Norman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 3

In previous posts I have argued that only two of Geisler’s eight reasons for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” are worthy of serious consideration. One of those two reasons is based on the spear-wound story, which is found ONLY in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel (John 19:31-37).

There are many reasons to doubt the historicity and reliability of the spear-wound story, but I have started with four general reasons:

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) and (GR2) were covered in Part 2.

GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable

Two books that I would recommend on this subject are Who Killed Jesus? by John Crossan, and The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 by Raymond Brown. Crossan takes a more skeptical position on the Passion Narratives (PNs) than does Brown:

“Basically the issue is whether the passion accounts are prophecy historicized or history remembered,” said John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I’m 80 percent in the opposite direction.” (New York Times, March 27, 1994, National section)

[quoted in Who Killed Jesus, p.1]

I other words, Crossan believes that most of the content of the PNs is fictional, because it was derived from interpretation of Jewish scripture, not from memories nor from eyewitness testimony about the events, while Brown (allegedly) believes that most of the content of the PNs is historical, because it was derived from memories or reports of people who were followers of Jesus who were present during the events of Jesus’ final week.

One reason why Crossan is more skeptical than Brown is that they have different views about the Fourth gospel. Crossan believes that the PN in John is based on Mark’s PN:

That general understanding of John’s composition means that, for me, he is independent of the Synoptics for the miracles and sayings of Jesus but not for the passion and resurrection stories. …The result is that I find only a single independent source, Mark, behind all four of the New Testament passion stories. I remind you that journalistic ethics and historical reconstruction must tread very carefully when they have but a single independent source. In looking at anything from John’s passion (and resurrection) story, I emphasize with equal force both Synoptic dependence and Johannine creativity. (Who Killed Jesus, p.22)

Brown, on the other hand sees the PN of the Fourth gospel as a second source that is independent of Mark’s PN. However, Brown acknowledges that scholars disagree on this issue: “Yet there are many scholars who argue for Johannine dependence on Mark [in terms of John’s PN]…” (The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1, p.55)

Brown is more conservative than Crossan in his views about the PNs, but I think Crossan may be exaggerating the difference between his skepticism and the views of Brown. In the opening pages of Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown expresses many cautions and doubts about the historical reliability of the PNs. Brown may be less inclined to see stories and details in the PNs as fictional, but he takes a fairly skeptical view of the PNs as sources for historical information. If Geisler had read and taken seriously the points and cautions made by Brown in the first 35 pages of The Death of the Messiah, then Geisler would probably never have put the spear-wound story forward as being a strong reason for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.

John P. Meier, a leading Jesus scholar, called Raymond Brown’s work The Death of the Messiah (Vol. 1 & 2) “The benchmark by which any future study of the Passion Narratives will be measured.” (from back cover of paperback edition of The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 1). N.T. Wright also has high praise for these volumes by Brown: “Massive, hugely learned, yet clear and accessible. This will be a landmark for at least a generation.” (The Original Jesus, p.152). Anyone who is interested in the question “Did Jesus actually die on the cross?” ought to read at least the first section of The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1.

There are 877 pages in Volume 1 of The Death of the Messiah (hereafter: DOM1), and 731 pages in Volume 2. Section 1 of Volume 1 actually begins on page 4, and the second paragraph of section 1 is perhaps the most important paragraph in the entire massive commentary:

The subject for discussion is the passion of Jesus. Understandably there is a desire to know what Jesus himself said, thought, and did in the final hours of his life. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating. (DOM1, p.4-5)

Thus one of the world’s leading N.T. scholars, a scholar who knew more about the PNs than almost any other scholar in the history of mankind, tells us that whenever we try to infer or reconstruct the preGospel tradition that lies behind the PNs in the four gospels “we are speculating” and that attempting to get to actual historical facts about Jesus based on such inferences about preGospel tradition is even more speculative. Furthermore, we are told this right up front, on the opening page of Section 1 of a commentary on the PNs that spans over 1,600 pages.

If Geisler had just read the first couple of pages of DOM1, and if he had taken Brown’s view of the PNs seriously, he would have been much more hesitant and cautious about the historicity of the spear-wound story, which is found only in the gospel of John.

In the next part of this series I will lay out many of the cautions and doubts put forward by Brown in the opening pages of DOM1.

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