Historical Jesus Part 4: Contradictions and Improbabilities

Finally, Onfray argues that the New Testament is full of contradictions and improbabilities. Onfray calls into question the differing details pertaining to the wooden tablet, or titulus, that was attached to Jesus at the crucifixion. Onfray provides two potential areas of conflict here. First is the differing understanding of how the titulus was attached: was it nailed to the wood of the cross above Christ’s head, as per the description in John or was it hung around his neck, as per Luke’s description? And second, what was the actual text that was written on the tablet? All four gospels record slightly different wording for the charge that was affixed to the front of the titulus. Onfray argues that contradictions like these are numerous in the New Testament, which calls into question the validity of the New Testament as a whole.

Further, Onfray asserts several improbabilities as well. Onfray is adamant that Jesus was never crucified. He argues, “at the time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death. […] The fact is that Rome could have cared less about this business of messiahs and prophecy. Crucifixion implied a challenge to the imperial power, which the crucified man never explicitly posed.” [Onfray, In Defense of Atheism, 128.]

Onfray is correct to highlight some inconsistencies between different Gospel accounts of the same story. However, this in itself does not make the stories invalid. If we look at the stories, there is a great deal of similarity. In fact, The Gospel of Peter [Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 124-126.], which was not included in the final canon, affirms many of the points made in the passion story, out of which this current debate arises. Robert Funk of The Jesus Seminar suggests that many of the specific elements included in the passion narrative were in fact fictitious, included merely to “reinvent the scene.” John Crossan agrees, suggesting that the passion event itself may have been historically accurate, but Crossan stays close to The Jesus Seminar opinion that the details were a combination of fulfillment of scripture and narrative dressing to paint the scene. [Funk, The Acts of Jesus, 156.]

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz suggest that the inscription mentioned in Luke 23:38 may have been a historical fact. They detail numerous sources that mention the placement of placards, or titulus, above crucified individuals detailing the reasons for their punishment. Theissen and Merz do mention though that this custom was not performed “so frequently that it could have been invented by any narrator as a natural element in an execution” [Theissen and Merz, The Historical Jesus, 458.]. Theissen and Merz further argue that since Luke’s Gospel focused on the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, there was no motivation to invent the political title used in Luke 23:38 to further Luke’s argument against the Jewish elders. Theissen and Merz’ earlier proof of Roman labeling of the accusations, combined with a lack of motivation to make up this fact make it entirely likely that this may have been more than random filler to help make the story seem more real.

Ben Witherington III also defends the historical accuracy of the placard.[Witherington, New Testament History, 158.] Witherington argues the same case that Theissen and Merz present, offering that the similarities between the three Gospel accounts, combined with the understanding that other Roman crucifixions of the time used tabula, are sufficient to defend the historical credibility of the details presented in the Gospel texts. Witherington concludes that “All this material contains the telltale signs that a historian looks for to discern whether a story has historical plausibility. The story of Jesus’ demise has many such features.” [Witherington, New Testament History, 159.]

Additionally, using Powell’s “Criteria of Authenticity” [Powell, Jesus As A Figure In History, 46-50.], we can easily see that multiple attestation is present, the content is memorable in the repetitious title of “King of the Jews”, there is appropriate language and environment, an adequate explanation is provided for this particular detail and the story coheres with the surrounding historical understanding of similar circumstances. Thus, there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that the titulus did in fact exist, even though the specifics of the item are under scrutiny. These arguments easily counter Onfray’s opinion that contradictory stories should be discarded as false.

One final thought on Onfray’s argument that Jesus was never crucified: Onfray’s argument is perplexing as Onfray contradicts himself. On page 118, Onfray himself provides examples of Jewish prophets and other rebels who were beheaded and crucified. Thus, not only do Crossan, The Jesus Seminar, Theissen and Merz, and others agree that the crucifixion happened, but Onfray himself also suggested that crucifixion wasn’t that uncommon. Yet, he argued that Jesus was not crucified. This contradiction further weakens Onfray’s writing.

Onfray’s attempts to discredit Jesus are disappointing. He provides no new scholarship nor does he cite any existing scholarship to support his claims. His arguments are weak, they lack and in some cases misinterpret available historical evidence and his arguments sometimes contain contradictions of their own. Thus, Onfray fails to deliver a coherent, valuable and honest discussion pertaining to the validity of the historical Jesus.

Up next: “Bibliography

By Todd Dow

Author, Geek, CF fundraiser & Cancer Survivor. My family, baseball, infosec, privacy & devops are a few of my favorite things.

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