The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet, asserts New Testament historian and skeptic, Bart Ehrman, in his 2012 book, Did Jesus Exist? (p. 4).
Some of the strongest evidence available today in this regard, such as the letters of St. Paul, multiple independent non-Christian testimonies of Christ’s historicity, and the absence of a “mythicist” heresy in the early centuries (the 2nd century heresy-stomper, St. Ireneaus, had nothing to say about such a thing presumably because nobody was arguing that Jesus was a mythical person), have lead a large majority of New Testament experts, including critics like Ehrman, to acknowledge the historical certainty of Jesus’ true existence (for more on this, click here).
But the question here is not whether Jesus existed, but rather: Did Jesus Christ really die on the cross?
The evidence supporting Jesus’ existence is strong and sufficient, leading even the majority of critical non-Christian experts to agree. Such is also the case regarding the crucifixion of Christ, according to Liberty University philosopher of religion, Gary Habermas.
Habermas claims that the majority of today’s New Testament scholars accept the crucifixion of Jesus as an established historical fact. Even historian John Dominic Crossan, who denies the resurrection of Christ, allows:
“That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (see Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. p.145, 154, 196, 201)
What is some of the evidence?
The Gospels are a primary source, with all four attesting to the crucifixion and death of Christ. Collectively, they represent at least two independent sources of eyewitness attestation (the Synoptic Gospels plus John) .
St. Paul’s epistles, such as his first letter to the Corinthians written around A.D. 55, gives corroboration to the claim that Jesus was indeed crucified. In the form of an oral tradition or creed already circulating among Christians (dated to as early as five years after Christ’s death), Paul writes:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures….” (1 Cor 15:3)
Earlier in the same epistle, he also affirms the crucifixion event when he writes:
“…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23)
Non-Christian sources also attest to the crucifixion of Christ. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, writes, “When Pilate, upon hearing [Jesus] accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified…” (see Antiquities 18.63-64). The Roman historian Tacitus records at the turn of the second century in his Annals (15.44):
“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…”
Notice how Tacitus’ testimony substantiates the Gospel crucifixion accounts by connecting Pontius Pilate to the death of Christ. The “extreme penalty” refers to crucifixion (consider that the word “excruciating” is derived from the Latin word “cruciare” meaning “to crucify or torture”). Using similar language, Cicero in his Against Verres calls crucifixion “that most cruel and disgusting penalty” (2.5.165).
In addition to the testimony of the Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Josephus and Tacitus, there are also other early sources that allude either directly or indirectly to Christ’s crucifixion. These include early extra-biblical Christian sources, as well as non-Christian testimony such as Lucian of Samosata, Mara Bar Serapion and the Jewish Babylonian Talmud (see Habermas & Licona’s The Case for The Resurrection Of Jesus).
Usually historians concerned with substantiating events in the ancient world drool over even two independent sources. Thus, in regards to the crucifixion and death of Christ, with such a wide collection of testimony from independent Christian and non-Christian sources, the vast majority of today’s New Testament experts agree on the strong historical validity of Jesus’ crucifixion.
It’s clear Jesus was executed in the first century. But was Jesus actually crucified on a cross?
Jehovah’s Witnesses say no. The cross, they claim, is a pagan symbol. On their official website it is stated:
“The cross is loved and respected by millions of people….Nevertheless, true Christians do not use the cross in worship. Why not? An important reason is that Jesus Christ did not die on a cross.”
Instead Jehovah’s Witnesses teach Jesus was crucified on a vertical stake (without a crossbeam). They pose several reasons for this. First, they believe the original Greek of the New Testament explicitly points towards such a stake, not a cross; but this is simply faulty scholarship. The words they refer to, stauros and xulon, have broader uses than just “upright stake” and both can just as easily refer to a cross (or still other forms of crucifixion for that matter). It is true that first century Roman crucifixions sometimes occurred on a vertical stake, but it is also true that they occurred on crosses. These two Greek words considered alone do not conclusively tell us which way Jesus was crucified.
They also state on their website that there is no evidence that Jesus was crucified on a cross for the first 300 hundred years after Christ. But they have apparently overlooked, for example, St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho in the 2nd century. Referring to the sacrificed Passover lamb of the Israelites as a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice, Justin writes:
“…that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo.” (Ch. 40)
Tertullian also refers to the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet – tau – as a symbol of the early Christians around A.D. 250.
And what about the New Testament scriptures – our earliest sources? One example that helps to verify Christ’s death on a cross is in St. John’s Gospel. Look closely at the skeptical words of St. Thomas:
“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25)
If Jesus had been nailed to a vertical stake, he would have been crucified with both hands above his head – and only one nail (singular) would have been used to pierce both hands. But St. Thomas refers to the print of the nails (plural) in his hands, indicating a crossbeam to which Jesus’ upper extremities were independently nailed.
Consider also that if Jesus’ hands would have been above his head while on a stake, St. Matthew would have likely written “over his hands” instead of “over his head” in the following passage:
“And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews'” (Matthew 27:37)
As a final point, it is worth noting that this “stake instead of cross” claim has not always been the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Trent Horn writes in his fine article, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Cross”:
“[The Jehovah’s Witnesses’] second president, Joseph Rutherford, taught, “The cross of Christ is the greatest pivotal truth of the divine arrangement, from which radiate the hopes of men.” It was not until the late 1930s that Rutherford changed the Witnesses’ position on this issue.” (see Joseph Rutherford. The Harp of God (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1921) 141.)
So it seems that all of the earliest evidence points most strongly towards a cross – not a vertical stake – as the mode of Jesus’ crucifixion. The stake claim is simply unmerited in the face of the historical evidence and traditional understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Finally, the biggest question of all for Christians regarding the crucifixion: did Jesus really die on the cross? Could he have survived and, perhaps, faked a resurrection?
Modern medicine has closed the door on this question. Remember that Jesus was not only crucified. He was also scourged prior to being handed his cross.
In 1986, a team of medical experts set out to define the physiological consequences of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, their conclusions leave no room for Jesus’ survival or apparent death.
In regards to the process of scourging, the researchers write:
“The usual instrument was a short whip…with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones… The scourging…was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death… “
“As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.” (Edwards, et al. On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. JAMA. 1986;255(11):1455-1463.)
In the abstract they affirm:
“The scourging produced deep stripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was too weakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha.”
Their conclusion: “Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.” So even prior to his excruciating journey to Calvary, it’s very possible that Jesus was already nearing death due to shock, dehydration, and blood loss. Then they handed him the wood of the cross.
In law journalist Lee Strobel’s interview with Alexander Metherell, M.D, Ph.D – one of several interviews that collectively moved Strobel from atheism to theism – similar points were verified in regards to the unlikelihood of Jesus’ survival following the scourging and crucifixion (see The Case For Christ, ch. 11).
Metherell acknowledges the significance of the spear taken to Jesus’ side in determining whether Jesus could have possibly survived his Passion, and explains that the blood and water that came forth from his side – recorded in John’s Gospel (John 19:34) – can be accounted for by the piercing of a fluid-filled lung (the result of extreme loss of blood volume) and the heart anatomically positioned behind it.
So on the cross, Jesus’ body had to cope with extreme blood loss, shock, dehydration, soft tissue damage, extreme fatigue, nails through the extremities, a pierced heart, a pierced lung and the threat of asphyxiation. Furthermore, he would have faced professional executioners like the Roman soldiers making sure the job gets done. Death for such an individual, it seems, is imminent and unavoidable short of a miracle.
But why crucifixion? Couldn’t God have saved us some other way? Consider the emotional lamentation of Richard Dawkins in a 2012 debate with Cardinal Pell:
“It’s a horrible idea that God, this paragon of wisdom and knowledge and power, couldn’t think of a better way to forgive us our sins than to come down to Earth in his alter ego as his son and have himself hideously tortured and executed so that he could forgive himself.”
Well, Richard, no one is claiming that God had to atone for our sins in precisely this way; of course the all-powerful God could have atoned for the sins of man in a less traumatic, less bloody way. He could have atoned for our sins in any way he wanted; indeed he did atone for our sins in exactly the way he wanted.
No one, atheist or believer, complains when a man lays down his life for a friend. Rather, the hero is exalted precisely because he was willing to go the ultimate distance. Why then should anyone complain about God giving His life for the world? As the former atheist C.S. Lewis remarked in Mere Christianity:
“But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. …. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.” (see Ch.4)
Even even if the “apparent death” of Christ could be reasonably defended, one would still be forced to deal with other well-established historical events, such as the burial of Jesus in a guarded tomb arranged and orchestrated by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, an unlikely hero (as the Sanhedrin was responsible for putting Jesus to death) and thus, an unlikely fabrication (see Luke 23:51).
But how could such a mangled Jesus push a grave stone aside less than 48 hours later (a question posed by the skeptical German scholar D.F. Strauss)? And furthermore, how could a torn-up, hobbling survivor of “the extreme penalty” convince his disciples only a couple days later, not that he had merely survived, but that he was resurrected?
Resurrection to the Jews did not mean mere survival, nor did it mean resuscitation. Anastasis or resurrection meant “life after life after death” (see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection Of The Son Of God for a thorough defense of this) and this is what the Jews proclaimed about their Messiah after the crucifixion – this was the Gospel – that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead after pouring himself out completely for the salvation of the world unto death, suffering even the ultimate pain marked by the words ““My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Thus leading the former agnostic, G.K. Chesterton, to write with utter reverence and awe for the God he had learned to love and worship:
“[L]et the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”