small and minimal; it does NOT eliminate murder, nor does it cause a huge and obvious reduction in murder rates.  So, even if we assume that the death penalty was imposed on Roman soldiers for any bungling of a crucifixion, and even if we assume that every Roman soldier was aware of this being the case, it does not follow that Roman soldiers always carefully followed the Roman procedures for crucifixion.  There are always foolish people or people who are careless about their own lives, who will disobey laws even when the death penalty is the punishment for disobedience to the law.

It is worth noting that Roman soldiers are thought of as being tough and brave, like how we think about the Marines.  But if Roman soldiers were generally tough and brave, then they were not the sort of people who would be fearful of death.  If so, then the threat of capital punishment would NOT be as strong of a motivation for Roman soldiers as it would be for you and me.  If Roman soldiers often bravely stared death in the face, then threatening them with capital punishment would not necessarily provide a strong motivation to Roman soldiers to carefully follow the procedures for crucifixion.

It is clear that although premises (1) and (2) provide some support for premise (3), they do NOT provide strong support for (3), but provide only weak support.  Even if we assume (1) and (2) to be true, there is still a very good chance that (3) could be FALSE.  In my view (1) and (2) do not even make (3) probable.  Thus, on the first interpretation of the logical structure of Objection #1, this objection FAILS, because it provides only weak support for the premise (3), which is the key premise supporting the conclusion (4).

What about the second interpretation of the logical structure of Objection #1?  The same sorts of considerations about the first interpretation apply to this interpretation as well.   Premises (1) and (2) leave open various possibilities where a Roman soldier might unintentionally, or even intentionally, FAIL to correctly follow Roman military procedures for crucifixion, and they also leave open the possibility that some Roman soldiers might not be strongly motivated by the threat of the death penalty to carefully and correctly follow Roman military procedures for crucifixion.  Given the various ways in which (1) and (2) could be true, and yet some Roman soldiers might FAIL to carefully and correctly follow crucifixion procedures that (allegedly) would virtually guarantee the death of a person condemned to crucifixion, the combination of premises (1) and (2) does NOT provide strong support for the conclusion (4), but only provides weak support for the conclusion.

What about premise (3) as a separate reason in support of (4)?  Taken literally, premise (3) begs the question.  It begs the question in the same way that the claim “Miracles cannot ever happen” begs the question against the resurrection of Jesus.  In order to know that “Miracles cannot ever happen”  one must first know that the belief that “God raised Jesus from the dead” is FALSE.  So, to assert that “Miracles cannot ever happen” requires the assumption that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is mistaken, which begs the question at issue.  Similarly, in order to know that “No Roman soldier ever let a capital prisoner escape or ever bungled a crucifixion.”  one must first know that the belief that “Jesus survived his crucifixion” is mistaken, which begs the question at issue.

But we can interpret (3) in such a way that it does NOT beg the question:

3a. Setting aside the specific case of the crucifixion of Jesus, no Roman soldier ever let a capital prisoner escape or ever bungled a crucifixion.

This slightly modified version of (3) provides a strong inductive reason for believing that Jesus did NOT survive his crucifixion.  However, like (3) this is a very broad historical generalization, and it is hard to see how one could possibly know this claim to be true.

First of all, Kreeft has provided NO HISTORICAL EVIDENCE whatsoever in support of premise (3) or (3a).  Thus, as it stands, Objection #1 is a FAILURE, because it is based on a strong historical claim for which we are given ZERO historical evidence.

Second, the Romans used crucifixion for centuries and they used it at least tens of thousands of times, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times.  Is there some ancient Roman catalog that has details about tens of thousands of crucifixions, including the end results of those crucifixions?  Even if there were, and this catalog specified that the victims died in each and every case, why should we believe this catalog to be completely accurate?  Who would be the source of the information in this catalog? Wouldn’t Roman military officers (the most likely source of such information) be reluctant to officially report that some victims of crucifixion had survived or escaped?  If the death penalty was prescribed for such failures, it seems obvious that Roman officers and soldiers would have a strong motivation to LIE and cover up any failures to bring about the deaths of persons condemned to crucifixion.

I’m fairly confident that there is no ancient catalog of thousands of Roman crucifixions that took place over hundreds of years.  If there were such a document, I would expect Kreeft or other Christian apologists to be familiar with that document and to reference it constantly.  But then, what sort of historical evidence could there be that would provide strong support for Kreeft’s very strong historical claim? I believe that Kreeft and other Christian apologists have no solid historical evidence to back up this very strong claim.  This is just Christian apologetics based on wishful thinking and bullshit.

Furthermore, why would there be a law that imposes the death penalty on Roman soldiers who FAIL to bring about the death of a person condemned to crucifixion?  The very existence of such a law implies that this was a problem or concern.  In other words, the effort to write and pass this law was probably based on some concern that Roman soldiers would sometimes FAIL to bring about the death of a person condemned to crucifixion, and that concern was probably based on the occurrence of multiple instances where Roman soldiers did in fact FAIL to bring about the death of a person condemned to crucifixion.  If there had been ZERO instances of this problem, then it is unlikely that such a law would ever be formulated and passed.

 

OBJECTION #1 FAILS

In conclusion, Objection #1 FAILS, because the combination of premises (1) and (2) provide only a weak reason in support of (3) and in support of (4), and because premise (3) taken literally begs the question at issue, and because (3) when interpreted to make the non-question begging claim (3a) is still a very strong historical claim for which Kreeft has provided ZERO historical evidence, an historical claim which is very dubious and likely to be FALSE.

It should also be noted that Kreeft has provided ZERO historical evidence in support of premises (1) and (2).  I suspect that (1) is FALSE, because I doubt that there were standard procedures for Roman crucifixions (specific military procedures used across the Roman empire and across the centuries in which the empire existed).  Were victims of crucifixion always nailed to crosses? Nope. Most were probably tied to their crosses. Were victims of crucifixion always hung on crosses made of lumber? Nope. Some were hung on trees.  Some were hung on upright stakes.  Did Roman soldiers ALWAYS break the legs of victims of crucifixion?  Nope.  Not according to the Gospel of John.  Were victims of crucifixion always positioned upright with their arms outstretched?  Nope.  Some were crucified upside down.  There appears to be a wide variety in how Roman soldiers crucified people, so it seems doubtful that they consistently followed a set of specific procedures when crucifying people.

I suspect that (2) is TRUE or partially true. But I would like to read the specific law in question, and have information about when that law was created, and information about whether the law was actually applied and how often the death penalty was actually carried out on Roman soldiers for failure to bring about the death of a condemned person.  Kreeft provides no such historical details. There is a bit of a dilemma for Kreeft here: if no Roman soldier was ever executed for failure to successfully carry out a crucifixion, then that would have significantly reduced the perceived threat of this death penalty, but if Roman soldiers were from time to time executed for failure to successfully carry out a crucifixion, then that would be strong evidence that (3) and (3a) were FALSE.

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