I have one final objection to raise against Luke Johnson’s use of the “method of convergence”. I have been using the phrase “the devil is in the details” to summarize a number of problems with, or objections to, Johnson’s use of the “method of convergence” to establish some key claims about Jesus. But there are some specific DETAILS about the alleged crucifixion of Jesus that I have not yet mentioned but that represent more such details that raise doubt about the claim that “Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.”
First of all, we don’t know how crucifixion CAUSES a person to die. There are various theories, of course, but it would be unethical to put those theories to a full scientific test, because it would be unethical to crucify human beings and to carefully observe their deaths in order to answer this historical/medical question. However, one popular theory is that crucifixion kills a person by asphyxiation, but actual scientific tests of crucifixion (where subjects were strapped, not nailed, to crosses) have indicated that, contrary to the asphyxiation theory, people can breathe without difficulty while hanging from a cross. The subjects, of course, were only attached to the crosses for a few minutes, not for several hours, so the asphyxiation theory has not been disproved, but it has been cast into doubt.
Because we don’t know how crucifixion causes death, we can hardly be certain that it caused Jesus to die in a matter of just a few hours (Jesus was crucified around 9am according to the synoptic Gospels and around noon according to the Gospel of John. The Gospels agree that Jesus was buried before sundown on the day he was crucified, around 6pm, so his apparent death would have been sometime in the late afternoon, between 2pm and 5pm). If Jesus had been on the cross for several days, that would make his death highly probable because people usually died after three or four days. But since Jesus was allegedly on the cross for between about three hours (noon to 3pm) and eight hours (9am to 5pm), the fact that he was hanging from a cross for a few hours is not sufficient to confidently conclude that he died on the cross.
One important detail is the use of NAILS. Most paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion show Jesus as nailed to the cross, but the synoptic Gospels do not mention hammers, hammering, nails, or nailing. The synoptic gospels only say that Jesus was crucified, and crucifixion was often carried out by binding the victim to the cross, without using nails. The Gospel of John also does not mention hammers, hammering, nails, or nailing in the description of Jesus’ crucifixion.
However, in the story of Doubting Thomas, which is found ONLY in the Gospel of John, we are told that the risen Jesus had marks in his hands/wrists from nails. Since nails are mentioned ONLY in the Gospel of John and in the dubious story of Doubting Thomas which also occurs ONLY in the Gospel of John, the evidence for the use of nails in Jesus’ crucifixion is weak and questionable. (Note: The Doubting Thomas story says nothing about nail wounds in Jesus’ feet, only in his hands.)
If Jesus had been bound to the cross rather than nailed to the cross, then that would mean that instead of having a serious wound in each hand/wrist and in each foot/ankle, he would have had no serious wound in each hand/wrist and no serious wound in each foot/ankle, meaning that four of the serious wounds traditionally believed to have been inflicted on Jesus, might be fictional rather than factual. If Jesus had been bound rather than nailed to the cross, this would significantly reduce the probability that he would die after just a few hours of hanging on the cross.
One other very important wound that Jesus allegedly received while on the cross is the SPEAR WOUND to his side. The story of the spear wound, however, is found ONLY in the historically dubious Gospel of John. None of the synoptic Gospels record this event, and none of the other Gospels ever mentions a wound in Jesus’ side.
Furthermore, there is good reason to suspect that this spear wound incident was created on the basis of an O.T. prophecy, which is specifically mentioned in the Gospel passage that relates this story (John 19:36 & 37):
36. These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.”
37. And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
The author of this Gospel might have accepted these scripture passages as divinely inspired prophecy which MUST be fulfilled, and on this basis INFERRED that Jesus MUST have been stabbed with a spear while on the cross, and then created the story about the spear wound, without any thought or intent to deceive the readers of this Gospel, being fully confident in the inspiration of the O.T. and in his interpretation of these ‘prophetic’ passages.
I, however, am quite confident that the O.T. was NOT inspired by God, and even if it were inspired by God I have no good reason to trust or rely upon the interpretation of these O.T. passages by an unknown first-century Christian author. Since there is a good chance that the story was created on the basis of the O.T. passages, there is a good chance that the spear-wound story is fictional and false. If the spear-wound story is fictional and false, then one of the most serious and important wounds traditionally believed to have been inflicted on Jesus was NOT actually inflicted on Jesus. If there was no spear-wound to Jesus’ side while he was hanging on the cross, then that would significantly reduce the probability that Jesus would die after just a few hours on the cross.
Within the general constraints of the Gospel accounts, but allowing for some dubious details to be fictional, it is quite possible that Jesus was merely tied to the cross (not nailed), that he hung from the cross for just a few hours (from noon to 3pm), and that there was no serious spear-wound inflicted on Jesus while he was on the cross. Given that we simply do not know how crucifixion causes death (other than by dehydration, starvation, and exposure over a period of days), the fact that Jesus was crucified fails to show that the death of Jesus on the cross is highly probable.
These are all details concerning the alleged crucifixion of Jesus:
How many hours was Jesus on the cross?
How was Jesus attached to the cross?
If nails were used, were they used only for his hands or only for his feet or for both hands and feet?
Was Jesus stabbed with a spear while he was on the cross?
If so, where on his body did the spear penetrate?
If Jesus was stabbed with a spear, how deep and how wide was the spear wound?
If Jesus was stabbed with a spear, were any vital organs seriously damaged by this?
None of these details are known. We can only formulate educated guesses in order to answer these questions. But the probability that Jesus would have died on the cross on the same day he was crucified depends to a large degree on the answers to these questions about the details of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.
As Luke Johnson repeatedly and correctly points out, when it comes to such details, we cannot rely upon the Gospels to provide solid historical evidence:
A careful examination of all the evidence offered by outsider and insider sources justifies making certain statements about Jesus that have an impressively high level of probability.
Such statements do not concern details, specific incidents, or the sequence of events.
(The Real Jesus, p.111-112)
Johnson is skeptical when it comes to the DETAILS provided by the Gospels, but we must acknowledge that “the devil is in the details”.
In order to determine the probability that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified, we need to answer questions of a detailed nature, such as the questions I have outlined above about the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and wounds. I agree with Johnson that we cannot confidently rely on the Gospels when it comes to such details, but the implication of this is that we are NOT in a postion to confidently conclude that it is highly probable that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
Here is an INDEX to posts in this series.