Norman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 2

In When Skeptics Ask, Norman Geisler presents eight reasons in support of the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross. In my previous post on this subject I argued that six of those reasons should be quickly set aside as weak or defective reasons. In my view, only two reasons out of the eight reasons are worthy of serious consideration.

Both of the remaining two reasons are related to various alleged wounds and injuries of Jesus that supposedly occurred just prior to or during the crucifixion. First let’s consider the third reason:

3. When His side was pierced with a spear, water and blood flowed out. The best evidence suggests that this was a thrust given by a Roman soldier to insure death. The spear entered through the rib cage and pierced His right lung, the sack around the heart, and the heart itself, releasing both blood and pleural fluids. Jesus was unquestionably dead before they removed him from the cross and probably before this wound was inflicted. … The final wound to His side would have been fatal in itself (v.34).

(When Skeptics Ask, p.121)

The quick-and-dirty objection to reason (3) is that the story about the spear wound to Jesus’ side is found ONLY in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel (John 19:31-37). This fact gives us good reason to doubt that the spear wound story is true. But there are other problems with the spear wound story, and since reason (3) is widely used in Christian apologetics, I’m going to take a bit more time to beat this particular deceased horse.

First, there are some general reasons to doubt the spear wound story:

GR1. The gospels are historically problematic

GR2. The Fourth gospel is the most historically unreliable of the gospels

GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable

GR4. The Passion narrative of the Fourth gospel is historically unreliable

GR1. The gospels are historically problematic

(GR1) is a big topic that would take a book, or at least a few chapters in a book, to cover properly. But I’m just going to quote from a leading N.T. scholar, to show that this is more than just the opinion of a skeptical atheist with an ax to grind against the Christian faith.

According to N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders is “Probably the most influential NT scholar in the English-speaking world.” (The Original Jesus, p.155). If you look up “Jesus Christ” in the Encyclopædia Britannica, you will find an article written by E.P. Sanders. So, I think it worthwhile to give serious consideration to Sanders’ view of the gospels and of the effort to figure out what Jesus actually said and did:

Most scholars who write about the ancient world feel obliged to warn their readers that our knowledge can be at best partial and that certainty is seldom obtained. A book about a first-century Jew who lived in a rather unimportant part of the Roman empire must be prefaced by such a warning. We know about Jesus from books written a few decades after his death, probably by people who were not among his followers during his lifetime. They quote him in Greek, which was not his primary language, and in any case the differences among our sources show that his words and deeds were not perfectly preserved. We have very little information about him apart from the works written to glorify him. Today we do not have good documentation for such out-of-the-way places as Palestine; nor did the authors of our sources. They had no archives and no official records of any kind. They did not even have access to good maps. These limitations, which were common in the ancient world, result in a good deal of uncertainty.

Recognizing these difficulties and many others, New Testament scholars spent several decades – from about 1910 to 1970 – saying that we know somewhere between very little and virtually nothing about the historical Jesus. Excess leads to reaction, and in recent decades we have grown more confident. Confidence, in fact, has soared, and recent scholarly literature contains what I regard as rash and unfounded assertions about Jesus – hypotheses without evidence to support them.

My own view is that studying the gospels is extremely hard work. I sympathize with the scholars who despaired of recovering much good evidence about Jesus. I also think, however, that the work pays off in the modest ways that are to be expected in the study of ancient history.

(from the Preface to The Historical Figure of Jesus[hereafter: HFJ], p.xiii)

Sanders is not a skeptic, nor is he an atheist looking for a way to attack the Christian faith. He is a leading mainstream N.T. scholar who warns us of the historically problematic nature of the gospels and that only with “extremely hard work” can we expect even “the modest” sort of results common to investigations of ancient history, and that there will unavoidably be “a good deal of uncertainty” concerning the words and deeds of the historical Jesus.

I am not as optimistic as Sanders is about discovering the historical Jesus through hard scholarly work. I am more of a Jesus agnostic, who has serious doubts about the possibility of “knowledge” about the words and deeds of Jesus and the events that he experienced (if he in fact existed). But Sanders view of the gospels is much more sane and reasonable than that of Norman Geisler.

Geisler simply makes all sorts of speculative claims about the crucifixion of Jesus based on the assumption that every detail found in the Fourth gospel is absolutely true, historical, and accurate. In doing so, Geisler shows that his views are completely outside of the mainstream of N.T. scholarship, and even outside of any resemblance of scholarship of any sort that deserves to be called such. E.P. Sanders would gag upon reading the crap that Geisler spews in his case for the death of Jesus on the cross. So, although I am more skeptical than Sanders, my views are much closer to those of mainstream N.T. scholarship than are the views of Geisler (and other Christian apologists who make similar naive bible-thumping arguments).

GR2. The Fourth gospel is the most historically unreliable of the gospels

Again, it would not be difficult to write an entire book on this one issue. So, I cannot do this topic justice here and now, but I will simply quote E.P. Sanders once again, to show that my skeptical views about the Fourth gospel are closer to mainstream N.T. scholarship than the naive and unreasonable views of Geisler.

Here is Sanders’ conclusion concerning the use of John as a source of information about Jesus:

The synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] are to be preferred as our basic source of information about Jesus. Yet their authors too were theologians and were capable of creativity. …There are no sources that give us the ‘unvarnished truth’; the varnish of faith in Jesus covers everything. Yet the synoptic authors did not homogenize their material, as John did. The joints and seams are visible, and the contents are quite diverse. There is nothing like the sameness of the Johannine monologues. The synoptic authors, that is, revised traditional material much less thoroughly than did John.

(HFJ, p.73)

Sanders discusses some differences between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Fourth gospel (John):

1. Narrative Outline/Framework

2. Contents – Jesus’ activities

3. Contents – Jeasus’ teaching

Sanders says these differences “are very substantial” (HFJ, p.66). After spelling out some differences in the narrative outlines, Sanders sums up his view about these differences between the synoptics and John:

The synoptic framework is at least as plausible as John’s, and it may have a slight edge.

This discussion may seem to imply that we must accept one or the other: either John (three Passovers; early cleansing of the Temple; informal trial) or the synoptics (one Passover; late cleansing; semi-formal trial). It is tempting to alternate between them on the basis of plausibility or intrinsic probability, while compromising on the question of duration: a ministry of eleven to twenty-five months (compromise); cleansing of the Temple near the end (synoptics); informal trial (John). We must, however, entertain another possibility altogether: perhaps none of the authors knew what took place when (except, of course, the trial and crucifixion). Possibly they had scattered bits of information, from which they constructed believable narratives that contain a fair amount of guesswork. Or perhaps they did not care about chronological sequence and arranged the material according to some other plan (for example, by topic). This would have resulted in chronological clues being scattered at random, and we could not draw good inferences from them.

(HFJ, p.69)

Both the synoptic gospels and John have somewhat plausible narrative frameworks. There is no clear winner here, and as Sanders admits, it might well be the case that neither narrative framework is based on actual history; the frameworks might be largely “guesswork” by the authors, or might be based on non-historical considerations, such as arranging events by topic.

The specific contents of the synoptics vs. John are what drives the judgement that the synoptics are a better source of information about Jesus. Sanders notes a couple of significant differences in terms of Jesus’ activities:

(1) In the synoptics many of Jesus’ healings, in fact some of those on which the story turns, are exorcisms. In John there are no exorcisms. …

(2) In the synoptics, when asked for a ‘sign’ of his authority, Jesus refuses to give one (Mark 8:11f). Among the most prominent aspects of John is a series of ‘signs’ of Jesus’ status and authority (John 2.11, 23; 4.48, 54; 6.2, 14; 7.31; 9.16; 11.47; 12.8, 37; 20.30).

(HFJ, p.69)

Although Sanders does not say this explicitly, N.T. scholars favor the historical reliability of the synoptics over John in terms of the above two significant differences in the activities of Jesus.

Sanders goes on to point out several significant differences between John and the synoptic gospels concerning the content and style of Jesus’ teaching (HFJ, p.70). Sanders then draws the following conclusions:

It is impossible to think that Jesus spent his short ministry teaching in two such completely different ways, conveying such different contents, and that there were simply two traditions, each going back to Jesus, one transmitting 50 per cent of what he said, and another one the other 50 per cent, with almost no overlaps.

Consequently, for the last 150 or so years scholars have had to choose. They have almost unanimously, and I think entirely correctly, concluded that the teaching of the historical Jesus is to be sought in the synoptic gospels and that John represents an advanced theological development, in which meditations on the person and work of Christ are presented in the first person, as if Jesus said them.

(HFJ, p.70-71)

Sanders then argues that in at least some cases, the narrative outline in the gospel of John is “as strongly determined by the author’s own theology as its discourse material…” (HFJ, p.72). He concludes that, “…we can say neither that John was creative only with the teaching material, nor that he had a good source for his narrative and that he followed it faithfully.” (HFJ, p.72)

To be continued…