Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 1

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
Did Mel Gibson give us a historical account about Jesus’ death on the cross?”



Today on The John Ankerberg Show: Questions surrounding Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. It usually refers to the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the Cross. Some critics question the historical reliability of the movie, but their greater fear seems to be that Gibson has succeeded far too well.

How did a realistic movie about Jesus get to be so controversial? What is the point of the film? Is it historically accurate? How does it answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Is the film “anti-Semitic”? What are the artistic liberties taken in the film? Why did Jesus have to die and did He really rise from the dead?

My guests today answering these questions are some of the most prominent scholars in the world. They include : Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Dr. N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in England; Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary; and Dr. Gary Habermas, Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy, Liberty University.

We invite you to join us.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, most likely you were emotionally riveted to your chair. The old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is especially true when you see this movie. Seeing firsthand the suffering Christ endured for the sins of the world is what this movie is all about. The movie doesn’t offer entertainment or escape as much as it provides a raw and personal encounter with Christ and His suffering. The movie is rated “R” because of the violence. Some have argued that the violence should have been toned down. I disagree. We need to see what happened.
The Gospel of Mark simply says about Jesus’ death: “And they crucified Him” (Mark 15:24). Most of us here in America can’t fully grasp what these simple words mean. But people in New Testament times knew all too well, since they had witnessed it many times firsthand. Now, through this movie, we have an accurate historical depiction of what took place when Jesus was crucified. I found it interesting to read what Jody Dean, a Dallas-Fort Worth news anchor for the local CBS affiliate, said about the movie. She said:
I think I have seen just about every kind of movie or TV show ever made, from extremely inspirational, to extremely gory. I’ve read a lot and I’ve covered a lot of stories and scenes that still make me wince. When I heard about Gibson’s movie, I thought I knew what was coming. I have to say, there is nothing in my existence, nothing I could have read, seen, heard, thought or known that could have prepared me for what I saw on screen last night. This is not a movie that anyone will like. I don’t think it’s a movie that anyone will love. It certainly doesn’t entertain. There isn’t even the sense that one has just watched a movie. What it is, is an experience on a level of primary emotional that is scarcely comprehensible. Every shred of human preconception or predisposition is utterly stripped away. No one is going to eat popcorn during this film. Some may not eat it for days after they’ve seen it. Quite honestly, I wanted to vomit. It hits that hard!
Besides people like Jody, there are the critics, you’ve heard them, who say the film is not accurate historically. Not too long ago, Bill O’Reilly had New Yorker magazine writer Peter Boyer on his program. Boyer said there are a group of folks who, the minute Mel Gibson announced he was going to make a film about the last hours of Jesus Christ, based on the New Testament, based on the Gospels, Boyer reported nine particular scholars were worried about that. He went on to say, “Any dramatization of Christ’s Passion that is based on the Gospels is going to be objectionable to them.”
In the March 2004 issue of Vanity Fair, Mr. Christopher Hitchens wrote an article entitled, “The Gospel According to Mel,” in which he said: “Gibson appears to believe from the many interviews that he has given that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses and this is all the research he needs for his movie. It may come as a shock to him to find that the Gospels were composed a long time afterwards by many hands.”
Newsweek’s John Meacham said in a discussion on MSNBC, “The Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable Word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events. The Bible is the product of human authors who were writing at particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance.” These criticisms are what I’d like to talk about with you today.
One of three scholars featured on ABC during Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mel Gibson was Dr. Darrell Bock. Earlier he wrote in an article, “The debate is not about the film, it’s a debate about the biblical portrait of these events.” I agree. So I want to start today with the question, “Can Mel Gibson, or anyone, trust the four Gospels to give us accurate historical information about Jesus?”
Dr. Gary Habermas was a skeptic, working on his PhD at Michigan State University when someone challenged him to investigate the evidence in the Gospels concerning Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As a result, he became a Christian. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University and considered by many to be one of the most knowledgeable scholars in the world on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. He authored a book entitled The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, in which he cited twelve historical facts accepted by almost all critics that will lead a skeptic to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Interestingly, one of those facts is that Jesus really died on a cross under the reign of Pontius Pilate. I’d like you to listen:

Ankerberg: You’ve written a book entitled The Historical Jesus, and you have outlined a very unique approach where you have picked 12 historical facts that are agreed to by virtually all critical scholars. Tell us how you picked out these facts.
Dr. Gary Habermas: Well, first, my purpose in doing this was to have common ground that critics and believers can share together and say, now what do we do with this common body of facts? The 12 began at Jesus’ death by crucifixion. I think there are many others throughout His life, but I start with that and go through until the end. And my point is to pick facts, with virtually no exceptions, which will fit two criteria: Criteria number one, the vast majority of critical scholars will admit this fact, and I mean 90 percentile. And secondly, I will not use a fact that is not multiply attested at several levels by several sources and will give us looks at this from different perspectives. I think that’s a good one-two punch for this.
Ankerberg: What you’re saying is these are not evangelical Christian facts?
Habermas: Not evangelical facts. And so, therefore, if you can make a case for the resurrection based on approximately 12 facts, I think what you have here is what I sometimes teasingly call a heads I win, tails you lose argument. If we have scripture and it’s the word of God, it’s highly reliable, then Christ was raised from the dead. But even if the Bible is nothing but a book of ancient literature—and I teasingly tell students that on campuses, it’s got to be that. I mean it’s got pages, it looks like a book and it’s really, really old and there’s words on the pages, so it’s a book of ancient literature at minimum—and if you have these facts from that book, if I’m correct about the use of these facts, you can get the resurrection on a minimalistic historical investigation.
Ankerberg: Alright, let’s take fact number 1. Jesus died by crucifixion. You not only cite this came from scripture, but you say it’s attested to by over 17 non-Christian secular sources.
Habermas: Well, yes, you have scripture with Paul, with four Gospels, with Acts, etc. There are about 17 secular sources for Jesus, 12 of them cite His death with all sorts of details, so 12 out of 17 tell us that He died with this or that.
Ankerberg: Name a few.
Habermas: Well, okay, you’ve got Tacitus who gives us some information and mentions Pilate and Tiberius Caesar. You’ve got the Talmud with a reference to Jesus being hanged on Passover eve after they were going to stone Him. You’ve got another Jewish source, Josephus, who says He was crucified under the leadership of Pontius Pilate. You’ve got two sources, two very much ignored sources, Thallus, a Greek historian writing about 52 AD and Flagon, a freed man from Emperor Hadrian., writing about 120 [AD], about the time of Tacitus and Suetonius. Both of them record the darkness that surrounds the earth during the crucifixion.
You have Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian writer, who talks to his son and says Jesus was a man who died for His teachings. And you have the satirist and historian, Lucian—who, by the way, wrote just about our only ancient account of historiography, how to do history, these tools and rules that we use—and Lucian says teasingly about Jesus, He’s a crucified sophist and He taught His followers to be brothers and not to fear death. But He died for these things.
Those are few of the sources that we have from secular history. Now, on top of those, we have some unique medical information about death by crucifixion, so much so that 15 years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association could have an article by a team, one pastor, two medical personnel, who write about death by crucifixion, and these men write a death certificate for Jesus. So you have medicine coming in with a dozen secular sources with the New Testament of which Paul is the leader here, everybody admits he’s an early eyewitness. This is why John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg do not hesitate to say that the cross has to be undoubted in the life of Christ and is by far the best attested event.

Ankerberg: Now, during Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mel Gibson, John Dominic Crossan, one of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, was asked to give his opinion. Not too long ago, Peter Jennings and ABC News produced a program entitled The Search for Jesus in which professors in the Jesus Seminar were given prominent time to explain their views. Public television has done the same. As a result of these programs, I decided to ask scholars in America, Canada, Europe, and Israel what they thought of the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar regarding the historical Jesus. I think you’ll be surprised to hear what they said:

Dr. Craig Evans: The opinion is not very good, to put it mildly. Continental scholarship, they either haven’t heard of the Jesus Seminar or if they have, they dismiss it derisively. British scholarship, it’s just the same way: “The Jesus Seminar! Oh, you must be kidding. Does anybody take them seriously?” That’s the European response. I’ve seen that firsthand.
Dr. Edwin Yamauchi: Peter Jennings and others who investigate these matters should be aware that there is a wide spectrum of scholarly opinions and the Jesus Seminar represents a rather radical approach to the Gospels.
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine: Both on the professional level and indeed people out in the churches, the Jesus Seminar model of a cynic sage, a Mediterranean peasant, has really not caught on.
Dr. N. T. Wright: My guess is that most British, French, German, Belgian scholars today, if they have heard of the Jesus Seminar, would simply say, “Well, I’m afraid that’s some funny people in America and we’re carrying on with our scholarship and we’re not going to bother about that.”
Ankerberg: What about in scholarly circles in our own country? Do they lead the way?
Evans: No, they do not. They try to be influential and they’ve had positions of leadership at the Society of Biblical Literature. I’m an active member of the Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical Literature. Three to four hundred show up typically at their meetings. That’s about ten times what typically show up at a Jesus Seminar meeting. And the Jesus Seminar guys, when they present their distinctive views like a non-eschatological Jesus or the Gospel of Peter as a primary source for the other Gospels, those views are simply—to put it with slang—”blown out of the water.”

Ankerberg: Now, if someone wants to discover what Jesus really said and did 2,000 years ago, what historical evidence can they turn to? All scholars start by turning to the earliest books written about Jesus, and that’s the four Gospels. And right here, the debate about Jesus begins. What kind of books are the Gospels? Can we trust them?

Evans: Well, where you begin, you begin with your oldest sources, your oldest and most reliable sources. And, we’ve got them. We have four Gospels in the New Testament.
Dr. Claire Pfann: And if we want to deal with the historicity of Jesus, then we have to immerse ourselves into the tools that are there for examining that. That includes the Gospels, the literary texts; it includes extra-biblical material as well; writings of other Jewish authors like Josephus. It includes archaeology and a study of biblical languages like Hebrew and Greek.
Ankerberg: Now, some scholars claim that the writers of the four Gospels were passionately-biased followers of Jesus, therefore it is doubtful that they accurately reported what happened.
Dr. Craig Blomberg: In the ancient world nobody had yet invented the notion of objective, dispassionate chronicling of history simply for history’s sake. They wouldn’t bother to retell the story to somebody if they didn’t feel there was something that could be learned from it.
Bock: You can have history and theology together. Just think of the word “perspective” instead of “theology.” What the Gospels give us is the perspective of the disciples and those who believe Jesus in terms of what He did and said. And granted, they have a bias, if you want to use that word; they have a prejudice; they are believers, there’s no doubt about it. But they are trying to convince the reader: This is who Jesus was, this is what He did, and, in fact, this is who He is, as well, in the process.
Blomberg: Simply because somebody believes passionately on a subject they tell about doesn’t by any means necessarily mean that they’ll distort the facts. Sometimes the reverse is the case. A great modern day example are many Jewish historians of the Nazi holocaust, who have been passionately committed to never seeing such an atrocity reduplicated and for that very reason, they have very carefully and accurately chronicled the horrors in a way that the so-called revisionist historians, mostly Gentile, trying to downplay the atrocities, have not done so.
Evans: And so just because the New Testament Gospel writers have a theological interest and that’s what drives them to tell the story of Jesus in the first place, that doesn’t disqualify their writing. It doesn’t make it suddenly unhistorical or of no value.
Ankerberg: What would you say to a person who’s really skeptical and says that Matthew didn’t write Matthew; Mark didn’t write Mark; Luke didn’t write Luke; and John didn’t write John?
Blomberg: The sum total of the evidence that we have from the early Church Fathers is that the four men, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that the New Testament is typically ascribed to, two of them apostles—Matthew and John; two of them companions of apostles—Mark and Luke, are in fact the people who wrote the stories about Jesus.
Ankerberg: Peter Jennings said in the special, “It is pretty much agreed among scholars that the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses.” What would you say to that?
Evans: Well, two of the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses. But, that does not mean that they did not know eyewitnesses. Two of the other Gospel writers may very well have been, and that’s Matthew and John. So, again, Jennings statement reflects what I think is a hypercritical stand that’s entertained by some scholars, but not by all.
Ankerberg: Another statement that he made was, “In fact, the Gospels were probably written 40 to 100 years after Jesus’ death.” Where would you place them?
Evans: 40 to 100 years, that’s way too far. I would put more like 35 to 50 years after Jesus’ death.
Ankerberg: And if they are 35 to 50 years after Jesus’ death, if He died in 30 AD and they’re on the newsstands at 60 AD up to, say, 85 AD, what does that tell you about the content of those books?
Evans: Well, the books are written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, written within the lifetime of people who knew what Jesus said and did.

Ankerberg: We heard this over and over again from scholars: If the majority of New Testament books were written 35 to 50 years after Jesus died, then they came out when eyewitnesses of those events were still alive. It indicates the accounts must have been accurate, or they would have been rejected by both sides, those who loved Jesus and those who hated Him.
Blomberg: And it wasn’t just Christians who checked up on what was being said, there were plenty of still hostile eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus for the next generation, particularly in Israel, who, if the first apostles had gone around saying anything substantially different from what others knew Jesus did and taught, would have been very happy to intervene and to correct and to perhaps snuff out this movement.

Ankerberg: These are just a few reasons scholars are looking to the four Gospels for information about Jesus. But even medical doctors are now coming forward with information confirming what the Gospel writers say happened to Jesus when He died. Did you know that an article appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association which analyzed and confirmed what the Gospel writers stated about Jesus’ death on the cross? Well, it’s true. Listen as Dr. Gary Habermas explains.
Habermas: Now, the very first fact on this list is that Jesus died. Why do scholars today rarely question the death of Jesus? Why do the founders of the Jesus Seminar, for example, those who’ve written on the subject, why do John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg say that the fact that Jesus died is the surest fact we have in His career? Because the data are so strong.
Now, what are some of those? First of all, death by crucifixion is essentially death by asphyxiation. When you hang on a cross and the weight of your body pulls down on the intercostal pectoral and deltoid muscles around your lungs, you reach a state where, when the weight is dragging down on them, you can inhale, but you are increasingly unable to exhale until you reach a place of almost paralysis and you can’t exhale at all.
Actually in the 1950s an experiment was done in West Germany where male volunteers were asked to be tied to a 2-by-4. These males lost consciousness at a maximum of 12 minutes. Now, on the cross you can push up, if only on the nails or whatever, you can push up. And when you push up you relieve those muscles in your lungs. But when you pull down on them again because you can’t stay up there for long, you pull down and when you’re in a low position on a cross, you asphyxiate. The Roman historian did not have to have a degree in medicine. If the person is hanging low on the cross for any amount of time, let’s say 30 minutes, he’s dead.
Second, we’re told that they stabbed Jesus in the chest and blood and water came out. Someone says, “Well, that’s in the Gospel of John and we’re not going to give that to you.”
Let me tell you something. In the ancient crucifixion accounts, there are a number of accounts of a coup de grace, a crushing blow, that’s done at the end of crucifixion to end the account. We have an account of a man whose skull was crushed to finish the process; a man who was threatened with a bow and arrow. We have two other cases outside of Jesus in the Gospel of John where he was stabbed to make sure he was dead. And of course, we have what’s known as crurifragium in Latin, the breaking of the ankles so the person cannot push back up again. In all these cases, here’s what the executioner is saying: You’re not gettin’ down alive.
So reason number one: If you’re low on the cross, you’re dead. You’ve asphyxiated. Number two: Deathblow. In the case of Jesus we’re told that it was spear that went into the chest. In the Journal of the American Medical Association just about 15 years ago, we were told that Jesus’ death came from asphyxiation. The researchers said, including a pathologist from Mayo Clinic, they said that the spear entered His heart. How do you know? The water came from the sac surrounding the heart called the pericardium. So Jesus was dead. But if He wasn’t, the deathblow would have done it.
Third reason. Now, this gets a little bit gory and maybe you’re thinking, well, what have you done so far? But the third thing is called “sucking chest.” It’s a very well-known medical phenomenon. If you’re stabbed through the upper thoracic area and it goes through the lung, a living person, if you’re alive, there will be a sucking sound that comes through that hole. And guess what, you don’t have to be a medical doctor to know that if you’re making that sound, you’re alive. So if He was stabbed in the chest and it didn’t go through the heart, we would know because of the sucking chest syndrome.
So these are some of the reasons to believe that crucifixion is lethal. Asphyxiation, heart wound, and if it only went through the chest you would have the sucking chest.
Now, having said these things, none of these are the historical reason, the chief reason, for believing that Jesus did not fake death. In 1935, a German liberal named David Strauss, he wrote a Life of Jesus. And he was so liberal that he was pensioned off from his very liberal university and told to just quit teaching. He was pensioned off for life because of his highly critical view of Jesus. But here’s what he says in that famous writing criticizing those who believe that Jesus didn’t die. By the way, that was the most popular theory up until 1835: that Jesus didn’t die.
He said: Here’s the problem with the swoon theory. It’s basically self-contradictory. Jesus should have died on the cross. Don’t worry about it, He didn’t. Should have died in the tomb. Don’t worry about, He didn’t. Wouldn’t have been able to roll the stone away. Took several men. He’d be rolling the stone uphill out of the little gully in front of the tomb. He was in a weak condition. Don’t worry about it, He rolled the stone away. Walked, how long? I don’t know. Quarter mile, blocks, to where the disciples are on feet that were pierced by nails.
And Strauss said you think all of these are problems? It’s not the chief problem. Here’s the chief problem with saying Jesus didn’t die. He comes to the door where the disciples are [and knocks]. And when they come to the door, what’s He going to look like? What’s He looking like? He’s pale. He’s sweating. The side wound has opened up again. He’s hunched over. He’s not even washed His hair. Sweat, blood have caked His hair. He’s limping. And He says [in a weak whisper], “Fellows, I told you I would rise again from the dead.”
Strauss says watch what happens here. He’s alive, yes; raised, no. Here’s what they would do. “Peter, give Him your chair. Andrew, go get some water. John, go get a doctor.” They’d say, “Thank the Lord, He was healed” or “He’s getting healed” or “He’s alive.” But they wouldn’t say, “Thank the Lord, He’s going to be raised.” And so don’t expect to see Philip over in the corner saying, as the New Testament says, “O boy! Someday I’m going to have a resurrection body just like His.’ No thanks. Thanks. I will keep the body I have. Let Jesus keep the body He has.”
Now, that’s Strauss’ point. Here’s what “swoon” says, and we often miss this: alive, yes; raised, no. What’s the problem? If the disciples don’t at least believe He’s raised, you have no cause for the New Testament Church; no cause for really preaching. They have to at least believe He’s been raised. The swoon theory doesn’t give that to you.
Conclusion: Asphyxiation, heart, chest, Strauss’ critique. You’ve got many other problems. What do you do with Paul? What do you do with James? How were they convinced to join the crowd here? The conclusion assuredly is that Jesus died on the cross due to Roman crucifixion.

Ankerberg: Now, in talking to some of the scholars who have appeared on ABC and NBC and some of the other network programs, they’ve mentioned that many non-Christians who see Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus may not know how to put it into context. What is the meaning of Jesus’ death? What’s the message behind this movie? What is this thing called “The Gospel”? We’ll talk about it more in the weeks ahead, but I’d like you to listen as Dr. Darrell Bock briefly explains what the gospel of Jesus Christ is.
Bock: I think the gospel is the good news that God has provided a way to come into your life forever, not as a ticket, but into a relationship. And He has provided the way to that relationship through the person and work of Jesus Christ, not only the sacrifice for sins but the provision of His very own Spirit coming into your life so that you can relate to God on a healthy level and overcome the sinfulness that is inherent in you. And the good news is that God is committed to that relationship, so committed to that relationship that He sent His only Son to die that it might take place. And the only requirement that exists—it’s a serious requirement—the only requirement is that you believe that He’s done that for you and, in faith, you ask for that relationship through Jesus Christ. It’s that simple, and that demanding, because once God comes into your life, He’s in it to do a marvelous work, a work that grounds you in a relationship with God that will never end.

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