Why did Pilate have Jesus flogged, and could he really have survived such suffering?

Q. When Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, was there no agreement between him and the High Priest that Jesus would be freed after the flogging? Why was Jesus flogged? According to Luke, when Pilate said he would flog Jesus and then set him free, the crowd shouted all the more, “Crucify him,” so “Pilate decided to grant their demand.” Here, the crowd did not demand Jesus to be flogged, they demanded that Pilate crucify Him. So what is the connection between flogging and crucifying Jesus? Pilate did not have to flog Jesus when he gave in to their demand.

Also, one Bible scholar has suggested that the degree of suffering Jesus underwent is actually much more than what is portrayed in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. Would a human body in that condition even be able to walk, never mind carrying a cross, due to loss of blood?

First, you’re right that there was no need for Pilate to have Jesus flogged after he had given in to the crowd’s demand that Jesus be crucified rather than flogged. Crucifixion itself was such supremely agonizing physical torture that there was no reason to add flogging to it, as if that would make it worse. In fact, a prisoner who had been flogged first would likely die sooner on a cross and thus suffer less of the agony of crucifixion.

So why did Pilate do that? Historians tell us that he was a puzzling combination of stubbornness and pliability. He could be influenced by others (as by the crowd in this case), but at the same time he could insist on having his own way in various particulars. For example, when the chief priests wanted Pilate to change the sign above Jesus’ cross to read “This man said, ‘I am the king of the Jews,'” Pilate responded stubbornly, “What I have written, I have written,” that is, “I’m not going to change the current sign that reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.'”

So it may be the case that Pilate, having offered flogging instead of crucifixion, but then having given in to the crowd’s demand for crucifixion, nevertheless stubbornly insisted on “doing it his way” by flogging Jesus first. (While Luke himself does not say specifically that Pilate had Jesus flogged, the other three gospel writers note this detail. For example, Mark writes, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”)

This indeed appears to be the action of a weak, petulant ruler who couldn’t control the big picture and so insisted on his own prerogatives in small matters. But in the providence of God, it fulfilled Jesus’ prediction about the Son of Man, “After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” And in the mercy of God, it may also have shortened Jesus’ time of suffering by weakening his body so that it could not endure the crucifixion any longer. Not that the work of Jesus on the cross was in any way incomplete—”It is finished!” he cried, and we know that he fulfilled his task as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.

As for your second question, when the movie The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, I saw doctors quoted to the effect that no human being could have lived through the amount of torture that Jesus was depicted suffering in the film. So even if the amount wasn’t much greater, as you heard suggested, no one would have been walking around or carrying a cross afterwards.

But it’s important to realize what the genre of that movie was. It was made in a time-honored tradition of meditations on the sufferings of Christ. Another example of this genre, in painting rather than film, is the so-called “Man of Sorrows” portrayal of Jesus, in which the viewer sees Jesus after the crucifixion standing or sitting with all of his wounds visible. This is a non-historical moment that never actually occurred, but it’s designed as a vehicle for devotion. Hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Man of Sorrows, What a Name” are written in this same tradition. Keeping an antique nail in a prominent location, or growing a crown of thorns plant, are other approaches to being mindful of Jesus’ sufferings for us.

It’s consistent with this devotional practice for a film to portray Jesus’ sufferings individually and extensively so that we can recognize all that he did for us, even if this style of portrayal becomes non-historical by exhibiting the sufferings in such an extended way that they represent more than anyone could have survived. Our response can only be, as in the hymn “Man of Sorrows, What a Name”: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Hans Memling, “Man of Sorrows,” c. 1490

 

Did Pharaoh drown with his army?

Q. When God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and when God then made the waters sweep back over the pursuing Egyptians, did Pharaoh drown with his army?

This question is much debated by biblical scholars. Many say yes, while others say no. I can only give you my own opinion on the matter, which is that Pharaoh did not drown with his army.

The book of Exodus does say that when the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled . . . he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him to pursue the Israelites. So it seems that Pharaoh did personally accompany the army out into the desert.

However, the further details in the account suggest that he didn’t join the actual pursuit of the Israelites. Rather, Exodus says that all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. It describes God telling Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” And the book then says that “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea.”

Pharaoh himself was apparently not included in this group (“the entire army of Pharaoh”), because when Moses and the Israelites  compose and sing a song afterwards to celebrate the event, they say:

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.

It seems to me that if Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, had also been killed, the song would have mentioned this as the high point of the victory and not spoken only of his best officers.

I think that in this light, we should understand the statement in Psalm 136 that God swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea to mean that God swept Pharaoh, personified in his army, into the sea. This would be in keeping with the view in the ancient world that the host of a ruler (that is, his army or troops) was an extension of the ruler himself. (In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, God is depicted that way, surrounded by the heavenly host emanating from his throne: A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.)

As I said, others might answer the question differently, but this is what the biblical account suggests to me.

“Crossing the Red Sea,” a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia

Are the characters in the book of Job for real?

Q.  As I started going through the book of Job with the help of your study guide, I found myself wondering whether Job and the other men could have been fictitious characters. But that was cleared up by what you said in the introduction to session 1: “The book of Job is something like the historical novels we know today, which begin with actual people of the past and describe what they might have said and done at important times in their lives.”
 
However, this left me with another question.  You also say, “Most commentators agree that the author started with an ancient account of Job . . . passed down from as far back as the time of Abraham . . . a framework.”  I wondered how much embellishment the author would have applied in order for this ancient account to eventually become, over the centuries, the literary masterpiece you say it is.
 
For me, the dialogue seems too good to be true, as a suffering Job respectfully waits for each of his verbal assailants to criticize him and add to his misery.  But with incredible tact, candor and apparent patience, Job attempts to exhort them and defend himself.  How badly was he really suffering if he was able to conduct himself so well?

To use a couple of technical-sounding terms here, it appears that you began with the question of veracity—“Did this really happen?”  Once that was resolved, you still had the question of verisimilitude—“Can these guys be for real?”  Or put another way, “Are we supposed to believe that someone would really act like this?”

You’ve already quoted the place in my study guide where I address the question of veracity. The place where I address the question of verisimilitude is in the material at the beginning of the guide, in the “Why Should I Use This Book?” section.  There I say:

“The book of Job is a masterpiece of world literature that occupies a unique place within the Bible.  No other biblical book is like it in form.  It’s an extended dialogue between speakers who answer one another in eloquent poetic speeches.  Some works like this are known outside the Bible, but this is the only one in the Bible.”

In other words, the author is following an accepted convention of this ancient style of writing by having the characters take turns giving speeches.  It’s kind of like the “soliloquies” in Shakespeare’s plays, in which characters talk out loud to themselves, all alone, at length, in eloquent poetry. People don’t actually do this in real life.  But this is how Shakespeare shows us what a character is thinking.  So in one sense it’s not true-to-life, because people don’t do this.  But in another sense it is true-to-life, because people do think things out in their heads.

Similarly, Job’s friends would likely have had an extended conversation with him, trying to help him, as best they could, within the limitations of their rigid theology. The author is compressing and summarizing their arguments all together, while in real life there would have been much more give-and-take, and movement between different subjects and themes, in a “live” conversation.  But these are the conventions of this kind of writing.  It’s simply a kind of writing we’re not used to, an exchange of speeches.

The closest we come to it in our time and culture is at a wedding reception.  There the best man, maid of honor, parents of the bride and groom, etc. may take turns giving speeches, and at the end the bride and groom may respond with speeches of their own at the end.  This isn’t “normal conversation,” and if someone saw the text of it written out, they might say, “People don’t really talk like that.”  (They might also wonder why the groom silently endured so much good-natured ribbing from the best man!)  But when we understand that all this talking took place within the tightly scripted context of a ceremonial occasion, it does make sense, and we recognize that it is “for real.”

Similarly, the exchange of speeches between Job and his friends takes place within the tightly scripted context of a recognized genre of wisdom literature, and if we appreciate that genre, these speeches, too, make sense, and we recognize that they are “for real.”

Ilya Repin, “Job and His Friends,” 1869

Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage in any way his excellent ministry.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.

Does the author of Hebrews quote Scripture out of context?

Q. The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is not ashamed to call his followers his brothers and sisters.  To support this, it quotes from Psalm 22 (“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters . . .”) and from Isaiah:  “I will put my trust in him” and “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”  I’ll grant that Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm that Jesus applied to himself.  But at that place in Isaiah, the prophet is clearly talking about himself.  So it seems that the writer of Hebrews has quoted those Scriptures out of their original context, no?

Deuteronomy-Hebrews
Deuteronomy-Hebrews

Actually not. As I explain in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, the authorof Hebrews follows “a Christological and typological method . . . in which statements from the First Testament that were originally made by, to, or about other figures are attributed to Christ.”  The author sees Christ as culmination of the story of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, and so earlier figures, events, institutions, and objects are seen as prefiguring his life and work.  But there is always a close and appropriate thematic connection between the earlier context in the First Testament and the situation in the life of Christ.

As I also explain in the guide, those two quotations from Isaiah come closely together “at the point where the prophet resolves to commit himself and his family to trusting in God in the face of hostility and an uncertain future. This attitude of trust is the same one Jesus had when he came to earth and faced similar hostility and uncertainty.  And so the people he commits to God with himself are similarly his ‘children.’ Brothers, sisters, children—Jesus relates to all of us as a fellow member of the human family.”  The author of Hebrews can appropriately draw this connection.

Finally, because we are used to quoting “Bible verses” a little differently today, it’s important to recognize that while the author of Hebrews often quotes only brief phrases from First Testament passages, this is done to appeal to the entire context in which they appear. The assumption is that the audience will be familiar with these larger contexts and consider the argument in light of them.  These are not “proof texts,” but more like “arrows” pointing to broader passages.

I hope this information is helpful in addressing your concerns.

What “sea creatures” had been “tamed” in New Testament times?

Q. I am doing the James sessions from your wisdom literature study guide in my Sunday School class and this question came up: When James is talking about taming the tongue, he says, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind.” What “sea creatures” had been tamed by the time of the early church?  (Dolphins??) Or does “tamed” means subdued or mastered rather than domesticated?

Rather than having specific “sea creatures” in mind that humans had trained and domesticated, I think James here is using another one of those “marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality” that I also discuss in this post.  In effect, he means that “every creature” can be at least subdued, if not tamed, by humans.  (The verb is damazō and in this context, as you suspect, it more likely means “subdued” or “controlled” than “tamed” or “domesticated.”)

One way the biblical authors speak of every creature is to refer to “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea,” as Hosea does, echoing the three-part division of the creation in Genesis into land, sky, and sea.  But sometimes the land creatures are subdivided, as when Zephaniah speaks of “man and beast . . . the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.”

Another distinction among land creatures is between those that go on all fours and those that creep on the ground.  In the Genesis creation account, on the sixth day God makes “the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.”  Significantly, the word used in the Septuagint or Greek New Testament for creeping creatures is herpetos, the same word that’s translated “reptiles” in James.  It should probably be understood with this broader meaning there.

This allows for a fourfold division of all creatures, such as appears in God’s words to Noah after the flood in Genesis:  “The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea.”  (In this case, the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “moving” rather than herpetos, but the same distinction is in view.)

In the story of Peter’s vision in Acts, the narrator says similarly that the sheet he saw lowered from heaven “contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles [herpeta] and birds.”  When Peter himself describes this vision later in the book, he divides the land animals even further into “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles [herpeta] and birds,” arriving at the characteristic four-fold division meaning “all creatures” even without citing sea creatures.  Paul does something similar in Romans when he speaks of “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

So we should recognize James’ phrase about “animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures” as his own version of the variable three-fold or four-fold formula meaning “all-creatures.”  It’s important not to think the Bible is providing specifics when it’s speaking generally this way.  Otherwise we get into questions like the one asked in your class that can needlessly call the accuracy and thus the truth of the Bible into question.

More importantly, we might misunderstand James means when he says that “no human being can tame the tongue.”  That’s the whole point he wants to make by drawing his comparison to the taming of creatures.  If we believe he’s making a universal statement, rather than a general one, then we’ll conclude it’s pointless to try to tame our own tongues.  But that is precisely what James is encouraging us to do here.  He says, holding up an ideal standard we should aspire to, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”  More is at stake than just our understanding of the Bible in cases like this; our obedience depends on it.

Henry Davenport Northrop, “Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals,” 1894.

Why does the Bible say that the moon could hurt us?

Q.  I’m reading Psalm 121 and I’m puzzled that it says, “The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”  I can see the dangers of things like sunstroke and heat exhaustion, but how can the moon hurt us?

As I explain in my study guide to the Psalms, Psalm 121 is one of the “songs of ascents” that were composed to reassure the Israelites of God’s protection as they went up to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals.

One approach to answering your question is to try to argue that the moon actually can hurt us (for example, by observing that there are more car accidents when the moon is full, etc.), on the premise that the Bible’s authority is somehow at risk if it suggests the moon could hurt us when it really can’t.

Another approach is to say that in statements like this, the Bible is preserving a popular belief that has since proved unscientific, but this doesn’t put the Bible’s authority at risk; rather, the preservation of such ancient beliefs is part of the Bible’s human witness to God’s deeds and character.

I personally wouldn’t have a problem with that second approach, but in this case I don’t think it’s necessary, because there’s a third approach that’s actually more in keeping with Hebrew thought and language.

We need to hear the statement that “the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night” in light of the understanding, articulated in the Genesis creation account, that God established the “sun to rule the day and the moon to rule the night.”  Psalm 121 is saying, “Not even the ruler of the day will hurt you; how much less any of the servants of the ruler of the day (that is, anything else during the day).  Not even the ruler of the night will hurt you; how much less anything else during the night.”

In other words, this is one of those marvelous Hebrew expressions for totality that we find so often in the Scriptures (which include others such as “from the least to the greatest,” “from the heaven above to the earth beneath,” etc.).  In fact, in Moses’ blessing on the tribe of Joseph at the end of Deuteronomy, there’s a very similar statement to the one in Psalm 121, which illustrates this point: “May the Lord bless his land with . . . the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield.”

Obviously crops grow from the light and warmth of the sun, not from anything that comes from the moon.  But this is simply another expression for totality:  May God bless you with everything that day and night can yield, that is, everything, all the time.

I hope this perspective helps explain the statement in Psalm 121.

For a discussion of another expression for totality, see this post.