Death Before Dishonor:
The Burial of the Historical Jesus
See my series reviewing
In Chapter 3, McGrath breaks down Jesus’s death into three components:
As a methodological approach, he then inspects the individual evidence for each of these so as to clarify the debate on the historical Jesus.
On reading this, my mind quickly sketched a fun comparison between the life of Jesus (the Christ) and the life of Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) which I have crafted here for you. I color-coded the interesting parallels in the stories of these heroic religious figures. I make this little diversion because McGrath does not offer any comparative religious analysis in his book so far, which I feel can give us powerful insights on the historical veracity of ancient figures. Mythicists would agree with me here by pointing to other Near East heroic figures who were killed and then resurrected.
Two Humble Deaths
McGrath argues that one heavy piece of evidence pointing to a factual component of Jesus’ story was the way he died — crucifixion. McGrath is comfortable with the 5 records we have of the crucifixion: the four gospels (written by believers) and the writing of the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15:44). But Tacitus was written about 120 AD and he may have simply be repeating what Christians were saying — so this story is only partially helpful. I am not sure if McGrath feels Tacitus is credible or if he simply does not want to stress his apparent audience of literalist Christians with too much skepticism. It is further contended that Tacitus is an outright forgery saying that it is unlikely that he would get Pilate’s title incorrect (proconsul versus prelate).
But McGrath feels the veracity of the crucifixion itself is made most probable by the banality of the story. In Jesus’ time, Jews envisioned their Messiah coming in power to overthrow the ruling power. Instead, we are told that Jesus is killed as a common criminal by the ruling power. The McGrath uses the common argument, that if Jesus’ followers were trying to create a believable mythical Messiah, not based on an actual person’s life, they would not have invented death by crucifixion.
Nonbelievers, who believe that Jesus was a historical person, explain away the Messiah story by saying that if Jesus’ followers either felt he was the Messiah or were hopeful that he was predicting the coming of the “Son of Man” in his and their lifetimes, then the shock of his humiliating death would send their heads spinning. Comparative religious studies have many examples (ancient and modern) of such disillusioned apocalyptics regrouping and creating fantastic explanations and reinterpretations for their unexpected turn of events — an executed spiritual Messiah is just such a possible contrived solution.
But McGrath’s point here is to just illustrate that the crucifixion part of Jesus’ life is probably historically accurate. He is not trying to tackle the whole death-resurrection-messiah problem at once. He wants us to patiently do the historical analysis piece by piece. While entertaining his argument, I daydreamed of how I would apply those methods to the Buddha’s life — another great religious hero. For like Jesus, Siddhārtha also died a humble death. Siddhārtha was killed by the last meal he ate. In the Theravada (southern) Buddhist version, he died from eating bad pork while the Mahayana (northern) tradition he died from eating poisonous mushroom. One could imagine much more glorious mythical stories for the Buddha’s death but instead we have this commonplace and rather demeaning death. Thus, like Jesus’ death, its mythically counter-intuitive nature adds weight to its veracity.
Continuing the parallels to Jesus’ death, here are other details about the Buddha’s death:
- He predicted his death 3 months prior
- A disciple, Cunda, prepared and served Siddhārtha the meal that killed him
- Siddhārtha forgave Cunda
- The Buddha prepared for his own death
- The Buddha comforted those who were mourning his coming death
- When he died, the earth shook
In conclusion, assuming Jesus did die (to be discussed later), I feel that the stories of both Siddhārtha’s and Jesus’ deaths are most probably historically accurate in terms of the cause. But most likely many of the peripheral items in both stories were added to color and add meaning to the historical event. McGrath agrees that the bible contains inaccurate additions to the simple crucifixion. I will outline some of his points in the next installation of this review.