Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Question: Part Two

Greetings, O fellow travelers on Starship Earth. I apologize for the staggered spacing of my recent posts; I have one teenager in track, and another in softball, and I will not let my children go through a season without seeing their Dad on the sidelines, cheering them on.

Last week I opened the box.

I'm a man of faith, and a man of logic. They don't conflict, and we're working through the questions that used to bug me, until I found the answers. Because it isn't enough to believe. Understanding why one believes is crucial to a faith, otherwise you're just following a religion. And yes, there is a distinct difference between religion and faith.

Now, there does come a time when someone in whom I have implicit trust does ask me to just take their word for something. And if they have a proven record, I don't feel bad about simply believing. You're not an idiot for taking the word of someone who has never let you down, no matter how outrageous the claim. That's the difference between belief and dogma.

My faith centers around the three day time span that literally changed the world. Last week, I presented historical evidence for the existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Now, I'll tell you this: Very few honest historians will tell you they doubt that he walked the earth during the period of about 4BC and 33AD. Tertullian, Pliny, Josephus, and hundreds of others wrote about him as a real person within just a few years of the events in question. As they say, the amount of evidence is simply overwhelming.

The next concept that we need to discuss centers around the reported death of Jesus. Just like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, it must be distinctly understood that Jesus was dead, or nothing wonderful can come of the story that follows. Because if Jesus was not crucified on the cross and died, then there was no resurrection. As Paul says, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." So I will freely admit, if there was no death, and no resurrection, I'm nothing more than a fool in serious trouble for my past, and worse than a fool for teaching hopeless lies to my children.

So of crucial importance is the point that Jesus was "as dead as a doornail." For this, I'm going to detail about what the men who were with him observed. I believe the biblical record is accurate, not just because it's "the biblical record," but because of the events and phenomena observed, as well as the manner in which they were related.

We have to remember that of the twelve apostles who were the closest to Jesus, almost all were fishermen by trade. Illiterate, uneducated. There was Matthew the tax collector, and a couple of revolutionaries who belonged to the group called Zealots. We don't know what education they received. I think we can assume Matthew could probably read and write, but he was basically an accountant. The only physician listed in the new testament was Luke, who was a disciple of Paul.

All the synoptic gospels agree Jesus was arrested, flogged, and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate. This is also confirmed in Tacitus' record  that he was put to death under Tiberius' reign.

They started with a simple beating, playing a game popular among rough men. They blindfolded him and struck him with their fists, saying "Who hit you?" This wasn't a love tap; they punched him. Then they started in with canes before taking him to Pilate for judgment. Pilate sentenced him to flogging.

Flogging was accomplished with a tool called a flagellum, similar to a cat-o-nine tails. It was a whip with a short, stout handle and a series of tendrils made of woven leather. The end of each was wrapped around a metal ball, a shard of pottery, or a steel barb. The victim was tied around a whipping post by the wrists and flogged with this whip for a set number of strokes. Every strike would result in severe contusion, or a cut, or both, and often skin and meat would come off with the tendrils. Depending on the number of stripes administered, a flogging could easily become a death sentence in itself. The records available cite thirty-nine stripes with the flagellum were laid across Jesus' back before he was led out to be crucified. He was so weak, they had to draft a man from the crowd to carry his cross-beam for him, because he was too weak to carry it himself. Shock and blood loss were already beginning to take their toll on the man.

Any medical professional can tell you, shock is as deadly as any wound. The blood vessels to the brain contract and narrow in a reflex that is supposed to make the victim sleep and recover from an injury. But in many cases, the vessels shrink too much, and the person never wakes up again. I broke my arm in gym class in the seventh grade, and went into shock from the blow. My vision closed in to a tunnel, and I had no idea what I was saying. And that was nothing compared to a flogging at the hands of a Roman lector.

Crucifixion was introduced to Rome by the Assyrians. The Romans took the technique and refined it as an art of inhumane murder. Crucifixion was a death sentence, plain and simple. The victim was stretched out just a little short of an arm's length on the cross-beam, and nails driven through the wrists. Then the cross-beam was hoisted and fastened onto the upright via a dado cut into the beam. At that point, the victim's feet were stacked one on the other, knees slightly bent, and a third spike driven through the tops of the feet and out through the heel. The victim was suspended in a position where, in order to inhale, he had to push himself up on the bottom spike to get slack on his arms. In order to do that, he had to put pressure on his wounded feet, and then sag back down to hang from his arms. He could exhale like this, but not inhale.

Jesus' blood pressure would have spiked during this ordeal to incredible levels due to stress and shock. He was already well on the way to death soon after being mounted thus. Now, remember, the idea was to keep him there until he was dead, and there was no way he was coming down alive. I'll admit, the Jewish leaders at the scene were concerned about finishing the job before the Sabbath. But there was no rush; this was now a matter for Rome. To mollify the priests, however, the soldiers went along and broke the legs of many of the criminals crucified along with Jesus that day. What that did was hasten their deaths by inhibiting their ability to raise up to breathe. The aim of crucifixion is suffocation, after all. But when they came to Jesus, they didn't break his legs, believing him to be dead already.

Now, this is where the description gets interesting. John said a soldier ran Jesus through with a spear, "and blood and water flowed." This is important, because an uneducated fisherman like John took this to be a supernatural sign. It wasn't a miracle at all, but a phenomenon that occurs in cases of suffocation. The blood begins to separate and settles in the chest cavity in a way that a stab wound releases blood, and then water, in large amounts. So what happened was not a miracle as John supposed, but a confirmation that Jesus was indeed dead.

What happened next was the body was wrapped tightly in linens soaked in spices and oils, and then laid on a stone bench in a tomb donated by Joseph of Aramithea, one of the Jewish leaders and s secret follower of Jesus. The stone was rolled in front of it, and a guard set. These were either Roman legionaries or temple guards. The leaders asked for a Roman guard, but there is some debate over whether there was actually a squad of Romans or a contingent of the Temple guard assigned to guard the tomb. The reason was to make sure none of his followers could steal the body and claim a resurrection. In either case, a squad of armed men stood watch day and night.

According to most accounts, Jesus' followers were too busy hiding from the police to worry about staging a false resurrection, and besides none of them understood that there was supposed to be a resurrection in the first place. Besides, they only had two swords among them, and only one of them at that point was a trained fighter (Simon the Zealot). I suppose someone with some real creative force, plenty of time to plan, and some determination could have overpowered an armed squad of soldiers. But let's cover that in next week's post. The point I'm trying to make here is that Jesus was dead when he went into that tomb.

Some skeptics say he was only in shock, in a short-term coma, and that he managed to unwrap himself after reviving in the tomb from the shock of the cold bench on which he was laid. Okay. Let's say that a man scourged thirty nine times, beaten within an inch of his life, crucified and ran through with a spear, the body already in a state where fluids were settling and separating, had the strength, after three days lying unattended on a cold stone bench, to undo wrapping cloths impregnated with sticky, tar-like myrrh, and then roll a tombstone weighing in the neighborhood of half a ton from its place, overpower a contingent of armed guards, and convince thousands of people he was supernaturally raised from the dead.

I'm a big fan of Occam's Razor: Don't overcomplicate things unnecessarily. That doesn't mean totally ruling out anything. We cannot operate from the assumption that we live in a closed system, that there is no God, and miracles cannot occur. You can live there if you want; I've seen too much to accept that as final fact. We also cannot operate under the assumption that there's a fairy under every bush, or that Bigfoot was last seen walking hand in hand with Elvis. We take matters under open advisement pending evidence or proof of their verity or falsehood. That's called "keeping an open mind." Some of you may want to try it sometime; you may end up receiving happy surprises.

We'll get to the rest of my point later. For right now, we have only two conclusions to make here: That he was dead went he went into the tomb, or he wasn't. The most likely conclusion is that he was in fact dead. We have eyewitness accounts from two men who were there (Matthew and John), one account dictated second hand (Mark was Peter's translator), and one account written by a man who did a fair amount of research on his own within a few years of the facts in question (Luke, who wrote: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

In other words, the guys who were there said he was dead. Who am I to argue, just because I think something is impossible from my limited experience?

Next week, we'll look at the Final Question. Till then, be well and keep safe.

1 comment:

  1. For right now, we have only two conclusions to make here: That he was dead went he ....this reminds of a certain D.M.W. Conclusion? ANYTHING is possible.