Should This Guy Sue the IRS?

“It’s not fair to the American people who work for a living that one day they can knock on the door, walk in their businesses, and say, ‘We just took your money.’ … I always thought your money was safe in the bank, but I wouldn’t say that now.”   — Lyndon McLellan, entrepreneur and victim of unfair civil asset forfeiture

Lyndon McLellan is a law-abiding citizen and a hard-working, local small businessman in Fairmont, NC, who had never been in trouble with the law or the IRS. So, imagine his surprise when combined forces from the local police department, North Carolina’s Alcohol and Law Enforcement, and the FBI showed up one day at his establishment, L&M Convenience Mart, asking to speak with him. Not only did they accuse him of breaking federal law, but they informed him that they (via the IRS) had already seized every penny from his business bank account: $107,702.66. This was done under what is called “civil asset forfeiture” law.

“Took 13 years to get it, and less than 13 seconds, I guess, to take it away.”

McLellan working in his store

McLellan working in his store (Photo: Institute for Justice)

McLellan was shocked, confused, and devastated. This was his livelihood! Worse, he didn’t even realize what he had done! As they explained to him, he was guilty of “structuring”, a term McLellan said he wasn’t familiar with. Decades ago, laws and regulations were put into place to help catch drug dealers and money launderers by flagging regular deposits of $10,000 or more. The financial institutions receiving such deposits are required by the Bank Secrecy Act to report them to the U.S. Treasury Dept. “Structuring” (aka “smurfing”) is a term for the tactic used to avoid detection by making sure deposits are broken down into smaller chunks of less than $10,000 apiece. Financial institutions who suspect this is being done with criminal intent must also report this as “suspicious activity”.

Problem is that many people aren’t aware of this law or are sure that, since their business is legit, they don’t have anything to worry about. Also, as in the McLellan case, bank tellers sometimes request customers keep their deposits under $10,000 in order to avoid unnecessary paperwork. Obviously, though, this didn’t turn out well for McLellan and L&M. What makes things worse is that the agencies involved tend to have a “seize now, ask questions later” attitude. They don’t need proof of criminal activity to proceed, nor are they required to even charge a suspect with a crime, let alone get a conviction. Plus, local police departments are incentivized to go along with it all, because they share in the spoils.

Needless to say, McLellan got himself a lawyer — Robert Johnson from the Insitute for Justice — to combat the system and advocate on his behalf. In fact, it has been almost a year (i.e., since July 2014) and no criminal activity by McLellan/L&M or involving the money has been identified and no charges have been filed. But, it’s really tough fighting against the government, especially when it has a vested interest in continuing what it is doing. As Johnson explains,

“The government has a financial incentive to broadly apply the forfeiture laws. When an agency like the IRS takes money under the forfeiture laws, that money goes back into the pockets of the agency and it’s available to the IRS to fund law enforcement activities without appropriation from Congress. It’s a powerful incentive for law enforcement to abuse civil forfeiture laws.”

The whole issue of civil asset forfeiture has been coming under a lot of public scrutiny of late, as more and more questionable cases are brought to light, particularly where average Americans have innocently violated the structuring laws. In October 2014 the New York Times reported on several arbitrary seizures, which led to the agency announcing a policy change to only pursue those structuring cases where the money was known to be tied to criminal activity. (The Dept. of Justice made a similar declaration this past March.) When given the broad strokes of the McLellan case in discussions with the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee in February, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen admitted, “If that case exists, then it’s not following the policy.”

So, why wasn’t the case immediately thrown out?

Many defendants in these cases accept a settlement deal just to be rid of the hassle. The feds offered McLellan 50% to settle by March 30, but he declined on principle.

“I guess I’m old school. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If you’re right, you’re right. And in this case, I feel like they’re wrong. And I was raised on —- preached to about —- what would be right and what would be wrong.”

I agree, and I don’t blame him for deciding to make a stand. McLellan was then required to prove his innocence in court. Does that sound wrong to you? It does to me. As the Heritage Foundation’s Jason Snead told Melissa Quinn at “The Daily Signal”,

“In criminal cases, defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Civil forfeiture cases flip this basic legal tenet on its head. Once the government shows that your property is subject to forfeiture, the burden is on you as the owner to disprove the government. In effect, you are asked to prove your own innocence in order to win back your property. That is a high hurdle to clear.”

No kiddin’!

L&M Convenience Mart (Photo: Institute for Justice)

L&M Convenience Mart (Photo: Institute for Justice)

About a week and a half ago, “The Daily Signal” reported some good news in the case. Citing the above-mentioned government policy changes, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker filed documents saying that the lawsuit against McLellan has been dropped and all of his money will be returned to him. Sounds great, right? Well, it is, but the news is not as good as it should have been. For one thing, government bureaucracy being what it is, it could take a few months before McLellan gets the money that was (unlawfully?) seized.

Secondly, McLellan incurred over $20,000 in legal fees and expenses in his efforts to prove his innocence and get back what was rightfully his. Congress passed a law back in 2000 that says people in these circumstances are to be fully reimbursed for those fees and expenses. But, the government dismissed the case without agreeing to pay this.

Thirdly, as per government policy, the seized money was kept in an interest-bearing account. It is not clear to me whether or not McLellan is legally entitled to that interest. But, it definitely seems like he should be, since it would have been accruing interest all this time in the store’s account at Lumbee Guaranty Bank, if overzealous federal agents hadn’t seized it.

Finally, it should be noted that neither the DoJ nor the IRS (nor anyone else involved) has admitted that the case against McLellan was bogus, that neither he nor his business was involved in anything criminal. No regret for putting an innocent man through hell, either.

Johnson said that he will continue efforts to make sure his client is recompensed for all relevant fees, expenses, and interest.

“They came into his store and turned his life upside down, caused him all kinds of heartache and expense, and now they’re just trying to walk away as if nothing happened and forcing Lyndon to bear all those costs. It wasn’t right to begin with, and Lyndon shouldn’t be the one left holding the bag at the end of the day…. The government needs to make Lyndon whole.”

IMHO, the IRS is a bully that has grown way too powerful, throwing its weight around and overstepping its function and authority. This whole “civil asset forfeiture” issue is just one example. I think McLellan should sue the IRS, the U.S. Treasury Dept., and probably Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, not only for the fees/expenses/interest for which he is legally due but also for compensatory damages for any lost business due to cashflow problems. Heck, I would even throw in damages for “mental anguish”, due to grief and suffering through this entire, unnecessary ordeal.

But, maybe he should way until after he gets his $108K back, first….


When Minimum Wage Laws Hit Home

“It would be comforting to believe that the government can simply decree higher pay for low-wage workers, without having to worry about unfortunate repercussions, but the preponderance of evidence indicates that labor is not exempt from the basic economic principle that artificially high prices cause surpluses. In the case of surplus human beings, that can be a special tragedy when they are already from low-income, unskilled, or minority backgrounds and urgently need to get on the job ladder, if they are ever to move up the ladder by acquiring experience and skills.”  — Thomas Sowell, esteemed economist, author, columnist

You know, it’s one thing when hard times hit people and places that you aren’t personally connected to. You can distance yourself from the hardship, in a way, because it isn’t really affecting you. For example, if a local diner or Starbucks or clothing boutique or hardware store is forced to close down because it’s no longer profitable, it doesn’t bother me that much. Sure, I feel badly for the owners and workers, and I am upset by the economic factors that led to the closing. But, since I don’t frequent those establishments or have an affinity for them, I don’t really “feel” it much. (Unless, of course, a good friend was employed there.) But,… when businesses that I do like are forced to shut down, especially when due to bad laws resulting from foolish economic policies, that torks me off!

Borderlands Books storefrontSo, imagine my dismay when I heard/read about the closing of a bookstore — one specializing in science-fiction, at that — because of particularly onerous minimum-wage laws. The store in question is the famous Borderlands Books in San Francisco. I have never been to the store, and I live roughly 2800 miles away, but the situation still really bugs me, because it is so unnecessary.

As a bastion of progressivism within the liberal state of California, the city & county of San Francisco not surprisingly has long been at the high end when it comes to minimum-wage laws. (Not that such laws are only advocated by progressives. There are some “conservatives” who don’t understand their true impact, too.) In 2012 it broke the $10/hr mark and, as of Jan. 1, 2015, it hit $11.05/hr. As if this wasn’t enough, last November voters passed Proposition J, raising the minimum wage to $12.25/hr on the first of this month (5/1), with subsequent increases over the next three years bringing it up to $15/hr on 7/1/2018 (plus annual CPI bumps) and tying it with Seattle’s as the highest in the nation.

You might think this is great for the workers, but imposing such laws goes contrary to free-market principles that have been proven to work, and it actually does more damage than good. Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands, found this out the hard way, as did his employees and customers. While he supports minimum-wage increases in principle and is confident that it’s still good policy, Beatts did the math and realized that it was going to kill his business. In an exchange with the New Yorker‘s Vauhini Vara, Beatts maintained,

“There are tens of thousands of people in this city that are going to benefit. Businesses are going to pass the costs to consumers, and the product of that money that’s being spent is going to go to the lowest-paid people in this city. I think that’s a good thing. But the mathematics of it says that I can’t keep running my business.”

The report issued by San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis regarding the new laws projected that minimum-wage workers would have increased spending power. (Well, no kidding!) But, it also admitted that about fifteen thousand private-sector jobs would be lost. The hope is that these losses would be compensated for by expected overall economic growth. Beatts’ sunny outlook for the bigger picture seems typical of those who have swallowed the liberal/progressive assurances that “it’s all good.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually reflect reality. Let’s see what Dr. Thomas Sowell has to say:

“Conceivably, the income benefits to those low-wage workers who keep their jobs could outweigh the losses to those who lose their jobs, producing a net benefit to low-income individuals and families as a whole — at least in the short run, ignoring the long-run consequences of a failure of many low-skilled people to acquire job experience and skills, which could be a larger economic loss in the long run than the loss of pay in an entry-level job. But to say that there might conceivably be benefits to low-income people does not mean that this will in fact happen.”

As is typical for a small, independent establishment, Borderlands’ profits are small and payroll takes up a large percentage of expenses — 42%, according to Beatts. To be fair, there are other factors working against small businesses in general and independent booksellers in particular, like rising rents, competition from large retail chains and department/warehouse stores, and sometimes electronic alternatives. But, Borderlands has been surviving this long, and the new minimum-wage laws exert an unnecessary burden which, in this case and others (see below), is breaking the proverbial camel’s back. According to Vara,

“Overall, raising wages to fifteen dollars an hour would increase the store’s operating expenses by nearly twenty per cent. In 2013, Borderlands turned a profit of about three thousand dollars; the higher expenses would mean a loss of about twenty-five thousand dollars.”

When he first realized the minimum-wage increases endangered his livelihood, Beatts considered a number of options that might help him stay afloat, but few were viable. A sudden 20% increase in sales was highly improbable, and he really didn’t want to cut his staff of five, which would also mean increased hours for those still employed. Price increases would not work, either, since people will not normally pay a premium over the retail price stamped right on the product itself. (Unless, of course, relatively low supply and high demand make it a “collectible”. But, that is not the bulk of their business.)

Still, there is a bit of good news to this story.

After Borderlands announced their closing on their website, the store got a lot of press, including much sympathy from Mission District locals. Beatts had some initial objections, but with the urging of some concerned customers, the Borderlands staff developed a Sponsorship Program, where (hopefully) a minimum 300 people would pay $100/year apiece. (Go here for more info, including what the sponsors get in return.) The program was announced on Feb. 19th and within a week they had over 500 sponsors, allowing the store to stay open at least through March 2016 and adding a little bit of much-needed cash reserve. They will solicit for sponsors again next year. “This process will continue each year until we close, either because of a lack of sponsorship or for other reasons.”

That’s terrific and a true testimony to good marketing and customer loyalty! I hope enthusiasm for the program continues into subsequent years. But, it is not something that will work for most small businesses, nor does it justify the high minimum-wage laws. If it was me, I certainly wouldn’t want to have my business’ viability dependent on such a program. (Of course, I would never live or work in San Francisco.)

Speaking of collectibles… (I did that earlier, remember?) …

Comix Experience storefrontAs if the Borderlands closing wasn’t bad enough, another iconic genre establishment in San Francisco may also be shutting its doors — Comix Experience (and Comix Experience Outpost)! You know I have a soft spot for comics and superheroes. (If not, check out my other blog: “Heroes and Aliens”.) Like Borderlands, Comix Experience has been around many years, eking out a small profit despite high expenses. Owner Bryan Hibbs, a “leading figure” in the industry, was “appalled” when he realized the new minimum-wage laws would result in an additional $80,000/year in expenses. (Holy paystubs, Batman!)

“I didn’t know that. I thought we were talking a small amount of money, something I could absorb.”

Hibbs seems a little more realistic about minimum-wage laws than his counterpart at Borderlands.

“Despite being a progressive living in San Francisco, I do believe in capitalism. I’d like to have the market solve this problem. We’re for a living wage, for a minimum wage, in principle…. But I think any law that doesn’t look at whether people can pay may not be the best way to go…. Why can’t two consenting people make arrangements for less than x dollars per hour?”

Why not, indeed?

Like Beatts, Hibbs can’t raise prices over what is on the covers. (Not for regular, new(ish), non-collectible books and other items, anyway.) Nor can he go above market on collectibles. He says he can’t really cut hours, and he and his six employees are already stretched thin to cover 7 days at two stores. Thus, another brainstorming session was in order.

Though reluctant to go the “crowdfunding” route, Hibbs decided to implement something rather similar to what Borderlands did. Their new “Graphic Novel-of-the-Month Club” costs $25/month on a month-by-month basis or $240/year for annual membership, for which members get a monthly graphic novel (duh!) plus other perks. (Younger customers can pay $15/month for more kid-friendly fare.) Beyond the 334 memberships (at the annual rate) required to cover the extra $80K, any profits from additional club dues will also be split between the employees. (Personally, I would have put any extra into cash reserve, since the employees are already getting higher wages.) The Comix Experience staff like this solution because it is more market-driven and it reflects the store’s values and strengths.

Notice that in both cases above, the small businessmen did whatever they could to keep not just some but all of their employees on payroll. (I wonder if either might have a better shot at survival if they reconsidered cutting store hours and one or two employees. Maybe Comix Experience could just shut down the “Outpost” location?) It is great that they have been able to do so for so long and still stay afloat (barely), despite excessive expenses (including minimum-wage laws) in “progressive” San Francisco. But, not all small businesses can manage that, and even Borderlands and Comix Experience are being pushed to their breaking points.

The bottom-line, though, is that misguided laws — e.g., for minimum-wage / “living wage” — just make it harder for small businesses to make it and keeps many of those who most need entry-level jobs from getting and keeping them and climbing the success ladder. Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a little more of what distinguished economist Thomas Sowell has to say on the matter:

“Most [unemployed] workers are perfectly capable of producing goods and services, even if not to the same extent as more skilled or more experienced workers. The unemployed are made idle by wage rates artificially set above the level of their productivity. Those who are idled in their youth are of course delayed in acquiring the job skills and experience which could make them more productive — and therefore higher earners — later on. That is, they not only lose the low pay that they could have earned in an entry-level job, they lose the higher pay that they could have moved on to and begun earning after gaining experiences in entry-level jobs. Younger workers are disproportionately represented among people with low rates of pay….

Among two million Americans earning no more than the minimum wage in the early twenty-first century, just over half were from 16 to 24 years of age — and 62 percent of them worked part time. Yet political campaigns to increase the minimum wage often talk in terms of providing ‘a living wage’ sufficient to support a family of four…. But 42 percent of minimum-wage workers live with parents or some other relative. Only 15 percent of minimum-wage workers are supporting themselves and a dependent, the kind of person envisioned by those who advocate a ‘living wage’.

Nevertheless, a number of American cities have passed ‘living wage’ laws, which are essentially local minimum wage laws specifying a higher wage rate than the national minimum wage law. Their effects have been similar to the effects of national minimum wage laws in the United States and other countries — that is, the poorest people have been the ones who have most often lost jobs.”

Ironically, even liberal activist organization ACORN tried to get its employees exempted from minimum-wage laws, arguing,

“The more that Acorn must pay each individual outreach worker — either because of minimum wage or overtime requirements — the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire.”

Yes, indeedy.

The above quotes (including the one at the top of the post) were from Sowell’s book, Basic Economics, 4th ed. But, if you want something to read online, check out these two articles: “Minimum-Wage Laws: Ruinous ‘Compassion’” by Thomas Sowell and “The Minimum-Wage Myths” by Kevin D. Williamson.


Florida as an Example of Free Trade

I confess, I am still getting caught up with “things” since returning from my recent vacation and am not able to complete my planned article for tonight. (For one thing, it’s Mother’s Day, and I have to pick up my mother at the airport.) So, instead, I would like to share a few facts about free trade in Florida from an article I have been holding onto (h/t NCPA).

Free trade often gets a bad rap (rep?) for causing job losses, but what really happens is a shift in the type of jobs that are available. In fact, since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force at the beginning of 1994, a couple of interesting things have happened in Florida. First, 1.6 million private-sector jobs have been added. Second, the state’s manufacturing output has increased.

Cargo ship docked at Jaxport (Jacksonville, FL)

Cargo ship docked at Jaxport (Jacksonville, FL)

Here are a few more facts:

  • More than 275,000 jobs are supported by exports, including 18.3% of Florida’s manufacturing jobs.
  • In 2010, Florida exported $3.6 billion in agricultural products — almost 40% of its agricultural output.
  • Since 2010, exports of goods overall have increased 10.7%, to the tune of $5.9 billion.
  • One-third of Florida’s exports go to countries with whom the U.S. has a free trade agreement. These agreements have increased exports — e.g., Florida’s exports to Chile are up 320% since the U.S.-Chile free trade agreement of 2004.

These encouraging facts are noted by Bryan Riley, a Senior Analyst in Trade Policy for The Heritage Foundation, in his article, “Trade and Prosperity in the States: The Case of Florida“. Riley believes that free trade benefits could be even better for Florida if not for two federal policies: the U.S. Sugar Program and the Jones Act of 1920.

The former is a protectionist measure that requires quotas on foreign sugar imports. While intended to help the American sugar industry, all it really does is raise the price of sugar for Americans. (Yup. From 2000 to 2014, we paid 85% more than consumers in other nations.) The Jones Act mandates that only American-made (and predominantly American-owned and -crewed) ships can transport goods between American ports. This keeps domestic shipping costs “dramatically” higher than necessary. If foreign ships were allowed to transport gasoline to American ports, Riley says Floridians could be paying 20-30 cents less per gallon.

Still, despite these misguided federal policies, Florida is benefiting immensely from free trade agreements. Riley’s concluding remarks follow:

“Florida is positioned to prosper from continued growth in trade with Latin America and the rest of the world as trade barriers are reduced. Physical barriers, such as limits imposed by canals and ports that cannot handle modern cargo ships, and government barriers, such as limits on shipping and the use of imported inputs, are falling around the globe. Florida’s congressional delegation should take the lead in making sure U.S. government impediments to trade and prosperity fall as well.”


Christianity and the “Modern” Society

“[T]he history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere.”  — David B. Hart, author and professor

I am a bit pressed for time this week, as I prepare to drive up to Maryland to spend several days with family. (Hiding from the downtown riots in a quiet, mostly-Jewish community.) In fact, I’m writing this on Monday night, since I likely won’t have time to work on it later in the week. Therefore, with minimal commentary I present to you another excerpt from Dr. David Bentley Hart’s award-winning book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009). (It won the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology in 2011.) Enjoy!

Modern Society“What, after all, does it mean for a whole society to be truly ‘modern’? Completely modern, that is, as opposed to merely possessing modern technologies or obeying the axioms of modern economics. I have already offered a partial answer to this: it has a great deal to do with a society’s understanding of freedom. But, in a more purely historical sense, if we take the word ‘modernity’ to mean not simply whatever happens to be contemporary with us but rather the culture of the Western world as it has evolved over the last four or five centuries, then it seems obvious that a society is truly modern to the extent that it is post-Christian.

This is not to say, obviously, that modern society is predominantly inhabited by non-Christians or atheists; it is only to say that modernity is what comes ‘after Christendom,’ when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has ceased to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. And the term ‘post-Christian’ must be given its full weight here: modernity is not simply a ‘postreligious’ condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society but has ‘lost the faith.’

The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things — they would never have occurred to us — had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren. That said, it is undeniable that — however much certain Christian moral presuppositions may continue to exercise their vestigial influence over us — the history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.

Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith.’ Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness.

Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion, Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.

Dark Ages - metal logoTo be fair, serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend. One continues, of course, to see the entire medieval period now and then vaguely described as the ‘Dark Ages’ in popular histories; but scholars are generally loath to use that term even of the era to which it ‘properly’ refers: the period between the final fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476 and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in A.D. 800 (or, more broadly, between the fifth and eleventh centuries); and they have abandoned the term not only because it sounds derogatory. The very idea of an unnaturally protracted period of general darkness after the fall of the Western Roman Empire began its life among the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, who liked to characterize the ‘new learning’ they advocated as a reawakening of ancient wisdom from a millennium of inglorious slumber. But most good historians know that the intellectual and cultural revolution of the Renaissance was the flowering of innumerable high medieval developments, fecundated by a late infusion into Italy of scholarship and classical Greek texts from the dying Byzantine Empire of the Christian East….

Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. However assiduously the diligent, painstakingly precise academical drudge may labor at his or her meticulously researched and exhaustively documented tomes, nothing he or she produces will enjoy a fraction of the currency of any of the casually composed (though sometimes lavishly illustrated) squibs heaped on the front tables of chain bookstores or clinging to the middle rungs of bestseller lists. For everyone whose picture of the Middle Ages is shaped by the dry, exact, quietly illuminating books produced by those pale dutiful pedants who squander the golden meridians of their lives prowling in the shadows of library stacks or weakening their eyes by poring over pages of barely legible Carolingian minuscule, a few hundred will be convinced by what they read in, say, William Manchester’s dreadful, vulgar, and almost systematically erroneous A World Lit by Fire. After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.”

Well,… that explains a LOT!


Collins and Chesterton on The Fall

“Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness…. Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness. It must also account for such amazing contradictions.”  — Blaise Pascal, Pensees

In his book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (2011), Dr. C. John “Jack” Collins discusses the various literary, historical, theological, philosophical, and scientific issues that go into answering the titular question. It’s not quite what I was expecting, but it is fascinating, nonetheless. In the course of the discussion, Collins gives some critique of the views of Dr. Leon Kass:

“The recent Genesis commentary of Leon Kass [The Beginning of Wisdom (2003)] regularly advocates that we read Genesis ‘anthropologically’ and ‘philosophically’ (terms that strike me as intentional echoes of Aristotle), rather than ‘historically’: that is, as a record, not of what did happen, but what might happen, and what always happens. This, he contends, gives us a much richer way of reading….

[Kass contends that], ‘Read as history, the text fails to persuade the skeptical reader.’ With all due respect to Kass, if we fail to read the Genesis story as some kind of history, we fail to persuade the perceptive reader, because we fail to do justice to [the feeling of] nostalgia [that Kass himself acknowledges the text evokes].

For me, it is G.K. Chesterton [As I Was Saying, ed. Robert Knille (1985)] who best captures the refreshment that comes from realizing this:

Adam-Eve-SerpentThe Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind;… on that proverb that says ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.

If we say, as I think we should, that there is a level of figurative and symbolic description in Genesis 1-4, we must still allow that the story we find there provides the best explanation for our lives now, and for our hunger for things to be better.”

In other words, Collins’ point (as I understand it) is that a “literal”, historical interpretation (which he holds) must not ignore certain literary considerations, which may include “figurative and symbolic description” (e.g., re the “serpent”). With this acknowledgement, we have in the opening chapters of Genesis a true account of historical events which also explains the simultaneous greatness and wretchedness of Man and his internal yearnings for what was lost.


The Case Against Jeb Bush

“Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is today’s mushy moderate candidate who may well follow in the footsteps of a whole string of similar losers, from Mitt Romney and John McCain in recent elections, all the way back to Thomas E. Dewey, who managed to lose even in an election where three different Democrats were on the ballot, fragmenting that party’s vote.”  — Thomas Sowell, esteemed economist, author, columnist

I hadn’t planned on starting to comment on presidential candidates quite so early. But, I thought George Hewes’ recent article, “JUST GO AWAY: The Case Against Jeb Bush for President”, made some excellent points that I wanted to share. It’s relatively brief, but I urge you to read the whole thing. Here are the passages that stood out for me:

“Far too many Democrat operatives and pundits have said they fear Jeb Bush more than any of his GOP rivals. This is a trap, and a pretty obvious one. All that matters is how the candidate matches up against Madam Secretary.

Jeb Bush - common core and amnestyGiving Jeb the nomination neutralizes some of the best arguments against Hillary. She’s a relic from the 20th century? So is Jeb. She’s a longtime member of the political ruling class who thinks she’s entitled to the presidency because of her last name? So is Jeb. She supports an immigration policy that rewards lawbreakers and dilutes our cultural identity? So does Jeb. She’s charisma-challenged and is propped up not by grassroots enthusiasm but rather by the largesse of big money donors? So is–you get the idea….

After a weak menu of options in 2012, the GOP candidates this time are young, diverse and inspiring. Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul -– any of them would be a great contrast to Hillary. Whether we like it or not, much of politics in the 21st century has to do with optics and imagery. A successful candidate absolutely must be articulate and good on television. Just imagine the debates in the fall of 2016 with the right candidate. Any of the aforementioned GOP candidates would play the part of the youthful, bold JFK-type figure against the older, stiff, and uncharismatic Nixon….

[D]oes anyone really believe Jeb has the fire in his belly to counterpunch against the viciousness that the Clinton campaign is sure to throw at him? Walker, by contrast, has fought cage matches against the left in Wisconsin and come away victorious each time. Cruz is a skilled orator who has fought members of his own party in the Senate as well as Democrats. The times call for a silver-tongued pugilist, not a patrician too gentlemanly to return fire….

[T]he fastest way to defeat is to pick a moderate who stands for nothing, excites no one and lacks the stomach for the blood sport of presidential campaigning. A Jeb Bush nomination would continue that trend.”

More can be said, of course, about Jeb’s record, positions, attributes — both good and bad. None of the other candidates, including the ones mentioned, is perfect, either. But, Hewes does an admirable job of summarizing the anti-Jeb case, and we’re still in pre-primary season….


Sowell on the Discrimination of Women in the Workforce

As I work my way slowly, intermittently through Thomas Sowell’s rather large text, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, (4th ed., 2011), I find myself wanting to share, well, almost all of it. Of course, that’s not going to happen, but I will probably post on a few more topics from this book. Sowell’s goal in writing it was to present the often-intimidating topic of economics in a lay-friendly format, with no charts or graphs and a minimum of technical language. As I write this, I am about half-way through it, and I have to say that he succeeds in his goal. I love the variety of real-world examples and illustrations, too. (Though, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a few simple charts/graphs.)

Basic Economics 4th edThere has been some buzz in the news lately about “equal pay for women” and what certain politicians and activist organizations are actually paying their female staffers, etc. So, I figured I would post something about the discrimination against women in the labor force this week. Or, rather, I will let the distinguished Dr. Sowell share some of his knowledge and insights on the topic in his own words. In Ch. 10, “Productivity and Pay”, there is a section titled “Pay Differences” in which Sowell points out that it is the combination of supply and demand which determines pay, just as it does with the prices of other goods and services. But, he also discusses the various factors that go into the kinds of labor that are in demand and why some people are paid more or less than others. In particular, I would like to cite from a couple subsections titled “Differences in Skills” and “Job Discrimination”:

“[T]he dwindling importance of physical strength reduced or eliminated the premium for male workers in an ever-widening range of occupations. This did not require all employers to have enlightened self-interest. Those who persisted in paying more for male workers who were not correspondingly more productive were at a competitive disadvantage compared to rival firms that got their work done at lower costs by eliminating the male premium, equalizing the pay of women and men to match their productivities. The most unenlightened or prejudiced employers had higher labor costs, which risked the elimination of their businesses by the ruthlessness of market competition. Thus the pay of women began to equal that of men of similar qualifications even before there were laws mandating equal pay.”

Note that, while the next section is not specifically about women, I felt that the effort to get an understanding of what is meant by “discrimination” was important before going forward.

“While pay differences often reflect differences in skills, experience, or willingness to do hard or dangerous work, these differences may also reflect discrimination against particular segments of society, such as ethnic minorities, women, lower castes, or other groups. However, in order to determine whether there is discrimination or how severe it is, we first need to define what we mean.

Sometimes discrimination is defined as judging individuals from different groups by different standards when hiring, paying or promoting. In its severest form, this can mean refusal to hire at all…. [M]embers of different groups have been treated differently in laws and practices all around the world and for thousands of years of recorded history. It is the idea of treating all individuals the same, regardless of what group they come from, that is relatively recent as history is measured.

Overlapping with discrimination, and often confused with it, are employment differences based on substantial differences in skills, experiences, work habits and behavior patterns from one group to another…. While preferences for some groups and reluctance or unwillingness to hire others have often been described as due to ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, or ‘stereotypes’, third-party observers cannot so easily dismiss the first-hand knowledge of those who are backing their beliefs by risking their own money…. Distinguishing discrimination from differences in qualifications and performances is not easy in practice, though the distinction is fundamental in principle. Seldom do statistical data contain sufficiently detailed information [to make such distinctions].”

Okay, now we get more into the discussion as applied to women in particular…

“Women, for example, have long had lower incomes than men, but most women give birth to children at some point in their lives and many stay out of the labor force until their children reach an age where they can be put into some form of day care while their mothers return to work. These interruptions of their careers cost women workplace experience and seniority, which in turn inhibit the rise of their incomes over the years relative to that of men who have been working continuously in the meantime. However, as far back as 1971, American single women who worked continuously from high school through their thirties earned slightly more than single men of the same description, even though women as a group earned substantially less than men as a group.

This suggests that employers were willing to pay women of the same experience the same as men, if only because they are forced to by competition in the labor market, and that women with the same experience may even outperform men and therefore earn more, but that differences in domestic responsibilities prevent the sexes from having identical workplace experience or identical incomes based on that experience. None of this should be surprising. If, for example, women were paid only 75 percent of what men of the same level of experience and performance were paid, then any employer could hire four women instead of three men for the same money and gain a decisive advantage in production costs over competing firms.

women-in-the-workforce-sourcePut differently, any employer who discriminated against women in this situation would be incurring unnecessarily higher costs, risking profits, sales, and survival in a competitive industry. It is worth noting again the distinction made in Chapter 4 between intentional and systemic causation. Even if not a single employer consciously or intentionally thought about the economic implications of discriminating against women, the systemic effects of competition would tend to weed out over time those employers who paid a sex differential not corresponding to a difference in productivity. This process would be hastened to the extent that women set up their own businesses, as many increasingly do, and do not discriminate against other women.

Substantial pay differentials between women and men are not the same across the board, but vary between those women who become mothers and those who do not. In one study, women without children earned 95 percent of what men earned, while women with children earned just 75 percent of what men earned. Moreover, even those women without children need not be in the same occupations as men. The very possibility of having children makes different occupations have different attractions to women, even before they become mothers. Occupations like librarians or teachers, which one can resume after a few years off to take care of small children, are more attractive to women who anticipate becoming mothers than occupations such as computer engineers, where just a few years off from work can leave you far behind in this rapidly changing field. [NOTE: I can personally attest to this!] In short, women and men make different occupational choices and prepare for many of these occupations by specializing in a very different mix of subjects while being educated.

The question as to whether or how much discrimination women encounter in the labor market is a question about whether there are substantial differences in pay between women and men in the same fields with the same qualifications. The question as to whether there is or is not income parity between the sexes is very different, since differences in occupational choices, educational choices, and continuous employment all affect incomes. Men also tend to work in more hazardous occupations, which usually pay more than similar occupations that are safer. As one study noted, ‘although 54 percent of the workplace is male, men account for 92 percent of all job-related deaths.’”

There ya go! I think Prof. Sowell has demonstrated that the “discrimination” against women in the workplace is largely misunderstood, since much of what is commonly (but falsely) considered such is actually due to legitimate reasons (i.e., differences in skills, education, experience, and seniority), which, in turn, exist for valid reasons having to do with different interests and priorities in life. I have seen/heard other people try to make this point, but feminists and others who have bought into the whole “war on women” mindset don’t usually want to try to parse out the truth if it goes against their agenda.

If they would just accept that men and women are different, not interchangeable, perhaps they would be less likely to perceive so much “discrimination” that isn’t really there. This would result in less anger and stress, which would probably make them happier and more satisfied people. Just sayin’…


On Jesus’ Burial: 9 Reasons the Gospels Are Credible

“It appears unfounded to doubt the fact of Jesus’ honorable burial — even historically considered.”  — Wolfgang Trilling, distinguished NT scholar and German redaction critic


As a modern-day Westerner, when I think of burial of a person’s remains, I picture them usually in a coffin/casket, which is lowered into a large rectangular hole, which is then filled with dirt. If that isn’t possible, the remains might be interred in a mausoleum. Then, of course, there is the alternative of cremation. But, in Jesus’ case, things were a little different.

Joseph of Arimathea requests Pilate release Jesus' body to him

Joseph of Arimathea requests Pilate release Jesus’ body to him

Skeptics have posited everything from the body being put in an anonymous tomb (which location was forgotten by the disciples) to the body being put in a shallow grave outside the city, where it was probably devoured by wild dogs. That last bit seems far-fetched but would not be uncommon for insurrectionists (as Jesus was accused of being) and thieves (like the two who were crucified with Jesus) in that temporal, cultural, and geographical setting. It might be a valid hypothesis for what happened to Jesus’ remains, too, especially since tombs — cut into the rocky hillsides — were generally reserved for the well-to-do, which Jesus and his family were not. But, we have historical, contemporary records telling us that what actually did happen was far different. For example,

“After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”  — John 19:38-42 (NASB) (cf. Matt. 27:57-61)

*Note: We know from other passages that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, had purchased the tomb in question.

“Now the women who had come with Him out of Galilee followed, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and perfumes. And on the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment.”  — Luke 23:55-56 (NASB) (cf. Mark 15:46-47)

Of course, we can’t leave out the bit about the guards at the tomb. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate, expressing their concern that Jesus’ disciples might steal the body in order to fake his “ris[ing] again” – an event Jesus Himself predicted. Pilate agreed that this would be unacceptable and consented to their request.

“Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.’ And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”  — Matt. 27:65-66 (NASB)

*Note: To be clear, when it refers to a “guard”, it is not referring to merely one man. There is also some debate about whether the guard was Roman or Jewish.

But, why should we believe the biblical account? Jesus’ disciples could have done anything with the body and written whatever they wanted later. According to famed apologist and philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig, there are nine reasons why the historical credibility of the Gospel story of Jesus’ burial is so widely acknowledged. More can be said on each, of course, but I will do my best to summarize them here:

1) Early evidence provided by Paul’s testimony. Several factors within the structure and wording of the formula in I Cor. 15:3-5 show that Paul’s mentioning of the burial was meant as a reference to Jesus being laid in the tomb, not just a confirmation of His death. The historicity of Jesus’ burial is supported by three facts: a) there was insufficient time for a burial legend to arise between the events and the origin of the tradition (ca. AD 30-36); b) the testimony of the women witnesses (more on them later) stands behind the tradition; c) Paul no doubt knew the stories behind the traditions he passed on (e.g., I Cor. 11:23-26), including that of Jesus’ burial. See Gal. 1:18 for confirmation.

2) Burial story was part of the pre-Markan Passion story, making it relatively old. Most critics and scholars agree that the burial account came from Mark’s source material for his Passion account. Again, we have three reasons to accept the historicity of the burial account: a) insufficient time for legend to accrue; b) presence of eyewitnesses in the early Christian fellowship to affirm the facts; c) Paul’s likely knowledge of at least the pre-Markan Passion story.

3) Simple and non-theological, non-apologetic nature of the story itself. Most critics agree with liberal 19th-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann in this regard. There is no significant overlaying of theological or apologetical material — just the simple story of Joseph pleading for the body, wrapping it in linen, and placing it in a tomb.

4) Joseph of Arimathea is probably historical. Even the most liberal critics agree that it is extremely improbable that this character, a member of the Sanhedrin, was made up by Christians. Given early Christian hostility toward the Jewish leaders responsible for Jesus’ death, it makes no sense for them to invent such a person, who donated time, money, and property to make sure Jesus’ body was properly cared for. His actions are attested by Matthew, John, and most notably Mark.

5) Joseph’s laying the body in his own tomb is probably historical. Consistent descriptions of the acrosolia (i.e., ‘bench tomb’), supported by archeological discoveries of their use at the time by notables, lends credibility to the account. Details about it being new and owned by Joseph are also likely true, since placing a criminal’s body in just any tomb would defile any family members’ bodies already interred there.

6) Burial late on the Day of Preparation. Based on what is known about Jewish procedures for handling of executed criminals and burial, Jesus would have been buried on Friday prior to the rising of the evening star. Leaving the body on the cross overnight would defile the land, and with the coming Sabbath, it had to be interred before nightfall. With a little help (namely, from Nicodemus), Joseph could have completed the simple burial described in the Gospels in the allotted time.

Tomb from outside, plus Matt 27 verses7) Observation of the burial by women is historical. If women had not actually been witnesses to the events as reported in the Gospels, it would be difficult to explain why the disciples were not given those roles. (See this post for a bit more on the status of women and the different accounts.) Plus, since it is improbable that they would be involved in one and not the other, the women’s roles in both the burial and empty tomb events may be seen as confirming each other. And, if any of the lists of female witnesses is believable, then there is no good reason to doubt the others, either.

8) Customary careful preservation of the graves of Jewish holy men. The graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men were held in great reverence and carefully maintained. If Jesus’ body was still at the burial site, it likely would have been similarly venerated by His followers, since they were not expecting any resurrections until the end of the world. This may also explain why the women hung around to watch the burial and their desire to anoint His body with spices and perfumes as soon as they could.

9) No other burial tradition exists. Despite the claims and attempts of some liberal critics to show an alternative, “true” account of Jesus’ burial (e.g., shallow grave in criminal graveyard), no such evidence exists. If Joseph’s burial of Jesus in his tomb is mere legend, why are no conflicting traditions anywhere to be found, even by Jewish polemicists?

When combined, these nine factors provide a compelling case for the historical credibility of Jesus’ burial, as related in the Gospels and later referenced in the epistles. The majority of N.T. critics recognize this. As Trilling indicated above, there is no good reason not to. But, of course, this is not the whole story! In fact, the core of Christianity is founded on what happened on the third day after Jesus’ burial!

I hope this post and the preceding 4-part series were helpful and informative, regardless of your religious convictions. If all goes as planned, next year around this time I will finally finish (and post) my 5?-parter on Jesus’ Resurrection for you! In the meantime, you might want to check out this article by RTB’s Ken Samples: “Five Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection”.


On Jesus’ Death, part 4 of 4: Swoon Theory and Substitutionary Atonement

“Except for the romantic few who think that Jesus did not die on the cross but woke up in the tomb and ran off to India with Mary Magdalene, most scholars accept the uniform testimony of the Gospels that Jesus died.”  — Raymond E. Brown, distinguished (though somewhat controversial) Catholic scholar and emeritus professor of Biblical Studies, Union Theological Seminary

3 crosses in silhouetteAs you recall from the first post in this series, the first factor we addressed was whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Person whose crucifixion is recorded in the Christian gospels and later writings. We looked at the “Imposter Theory” and concluded that such an imposter was highly unlikely. Ancient secular and Jewish records also show that it was generally believed that Jesus (called “the Christ”) was indeed crucified. The second factor to be addressed is whether or not Jesus actually died on that cross, and the third question is if He was beyond natural revivification.

With that in mind, we have now examined the physiological effects of the beatings, scourging, and crucifixion, as well as the added results of hanging on a cross from an engineering aspect. Before even reaching the cross, Jesus experienced:

o    Severe contusions & lacerations
o    Immense blood loss (probably 4-6 pints)
o    Hypovolemic & hemorrhagic shock
o    Extraordinary thirst, with drying of mouth & tongue
o    Tachycardia leading to heart failure
o    Pulmonary distress & pleural effusion
o    Pericardial effusion
o    Electrolyte imbalance
o    Extreme exhaustion & physical weakness

As if that wasn’t enough, once crucified He also suffered from:

o    Irreparable neurological trauma (inc. crushed or severed median nerves)
o    Respiratory acidosis
o    Total dislocation of the shoulder & elbow joints
o    Spear thrust through the chest and into the heart

We know from historical records that a few people did survive crucifixion. If taken down before “expiring”, with their wounds tended to immediately, it was possible in some cases to recover. After a lengthy period of recuperation, one would be heavily scarred, almost definitely crippled, and possibly suffer other long-term damage. Of course, none of them were also thrust through with a spear. So, let’s look at that again….

The Gospel accounts tell us that the Jews wanted to be sure the three bodies on Golgotha were not still hanging on their crosses after sundown, since it was the Day of Preparation for Passover, so they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths. The usual method was to break the person’s legs with a club or mallet, so that he could no longer push up to exhale. We know from John’s eyewitness testimony (John 19:32-37) that the soldiers who broke the legs of the two thieves on the other two crosses did not bother to do so with Jesus, because “they saw that He was already dead”. However, perhaps just to be extra sure Jesus was not merely unconscious, one of them thrust a spear into His side. And the soldier knew just where to strike to make sure Jesus was dead even more quickly and, thus, mercifully than if he had broken His legs. (Just try to “play dead” when someone knifes you between the ribs!) As mentioned earlier, the Bible says that “blood and water flowed”, which we know is evidence that He was pierced all the way to the heart.

But, Maybe It Wasn’t So Bad…

Now, let’s assume for a moment that for some reason the Roman soldiers had taken it easy on Jesus. (Bribed, maybe?) Perhaps the beatings and scourging were not quite as harsh as normal; Jesus was in serious shape, but not critical. Maybe the guard who hammered in the nails was sloppy and somehow missed the median nerves entirely (not bloody likely!). In other words, I am proposing, for sake of argument (as others have), that the biblical record is accurate as far as the basics of what happened, but that the severity of Jesus’ internal and external injuries were less, perhaps much less, than was normally produced by Roman practice.

Some people (e.g., Barbara Thiering) have suggested that snake poison was administered to Jesus at some point, so that he would pass out (perhaps lapse into a coma?) and appear to be dead. Others (e.g., Hugh Schonfield) have speculated that a drug, probably made from mandrake, was given to Him to produce a deathlike appearance. Given the physiological trauma, I don’t think either one of these would have helped a crucifixion victim’s condition one bit. Plus, both scenarios assume that the Roman soldiers could be easily duped or bribed. But, history tells us that they were quite proficient at killing. Plus, under Roman law, if a prisoner escaped or a condemned man lived, whomever had responsibility had to take the prisoner’s place. So, you better believe they did not take chances!

But, again for sake of argument, let us assume that something like this happened. We still have a man who has been brutally beaten, flogged, and nailed to that cross. He still had to endure the effects of hanging on that cross for three (six?) hours. His joints would still have slowly separated. He would still be stuck in a “fully inspired” position, with his ability to breathe greatly restricted. Would he really be able to “fake” not breathing long enough to fool the soldiers? Oh, wait… Then he got a spear stuck in his side!

So, now you need to ask yourself how long someone in that condition could have lasted, after being taken down and put in a cold stone tomb. There is the matter of exposure and possible hypothermia to consider, as well as hunger and thirst. A severely beaten and injured man, somehow still alive, would then have to survive at least XX hours with minimal protection against the elements and no food or water. Although, it is possible that Joseph of Arimathea (or someone else) could have left garments and food & water in the tomb for Him. But, there are other factors that work against such suppositions.

The Fall of the Swoon Theory

David F. Strauss

David F. Strauss

This leads us to consider “Swoon Theory”. (Well, technically, we have already broached it.) Though it usually comes up in discussions about the Resurrection, I will address it here, because it is basically the hypothesis that Jesus was not really dead when they removed him from the Cross and that He later recovered while in the Tomb. Somewhat ironically, it was the 19th-century German scholar and liberal theologian David F. Strauss who gave one of the earliest and best critiques against this theory in his book A New Life of Jesus, 2 vols. (1879). Strauss’ main points might be summarized as “Removal of tombstone?” and “Subsequent travel?”

As stated above, we have a Jesus in an extremely weakened physical condition, with pierced and damaged hands and feet, who must 1) unwrap himself, then refold the linens; 2) somehow move the very large stone, which was typically set in a groove or gully, thus requiring it to be rolled uphill; and, 3) oh, by the way, there would be no edge to grip the stone from the inside. Once free of the tomb (and what about those Roman guards?), this man, who likely could barely even stand for long, would somehow have to walk — probably crawl — to where the disciples were. Yet, all reported appearances had Him standing and walking. Furthermore, while the wounds were still present, He appeared vital and healthy! So much for “Swoon Theory”.

In the end, there is no reason to assume any sort of “swoon theory” has any basis in reality and every reason to believe the presentation of the historically reliable Gospel record. When you add it all up, modern biomedical analysis (see “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1986) tells us that there is no way that anyone could survive such a horrible ordeal. Jesus had truly expired. He was not merely unconscious or even comatose, nor had He been poisoned or drugged. He was not going to simply wake up in the cool of the tomb, or possibly with the aid of another drug. Nor could He have freed Himself from the tomb and walked around in such condition. Jesus was dead dead and beyond revivification. Short of a true miracle, that is. But then, skeptics don’t believe in miracles, anyway. And, of course, faithful Christians believe that Jesus did indeed die, and the miracle was in His physical, bodily resurrection three days later!

As we shall address in a subsequent series, even if Swoon Theory worked and all records/testimony to the contrary was fabricated, it cannot account for the disciples’ belief in the risen and glorified Jesus, or the empty tomb, or the later conversions of skeptics like James (Jesus’ brother) and Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus).

I would be remiss if I finished this series without including something about WHY Jesus had to die. WHAT did He accomplish? To that end, here is a brief quote from Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson [h/t]:

“[T]he charges brought against Jesus… were blasphemy in the religious court (a capital offense) and treason in the civil court (also a capital offense). He was found ‘not guilty’ on each count. Yet he was executed.

What is the underlying meaning of all this? It is very simple. The crimes are not his.

Whose crimes, then, are they?

Blasphemy and treason are the two crimes on our charge sheet in the judgment court of God. We have blasphemed against God by making ourselves the center of our world and the lord of our own life. We have committed treason against God’s rightful authority by refusing his will. That was what Adam did. It is what we also have done.

Jesus has been found guilty and condemned for our crimes.

In the Gospel narrative, every reliable witness before the court points to Jesus and says, ‘He is innocent of these charges.’ There is only one possible explanation, therefore, for his death. He is accepting the charges leveled against us in the courtroom of the eternal Judge. He, the perfect image of God, is being marred beyond human semblance so that we might be restored to the image of God.”



On Jesus’ Death, part 3 of 4: Crucifixion

In the first entry in this series of posts, we looked at a few (but not all) early, non-Christian references to the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as well as variations of one popular theory that claims Jesus of Nazareth did not die on a Roman cross. In the second entry, we examined the severe physical trauma that Jesus must have gone through, based on the descriptions of events in the Gospels, before He was even crucified. Today, we will consider the Crucifixion itself.

The Crucifixion:

Over the years and particularly the past few decades, archeologists and historians have gained increasing knowledge about ancient times and the various beliefs and practices. As a result, we now know that some of the details that we thought we knew from medieval paintings and the like are not quite correct. For example, the crosses used in Jesus’ day looked more like a “T”, with the vertical post (or stipes) not showing much, if at all, above the crossbeam (or patibulum). The vertical beam was permanently embedded in the ground and rose only 6 to 8 feet.

jesus-carries-his-crossIt has been confirmed, though, that criminals sentenced to crucifixion were made to carry their own crossbeam (perhaps 75-150 lbs.) on their shoulders out to the place of execution. With the physiological effects of the beating and flogging already described, this would be quite painful and exhausting, especially when the prisoner would stumble and fall to the ground. Between the crossbeam on the shoulders and the occasional fall, clotting wounds would likely be rubbed or impacted, reopened, and subjected to dirt and gravel. From the Gospels (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26), we know that, as they led Jesus out of the Praetorium, the soldiers ordered a bystander named Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ crossbeam the rest of the way. This was most likely because Jesus was so weakened from the trauma He had already endured that they knew He didn’t have the strength to do it Himself.

When the place of execution was reached (the hill called “Golgotha”, or “(Place of) the Skull”, in Jesus’ case), the prisoner was again completely stripped. The soldiers were probably none-too-gentle about this. When the garments were removed, the wounds that were stuck to the garments with clotting, dried blood would be reopened and start bleeding out again. This was made worse when He was thrown or forced to the ground for the nailing, causing dirt and gravel to once again be ground into the wounds. Roman centurions were not exactly known for being gentle. Of course, what did they care about a common criminal about to be executed?

The hypovolemic shock, tachycardia and heart failure would all have been aggravated with the trek through the city and up to Golgotha (probably about 1/2 mile), especially with the added burden of the crossbeam (which thankfully was only temporary). There is a strong membrane called the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart and is normally in direct contact with it. As the heart fails, a clear straw-colored fluid begins to separate and collect between the heart and the pericardial sac. This puts more pressure on the heart and further keeps it from functioning properly.

Since being flogged and losing so much blood, Jesus also would have been having trouble breathing, due to His body’s struggling to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide flowing. There is another membrane called the pleura, which basically lines the inside of the rib cage and is folded back onto the surface of each lung. At this point in Jesus’ ordeal, a similar, clear straw-colored fluid would be filling the space between the lungs and the pleura. When He was upright, this pleural effusion would collect at the level of the heart. Acidity of the blood (i.e., acidosis) is also increasing at this time, which will soon cause serious problems.

The arms were stretched out in a straight line along the crossbeam, so that the hands were as far apart as possible when nailed to it. (This will be more significant when we examine the effects of hanging on the cross.) Another point of historical clarification that some are still unaware of is that crucifixion victims were not nailed through the palms of the hands. Indeed, the weight of the hanging body would have caused the iron nails to rip through the palm and out between the fingers. Rather, the nail (which was square and roughly 4-6 inches long, like a railroad spike) was driven through the crease at the wrist, where the forearm meets the base of the palm. Specifically, the nail went through the carpal tunnel where the bones are connected by strong ligaments, making it the only solid anchor point. Back then, the wrist was considered part of the “hand”, so the facts are again entirely consistent with the biblical description.

large square nailsThe median nerve, the largest running through the hand, would be crushed by the nail. The smaller, ulnar nerve is the one that causes the “funny bone” sensation when we bump our elbow just “right”. Now, imagine squeezing your ulnar nerve as hard as you can with a pair of pliers! That is something like the incredible pain experienced by having a huge nail driven through the median nerve. And it would last until the victim died. The pain was so intense (much to the Romans’ delight) that they coined a new Latin term to describe it — ex crux (literally, “from the cross”), which is where the English word ‘excruciating’ comes from.

As for the nailing of the feet, there was a little more variation. Among the remains of the only known 1st century crucifixion victim from Israel is a right heelbone (or calcaneus) with a nail piercing from “outside” to “inside”. The nail is no more than 5 inches long with the point bent over, so it could only attach one heel to the post. The feet were probably nailed one to each side of the post. This does not mean, however, that the traditionally-pictured method — with both feet nailed to the front of the post, usually through the tops of the feet — was not also used. The Gospels give no clues as to which way was used on Jesus, but either way would have caused further damage to nerves and/or bones. We also don’t know if a foot rest (or sedile) was used — not that it would have provided much relief.

As soon as the crossbeam (with victim nailed to it) was attached to the vertical post, gravity started to play a major role. Whichever way the feet were nailed, the knees would have been bent in a half-knee bend position. (Ever tried to support your weight for long like that?) Even someone in good shape can’t sustain this for more than a minute or two. So, basically the whole time someone is crucified, their bodyweight is supported just by their arms. From an engineering standpoint, each arm must provide an “upward component” of force to carry the weight of the body. As time passes, the arms stretch, the shoulder and elbow joints are pulled apart, and the arms lengthen roughly 3 to 6 inches.

The only way to give any relief to the arms is by an extreme effort to push up on the legs. Of course, this causes the feet intense pain, as the nails grind against the periosteum membrane and possibly the tarsal bones. But, it is necessary in order to breathe. (This is why the soldiers would often break the victim’s legs or ankles in order to hasten their death. The 1st century bone remains that I mentioned earlier show evidence of this practice.) Unfortunately, this causes the arms to rotate slightly at the wrists, thus causing the nails to further aggravate the crushed median nerves. Also, with each painful breath, Jesus’ back rubbed up against the coarse wooden post, keeping wounds open and bleeding.

But, why is this necessary to breathe? Normally, when we inhale, the ribs expand on their hinges and the diaphragm muscle contracts and flattens. When a crucified body has all of its weight hanging on its arms and is unable to shift support to the legs for more than a few moments, the weight of the internal organs keeps the diaphragm down. The intercostal and pectoral muscles around the lungs halt normal breathing while the body hangs downward. In other words, the chest remains in an inhaled position. Without the ability to pull their arms down (or their body upward), it is extremely difficult just to *release* a breath. Eventually, the victim becomes too exhausted to continue pushing up on their feet to breathe anymore. Thus, death by crucifixion is usually the result of slow, agonizing asphyxiation.

crucifixion_wristsRemember that blood acidity problem I mentioned earlier that results from an insufficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide? Now is when it really starts to get bad. The problem is really the carbon dioxide, which is transported in the blood plasma. When someone hypoventilates (i.e., they aren’t breathing enough), carbon dioxide isn’t expelled fast enough, so it builds up (as carbonic acid) in the blood. This acidosis effect has been accelerating since the scourging and now reaches a stage where Jesus begins to experience cardiac arrhythmias. At this point, He could surely feel the irregular beating in His chest and knew His time was almost up. Shortly, at the appointed hour (i.e., 3pm, when the Passover lambs were slaughtered), He managed one final breath and cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Then He died, quite likely while in full cardiac arrest.

As sunset approached, the soldiers examined the three crucified on Golgotha. The two thieves were still alive, so the soldiers broke their lower legs, ensuring they would expire within minutes. Jesus already appeared to be dead, so they did not break His legs. But, one soldier decided to make sure by piercing Jesus’ side (probably the right frontal part of the chest) with his spear. The speartip would have gone through the chest wall, penetrated the pleural space of the right lung, then entered the pericardial space and finally into the heart. John 19:34 (NASB) says that, “immediately blood and water came out.” The blood, of course, was from the heart. The “water” would have been the clear, slightly straw-colored fluid that had collected in the pleural and pericardial spaces.

Whew! That was another rather graphic post (like the last one) but necessary to explain just how serious Jesus’ physical condition was from a medical standpoint in those final hours. Next post should wrap up the series with additional facts and a bit of speculation.

Until then… Happy Resurrection Day!

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