Another look at the swoon theory, Part I

In this post and the next I want to give a detailed critique of the so-called 'swoon theory', the hypothesis that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, was taken down still alive and then subsequently recuperated from his wounds. Most New Testament scholars and historians dismiss the theory as ridiculous but I think it deserves more careful scrutiny for two reasons: 1) it is extremely popular among alternative historians of Christianity as well as conspiracy-minded laymen fond of the Da Vinci Code, and 2) it results from a flawed, idiosyncratic reading of historical evidence that is all too common among critics of organized religion. My hope is that this critique will finally lay the swoon theory to rest (actually and not just apparently:) and in the process perhaps produce greater insight into the nature of the Gospels and the world of early Christianity.

Before starting I should point out that these posts only deal with the 'physiological' swoon hypothesis and not the other apparent death theories where Jesus only appears to die because he magically swaps his appearance for that of Simon of Cyrene (as in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth), or where his spirit leaves the body on the cross, looking down from heaven and laughing at his persecutors (as in the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter). Often skeptics lump these accounts together with the physiological one in an attempt to establish an early tradition of doubt whether Jesus actually died. But it is clear that the above accounts are theologically motivated, possibly by the same impulse that gave rise to Docetism: for some people it was simply inconceivable that a divine savior could suffer a real death. And inasmuch as they feature a Jesus with real supernatural powers it does not help the skeptics' cause to advance them as evidence.

The arguments of the swoon theorists can be divided into two categories: a priori arguments which result from very general considerations of crucifixion and death in the ancient world, and a posteriori arguments which are based directly on the details of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. The former are meant to establish the initial plausibility of the swoon hypothesis, while the latter are meant to advance the theory from plausibility to probability. I will deal with the a priori arguments in this post, and the a posteriori ones in the next.

There are three basic a priori arguments in favor of the swoon theory. First of all, even though crucifixion was one of the most brutal methods of execution devised by human beings, it was not invariably lethal. The most interesting example of crucifixion survival from antiquity is given by Josephus:

And when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealins, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintances. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to ensure their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician's hands, while the third recovered. (Josephus, Life 76)
Second, in addition to the possibility of surviving the crucifixion, swoon theorists often argue that given the general lack of medical knowledge in antiquity it would not be out of the question for people to believe that somebody had died, when he or she had merely lapsed into a coma or had lost consciousness for a few minutes. This occurrence was apparently common enough in antiquity so that there was a Jewish tradition of checking on the status of a buried person on the third day after burial to make sure that person was really dead (Tractate Semahot 8.1)! And finally, people have been known to survive-at least for a while-injuries which most of us would consider definitely lethal. Dr. Richard Carrier gives the example of World War II hero Douglas Munro who was "
impaled a dozen times by Japanese rifle bullets, yet continued to drive his landing boat, dying only after completing his mission," as well as a terrorist bomb which "threw so many fragments into the brain of Assaf Ben-Or that surgery was ruled out as impossible without killing him. His brain was bleeding heavily internally and the doctors could do nothing about it. A week later, he was listed in good condition and was talking and walking. He then died shortly thereafter."

In response to the first argument, though swoon theorists make much of the Josephus passage which clearly demonstrates that someone could survive a crucifixion, they overlook two key points: first, the account tells us nothing about the crucified captives, whether there was flogging or other torture before-hand, exactly how and on what shape of cross they were crucified (Seneca tells us that the Romans were particularly inventive at using differently shaped crosses and stakes to torture their prisoners; see Dialogue 6: 20.3) and how long they had been on the cross before Josephus noticed them on his way back from a mission, so the analogy with Jesus is tenuous at best. Second and most crucially (pun intended), Josephus tells us that, despite the provision of the best medical treatment available, two of the captives died in the physician's hands. If the odds of surviving a crucifixion were low even though expert medical treatment was provided, how much lower would they be in the case of Jesus, who was interred in a tomb with the stone rolled over, his only treatment given by Jewish elders whom we have no reason to believe were physicians? To survive such a brutal shock as the crucifixion, continuous care would have to be provided, with people frequently bringing the victim water, changing the bandages and ensuring that the victim was resting comfortably. But the Gospels tell us only that Joseph of Arimathea (with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John) wrapped him in bandages and left him in the tomb without fresh air, water, or medical care (though swoon theorists often argue that the myrrh and aloes Jesus was wrapped with in the Gospel of John had curative properties; more on that argument in the next post). Again, the analogy with Jesus is tenuous to non-existent, while the fact that two of Josephus' friends died even having been taken down from the cross and treated with "the greatest care" should actually increase our skepticism of the possibility of survival.

As for the lack of medical knowledge in antiquity, it is true that the possibility of misdiagnosis was real. On the other hand, Roman executioners were very experienced and efficient at their job. Given the importance of projecting the infallibility of Roman justice in order to keep occupied populations in line we can safely assume that when the Romans wanted someone dead, they would make sure that person died. Dr. Carrier attempts to dismiss the competence of the soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus with the observation that "Seeing people die does not make one a medical expert, nor does being an expert in killing people result in the discovery of how to check a pulse or touch the eye or apply any other technique that is necessary to reliably check someone for life who appears to be dead." He appears not to notice the contradiction in claiming both that Roman soldiers actually were experts in killing people-that is, causing them to die-and that they lacked a way to reliably check for actual death. As a matter of fact, most commentators interpret the soldier's piercing Jesus' side with a spear (John 19:34) as just such a test. But even if there was still room for error, if Jesus looked dead enough to fool a determined executioner he was probably too close to death to have had any chance of actually surviving, given the tortures he had suffered both before and on the cross (on which see more in the next post).

We should also note in relation to the second argument that all the examples Dr. Carrier gives of people being misdiagnosed as dead in antiquity seem to involve apparent death due to natural causes, such as intense inebriation, heat exhaustion or hysteria in the case of women! We do not have any examples of people who were executed but somehow managed to survive. Dr. Carrier does quote a incident recorded in Pliny's Natural History involving "a wound that would seem almost certainly fatal," namely a cut throat. But his presentation of this incident is disingenuous or just lazy, as a close reading of the actual account shows:

In the Sicilian war, Gabienus, the bravest of all Cæsar's naval commanders, was taken prisoner by Sextus Pompeius, who ordered his throat to be cut; after which, his head almost severed from his body, he lay the whole of the day upon the seashore. Towards evening, with groans and entreaties, he begged the crowds of people who had assembled, that they would prevail upon Pompeius to come to him, or else send one of his most confidential friends, as he had just returned from the shades below, and had some important news to communicate. Pompeius accordingly sent several of his friends, to whom Gabienus stated that the good cause and virtuous partisans of Pompeius were well pleasing to the infernal deities, and that the event would shortly prove such as he wished: that he had been ordered to announce to this effect, and that, as a proof of its truthfulness, he himself should expire the very moment he had fulfilled his commission; and his death actually did take place.
It is very clear that this is a legendary account involving a temporary supernatural re-animation, almost zombie-like, of a soldier whose spirit was sent back from Hades to communicate a message to Pompeius from the 'infernal deities'. We can infer this from the fact that the soldier did not merely have his throat cut, but his head was almost completely cut off. In such a condition it would have been impossible for the soldier to speak without supernatural assistance. What's more, Pliny himself introduces the episode in the context of other accounts of predictions made by people who were mistaken for dead, and which are "almost always false" and which are generally "not worth collecting." In any case, the soldier died right after delivering this message. That Dr. Carrier can present this episode as evidence for the possibility of survival from an almost certainly fatal wound is only evidence that so-called 'critical' historians can become remarkably un-critical when driven by anti-religious bias (I should add to his credit however that despite all his haphazard attempts to prop up the plausibility of the swoon theory he still estimates its probability given the background and other evidence at a mere 0.015%).

As for the third argument, in addition to the comments made above about misdiagnosed deaths in antiquity we should note that Dr. Carrier's two examples involve people who were critically wounded but who somehow managed to stay alive longer than would be thought possible (but who did eventually die). He does not give any examples of people who suffered horrendous wounds, were mistaken for dead, left for dead without any medical attention but then spontaneously revived and returned to health, which is what we would need in order for there to be an analogy to the death of Jesus (actually for the analogy to be complete we would have to have an example of someone whose enemies tried their hardest to kill with the most brutal tortures at their disposal, was mistaken for dead, left for dead and then spontaneously revived). In any case, since by definition these events are anomalies, once-off events occuring as the result of a unique combination of physiology and environment they cannot generally be applied to other cases.

So we have seen in this post that the a priori arguments swoon theorists advance to temper our initial skepticism fail to do so. Whatever force they have is due to a very selective reading of medical facts and historical evidence. Contrary to the swoon theorists' intention, for example, the account of Josephus shows how unlikely it was to survive crucifixion, and the cases of misdiagnosed death in ancient times do not seem at all analogous to the case of Jesus. But a priori arguments can only take one so far anyway, so even if they were all cogent and impressive (which this post has shown they are not) a good case would still have to be made based on the actual, concrete details of the specific crucifixion of Jesus. We will look at that case in the next post.


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