For many, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the most well-known events from his life and ministry. However, what is the historical evidence for accepting the crucifixion as a genuine fact of ancient history? This article will attempt to bring to the fore this evidence, as well as the views of experts in this field of study.
Academic Consensus on Christ’s Crucifixion
Before examining the reasons for a historical claim it is usually helpful to learn about the current view of scholars on the topic. What do we find regarding Christ’s crucifixion?
It is safe to say that it is universally accepted by historians that Christ died by crucifixion. According to scholar James Dunn, the crucifixion is one of “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” and that it “rank[s] so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (1). Likewise, Bart Ehrman says that “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (2). Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson agrees saying that “The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its coagents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned and executed by crucifixion” (3). Historian Gerd Ludemann finds that “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (4). John Dominic Crossan says he takes it “absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate” (5). Jewish scholar Paula Frederickson writes that “the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” (6). The Jesus Seminar, which for many represents scholars of a more skeptical bent, finds the crucifixion to be “one indisputable fact” from Christ’s ministry (7). The late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg put the crucifixion as a historical certainty akin to other commonly accepted events from ancient history,
“[S]ome judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example, Jesus really existed, and he really was crucified, just as Julius Caesar really existed and was assassinated. …. We can in fact know as much about Jesus as we can about any figure in the ancient world” (8).
These views represent those of almost every professional scholar to have written on the historical Jesus, but consensus, as important and informative it may be, never counts as an argument in and of itself. What are the arguments for accepting the crucifixion? We now turn to these.
According to theologian and exegete William Lane Craig, to have just two independent sources confirming an event of history is notable for “Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event” (9). The general idea is the more sources that are independent the better it is: an event of history to have five independent sources attesting to it has a greater probability of having occurred than an event with just two or three sources independently attesting to it. As a criterion, this in no way claims that an event recorded in a single source is necessarily unreliable or must be rejected. In fact, it could well be the case that an event mentioned in the single source is a true even of history.
How does Christ’s crucifixion stand in light of multiple and independent attestation? We have the following:
It is attested to in the New Testament, including all four canonical gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, by the Apostle Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. This is more than sufficient, but there is more.
Three early church fathers attest to the crucifixion. Ignatius (35-108 CE) in Trallians, Smyrneans and Barnabas, Saint Clement of Rome (35-99 CE) in 1 Clement (7, 12, 21, 49) and by Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) in The First Apology (32, 35, 50) and Dialogue with Trypho (47, 108). All three were convinced Christ met his end on the cross and they did not receive their material from the New Testament (11). They also probably had close ties to some of the original disciples of Christ which bolsters their testimony.
Early sources behind our gospels also attest to the crucifixion, such as the pre-Markan passion narrative in Mark’s gospel and hypothetical Q. New Testament scholar Eric Rowe explains that “Q and pre-Mark both surely do attest to the crucifixion of Jesus…. Mark is passing on pre-existing tradition and that the crucifixion is not the author’s own addition to the story” (12). According to Rowe, to show that Matthew and Luke attest to Christ’s crucifixion independent of Mark is difficult because they almost certainly derived their crucifixion narrative from Mark and/or Q.
Beyond the early Christian writings, perhaps the two most important extra-biblical references come from the historians Josephus Flavius (37-100 CE) and Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE). Flavius (writing around 94 CE) refers to the crucifixion, “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross” (13). It is true that of Flavius’ two passages that refer to Christ, this one was subject to a Christian scribe’s interpolation. However, many scholars believe that the interpolation was done over a historical core where Flavius did, by his own hand, refer to Christ’s crucifixion and trial. Concerning the pre-interpolation passage scholar James Dunn writes that “few have doubted that it came from Josephus’ pen” (14).
Cornelius Tacitus, writing around 116 CE, tells us that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty” of crucifixion under “Pontius Pilate” (15). According to Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, that Tacitus provides attestation to Christ’s crucifixion is now “firmly established” (16). It is widely held that Tacitus provides independent attestation to Christ’s crucifixion (17).
Mara Serapion (50-? CE) is a further ancient writer of interest who refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king.” Although this reference is debated, many scholars see the wise king as a reference to Christ, although, unfortunately, it does not provide a direct reference. New Testament scholar Robert Van Voorst sees little doubt that the reference to the execution of the “king of the Jews” refers to Christ’s death on the cross (18), while Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans view the reference as relating to the inscription on the cross of Christ’s crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (15:26) (19). Historians have dated this letter somewhere between 73 CE and 200 CE which means it could be early or late.
The crucifixion receives further attestation by many other later writers over the following centuries. There is Lucian’s (120-190 CE) satirical piece called The Passing of Peregrinus that mocks Christian faith and calls Christ a “crucified sophist” and the Babylonian Talmud says that Christ “was hanged on the eve of the Passover.” These sources, and others we have not mentioned, although important historically for historians examining the contexts in which they were authored, don’t provide much historical value in terms of early, independent attestation to Christ’s crucifixion. What value they do have, however, is that they assume a constant tradition of Christ’s crucifixion. At no point do they doubt that there was such a figure as Jesus Christ who was crucified. That these sources are hostile to the Christian movement, often deriding it as a disease and superstition, yet accept these basic Christian claims is informative, especially given the rhetorical ammunition it would have given them had they discovered the crucifixion was merely a fabrication.
To conclude then, what are the independent sources attesting to the crucifixion of Christ? The historian has the following: Pre-Mark, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Clement, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, and Cornelius Tacitus. This totals to eleven independent sources, excluding the later sources. If one takes two independent sources as a good rule for determining historical confidence then one seems on very strong grounds to accept the crucifixion as a genuine historical fact.
Christ’s crucifixion is an event that is not only independently attested in various sources but is also attested within early sources. The idea here is that the earlier the source is to the events it describes the more value it has. This can be for several reasons, such as a decreased possibility of legend infiltrating a text, less distortion, the events being fresher in the memories of witnesses and authors, and so on. A source dating to forty years of an event would inspire more confidence than a source which dates to three centuries of the event.
Several early sources attest to the crucifixion. The pre-Markan passion narrative is one such source that Rudolf Pesch dates no later than 37 CE, just seven years after Christ’s death,
“[Mark’s text] implies that Caiaphas, who we know was high priest at that time, was still high priest when the story began circulating.” For “if it had been written after Caiaphas’ term of office, his name would have had to have been used to distinguish him from the next high priest. But since Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18 to 37, this story began circulating no later than A.D. 37, within the first seven years after the events” (20).
Q material, as we noted, attests to the crucifixion and dates early (21). According to Patrick Hartin, “Although an exact date is difficult to determine, a date around 50 AD would seem to be the most acceptable period for the written Q source to emerge and that would make it one of the first Christian writings to appear” (22). This is just twenty years after the event.
These two early and independent sources, pre-Mark and Q, attest to the crucifixion within twenty years of the event. This places them well within the lives and memories of the witnesses, followers, disciples, and others. If earliness is a good standard for historical reliability then one can be confident in Christ’s crucifixion.
Criterion of Embarrassment
Christ’s crucifixion satisfies what historians refer to as the criterion of embarrassment. The idea here is that it is very unlikely that an author, who we know was a follower of Christ, would make up an event that was of embarrassment to themselves, their leader, and/or to their movement. How does this criterion apply to Christ’s crucifixion?
It applies because the crucifixion is embarrassing for all involved (28). Crucifixion within first-century Judaism was seen as a social disgrace. Martin Hengel writes that “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated” (23). This embarrassment stems from what the Old Testament teaches, which is that,
“If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deu. 21:22-23, emphasis added).
This is the view that Christ’s earliest followers, who were raised and located in a first-century Jewish-Palestinian context, would have held to of crucifixion. They believed that if one was crucified it is because he was cursed by the God of Israel. The significance lies in the fact that no person from this background would have taught others, especially their fellow Jews, that their leader, whom they proclaimed to be God himself, had been crucified unless it really happened. To invent a fabricated story of their leader’s crucifixion would have amplified the difficulties the earliest Christians would have experienced when attempting to spread their message. In other words, if the crucifixion was merely an invention of the gospel authors, the authors would have come up with a far compelling fabrication that would preferably not result in their audiences scoffing at their claims. The crucifixion therefore only makes sense if Christ had really been crucified.
In fact, the difficulty that the crucifixion caused Christ’s followers is clear to see. The disciples, even while Christ was alive and active in his ministry, responded in confusion when Christ taught he would soon be delivered to be crucified (John 13:21-29, 13: 7, 19, and Luke 24:44-45). They were certainly not foreseeing their movement’s leader receiving a humiliating death deemed fit for the common criminal.
The crucifixion was also a major reason why the Apostle Paul, prior to his conversion to the Christian movement, persecuted the earliest Christians. In light of his understanding of the Torah, the early Christian proclamation of a resurrected messiah who had just been crucified was a great blasphemy. This explains why Paul persecuted Christians by arresting and imprisoning them (Gal. 4:29 and the Acts), condoned their murder (as in the case of Stephen in Acts), and attempted to destroy the early Church (Acts 8:3). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul, having now converted and become the leader of the Church, states the challenge the crucifixion presents him with when teaching his fellow Jews about it: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:21-22, emphasis added). He goes on to write that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” (Gal. 3:13, emphasis added)
Paul here is plainly referring to the difficulty the earliest Christians would have experienced while trying to convince others of their leader’s teachings, despite this leader having been nailed to a cross like a failed messiah and common criminal. William Craig explains,
“Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Davidic Messiah who, instead of throwing off Israel’s enemies and establishing David’s throne in Jerusalem, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Jesus’ crucifixion was something the early church struggled to overcome, not something it invented. Jesus’ crucifixion is one datum upon which all historical scholars, even the most radical, agree” (24).
Criterion of Coherence
The criterion of coherence looks at the larger pattern of Christ’s historical circumstances and attempts to determine whether a specific event coheres with that pattern (25). If an event coheres with the larger pattern then it is more likely to be historical than not. Scholars agree that Christ’s crucifixion coheres with other known facts of his life, perhaps most obvious being that he clearly upset the Jewish authorities by claiming to be the divine Son of Man. This title was Christ’s preferred self-reference; according to Dan Wallace,
“The title “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite way to describe himself; it refers to a human being, much the same as the phrase “son of Mike” would refer to a child of Mike. However, we aren’t dealing with a matter of either human or transcendent as the title implies. For in Daniel 7, the Son of Man rides the clouds. In the Hebrew Scriptures riding the clouds is something only God does—or something foreign gods are described as doing (Ex. 14:20; 34:5; Num. 10:34; Ps. 104:3; Isa. 19:1). In other words, this human figure is unique in his possession of characteristics that reflect the transcendent divine. Jesus as the Anointed One, the Christ, represents both God and man” (26).
That Christ referred to himself using this title upset his opponents and it is why during a trial the high priest “tore his clothes and declared” him to have committed blasphemy deserving of death (Mark 14).
The crucifixion coheres with other data from the gospels. For example, Christ came under fire when his disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; Matt. 12:1-21; Luke 6:1-5). He also allegedly violated the Sabbath because of miraculously healing a person (Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-11; Matt. 12:9-14), for forgiving sin when such a role is reserved only for God (Matt. 9:1-8), for purportedly using demonic power (Matt. 12:22-37), and for claiming that he would build the temple up in three days after tearing it down (Matt. 27:40; John 2:19). All these factors contributed to the Jewish authorities dragging Christ before Pilate.
Historians know about the ancient method of crucifixion mostly from written sources although, fortunately, archaeology has since come to provide greater corroborative light (27). What significance does it have for Christ’s crucifixion?
Its significance lies in a discovery in a burial cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, northeast of Jerusalem, dating to the first century (28). In this case, an ossuary bearing the name Johohanan, the son of Hagakol was found, and in it, a heel bone with a nail driven through its side was discovered. It indicates that the man had been crucified (29). Further, given that fragments of olive wood were discovered it became clear that the victim was crucified on a cross made from an olive tree. The victim’s legs were also found to be broken, evidently done to quicken the man’s death. This corroborates the gospel accounts of Christ’s crucifixion. According to the gospels, Christ was crucified on a wooden cross and nails were used in the process. He also almost had his legs broken (a method to hasten the victim’s death) but was already discovered to be dead (John 19:32).
Summary and Conclusion
The above historical evidence is why Christ’s crucifixion has received universal acceptance in scholarship (30). Anyone wishing to disprove or reject the crucifixion needs to sufficiently explain the evidence we have considered here, which would be an incredibly difficult task: Why, if the crucifixion is a fabrication, is it mentioned in eleven independent sources? Why is it mentioned in several independent hostile sources? Why would the authors have made it up given it being counter-productive for their movement as a source of embarrassment? Why does the crucifixion make such good sense in light of other events and details mentioned in the gospel?
In summary, the crucifixion is strongly attested within independent sources, some of which are early. It also satisfies several other criteria, such as the criterion of coherence and embarrassment. There is also the support of archaeology that bolsters confidence in the historicity of the gospel sources.
1. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 339.
2. Ehrman, Bart. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
3. Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 125.
4. Ludemann, Gerd. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50.
5. John Crossan quoted by Robert Stewart and Gary Habermas (2010) in Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered. p. 282.
6. Paula Frederickson, remark during a discussion at the meeting of “The Historical Jesus” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 22, 1999.
7. Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar videotape.
8. Borg, Marcus. 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.
9. Craig, William Lane. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
11. Shaw, Benjamin. 2010. Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Investigation. p. 15.
12. Personal correspondence with Eric Rowe (Facebook, 23/November/2015)
13. Flavius, J. 94 AD. Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.).
14, Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 141.
15. Tacitus, C. 116 AD. Annals (15.44).
16. Eddy, Pauk., and Boyd, Gregory. 2007. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. p. 127.
17. Powell, A. 1998. Jesus as a figure in history: how modern historians view the man from Galilee. p. 33; Evans, Craig. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. p. 42; Van Voorst, Robert. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. p. 39–42.
18. Van Voorst, Robert. 2000. ibid. p. 53-55.
19. Chilton, Bruce., and Evans, Craig. 1998. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research. p. 455-457.
20. Rudolf Pesch quoted by Horton in Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1).
21. Dunn, James. 2003. Ibid. p. 151.
22. Hartin, P. 1991. James and the “Q” Sayings of Jesus. p. 226-227.
23. Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion.
24. Craig, William Lane. 2013. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
25. Dunn, James. 2005. The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. p. 134; Craig, William Lane,. and Copan, Paul. 2009. Contending with Christianity’s Critics. p. 174
26. Wallace, Dan. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.
27. Tzaferis, Vassilios. 1985. “Crucifixion – The Archaeological Evidence.” Biblical Archaeological Review 11(1). Available.
28. Tzaferis, Vassilios. 1970. “Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar.” Israel Exploration Journal 20(1/2):18-32.
29. Maier, Paul. 1997. In the Fullness of Time. p. 165.
30. Habermas, Gary. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available; Licona, Michael. 2010. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. p. 463-46.