Craig’s “Historical Evidence” for the Death of Jesus – Part 6

William Craig claims that Jesus rose from the dead. In making this claim, Craig takes on a heavy burden of proof, including the burden to prove that Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday. However, in most of his books, articles, and debates, Craig simply ignores the question of whether Jesus actually died on the cross. So, it appears to me that Craig’s case for the resurrection is a complete failure.

However, in The Son Rises (hereafter TSR), Craig does make a brief attempt, in just five paragraphs (consisting of 35 sentences), to prove that Jesus actually died on the cross. So, before we can completely toss Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus aside as a failure, we need to consider his case for the death of Jesus in TSR. In previous posts, I have shown that in the first three paragraphs of his “case” for the death of Jesus, Craig makes dozens of historical claims, but provides almost nothing in the way of actual historical evidence.

One exception to this absence of evidence in the first three paragraphs is a single end note (the only end note for the entire five-paragraph “case”) that points to a passage in an actual historical (i.e. ancient) document. The end note is provided as evidence for the following historical claim:

21. The Romans, if they did not simply leave the body [of a victim of crucifixion] on the cross until the flesh decayed or was eaten by birds or wild animals, would ensure death by stabbing the victim [of crucifixion] with a lance.

This historical claim is supported by the following end note:

Quintillian Declamationes maiores 6. 9.

In Part 5 of this series of posts, I pointed out that there are dozens of questions (at least three dozen) left unanswered by Craig concerning this bit of evidence, questions that a reasonable person would need to have answered before accepting this historical evidence as being relevant and as providing strong support for claim (21).

I’m not going to try to answer all of the dozens of questions here, but will provide answers to some of them, in order to show that there are in fact several RED FLAGS, several issues that raise doubts and concerns about this passage as evidence for claim (21). In other words, if Craig was doing actual honest historical investigation and argumentation, he would need to deal with even more questions than the basic three dozen that I have pointed out, because in answering some of those questions, RED FLAGS would be raised and new questions would therefore need to be answered before a reasonable person would accept this passage as relevant and strong evidence for claim (21).

Who the hell is Quintilian?

(Note: I’m shifting to what appears to be the more common spelling of this name).

Looking at the end note, one might guess that Quintilian was a Roman historian who wrote about the activities and practices of Roman soldiers or the Roman military. Perhaps Quintilian even had some personal experience as a Roman soldier or an officer in the Roman military that would give him first-hand knowledge of how crucifixions were carried out. But these guesses about Quintilian don’t match up to reality.

Quintilian was born in Spain around 40 C.E., shortly after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, so he lived in the first century, which is the best century for a source of information relevant to the crucifixion of Jesus. So far, so good.

But Quintilian was not a Roman soldier, nor an officer in the Roman military, nor was Quintilian an historian. Quintilian was a famous and highly regarded teacher of rhetoric and orator; in addition to teaching rhetoric, he would take on clients to argue for their position in a legal dispute. This is a RED FLAG. Quintilian was neither a Roman soldier nor an officer in the Roman military nor an historian of the Roman military. So, it is not clear why he should be considered a reliable source of information about the practices of Roman soldiers in carrying out executions by crucifixion.

What the hell is Declamationes maiores?

Since Quintilian was an expert in rhetoric and was not an historian, his writings might not include historical writings but rather consist of persuasive speeches and instruction concerning the creation and delivery of persuasive speeches.

As it turns out, the title of the book that Craig has cited is Major Declamations, which means, roughly: long speeches, and the content is basically fictitious courtroom speeches. The creation, perfection, and delivery of such speeches was a basic exercise of rhetoric in the days of the Roman Empire.

This is another RED FLAG. The work that Craig has cited is not only NOT a work of history, but is a work involving fictional characters and fictional stories, which were created NOT to present factual historical data, but as academic exercises used to develop and show off one’s rhetorical skills.

Worse yet, a common criticism of declamations as an educational exercise is the tendency of such exercises to stray from reality:

A common criticism leveled at declamation by contemporary and later observers concerned the subject matter of declamation and its separation from reality. Surprisingly, some of the sharpest censure is expressed by declaimers and rhetoricians themselves. The most famous is Quintilian…(The Major Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian: A Translation, by Lewis Sussman, p.v)

Furthermore, the actual content that we find in the Major Declamations provides a good deal of support for this criticism:

Indeed, in the Major Declamations we do find a sorcerer, an astrologer, a few wicked stepmothers, a tyrant, and the like. We could easily concoct the basis of a classic mystery thriller from MD 2, about a blind son apparently framed by his stepmother for murdering his father. A rather lurid set of circumstances occurs in MD 12, where the population of a city is reduced to cannibalism and its grain procurement agent is charged subsequently with dallying during his mission to secure provisions. One wonders how MD 18 and 19 could find room in a school curriculum: these paired controversiae deal with a handsome son suspected of committing incest with his mother. One finds further room for such speculation about MD 3 where a soldier in Marius’ army is on trial for the murder of a superior officer who tried to rape him. We even have a ghost story: in MD 10 a woman sues her husband for maltreatment because he hired a sorcerer to prevent his son’s spirit from visiting her. The common criticism therefore is that cases such as these are unnatural and far removed from the world of reality. (Major Declamations, p. v)

The translator, Lewis Sussman, worries that the reputation of declamations as “being totally unrealistic” has prevented historians from taking declamations seriously as a source of historical information:

Such a view causes scholars to disregard the information found in these collections and to relegate them to an inferior status among our ancient sources. (Major Declamations,

Perhaps we can find some useful historical data in these ancient fictitious courtroom speeches, but clearly we cannot simply take the content of such speeches at face value. Extreme caution and careful analysis will be required to separate fact from fiction in these speeches.

Another important fact that Craig neglected to mention is that Quintilian was probably NOT the author of the passage to which Craig points, and may not be the author of ANY of the courtroom speeches found in Major Declamations:

The most widely held view now is that, indeed, Quintilian is not the author of the Major Declamations. (Major Declamations, (p.viii)

Sussman gives his own view on the authorship of this work:

Perhaps the key to the authorship question may be that someone at some time, perhaps in late antiquity, compiled a collection of notable declamations, among which were, in the larger collection at least, one by Quintilian (or perhaps someone bearing the same name). The power of Quintilian’s name was such that it eclipsed the lesser known rhetoricians represented and soon extended over the entire collection.

(Major Declamations, p.ix)

This is a RED FLAG. We don’t know who wrote the fictitious courtroom speech to which Craig points as historical evidence. So, we don’t know, for example, that this speech was composed in the first century (during the lifetime of Quintilian). It may have been composed in the second or third century, and thus could be from two hundred years after Jesus’ was crucified. Also, since we don’t know the author of this speech, we don’t have any external information about the beliefs and values and experiences and character of the author. The author might have been a person of great integrity and honesty, or the author might have been a lying, cheating, thief, who had almost no knowledge of the practices of Roman soldiers (not a huge leap considering we are talking about a rhetorician or a lawyer).

Another RED FLAG is that declamations were full of rhetorical pyrotechnics and emotional appeals, making them less than straightforward prose, and making them difficult to translate and to understand. These speeches included

“…a conclusion, emotion-filled and often overdone.”(MD, p.iii) “Special attention is paid…to achieving emotional effects, especially pathos.” (MD, p.iii).

Showing off of rhetorical skills often involved sacrifice of clarity:

Frequently interspersed within the arguments in an attempt to crystallize and clinch the declaimer’s point are short, pithy, epigrammatic utterances (sententiae). But instead of helping to achieve clarity through such summarization, these sententiae are often so enigmatically constructed that confusion and ambiguity result.

(MD, p.iii)

…one constantly finds, often to the point of excess, all the flourishes and stylistic devices expected from a professional master of rhetoric during the Silver Age. Alliteration, assonance, anaphora, and asyndeton are especially common, along with every other kind of trope and figure. Prose rythm is carefully observed. Rhetorical questions abound…. Superlatives are freely and excessively used… Antithetical and exaggerated utterances abound. The use of sententiae, previously mentioned, is a marked feature of the declamatory style;…Irony, sarcasm, and hyperbole are essential ingredients of the argumentative style.

(MD, p.iii & iv)

Overall, the impression…is one of poetic coloring….Yet the pervasive flavor throughout the majority of the Major Declamations is one of verbosity, pomposity, affectation, and bombast…. Surely the style is one of an expert exulting in and displaying for an audience his mastery of every device in the rhetorician’s repertoire. The effect is to render comprehension difficult indeed, either through excessive prolixity or terseness.

(MD, p.iv)

In other words, translation and interpretation of this work is difficult and tricky.

What the hell is the content of Major Declamations 6.9?

As if the previous RED FLAGs weren’t enough, the biggest, reddest flag concerns the actual content of the passage to which Craig points us, but which Craig did not bother to quote. Prior to Lewis Sussman’s translation of MD, the most recent translation into English was done three hundred years ago by John Warr. So, if you want a modern translation, a translation which takes into account “the subsequent advances in scholarship, our understanding of the textual tradition of this work, and…the recent appearance of a superbly done Latin text by Hakanson” (MD, p.i), then you will want to consult the translation created by Sussman.

Here is the relevant portion of MD 6, section 9, translated by Sussman:

But bodies are cut down from crosses, executioners do not prevent executed criminals from being buried, and the pirates did no more than throw the corpse into the sea.

(MD, p.75)

Do you see anything about Roman soldiers using their lances to stab victims of crucifixion here? No. How about Roman soldiers using their lances in any way? No. How about stabbing a victim of crucifixion with any sort of weapon or tool? No. What about the idea that victims of crucifixion would often be left to rot on a cross? No. If anything, this passage indicates that the normal practice was to allow burial of the crucified person. So, if you use the modern English translation of MD, then the passage to which Craig points provides NO SUPPORT AT ALL for claim (21)!

In fairness to Craig, there is an ambiguity in the Latin here. The word ‘percutio’ is translated as ‘cut down’ by Sussman, but some others translate this as ‘strike’ or ‘pierce’. So, it is possible that this passage provides some degree of evidence for the practice of stabbing victims of crucifixion, depending on how the passage is translated. But there is no reference to a ‘lance’ being used in this passage, so striking might not refer to ‘stabbing with a lance’. It might mean striking with a fist, or striking with a club, or stabbing with a nail, or stabbing with a needle, or stabbing with a small knife. There is a whole lot of room for alternative translations and interpretations of this passage.

But given the scholarly advantages of the Sussman translation, the best bet is that the passage says NOTHING about striking or stabbing a victim of crucifixion.

In view of the many RED FLAGs that have been raised by answering a few of the three dozen questions that Craig failed to answer, I conclude that the historical evidence that Craig has provided in support of claim (21) is crap. It appears to be irrelevant to claim (21) or at the very best to provide only weak and questionable support for claim (21).

This outcome demonstrates the importance of doing a careful job of explaining, clarifying, and defending the relevance and significance of a piece of historical evidence in relation to a specific historical claim. Craig did not address even ONE of the three dozen questions that he ought to have touched upon. But when we take it upon ourselves to dig up the answers to some of those critical questions, it turns out that his historical evidence is either irrelevant or is insignificant as support for claim (21).

P.S. Note that answering and reflecting upon just a few of the three dozen basic questions about this bit of historical evidence has required me to write well over the five skimpy paragraphs that compose the entirety of Craig’s “case” for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.

Clearly, if Craig had taken the task of presenting historical evidence for the death of Jesus seriously, if he had attempted to answer and take into consideration even one-third of the three dozen questions that he should have addressed concerning this piece of historical evidence, then he would have written more on this ONE piece of evidence than he wrote for his ENTIRE “case” for the death of Jesus on the cross. This is further evidence that it is absurd to try to make an historical case for the death of Jesus in just two or three pages.