Hi @swamidass and @dga471,
I’d like to focus on a specific issue raised in Michael Alter’s book, which had a big impact on me:
i. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross?
In his discussion (2015, pp. 170-172), Alter begins by outlining the skeptical position, citing several scholars:
Tinsley (1965, 204; cf. Casey 1996, 188; Corley 2004, 81; 1998, 196n117; Thompson 1995, 61) argues that “The Romans did not permit bystanders at the actual place of execution. John’s account is influenced by his symbolic aim. The mother (old Israel) is handed over to the care of the ‘beloved disciple’ (who represents the new Israel of the Christian Church).” (Alter, 2015, p. 170)
Alter does not stop there, however. He is fair-minded enough to put forward the key arguments made by Christian defenders of the historicity of this episode in John’s Gospel:
In contrast, several writers (Keener 2003, 1141; 1993, 313; Kostenberger 2004a, 547; Stauffer 1960, 179n1) contend that it was not likely that women had restricted access to victims on a cross. They argue:
- Passages from T. Gittin 7.1; y. Gittin 7, 48c, 49; b. Baba Metzia 83b represent friends of the victims as standing near enough to be within hearing range.
- The soldiers might not have recognized who among the crowds constituted Jesus’ followers.
- Soldiers would be less likely to punish women present for mourning.
- The prerogatives of motherhood were highly respected in the ancient world.
- Women were far less frequently executed than men. (Alter, 2015, pp. 170-171)
So Alter is being fair in stating both sides of the case. At this point, he cites the verdict given by Maurice Casey (1942-2014), emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham, having served there as Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology. Casey was the author of Is John’s Gospel True? (1996, London: Routledge), from which Alter proceeds to quote:
Another unlikely feature [in John’s crucifixion scene] is the group of people beside the Cross. Mark has a group of women watching from a long way off (Mk. 15:40-1), which is highly plausible. The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most likely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion. If they had been, and they included people central to Jesus’ life and ministry, it is most unlikely that Mark would merely have women watching from a distance. If a major male disciple had approached this close, it is likely that he would have been arrested. (1996, p. 188)
That sounds pretty damning, coming from a self-described independent historian who is also the author of an acclaimed biography of Jesus (reviewed here). Remember: Jesus wasn’t crucified as a common criminal like the two thieves, but as a political criminal (“The King of the Jews”). He would have been shown no quarter by the Romans, whose professed aim was to humiliate rebels.
But what about those Rabbinic sources that seemingly point to exceptions to the Romans’ rigid policy of not allowing bystanders at the place of execution? Alter has a ready response:
Barrett (1978, 551) refutes these apologetics and argues against the historicity of any presence near the cross. He posits that these citations from the Mishnah and the Talmud do not outweigh the military requirements of the execution of a rebel king. Furthermore, he cites Josephus (Vita, 420 f.) who recorded that with special permission he was able to release three friends who were crucified. One friend actually survived. This incident is significant because it demonstrates that permission would be needed to approach the crosses. (Alter, 2015, p. 171)
Alter then cements his case by quoting from a 1998 article by Kathleen M. Corley, Professor of New Testament at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, titled, “Women and the Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus” ( Forum New Series, 1(1):181-217):
The rabbinic sources … commonly marshaled to support such a contention [viz. that Jesus’ mother might have been allowed near the Cross – VJT] either deal with such hypothetical situations that they are hardly germane or describe religious, not state executions … Commonly cited as evidence are Y. Gittin 7.1 (330) or Baba Metzia 83b. For example, Baba Metzia 83b describes R.[Rabbi] Eleazar weeping under the gallows of a man hanged for violating religious law (rape of an engaged woman; Y. Gittin 71 describes a wildly hypothetical situation involving divorce. (1998, p. 196, note 117)
So much for the apologists’ examples, then. I checked out the rabbinic references online, and Professor Corley is correct.
So faced with evidence like this, how should I proceed? I have the verdict of a trained New Testament historian, arguing that John’s account of Mary and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the Cross is “most unlikely” on several grounds. Furthermore, the exceptions to the “no bystanders allowed” rule cited by apologists all turn out to be bogus.
On the “pro” side, there is the fact that John’s Gospel records the event, seen through the eyes of an alleged witness (the beloved disciple). But when was the Gospel written? About 60 years after Jesus’ death. What’s more, none of the other Gospels make any mention of people standing at the foot of the Cross: in Mark, for instance, the women all observe from afar, which is much more plausible.
So I have two choices: I can choose to accept the historicity of this antecedently improbable incident, based on the testimony of one alleged eyewitness, given 60 years after the event it narrates, despite the fact that the event is not narrated in any of the other Gospels, or I can reject the historicity of this incident, on the grounds that it is intrinsically unlikely, that the three Synoptic Gospels do not even mention it, and that John’s Gospel may not have been written by the mysterious beloved disciple, anyway - or if it was, it could have been altered by his followers, after his death. Which seems more reasonable? If I opt for the first alternative, I have nothing but a late Gospel to support my claim, against a mountain of improbabilities pointing the other way, not to mention the silence of the Synoptic Gospels. But if I opt for the second alternative, I have historical precedent on my side, plus the Synoptic Gospels, and all I have to explain is how the incident got into John’s Gospel. (Short answer: I don’t know, but that’s not such a big problem, anyway.)
What would any rational person do, confronted with such evidence? I believe he/she would reject the historicity of the incident - or at least, acknowledge that it cannot be appealed to when arguing with non-Christians, because it’s dubious on historical grounds. If either of you disagree, I’d like to know why. Over to you.