Perhaps one of the best attested facts about Jesus is that he was crucified, an event that several independent sources affirm. According to James Dunn the crucifixion is of the “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent” (1) and that it “rank[s] so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (2). The prominent Bart Ehrman agrees that “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life” (3).
Furthermore, we find that all our gospels sources attest to the crucifixion as Jesus’ mode of death. Mark, our earliest gospel, utilized a Pre-Markan passion narrative source about Jesus’ last week and subsequent crucifixion. This is an important detail for it allows us to go back much earlier than our earliest gospel meaning that we have early attestation to the crucifixion.
We also find Serapion, in his letter, refers to the crucifixion of the “wise king.” It is majority consensus that Jesus is the one being referred to here. 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 (4). Bruce Chilton, a scholar of early Christianity and Judaism states that Serapion’s reference to the “king of Jews” may be related to the inscription on the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (15:26) (5).
1st century historian Josephus Flavius refers to Jesus’ crucifixion very vividly, “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross.” Cornelius Tacitus in his work likewise attests to the crucifixion. Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus (6). Some later sources (Lucian of Samosata, Jewish Talmud) also attest to this tradition, though they don’t go much in the way of providing independent attestation, and are probably relying on hearsay traditions.
Further worth noting are the early Church fathers Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement of whom all believed that Jesus was crucified on a cross. These three early church fathers of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries had ties to the original apostles of Jesus, and their companions of whom testified to Jesus’ death. Such a connection gives their attestation to the crucifixion credibility.
Furthermore, Jesus even predicted his imminent death at least four different times in Mark 9:30–3, Matthew 16:21–28, Luke 9:22–27, and John 13-17. Such a fact would imply that the actual crucifixion itself is consistent with what we know from Jesus’ ministry (namely his prediction of his mode of death). It is also consistent with what we know from extra-biblical data concerning 1st century Judaism and Roman rule. That rebels challenging Roman rule would meet death via crucifixion grounds Jesus’ crucifixion in the historical milieu thus giving it credibility.
Moreover, Paul throughout his undisputed epistles ubiquitously attests to the crucifixion. Paul’s first hand testimony is given further credibility since he had met with Jesus’ brother James and Jesus’ closest disciple Peter.
Alongside the Gospel of Luke, we also find the crucifixion mentioned in the book of Acts. Acts is our most comprehensive narrative on the historical movements of the early church subsequent to Jesus’ death. According to Acts, “When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in the tomb” and “When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in the tomb.”
Exegete William Lane Craig provides the following summation of the crucifixion data, “From Josephus and Tacitus, we learn that Jesus was crucified by Roman authority under the sentence of Pontius Pilate. From Josephus and Mara bar Serapion we learn that the Jewish leaders made a formal accusation against Jesus and participated in events leading up to his crucifixion. And from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, we learn that Jewish involvement in the trial was explained as a proper undertaking against a heretic” (33).
We have Jesus’ crucifixion independently attested in the Pre-Mark Passion Narrative, Q, John, Paul, Hebrews, 1 Peter 2:24, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Martyr, Josephus Flavius, and Cornelius Tacitus. This totals to at least 11 independent sources affirming the mode of crucifixion.This is quite persuasive considering historians often hold just two independent sources in high regard. Thus “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (34). Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann agrees that “Jesus’ death as a result of crucifixion is indisputable” (35).
1. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 339.
2. Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid.
3. Ehrman, B. Why Was Jesus Killed? Available.
4. Van Voorst, R. 2000. Jesus outside the New Testament: an introduction to the ancient evidence. p. 53–55.
5. Chilton, B. & Evans, C. 1998. Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research edited by Bruce Chilton. p. 455-457.
6. Eddy, P., & Boyd, G. 2007. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. p. 127.
7. Craig, W. The Evidence for Jesus. Available.
8. Ludemann, G. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ. p. 50.