For many the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the most widely known things about his life. However, what are the historical reasons and evidences for accepting it as a genuine fact of history?
Academic Consensus on Christ’s Crucifixion
Before examining the reasons for a claim or belief (in this case the claim or the belief that Christ was crucified) it is perhaps important to learn the current view of scholars on the subject.
It is universally accepted by historians that Christ died by means of 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, well-known for his skepticism, 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). Secular 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 historical scholars of a more skeptical bent, finds the crucifixion to be “one indisputable fact” (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).
As such, these views would 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 of itself. What are the arguments and historical reasons for accepting the crucifixion? We now turn to these.
Independent and Multiple Attestation
According to philosopher, theologian and exegete William Lane Craig, to have just two independent sources confirming an event of history is significant 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. As such, an event of history to have five independent sources attesting to it will have a greater historical probability of having occurred than an event with just two or three sources independently attesting to it. As a criterion this in no way says that an event recorded in a single source is necessarily unreliable or in need of rejection (for it could well be the case that the event the single source mentions is in fact a true event of history).
How does Christ’s crucifixion fair in regards to multiple and independent attestation? It is attested to in all four canonical gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, by the Apostle Paul, Hebrews, and 1 Peter (2:24).
Three early church fathers attest to the crucifixion. Ignatius (35-108 AD) in Trallians, Smyrneans, and Barnabas, Saint Clement of Rome (35-99 AD) in 1 Clement (7, 12, 21, 49) and by Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) in The First Apology (32, 35, 50), and Dialogue with Trypho (47, 108). All three believed that Christ was crucified on a cross, and did not receive their material from the New Testament (11). They also probably had close ties to the disciples of Christ which would render their testimony valuable.
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).
One of Christ’s statements which many believe comes from Q is his instruction to: “Take up your cross and follow me,” which would predict his crucifixion. However, according to Rowe, to show that Matthew and Luke attest to Jesus’ 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 AD) and Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 AD). Flavius (writing around 94 AD) 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 AD, 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 Jesus’ crucifixion is now “firmly established” (16). It is widely held that Tacitus provides independent attestation to Christ’s crucifixion (17).
Mara Serapion (50-? AD) is a further ancient writer of interest because in a letter he refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king.” Although debated many scholars see the wise king as a reference to Christ, although it in no way provides a direct reference. New Testament scholar Robert Van Voorst, for example, sees little doubt that the reference to the execution of the “king of the Jews” speaks of Christ’s death (18), while Bruce Chilton and Craig Evans view the reference as related 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 AD and 200 AD which means it could possibly be a valuable source. However, of all the sources already noted, Serapion’s letter should be considered the weakest evidentially for too much of it is left uncertain.
The crucifixion enjoys further attestation as many other later writer during the following centuries make reference to it. There is Lucian’s (120-190 AD) satirical piece called the 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), although important historically for historians examining the contexts in which they were penned, don’t provide historical value in terms of early, independent attestation to the crucifixion. What value they do seem to have, however, is that they assume a constant tradition of Christ’s crucifixion. They do not doubt that there was such a man called Jesus Christ of whom was crucified, even though they are hostile sources which could have made much out of the crucifixion story if they discovered it was a fabrication.
To conclude then, what are the independent sources attesting to the crucifixion of Christ? The historian has the following: Mark (in the form of the pre-Markan passion narrative), Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter (2:24), Clement, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, and Cornelius Tacitus. This numbers to 11 independent sources, excluding the later sources. If one takes two independent sources as a good rule for determining historical confidence then one seems on good grounds to accept the crucifixion.
Christ’s crucifixion is an event which is not only independently attested but is also attested to within early sources. The idea here is that the earlier the source is to the events it describes the more value it has. A source dated to 30 years of an event would inspire more confidence than a source which dates to three centuries of the event.
As noted, early several early sources attest to the crucifixion. For example, the pre-Markan passion narrative, which speaks of the crucifixion, is dated early. Rudolf Pesch explains how one could date this material to no later than 37 AD which is 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).
As also noted, Q material attests to the crucifixion (21), and it is also dated early. 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).
It would seem then that two early (and independent) sources in the form of the pre-Mark passion narrative and Q attest to the crucifixion. Both date within 20 years of Christ’s death which suggests that if earliness is a good standard for historical confidence then one can be confident in Christ’s crucifixion.
Criterion of Embarrassment
Christ’s crucifixion satisfies what historians have called the criterion of embarrassment. The idea here is that it is very unlikely that the authors, who we know were followers of Christ, would have made up an event that was of embarrassment to themselves, their revered figure, and/or to their early movement. How does this apply to Christ’s crucifixion?
Simply because its embarrassing, especially for their leader (28). Crucifixion within first 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” (23). The reason this would have been embarrassing for Christ’s earliest followers is because of what the Old Testament teaches. According to the Torah,
“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 was the view that Christ’s earliest followers, as Jews themselves, would have had of crucifixion, namely, that if one was crucified he was cursed by the God of Israel. As a result no Jew would in his or her right mind have taught their fellow Jews that their leader, of whom they proclaimed was God himself, was crucified, unless it really happened. As such, it only makes sense that Christ’s earliest followers would have proclaimed Christ crucified if he was in fact crucified.
The difficulty that the crucifixion caused Christ’s followers is clear to see. For example, the disciples, while Christ was ministering, showed clear confusion and a lack of understanding when Christ taught that he would be delivered to be crucified in the near future (see John 13:21-29, 13: 7, 19, and Luke 24:44-45). They were not expecting their leader to receive a humiliating death like the common criminal.
The crucifixion was also a major reason why the Apostle Paul (prior to his conversion to follow Christ and lead the early Church) persecuted the earliest Christians. Based on his understanding of the Torah, the early Christian proclamation of a resurrected messiah who was crucified was a great blasphemy. This explains why Paul persecuted Christians by arresting and imprisoning them (Galatians 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, now the leader and sustainer of the Church, affirms the challenge that Christ’s crucifixion caused him when teaching his fellow Jews about it. According to Paul the “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). 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 added)
Paul was speaking of a common difficulty that the earliest Christ followers would have had to face: a crucified Christ. 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 is another criterion which looks at the larger pattern of Christ’s historical circumstances and seeks to determine whether a purported concerning Christ coheres with that patter (25). The view of scholars is that Christ’s crucifixion coheres with other facts of his life such as that he upset the Jewish authorities by claiming to be the divine Son of Man. The Son of Man was Christ’s most used title to refer to himself. According to scholar 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 in this way clearly upset his opponents, which explains why during his trial the high priest “tore his clothes and declared” Christ to have committed blasphemy deserving of death (Mark 14).
The crucifixion also coheres with other data from the gospels. For example, Christ came under fire when disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; Matthew 12:1-21; Luke 6:1-5), for allegedly violating the Sabbath because of miraculously healing an individual (Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-11; Matthew 12:9-14), for forgiving sins that was a role only reserved for God (Matthew 9:1-8), for using demonic power (Matthew 12:22-37), and for claiming that he would build the temple up in three days after tearing it down (Matthew 27:40; John 2:19).
What the criterion of coherence shows is that the crucifixion coheres with this data, and in fact would seem a likely consequence becaue of these things.
Historians learn about crucifixion mostly from written sources although archaeology has come a long way in assisting this effort (27). As a science, archaeology can go quite a distance in bolstering the confidence a historian can have in a given text, especially if what the text describes is corroborated by archaeological discoveries.
As such, archaeology is relevant to Christ’s crucifixion for a discovery dating to the first century was made in a burial cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, northeast of Jerusalem (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, and which indicated that the man had been crucified (29). 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.
The corroboration is fairly valuable. According to the gospels Christ was crucified, crucified on a wooden cross, that nails were used in the process, and that he almost had his legs broken until his was discovered to already be dead.
Summary and Conclusion
The above reasons and historical evidences, among others not mentioned here, are why Christ’s crucifixion has received universal acceptance (30). The crucifixion is well attested to within indepedent and early historical sources. It also satisfies important criteria such as coherence and embarrassment. There is also the perspective of archaeology which provides the historian with confidence in the gospel accounts.
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; Evans, C. 2001. Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies. p. 42; Van Voorst, R. 2000. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. p. 39–42.
18. Van Voorst, R. 2000. ibid. p. 53-55.
19. Chilton, B. & Evans, C. 1998. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research edited by Bruce Chilton. p. 455-457.
20. Pesch, R. quoted by Horton, M. in: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1).
21. Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid. p. 151.
22. Hartin, P. James and the “Q” Sayings of Jesus. p. 226-227.
23. Hengel, M. 1977. Crucifixion.
24. Craig, W. 2013. Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
25. Dunn, J. & McKnight, S. 2005 The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. p. 134; Craig, W. & Copan, P. 2009. Contending with Christianity’s Critics. p. 174
26. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ.
27. Tzaferis, V. 1985. Crucifixion – The Archaeological Evidence. Available.
28. Tzaferis, V. 1970. Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal Vol.20 pp. 18-32.
29. Maier, P. 1997. In the Fullness of Time. p. 165.
30. Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available; Licona, M. 2010. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. p. 463-46.