Scholarly consensus on Jesus’ crucifixion:
Perhaps one of the best attested facts about Jesus is that he was crucified, a fact that many independent sources attest to. According to scholar James Dunn the crucifixion is of the “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, skeptical critic Bart Ehrman tells us 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 (whose work we use as our course material for New Testament Studies) tells us 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). Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann affirms that “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (4). Another atheist historian John Dominic Crossan says he takes it “absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate” (5). Jewish scholar Paula Frederickson says that “the crucifixion is the single strongest fact we have about Jesus” (6). Lastly, even the radical and anti-supernatural Jesus Seminar claims that the (crucifixion is) “one indisputable fact” (7). Finally, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg articulates for us:
“[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).
Independent & Multiple Attestation:
According to philosopher and exegete William Lane Craig to have just two independent sources confirming an event of history is no small thing: “Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event” (9).
Yet for Jesus’ crucifixion we have attested to in all four canonical gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke (and Acts) & John, by the Apostle Paul, Hebrews & 1 Peter 2:24. Likewise early Christianity had the crucifixion at the heart of apostolic preaching from the day of Pentecost onwards (Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10; 5:30; 10:39; 13:29), and Stephen alludes to the crucifixion indirectly (Acts 7:52).
Three early church fathers independently attest to the crucifixion. Ignatius (Trallians 9; Smyrneans 1; Barnabas 5), 1 Clement (1 Clement, 7, 12, 21, 49) and Justin Martyr (First Apology 32, 35, 50; Dialogue with Trypho 47, 108.) clearly believe that Jesus was crucified on a cross, and these writers did not receive their material from the New Testament (11). These early church fathers also probably had close ties to the disciples of Jesus making their testimony all the more valuable.
Hypothetical sources behind our gospels also attest to the crucifixion, such as the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative and Q source. New Testament scholar Eric Rowe (PhD, Notre Dame) informs us that: “Q and pre-Mark both surely do attest to the crucifixion of Jesus” (12). Rowe tells us that “Mark is passing on pre-existing tradition and that the crucifixion is not the author’s own addition to the story.” One of Jesus’ statements thought to come from Q source is his instruction to: “Take up your cross and follow me,” thus vividly indicating his crucifixion. However, according to Rowe, to show that Matthew and Luke attest to Jesus’ crucifixion independent of Mark is difficult. According to the four source hypothesis Matthew and Luke derived their crucifixion narrative from Mark and/or Q.
Beyond our early Christian writings perhaps our two most important extra-biblical references come from the historians Josephus Flavius and Cornelius Tacitus. Flavius (writing around 94 AD) refers to the crucifixion directly: “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross” (13). Although it is true that of Flavius’ two passages that refer to Jesus, the one above was subject to Christian interpolation. However, unanimous opinion within critical scholarship holds that the interpolation was done over a historical core where Flavius did, by his own hand, refer to Jesus’ crucifixion and trial. On the pre-interpolation passage scholar James Dunn writes that “few have doubted that it came from Josephus’ pen” (14).
Cornelius Tacitus, writing around 116 AD, tells us that Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty” of crucifixion under “Pontius Pilate” (15). According to Eddy and Boyd that Tacitus provides attestation to Jesus’ crucifixion is now “firmly established” (16). Alongside Flavius, it is widely held that Tacitus provides independent attestation to Jesus’ crucifixion (17/18/19). Mara Serapion is another ancient writer of interest. In his letter he refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king.” It is held by many scholars, and debated by others, that the reference to the wise king is a reference to Jesus. Unfortunately, Serapion does not provide a direct reference to Jesus which could have made it all the more powerful. Scholar Robert Van Voorst, Professor of New Testament Studies, sees little doubt that the reference to the execution of the “king of the Jews” is about the death of Jesus (20), while Bruce Chilton views Serapion’s reference to the “king of Jews” as related to the inscription on the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (15:26) (21). Scholars have dated this letter somewhere between 73 AD and 200 AD, and since scholarly consensus puts Mark’s gospel (our earliest gospel) at 70 AD, Serapion could well be a very early and valuable attestation to Jesus’ crucifixion. However, equally he could be a very late source just shy of 170 years onwards of Jesus’ crucifixion. We simply cannot be sure either way.
Some later ancient writers, writing around the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD, make references to the crucifixion. For example, we have Lucian’s satirical piece called the The Passing of Peregrinus that mocks Christian faith, and even calls Jesus a “crucified sophist.” The Babylonian Talmud tells us that Jesus “was hanged on the eve of the Passover” (Sanhedrin 43a). However, it is true that these later sources are probably based of hearsay information and do not provide independent attestation, however, what is most significant about these is that they readily assume (and even mock) the historical event of the crucifixion. Nowhere is Jesus’ crucifixion ever disputed even by hostile sources, and all the historical evidence is in its favour.
Before we tally our independent source I wish to end this section on an apt quote from a recent thesis I had consulted authored by Benjamin Shaw: “There are also over ten non-Christian sources that mention the death of Jesus. The Roman historian Tacitus (ca. AD 55-120) wrote around AD 115 that “Christus…suffered the extreme penalty…at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate…” The Roman and Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 38- 97) wrote around AD 90 that “Pontius Pilate caused him [Jesus] to be crucified.” In AD 52 Thallus wrote, possibly before Tacitus and even the Gospels, a history of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, since then only fragments or citations in other writings have been discovered. Yet, in one such citation from AD 221, Thallus implies that the death of Jesus was linked to a worldwide darkness, an earthquake, and an eclipse. The Jewish Talmud (Mishnah), describes Jesus’ death, “…he [Jesus] was hanged on the eve of Passover” (22).
In concluding we have a plethora on independent attestation to the crucifixion. We have the: Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus. This amounts to 11 independent sources. On top of this we have other later sources such as: Lucian, Serapion (depends on dating), Thallus and the Talmud which all likewise affirm a constant tradition of Jesus’ crucifixion (23). This surely puts to bed any doubt that Jesus was crucified for any sincere investigative individual.
Jesus’ crucifixion as an event is not only multiply & independently attested, but it is likewise early. For example, let’s first review Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 that is widely dated to within five years of Jesus’ death. Atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann dates this creed no later than three years after Jesus’ crucifixion: “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” (24).
Paul does not directly state that Jesus was crucified in this creed, but he does widely teach and write on it in several places throughout all his letters. This negates any challenge that the crucifixion (as well as the resurrection proclamation, Jesus’ supernatural appearances to many) is a later legendary embellishment. Paul widely teaches on the crucifixion well less than 30 years after Jesus’ death, and no later than 55 AD in 1 Corinthians and earlier in Galatians. He also reports that he preached the same message to the Corinthians when he was with them in 50-51 AD. This amounts to less than two decades after Jesus’ death.
As demonstrated above (see: Independent & Multiple Attestation) our early pre-New Testament hypothetical sources attest to the crucifixion. Our Pre-Markan Passion Narrative is dated very early, according to Rudolf Pesch: “[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” (25).
Hypothetical Q also attests to the crucifixion, as James Dunn say that “Q does show awareness of Jesus’ death” (26). Q source is dated early, according to 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” (27).
Overall we have very early attestation to the crucifixion. We have a creed that Paul received dated to within five years of Jesus’ death, and that attests to his death – coupled with Paul’s other early preaching and writing on Jesus’ crucifixion we have early attestation. The crucifixion is attested in the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative that is date to within seven years of the crucifixion. Likewise hypothetical Q is dated to within 20 years of Jesus’ death. This is a wide range of early & independent attestation that points powerfully to a crucifixion.
Criterion of Embarrassment:
Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross passes what scholars have called the Criterion of Embarrassment. This says that early Christian writers would not have invented such an embarrassing event such as the crucifixion of their leader if it did not occur (28). Crucifixion within 1st century Judaism was a social disgrace, according to scholar Martin Hengel: “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated” (29).
This need not only be affirmed by experts in the field, rather we can also consult the Old Testament view on the subject of crucifixion: “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 mine).
Now, this was the view that Jesus’ earliest followers had of crucifixion, that if one was crucified he was cursed by the God of Israel. With this in mind then imagine the confusion faced by Jesus’ followers & disciples when Jesus, their leader who performed all sorts of supernatural deeds and was their long awaited Messiah, was condemned to the cross like a common criminal who was cursed by God. The disciples’ confusion at Jesus’ words is attested in several places: John 13:21-29; 13: 7, 19 and Luke 24:44-45, for example.
Further, this was a major reason why our earliest Christian writer, the former Jewish Pharisee Paul, persecuted and executed Christians before his radical conversion to Christ’s cause (see his own admission: Gal 4:29, his killing of Stephen: Acts 7.57 to 8:1, his destruction of the early church: Acts 8:3). In fact, Paul well affirms the difficulty that Jesus’ crucifixion caused for him. In two of Paul’s undisputed letters we read that: “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 mine)
Paul 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 mine)
In other words, Paul affirms that preaching a crucified Jesus was a difficulty, it was a stumbling block. Paul himself tells his readers that Jesus, their Lord and Saviour, had become a curse! How could this be if Jesus was not crucified on a cross? Exegete William Craig sums this up rather nicely:
“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” (30).
Criterion of Coherence:
This criterion looks at the larger pattern of Jesus’ historical circumstances (36/37). In short, that Jesus was crucified coheres to the fact that he upset the Jewish authorities and claimed to be the divine Son of Man. The Son of Man was his favourite self-title throughout his ministry (Mark 2:10,28; 10:45; Matthew. 13:37). Scholar Dan Wallace articulates:
“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” (38).
Alongside this powerful self-designation other events like the disciples being accused of violating the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; Matthew 12:1-21; Luke 6:1-5), Jesus being accused of violating the Sabbath due to healing (Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-11; Matthew 12:9-14), Jesus aggravating the Pharisees when he claimed to forgive sins that was only reserved for God to do (Matthew 9:1-8), and Jesus being accused of using demonic power (Matthew 12:22-37). Jesus certainly annoyed many when he claimed to build the temple up in three days after tearing it down (Matthew 27:40; John 2:19). This was levelled against Jesus during his trial (Mark 14:58; 15:29).
With these facts in mind it is very likely that Jesus was to meet his end, as our evidence suggests he did via his shameful crucifixion like a common criminal. All the events leading up to this climax make sense in the context of a crucifixion.
Archaeological backing for the death of Jesus:
Historians know about crucifixion mostly from written sources like the gospels and our work from the historian Josephus (and other historians), according to archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis: “From ancient literary sources we know that tens of thousands of people were crucified in the Roman Empire” (31).
However, we do have archaeological confirmation that has increased our confidence of the veracity of our New Testament’s claim of Jesus’ crucifixion. Despite much textual attestation confirming the mode of crucifixion in Jesus’ day (or the 1st century), we have only one archaeological discovery that dates to the 1st century, a discovery made in in a burial cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, northeast of Jerusalem (32). Although Josephus reports thousands of crucifixion done by the Romans, and our gospels reporting of Jesus’ and the two criminals crucifixions, there is a reasonable explanation as to why only one such archeological discovery was ever found. This is because a victim’s body was left to decay on a cross and therefore would not be preserved, yet the only reason these archaeological remains were preserved was because family members gave this particular individual a customary burial.
An ossuary bearing the name Johohanan, the son of Hagakol was found (33). The ossuary housed a heel bone with a nail driven through its side thus indicating that the man had been crucified. Olive wood fragments were also discovered that indicated the victim was crucified on a cross made from an olive tree. The victim’s legs were likewise found to be broken (thus giving us confidence in John’s (19:32) detail) and this was done to have quicken his death. As a result of this recent discovery we can be confident that “In the history of crucifixion, the death of Jesus of Nazareth stands out as the best-known example by far” (34).
An analysis of the torturing of a victim before his crucifixion, as gospel traditions evidence for Jesus, is beyond our scope here – let’s just say that the metal pieces on the flagrum (the lethal whip used before a crucifixion) did a fine job of tearing the flesh of victims (35). Not only is the fact of Roman crucifixion well attested during Jesus’ times, even the practice of Jesus’ crucifixion alongside two thieves “has now been archaeologically confirmed” (36).
This article has shown why Jesus’ death by crucifixion is considered one of three historical bedrock facts for historians across a wide spectrum of theological positions (39). After sifting through 3400 articles by academic scholars Gary Habermas found that the crucifixion was universally accepted, and thus accepted as a minimal fact (40).
We have seen that the crucifixion passes several criterion of authenticity, namely the criterion of embarrassment, coherence, and multiple & independent attestation. Jesus’ crucifixion is independently attested to in at least 11 sources: Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, & Cornelius Tacitus. Of these 11 sources three of them are very early & independently attested as in a creedal formula (1 Cor. 15:1-11), hypothetical Q, and Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. The idea that Jesus was crucified was clearly a very early view. Further, later (Lucian, Thallus, Serapion) as well as hostile sources (Talmud, Lucian) always assumed that the crucifixion actually happened – nothing to the contrary exists and all the evidence stands in its favour. Lastly, we looked at archaeological data and found that the references within our New Testament to crucifixion has been consolidated into concrete history, thanks to a 1st century discovery.
“Of all the data to be examined, the fact that Jesus died due to crucifixion is one of the least disputed by scholars (41).”
1. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. p. 339.
2. Ehrman, B. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
3. Johnson, T. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 125.
4. Ludemann, G. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50.
5. Crossan quoted by Stewart, R. & Habermas, G. in Memories of Jesus. p. 282.
6. Paula Frederickson, remark during 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, M. 1999. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Chapter 5: Why was Jesus killed?
9. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
11. Shaw, B. 2010. Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Investigation. p. 15 Available.
12. Personal correspondence with Eric Rowe (Facebook, 23/November/2015)
13. Flavius, J. 94 AD. Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.).
14, Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 141.
15. Tacitus, C. 116 AD. Annals (15.44).
16. Eddy, P., & Boyd, G. 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.
18. Evans, C. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. p. 42.
19. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. p. 39–42.
20. Van Voorst, R. 2000. ibid. p. 53-55.
21. Chilton, B. & Evans, C. 1998. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research edited by Bruce Chilton. p. 455-457.
22. Shaw, B. 2010. Ibid. p. 15.
23. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. 2004. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 50.
24. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
25. Pesch, R. quoted by Horton, M. in: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1).
26. Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid. p. 151.
27. Hartin, P. James and the “Q” Sayings of Jesus. p. 226/7.
28. Meier, J. quoted in The Historical Jesus in Recent Research by James D. G. Dunn and Scot McKnight. 2006. p. 126–128
29. Hengel, M. 1977. Crucifixion.
30. Craig, W. 2013. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
31. Tzaferis, V. 1985. Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence. Available.
32. Tzaferis, V. 1970. Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal Vol.20 pp. 18-32.
33. Maier, P. 1997. In the Fullness of Time. p. 165.
34. Biblical Archaeology Society. 20011. A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods. Available.
35. Zugibe, F. 2005. The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry. p. 19.
36. Dunn, J. & McKnight, S. 2005 The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. p. 134.
37. Craig, W. & Copan, P. 2009. Contending with Christianity’s Critics. p. 174
38. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.
39. Licona, M. 2010. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. p. 463-46.
40. Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available.
41. Shaw, B. 2010. Jesus’ Resurrection: A Historical Investigation. p. 14. Available.