Beyond Tradition

Onward Christian Martyrs: The Swoon Theory

Part IV of V (click here for Part I):

 

The swoon hypothesis

In the wake of alternative resurrection theories that were easy to dismiss, another even more imaginative theory arose… Jesus' resuscitation. Oddly enough, this hypothesis wasn't even considered a possibility by any ancient skeptic (and there were quite a few of them on written record) whom the early church fathers ever had to address or challenge in their own apologetic writings. This wasn't proposed until the 18th century, more than 1,700 years removed from the history. Not surprising, it's not anywhere near as revered today as it once was when it sputtered off and on during periods of the 20th century, usually when a swoon proponent dressed it up with some new twist or with a fresh and purposefully radical surface spin on it in order to draw controversy around a published book so that it could top the best seller list (most of which just rehashed the same theories as the foundation). Barhdt's original theory (discussed here: The Messiah Dilemma: The motive theory) was a clever way to contend with the resurrection accounts and avoid the historical and factual barriers surrounding it (not the least of which being the absurd fact that ancients would deem a crucified victim their Messiah), which included a naturalistic twist in order to cancel out the supernatural, and this is why so many other secular critics, despite the ridiculous speculations and conjectures needed to drive the theory along, continued to build off of it.[1]

Although such theories nowadays titter on modern scholastic quackery, I can understand why many reached great lengths to try and explain the radical turn of his Judaic followers in just a few decades, essentially beginning with Jews at Jerusalem and pretty much blanketing the Mediterranean prior to the turn of the first century, all of which was based on a resurrected crucified savior proclamation that would have been deemed ridiculous in this culture under any other circumstances. Without the resurrection itself to explain this, and within the historical framework I discussed in Part I (Part I: First major obstacle: X/Y historical framework), this should never have happened in this culture. Therefore, it's inevitable that a naturalistic explanation equally as absurd as the supernatural one would be required as a replacement. While most of these theories are often entertaining, the reality of the crucifixion and surrounding accounts must be disregarded or twisted to make it work. Swooners are notorious wanting-their-cake-and-eating-it-too scavengers, selectively picking and choosing specific gospel scripture they often refer to as "clues" to support the hypothesis, while filling in the gaps with imaginative conjectures that have no basis of historical, scriptural or even logical support, and then disregarding everything else in the gospels as unreliable that runs counter to the theory or things they just don't need to support the theory.

Those bungling Romans

This hypothesis is usually an indication that one needs to brush up on their ancient Roman history. Crucifixion wasn't a rare and exceptional occasion. John McRay points out that Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem.[2] The Romans crucified 6,600 slaves during the revolt led by Spartacus.[3] Josephus not only records that Varus of Syria (9 BCE) crucified 2,000 men after squashing a revolt in Judea, but also saw Titus crucify untold numbers during the 70 CE war, sometimes 500 or more a day, which eventually exhausted their supplies needed for the bodies.[4] This is overlooking the untold hundreds and thousands of victims in between these events. They had performed an innumerable amount of these executions over the decades, and they undoubtedly not only had sufficient procedures to verify death, but that any failed attempts that had presumably occurred in the process would have obviously been checked and corrected. Although crucifixion wasn't invented by the Romans, it was initiated by them because quite simply… it worked. Had this not been the case, it would have probably been easier and politically wiser to just burn the victim at a stake, behead them, hang them, beat or flay them to death, or feed them alive to wild animals. On almost any day of the week, the people of Jerusalem could go outside the city and watch a live crucifixion exhibit, which was used to not only demean the victim and totally squash their status in society, but highlight Rome's power and supremacy over the entire situation. Had they allowed any failed attempts, or even an imaginable possibility of a failed attempt, this would have been a glaring mark against Rome's authority and the example it was meant to impose. To propose this theory is to take this totally out of historical context and undermine Roman military functions all together, something history, even logic, simply has no facts to support.

Hundred-thousand-to-one-shot

Nobody survives a crucifixion at will. Theoretically, survival is always a possibility given exceptional circumstances, but based on what we know about crucifixions in history, these exceptions are highly remote. Josephus did in fact record an incident where he requested Titus to pull three victims down from the cross who happened to be acquaintances of his.[5] Although one victim did survive (the only documented incident of survival that swooners herald with giddiness), there is no information as to what physical and mental condition they were in prior -- i.e. mental anguish, fear, shock, fatigue, etc; what sort of punishment, if any, they experienced prior -- beating, flogging, starvation, etc; or how long they had been up prior. Moreover, survival was only because they were pulled down prematurely and given immediate medical attention, not because of a failed attempt.

However, in light of this, the swooners are not very enthusiastic at pointing out that the other two died in the physician's care anyway. Overlooking the circumstances involving Josephus' account, which we have no information as a comparative gauge, we might consider one out of three not bad odds. Problem is, according to the gospel records, the brutal events recorded which led up to Jesus' crucifixion would have presumably diminished any chances of that theoretical hundred-thousand-to-one-shot, nor was Jesus pulled down prematurely and only after he was confirmed dead as recorded. So, of course, after assuming the crucifixion circumstances surrounding Josephus' account were the same in the case of Jesus, which we have no way of knowing, to then propose that Jesus was pulled down prematurely and given immediate medical care is the bare minimum conjecture needed for this theory.

The political conspiracy

Some swooners lean towards a staged crucifixion since this makes the odds of survival much better. However, a staged crucifixion presents an unrealistic scenario about the execution itself or the unanswerable questions of how one would "stage" a first century Roman crucifixion. We're inevitably led to imagine a magician in a modern setting, rife with fake blood, smoke and mirrors and special camera angles in front of a very gullible audience. The majority of swooners, however, seem to suggest a genuine crucifixion (since this obviously gels better with historical fact) but that Jesus fell into a semi-conscious or trance-like state, which was apparently something that had never happened before and that Roman soldiers were too ignorant to figure out, nor is it clear how this actually aided in his survival after the fact (it is no less absurd in this case to suggest he was merely playing dead).

It then becomes a requirement to reshape the political scenario of the story around this theory. Thus, some have even gone so far as to speculate that Pilate was bribed (we must assume the soldiers as well, which only complicates the conspiracy) to pull him down prematurely before he did die. Hence, the necessity of an ever-expanding scenario involving a grand political conspiracy that took place behind the scenes, involving Pilate, the Roman troops and a substantial amount of money to get them all to cooperate with a politically illicit act.

This leaves one in a situational quagmire. It would suggest that Pilate and the soldiers were either in on it from the start -- unlikely since Pilate would not have tried to prevent the event from happening in the beginning, or that it was an immediate turn of events (i.e. he was bribed during the event), which makes it impossible for the crucifixion to have been set up to fail. Again, no one in this case survives at will, and even with immediate medical attention (a conjecture we must assume here), the odds are still stacked against it.

The love scourge

With the political problems aside, or how this was done against imperial protocol, swooners also don't seem to take into account the additional flogging and auxiliary tortures Jesus suffered prior to the event (which, based on common sense, would have been averted had this been a prior bribe or conspiracy). Swooners scoff at this and downplay it by dismissing the beatings as a fabrication (picking and choosing scripture they want and the ones they don't want) and that the severity of a Roman flogging is merely exaggerated by apologists. They disregard the gospel sources that record Jesus unable to even carry his own cross to the execution site (Mark 15:20-21; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26), or Pilate's "behold the man" statement in John (19:4-5) where, after the scourging and beatings, Jesus was apparently in such bad shape Pilate once again presented him to the Sanhedrin to presumably persuade them to reconsider crucifixion, indicative of this pre-crucifixion brutality. However, such dismissals contradict other historical sources about pre-crucifixion tortures and the brutal effects of scourging. For example, Livy reported people mangled or who died under such scourging.[6] Nero committed suicide once he found out his sentence was death by scourging.[7] Josephus records an incident where he saw one man whipped so bad "his bones laid bare," or victims who's bodies were "torn to pieces," or others whipped until "their inward parts appeared naked."[8]

 

Circus of speculation

Swooners often use suspicious situations to inject speculatory clues or conjectures, such as when Jesus cried out while on the cross that he was thirsty, which provoked a soldier to offer him vinegar to drink just before he died (John 19:28-29). To them, this was the code word for the Roman soldier to give him something that was laced with a magical anti-crucifixion drug that allowed him survive. However, even this is still pointless to me, because it would be quite a stretch of the imagination to speculate some magical anti-crucifixion drug exists in the world even today, let alone in first century Judea. Perhaps it knocked him into an unconscious state (snake poison proposed by one swooner, which you'd think would have actually been counterproductive to his recovery), but then this comes back to the executioner's ignorance and inability to figure out he was just unconscious, who gave this to him, why it was even necessary since he could have just played possum (apparently it wouldn't have made much difference given the ignorance of the Roman soldiers), or how being in an unconscious state aided in the actual survival and recovery later. Perhaps it was a drug to alleviate pain, yet why this drug was applied in the final stages of this whole ordeal and not given to him prior, or once again, how he averted the executioner not knowing he wasn't dead, or how this actually aided in his physical survival in the aftermath remains unexplained.

 

The fatal blow

John 19:34 "But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out."

All speculation aside, the theory is delivered a fatal blow in just one fell swoop. Tradition apparently held that John was the only disciple that didn't forsake Jesus and who was standing at the crucifixion site along with Mary (Jesus' mother), or that the "disciple whom He loved" in the gospel of John was John himself (John 19:26-27). Some argue that John made the spear piercing up to fulfill prophecy (more on that in a bit), while others believe "blood and water" to be a figurative or spiritual meaning (more on that in a bit). Others take the account literally, which meant that the spear pierced all the way through, just underneath Jesus' armpit to either bypass the ribcage or between the ribs themselves into his heart cavity, and the fluid was pericardial effusion that accumulated around the heart, possibly indicating a heart rupture due to shock and trauma. Others have suggested that the spear thrust was lower, which ruptured the bladder and forthwith came out blood and urine.[9] Though apologists have quibbled over this detail for decades, either way, this was an internal wound, and even if one wants to assume that he wasn't dead prior to this, this undoubtedly was the fatal blow.

The argument that John made up the Roman piercing just to fulfill what he believed was messianic prophecy: "They will look unto him whom they have pierced" (Zachariah's 12:10; John 19:37) is not tenable here. First of all, the embellishment is not necessary in this case, as John could have simply resorted to a less radical fictional device and used the crucifixion itself (his pierced hands and feet) to satisfy the fulfillment. Moreover, the medical phenomenon of pericardial effusion would have obviously been totally ambiguous to a first century ancient to have fabricated this from his own imagination, thus he most likely would have simply stated "... and immediately blood came out." There is also really no reason why blood and water shouldn't be taken literally since it occurred as a result of a physical action.

A symbol of blood and water is much too vague and unsupported. Some have suggested that it represents the symbolic blood and water that John refers to in his epistle (1 John 5:6-8). However, it would seem logical that John used the actual physical event that would have occurred prior to him writing this letter in order to come to this subsequent symbolic interpretation of what had occurred at that event. We must also assume he was even associating the spear thrust with what he wrote in his letter, which is a matter of debate since a theological Trinitarian view seems to be the thrust behind the symbolism in his letter. Some argue that this was symbolic of the redemptive blood and the "living water" that Jesus described to the woman at the well (John 4:10-15), or the sacraments of communion, or redemption and baptism. John, however, who had a tendency of editorializing far more than the other three gospel authors; clarifying things ad nauseam that were ambiguous to his readers (examples: John 2:19-21,4:1-2, 5:18, 6:5-6, 6:71, 7:38-39, 8:27, 9:7, 9:22, 11:11-13, 11:51, 12:6, 12:32-33, 19:17, 19:31, 21:7-8, 21:19), would have undoubtedly explained this had he meant it as some deep mystical symbolism, particularly if he fabricated the account for that sole reason.

In light of the context of the description, there's no doubt that the blood and water was a physical phenomenon, and this occurred as a result of a spear thrust from a Roman soldier who knew what he was doing. So, this alone pretty much offers the fatal blow to the swoon theory.

Them bones

Swooners have heartily waved red flags at the fact that the soldiers broke the legs of the other two criminals who were crucified next to Jesus, but left Jesus' legs alone. Hmm… suspicious? And you better believe the swoon theorists have actually made this a catalyst of the whole conspiracy, which is somewhat odd in and of itself because, once again, this account is only recorded in the gospel of John (19:32-33), the same gospel considered the most theologically contrived and unreliable gospel work (picking and choosing scriptures they want and the ones they don't want).

It's rather amusing since they seem to be in a dilemma. In order to accept the broken leg account, they must accept the Roman spear account, also only recorded in the gospel of John, and is an account that pretty much drops an irreparable wrench into the swoon machine. That aside, however, we can probably assume that after the ten thousandth crucifixion, give or take, the soldiers had a few procedural steps to verify death, or to make sure the victim indeed was dead, particularly if taken down quicker than usual. The spear thrust (though pure speculation on my part here) was most likely one of these verifications, since not only does this incident beg an explanation otherwise which is not provided, but after this had occurred, Pilate seemed satisfied and thus released Jesus' body right after (John 19:32-38). Swooners would probably use the argument from silence and declare that there is no such evidence of this type of verification from any other ancient records; yet that won't due in this case since scant records, if any, even bother giving any detailed illustrations of Roman execution procedures like the gospels.

One might then ask the question: why did they not break the legs of Jesus since he was dead, but stuck him with a spear? The spear theoretically would have been to verify death, not to hasten death. They broke the legs of the victims next to Jesus to hasten death, not to verify death. Asphyxiation was the cause of death in a lot of cases, so breaking the victim's legs prevented the victim any leverage so they could lift their body upwards and gather air into their lungs, which induced suffocation quicker.[10]

So with a little applied logic in our theory, now it makes sense. The gospels indicate that the Jewish authorities were pressuring the executioners to have the victims removed before the start of the Sabbath at sundown. After the first verification process (a method that is unfortunately not described to us), the two unfortunate thieves crucified next to Jesus were found still alive, hence their legs were broken to hasten death (John 19:32-33). Jesus was verified as dead, so they had no reason to break his. Then when they were ready to finally remove the bodies, they may have performed a second (official?) verification, which was the spear thrust. Were the two thieves also verified this way? We don't know, since the thieves were obviously not important to the author and not mentioned anymore at all subsequent to the leg breaking.

Speculation? You bet, but it has a lot more basis in common sense and reality than anything a swoon hypothesis can muster. Probably nothing will stop swooners from cherry-picking what they deem "peculiarities" with the situation, yet the fact remains, a broken leg conspiracy or not is a moot discussion, as two broken legs is only part of what a deleterious physical state Jesus would have been in had he somehow survived the ordeal.

Untimely death?

Another suspicious account swooners bring to attention is how quickly Jesus died, somewhere between a few hours to several hours, as opposed to several days. However, merely presupposing that the majority of crucified victims took days to die, therefore Jesus should not have died so quickly, is pure speculation even if this could be proven a common occurrence. As mentioned, scant records, if any (none that I know of), prove for a fact that this was the rule among crucified victims. Tens of thousands of these executions were done, so logically the odds are pretty favorable that taking days to die occurred at least on occasions. However, this would obviously depend on a myriad number of specific circumstances in these cases, which we have no way of knowing -- i.e. the victims' physical and mental condition prior, the activity before crucifixion, the mood of the executioners, the mood of the victim, what position the victim was crucified in, etc.[11]

Nonetheless, if we are to play the supposition game here, then we could assume that since Jesus obviously had the will to die, he didn't fight against it, or if he had in fact had a heart rupture or hypovolemic shock from blood loss (hints which are given in the gospels that suggest this), this would have certainly caused a very quick death.

The swooners also point out that in the gospel of Mark (15:43-44), Pilate was "surprised" that Jesus had already died when Joseph of Arimathea requested the body, shrouding his death with even more suspicion. However, the Greek word for Pilate's emotion, which the King James translates as "marveled," is thaumazo and simply means "to wonder." Pilate wondered if Jesus was dead by this time, thus unclear if this denotes surprise or just curiosity. Moreover, even if Pilate was in fact surprised (which would further indicate he was not part of any conspiracy), it would logically follow that Jesus' death was scrutinized even more; a scenario obviously not favorable to this theory and one to be avoided.

 

Conclusion

It becomes apparent upon dissecting this theory why most current scholars have dismissed it as having any historical, let alone realistic plausibility whatsoever, why it died out some decades ago (with the exception of a few internet sites here and there), and has yet to resurface from its demise. And if you sensed a tone of animosity in my article you're probably not mistaken. I often don't take too kindly to theories that disregard historical fact so blatantly and ignominious, and yet this was actually proposed by quite a few individuals throughout history in the field of scholarship.

Alternative theories aside, however, if the resurrection and the appearance of Jesus did not happen exactly the way the apostles claimed it did (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), one way or another, they not only obviously lied about witnessing him alive after he had been dead and buried, but the traditional content in the gospels that rests on the foundation of that event and that contains the historical tomb burial itself was laced with unabashed embellishment and fiction. So, what it ultimately comes down to is the integrity and genuineness of the actual eyewitnesses themselves, which I'll discuss next.

 
Click here for Part V, or here to go home 

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Source References

1. Believe it or not, some of these theories were proposed by actual scholars: The “real” Jesus Stories (http://hamsa.org).

2. John McRay, Archeology and the New Testament, p.389; 1991.

3. See Spartacus: Choice to Remain in Italy.

4. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 17, chap. 10:10; War of the Jews, book 5, chap 11: 1 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

5. Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus (Autobiography), section 75 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

6. Livy, History of Rome, 9.31, 22.57 (http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt).

7. Suetonius, The Life of Nero, 49:2-3 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu).

8. Josephus, War., book 2, chap. 21:5; book 6, chap. 5:3:23; Ant., book 12, chap. 5:4:17 (http://wesley.nnu.edu).

9. This page includes many source references: Death of Jesus (www.frugalsites.net/jesus).

10. See Crucifixion: Cause of Death.

11. Joe Zias, Crucifixion in Antiquity: Physiological Response to Crucifixion (http://www.centuryone.org/crucifixion2.html).