One of the major alleged wounds inflicted upon Jesus during the crucifixion is a deep spear wound:
DSW = On Friday of Passover week, just before the first Easter Sunday, Jesus received a deep spear wound to his chest (i.e. the tip of the spear penetrated at least 3” deep, measured perpendicular to the surface where the spear entered his chest).
This claim is based on a couple of passages from the Fourth Gospel. One passage concerns the Doubting Thomas story, that I previously argued was fictional or at least historically unreliable in its details. The other passage is specifically about the infliction of the spear wound:
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. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.
(John 19:31-34, NRSV)
In part 17 of this series, I gave reasons for viewing the Fourth Gospel as historically unreliable, and I also briefly mentioned some specific problems with the passage quoted above.
Before I say anything more about this specific passage, I would like to take a closer look at Chapter 19, where the spear wound story is found. If Chapter 19 is as questionable and problematic as the Fourth Gospel in general, then we would have additional good reasons for doubting the historicity or reliability of the spear-wound story from that Chapter.
There are four sections in Chapter 19:
1. The conclusion of Jesus’s trial before Pilate (19:1-16)
2. The crucifixion of Jesus (19:17-30)
3. The spear-wound story (19:31-37)
4. The burial of Jesus (19:38-42)
There are grounds for reasonable doubts about the alleged facts presented in each one of these four sections, which in turn reinforces the general problem of the historical reliability of the Fourth Gospel, and casts further doubt on the spear-wound story.
Let’s start with the first section, and work our way slowly through Chapter 19 of the Fourth Gospel, verse-by-verse, section-by-section.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.
The very first verse of Chapter 19 is problematic. There is nothing unusual about a Roman governor having an accused person flogged. However, the timing of the flogging of Jesus in the middle of the trial before Pilate is inconsistent with the other Gospels.
There is no flogging of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke; Pilate merely offers to have Jesus flogged and let him go, but “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” refuse this offer and demand that Jesus be crucified (Luke 23:13-25).
In Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, Pilate has Jesus flogged, but does so after giving in to the demand of “the crowd” to crucify Jesus:
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).
The Gospel of Matthew follows Mark on this point (Matt. 27:26). In the Fourth Gospel, the flogging happens first, and then comes the demand of the crowd for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Some conservative Evangelical scholars argue for two floggings, one prior to the demand of the crowd for Jesus to be crucified and one after Pilate gives in to the demand of the crowd. But none of the four Gospels indicates that Jesus was flogged twice, and it seems more plausible that there would be just one flogging of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
If as a matter of faith, one insists that there are no errors in any of the Gospel accounts, then one must postulate two floggings to reconcile the various accounts. But we are not here assuming the inerrancy of the Gospels; we are treating them as ordinary historical documents. In treating them as ordinary historical documents, the most likely scenario is that at least one of the accounts of the flogging of Jesus is incorrect (either Mark or John), and both might be incorrect (if there was no flogging of Jesus, as suggested by the gospel of Luke).
It might be the case that the Fourth Gospel is correct on this point, and that Mark and Matthew are wrong. However, since Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and since the Fourth Gospel is the last of the Gospels, and since the Fourth Gospel has significant general issues of reliability, we should favor Mark and Matthew over the Fourth Gospel, unless there is a good reason to doubt Mark on this specific point or to believe John on this point. I’m not aware of such a good reason, so I conclude that it is probable that John 19:1 incorrectly places the flogging of Jesus prior to the demand of the crowd for Jesus to be crucified. Jesus was probably either not flogged at all (as in Luke) or was flogged just prior to being crucified (as in Mark and Matthew).
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