Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 8: Problems with the “Break their Legs” Objection

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 8: Problems with the “Break their Legs” Objection August 14, 2019

WHERE WE ARE AT

In Part 7 of this series, I presented Peter Kreeft’s “Break their Legs” Objection (i.e., Objection #2) against the swoon theory, and, more properly, against The Survival Theory (hereafter: TST).   I pointed out three significant problems with Objection #2:

PROBLEM 1:  Roman Soldiers were NOT Medical Doctors

PROBLEM 2:  The Same Passage Implies the Soldiers were NOT Sure Jesus was Dead

PROBLEM 3:  The Key Historical Claims Made by Kreeft are DUBIOUS

I also provided a list of ten different points related to the third problem with this objection.  Now I am going to provide some more details supporting the ten points concerning Problem 3 with Kreeft’s “Break their Legs” objection.

The key historical claims in Objection #2, that Kreeft wrongly categorizes as “fact” are as follows:

  • The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus broke the legs of the other men who were crucified along with Jesus, while those men were still hanging on their crosses.
  • The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus did not break Jesus’ legs while he was still hanging on his cross, because they believed he was already dead.

These are clearly NOT historical facts.  They are questionable inferences based on the unreasonable assumption that the 4th Gospel provides us with reliable historical information about the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus.

 

TEN POINTS AGAINST THE RELIABILITY OF THE 4TH GOSPEL’S ACCOUNT OF THE CRUCIFIXION

The following ten points provide good reasons to doubt the historical reliability of the 4th Gospel’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and especially about the historical reliability of the specific passage that Kreeft uses as evidence for his key historical claims (namely, John 19:31-34).

 

POINT #1: The 4th Gospel was probably NOT written by an eyewitness of the life, ministry, or crucifixion of Jesus.

I have previously covered this point in Part 6 of this series of posts.

 

POINT #2: The 4th Gospel is the least historically reliable of the four Gospels.

I have previously covered this point in Part 6 of this series of posts.

 

POINT #3: The account of the trial and crucifixion in the 4th Gospel conflicts with the trial and crucifixion accounts in other Gospels.

The following examples are some of the conflicts between the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in the 4th Gospel and the account of the trial and crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark implies that Jesus was flogged AFTER his trial by Pilate, as part of his crucifixion punishment:

15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.  (Mark 15:15, New Revised Standard Version)

But the 4th Gospel implies that Jesus was flogged in the MIDDLE of his trial by Pilate as a potential alternative to crucifixion:

Peter Paul Rubens – Flagellation of Christ

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 
2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 
3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. 
4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 
5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 
6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.”  (John 19: 1-6, New Revised Standard Version)

The Evangelical NT scholar D.A. Carson admits there is an apparent inconsistency between the Gospel of Mark and the 4th Gospel on this point, but he attempts to reconcile the two accounts of Jesus’ trial and condemnation by positing TWO floggings of Jesus: an initial lighter flogging in the middle of the trial by Pilate, and a more severe flogging after Jesus is condemned by Pilate to be crucified (The Gospel According to John, p.597).  But this is implausible, especially given that none of the Gospels indicate that Jesus was flogged twice.

It is much more reasonable to simply admit, as the heavyweight Catholic N.T. scholar Raymond Brown does, that the account of the trial in the Gospel of Mark conflicts with the account of the trial in the 4th Gospel on this point:

Two elements that Mark 15:15b-20 places at the end of the trial, i.e. a flogging and a Roman mockery of Jesus, appear in John 19:1-3 in the middle of the trial as Pilate’s immediate reaction to the choice for Barabbas [to be released].  Scourging, instead of being part of the crucifixion punishment (as is the flogging in Mark/Matt), becomes in John a lesser punishment that Pilate hopes will satisfy “the Jews” by causing them to give up on this wretched Jesus.  (The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1, p.827)

The Gospel of Mark asserts that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross:

21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his [Jesus’] cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:21, New Revised Standard Version)

But the 4th Gospel asserts that Jesus carried the cross “by himself”:

17 and carrying the cross by himself, he [Jesus] went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (John 19:17, New Revised Standard Version)

The Gospel of Mark asserts that Jesus was crucified about 9:00 am:

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him [Jesus]. (Mark 15:25, New Revised Standard Version)

But the 4th Gospel asserts that Jesus was crucified some time after noon:

14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He [Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”
15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
16 Then he handed him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified.  (John 19:14-16,  New Revised Standard Version)

The Gospel of Mark asserts that Mary Magdalene and other women who followed Jesus watched Jesus on the cross “from a distance”:

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.
41 These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41, New Revised Standard Version)

But the 4th Gospel asserts that Mary Magdalene and other women were “standing near the cross of Jesus”:

25 … Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25, New Revised Standard Version)

The Gospel of Mark asserts that when Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus, Pilate “wondered if he were already dead” and so Pilate asked a centurion whether Jesus was already dead:

42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time.
45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. (Mark 15:42-45, New Revised Standard Version)

The New International Version translates verse 44 this way:

44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.

Many NT scholars interpret this passage in Mark as implying that Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus was already dead:

Pilate was surprised because... (James A. Brooks, The New American Commentary, Volume 23: Mark, p.266)

Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so quickly because…(Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 34B: Mark 18:27-16:20, p.520)

Pilate had to check to see if in fact Jesus was already dead…, and seems amazed to find out he was. (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: a Social-Rhetorical Commentary, p.402)

He [Pilate] was surprised, however, that Jesus was already dead.  (William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 579)

But the 4th Gospel asserts that some Jewish leaders requested that the bodies of the crucified men be removed from their crosses before the sabbath day began (at sunset), and in response Pilate apparently ordered that the legs of the crucified men be broken in order to hasten their deaths:

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.
32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him.
33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.
34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.               
(John 19:31-34, New Revised Standard Version)

This passage implies that Pilate ordered the soldiers who crucified Jesus and the other condemned men to break the legs of the crucified men in order to cause them to die right away.  So, if Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus AFTER Pilate gave the order to break the legs of the crucified men, then Pilate would NOT have been surprised to hear that Jesus was already dead.

On the other hand, if Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus BEFORE Pilate gave the order to break the legs of the crucified men, then Jesus would have already been determined and KNOWN to be dead before the soldiers were ordered by Pilate to break the legs of the crucified men, so the soldiers would NOT have made a decision to refrain from breaking Jesus’ legs “when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead”.  In other words, the soldiers would have already KNOWN that Jesus was dead, even before Pilate ordered them to break the legs of the crucified men.  So, the events as described in this passage from the Fourth Gospel conflict with the events as described in Mark concerning the request by Joseph of Arimathea for the body of Jesus and Pilate’s reaction to that request.

 

POINT #4: Internal conflicts in this passage cast doubt on the historicity and reliability of this passage.

  • Pilate presumably ordered that the legs of the crucified men be broken, so it is improbable that a soldier decided to NOT break Jesus’ legs.

If Pilate had ordered soldiers to break the legs of the crucified men, then it is unlikely that a soldier would decide NOT to follow this order on the basis of his own judgement that Jesus was already dead.  Roman soldiers would be much more likely to simply follow their orders and break the legs of all the crucified men, whether they appeared to be alive or dead.

  • If a soldier believed that Jesus was already dead, then it is improbable that this soldier would stab Jesus with his spear, because there would be no reason to do this.

The purpose of the stabbing with a spear would probably have been either (a) to poke Jesus to see if he winced or moaned in order to determine whether Jesus was dead, or (b) to seriously wound Jesus in order to cause him to die right away.  But if the soldier firmly believed Jesus to be dead, there would be no reason to poke Jesus with a spear to determine whether Jesus was dead, and if the soldier was trying to inflict a serious wound to Jesus in order to kill Jesus right away, that would mean the soldier thought Jesus was still alive (or might well still be alive) and that additional wounding was needed to kill him off or to ensure that he was dead.

 

POINT #5: This passage is reasonably viewed as “prophecy historicized’, thus there is a good chance that Kreeft’s two key historical claims are FICTIONAL.

The details in the Passion Narratives (stories about the trials and crucifixion of Jesus) of the Gospels appear to be based primarily on Old Testament passages rather than on the memories of people who witnessed the trials and crucifixion of Jesus:

The passion is regarded as the work of scribes, who were probably not part of the original circle of illiterate peasant followers and believers.  The passion was created by scripturally sophisticated apologists sitting at their writing desks creating a narrative largely out of the fact of Jesus’ execution coupled with suggestions derived from prophetic texts and the Psalms and inspired by tales of the suffering righteous heroes of Israel.  Scholars have not been able to agree on the ingredients that made up the first passion story, nor is there a consensus on the relationship of one passion story to another.  In general, however, beyond the basic facts–arrest, exectution–very little in the passion narrative is now believed to be based on historical memory.

(The Acts of Jesus, by Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar, p.23)

My proposal is that Jesus’ first followers knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial.  What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. 

[…]

My best historical reconstruction of what actually happened is that Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival and those closest to him fled for their own safety.

(Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan, p.145 and 152)

…in the Gospels…the spare form of the crucifixion scene is elaborated by allusions to the Psalms; specifically Psalms 22 and 69, which reflect the experience of the righteous person who suffers.  Key elements in the crucifixion scene are thus taken from these psalms; they include offering Jesus something to drink, dividing his clothes, and mocking by onlookers.  Even the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet may well come from the language of Psalm 22:16 (21:17 LXX), where the distinctive wording of the Greek says: “My hands and feet have they gouged.”

[…]

…these passages from two psalms are woven around the core narrative, which in turn was further smoothed out by the Markan author.  Both Matthew and Luke follow this basic outline…

(Scripting Jesus, by L. Michael White, p. 135 and 137)

This general point about the Passion Narratives in the Gospels applies directly and specifically to the details in the Fourth Gospel that Kreeft relies upon as a basis for his attempted refutation of the Survival Theory:

A particularly poingnant example of prophetic forecast creating narrative detail occurs in the Gospel of John (19:32-37).  The soldiers have come to break the legs of the three who have been crucified.  When they come to Jesus, they notice that he is already dead, so they don’t break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers jabs Jesus in the side with his spear and water and blood pour out.  Then the evangelist [the author of the 4th Gospel] tells his readers:

This happened so the scripture that says, “No bone of his shall be broken,” would come true, as well as another scripture that says, “They shall look at the one they have pierced.”

[…]

The evangelist certainly does not have independent confirmation of the failure to break Jesus’ legs and the spear thrust in the side, yet he gives the impression that he does.  The two details are probably the product of Christian imagination as it has been prompted by scripture. 

(The Acts of Jesus, p.8)

…the Gospel of John, once again, elaborates further, including details such as the untorn tunic and the breaking of the legs (19:23-24, 31-37).  In both cases, these new details in the story come from the continuing effort to weave elements from the scriptures into the narrative in order to force a correspondence.

(Scripting Jesus, p.137)

…the account [of the breaking of the legs of the other crucified men and the failure to break the legs of Jesus] is spun out of Ps. 34.21 (Ex. 12.10, 46) and Zech. 12.10 and shows that the Old Testament scriptures are fulfilled even in Jesus’ body.

   […]

Historical

The historical yield [from John 19:31-37] is nil.

(Jesus After 2000 Years, by Gerd Ludemann, p. 573)

Because the details that Peter Kreeft relies upon from John 19:31-34 are probably prophecy historicized, those details are probably FICTIONAL, generated on the basis of Old Testament passages rather than from the memories of eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, and thus those details are NOT the sort of evidence that can be used to REFUTE an historical theory, such as The Survival Theory.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

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