Episode 39 - Could Jesus Have Recovered?
While academic historians haven't had respect for the swoon theory for many decades now, there are still those who try to bring back the idea that Jesus could have survived His crucifixion. One such argument is given by Bradley Bowen, who has done a better job than most at defending the swoon theory. In this episode, we'll evaluate Bowen's argument that Jesus could have recovered from His wounds before appearing, and that His recovery was interpreted as a resurrection.
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Hello and welcome again to the Ultimate Questions podcast. Last time we began evaluating a counter to the resurrection of Jesus that’s usually called “the swoon theory”. The idea of this counter argument is that Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead, because He never died in the first place. So, when the disciples saw Jesus alive again after the crucifixion, they thought it was a resurrection, but really, Jesus had just recovered. In the last episode we went through a critique made by David Strauss, which showed the terribly illogical reasoning being made in the swoon theory. He showed that, if Jesus hadn’t really died, He would still have been in absolutely horrible shape, covered in wounds, bleeding excessively, and desperately needing medical attention. The idea that the disciples met Jesus close to death, and interpreted it as a resurrection, is completely impossible. Not only that, but the disciples then thought of Jesus as the Son of God, having a glorified resurrected body, and celebrated Him as a conqueror of death. It makes no sense for the disciples to come to that conclusion if Jesus was a broken and bloody mess. We then continued our evaluation of David Strauss’ views of the resurrection by critiquing what he actually thought about Jesus. I ended the episode by commenting that, even though the swoon theory argument has been proven illogical for over a hundred years, there are still people who try to fix the argument up a bit, so that it might still possibly work. For today’s episode, we’re going to look at someone who still tries to advocate for something like the swoon theory, Bradley Bowen. For this episode we’re going to appreciate some of the ways the swoon theory can still be argued, and then we’ll show how it’s still a very flawed position. Then next episode, we’ll continue critiquing Bowen’s argument by showing how the ancient historical details about crucifixion show us what people thought of it, how bad it was, and that the swoon theory doesn’t line up with these historical points.
Before we dive into his argument, I want to make a quick comment. The swoon theory is not held by historians anymore, and for good reason. The only people that still put forward this idea are those without any historical credentials. As I said last episode, pseudohistory has become quite popular in our day and age, especially in regards to Christianity. Basically, people without any credentials are making claims that completely go against the historical data. These claims are wildly inaccurate, and go against the views of actual academic historians. The swoon theory is a clear case of this, where real historians do not hold to it anymore, since historically it’s just not possible. Bradley Bowen is a good example of this situation, since he does not have any training in history, and instead, he is an academic in the field of philosophy. Now, I am also a philosopher, and not a trained historian, but the problem here is that Bowen is going against the entire field of academic historians, and contradicting what they all recognize. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s wrong (after all, that would be the genetic fallacy), but it should definitely give cause for concern when a person comments outside his field, and contradicts the entirety of the professionals in that field. This isn’t a controversial issue where a non-academic can weigh in. This is a unanimous agreement, where even the strongest skeptics of Christianity disagree with the swoon theory, and we have a non-historian working against the position of every professional historian. That’s not a good place to be. But, at the risk of committing the genetic or appeal to authority fallacies, we should dive into the details.
I found Bowen’s article while I was doing my research for the last episode of this podcast. While he is holding a view that no historians hold anymore, and I think he’s completely wrong, he does give what is probably the best argument I’ve heard for the swoon theory. Basically, he still believes that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but he has tried to tweak the argument in a way so that it doesn’t fall prey to the different counters that are typically raised, like those made by Strauss that we went through last episode. In his article, Bowen’s main argument centers on the timing of the crucifixion, and the resurrection appearances. He argues that the reason why Strauss’ critique doesn’t work is because Jesus had some time to heal after His crucifixion, before He met His disciples again. Most of the time when a Christian argues against the swoon theory, as we have done last episode, they assume the resurrected Jesus was seen by everyone later on that same Easter Sunday. When we picture Jesus meeting the disciples in the locked room in Galilee, and Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds, we assume it was the same day as the resurrection. However, as Bowen points out, there’s actually good reason to think a good bit of time had passed between the resurrection, and Jesus appearing to His disciples. Jesus was crucified and buried in Jerusalem, but in Matthew 26:32, when Jesus was predicting His death and resurrection, He told His disciples that He would rise, and go ahead of them to Galilee. We also see in Matthew 28:7 and Mark 16:7 where the angel at the tomb tells the women to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. And then we see in Matthew 28:16-17 that Jesus did in fact meet them in Galilee. The problem with that, is that Galilee was a three-day journey from Jerusalem. So in terms of Jesus rising and His followers seeing the empty tomb, and then Jesus meeting them in Galilee, we have at least a few days in-between.
This idea may sound foreign to you, but as you can see, it’s based on the texts of the Gospels themselves, it’s just that this little detail usually goes unnoticed. So with this idea in mind that Jesus met the disciples some time later in Galilee, Bowen argues that this would have actually been weeks later, and that perhaps even close to a month had gone by. With this amount of time in-between Jesus’ disappearance and empty tomb on Easter Sunday, and His meeting with the disciples in Galilee, Bowen then argues that Jesus would have received medical aid, and would have had enough time to recover. So, when Jesus reveals Himself to His disciples, and they marvel at how He’s okay, they would have then assumed a resurrection, because they believed Jesus had died. Then, I suppose we could say either Jesus lied to them about His recovery, and allowed them to believe He had died and resurrected, or, perhaps Jesus told them the truth, but legends began to develop, and eventually turned into the death and resurrection story we see in Scripture. In general, Bowen’s point is that Jesus had possibly a month to recover, and since everyone already believed He had died, this allowed for a situation where it looked like Jesus had come back from the dead, when He had only been resuscitated.
Now this argument of Bowen’s might sound quite convincing at first, especially if it’s the first time you’ve heard this. I’ve found that, in general, new ideas usually sound much more impressive, because they’re new, and we haven’t had time to reflect, or hear any counters. But as we’ll see, this argument still fails quite miserably, and falls prey to many glaring problems.
The first way that Bowen’s argument fails is the fact that his entire point is completely ad hoc. Again, an ad hoc argument is one where the idea saves your theory, but there’s no reason to believe it. So yes, we do have reason to think there was some time in-between Easter Sunday and Jesus appearing to His disciples in Galilee, but beyond that there’s absolutely no evidence at all to support the idea that Jesus merely disappeared, and recovered silently. There is no historical or textual reason to think it’s true, or even possible, and plenty of historical, textual, philosophical, and scientific reasons to think it’s false. The only reason the idea is held is because it allows people to continue holding onto their biases. In other words, they are grasping at straws, tossing out all the evidence we have, and inventing new ideas out of thin air, even to the point of creating conspiracy theories, all for the sake of holding onto their secularism. This is not a good way to find truth.
Our second argument against Bowen is that he assumes the timespan in-between Easter Sunday and Jesus meeting the disciples in Galilee would have been weeks, but there’s no reason to think it would have been that long. I admit that he does have a point in the sense that Galilee is a good distance from Jerusalem, which is where the crucifixion and burial took place. It would have taken at least a few days for the disciples to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee, however, it only takes a few days, not multiple weeks, and certainly not a month. Additionally, from the Gospel stories we get the impression that the disciples were excited about the possibility of Jesus being alive, because we see Peter and John actually running to the tomb to check. So, with the distance in mind, as well as the zeal of the disciples, I see no reason at all for Bowen’s presumption that the trip would take two to three weeks, or a month.
A third point to make here is to ask the question, who was helping Jesus? If Jesus had gone through a Roman flogging and crucifixion, even if we grant that He survived somehow, He would need help, both in terms of escaping the Romans, and also in terms of medical care. Part of Bowen’s argument is that the soldiers might have been drugged, drunk, threatened, distracted, or tricked. However, not only would it be difficult to help Jesus escape the Roman guards, but who would even want to help a man that the Romans want dead? If you’re seen helping him, then you’re dead too! So it would have to be someone who loved Jesus, likely a follower of His, at least to some degree. However, it couldn’t be any of the disciples that later proclaimed the resurrection, since they were persecuted and died for their belief in the resurrection. This is a problem, because, if someone helped Jesus escape, they would obviously know Jesus didn’t die. If they know the truth, there’s no way they would then be persecuted and killed for the sake of preaching the lie of the resurrection. Also, it’s likely that, in this sort of situation, word would have gotten around that Jesus was injured, and taking rest in this person’s home. But if we give the benefit of the doubt to the skeptic, and say that whoever helped Jesus managed to keep their mouth shut, we would still need the person to be capable of expert medical care, able to revitalize a dying man. Then in addition to this, after Jesus does revive and shows Himself to the disciples, this secret helper would then have to remain quiet while all the other followers of Jesus start this whole belief about the resurrection, when they know for a fact it’s all a lie. They would have to remain silent about this until they die with the secret. What purpose does that serve, considering they would know the whole resurrection story was a lie? Why would they watch silently as all the other disciples run to their deaths, preaching the resurrection? Why would they go along with it? At this point it looks less like a well constructed argument, and more like a conspiracy theory that lacks any evidence at all. There’s no evidence of a helper, the qualities of the helper seem incredibly improbable, the likelihood of someone helping seems improbable, and there’s no motivation.
A fourth problem with Bowen’s opinion is that there were multiple people that did see the risen Christ on the Easter Sunday. So even if it took Jesus weeks, or even years to get to Galilee, it doesn’t matter, because there were people that saw Him the day of the resurrection. In Mark 16 and Matthew 28 it says that some of the women met the risen Jesus on that same Easter Sunday that He rose. Then, in Luke 24, we find that two followers of Jesus, one of which is named Cleopas, are travelling, and meet the risen Jesus on the road. There’s even good reason to think that Jesus appeared to His disciples, excluding Thomas, in Jerusalem before He met them in Galilee, since in Luke 24:33 and 36 it states this. There’s discrepancy about the timing here, but when all the pieces are put together coherently, it does look like there were actually two times Jesus met with His disciples, and Luke just doesn’t include the journey to Galilee in-between the accounts of these meetings.
Now there is a secular response to these earlier sightings, but again, it’s ad hoc, which you’ll notice is becoming a bit of a trend in the secular reasoning at this point. Bowen does notice the earlier sightings in Scripture, but what he has done, is he has found a scholar, named Reginald Fuller, who thinks these were merely visions, and that the first “real” meeting with Jesus was in Galilee. He also points to another scholar, E.P. Sanders, and tries to make it look as though Fuller and Sanders agree that the sightings of Jesus before Galilee were just visions. The problem here is a bit convoluted, but basically, Fuller was a Christian who did believe these were visions, but he didn’t toss them out as irrelevant, and instead, thought they were legitimate supernatural visions. Then on the other hand, Sanders is a skeptic who is attempting to discredit the Gospels, and treats these earlier sightings of Jesus as visions in order to discredit them. I should also mention that Sanders deliberately confuses the Gospel stories in order to try and make them seem contradictory in the resurrection accounts, even though the accounts can be reconciled, as we’ve done in previous podcasts. So Bowen uses these sources, one of which doesn’t prove his point, and another which is twisting data to prove a confused point, and he appeals to their authority, which is fallacious, in order to dismisses these early meetings entirely. Obviously that’s a problem, but even if he’s right that these were merely visions, they would have been shared visions, which would still be supernatural, and would require a supernatural explanation. What Bowen has done here, is he has cherry picked two scholar’s views that don’t even agree with each other, that he believes he can then distort, in order to justify his own bias. This is all done so that he can ignore the data in Scripture that is giving Him a hard time.
There is no evidence that says these were merely visions, and the writing of the accounts implies that these were real eyewitness testimonies to the physical resurrection of Jesus. The only reason for Bowen to claim these meetings were visions is because this helps him fit his own bias, which is a perfect example of an ad hoc argument, where there’s no evidence to support it, but it helps your theory. The fact that he twists Fuller’s view in order to suit his own agenda makes him not just confused and mistaken, but also dishonest. So again, even if we grant Bowen’s idea that Jesus had weeks to recover until He met His disciples in Galilee, how does that explain multiple people meeting Jesus on the Easter Sunday?
Even if we grant Bowen’s point here, despite the lack of evidence, our fifth problem with Bowen’s argument is that the Gospel of John actually does tell us when Jesus met them in Galilee, and it was only 11 days after the crucifixion! Bowen’s whole point here is built on the idea that Jesus possibly had weeks, if not a month, in-between the crucifixion and His appearances. However, in John 20:19 it says that Jesus met all the disciples, except Thomas, on the Easter Sunday. Then in John 20:26 it says that, eight days after this, Jesus met them in the locked room, with Thomas present, which would have been the Galilee meeting. This confirms what I had mentioned about two meetings present in Luke. Since this second meeting is eight days after the Easter Sunday, this places the Galilee meeting at 11 days after the crucifixion, which is less than two weeks, rather than Bowen’s idea of multiple weeks, or even a month later. Bowen conveniently doesn’t appreciate this part of the story, because it would decimate his whole point.
A sixth problem with Bowen’s idea is one that Strauss brought up, which is still a problem, even for Bowen’s tweaked version of the swoon theory. The problem is that, even if Jesus did survive, and was nursed back to health, His body would have still been an absolute mess. Before a criminal was crucified, they were first flogged, and we even read about this in the Gospel accounts as well. The Roman executioners were professionals at this sort of thing, so even if they did manage to fail at killing a victim (which was unheard of), the victim would still be horribly scarred. The executioners used a variety of tools and techniques to inflict as much pain and damage to the body of the victim as they possibly could. Even if a professional doctor found Jesus, and stopped all the bleeding, Jesus would still have incredible damage to His body. He would likely never even be capable of returning to a normal life, no matter how long He had to heal. Also, Jesus would have very large and deep scars all over his body. It’s not as though they had plastic surgery in the first century. So even if Jesus somehow received medical help, and the doctor somehow managed to save this dying man, Jesus would still be hideously disfigured. There is no way the disciples would understand this to be a resurrection, or that Jesus had defeated death, or that He was the Son of God. They would have still been impressed, but it would only be at the fact that Jesus had managed to survive. Considering this is part of the problem that Strauss wrote about, it’s interesting to me that Bowen thinks he’s fixed the issues with the swoon theory, when he hasn’t even dealt with all the problems brought up over a hundred years ago.
As we can see by going through Bowen’s argument a bit more closely, we see that the concept of Jesus surviving remains quite ridiculous. Bowen’s argument ends up being ad hoc, because there’s no real evidence in his favor. It seems that Bowen is willing to admit any parts of the Gospels that can fit his view, but is then unwilling to accept any parts that contradict the story that he “wants” to be true, by excusing them away as “visions” without any evidence. This is a clear case of confirmation bias, where he ignores any and all data that disagrees with his conclusion. In terms of the evidence that we find, there are accounts that the resurrected Jesus met people on the Easter Sunday. However, even if there weren’t, there’s still not enough time in-between the crucifixion and the Galilee meeting for Jesus to recover. Further, even if Jesus were able to recover in the eleven days in-between, who could have been helping him that would have that kind of medical expertise, and not minded a huge deception being caused afterwards? And even if we ignore all those problems, even if Jesus did survive, the original point by Strauss that Jesus would have physically been a mess still persists, and there’s no way the disciples would have thought Jesus had been resurrected.
With all these points considered, there’s still a massive aspect of Bowen’s argument that we haven’t even touched on; Bowen thinks it’s possible for a person to survive being crucified. In fact, Bowen even goes so far as to call Jesus’ injuries “alleged wounds” numerous times in his article. In other words, not only does he think a person could survive crucifixion, but he thinks it’s not even really all that bad of a punishment. In order to prove this assumption false, we’re first going to look at the historical data regarding crucifixion, showing what the ancients thought of it, which will let us know just how bad it was, then in the episode after that we’ll look at the scientific and medical aspect of crucifixion, to further show how bad it was. So I hope you’ll join me next time for a historical view of crucifixion, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.