Friday, March 27, 2015

Debunking the claim of "development" in the crucifixion narratives

I have recently been discussing with a friend the hypothesis, put forward by some skeptics of Christianity, that the gospels show evidence of legendary accretion in the form of the development of Jesus as a character in the crucifixion narratives. The general idea is supposed to be that we can see that Jesus changes from one crucifixion story to another in ways that are best explained by the hypothesis that the gospel writers were massaging or manipulating the portrayal of Jesus, putting words into his mouth, and so forth, rather than simply attempting to record historical events that lay within their knowledge or within the knowledge of their immediate sources. In particular, the claim is that the initial crucifixion stories in the earlier gospels Matthew and Mark portray a despairing Jesus and a prima facie meaningless crucifixion and that Jesus grows "nobler," more controlled, more martyr-like or even godlike, and the crucifixion more meaningful as the "line of development" proceeds through the gospels. This, in turn, is supposed to cast doubt on the idea that the gospels are simply memoirs of Jesus from people in the know. Rather, we are supposed to see them as having, at least to some degree, the characteristics of fictional portrayals which are therefore less than reliable concerning the actual details of what Jesus did and said.

In particular, the data used for this developmental hypothesis concerning the crucifixion narratives are

a) That Jesus says only, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" from the cross in Matthew and Mark.

b) That in Luke Jesus says, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit" when he dies, that he offers the thief on the cross a place in Paradise, and that he asks his father to forgive those who are crucifying him.

c) That Luke does not contain, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Although the following was not presented to me as a datum when I was informed of the details of this hypothesis, I can continue spinning this alleged pattern myself (momentarily, before debunking it) by pointing out

d) That Jesus commits his mother to the care of John in the gospel of John, which may be regarded as a noble, controlled, and meaningful act.

Dear reader, let me make some suggestions. When anybody claims that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, do the following: First, get a handle on what sort of trajectory of development is being claimed. Then, sit down, pick up your Bible, open it up, and read swathes of relevant text to see whether they in fact display such a pattern. Do not allow cherry-picked, even uber-cherry-picked data points to be treated as evidential in themselves. After all, your Bible is sitting right there, is it not? And there is likely to be more evidence in the Bible one way or another concerning this alleged pattern, is there not? And the facts thus far mentioned, even if correct as far as they go, are a pretty meager basis on which to build such an hypothesis, are they not?

Let me also suggest that you bear in mind all the other data we have that argue that the gospels were not massaged, fictional accounts but rather are memoirs coming from truthful eyewitnesses--data such as undesigned coincidences among the gospels (including in Jesus' trial before Pilate), unexplained allusions, pointless but truth-like details, the clearly unretouched and strongly Jewish account of Jesus' conception and birth in Luke, etc. With all this in mind, a couple of points like a-d above should be treated with grave skepticism when it is claimed that they establish a pattern of development. But in any event, the matter is quite easy to test. Which I did.  I widened my focus to the passion narratives conceived slightly more broadly than the words on the cross alone. There are probably even more points than what I am going to give, but here are the ones I found even just in a brief re-reading:

1) In all of the synoptic gospels, including Mark, Jesus says to the Sanhedrin, when asked if he is the Christ, the Son of God, "Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power." In fact, the wording in Mark (which skeptics themselves generally take to be the earliest gospel) is one of the strongest: "I am, and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven." Note that Jesus says this despite the fact that he has predicted his crucifixion (Mark 8:31). Therefore, not only does Mark not portray Jesus as surprised by his death or as seeing his death as a terrible and meaningless tragedy; Mark portrays Jesus as defying the Jewish leaders on the very eve of his death and predicting his own ultimate vindication and power!

2) These statements to the Sanhedrin are not found in John, the latest gospel! So in this area, there is exactly the opposite of any "development" of Jesus into a stronger, more godlike, or more in-charge person in the passion narratives.

3) All the synoptics record a) the darkness from the 6th to the 9th hour at Jesus' crucifixion, b) the rending of the veil of the temple, and c) the statement (attributed in Mark to the centurion), "Surely this was the Son of God." This is far from portraying the crucifixion as meaningless. These indications in the synoptics strongly imply a deep theological meaning in Jesus' death. The rending of the veil in the temple implies that his death had some sort of heavy theological effect concerning the Old Covenant. We can be sure that if these events occurred in John, they would be used to argue for "development" of Jesus, of Christology, and of the gospel writers' view of the meaning of the crucifixion. Yet they are in the earliest gospels, and...

4) John, the latest gospel, does not record the darkness, the rending of the veil, or the statement, "Surely this was the Son of God."

5) Of all the gospels, only Matthew states that the dead came forth after Jesus' crucifixion. Regardless of whether one thinks that this really happened or not, the point is that it is a counterexample to an alleged pattern of gradual development of significance from the earlier to the later gospels. Even Luke does not include this claim, and John certainly doesn't, though both are later than Matthew, but Matthew includes it along with the rending of the veil of the temple. Again, we can be sure that if Matthew were independently known to be the latest gospel, this would be used as evidence of the alleged pattern of development.

6) Of all of the gospels, only John, the latest, records the most human admission of physical pain and weakness in the words from the cross: "I thirst."

7) The three "noble" words from which, apparently, the skeptics are attempting to build their developmental thesis are, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise," and "Into thy hands I commit my spirit." But in fact, these are recorded only in Luke and not in John! John has the more ambiguous, "It is finished" just before Jesus breathes his last. In John, Jesus is not shown asking his Father to forgive those who crucify him and is not shown offering a place in paradise to the thief on the cross. So what is the developmental thesis? That Jesus got "nobler" abruptly in Luke's portrayal, for some unknown reason, and then less "noble" and more pathetic and human in John's later portrayal?

All of this is in addition to,

8) The words, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" should by no means be taken to be simply an expression of despair on Jesus' part. While they may express deep suffering on his part, they are a direct allusion to Psalm 22, which contains rather amazingly coincidental phrases seeming to foretell crucifixion and which ends with the vindication of the speaker by God. While the precise reasons for which Jesus cried out this phrase from the cross are not revealed directly in Scripture, taking it to be merely a portrayal of a man in despair is an extremely shallow, uninformed, and tendentious interpretation.

I would emphasize 1-7 even more right here, however, because they do not even require a knowledge of the Psalms. Of course, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should know that about Psalm 22, but even more than that, anyone investigating the claims of Christianity should have a sufficient modicum of skepticism about the skeptics to take up and read and see the other points, which completely destroy the idea of a linear progression from sad, despairing, human Jesus dying a meaningless death to controlled, godlike figure. It's just a completely bogus claim. There is no such progression. In Luke we have three sayings not contained in John or any of the other gospels. In John we have three sayings from the cross not contained in any of the other gospels, in the synoptics we have some things not in John, and there just is no pattern of development. At all. What we have instead is exactly what we would expect to see if the various gospels had, at least to some extent, independent access to the events in question from witnesses who noticed different things, remembered different things, and recorded different things. That hodge-podge of detail is exactly what we get with human testimony to real events. 

In fact, an interesting conjecture (though only a conjecture) arises from John 19:35, where Jesus commits his mother to the beloved disciple. If that disciple was indeed the author of the gospel, it may be that John does not record the words given by Luke because he left the cross immediately and took Mary away from the grisly scene to his own home, returning thereafter alone and witnessing Jesus' last moments. It is, again, only a conjecture, and I do not wish to place too much weight on it, but it is certainly one kind of thing that happens and causes witness testimony to vary.

Skeptics, and unfortunately some Christians, are easily captivated by a kind of phony evolutionary hypothesis about the gospels. I call it the "eohippus model." Mark is the shortest, so it is like the little eohippus horse ancestor, and all the other gospels evolved by chance processes of accretion (not anything like truthful alternative witnesses!) from a Markan original.

All the evidence of the actual contents of the gospels tells against this, and there is nothing in the sheer shortness of Mark to support this hypothesis.

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as "making Jesus say" things he never said, portraying different "Jesuses" in a literary fashion, and "developing" Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus "develops" in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn't so.


William Luse said...

You know, a narrator - whether of history or fiction - needs a reason to tell his story. So if the gospel authors do not intend history, but rather are fabricating either to entertain or to deceive, the skeptics need to answer the same question twice: 1. If "Matthew and Mark portray a despairing Jesus and a prima facie meaningless crucifixion," what is their motive for doing so? To make sure we all understand that Jesus' life had no meaning? 2. If John and Luke are trying to develop Jesus' character, to transform his meaningless life and death into the foundation of a new religion, what is their motive? Lying is fun? Or maybe they really believed that Jesus was their redeemer, and wanted everyone else to believe it too, but were kind of bummed by the way things played out. So they made up the Resurrection, which was easy to do with the body missing. Then they made up some stories about seeing him and having physical contact with him post-crucifixion because they knew (all the apostles were in on it, and a number of disciples) that if they just lied hard and long enough they could make meaningful this meaningless event and spread it throughout the world to make Jesus the most famous man in history and the religion based on his name the most widely embraced ever and, gosh, what a neat trick to have pulled on the whole world for generation after generation, even though it's all based on a lie, BUT it's a good lie in a good cause cuz it'll make people behave better and feel better about themselves. If only they could have lived long enough to see it play out.

Why can't the skeptics just say, "I don't believe a word of it"? It would save them a lot of time and mental energy wasted on concocting theories when they could be solving real problems, like finding a way to falsify Christ's claim that the poor we will have always with us.

Unknown said...

Amen! Excellent Post!

Lydia McGrew said...

Bill, I've often wondered something like that. If Jesus just died and that was it, is it plausible that people would write all these semi-fictional books trying to "ennoble" him?

I think the skeptics who think that way are portraying Jesus in their own minds as a sort of modern, California-style guru about whom his followers write implausible hagiographies.

One immediate problem with that is that 1st and 2nd century Palestine wasn't California. Nobody wrote noble-sounding books (even getting gradually more so) about Simon bar Kochba, who really was just a failed Messiah who died.

Bill Robinson said...

Just really good material here! Excellent work, thanks for sharing it!

Unknown said...

Really really helpful. I'm a high school student currently studying these issues, and I found this uber insightful. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Thanks Lydia, I will distribute this very timely affirmation of the reliability of the gospel record.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, all!

Don Brooks, good to hear from you!

Lydia McGrew said...

Readers of this post who enjoyed it might want to browse older articles under the "evidentialism" tag on this blog. It has more posts than the "apologetics" tag for some reason. Also, here is the "evidentialism" tag at What's Wrong With the World.

William Luse said...

Btw, your point 8, that Jesus' words "should by no means be taken to be simply an expression of despair on Jesus' part"...Our priest last Sunday said that they were words of triumph and praise, though, alas, I forget what his reasons were.

Lydia McGrew said...

That sounds a bit like a deliberate exaggeration in the other direction. It's mostly a pretty grim Psalm, however one looks at it. But presumably what he was getting at was that the Psalm ends with the speaker praising God for his deliverance.

Unknown said...

Thank you Lydia for this amazing post. It sure put to rest the "development" theory for the death of Christ used by Muslim and atheist apologists. Did you write something similar about the resurrection accounts in the 4 Gospels. This is also a common argument by the same apologists especially Shabir Ali and Richard Carrier. If not, I would love to see you use your skills ad expertise in comparing the 4 Gospels to write something about that. I am also looking forward to read your book about the Gospels, "In plain Sight". When is that expected to be released?

Lydia McGrew said...

Thank you! I haven't done a similar post on claims of "development" in the resurrection narratives partly because those tend to vary. One has to decide which development claim to answer. But once one realizes just how flimsy and cherry-picked such "arguments" are, it becomes pretty easy to debunk them oneself. Here are a couple of examples.

Suppose that the claim is that the resurrection stories become "more miraculous" and "more dramatic." This might be "supported" by pointing out that Matthew has the angel with the countenance like lightning, not found in Mark, and that there are two angels in later gospels and only one in Mark.

But this is also easily debunked. Notice that Luke and John do _not_ have the angel with the countenance like lightning who comes down and moves the stone, striking the guards into a dead faint at the sight of him. If this is supposed to support a claim of "development" because it isn't in Mark, why doesn't it support a claim of "becoming less dramatic" when it isn't in Luke and John, which are later than Matthew (John unquestionably so)?

Or consider the fact that Luke narrates (though briefly) the ascension, not found in John. Doesn't this mean that Luke has a miracle (the ascension) that isn't in a later gospel?

Suppose that the claim is that the later gospels add "more appearance stories." Again, look at Luke and John. Luke has the appearance on the road to Emmaus, not found in John.

Suppose that the claim is that the stories become "more physical" as they go on. Luke has Jesus' *explicit* insistence that he isn't a ghost because ghosts do not have flesh and bones as he does, but these words of Jesus are not found in John, which is later. To be sure, there is plenty of physical stuff in John, but the point is that there is not some *general* development going on from earlier to later gospels with regard to the physicality of Jesus.

So what one generally has to do is to isolate a specific "development" claim and then go and show that one could cherry-pick in the *opposite* direction if one wanted to. This illustrates the fact that the original argument itself was cherry-picked and hence unconvincing. This is usually extremely easy to do just by opening one's Bible.

Unknown said...

Thank you Lydia. That is very helpful. God bless you.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

Another great tool for testing the development claim is a Gospel Parallel. You can simply look at the parallel columns and see what is included or omitted by each Gospel. I was showing my son this yesterday, and out of 8 pages at random, 7 showed no pattern at all of "development" in length or detail from Mark to John. Honestly, the "development" claim should go the way of JEDP: it doesn't even have the initial evidence to get off the ground.

Lydia McGrew said...

Usually the claim is that it is a thematic development. But as we can see here and in the other thread, those are unconvincing.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

There's thematic, sure, but I've also seen claims just based on "simplicity" versus detail. Those may be more popular than academic claims, though...

A Gospel parallel is still helpful, since it lines up what is included or omitted in each Gospel, so you can see whether there is a thematic development in those variations.

On a related issue, do you know of anyone who has looked at how actual eyewitness testimony works, say by comparing witness statements to video, in journalistic or legal settings, apart from the Gospel issues? Or even, in modern terms, putting together different video angles from various phones to create a full picture of an event, where one phone angle might not catch an entire character or action? That's an issue right now in the Chauvin case, where one angle looks like Chauvin is on the next, but another angle shows his knee down by the shoulderblade--but such a current and controversial event doesn't make for a good baseline example.