[Update: This blog series came to life while I was on vacation. I’m only now catching up with some formating issues that I should have taken care of much earlier than this. My apologies for the tardiness. To read the introduction of the blog series, with links to all entries under this series, click here. Links to the other articles are also at the bottom of this article.]
The Gospels in the New Testament all carry a narrative sub-plot that leads up to Jesus’ eventual execution. As John 5:18 reminds us, the authorities sought, “all the more to kill him.” History gives us very good reason to believe they succeeded, but there are skeptics out there. It is not uncommon to hear people offer a variety of revisionist historical accounts of what happened on that infamous Friday afternoon. Did Jesus really die?
To answer that question I built a time machine. Seriously, I did; work with me here. I then got in touch with a doctor who has spent a lot of time in emergency rooms in hospitals so he’s seen a lot of people right around the time of their death. He is especially familiar with death due to physical trauma. We traveled back in time and observed the events around the crucifixion from a distance. After Jesus’ burial we snuck past the Roman guards (it’s rather easy to do, actually, as any proponent of the theory that Jesus’ body was stolen will tell you) and the doctor examined Jesus’ corpse. He confirmed that Jesus was, in fact, dead as a result of physical trauma leading to… well, a bunch of medical jargon that made no sense to me. His point? Jesus was definitely dead. Case closed.
Now of course that story is not true, but I mention it to draw attention to a simple reality; we cannot possibly directly observe what happened 2000 years ago on that fateful weekend. In order to bring ourselves as close as we can to the events we have to rely on what historians typically have to rely on when reconstructing the past; written records.
The fact of the crucifixion
To begin with let’s examine the fact that Jesus was crucified. This fact is confirmed by Jesus’ followers, Jewish sources and Roman sources. That this is confirmed by Jesus’ followers is obvious given that each of the Gospels records Jesus’ crucifixion. It is further mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament including Acts (2:23), Romans (6:6), 1 and 2 Corinthians (1:23 and 13:4 respectively), Galatians (3:1), Hebrews (6:6) and Revelations (11:8).
That Jesus was crucified is confirmed by the Jewish historian Josephus. Though the passage under consideration is disputed with respect to its authenticity most scholars agree that the core message is authentic, even if Christians may have embellished it a bit over the centuries. Part of that passage (Jewish antiquities, book 18 paragraph 63), reads “And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…”
The Roman historian, Tacitus, also confirms that, “Christus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…” Even if he doesn’t explicitly call it out as a crucifixion the implication is clear. According to the experts quoted at Wikipedia (linked above), “Eddy and Boyd state that it is now “firmly established” that Tacitus provides a non-Christian confirmation of the crucifixion of Jesus.”
Jesus’ followers confirm he was crucified. A Jewish historian confirms he was crucified. A Roman historian confirms he was crucified. If the evidence for his crucifixion was lacking it would be unlikely that so many independent sources would unanimously agree with each other on this fact.
The belief that Jesus died
But herein lies a question; could Jesus have survived the crucifixion? The New Testament is abundantly clear that he did not. New Testament books that mention the death of Jesus in addition to those that mention his crucifixion (listed above) include at least Philippians (2:8), Colossians (2:20), 1 and 2 Thessalonians (4:14 and 2:11 respectively) and 1 Peter (3:18).
The single greatest theme of the New Testament is the absolutely central theological significance of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. However a resurrection is not possible without a death. They must have believed he died if they believed he was resurrected.
Even some of the Gnostic gospels, which were typically less concerned with details about Jesus’ life, confirm his death. The Gospel of Peter explicitly states it and the Gospel of Philip seems confused about whether Jesus’ resurrection came before or after Jesus’ death, but it at least seems to confirm that he died (verse 22). The Gospel of Thomas mentions nothing either way.
Josephus implies that Jesus dies, though does not state so explicitly. The implication of death is found in his record that the early church believed Jesus rose from the dead. As he writes, “… he appeared to them alive again the third day…” Another translation of the same passage reads, “restored to life.” Both translations only make sense on the assumption that he died as a result of crucifixion.
But could they have been wrong? What if he didn’t die? Since we can be virtually certain that he was crucified the question becomes whether or not we have reason to believe that a person who has been crucified could survive the ordeal.
Interestingly, we do have reason to believe this is possible. Once again we reference Josephus. In his autobiography (paragraph 75) he describes how he took care of three friends of his who had been crucified, still hanging on their crosses when he discovers them. When they were taken down from their crosses they had “the greatest care taken of them in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.”
Well this is an interesting twist; it is possible to survive crucifixion! Three men were taken down from the cross while alive and placed in “the greatest care” as Josephus describes. Even when given the best medical treatment available at the time, two of the three still succumb to their wounds.
Contrast that with Jesus. I’m pretty sure the three crucifixion victims Josephus describes didn’t have spears shoved into their chest cavity prior to being taken down from their crosses, so Jesus had that additional physical trauma inflicted on his body. Furthermore, if he happened to still be alive when he was taken from the cross was he given “the greatest care?” Hardly! He was assumed to be dead (they didn’t even bother breaking his legs as was customary – John 19:33) so he was wrapped in grave-clothes and stuck in the tomb. If “the greatest care” gives a crucifixion victim a 33% chance of survival, what do you think the odds are that a human body would survive crucifixion – with an additional stab wound to the chest for good measure – if they are placed in a cold, damp tomb and left unattended? I’m no doctor but I’m going to go out on the limb and suggest that the odds are much, much closer to zero.
In other words, if Jesus didn’t die on the cross he would have died very shortly thereafter. The concept that he simply recovered and walked out of the tomb under his own strength in the absence of any medical attention moves us from the realm of an overactive imagination into the realm of pure fantasy.
The best evidence we have from history suggests that Jesus’ followers and his enemies all agree that he was crucified. In fact his followers go out of their way, again and again, to remind us that he died in order that they can expound upon the theological significance of, and celebrate, his resurrection. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is no Christianity (1 Corinthians 15). His followers and his enemies all agree that not only was he crucified, he actually died. Even if all those authorities who were much closer to the event are wrong and he happened to survive the crucifixion, the best evidence we have from history suggests the odds of his survival – in his condition and lacking medical attention – are virtually nonexistent.
It seems entirely safe to conclude that, either on the cross or very shortly thereafter as a result of physical trauma, Jesus died that Friday afternoon. And if the New Testament is right, we should thank God he did otherwise God’s plan for redemption never actually took place.
[All references to Josephus are taken from “The New Complete Works of Josephus“]
- Putting It All On The Line: http://bit.ly/107S3G3
- Gospel Truth: http://bit.ly/14ptnjm
- They Sought To Kill Him, But Did They Succeed?
- Unlikely Undertaker: http://bit.ly/XGEHQN
- Come, See Where He Lay: http://bit.ly/10liRE2
- Seeing is Believing: http://bit.ly/X4bzWl
- How to Turn a Skeptic Into a Believer: http://bit.ly/16op9Xq
- Why Canadians Still Need Easter: [not posted yet]