How do we know Jesus died on the cross? We must look at the historical evidences recorded for us in ancient history. What evidences is there?
Outside of the Biblical witnesses (the synoptic gospels) we first look to the closest culture associated with Jesus and his death; Judaism.
Two researchers, Edwin Yamauchi and John P. Meier, have constructed a
copy of the “Testimonium” of Flavius Josephus (37-101AD; wrote ~45 years after Jesus) with the probable later Christian insertions
removed. In parentheses are what is found in the Arabic manuscript. The
following paragraph is Yamauchi’s:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man (And his conduct
was good and he was known to be virtiucous) For he was one who wrought
surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth
gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon
hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified,
those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their
affection for him. (They reported that he had appeared to them after
his crucifixion and that he was alive). And the tribe of the Christians,
so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
Here Josephus the Jewish historian records that Jesus was condemned by crucifixion. Josephus does not have to be believe in Jesus in a religious sense to admit and record a historical event regarding what happened to Jesus. Being a anti-christian source, he records this event as an actual historic occurrence. Given his time of writing and area of association, he would have known witnesses of this event.
Later in Jewish records we see in The Babylonian Talmud, a commentary on Jewish laws composed between
A.D. 500-600 (Neusner/Green, 69), contains a text about Jesus’ death.
The Tractate Sanhedrin (43a) states:
Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve. Forty days previously the herald had
cried, “He is being led out for stoning, because he has practiced
sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy. Whosoever
has anything to say in his defense, let him come and declare it.” As
nothing was brought forward in his defense, he was hanged on Passover
Secondly we can look at Mara Bar-Serapion who wrote around 70AD (~35 years after Jesus); He was a Syrian philosopher and a non-christian. When giving historical examples of innocent people being killed, he gives this example:
“…Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?…After that their kingdom
was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in
the teachings he enacted.”
The Jews never murdered their kings of the past. Jesus however was
mockingly called “king of the Jews” on the cross. It was an argument
that even Jewish leadership used to get Rome to approve his
crucifixion. 35 years after Jesus was murdered, Rome destroyed
Jerusalem. But “the wise King lived on in the teachings he enacted”.
Thus Serapion was indirectly stating that Jesus was a real person of
history that was killed.
Third, we see as recorded by Cornelius Tacitus (56-120AD); a very trusted Roman
historian, senator, proconsul of Asia, and defiantly a non-christian who
wrote around 116AD (~80 years after Jesus) an interesting statement:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, 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, and a
most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke
out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome,
where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find
their centre and become popular.”
Tacitus records that Jesus “suffered THE extreme penalty” by Rome, which was crucifixion.
Then Lucian of Samosata (120-180AD; ~115 years after Jesus) was
a satirist and Roman comedian who very negative and sarcastically
critical of Christians. He wrote several books and in a negative since, unintentionally affirms Jesus’ death:
“The Christians. . . worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced this new cult, and was crucified on that account. . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains their contempt for death and self devotion . . . their lawgiver [taught] they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take on faith”
Lucian also affirms the historic event of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The image above is roughly 1st to the late 3rd century dating which depicts a person crucified with a donkey head being worshiped by a person to the left. The words engraved at the bottom translate “Alexamenos worships [his] God,” This was mocking a person named “Alexamenos” for worshiping “[his] God” who was on the cross. Origen reports in his treatise Contra Celsum that the pagan philosopher Celsus made the same claim against Christians and Jews:
“For the sake of such a monstrous delusion, and in support of those
wonderful advisers, and those wonderful words which you address to the
lion, to the amphibious creature, to the creature in the form of an ass,
and to others, for the sake of those divine doorkeepers..”
writing in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, reports that Christians,
along with Jews, were accused of worshiping such a deity. He also
mentions an apostate Jew who carried around Carthage a caricature of a Christian with ass’s ears and hooves, labeled Deus Christianorum Onocoetes (“the God of the Christians begotten of an ass”).
Thus, through this insulting graffiti in ancient Roman culture, we see that Christians were worshiping someone who was crucified. The donkey head is the derogatory depiction of Jesus, as it was taught that Jesus, the king, entered Jerusalem on a donkey also the donkey itself depicted how Roman society felt about Jesus himself. None the less showed the culture making fun of someone who was crucified.
What we know about Roman crucifixion is that it was extremely successful. Even if Jesus was to had survived after being brought down from the cross, just unconscious, the burial ritual of the Jewish culture would have suffocated him regardless. Given what we know now medically, the wounds he would have suffered, the lack of nutrition, dehydration, wound infection, and burial suffocation; he could still not have survived.
About 630 years after Jesus, Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 CE/130 AH) reports of a brief accounting of events leading up to the crucifixion. But about 200 years after Ibn Ishaq, the idea of Jesus’ crucifixion changed to the idea that he only appeared to be crucified or that he did die for only a few hours before being raised to heaven. Al-Tabari (d. 923 CE/310 AH) records an interpretation attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas, who used the literal “I will cause you to die” (mumayyitu-ka) in place of the metaphorical mutawaffi-ka “Jesus died”, while Wahb ibn Munabbih,
an early Jewish convert, is reported to have said “God caused Jesus,
son of Mary, to die for three hours during the day, then took him up to
himself.” Tabari further transmits from Ibn Ishaq: “God caused Jesus to
die for seven hours”,
while at another place reported that a person called Sergius was
crucified in place of Jesus. Ibn-al-Athir forwarded the report that it
was Judas, the betrayer, while also mentioning the possibility it was a man named Natlianus.
Al-Masudi (d. 956 CE/343 AH) reported the death of Christ under Tiberius. But then, Ibn Kathir (d. 1373 CE/760 AH) suggested that a crucifixion did occur, but not with Jesus and that ‘The servant and messenger of God, Jesus, remained with us as long as God willed until God raised him to Himself.’ It seems that the Islamic idea of Jesus’ pseudo-death follows the early traditions of Gnostic teachings in that Jesus himself did not die but was replaced at the cross by someone one else who appeared to look like Jesus on the cross. Yet other Islamic teachers such as Ja’far ibn Mansur al-Yaman (d. 347 AH/958 CE), Abu Hatim Ahmad ibn Hamdan al-Razi (d. 322 AH/935 CE), Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani (d. 358 AH/971 CE), Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470 AH/1078 CE ) and the group Ikhwan al-Safa affirm that Jesus did die by Crucifixion, and not substituted by another man. It is important to note two things: (1) The Islamic reports of Jesus not dying by crucifixion are at least 900 years after Jesus! (2) They affirm Gnostic teachings which have been proven to be unreliable historically and philosophically. The inconsistent accounts within Islam make it impossible to validate Islamic sources as historically reliable.
It is easy to write off The Bible as a bias source of the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion but the same can be said for all the non-christian sources that deny it. The fact that there exists non-christian sources that affirm Jesus’ crucifixion is compelling in and of itself. But is the biblical record of Jesus’ death unreliable? According to non-christian secular scholars and historians such as E. P. Sanders and Maurice Casey, who are bold enough to admit, that, The Bible is reliable enough to know that he did in fact die.
The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is a biblical manuscript dated 90AD to 150 AD records a small portion of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Which the fragment can be possibly dated to only 60 or so years after Jesus. Clement of Rome who wrote around 90AD and affirms the death of Jesus in Chapter 16 of 1 Clement. Ignatius (born around 35 AD and died around 108AD) affirms Jesus’ crucifixion in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. Polycarp of Smyrna (born around 69AD and died around 155AD) affirms Jesus’ crucifixion in his letter to the church in Phillipi.
THE PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE
Ancient Jewish history records Jesus’ death on the cross. Syrian philosopher affirms his death as an historic event. Ancient Roman historians and writers affirm Jesus’ death as an historic event. Early church teachers affirm Jesus’ death. Later some Islamic writers even affirm Jesus’ death. Currently, well respected secular scholars affirm that the Bible’s record of Jesus’ death is reliable. We can in fact conclude given the preponderance of evidence that Jesus did in fact die by crucifixion.
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