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Why Be A Christian? (3b)

This is a seven-part series on why everyone should be a Christian.
Click on the following links to explore the various installments:

(3) The Credibility of Christ

[b] Was Jesus Really Dead?
 

As covered in the previous study, the resurrection of Christ is the crowning demonstration of the credibility of Jesus’ claims — the decisive reason to be a Christian. If it were not true, then our faith would be “futile” (1 Cor. 15.17).


Because of this, skeptics yearn to debunk the notion.


One such attempt is to speculate that Jesus never died on the cross in the first place.


The Swoon Theory

In 1744 the English deist Peter Annet raised doubts about whether Jesus — who was “a healthful, sober young man, with vigorous spirits” “in the bloom of nature” — actually died at Calvary. After all, a young man would not “easily part with life by wounds in the extreme parts” — i.e., hands and feet (Annet, pp. 42-43).

Ostensibly, then, everyone merely mistook him for dead and buried him unconscious in a tomb, where he eventually resuscitated.


About 40 years later, the German rationalist Karl Bahrdt offered a more sinister twist on Annet’s theory.


In his Execution of the Plan and Purpose of Jesus, Bahrdt alleged that Jesus deliberately faked his death by ingesting a mixture of drugs, passed out (“swooned”) on the cross, only to revive later in the tomb. He then allegedly emerged to deceive the world into thinking he was the resurrected Messiah who had power over the grave (Bahrdt, 1784; see also Craig, 1994, p. 234).


However, the swoon theory is heavy on imagination but light on both fact and reason.


Documentation Of His Death

First of all, numerous eyewitnesses, historians, and even hostile satirists document Jesus’ death during Pilate’s administration (Mt. 27.35; Mk. 15.24; Lk. 23.33; Jn. 19.17-18; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3; 20.9.1; Lucian of Samosata, "Philopseudes," nn. 13, 16; "De Morte Peregrini;” etc.).


Those who advocate the swoon theory must renounce the weight of history to dabble in unfounded speculation.


Which Testimony Is More Reliable?

Second, there is no record from antiquity — whether from Jesus’ friends or foes — indicating that Jesus consumed any intoxicating substances before his crucifixion. On the contrary, Jesus’ words and actions that day suggest one who was in full possession of his mental faculties. And he specifically refused the medicinal concoction of wine and myrrh, which dulled the senses (cf. Mk. 15.23).


Is it reasonable to accept the claims of what happened that day from those who were more than 1700 years removed from the events in question over and against those who were actually there?

The Severity Of His Injuries

Third, Jesus sustained wounds that were far more severe than those inflicted on his extremities.


(1) Victims of crucifixion were savagely flogged using leather whips affixed with metal balls and shards of bone (Mt. 27.26).


With this tool of torture, Jesus’ skin and muscles were ripped open from the back of his shoulders down to his legs, exposing his veins, sinews, bowels, and spine. Severe blood loss sent the victim into hypovolemic shock, resulting in a loss of blood pressure, vomiting, and organ failure, which liquidated his strength and dehydrated him (cf. Ps. 22.15; Mk. 15.21; Jn. 19.28).


Scourging alone could put any “young man” into critical condition.


(2) The “crown of thorns” (Mt. 27.29) on Jesus’ head likely punctured and irritated the trigeminal nerve and the greater occipital branch, the main branches of nerve supply for pain reception in the head (Zugibe, p. 33). In addition to profuse blood loss, the thorny crown caused the most intense stabbing pain throughout the head, triggered by the slightest touch to the face.


(3) With these thorns digging into his cranial nerves, Jesus was then subjected to numerous blows to the head both with a “reed” (Mt 27.30) and with the officers’ “palms” (Mk. 14.65). A concussion — or worse — is not out of the question.


(4) When placed on the cross, Jesus’ body was stretched, dislocating his bones from their joints (cf. Ps. 22.14). His arms may have been expanded by as much as six inches (see Dr. Alexander Metherell, pp. 194-200).


This meant that breathing was the main struggle on the cross. For six hours straight — with every single breath — Jesus used all his strength to lift himself with his nail-driven feet just to exhale.


Eventually, exhaustion, dehydration, and blood loss led to asphyxiation and cardiac arrest (ibid.).


(5) It is true that Jesus died comparatively quickly, which amazed Pilate (Mk. 15.44). In rare instances, a victim could last as much as nine days on the cross (Unger, p. 229).


It is also true that, in the rarest of cases, people could survive the cross. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that he found one of his former acquaintances being crucified. Since he had clout with the Roman general Titus, Josephus personally requested the man’s removal, after which Titus directed the physicians to give the man “the greatest care” possible (Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus 75). Fortunately, his friend survived.


However, unless one received the mercy of the Romans, surviving crucifixion was simply impossible. Indeed, it is fallacious to suggest that since Jesus was on the cross for only six hours, he could not have died. On the contrary, many victims of crucifixion never even made it to the cross, succumbing to their beatings beforehand. It is very plausible, then, that Jesus perished from his injuries within six hours on that cruel instrument of death.


What’s more, the Roman soldiers were experts in the business of death. They could tell that Jesus had not merely fainted, but that “he was already dead” (Jn. 19.33). To make doubly sure, one of the soldiers “pierced his side with a spear,” from which blood and water “came out” (Jn. 19.34).


The Journal of the American Medical Association observes that the blood and water that flowed out of Jesus’ side indicates that the soldier had ruptured the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart (Edwards [et. al.], p. 1463). Since the cross was slightly “lifted up” from the ground (Jn. 3.14-15; 8.28; 12.32) — as much as “three or four feet” (Unger, loc. cit.), though Jesus’ cross may have been a bit shorter than that (Edwards [et. al.], p. 1462) — when the soldier pierced his “side,” he did so at an angle that ensured he reached Jesus’ heart.


This tidbit of information, then, incidentally demonstrates "that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross” (ibid., p. 1455). JAMA thus concludes that the notion that Jesus was not dead is

“at odds with modern medical knowledge” (ibid., p. 1463).

In short, Jesus’ wounds were not merely “in the extreme parts” — viz., hands and feet. Rather, he sustained a deadly blow to the most vital organ in the human body.


Even if Jesus had merely fainted on the cross before the soldier inspected him, such a blow to the heart would have been fatal, regardless of how “healthful” or “young” he was.


His Enemies Confirmed His Death

Fourth, when Pilate interrogated the centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, the officer officially confirmed his expiration to Pilate’s satisfaction (Mk. 15.44-45).


Even the Jews who clamored for his death acknowledged that Jesus was no longer “alive” (Mt. 27.63).


Hence, Jesus’ contemporary enemies were not advocates of the swoon theory!


The Swoon Theory Is Impracticable

Finally, the swoon theory could never have happened in real life. Consider the following.


The Weakness of Jesus

If Jesus had survived, the process of crucifixion would have depleted his strength for weeks, at least.


Too, he would have been in desperate need of medical attention. Even with the best medical care, he could have by no means returned to health and vigor within only three days. Indeed, two of the three friends Josephus tried to save from the cross perished eventually, even with the “greatest” medical “care” Titus’ physicians gave them (Josephus, op. cit., 75). Yet, Jesus had no such assistance in the sealed-up tomb.


Moreover, Jesus was devoid of food and water in the tomb, which would have added to his frailty.


The Constriction Of Jesus

What’s more, Jesus’ body was “wrapped” up when he was buried (cf. Jn. 19.38-42; 20.7; cf. Acts 5.6).


In such a weakened state, Jesus — if only a mere mortal — would have had difficulty freeing himself, just as Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from death, needed assistance getting out of his own “graveclothes” (Jn. 11.44).

The Stone At The Tomb

Next, there is the matter of the “very large” stone that covered the tomb (Mk. 16.4).


Most scholars think this stone was round since it had to be “rolled away” (Mt. 28.2; Mk. 16.3-4; Lk. 24.2). The root term (kulio) is the genesis of the English word cylinder, indicating a round shape (Vine, “apokulio,” p. 538).

Photo from Bibleplaces.com

These “rolling stones,” which during this period were “at least 4 feet in diameter,”

“were set on one end between two parallel walls and thus moved on a sort of track” (Kloner, p. 25).

Hence, it would have been impossible for Jesus to remove the stone from inside the tomb since he would have been pushing the hulking stone up against an exterior wall.


On the other hand, a few biblical archaeologists surmise that the stone was of the square variety. Amos Kloner, for example, observes that though round stones have been discovered during this period (i.e., the first century A.D.), they “were extremely rare” (ibid., p. 28). In fact, “more than 98 percent” of the tombs discovered during this period

“were closed with square blocking stones” (ibid., p. 23).

These square stones functioned like a cork in the mouth of the tomb — the portion inside the tomb was smaller, while the exterior portion was larger, covering the hole.


Naturally, cork-shaped stones were not “rolled away” from the entrance but rather pulled back. In light of this predicament, Kloner suggests that apokulio (“rolled away”), in the biblical texts, should instead be rendered “dislodged” or “moved back” (ibid., p. 28).


However, I have found no lexical support for Kloner’s revised definition of apokulio.


Furthermore, if Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not mean to suggest a rolling motion in removing the stone, they could have simply employed the more generic word that John chose, viz., airo — to “take away” or “remove” (Jn. 20.2, NKJV; NIV). Or, the Greek term metakineo (“to move away”) would have been a suitable choice as well (cf. Col. 1.23). Why did they use a word that specifically evinced rotation, if that is not what they meant?


Theologian Urban C. von Wahlde, in the 2015 Biblical Archeology Review, concurred with Kloner’s conclusion that Jesus’ stone was likely the cork-shaped variety. However, he disagreed with his translation of apokulio. He suggested that even “cork-shaped stones” can be “rolled away from the tomb,” for

“however one gets the stone out of the doorway, chances are you are going to roll it the rest of the way” (Von Wahlde, p. 26ff).

Whether that is true or not, the biblical account suggests that “the stone” was “rolled away” “from the door of the tomb” (Mk. 16.3; cf. Mt. 28.2 [NKJV variant]). Even if such square stones were rolled after dislodging them, they would not have been “rolled” from the door but dragged out and then (possibly) rolled away from the tomb.


Hence, if the stone was square, we must still explain why the Bible describes its removal from the entryway as a “rolling,” which brings us back to Kloner’s decision to revise the definition of apokulio — viz., not “rolled” but “dislodged” — for which there is no lexical support.


In addition, Mark describes the stone as being rolled “against” or “upon” (epi) the door (Mk. 15.46; cf. Mt. 27.60). If the stone had been rolled “into” (eis) the door, we could certainly envision the cork-shaped variety. But it was “rolled” “against” the door, precisely how a round stone would have been placed at the tomb.


To be clear, however, the preposition epi (with the accusative case) could more generically be rendered “at” or even “to” (Greenlee, p. 39), in which case a cork-shaped stone could certainly be moved “to” or placed “at” the door (DARBY). In short, while epi does not disqualify the cork-shaped variety altogether, it is more consistent with the way a round stone rests “against” (NKJV) or even “across the entrance of the tomb” (NET).

Kloner’s theory of a square stone, then, fails to persuade.


Besides, the rarity of round stones during this period does not bode against the possibility that such was used at the tomb where Jesus was buried. Kloner himself noted that round stones from the New Testament period have only been found “in the tombs of the wealthiest Jews” (Kloner, op. cit., p. 28). Is it somehow insignificant that Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus was buried, was not a common Jew, but was both “rich” (Mt. 27.57) and a “prominent” member of the highest governing body in the land (Mk. 15.43)?


In that light, it is quite plausible to think that Joseph’s tomb consisted of the more elaborate double-walled opening with a round stone, rather than the more common square variety.


Regardless, these stones weighed between one and two tons (McDowell, p. 70).


How, then, could this man, weakened by the pangs of the cross, in need of medical care, three days without food and water, whose body was bound tight, have removed the “very large” stone (Mk. 16.4) from inside the tomb? A round stone could only be removed on the outside by "rolling" it from the side. And even if the stone was square, one man — in frail medical condition — could never have pushed out this 2000 pound (minimum) colossus by himself, let alone escaped unnoticed by the guards.

The Signs of Resuscitation Vs. Resurrection

In the last place, Kloner noted that

“According to Jewish tradition, the purpose of the visit to the tomb after three days was to determine the condition of the corpse” (Kloner, op. cit., p. 76).

He then cited the Jewish Talmud Tractate Semachot 8.1 (cir. 750 A. D.):

“One should go to the cemetery to check the dead within three days, and not fear that such smacks of pagan practices. There was actually one buried man who was visited after three days and lived for twenty-five more years and had sons, and died afterward” (ibid., cf. Cohen, 1965).

From this tradition, it is clear that the Jews could tell the difference between someone who was buried alive, reviving within three days, versus someone dead and brought back to life.


Hence, even if Jesus could have removed the stone and fled unnoticed, how could he have persuaded anyone that he was resurrected rather than merely resuscitated?


David Strauss (1808-1874), a skeptical theologian who denied the miracles of the Bible, soundly refuted the swoon theory:

“It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment... could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry” (Strauss, p. 412).

Indeed, swooning men make others pity them if they are buried alive. But Jesus was not pitied; he was praised, even by a rational skeptic like Thomas (cf. Jn. 20.24-29) and by those who crucified him (Acts 2.36-47)!


This skeptical theory, then, has no basis in reality.


Resurrection alone explains the rapid vibrancy of his physical condition and the enhanced conviction of his down-to-earth disciples, both of which began the very day he left the tomb.


Conclusion

The swoon theory is, at best, a pseudo-scientific explanation from those who are desperate to ignore the evidence and dismiss his resurrection.


On the contrary:


(1) Jesus’ death is historically documented;


(2) People who were there make much more reliable witnesses than skeptics who claim to know facts they never witnessed;


(3) The process of crucifixion was brutal and deadly. Short of receiving the mercy of the Romans — which Jesus did not receive — there is no way he could have survived the cross, especially since the Romans and the Jews (according to biblical and secular records alike) both confirmed his death, and the spear to his heart clinches the fact.


(4) And there is no earthly way a man who survived the cross — frail, unwell, and bound — could have


[a] removed the stone from the tomb;

[b] escaped without being spotted by the guards; and

[c] convinced tens of thousands of erstwhile skeptical Jews, who either crucified him or forsook him, that he was resurrected perfectly to life just days after his crucifixion. Indeed, surviving crucifixion would have made any mere mortal appear to be a prey to the hound of death, not the master over it.


The words of Gerd Lüdemann serve as a fitting conclusion. Lüdemann was a skeptical scholar who denied Jesus’ resurrection and repudiated much of the biblical account, claiming that ninety-five percent of the sayings of Jesus were either “false” or “overpainted” by the gospel writers (Lüdemann, 1999, p. 109ff). Yet, in his book, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, this incredulous historian agreed:

“Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (Lüdemann, 2004, p. 50).

Indeed, Jesus died upon the cross.

 

Why not keep studying? Move on to part 3c:

 
Resources
Annet, Peter. The Resurrection of Jesus Considered; In Answer to the Trial of the Witnesses. London: 1744.
Bahrdt, Karl Friedrich. Execution of the Plan and Purpose of Jesus. Berlin: August Mylius, 1784.

Cohen, A. (trans.). The Minor Tractates of the Talmud. London: Soncino Press, 1965. [Online edition may be read at Sefaria.org, https://www.sefaria.org/Tractate_Semachot.8.2?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en].
Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.

Edwards, W. D., W. J. Gabel, F. E. Hosmer. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA 1986; 255(11):1455–1463.

Greenlee, J. Harold. A Concise Exegetical Grammar of New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Kloner, Amos. “Did A Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archeology Review 25:5, September/October, 1999.

Lüdemann, Gerd. The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999.

_____ The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.

McDowell, Josh. More Than A Carpenter, In Special English. Oceania Gospel Publishing Mission, n.d.
Metherell, Alexander. “The Medical Evidence,” in The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Strauss, David. The Life of Jesus for the People, vol. 1, 2nd edition. London: Williams and Norgate, 1879.

Unger, Merrill F. “Crucifixion,” in Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.
Vine, W. E. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.
Von Wahlde, Urban C. “A Rolling Stone That Was Hard To Roll,” Biblical Archeology Review 41:2, March/April, 2015.

Zugibe, Frederick T. The Cross and the Shroud. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 2005.

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