In an attempt to challenge the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, some have suggested that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. One noteworthy scholar of history that has suggested this idea is Heinrich Eberhard Gottlob Paulus (1761 – 1851). And while Paulus does admit to “the foundation of early Christianity is its history”1, he does not take the four gospels as actually recounting history as told by the four authors. The reason for this is his “rationalistic interpretation of miracles.”2 In other words, miraculous accounts are to be rationalized and dismissed with more “reasonable” explanations.
To see how this is done, a couple of examples of Paulus’ rationalizations might be helpful. In the case of Jesus’ healing miracles, Paulus suggests that Jesus sometimes “used medicines known to Him alone.”3 Or take Jesus’ miracle of walking on water, that should be understood as “an illusion of the disciples.”4
More interesting is Paulus’ attempt to explain away the resurrection that garners attention:
“In the case of Jesus … the vital spark would have been gradually extinguished, had not Providence mysteriously effected on behalf of its favourite that which in the case of others was sometimes effected in more obvious ways by human skill and care. The lance-thrust, which we are to think of rather as a mere surface wound, served the purpose of a phlebotomy (i.e., blood letting). The cool grave and the aromatic unguents continued the process of resuscitation, until finally the storm and the earthquake aroused Jesus to full consciousness. Fortunately the earthquake also had the effect of rolling away the stone from the mouth of the grave. The Lord stripped off the grave-clothes and put on a gardener’s dress which He managed to procure. That was what made Mary, as we are told in John xx, 15, take Him for the gardener. Through the women, He sends a message to His disciples bidding them meet Him in Galilee, and Himself sets out to go thither. At Emmaus, as the dusk was falling, He met two of His followers, who at first failed to recognise Him because His countenance was so disfigured by His sufferings. But His manner of giving thanks at the breaking of bread, and the nail-prints in His uplifted hands, revealed to them who He was. From them He learns where His disciples are, returns to Jerusalem, and appears unexpectedly among them.5
If this seems plausible to you, then I’d encourage you to read a later scholar, David Strauss, who responds to the idea that Jesus “swooned.”
“It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, and impression that lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”6
In order to take the swoon theory seriously, one has to greatly minimize a number of items from the Gospels:
1. The description and severity of Jesus’ flogging.
2. Jesus’ weakness and exhaustion — being unable to carry the cross.
3. While hastening the death of crucified thieves by breaking their legs, Roman soldiers were somehow inept in determining Jesus’ state even after he had received a spear thrust where blood and water flowed from the spear wound.
4. The ability for Jesus, after Paulus’ suggestion of resuscitation, to walk, with holes in his feet (or ankles) to Galilee from Jerusalem a distance of approximately 50 miles. (ever had a pebble in your shoe?)
Is it any wonder that even skeptical, modern scholars, like Gerd Ludeman, have concluded that “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” (link)
- Baird, William. History of New Testament research: From deism to tubingen. Fortress Press, 1992. pg. 202 (screenshot)
- Ibid., 204 (screenshot)
- Schweitzer, A. The quest of the historical Jesus: A critical study of its progress from Reimarus to Wrede. Adam and Charles Black, 1910. pg. 52 (screenshot)
- Ibid., 54 (screenshot)
- Strauss, D. The Life of Jesus. Williams and Norgate, 1879. pg. 412 (screenshot)