Friday, August 28, 2009

The Healthcare Debate: A Repeat of History

Consider the following quotation from a prominent Republican politician:

"One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people, has been by way of medicine. It's very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project — most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can't afford it. Now, the American people, if you put it to them about socialized medicine and gave them a chance to choose, would unhesitatingly vote against it."

You'd easily believe that was a statement made last week by a Republican politician. In fact, it was made by Ronald Reagan in the mid-1960's, and he was talking about Medicare.

He went on to say that if the Medicare bill was passed, we would one day be telling our children and our grandchildren
what it was like in America when men were free.

Fact is, LBJ's Medicare bill was hotly contested by conservatives. They argued that it would bankrupt the country. They argued that it would add to an already soaring federal deficit. They pointed out that the government can't run anything effectively,
especially not healthcare. They called it "socialized medicine." They claimed that it would cause "end of life" crises for retired people. They argued that retired people wouldn't be able to get the care they needed because of rationing. They argued that many doctors and hospitals wouldn't take Medicare because of its low payment scheme, so the elderly would have trouble finding doctors to treat them.

Ultimately, when it became obvious that the bill would pass, many conservative legislators voted for it, despite criticizing it from the start, for fear of being branded as having not voted for what was sure to become a popular healthcare system.

Now we're 50 years down the road. Medicare is very popular. It is expensive and has required a number of overhauls to be maintained. But I don't know of very many people in mainstream American who think it should be ended. I don't know of many people who would call it socialized medicine. All the scare tactics used to condemn it have proven to be scenarios that have never come to pass. I don't know of many people who think it should be gutted and old people should just have to suck it up - it's their own fault, after all, if they didn't adequately prepare for retirement from a financial standpoint. I haven't heard many people saying such things.

The similarities between the opposition to Medicare and the opposition to Obama's healthcare reform are striking. It's basically the same argument all over again.

The real irony comes from the Baby Boomer generation. They are the ones, after all, making the biggest stink over healthcare reform. A recent article I saw says that the AARP has lost a lot of members over its support for the Democratic plan. Yet I sure haven't heard any of these 60-somethings saying we should disband Medicare. At a townhall meeting held by Republican Robert Inglis, one angry Baby Boomer said: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" Not only does such a statement show the basic ignorance many people have about what constitutes "government-run healthcare," the general stance of Baby Boomers against healthcare reform represents pure hypocrisy born from undisguised self-interest.

We've been here before. We have heard the same lies, distortions, and scare tactics in the past. We know from history that they are just that - lies, distortions, and scare tactics. We know the real issue is to keep Obama from getting this feather in his cap - just like conservatives in the 1960's didn't want LBJ to get credit for Medicare.

Michael Cannon, a writer for the Cato Institute - an anti-liberal think tank in Washington that plays a prominent role in the development of modern conservative platforms - has pointed out that allowing Obama and the Democrats to "win" this particular battle may undermine conservative power struggles in the future. If the bill passes and is popular, those middle-income folks who may normally vote conservative might begin voting liberal - or at the very least vote for Obama in 2012.

He also has written: "Bill Clinton demonstrated that the most effective way to block tax cuts is to paint them as an assault on your health care. Twenty-eight percent of Americans already depend on government for health insurance. If that share grows, whether through government programs or subsidies for "private" coverage, we can start writing obituaries for the party of tax cuts [that is, the Republicans]."

In other words, we must stop Democrats from expanding healthcare to include all people, because then when Republicans try to lower taxes, the liberals will scare people into thinking a tax cut means a cut to their healthcare, and we can't have that.

I've also pointed out before the words of Jim DeMint, senator from South Carolina, referring to healthcare reform as Obama's "Waterloo" and how Republicans have to "break" him on this issue.

The most vocal dissent on healthcare reform isn't about legitimate concerns on how to reform healthcare. It's about stopping Obama from winning.

I want Republican and conservative input on this bill, because I think their input will help to moderate the soaring costs. I don't want a "Democrat-only" bill. But I also can't make Republicans and conservatives sit down and discuss this. I am encouraged, however, by the Republicans who are definitely still working on it - like John McCain and the three Republicans on the panel of the "Gang of 6."

What I don't want, however, is for Republicans to make all sorts of demands on the legislation to hinder it, then still refuse to vote for it when voting day comes. That's the trick they pulled on the government bailout legislation. If it fails, they can blame the Democrats, even though there were tons of changes made to the bill that came from Republicans.

I want a bipartisan bill with bipartisan support. I want the right healthcare reform bill. I don't want it railroaded by unfair political spin, repeats of the past, and partisan power concerns. But if Republicans aren't willing to debate and discuss the issue, then I am not opposed to forcing through legislation without their support. We have to act now, and I do not buy the arguments that say the "wrong bill" is worse than nothing at all. It can't get worse than it already is. Even a bill that has some problems would be better than nothing, because those problems can be worked out later.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Ministry of Jesus

On the messageboard where I debate religion and politics, a lot of people frequently assert that Jesus - aside from being a run-of-the-mill wisdom teacher - never really did anything earth-shattering or monumentally important. He taught some valuable lessons, although they weren't necessarily original, but all in all he wasn't much different than countless other inspirational people over the centuries.

That's something I disagree with profoundly, and recently I was asked to support my arguments that Jesus, in fact, broke a lot of barriers and attacked cultural conventions and norms in a way that was unique and not at all run-of-the-mill.

A traditional believer, of course, would simply point to that little old thing we like to call the resurrection. Pretty monumental and earth-shattering, no? But the debates I involve myself with on the messageboard tend to revolve around historical data, not metaphysical claims. So the response I'm going to copy here doesn't discuss metaphysical claims, but historical analysis of who the Jesus of history really was.

I was asked to give "5 points," so here they are:

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1. Jesus challenged entrenched religious wisdom of his day.

Over and over again in our earliest accounts of Jesus' life, Jesus is seen attacking oppressive religious principles. Ancient Jews, for instance, followed rigorous dietary restrictions. Jesus challenged that. "What goes into one's mouth does not make him unclean, but rather what comes out of his mouth makes him unclean."

Dietary restrictions may seem innocuouse on the surface, but you must keep in mind the historical context. This wasn't 21st century North America. This was 1st century Palestine, and suggesting in that era that Mosaic dietary laws were nonsense would be like suggesting today that drugs should be legalized. This was a shocking and troubling sort of challenge for the conventions of the day.

[Perhaps better than the drug legalization analogy I used on the messageboard, consider someone in modern America asserting that guns should be outlawed - Jesus' message on dietary restrictions would have been received the same way by 1st century Jewish culture as gun bans would be received by 21st century American culture.]

2. Jesus challenged racism, xenophobia, and cultural exclusivity.

One of Jesus' most famous teachings is on the Good Samaritan. In 1st century Judea, Samaritans had the same status that Italians had in the U.S. in 1900. They were half-breeds. They were untrustworthy foreigners. They were unclean because they were half-Gentile. Jesus challenged his followers to look beyond cultural identity, race, and xenophobic fears by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The story says that all people, regardless of culture, creed, or color, are capable of good and worthy of love.

Other examples exist too...for instance Jesus' tendency to associate with the "scum of society" - zealots, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, etc. Jesus asserted that all of these people were worthy of love and acceptance, not just the powerful, the wealthy, and the pious.

3. Jesus reinterpreted deeply held "truisms."

Jesus is often depicted stating some bit of common knowledge from his culture, and then reinterpreting it. These are known as the "You have heard it said...but I say to you" sayings. "You have heard it said an 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, if a man slaps you on one cheek, turn the other to him as well. Don't resist and evil-doer."

Jesus was turning common knowledge on its ear. He was challenging the entrenched justice system of his day. He was advocating peace in a society of revenge and retribution.

[Imagine someone showing up at your pulpit and suggesting that one of God's own commands to humanity, given in a revered holy text - a command about personal injury and punishment - was all wrong and should be disregarded.]

4. Jesus broke with the patriarchal society of his day.

One of the things historians can know with relative certainty about the historical Jesus is that his group of followers and companions included a lot of women. We all know that women in the 1st century were second class citizens. This was especially true in Palestine.

Jesus, however, is continually depicted having close women followers. Women are universally agreed by the Gospels to have been centrally involved in the resurrection. One account tells us that women helped "finance" Jesus' ministry. Women are frequently mentioned traveling with Jesus.

This, like so many other things about his ministry, would have been shocking and scandalous in the 1st century.

[From a later post:]

I've heard many historians point out that the stories that we have of Jesus life come to us from within, and as a product of, that ancient patriarchal culture. When you take that into consideration, the likelihood is that the Gospels - if anything - actually downplay the role of women in Jesus' ministry and in early post-resurrection Christianity.

Take for instance the authentic letters of Paul. There are about 7 of them, perhaps 8 or 9. At least 3 letters attributed to Paul in the NT were almost definitely NOT written by Paul. In these authentic letters of Paul, you never hear negative female stereotypes typical of 1st century culture.

Instead, women are treated as though they are on equal footing with men. Women are named as apostles (missionaries), deacons, church leaders, letter-bearers, even prophets. At the end of Romans (for instance), Paul greets 16 or 17 different people, almost half of which are women, and the letter itself was apparently carried to Rome by a woman missionary.

That demonstrates that even 3 decades after Jesus' death, women were still playing a vital role in Christian communities, leftover from their important role in Jesus' ministry.

Later, in the last few decades of the 1st century, the role of women began to fall prey to the dominant patriarchal culture. Letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, written in Paul's name, suddenly assert strict restrictions to what a woman can and can't do. Early church fathers make clear that only men are in charge of the emerging Christian religion. Scribes begin adding phrases to some of Paul's authentic letters making it sound to us today like Paul was a misogynist (such as the out-of-place and contradictory passage in 1 Corinthians suggesting women can't speak in church - even though in the same letter Paul had earlier talked about women prophesying in church!).

It was during this same era - the late 1st century - that most of our accounts of Jesus' life were written. So they no doubt were influenced by the diminishing role of women in Christianity.

Despite that, they still show a fairly obvious high involvement of women in Jesus' life. Again, that indicates that if anything, our stories of Jesus' life actually
downplay the role of women, and this is why you frequently hear historians assert that not only did Jesus have female followers, but that women may have even been honest to God (excuse the pun) disciples of Jesus, among his core group of companions.

And it makes perfect sense within the greater context of his ministry to the outcasts and rejects of society.

This is one reason why I don't have a shred of respect for any modern congregation that disallows women in ministry roles. It's not only offensive from within a modernist perspective, it's obscenely inconsistent with Jesus and earliest Christianity.

5. Jesus negated norms and conventions in society.

The society of Jesus' day said that the wealthy were blessed. Jesus asserted that it was the poor who were blessed. Society said the strong would conquer the earth. Jesus said the meek would conquer the earth. Society said the warlike emperor was the son of God. Jesus said the peacemakers were sons of God.

Jesus was an intinerant preacher. He lived in a rural area that was experiencing massive urbanization and commercialization by the Roman empire. What had once been regarded as God's land, caretaken by the Jews, was now being overrun by Roman commercialism. In Jesus' first 20 years of life, for instance, the Romans cities of both Tiberias and Sepphoris were built in Galilee, in Jesus' backyard.

Jews saw their ways of life ending. Jesus, in particular, would have seen enormous rises in poverty and destitution among peasant Jews whose livelihoods could no longer continue under the growing commercialism of Rome. Landowning Jews were becoming landless laborers and ultimately out-of-work laborers. Jesus no doubt came from that group of people, and he used his ministry to call people into newness of life. All the conventions and norms of the old life were passing away. Jesus preached a message of hope to those whose hope was gone, to those who had lost everything, to those who were the outcasts and rejects of a society whose very systemic nature demanded a class of expendables.

[I've heard one historian note that Jesus' rather infamous teaching about "hating" one's mother and father, spouse and child (Luke 14:26), was not so much directed at those who still had families to lose, but rather to those dispossessed who had already lost their livelihoods, families, etc.]

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In short, Jesus was a radical liberal. J.D. Crossan calls him a "radical egalitarian." His was a message of world-negating. He saw a world of systemic evil, and he fought it and challenged it.

He didn't worship a holy text; he challenged it. He didn't acquiesce to the religious conventions and traditions and dogmas of his day; he attacked them. He didn't quietly accept the status quo of society; he negated it through his actions of communal teaching, eating, and healing.

Jesus challenged practically every epistemological aspect of his culture and society. That, in my opinion, makes him profoundly unique for his time, historically important, and spiritually relevant.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Misconceptions About Biblical Content

Misconceptions about the content of the Bible seem to be widespread within the world of Christianity and society in general. This common lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually says is something that I have always found ironic among Christians. Many Christians, of course, believe that the Bible is the Word of God – the literal words of the literal God of the universe to all of humanity so that we can know and worship God. If they truly believe that about the Bible, one would expect that they would be literally gobbling the Bible up. I know I would be. Yet many Christians seem profoundly uninformed about the content of the Bible. Most of what they know about the Bible they have absorbed through worship services, Sunday School, and pop culture. It sometimes seems that many Christians don’t spend much time actually reading the Bible.

This, of course, isn’t meant as a universal condemnation of all Christians – there are plenty of Christians who read and are knowledgeable about the Bible. But it seems that the majority probably spend very little time in Bible study and harbor many misconceptions about what the stories of the Bible actually say. There are no doubt many reasons for this, the primary being that a lot of Christians are only “in it for the prize.” They aren’t that concerned with actually becoming educated Christians, following the lifestyle of the man they call Lord; instead they just want their free ticket to heaven.

Whatever the various reasons, it seems apparent that many Christians have profound misconceptions about the content of the Bible. I would like to look at a few of the more prominent ones.

THE BIRTH OF JESUS

If you were to ask Christians to describe the setting of the birth of Jesus, you would no doubt receive a hodgepodge of stories about angels, shepherds, wise men, frankincense, mangers, Bethlehem, cattle, and perhaps even a little boy with a drum. Regardless of the precise variety of answers you received, one element that I am certain would be present in just about every account would be that of the stable.



Jesus was born in a stable. Everyone knows that, right? We see it in our nativity scenes. We see it in our church plays. We hear references to it in our Christmas sermons and our Christmas songs. Together with the manger and the city of Bethlehem, it is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the Christmas story.

Some readers may be surprised to discover that there is not a single mention, in the entire Bible, about Jesus being born in a stable.

Only the Gospel writers of Matthew and Luke mention the details of Jesus’ birth. In neither of these accounts is there any mention of a stable. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and says that when the eastern Magi came to see Jesus, they visited him in a house there in Bethlehem. It is not made clear exactly when the Magi came – right at the time of the birth, or several months later. Either way, the only mention of a specific location is the house of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem where the Magi came to see the baby.

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to a crowded Bethlehem to register for a census. Mary and Joseph had no place to stay (“there was no room for them in the inn”). So, Luke tells us, they placed the newborn Jesus “in a manger.” A manger, of course, is a feeding trough.

This image of the feeding trough is what has led to the idea of Jesus being born in a stable. Stables, however, would not have existed within the city limits in the ancient world. The Jews in particular were very concerned about uncleanness. In the 1st century, for instance, graveyards were not permitted to the west of Jerusalem because the winds blew predominately from that direction and would blow the uncleanness of death onto the city. Sacrificial animals were kept in small pens or stalls in the Temple, but cattle and beasts of burden were kept outside the city limits. Even today, how many stables do you typically find within the city limits of a town? Cattle are kept on farms, where they can graze in the fields. The idea of a stable behind a city inn in ancient Bethlehem simply does not make sense in context.

What does make sense in context is that of a roadside feeding trough. Within city limits, feeding and watering troughs were frequently placed on the roadside along city streets, where animals could be refreshed.

Flowers now adorn the feeding trough in front of this ancient Jewish structure

Like cowboys in the Old West, ancient Jews would tie their donkeys up in front of a city building where the animal could eat and drink.

More than likely, this is the image implicit in Luke’s statement that they laid Jesus “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Joseph and Mary, by Luke’s account, were camped out on the sidewalk, with their new baby lying in an emptied out feeding trough, because the lodging places were all full.

That doesn’t quite have the same charm we have come to love in the nativity setting inside a stable, but the roadside setting is the one implied by Luke’s account.

JESUS’ PRAYER IN THE GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE

Another famous story from the Gospels is the account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. Again, like in the birth scenario above, if you polled Christians and asked them to describe what happens in this scene, you will likely get a hodgepodge of answers involving sleeping disciples and groups of torch-bearing Roman soldiers. Most would no doubt also include the image of Jesus praying so earnestly that he literally sweat blood.

First of all, the place is called “Gethsemane” in only Mark and Matthew. Luke identifies the location of the prayer and subsequent arrest as the “Mount of Olives.” John, on the other hand, does not include the scene with Jesus praying fervently while the disciples sleep. Instead, Jesus prays with all of his disciples at the table of the Last Supper, then leaves and crosses the Kidron Valley to an olive grove, where he is arrested. These different accounts are consistent, however, because “Gethsemane” is derived from an Aramaic word that meant “oil press” and John’s olive grove clearly connects to Luke’s Mount of Olives. Furthermore, John mentions that the area was a place frequented by Jesus and his companions, and many stories from the Gospels take place at the Mount of Olives. It is interesting to note, however, that the actual phrase “Garden of Gethsemane” does not exist in any Biblical text.

The modern Garden of Gethsemane

Secondly and more importantly, is the question about the sweating of blood. Only Luke includes this story. Matthew and Mark assert that Jesus was praying earnestly, but include no account of sweating blood.

I recall seeing images of Jesus’ anguish in Sunday School art when I was a child. Instead of drops of sweat, little beads of blood stood out on Jesus’ forehead, foreshadowing the blood that would drip from his head later when the Roman soldiers fitted him with a crown of thorns.



In recent years, I have read Christian apologetics arguing that the sweating of blood in extreme moments of stress is biologically possible and has been medically observed. Though rare, this condition even has a name: hematohidrosis. Under extreme stress (such as impending death situations), people have been known to sweat blood. It usually occurs in folks with high blood pressure. Faced with a traumatic crisis, small blood vessels near the surface of the skin can contract and begin to hemorrhage. Since sweat glands activate during high stress events, if these vessels are near sweat glands, the blood can mix with the sweat, giving the appearance of sweating blood.

This has been used to argue that Luke’s account of Jesus sweating blood is historically accurate, since the ancient world certainly had no concept of the medical condition known as hematohidrosis. I have also seen it used to support the authorship of Luke’s Gospel – tradition attributes the text to Luke, a companion of Paul mentioned in several of Paul’s letters. In one of these letters, Paul mentions that Luke is a doctor. Apologists have argued that the issue of Jesus sweating blood would have been of interest to Luke, since he was a medical professional. This, according to the argument, is the reason why only Luke mentions the event.

The problem, however, is that Luke doesn’t actually say Jesus sweat blood, which makes all the arguments above rather moot. Instead, Luke says: “…his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

Luke is simply writing descriptively in this passage. He is using a basic middle school descriptive technique – a simile, likening Jesus’ sweat to blood. Jesus was sweating so greatly because of his earnest praying that his sweat was like big drops of blood. There is nothing in this passage to imply that Jesus was actually sweating blood itself.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the verse in question does not even exist in the earliest manuscript fragments of the Gospel of Luke. Many modern English translations, such as the NIV and NRSV, even mention this in footnotes. It appears to be a later addition to Luke’s original text, added perhaps by an overzealous scribe wanting to embellish the story and make it more dramatic and descriptive.

In the end, whether the verse is original to Luke’s Gospel or not, the story does not tell us that Jesus sweat blood. Instead, it simply makes a descriptive simile, comparing Jesus’ sweat to great drops of blood.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Ten Commandments are the foundational list of rules for both Jews and Christians around the world. They are to the Judeo-Christian tradition what the Noble Eight-Fold Path is to Buddhist tradition. While many Christians would perhaps struggle to name all ten off the top of their head, most could probably provide at least five or six at a moment’s notice. Don’t kill, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so on.

The Ten Commandments frequently have caused divisions in society in recent decades. Court battles have been waged over posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses and on other government buildings and properties. The list has become a defining part of the battle over the separation of church and state. Proponents will argue that the list is “non-denominational” and simply provides a moral standard that most people – Christian or otherwise – can agree with. Opponents argue that it is an entrenched part of a specific religious tradition, and our constitution disallows the government to support one religion over another.



But is the list familiar to us as the “Ten Commandments” actually the heavenly-ordained list of rules given by God to Moses and ultimately everyone on earth?

There is no question, of course, that the list most Christians know as the Ten Commandments exists in the Old Testament. Both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 give more or less identical lists of these commandments. What many Christians don’t realize is that these commandments were later done away with and replaced by God.

Many Christians are familiar with the story of Moses breaking the first set of tablets that God gave him. This is a story frequently told in Sunday School classes and parodied in comedies like Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part I.”

Exodus chapter 32 tells us that when Moses saw that the Israelites had built a golden idol in the form of a calf, he threw the tablets to the ground and destroyed them in anger. Later, in chapter 34, Moses is instructed to replace the broken tablets and bring them to God so that God can re-inscribe them.

What most people don’t realize is that when God replaced the tablets Moses had broken, he changed the commandments too.

The new commandments could not have been more different than the first set. In order, they go as follows:

1. Do not worship any other God.

2. Do not make a treaty with any foreigners in Canaan (i.e., the Promised Land).

3. Do not make idols out of metal.

4. Celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened Bread in the month of Abib (March-April).

5. The firstborn son belongs to God, including firstborn males of livestock. When you sacrifice your firstborn male donkey, you can get a lamb in return. If you don’t sacrifice your firstborn male donkey, break its neck. All firstborn sons should be given to God (into the priesthood).

6. Rest on the seventh day of the week.

7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks during the wheat harvest and celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year. Also, all men should go to Jerusalem three times each year.

8. When sacrificing, do not mix blood and yeast and do not let any sacrificial food from the Passover feast remain until morning.

9. The first blooming of any crops must be sacrificed to God.

10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.

When you compare this list to the other one, the differences are pretty stark. Nothing about lying, stealing, murdering, coveting, committing adultery, etc. This is a very “Jewish” list, reflecting the strict orthodoxy of the post-Exilic period. In early eras, the Jews had the original Ten Commandments tradition. Time passed. Theological ideas evolved. The Jews were eventually conquered and sent into exile in Babylon. “New” commandments were envisioned, commandments designed to protect Jewish tradition and Jewish unity in the face of assimilation with Gentile Babylonian culture. Thus, the story of Moses breaking the original tablets and receiving new commandments from God was born and added to the developing textual tradition.

That’s all academic scholarship, however. The fact remains that the book of Exodus gives us two lists of the Ten Commandments. The first list was broken and therefore made invalid; so God gave Moses a second list. Yet Christians tend not only to focus on the first list, but many don’t even realize that second list exists.

The reason, of course, why the second list is largely ignored in Christian tradition is because of its stark Jewishness. It deals almost entirely with Jewish law and tradition – laws and traditions that Christians no longer follow. Why the laws and traditions of the earlier list are not also rejected as part of the Mosaic tradition Christians don’t follow is anyone’s guess. I would argue, however, that it is because Christian tradition has kept the parts of the Old Testament that are palatable to modern sensibility, and rejected the rest as invalidated by the resurrection of Jesus.

THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS

I have written before about issues surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. Most Christians, if asked to describe the method of Jesus’ death, would tell you that he was nailed to a cross.

The very idea that Jesus’ death did not involve being nailed to a cross may seem to border on outright heresy. If there is anything that all Christians understand, it is that Jesus was nailed to a cross, died, and was resurrected on the third day.



I am not here to argue that Jesus was not crucified. I certainly believe he was. Instead, I simply wish to point out that no text in the New Testament ever tells us that Jesus was nailed to his cross.

None of the accounts of the crucifixion describe how Jesus was affixed to the cross. The accounts simply tell us that he “was crucified.” The Gospel of John, however, describes a resurrection scene that appears nowhere else, wherein Thomas demands to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands (but not his feet). This, clearly, implies that Jesus was nailed to his cross, at least at the hands.



This story, however, comes in a resurrection scene, and seems to be directed at 1st century skeptics who argued that whoever it was that the disciples thought they saw, it was not Jesus. This story contradicts that skepticism – it says the disciples saw the wounds in Jesus’ hands, so it must have been Jesus and not an imposter.

There is a lot of debate in historical circles about how crucifixion was carried out in the ancient world. The Romans did not invent the practice; they got it from the Greeks, who appear to have taken it from the Persians. Sources from these ancient civilizations rarely describe how crucifixion was carried out, but when they do give a description, it usually involves tying the victim to the cross, not nailing them. In fact, there is no known account of a victim being nailed to a cross until the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 C.E. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that during this war, the Romans not only crucified thousands of people, but they even nailed some of them to their crosses, as a sort of vicious joke. The implication is that this was an uncommon and unheard of act of brutality.

Added to this is the fact that only one body of a crucifixion victim has ever been identified. This body, discovered in 1968 and dated to the 1st century, had a spike still sticking through the heel, but no obvious wounds to the hands, implying that the victim was nailed by the feet, but hung at the hands by rope. One has to wonder if this is not one of the crucifixion victims referred to by Josephus.



Either way, no other ancient crucifixion victim has ever been identified. If nails were commonly used in crucifixion, one would expect ancient bones to turn up now and then showing evidence of nailing. If crucifixion, on the other hand, was more commonly carried out with ropes, no physical evidence would exist in ancient bones – which would explain why only one ancient crucifixion victim has ever been identified.

Written several decades after the atrocity of the Romans nailing victims to crosses, it is easy to see why the writer of John presupposes that Jesus was nailed to his cross. By then, it would have been widely known that the Romans used nails in crucifixion. However, people such as the writer of John may not have realized that the Romans did not start this practice of nailing people to crosses until the Jewish war of the late 60’s – forty years after Jesus’ own crucifixion.

That the Romans would not have typically used nails for crucifixion makes sense in context. The Romans were nothing if not practical administrators. To use good and precious iron on a crucifixion victim would have been a wasteful extravagance. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals; it was considered the lowest and most inhumane form of execution. It had that reputation because it was humiliating (victims were usually crucified naked after being beaten), and it was a slow, torturous, excruciating death by suffocation (pressure on the diaphragm, caused by the unnatural angle of the limbs, would hinder and eventually halt respiration). Ancient accounts tell us that the Romans executed tens of thousands of people this way. It would have been too costly and too time consuming to use nails in these crucifixions.

So while we know that nailing was sometimes involved in crucifixion, and we know specifically that Romans nailed crucifixion victims in the late 60’s C.E., the wealth of information we have on this ancient practice implies strongly that crucifixion most commonly involved using rope, not nails. Added to that is the fact that none of the New Testament’s crucifixion accounts mention nails. Among the Gospels, only one Gospel – the latest to be written – gives any implication of nails being used in the crucifixion, and that was written in a resurrection account, not the actual crucifixion account. Finally, there is the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion would not have been anything special to the Romans carrying it out – it was just another execution like thousands of others they had performed. There would have been no reason, therefore, for them to break with custom and use nails with Jesus instead of ropes.

Thus, there is very little reason to suppose, either historically or even Biblically, that Jesus was actually nailed to his cross.

Most of the above, however, is historical analysis and interpretation. The fact remains that John’s Gospel does say, albeit in a resurrection account, that Jesus was nailed – at least in the hands – to his cross. Therefore, is it fair for me to say that the idea of Jesus being nailed to his cross is a “misconception” among Christians about Biblical content?

From one perspective, no. If a Christian believes Jesus was nailed to his cross, he or she can certainly support that by pointing to the Doubting Thomas story. So it is not the same, for instance, as the issue with the stable described above.

However, we already know that John gets some of his facts wrong – or, at least, his facts contradict many of those in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, for instance, says explicitly that “Jesus carried his own cross” up to the place of resurrection. The other Gospels, however, all say explicitly that Jesus’ cross was carried by Simon of Cyrene, because Jesus was not able to carry it. John’s wording (“carrying his own cross”) almost sounds designed to contradict those earlier Gospel accounts that depict Jesus as being too weak to carry it himself. John’s Jesus was not weakened at all. And that depiction of Jesus being strong even in the face of death is carried on through John’s execution account. Unlike the earlier Gospels, Jesus does not openly “suffer” on his cross in the book of John. Instead, he ties up his personal matters by putting his mother into the care of one of his disciples, and then after asking for a drink, he dies with dignity. Compare that to Mark, for instance, where Jesus cries out to God “Why have you forsaken me!” and then gives another “loud cry” before dying. Remember, too, that John did not include the scenes included in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where Jesus is praying in earnestness and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s Jesus, unlike those found in the other Gospels, is supremely confident, powerful, and calm all throughout his passion story.

Referring again to the contradiction between John and the other Gospels about Jesus carrying his cross, is it not also possible that John got his facts wrong when he presupposed that Jesus had been nailed, and not tied, to his cross? It seems likely, given the historical, contextual, and textual background.

Other misconceptions abound regarding Jesus’ crucifixion. I recently had a Christian tell me, for instance, that Jesus was beaten with a cat o’ nine tails on his way up to the hill where he was crucified.



While it is true that the Gospels depict Jesus as being beaten, none of the accounts mention a whip of any kind, and instead say that Jesus was beaten with fists and with a staff. Furthermore, none of the depicted beatings happen on the journey to the place of crucifixion. Finally, the place of crucifixion is never called a hill or a mound or a mountain or anything other than simply a “place.”

CONCLUSION

The problem that leads to misconceptions about Biblical content is twofold: first, many Christians frequently don’t actually read their Bibles; and second, they instead get much of their information by absorbing it through popular culture – television, movies, music, etc.

We imagine, for instance, three wise men on camels, a star, a stable, shepherds, angels singing in the heavens, and the baby Jesus surrounded by lowing cattle. Those images are conglomerations of two different accounts, effectively creating a third account that does not actually exist, and incorporating details that are wrong (for instance, the Bible never tells us how many wise men there were, says nothing about camels or cattle, and of course also doesn’t mention a stable). We also imagine Jesus being whipped, spit on, and jeered as he proceeds uphill through the gathered angry mob to his place of crucifixion, where he his nailed to a cross.

Many of these sorts of images come from art and pop culture, not the Bible.

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