How Do We Know Jesus Died on the Cross? The Strong Hand in Defense of the Historicity of the Crucifixion

It is surely one of the oddities in the history of human thought that millions of people today deny that Jesus died on the cross. The historical evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate is about as strong as it could be for any historical event in the ancient world. However, today many skeptics and most Muslims dispute this historical fact. We should therefore be prepared to present good reasons in defense of this fact, which is so basic to our hope as Christians (1 Peter 3:15). I can think of no better day to reflect on the evidence than Good Friday.

Four considerations combine to make the case that the death of Jesus on the cross is certain historical fact. You can remember these different evidences by thinking of them as four “aces” in a hand of cards, representing an extremely strong “hand” for the defense of the Crucifixion as historical fact:

  • Accepted as fact in all our ancient sources
  • Accurate information in the Gospel accounts
  • Acknowledged by atheists and other non-Christians
  • Ad hoc nature of alternative theories

It is not necessary for us to have this kind of support for each and every reported fact in the Bible in order for us to be rational in accepting those reports. However, when we do have such evidence, we should point it out to those who challenge the Bible. In this case, the evidence is so strong that we may confidently say that those who deny the historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross are the ones who are not thinking rationally.

Let’s take a look at each of these four considerations. Much of the information here is presented in my new book Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, which goes into more detail especially regarding the alternative theories.[1]

Accepted as Fact in All Our Ancient Sources

That Christ died on the cross was stated in writing very soon after the fact. Paul refers to Christ’s crucifixion in his early epistles between about AD 48 and 55 (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23; Gal. 6:12, 14), roughly 15 to 25 years after Jesus died.[2] In the context of ancient literacy and technology, having documentary evidence that soon after an event is excellent. Paul in these same epistles says that he was reminding his readers of what he had told them in person about Christ’s crucifixion when he founded their churches (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1). This information pushes the earliest known accounts back even closer to the event.

The death of Christ by crucifixion is as amply attested from a variety of sources as one could ask. Of course, this event is narrated in some detail in all four Gospels (Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). There are explicit references to Christ’s death on the cross not only in the Gospels and Paul, but also in Acts (2:23, 36; 4:10, etc.), Hebrews (6:6; 12:2), 1 Peter (2:24), and Revelation (11:8). Outside the canonical writings of the New Testament, Christ’s crucifixion is mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas (55) and narrated in the Gospel of Peter (10-22). These apocryphal gospels are usually dated in the early to middle second century but are sometimes thought to preserve earlier traditions.[3] References to Jesus’ crucifixion also occur in the writings of early second-century apostolic fathers such as the Epistle of Barnabas and several of the epistles of Ignatius.[4]

In addition to these multiple references to the crucifixion of Jesus from canonical and noncanonical Christian sources, we also have references in non-Christian literature from the late first and early second centuries. Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the 90s, reported that “Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.63). Tacitus, the Roman historian writing about AD 115-117, mentioned that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (Annals 15.44). The expression “the extreme penalty” in this context is clearly a euphemistic reference to crucifixion, since it was intended to be the worst possible way to be killed. Those who doubt not only that Jesus died on the cross but that he even existed have labored strenuously to discount the authenticity of these references, but sober scholarship is simply not on their side.[5]

The bottom line is that Christian (both canonical and noncanonical), Jewish, and pagan Roman authors within less than a century after the fact agreed that Jesus died on the cross. There is no contrary report from any source. In a major 2011 academic, encyclopedic reference work on Jesus, Joel B. Green concluded, “Multiple strands of evidence—from Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources—undergird the claim that among the data available to us regarding Jesus of Nazareth, none is more incontrovertible than his execution on a Roman cross by order of Pontius Pilate.”[6]

Accurate Information in the Gospel Accounts

The Gospels provide detailed information about Jesus’ death by crucifixion that can be corroborated from archaeology and from other external sources. Such information pertains to the who, when, and where of Jesus’ death.

Who: All four Gospels identify Pontius Pilate as the ruler who was responsible for ordering Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt. 27:2-24; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-24; John 18:29–19:22). This fact is confirmed by the epistle of 1 Timothy (6:13), as well as by Josephus and Tacitus. This identification is consistent with the historical evidence that Pilate was the governor of Judea (his official title was “prefect”) from AD 26 to 36.

When: We can narrow down the date when Jesus was put to death to two possible dates that are three years apart. The Gospels inform us that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath (i.e., on a Friday) during Passover week. Based on ancient Jewish calendar conventions (tied to the phases of the moon) this narrows down the possible dates during Pilate’s tenure in Judea to four of the years from AD 26 to 36, of which only AD 30 and 33 are plausible. Therefore, virtually all scholars identify either AD 30 or 33 as the date of Jesus’ death. The AD 33 date seems to have better arguments in its favor.[7] The uncertainty about the exact year of Jesus’ death is not unusual for figures of ancient history. For example, the date of Roman historian Livy’s death (AD 12/17) is uncertain by five years.[8]

Where: We can determine with surprising specificity the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels report that the Romans crucified Jesus just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). We know where Golgotha itself was—an area of land just outside the northwest part of Jerusalem once used as a rock quarry. Thus, we are able to identify the location where Jesus was executed to within a half-mile radius at worst, and we have a very likely exact spot preserved in Christian tradition that fits the archaeological evidence.[9]

The correlation of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death with specific people, places, and events known from outside sources provides powerful evidence for its historicity.

Acknowledged by Atheists and Other Non-Christians

Based on the sorts of evidences we have mentioned, one New Testament scholar concluded, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.” The scholar who made this statement was not a zealous conservative Christian. It was made by Gerd Lüdemann, a New Testament scholar who happens to be an atheist.[10]

Bart Ehrman, a former Christian who is now an agnostic, observes that the fact that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who was crucified during Pilate’s rule as governor in Judea “is the view of nearly every trained scholar on the planet.”[11]

John Dominic Crossan, a radically liberal New Testament scholar (and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar) who denies Jesus’ bodily resurrection, acknowledges, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[12]

The vast majority of modern Jewish scholars also have freely acknowledged not only that Jesus was crucified but that he died while on the cross.[13]

In short, the death of Jesus on the cross is an historical fact acknowledged by a consensus of scholars of almost all ideological perspectives. Any time you can get atheists, agnostics, theological liberals, Jews, and orthodox Christians to agree on something about Jesus, you are likely finding what some scholars call “historical bedrock.” This support from scholars who have no religious commitment to the Bible or to the traditional Christian faith shifts the burden of proof entirely on anyone who for religious reasons denies the historicity of the Crucifixion.

Ad Hoc Nature of Alternative Theories

By far the most widely held theory denying Jesus’ death on the cross comes from Islam. According to the Qur’an (or at least some translations of it), the Jews claimed to have killed Jesus, but “they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”; rather, “Allah took him up unto Himself” (4:157-158). One popular Muslim tradition explains that someone else was crucified by mistake. Judas Iscariot seems to have been the most often suggested victim.

The main reason why these Muslim denials of the Crucifixion are not credible is that they are based on Muhammad’s statements in the Qur’an six centuries after the time of Jesus. For sober historians, the first-century and early second-century sources (both Christian and non-Christian) attesting to Jesus’ death by crucifixion are orders of magnitude more reliable than a single seventh-century text. The Qur’an is, naturally, the primary source for understanding the teachings of Muhammad, but it is not a credible or reliable historical source of information about what happened to Jesus in the first century. In order to overcome this obvious disparity, some Muslims cite the so-called Gospel of Barnabas as early documentary evidence for the view that Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place. However, this apocryphal gospel dates from the 1300s and has no historical credibility whatsoever.[14]

The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the temple and around Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. In addition to the watching eyes of the Roman and Jewish leaders, presumably Jesus’ friends and family would have known if he had been crucified or not. This reasonable presumption is confirmed in the Gospels, which give us two independent accounts informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his mother) witnessed his death and burial (Luke 23:49-56; John 19:25-27, 38-42).

To get around this evidence Muslims have often claimed that God miraculously made whoever the crucified man was look exactly like Jesus. Of course, there is no evidence for this claim, either. It is an ad hoc explanation conceived rather desperately to save an untenable claim. Worse still, as even some Muslim scholars have noted, it makes God party to a deception that became, supposedly, the mistaken foundation for the Christian belief that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

Some skeptics have proposed a very different theory. They have sometimes admitted that the Romans crucified Jesus but speculated that he survived the ordeal, merely passing out or becoming unconscious on the cross. This “swoon” theory reflects a naturalistic dislike of the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. What exactly happened varies from one skeptic’s account to another. In some stories, Jesus revived only for a short time and died soon thereafter.[15] In other versions, Jesus lived for many years after his crucifixion. For example, according to the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, after his crucifixion Jesus married Mary Magdalene, moved to the south of France, and had children![16]

The swoon theory involves cherry picking only those elements of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial that seem to help the theory and rejecting or modifying those elements that don’t. For example, all versions of the swoon theory make much of the fact that Mark reports that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead after being on the cross only for about six hours (Mark 15:25, 33-34, 44). However, in the same passage Mark also reports that a centurion verified Jesus’ death (verse 45) and that the tomb was sealed with a stone (verse 46). Why should we accept Mark’s report about Pilate’s surprise but not his report about the centurion and the sealed tomb?

In a way, the ad hoc nature of the alternative theories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion constitutes a backhanded compliment to the case for its historicity. If all of the theories to explain away the evidence are this fanciful (and they are), the case for Jesus’ death on the cross must be awfully good.

Conclusion

Although many non-Christians accept the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, if they are thinking people that fact puts them in something of a predicament. Once it is established as historical fact that Jesus died just outside Jerusalem by crucifixion, we have eliminated the most common theories offered by non-Christians regarding the resurrection of Christ. No position on the subject that discounts this fact deserves to be taken at all seriously. Nor can the problem be finessed away by asserting that Christians cannot prove with absolute certainty (akin to working a problem in mathematics) that Jesus died on the cross. We do not have the capacity to demonstrate with that kind of absolute, one hundred percent certainty much of anything in history or in any other area of life. This limitation on human knowledge is no excuse for refusing to follow the evidence where it leads. In this case, it leads without serious basis for doubt to the conclusion that Jesus died on the cross.

NOTES


[1] Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing, 2020), 63–71. For information about this book, see https://faiththinkers.org.

[2] On the dates of Paul’s epistles, see, for example, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993); John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook, Handbooks for NT Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012). Of the seven Pauline epistles that virtually all biblical scholars agree Paul wrote (Rom., 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., 1 Thess., Phm.), there is essentially no dispute over their dates except for Galatians, sometimes dated ca. 48-49 and sometimes ca. 53/54. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9, Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 22–29.

[3] On the controversial matter of the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, see Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, TENTS 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 125–27. Gathercole shows that current scholarship generally favors a date in the middle third of the second century. For the texts and introductions, see Bart D. Ehrman and Zlato Pleše, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] The Epistle of Barnabas is typically dated in the early second century, though any date between 70 and 130 is considered possible. The epistles of Ignatius are dated between about 105 and 115.

[5] See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 19–53; Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 54–66.

[6] Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3:2383 (3:2383–2408).

[7] See Harold W. Hoehner, “The Chronology of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Holmén and Porter, 3:2339–59, and the references cited there, and Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[8] See the online Table of Contents, Livy, History of Rome, Volume I: Books 1–2, Loeb Classical Library 114, https://www.loebclassics.com/view/LCL114/1919/volume.xml.

[9] Joan E. Taylor, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial,” New Testament Studies 44.2 (April 1998): 180–203; Marcel Serr and Dieter Vieweger, “Golgotha: Is the Holy Sepulchre Church Authentic?” Archaeological Views, Biblical Archaeology Review 42.3 (May/June 2016): 28–29, 66.

[10] Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 17. See also his The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 50.

[11] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, 12.

[12] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: Harper, 1995), 5.

[13] Notable examples include Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. H. Danby (London: Allen & Unwin, 1927); David Flusser, Jesus, trans. R. Walls (New York: Herder, 1969); Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (London: SPCK, 1983); Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Knopf, 1999). See further David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017).

[14] Jan Joosten, “The Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas,” Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 200–215; Gerard A. Wiegers, “Gospel of Barnabas,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, 3rd ed. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Online, 2014). See also my discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas in “What Are Good Sources about Jesus? The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 2,” IRR.org, 2017.

[15] Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bantam, 1965).

[16] Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983).

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