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Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

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Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 5
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

When it comes to Jesus, no statement enjoys universal acceptance among all people, not even that he existed. We should not be too surprised, then, to find that some people deny that Jesus died, or at least that he died by being crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate. In the first article in this series, we found abundant evidence for the historical existence of Jesus and no good arguments against this fact.1 In this article, we will explain the evidence supporting the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion.

Islam: Jesus Wasn’t Crucified at All

By far the most widely held theory denying Jesus’ death on the cross comes from Islam. According to the Qur’an, the Jews claimed to have killed Jesus, but “they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”; rather, “Allah took him up unto Himself” (4:157-158). As Todd Lawson (who argues that other interpretations are possible) acknowledges, “By far the vast majority of the followers of Islam hold that Jesus in fact was not crucified, but remains alive ‘with God’ in a spiritual realm from where he will descend at the end of time in an Islamic version of the Second Coming.”2 One popular Muslim tradition explains that someone else was crucified by mistake. Judas Iscariot seems to have been the most often suggested victim. One author vigorously argued that John the Baptist was crucified in Jesus’ place.3

Frankly, the claim that Jesus was not crucified has zero credibility or plausibility as a matter of history. There is no documentary evidence that anyone from the first century thought Jesus had not been crucified. Some Muslims cite the so-called Gospel of Barnabas as documentary evidence for the view that Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place. However, this apocryphal gospel dates from the 1300s and has no historical credibility whatsoever.4 The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the temple and around Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. In addition to the watching eyes of the Roman and Jewish leaders, presumably Jesus’ friends and family would have known if he had been crucified or not. This reasonable presumption is confirmed in the Gospels, which give us two independent accounts informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his mother) witnessed his death and burial (Luke 23:49-56; John 19:25-27, 38-42).

To get around this evidence Muslims sometimes claim that God miraculously made whoever the crucified man was look exactly like Jesus, or even that it was not a real man at all, but only something God made to appear that looked like Jesus (sort of a virtual or holographic Jesus). Of course, there is no evidence for these claims, either. They are ad hoc explanations conceived rather desperately to save an untenable claim. Worse still, they make God party to a deception that became, supposedly, the mistaken foundation for the Christian belief that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

Skeptics: Jesus Was Crucified but Survived

Some skeptics have proposed a very different theory. They have sometimes admitted that the Romans crucified Jesus but speculated that he survived the ordeal, merely passing out or becoming unconscious on the cross. This “swoon” theory reflects a naturalistic dislike of the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. What exactly happened varies from one skeptic’s account to another. In some stories, Jesus revived only for a short time and died soon thereafter.5 In other versions, Jesus lived for many years after his crucifixion. For example, according to the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, after his crucifixion Jesus married Mary Magdalene, moved to the south of France, and had children!6 Michael Baigent, one of the co-authors, in a later book asserted that when Mark reports that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate permission to bury Jesus’ “body,” he used the Greek word sōma, which, he claims, means a live body, not a corpse (Mark 15:43). “Jesus’ survival is revealed right there in the Gospel account.”7 Baigent is mistaken: the word sōma can refer either to a live body or to a body that has died, i.e., a corpse (e.g., Luke 17:37; Acts 9:40; Rom. 8:10). Barbara Thiering, in her book Jesus the Man, also thinks that Jesus ran off with Mary Magdalene after surviving his crucifixion. She claims that Judas Iscariot and Simon Magus (the magician mentioned in Acts 8:9-24) were the other two men crucified alongside Jesus, that all three men survived the ordeal, and that Simon Magus administered medical treatment to Jesus in a cave where their bodies had been left for dead.8

The swoon theory involves cherry picking only those elements of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial that seem to help the theory and rejecting or modifying those elements that don’t. For example, all versions of the swoon theory make much of the fact that Mark reports that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead after being on the cross only for about six hours (Mark 15:25, 33-34, 44). However, in the same passage Mark also reports that a centurion verified Jesus’ death (verse 45) and that the tomb was sealed with a stone (verse 46). Why should we accept Mark’s report about Pilate’s surprise but not his report about the centurion and the sealed tomb?

Nearly two centuries ago David Strauss, himself a skeptic, skewered the swoon theory as absurd:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to his disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry.9

Jesus’ Death by Crucifixion: The Evidence

The historical evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate is about as strong as it could be for any historical event in the ancient world. The documentary evidence, combined with external evidence from archaeology and other sciences, allows us to reach definite conclusions about the specific facts in the case—the who, what, when, and where. 

  • Who: All four Gospels report that Caiaphas was the high priest at the time, and that he turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judaea at the time. The epistle of 1 Timothy also refers to Jesus appearing before Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus referred to these men and their positions during the time of Jesus, and archaeological evidence has confirmed this information.10 The Roman historian Tacitus also mentioned the fact that Pilate had Jesus crucified.11
  • What: All four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and several of the other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23; Gal. 6:12, 14; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 12:2; 1 Peter 2:24; Rev. 11:8) agree that Jesus died by crucifixion. Paul wrote his early epistles between AD 49 and 55, only about twenty years or so after Jesus’ death.12 Paul also states that he preached the same message of Christ crucified when he founded the churches to which he was later writing (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1) and that this was the same message preached by the other apostles (1 Cor. 15:3-8). This means that in the late 40s (if not earlier) Paul was already preaching that Jesus had died by crucifixion. Nor was this message peculiar to Paul, since as already noted Jesus’ death by crucifixion is in all four Gospels and in other New Testament writings and is confirmed by Josephus and Tacitus. In addition, many Christian writings from the early second century, including several of the “apocryphal” gospels, refer to Jesus’ death by crucifixion.13 There is no alternative story about what happened to Jesus in any texts dating within a hundred years of his death. Thus, the textual testimonies to Jesus’ death by crucifixion are early, plentiful, religiously diverse, and unchallenged. Literary and archaeological evidence abundantly illustrates crucifixion as a Roman method of execution and confirms the accuracy of the Gospel accounts.14
  • When: We can establish the year in which Jesus died with certainty to either AD 30 or 33, with the latter date now having by far the stronger case.15 We can even determine the exact day, since the Gospels inform us that Jesus died during the Passover and on the day before the Sabbath. The evidence leads to the conclusion that Friday, April 3, AD 33, was the exact day of Jesus’ death.16
  • Where: All four Gospels report that the Romans crucified Jesus just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17) and that he was buried in a nearby rock tomb (Matt. 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:41-42). In the fourth century, Constantine had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built at what was thought to have been the site of Jesus’ burial. Nearly 1700 years later, the only rival location for Jesus’ burial is less than a kilometer north at a site called the Garden Tomb. The basis for looking north of the traditional site is that it is located within the walls of the Old City, but it is now known that the city was expanded about a decade after the death of Jesus, meaning that the traditional site did lay just outside the city when Jesus was crucified. For this and other reasons, most archaeologists and scholars now accept the site marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as at least extremely close to the rock tomb where Jesus was buried. In 2016, the tomb under the church was opened temporarily for viewing and study before being closed again for renovations in order to preserve it for the long term. In any case, although we do not know the precise spot where Jesus was crucified or which specific tomb held his body, we know where Golgotha itself was—an area of land just outside the northwest part of Jerusalem that was once used as a rock quarry.17 Once again, the physical facts closely match the accounts in the Gospels.

In addition to this highly specific factual information and abundant Christian and non-Christian documentary evidence, the very nature of the event is such that historians agree it could not have been fictitious. There would obviously be no reason for non-Christians to have invented the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. On the other hand, Christians would not have invented such a story since crucifixion was such a horrific, shameful way to die that they found it necessary for the next few centuries to explain to people why God would allow Jesus to be crucified.18

Ironically, theories about Jesus not dying from crucifixion arose precisely because such a death did not seem appropriate for a prophet or other figure whom God would honor. Thus, in the second half of the second century heretical reinterpretations of Christianity arose that suggested that Jesus only seemed to die or that while the man died the Christ or divine spirit in him experienced no suffering, shame, or death at all. Some scholars think Muhammad derived his view of the crucifixion from one of these heretical traditions. Muslims consider their view theologically preferable because God would certainly not allow his messenger to experience such a dishonorable death. In short, the theories denying the crucifixion are the ones that are religiously or theologically motivated, not the earliest Christian affirmation that Jesus had died on the cross.

For decades now, the consensus view among historians and other scholars has been that the death of Jesus on the cross is solid historical fact. A. E. Harvey wrote in 1982, “It would be no exaggeration to say that this event is better attested, and supported by a more impressive array of evidence, than any other event of comparable importance of which we have knowledge from the ancient world.”19 John Dominic Crossan, a radically liberal New Testament scholar (and co-founder of the notorious Jesus Seminar), stated in 1995, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”20 More recently in a major 2011 academic, encyclopedic reference work on Jesus, Joel B. Green concluded, “Multiple strands of evidence—from Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources—undergird the claim that among the data available to us regarding Jesus of Nazareth, none is more incontrovertible than his execution on a Roman cross by order of Pontius Pilate.”21 These statements, which could easily be multiplied, reflect an impressive array of evidence that we have ever so briefly reviewed here.

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1. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Did Jesus Exist? The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 1” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

2. Todd Lawson, The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought (London: Oneworld, 2009), 12.

3. Agron Belica, The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, ed. Jay R. Crook (n.p.: IMN Productions, 2009).

4. See our discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas in “What Are Good Sources about Jesus? The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 2” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

5. Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bantam, 1965).

6. Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983).

7. Michael Baigent, The Jesus Papers (HarperCollins, 2006), 130.

8. Barbara Thiering, Jesus the Man (New York: Doubleday, 1975); see N. T. Wright’s discussion in his book Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 19-36 (especially 32-34).

9. David Friedrich Strauss, A New Life of Jesus, Eng. trans., 2nd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1879), 1:412.

10. See especially Craig A. Evans, Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2015), 31-34, 49-61, and the studies cited there.

11. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Tacitus, Suetonius, and the Historical Jesus” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

12. We are referring here only to those epistles that even liberal and secular scholars agree Paul wrote (the standard list includes seven: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon).

13. See the lengthy note in Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 305 n. 108.

14. Evans, Jesus and the Remains of His Day, 30–31, 120–21, 135–36.

15. See Harold W. Hoehner, “The Chronology of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Volume 3: The Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3:2315-60.

16. Andreas J. Köstenberger, “April 3, AD 33: Why We Believe We Can Know the Exact Day Jesus Died,” First Things, April 3, 2014.

17. See Joan E. Taylor, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial,” New Testament Studies 44/2 (April 1998): 180–203; Marcel Serr and Dieter Vieweger, “Golgotha: Is the Holy Sepulchre Church Authentic?” Archaeological Views, Biblical Archaeology Review 42/3 (May/June 2016): 28–29, 66; Kristin Romey, “Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations,” National Geographic, Oct. 31, 2016; Gordon Govier, “Why Two Tombs Compete for Jesus’ Burial,” Christianity Today, Nov. 20, 2016.

18. The classic work on this subject is Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). For a more recent treatment, see David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion, WUNT 2/244 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).

19. A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 11.

20. John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: Harper, 1995), 5.

21. Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Volume 3: The Historical Jesus, ed. Hólmen and Porter, 2383 (2383–2408).