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Paper Keys III: The Keystone Crucifiers Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Another of the modernist myths concerns the crucifixion of Jesus. The myth comes in several versions. The first is that Jesus did not really die upon the Cross, and that He revived in the tomb, slumped around for a few days, and then died indeed.

Even supposing the Shroud of Turin is not the shroud of Jesus, it is still the shroud of someone scourged within an inch of his life, and crucified. It shows torture the like of which no one alive in a civilized nation can imagine. There are large gouges in the back, near the spine, caused by shards of glass and iron at the end of the Roman whip. These would tear and dig into the flesh like fishhooks, before being ripped out by main force. Arteries are breached, and the spinal column. The Romans knew what they were about.

After all, they were not blunderers. They couldn’t afford to be. They maintained a frontier thousands of miles long against barbarian incursions, with a standing army much smaller than our own. Obedience was to be prompt and unquestioned. We have the centurion’s testimony: “I too,” he says to Jesus, “am a man under authority, and when I say to one man, Do this, he does it, or Go there, and he goes.” Disobedience was a capital offense.

These are the same Romans who punished themselves with decimation: if a company showed cowardice in battle, the commander might order the men to stand in line, with swords drawn. The soldiers would count themselves off, and every tenth man would be executed on the spot – by the comrade standing next to him.

The Romans had been about the crucifying business for a long time. They knew that death came to the condemned man by suffocation, and so they angled his feet downward, to provide him almost no leverage for lifting his body to expand the chest and take a gulp of air. Almost no leverage: just enough for agony, as each attempt chafed the raw clusters of nerves in the spike-driven feet and hands.

Since the Sabbath was coming, the three men crucified on Calvary had to be dead before sundown, lest Pilate offend to no purpose his wary enemies among the Jews. So the soldiers brought instant death to two of the men by the standard procedure. They broke their knees. That would do it; no more oxygen into the lungs. It was excruciating, and as effective as smothering a man in a straitjacket.

But they did not bother to break the knees of Jesus, because Jesus was already dead. Would the centurion in charge risk a mistake in this matter? Not if he valued his life. We are not talking, here, about a slip, a show of incompetence. For Jesus was not any ordinary prisoner. The sign upon the Cross bears witness: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

The admonitory force of those words should not escape us, and would not have escaped the witnesses upon Calvary. This is what happens to self-made kings who defy the Roman imperium.

           Crucifixion (with the Spear of Longinus) by Fra Angelico, c. 1440

So the centurion made everyone as certain as certain could be. He did not swing a club like a ruffian. He had his convenient lance. He pierced the side of Jesus, through the lungs and into the pericardium, and out flowed blood and water, according to testimony which bears all the marks of an eyewitness. The water is the fluid in the drowned lungs, the result of slow asphyxiation and congestive heart failure.

The apostle John notes it, because it was strange to him, though perhaps not strange to the centurion. If you saw someone thrust a knife into a man, and blood and water came forth, you would note it too.

Now that settles the case. A balloon that has been burst with a needle is no longer a balloon. Lungs that have been transverberated are useless folds of flesh. Jesus was not dead? His body, as it was, could no more have been reanimated – which would have been miraculous in any case – than if his heart had been cut out and tossed away.

All right, Jesus died, say the mythologists. But somebody could have stolen the body from the tomb. Really?  Jews were grave robbers, were they? And on the Sabbath? How? Did they beat up the guards? What happened to the soldiers stationed at that tomb? Docked a day’s pay?  How does that explain the appearances on Easter and thereafter? And why would someone do it? To spread a lie about His resurrection? 

There’s not one bit of evidence that the disciples understood what Jesus was talking about when He said He would rise again. All the testimony suggests they did not understand. These conspirators would then commit their lives to a lie about something whose nature nobody understood?  Suddenly imbued with a theology of resurrection?  They would be stoned, as Jesus’ kinsman James was, or crucified upside down, as Peter was, or flayed, as Bartholomew was, for nothing?

Well, say the academic confidence men, the body snatchers were not the same people who experienced the risen Lord. But that multiplies problems. It would be bizarre all around.

We must suppose that people from a culture that treated bodies of loved ones with the utmost solicitude would use the Lord’s body as a shuttlecock. We must believe that a Peter was completely in the dark about the actions of an Andrew, and remained so for the rest of his life.

We cannot account for Mary Magdalene, who supposes that only enemies would have moved the body, to add insult to injury. But if they did, then they could have produced the body later, to silence the apostles. They didn’t.

And the disciples testify that they saw, touched, spoke with, and even ate with the risen Lord. Then comes the fallback Myth of the Madmen. More to come.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by DeGaulle, July 31, 2013
If the Romans were so incompetent at executing our Lord, isn't it curious that there were no other examples of what would therefore be a bogus 'resurrection'?
written by Frank, July 31, 2013
Thank you for this and all your excellent essays.
written by Other Joe, July 31, 2013
When Esolen speaks, it is best to listen. When Esolen writes, the veil covering the face of all that is foolish is pushed aside.
written by Rich in MN, July 31, 2013
I just hope it is not so easy to end up in Hell as Dante portrays. (Sorry, I have been watching your 'Catholic Courses' series on Dante's Inferno and it is just stuck in my brain right now....)

A century ago, there was a brilliant group of German Lutheran literary critics, chief among them was Rudolf Bultmann, who started out with a solid Modernist premise: miracles (i.e. the violating of physical laws) cannot happen because miracles are, well, impossible! With that presupposition in hand and with the compass of the form critical method, they proceeded to analyze the Gospels (the 4 canonical Gospels as well as the Gospel of Thomas, primarily). In their effort to explain why stories were told in different ways in the various Gospels (which were compiled and composed over several decades with many eyewitnesses still being alive throughout much of this time), they used as their exegetical key the transformation of folk stories that happened over CENTURIES and over many generations. It was a brilliant attempt but it had some fundamental flaws: the Modernist premise and the comparison of apples to oranges.

Among the interesting 21st century treatments of what is commonly known as the "synoptic problem" is Richard Bauchham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses." Definitely an interesting read.
written by Maggie-Louise, July 31, 2013
Excruciating: ex crucis: from the cross.

Is this the source of the word excruciating, Dr. Esolen? Was it necessary to coin a new word to describe the suffering of this kind of death?

Your essay is wonderful, but painful to read. Thank you.
written by Manfred, July 31, 2013
Thank you Dr. Esolen. Compare what you have written above with: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?, A Community Meal?, Dancing bishops?, an arm-waving throng of millions?, which occurred at Copacabana Beach in Rio under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome (he prefers to not be called the Pope and I agree that title should not be used in his case). No wonder adults are leaving the Church in droves when one compares the EXCRUCIATING Passion and Death of GOD and the gibberish which occurs to memorialize that singular event. Abuse of the liturgy, according to Cdl Burke, has been responsible for enormous loss of Faith among the faithful.
written by debby, July 31, 2013
this post is heart breaking.
i hope.
i hope it continues to break down this reader's proud, hard, stingy heart.

this is why our (Catholics')crucifixes have corpses.
i need constant reminders of Who Love is, what Love looks like. the empty cross doesn't help me through the day remain in love - He is too much dismissed and a pretty gold thing is left behind to wear around my neck and assuage any thoughts of my nailing Him there.

i just finished reading Dena Hunt's little historical novel Treason, which chronicles one week in the life of Catholics living in Elizabethan England. there is a remarkable scene in the Confessional where the priest asks, "...did our Lord die for faith? Or did He die for love?"
so often i think i know the answer to this question. but in reality i live thinking i need to prove something to Him, instead of standing underneath that ocean flowing out for love of me. and if i hadn't nailed Him there myself, He still would be nailed by love for my sake.
will i ever be poor in spirit enough to stop fussing and fighting and resisting and begin to really dwell in and receive this Love Who cannot be understood yet makes Himself known?
thank you for this post today - St. Ignatius of Loyola. i pray it is a cannon ball shattering my stiff-necked bones.
written by Rich in MN, July 31, 2013
Correction: The author of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" is Richard Bauckham (not Richard Bauchham) -- my apologies.

I believe it was Blessed John Paul II who, as part of correcting Vatican II misinterpretations, emphasized the necessity of having a crucifix (not a cross) present at every Catholic Mass. The torturous execution of that young Jew -- God Incarnate -- 2000 years ago and the gift we experience when we receive communion are inextricably linked -- one cannot exist without the other. And we must never, ever forget that.

In a related note, I thought I heard that both Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Thomas Aquinas wept every time they went to communion or adored the Blessed Sacrament. Something to consider.
written by Howard, July 31, 2013
"He pierced the side of Jesus, through the lungs and into the pericardium, and out flowed blood and water, according to testimony which bears all the marks of an eyewitness." This includes the testimony of Thomas. His confidence in the wounds to the Body of Jesus does not sound second-hand; I am convinced he saw all or most of the Crucifixion, certainly including the end. So, I think, did ALL of the Apostles (except for probably Judas Iscariot). John was the only one close enough to hear what Jesus said and to try to comfort the Blessed Virgin, but it seems likely the others saw what happened as they cowered in the distance.
written by Romy1, August 01, 2013
This is very interesting, Dr. Esolen. And there are other things about the crucifixion of Christ that I find curious. Please correct me, but I read somewhere that the Romans never took down the bodies of the crucified until there was virtually nothing left of them. As the victims slowly died, they were eaten by vultures and rodents. There must have been a persistent odor of death that permeated the air of Jerusalem and other Roman cities.

However, Pilate granted Joseph of Arimathea permission to take down only Christ's body. This is something quite contrary to a procurator's duties. Why did Pilate commit this act of compassion to Christ? It is possibly the first act of kindness performed by anyone toward our Lord, post mortem.

Also, Pilate had a "seat of judgment" from which he pronounced such. Why did he place Jesus on that seat of judgment in John's Gospel? Isn't it odd that a procurator would place the accused on that seat?
Just ruminating.
written by Rich in MN, August 01, 2013
Today I read the two earlier installments of Dr Esolen's commentary on the Gospels, including the discussion between Dr. Esolen and Dr Brown regarding the hypothetical sayings source, "Quelle" (a.k.a. "Q"). If I had read these earlier articles and their accompanying comments before my posts above, I would not have posted my simplistic, almost cavalier, description of Bultmann and the early Form Critics in my first comment. Mea culpa.

At the risk of 'doubling down' on my naivete, I think that the existence of the Gospel of Thomas (a sayings collection, sections of which may date back to the mid-First Century) might demonstrate that Q would not be without precedent. However, to assume Q as a 'given' based on a HYPOTHETICAL 'Ur Thomas' seems to be drawing a conclusion that is considerably beyond the extant evidence.

I was intrigued, Dr. Esolen, by your reading of the Gospels in Welsh and how it suggested a different possible source theory. Are you familiar with the "Two Gospel Hypothesis" (not to be confused with the Farmer/Griesbach hypothesis)? While the the two Gospel Hypothesis does have its problems and its own version of a "missing link," on the plus side, it follows the traditional consensus of Matthean priority. And Richard Bauckham's study, while not focused on source criticism per se, does make the case for eyewitness testimony in the Gospels and I think adds a dimension to the source criticism discussion.

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