Norman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus – Part 4

Part of Geisler’s case for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” is based on the spear-wound story, which is found only in the historically unreliable Fourth gospel.

One general reason for doubting the historicity and reliability of the spear-wound story is this:

GR3. The Passion narratives of the gospels are historically unreliable

(GR3) is supported by various cautions and doubts expressed by Raymond Brown (a leading N.T. scholar who is an expert on the Passion Narratives) in the opening pages of The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 (hereafter: DOM1).

1. Yet Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. (DOM1, p.4)

There are no eyewitness accounts of the trials and crucifixion of Jesus. That is to say, the Passion Narratives in the four gospels are NOT accounts written by eyewitnesses to the events described. Nor are the accounts hearsay evidence based on reports or testimony of eyewitnesses of the events.

2. Available to us are four different accounts …in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John…(DOM1, p.4)

There are contradictions and inconsistencies between the Passion Narratives of the four gospels, so we know that most of the PNs are less than 100% accurate and reliable.

3. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John…(DOM1, p.4)

There is a significant gap of time–a number of decades–between the events described in the Passion Narratives and the writing of the Passion Narratives. That is time for memories to fade or to become distorted and time for oral tradition to evolve and develop, creating non-historical events and details in the process. That is time for oral traditions to shape and influence memories of eyewitnesses of the events and alter the memories of others about the oral testimony of eyewitnesses.

4. …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. (DOM1, p.4)

Brown is indicating that not only are the authors of the gospels NOT eyewitnesses, but that these authors got their information from oral and written traditions, i.e. from people who were also NOT eyewitnesses.

5. 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)

To get back to historical facts about Jesus, we must go through two layers of speculation: (1) speculation about the contents of preGospel tradition based on careful analysis of the PNs, (2) speculation about actual historical events and details concerning Jesus’ arrest, trials, and crucifixion (based on the speculative reconstruction of preGospel tradition behind the PNs).

6. The overall view of the passion presented by each evangelist [i.e. author of a gospel] is a major factor in our study. Comparing the four PNs, we see a general similarity in narrative sequence but considerable difference in content. Each evangelist has organized the material to serve a different presentation of the passion. Interpreting that view must take precedence over speculation about earlier tradition or the situation of Jesus. Thus, for instance, Mark/Matt, Luke, and John report three different sayings as Jesus’ last words from the cross. (DOM1, p.5)

It is not clear in this paragraph WHY interpreting the “overall view” of an author of a PN “must take precedence” over speculation about preGospel tradition or the historical facts behind the preGospel tradition. However, Brown is indicating here that when the contents of the PNs differ this is often attributable to differences in beliefs or purposes between the different authors of the PNs. This shows that the contents of the PNs are significantly shaped by bias on the part of the authors.

One reason why understanding the bias or “overall view” of the passion held by a particular author of a PN should take priority over historical speculation is that the attempt to reconstruct a preGospel tradition ought (if one is interested in historical truth and objectivity) to take into account the general viewpoint and BIAS of the author of each PN. When a particular event or detail fits rather neatly with the BIAS of the author of a PN, that is a red flag, an indication that we should suspect that particular event or detail is fictional or a possibly a distortion of information derived from the bias or views of the author.

7. The evangelists wrote some nineteen hundred years ago in a social and thought world quite different from our own.  Literalist interpreters of the Bible seem to think that the Gospel texts can be read as if Jesus were addressing himself to audiences of today.  In fact, however, Jesus was a Jew of the first third of the 1st cent. AD who spoke, thought, and acted as such. …we cannot understand it [Jesus’ mindset] in the way we understand our own thought world.  The same would be true of our relationship to the evangelists, although with added difficulties, for we know more of Jesus than we know of them.  For instance…whether they were Jews or Gentiles we are not sure. (DOM1, p.6)

In order to reconstruct the preGospel tradition behind the PNs, we need to take into account the beliefs, experiences, biases, and purposes of the authors of the gospels. But we don’t know who wrote the gospels and we have very little solid information about the authors of the gospels. This makes it more difficult to determine which events or details in the PNs were likely to have been invented or distorted by the authors of the gospels. Also, because we don’t know who wrote the gospels, we don’t have independent data on the honesty, integrity, reliability, rationality and objectivity of the authors. Any such character traits must be inferred from careful reading and comparison of the gospel texts.

 8. Readers of this commentary will be reminded repeatedly that we are dealing with narratives. The division of the commentary into acts and scenes is meant to underline my view that the passion accounts are truly dramatic narratives. …Indeed, at times John even supplies elements of staging, e.g. , in the outside-inside organization of the Pilate trial. …That fact must play a role in our interpretive judgments. For instance, an impressive number of happenings occur in threes.  In Mark/Matt in Gethsemane, he first comes with the body of disciples and speaks to them; second, he takes along Peter, James, and John and speaks to them; last, he goes off by himself and speaks to God.  After he has prayed, Jesus returns three times to find the disciples sleeping. In all the Gospels Peter denies Jesus three times.  In Mark the crucifixion scene involves the third, sixth, and ninth hours; and in the Synoptics Jesus is mocked three times as he hangs on the cross, even as in John three groups of people deal with the crucified Jesus.  The use of “three” is a well-known feature of storytelling, most familiar to English-speaking audiences in jokes (English-Irish-Scot, priest-minister-rabbi; etc.). Scholars rightly assume that it is unlikely that everything happened so conveniently in threes, and so seek to reconstruct the preGospel history.(DOM1, p.11-12)

In other words, some events and details of the PNs are fictional and serve literary or dramatic purposes. Brown is suggesting that the PNs be viewed as something like plays. In a play about an historical figure, we do NOT expect every event and every detail in the play to be historical and accurate. In such plays we expect the author of the play to take a certain amount of liberty with the facts and data in order to create a good play, to keep our attention, to move the audience, and to make some significant points, or raise significant issues. Brown is suggesting that the authors of the Gospels intended the PNs to be treated something like plays, not to be treated like careful and objective news reports.

9. Neglecting the narrative form of the passion can give rise to questions that miss the mark, e.g. how can the evangelist know what the Synoptic Jesus prayed for in Gethsemane when the disciples were asleep? Such a question…fails to understand the literary nature of what is being related. In most narratives the omniscient narrator tells the readers things about the protagonist without ever explaining where this information was gained. …a memory that Jesus cried out to God when facing death (Heb 5:7) may, to suit the conventions of narrative, have been filled in dramatically from memories of Jesus’ style of praying. (DOM1, p.12)

Because the PNs are dramatic narratives that are similar to a play, the words of Jesus (and others) may in some cases be invented by the author, who, based the invented words on information or beliefs about things that Jesus (or other figures) said at other times and at other places.

There were no tape recorders or video cameras in first century Palestine, and very few people could read and write. So, preserving the actual specific words spoken by a person at a specific time and place was extremely difficult and unlikely. This fact in conjunction with Brown’s point about the literary and dramatic nature of the PNs means that we can place little confidence in the words attributed to Jesus and other people who speak in the PNs. The words may have simply been invented by the author of the PN or by the storytellers who passed on the preGospel tradition upon which the PN was based. The author or storyteller may have only intended to provide words that are fitting or appropriate for Jesus to have spoken, based on things that they believe Jesus said on other occasions.

10. In this commentary I shall work with the understanding that the Gospels are distillations of earlier Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. The individual evangelists organized what they took over from such a background in order to communicate to their audiences an interpretation of Jesus that would nourish faith and life (as John 20:31 states explicitly). (DOM1, p.13)

The Gospels are not based on transcripts from the trials of Jesus, nor on interviews of eyewitnesses to the trials or crucifixion of Jesus. They are based on “Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus”. In short, they are based on religious propaganda. Furthermore, the authors of the Gospels were not attempting to carefully analyze this propaganda to separate out fact from fiction, history from legend; they themselves were engaged in creating religious propaganda.

So, we have a double-helping of bias here. The source is religious propaganda which is then organized, revised, and edited in order to produce texts that are themselves religious propaganda. So, we start out with what is presumably already a mixture of fact and fiction, and then make significant changes to that “information” which reshape the questionable materials on the basis of Christian beliefs, theological views, and for the sake of dramatic and literary purposes that have nothing to do with constructing an accurate historical account of the events.

I think the above ten points are sufficient to show that even the somewhat conservative views of Brown about the PNs are fairly skeptical and that if we take Brown’s scholarly conclusions and views seriously, we ought to have significant doubts about the historical reliability and accuracy of the PNs.

Anyone who is interested in the question of the historical accuracy and reliability of the PNs should read at least Section 1 of DOM1 (p.4-35).

Christian apologists such as Geisler, are like the Sales & Marketing department of Christianity. N.T. scholars such as Brown, are more like Engineering & Manufacturing. You will find a great deal more honesty and straight talk about the Bible from leading mainstream N.T. scholars than you will ever find among Christian apologists.