A Rejoinder to James

Shabir Ally and James White Seattle, October 19, 2007

Topic: Was Jesus Christ Crucified as a Willing Sacrifice for the Sins of God’s People?

Rejoinder to White (Part 2B)


This is a my answer to a claim made by Dr. James’s R. White’s “Further Response to Shabir Ally (Part 2)” regarding my appeal to Raymond Brown. As for the other questions raised by James in that “Response,” I have already dealt with those in Part 2A of my “Rejoinder.”

Do my citations of Raymond Brown capture his nuances?


During the debate I drew attention to the fact that in the Marcan account Pilate, when first requested to release the crucified body of Jesus for burial, expressed amazement that Jesus had died so soon. It is obvious that Luke and Matthew make no mention of this. Why? For the answer, I drew on Raymond Brown who thinks that the reason Matthew and Luke omitted mention of this, is that readers of Mark learning of Pilate’s initial doubt may entertain the same doubt. Not wanting their own Gospels to contribute to such doubt, Matthew and Luke omitted mention of Pilate’s initial skepticism. Subsequent to the debate James has traced the matter to the relevant section of Reverend Brown’s book, and thinks he has discovered that I have overused this important reference. James writes: 

    There is also a rather expansive use of Brown's own words here (The Death of the Messiah I: 1219-1222). Brown's comments are far more nuanced than "Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode...in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt." This is going well beyond even Brown's comments (p. 1222). Brown does not make the case Ally does here at all. In fact, some of his comments are:

      Overall, then, it was not impossible that Jesus died relatively quickly, and there is nothing egregiously unlikely about Pilate's reaction to Jesus' reported death in 15:44-45. (1222)

    In fact, when he then raises the question of what the "later Evangelists" thought of Mark's inclusion of this material, he refers to the idea that they had concerns about the apologetic impact of its inclusion as "not a perfect solution." Again, I refer the reader to Brown's own words, for Ally is putting far too much weight upon these comments. 

These comments from James have prompted me to review the section of Brown’s book. The section is actually found in the second volume, but the above typo is inconsequential. The page numbering is continuous from the first volume, and James has correctly noted the page numbers of the section in question. I hope the following analysis will help to shed light on whether or not my appeal to this source was faithful, and whether or not James’ own reference to this text is accurate. 

On page 1219, Brown begins the section with the following subject heading: 

      Pilate’s Reaction to Joseph’s Request (15:44-45). 

By this he indicates that this section is a study of Pilate’s reaction as mentioned in Mark’s Gospel (15:44-45). Because readers of Brown are expected to have these verses in view, it would not be out of place to have them appear here: 

    But Pilate was amazed that he had already died; and having called over the centurion, he questioned him if [Jesus] was dead for some time And having come to know from the centurion, [Pilate] granted the corpse to Joseph (15:44-45 Brown’s translation). 

In his first sentence in this section of his book, Brown introduces the specific problem he will discuss: 

    A common contention is that in all or in part these verses were added to Mark by a redactor for apologetic purposes, i.e., to prove by the double witness of Pilate and the centurion that Jesus was truly dead, so that his resurrection was not simply a resuscitation from a coma. (The Death of the Messiah II: 1219-1222) 

Brown then explains the position of the scholars who contend that these verses were added into Mark’s Gospel by a later redactor. Their main argument is that these verses are missing from both Matthew and Luke, and therefore they must have been absent from the copy of Mark’s Gospel which was used by Matthew and Luke. 

In response to this position, Brown examines the style and vocabulary of the disputed two verses and cautions that “one cannot settle the redactional question by appealing to style or vocabulary” (p. 1221). He adds that some of the analyzed features seem unMarkan, but these “are outnumbered by distinctively Markan words and patterns” (1221). He concludes: “Overall it seems more logical to posit that Mark wrote the passage than to introduce a redactor who imitated Mark so closely” (1221). 

Brown then turns to another argument that relates to the plausibility of what these verses relate. He sets out to address this issue while noting that he does not see how the plausibility of what the verses relate will help in deciding the question of who wrote the passage. The most one might say, is that if the content of these verses is thoroughly implausible then this may explain why both Matthew and Luke decided to omit them. He adds, however, that “few have argued in that way, for the action is not thoroughly implausible” (1221). 

To support his conclusion, already given in advance, that the action of Pilate as described in the verses is not thoroughly implausible, Brown then addresses the question: Would Pilate “have been likely to check on the death of a criminal”? (1221). He adds that we do not know how a Roman governor might have acted, but the author of John’s Gospel “did not think it implausible to have a Roman soldier test to see if Jesus was dead” (1221). Here Brown is obviously referring to the spear thrust, or prod, as reported in John 19:32-34. He adds a note about the Jewish attitude to this question. Brown’s note 41 reads:  

    Mishna Yebamot 16.3 shows how cautions the rabbis were: Even if a person was publicly crucified, evidence establishing death may be offered only after an interval for the soul to have gone out of the body. (Brown, II, p. 1221, note 41) 

The next question Brown address that may shed light on the plausibility of Pilate’s reported action is the length of time Jesus was on the cross: “Was the length of time that Jesus had hung on the cross so short that his death might have amazed an authority?” From Mark’s Gospel Brown gathers that “Jesus was on the cross some six hours before he died” (1222). He notes that Seneca “takes it for granted that the crucified could last a long time,” and that according to Origen “it was not rare for the crucified to survive the whole night and the next day” (1222). This means that Jesus died “sooner than most” crucified victims, and judging from John’s Gospel he died “sooner than” the two others who were crucified along with him (1222). Brown concludes:  

    That factor could have amazed the governor, making him suspicious that a deceit was being practiced. (1222) 

On the other side of the coin, Brown gives reasons that would support the plausibility of an early death. Crucified men lasted different lengths of time depending on their own state of health, the severity of the torture they received prior to crucifixion, and the manner in which they were crucified (whether they were nailed, and whether their bodies rested on supports). That some may die sooner than others is seen in Josephus’ report:  

    Josephus tells of seeing three of his friends hanging on crosses; he went and told Titus, who gave orders that they should be taken down; two of them died while under treatment of physicians, while the third survived. (1222) 

Brown asks his readers to note here “how the chief Roman official responds to a request about the crucified” (1222). Brown concludes this paragraph:  

    Overall, then, it was not impossible that Jesus died relatively quickly, and there is nothing egregiously unlikely about Pilate’s reaction to Jesus’ reported death in 15:44-45. (1222) 

The one major question that remains for Brown to answer if he is to insist that Mark 15:44-45 was not added to the Gospel by a later hand, as some scholars contend, is as follows: “How could Matt[hew] and Luke independently have been led to omit the passage?” (1222). Brown begins his answer with the observation that a similar omission of two verses has occurred in the story of the young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest. Brown writes: “Apparently each evangelist found the scene too scandalous a portrait of a disciple to retain” (1222). In the present case about Pilate’s surprise, most scholars who hold that the two verses were added by a later redactor contend that the addition was for “apologetic purposes to show that Jesus was truly dead” (1222). Brown continues:

    Did the later evangelists think that the apologetics had backfired by even raising the question of the truth of Jesus’ death and by showing that a Roman governor doubted it? That independently such a reaction could have caused each evangelist to omit this passage from Mark is not a perfect solution, but in my judgment it is more likely than the theory that a shadowy redactor (otherwise not well established) added the verses to Mark early enough for them to appear in all known copies but after Matt and Luke had drawn upon the Gospel. (1222)

With that statement, Brown ends the section.

Now, it should be clear that Brown is dealing in the whole section with a very specific problem: the contention of those scholars who hold that the two verses in which Pilate is shown to have initially doubted the death of Jesus. They claim that since Matthew and Luke were drawing upon Mark’s Gospel in composing their own Gospels, the fact that they did not copy these two verses is proof that these two verses did not exist in the copy of Mark’s Gospel they were using. Otherwise, they argue, both Matthew and Luke would not have independently chosen to omit these verses from their own Gospels.

In answering these scholars, Brown examined the vocabulary and style of the two verses to show that though these are not definite indicators, they nevertheless point to Mark as the author. Next, he dealt with the plausibility of Pilate’s reaction to see if perhaps both Matthew and Luke may have omitted the story on the presumption that Pilate could not have reacted in the manner as reported by Mark. But Brown shows here that there are two sides to this question of the plausibility of Pilate’s reaction. On one side of the coin, Jesus was reported to have died so early that Pilate, on hearing the news, may have suspected that some deception was at work. On the other side of the coin, it is not impossible that Jesus could have died so soon. These two sides of the coin would explain both actions of Pilate: first, his questioning the death of Jesus; and, second, his subsequent granting the release of the body for burial.

Since the story as it stands in Mark is not implausible, this could not have been grounds for Matthew and Luke to have each independently omitted the story. What then were their grounds? Brown sheds light on this question by showing that in another instance, that of the naked disciple, both Matthew and Luke omitted the narrative due, apparently, to its scandalous nature. In the story of Pilate’s doubt, likewise, it may have seemed to these two Gospel writers that what Mark has written may be causing his readers to entertain a doubt similar to Pilate’s initial doubt. Whereas other scholars hold that these verses were inserted into Mark for the apologetic purpose of proving that Jesus was dead, Brown maintains that these may have been written by Mark himself for the same purpose. Then Matthew and Luke may have omitted them because of their perception that the apologetics is backfiring: rather than give confidence that Jesus died, the story is now causing some doubt about his death.

In sum, for Brown the choices are reduced to one of these two views on the reason for the story to not appear in Matthew and Luke even though it appears in Mark:

  1. Mark himself wrote the verses, but Matthew and Luke omitted them because they thought that they are now counterproductive to the apologetic intent of proving that Jesus was truly dead.
  2. Matthew and Luke used a copy of Mark’s Gospel that did not contain the two verses. The verses were later inserted into Mark’s Gospel by some shadowy redactor. The edition which Matthew and Luke used are now lost to us.

According to Brown, the first of these two views is not a perfect solution to the problem, but it is better than the alternative. The problem he sees with the second view is that it requires the belief in a shadowy redactor who is otherwise not well attested. Moreover, it requires that we believe that the verses were added to Mark at such an opportune time as to now appear in all copies of Mark’s Gospel known to us, but not in the copy which was known to Matthew and Luke.

This summary of the relevant section of Brown’s book, and the exposition of his final paragraph within that section should help us evaluate James’ claims. As seen above, James writes: 

    Brown's comments are far more nuanced than "Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode...in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt." This is going well beyond even Brown's comments (p. 1222). Brown does not make the case Ally does here at all.  

It should be obvious from the above summary and exposition, however, that this is precisely the case that Brown is making. To capture all of Brown’s nuances took many pages to describe. But his position can be rightly summed up in the very words to which James objects: "Matthew and Luke both rewrite the episode ... in such a way as to omit mention that Pilate had this doubt." If James feels that there is a more efficient manner of summarizing Brown’s position that will capture some essential nuance that I happened to miss I would be interested in knowing what that is. 

James’ summary treatment of what Brown was dealing with hardly captures the problem:  

    In fact, when [Raymond Brown] then raises the question of what the "later Evangelists" thought of Mark's inclusion of this material, he refers to the idea that they had concerns about the apologetic impact of its inclusion as "not a perfect solution." 

It is true that Brown said that this is not a perfect solution. But what was the problem for which this is a solution? And what is the other solution which Brown would have to choose if he gives up this imperfect one? James does not say. The problem, as I have explained above, is that there needs to be an explanation for the omission of this material in Matthew and Luke. Moreover, from James’ summary one would not learn that this is actually Brown’s own solution to the problem. One might be excused for wondering if in fact Brown is distancing himself from this particular solution. The fact is that this is his solution, and, to him, though it is not a perfect solution, it is certainly better than the alternative. But certainly James is not recommending the alternative, which posits that the two verses in question is a later insertion into the Gospel of Mark. 

Hence I do not believe that I omitted anything significant by not mentioning that this is not a perfect solution. To begin with, hardly any historical reconstruction is a perfect one. This goes without saying, and one does not need to mention it. That Brown mentioned it is fine, given the detailed treatment he affords everything in his book. But a summary treatment can omit this nuance without consequence unless one wants to ignore the substance of the argument and quibble over inconsequential details. 

Second, if one mentions that this is not a perfect solution one then assumes the obligation of explaining to readers what the alternative solution is, and why it is not acceptable. In the context of live debate, one will have to explain the whole discussion from Brown’s book to the audience. But this would not only be impossible given the time constraints, but quite unnecessary. It was enough to say that according to Brown Matthew and Luke rewrote the episode about Pilate to omit from their own Gospels any mention that Pilate initially doubted that Jesus died so soon.  

James draws attention to the fact that Brown wrote: 

    Overall, then, it was not impossible that Jesus died relatively quickly, and there is nothing egregiously unlikely about Pilate's reaction to Jesus' reported death in 15:44-45. (1222) 

The words are correctly reproduced, but the meaning seems to be missed. The second word in that citation shows this to be a conclusion from a preceding discussion. James does not say what specifically Brown was discussing. As I have explained above, Brown had just finished explaining the two sides to the question of the plausibility of Pilate’s doubting the report about Jesus’ death. Brown’s summary of that discussion, as reproduced by James, may be understood as follows. On one side of the coin, “it was not impossible that Jesus died relatively quickly,” for various victims took various lengths of time to die depending on their general state of health, the degree of pre-crucifixion torture they receive, and the manner in which they are hung on the cross. On the other side of the coin, “there is nothing egregiously unlikely about Pilate's reaction to Jesus' reported death” since in fact he died sooner than most crucified victims, including the two who hung beside him” (1221-22).  

For Brown, it is this latter side of the coin that accounts for Pilate’s question, since Brown concludes that Pilate’s question was not implausible. Hence, while it was not impossible that Jesus died so soon, it may have still appeared initially to Pilate that a possible deception was at work in the report of Jesus’ death. 

I may add here that I never claimed that Brown said that the death of Jesus was impossible at the time. Hence James certainly could not have intended this citation to be a counter to anything I claimed. But there is a vast difference between ‘the possible’ and ‘the likely’. Not everything that is possible is likely. If we accept that it is not impossible that Jesus had died, that does not mean we accept that Jesus definitely died, or that it is even likely that he died.