Good Friday is here again. Christians around the world will be marking this day by contemplating the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus for our sins on this day nearly 2,000 years ago. A question often asked today is: “It was an awfully long time ago, how can we be sure that Jesus was really crucified and killed?”
This interestingly though, isn’t a question raised much by historians specialising in the first century. Even historians sceptical of the events of the resurrection are agreed that Jesus was a real person and that He was killed by crucifixion. For example resurrection sceptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman says of the crucifixion: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea [Pontius Pilate]…”
Why are historians so confident this happened?
One reason is the way crucifixion was viewed in the ancient world. It was seen as a deeply shameful way to die – reserved for the worst criminals and insurrectionists. The fact that this shameful manner of death is such an integral part of the Christian story makes it all the more likely that it happened. The argument goes that if early Christians were making it all up they would have chosen a more honourable way for Jesus to die. That Jesus died by Crucifixion would have made it harder to win converts to Christianity in the early years. “How could the Son of God die in such a shameful manner” Christians and non-Christians would have thought.
“Christ killed by Rome”, appears in a number of non-Christian sources dated to reasonably shortly after Jesus died. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome for the great fire in AD 64 to divert attention away from himself:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
There is enough of this type of circumstantial evidence to convince historians that Jesus’ crucifixion is an actual historical event occurring in either AD 30 or AD 33. I personally favour 3rd April 33 for historical Roman political reasons. Pontius Pilate was an appointee of Sejanus (the head of the Praetorian Guard in Rome – played by a blond curly haired Patrick Stewart in the BBC’s “I Claudius” incidentally) who had been placed in control of the day-to-day running of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Tiberius. In AD 30 this arrangement was still in place. By AD33 Tiberius had decided that Sejanus had Become too powerful and had executed him and his family. This understandably made Sejanus’s appointees particularly keen to show their allegiance to Tiberius. The Jewish leaders say to Pilate at Jesus’ trial: “If you let this man [Jesus] go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19: 12). After they say this, Jesus’ fate is sealed.
Also on the evening of 3rd April 33 there was a lunar eclipse where the moon turns a red colour This phenomena is called a “blood moon” – an ominous sign to Jewish people at that time (see Joel 2: 31, Acts 2: 20, Revelation 6: 11-13).
Of course you can find on the internet all kinds of alternative theories about whether Jesus existed and if He was crucified. However, I think it’s fair to say these theories really have no credibility amongst historians that specialise in this period of history; secular and Christian alike.
So it more credible to believe that Jesus lived and was nailed to a Roman cross. But can we be certain that Jesus actually died there? Indeed it would be pretty easy to appear to your disciples after your “death” if you didn’t die in the first place! Could He have been taken off the cross before He died, then revived later?
At first glance, this doesn’t look too implausible. We’ve all heard of people who have been pronounced dead – then to everyone’s surprise revive some hours or days later in a mortuary or hospital. Like Walter Williams opposite in Alabama in 2014. This kind of thing can occasionally happen today. What about 2,000 years ago when medical knowledge was more primitive? Could the Romans who executed Jesus have made a mistake?
Alternatively, was the whole thing faked? Was the crucifixion somehow stage managed as some form of diversion to allow Jesus to escape? Historians and archaeologists can tell us quite a lot about Roman, torture and execution techniques. I won’t go into the gory details here. You can find it all on the internet if you’re interested. What our knowledge of Roman torture and execution tells us is that it was very unlikely that anyone survived a Roman crucifixion. We know of some examples from other historical sources that it happened – but it was a very rare occurrence.
Even if Jesus could have been taken down before He died and the nails taken out of His wrists and feet – He would have been unable to use His hands and He wouldn’t have been able to walk. It’s very unlikely He would have ever made a full recovery.
Also, He wasn’t executed by amateurs. Roman soldiers carried out the execution. They may not have had 21st century medical knowledge – but they knew exactly how to kill someone. That’s what they were trained to do. They were professional, career killers.
Also, He was executed on the orders of the Roman governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate. Some have tried to argue that perhaps the soldiers had been bribed by persons unknown not to kill Jesus. Instead they were to stage-manage a fake execution.
Firstly, this would have been pretty difficult, as it was a public crucifixion (as all crucifixions were. That was the whole point – to act as a warning to others not to disturb the Roman order).
Secondly, if this had been found out, the soldiers would have disobeyed a direct command from the Roman ruler of Judaea. A slow and painful death would be the inevitable result for the soldiers defying orders.,.
Also, it looks like Jesus was tortured and flogged before He was crucified. In short, just suppose He was able to survive the crucifixion. Just suppose there was some plot to get Him off the cross. What kind of condition would He have been in? Hardly an impressive sight for the disciples a few days later! And hardly an inspiration for the disciples to then go and spread the message of a Risen Christ triumphing over death throughout the Eastern Roman Empire!
So, in summary, it’s regarded as a historical “fact” that Jesus was crucified and died.
What happened next is the foundation of Christianity. Is there good evidence for the Resurrection being a historical event? It’s to the events of the Easter Sunday that we will turn our attention in the next article.