Did it really happen, that ‘crucifixion’ story?

My wife just rolls her eyes (not really, but its a good metaphor) when she looks at questions like this as I approach them in my studies.  So do my faithful Christian friends.  For all of us the event is just one of those ‘givens’ required of believers.  This one is coupled with the resurrection of His body.  The two events are the core of salvific act that completes God’s promise to His chosen people.

But what about others who are not so faithful or even believing in Christianity?  What about those who are skeptical scientists who require proof?  Is the imaginative ability of a non-believer strong enough to comprehend billions of people following the way of life proclaimed by a man who was so publicly humiliated for claiming to be God that he was crucified?

Those who are professionals in historical studies will recognize the basics of the research to follow.  Those who are professionals in history and theology will recognize this as just an opening essay to what others have made careers from.  The essay to follow was prompted as a requirement for my course of study in the Synoptic Gospels.  What ever its value, I offer it to the reader for entertainment and/or inspiration.

April 26, 2014

A Quest For The Historical Jesus: The Crucifixion

          “For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live,…”(Gal 2:19,20) Paul wrote this as part of a letter to one of the communities he established in what is today modern Turkey and scholarship places the time of the letter between 48 A.D. and 54 A.D. The timing is dependent upon which part of Galatia to where it was addressed. This is only fifteen years after the crucifixion of Jesus and it will be another fifteen years before the first Gospel evangelist will put the event in the context of a full book on the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of this project is to review some of the historical evidence available two-thousand years after the event of the crucifixion of Jesus and see if what is called the Salvific act passes the scrutiny of modern historical methods.

History is something considered as a record of past events that were, are, and continue to be of importance to human civilization. Writing history was a hobby, it was a means of demonstrating a thought process and the foundation for one’s believe in why the world and humans exist as it does at the time of the writer’s project. An item or event is considered historical, Jesus for this project, when it is considered “having once existed or lived in the real world, as opposed to being part of legend or fiction or as distinguished from religious belief” (dictionary.com, #3). For something to have historicity means for it to have some plausible authenticity. The criteria for this authenticity is to have multiple and independent attestations, to have coherence between these, to find a discontinuity so implausible that no one would make it up, to find it would create an embarrassment for anyone to repeat making researchers wonder why anyone would repeat it, and to discover other events that could only have occurred if the event under question actually did occur. The method of this essay will present some evidence of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and evaluate the evidence against these criteria.

The Gospel of Jesus is firmly rooted in the Jewish religion. Matthew, Luke, and John all record Jesus stating that He came to fulfill the law. Let us begin with the law of witness, then, before considering what the Evangelists wrote. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles was written between the tenth and the seventh century BC. “…archaeology has provided enough evidence to support… the Deuteronomistic History was substantially shaped in the seventh century BCE” writes Israel Finkelstein in his book The Bible Unearthed (Finkelstein and Silberman, p. 14). Deuteronomy is a restatement of Mosaic Law in writing as writing technology became more wide spread. Therefore, from Mosaic Law “The testimony of two or three witnesses is required for putting a person to death; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Deu. 17:6). We will make the assumption and derive from this Law the requirement for any event in Jewish history to require affirmation of a minimum of two witnesses. We have four witnesses in the Gospel Evangelists since all four of the canonical writers record the death of Jesus through crucifixion. Paul becomes a fifth witness through the introductory scripture of this essay, though a secondary source as he is teaching what he had received, not witnessed directly.

The Evangelists all write about the crucifixion. It is the Salvific Act in Christianity and cannot be left out of the story whether synoptic or theological. Mark’s account describes simply that another person was forced to help Jesus carry the cross, and upon arrival at a place called Golgotha Jesus was offered a sour drink, was crucified, and His garments were gambled over by the guards. Mark reports an inscription hung over Jesus reading “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26). Mark reports two others were crucified with Jesus. Details of how one was crucified were not important. The literate audiences of the period would know those. Matthew spends time to write twelve verses, two paragraphs, on Jesus carrying the cross, being crucified, and dying. Matthew includes the same details of the assist in carrying the cross, the offering of a sour drink, the gambling and the inscription. Luke gives us more to color the march to Golgotha, which he translates as ‘skull’, by offering a view of crowds along the way, the women of Jerusalem. There is no sign announcing Jesus’ crime, however a passerby jeers at Him and repeats the written description of King of the Jews given in Mark and Matthew. Luke reports more invoked scripture by Jesus, and the events of the Temple curtain tearing in two. John’s version includes the same inscription and adds an argument between the Chief Priests and Pilate over what Pilate wrote. Pilate prevails. John removes the Cyrenian’s help in carrying the cross, and the offer of body numbing drink offered to the condemned.

John writes in greater detail about the crucifixion, providing us with an opportunity to decide if he was present throughout the crucifixion and therefore “…the disciple there whom He loved,” (John 19:26, partial). John does not go into the gruesome detail of the action of crucifixion. However, where Luke describes some disciples being present. “…but all his acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him…” (Luke 24:49), John writes of himself and three women being close enough for the dying Jesus to recognize them and speak to them. “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, he said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26 complete). This will be an important concept when the discussion of historicity is taken up in later paragraphs.

If this were being discussed during a period immersed in the Jewish culture it would more than satisfy the eyewitness requirement, with the consistency of details between the reports according to Mosaic Law to give historical truth to the event of the crucifixion of Jesus. However, this is the twenty-first century and the ‘science’ of writing history is over one-hundred years past the time when such recollections or formulations would be accepted. Today’s historians and scientifically religious require the corroboration of more than those vested in promoting their religious vision do. Other evidence external to Christianity must also recognize crucifixion beyond the pillars of witnesses of that group.

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish Pharisee of the period of Jesus as recorded by the Evangelists. He was an expert in Jewish law, fought against the Romans, was captured and acted as interpreter for the Roman army in the siege of Jerusalem, even lobbying his fellow Judeans to surrender and allow the city and the residents to survive. These are facts learned because Josephus became a Roman citizen and wrote his own biography and two works concerning the Jews, one of the wars fought by them and another called Antiquities to help the Romans understand his people. Flavius Josephus wrote during the same time as the Evangelists. He specifically comments on several events concerning the crucifixion of Jesus. The Wars of the Jews Book 2, Chapter 9 he writes “No Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius,” (Whiston, p. 608) confirming there was such a Procurator in Judea in the time of Tiberius Caesar. Josephus confirms the person of John the Baptist existed in his Antiquities. It is in Book 18 Chapter 5 where he writes “…as a punishment of what he (Herod) did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue,” (Whiston, p. 484). This demonstrates the precursor person to Jesus and the person’s mission, written about by the Evangelists. The object of this essay, the crucifixion, is confirmed in Antiquities as well. Book 18 Chapter 3 contains this passage; “Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man,” (Whiston, p. 480). Continuing, “He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross,” (ibid). Flavius Josephus, Jewish Pharisee, army general, and Roman citizen confirms the condemnation of Jesus and His execution by crucifixion. He does so, not as Roman citizen but as one of the Pharisees, one of the leaders of the Jewish people at the very moment of the event. Finally, Josephus reports again later in Antiquities that Jesus is Christ when he tells of the stoning of James, Jesus’ brother. “Ananus… assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others…” (Whiston, p. 538).

Tacitus was a Roman administrator, orator, and prosecutor. He also wrote histories and in his Annals book 15, he writes of the burning of Rome by Nero. Four of fourteen districts remained untouched by the fire that burned for five days. Three were completely wiped away and the remaining seven had only a few houses still standing. Nero put the blame on Christians. “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 Judaea, 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” (Church and Brodribb, Book XV). Tacitus gives us Christ, Pilate, and seventy years after the event of the crucifixion, he gives us a community of people faithful to this crucified Christ.

James Jeffers tells us more about the use of crucifixion in his project, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era. Jeffers’ research tells us about Rome putting down a rebellion in 4 BC. “Varnus brought into Judea three legions (about fifteen thousand men)…His campaign ended with the crucifixion of two thousand Jewish prisoners” (Jeffers, p. 124). Writing on tools of governance, “Crucifixion was usually reserved for slaves and vicious prisoners of war, although it was inflicted on citizens from time to time. This form of punishment existed for centuries before the Romans came along. For example, Alexander the Great practiced it” (Jeffers, 158). Jesus’s crucifixion was just one of the times Pilate would have to deal with religious groups during his tenure. Roman soldiers went into Samaria to deal with a prophet claiming to be a messiah. “A number of people died in the incident. Samaritan leaders complained to the legate of Syria, who ordered Pilate to return to Rome to explain his actions to eh Emperor Tiberius” (Jeffers, p. 131). Pilate would never return to Judea.

Remaining faithful to the method of the essay requiring two witnesses, it is demonstrated that two Roman citizens acknowledge the crucifixion of a Jewish prophet by the name of Jesus. One of those witnesses places himself within the body of legal experts of the Jews at the time. The second is a legal prosecutor and historian writing within seventy years of the event. Moreover, there is evidence presented by a modern historian of the period surveyed showing crucifixion was used by the Romans as punishment, and a form of punishment used for centuries prior to the event being reviewed. The final step for this project is to check for authenticity of the material reviewed.

The first criteria given is whether multiple independent attestation is available. This project demonstrated the Jewish requirement for witnessing events as well. It has been demonstrated through the scriptures of the New Testament no less than five witnesses wrote of the crucifixion. Paul implied the crucifixion as early as 49 AD. The Gospel Evangelists did so over four decades, the last being John. John can be considered a true eyewitness if it is accepted that he is ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ and therefore at the foot of the cross. Beyond the Christian writers, Flavius Josephus, Jewish Priest become Roman Citizen and Tacitus, a Roman prosecutor and historian both acknowledge the crucifixion of Jesus.

Coherence in the stories of the Evangelists is so close it must be suspect. It is acknowledged in academic circles that at least two of them used a third as a source for their writing. These occurred half a generation after Paul wrote to the Galatians. Their accounts could be discarded if it were not for Flavius Josephus’ accounting. Josephus’ position as a Pharisee at the time of the event, before any general acknowledgement of a Christian community, lends strong credence to the coherence of Paul and the Evangelists.

Discontinuity seems absent. Jeffers’ reporting of the frequency with which crucifixion was used and that is was used for centuries makes the crucifixion of Jesus plausible. Josephus and Tacitus both discuss the presence of Pilate in Judea during the period in question. Again, with Josephus we have the admission to being part of the Jewish hierarchy of legal experts at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Embarrassment would be an understatement. Crucifixion was a horrid means of punishment that ended with death. Jeffers reports, “The condemned person’s weight was supported for the most part by his arms. Muscle spasms, cramps and insects added to the pain, and death usually came through gradual suffocation. Romans sometimes broke legs to increase the weight and bring death more quickly” (Jeffers, p. 158). Still, five men wrote about their leader being crucified over the course of fifty years and tell stories about their proclaiming it throughout the empire without fear. They were not embarrassed.

Necessary explanation, the requirement of one event having to occur in order for a secondary event to occur presents a reason for recording the event in different community’s formal writings. Paul would not have written he had been crucified with Christ if Christ had not been crucified. It would have made for frightening metaphor and who would continue to listen, except that for Paul’s audience it was so outrageous it must have had some truth attached to it. The Gospel writers would not have written about the crucifixion for any popular reason. They were admitting to being followers of a blasphemer and presenting themselves for persecution and death as well. Tacitus provides the best example from this essay. Tacitus could write of Nero’s use of Christ and the Christians because a community had formed around one who was put to death and the community believed it to be an act of salvation.

A parish Bible study group might be presented with this information as a lesson or in answer to a question concerning the historic event of Jesus’s life. This group should be aware of the Deuteronomic Law specifying two witnesses. It is an important concept for this topic and for the commissioning of the disciples by Jesus to go out and preach. The comparison of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion could be used if time allowed, but for answering a question, an overview of the common details of the location, witnesses present, and sign posted by the guards at Pilates command could suffice. Beyond the Gospel accounts, it is plain that there are two Roman citizens writing about the crucifixion, that they were both legal experts at the time they were writing, responsible for details involved and judging the people of their time. One even places himself in the event itself. Finally, the crucifixion event passes modern history discipline techniques. It can be stated factually, that the person of Jesus of Nazareth was condemned to die by the Roman procurator Pilate, and was crucified to carry out the sentence.


Works Cited

Church, A. and William Jackson Brodribb. Trans. The Annals by Tacitus. 109 A.C.E. the Internet Classics Archive. (1994 – 1999) Web  http://classics.mit.edu/index.html Downloaded April 2014.

Dictionary.com, LLC. On-line mobile electronic resource. 2014. Web.

Finkelstein, I. and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel And The Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York. Touchstone. (2001). Print.

Jeffers, J. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era. Downers Grove. Inter Varsity Press. (1999) Print.

Senior, D. GenEd. The Catholic Study Bible. New York. Oxford University Press. (1990) Print.

Whiston, W. Trans. The Works of Josephus. Peabody. Hendrickson Publishers. (1987) Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s