Subject: The Historical Fact of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
Mark 15:15 “Pilate delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.”
Christianity is a faith founded on evidence, and especially the historical evidence for its founder, Jesus Christ. First, nearly all history scholars agree that Jesus Christ was an historical person. Secondly, there is growing consensus among scholars for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (last week’s article examined famed Harvard Law School Professor Simon Greenleaf’s defense of the Resurrection).
The third main evidence for the Bible’s claims of the Person of Jesus Christ is centered on America’s recognition of “Good Friday” – the day in history when Christ was crucified. What evidence exists outside the Bible that Jesus Christ was in fact crucified?
Death by crucifixion most likely originated with the Assyrians around 800BC, where their ‘cross’ was simply a stake that impaled the victim, who was then left as a public display of humiliation. When the ancient city of Nineveh was unearthed in 1847, one of the most famous discoveries was the library kept by one of Assyria’s kings, King Assurnasirpal II (883-859BC). Here’s what he recorded on how he treated enemy captives: “I built a pillar against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men, and I covered the pillar with their skins… some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, and others I bound to stakes round about the pillar. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts round about the city.”
Crucifixion as understood today (nailed to a cross) was used by Alexander the Great (300BC), then by the Romans (100BC), who perfected this horrifying way of killing a criminal. It was finally abolished by the Emperor Constantine in 337AD. In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was not normally used for citizens or free men, but reserved for people lower down the social ladder. It was known as the ‘slave’s punishment’.
These historical records of crucifixion, combined with the Bible’s records, give us the written accounts of crucifixion as practiced in the ancient world. But outside the written records, has there ever been any actual discoveries of someone who had been crucified? We can now turn to the evidence from archaeology.
In 1968, the remains of a crucified man were discovered in a burial cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, northeast of Jerusalem. This cave contained five ossuaries or bone boxes. In one of the ossuaries were the bones of a young man who had died in his mid-twenties, crucified at about the same time as Jesus. A 4.5-inch nail was still lodged in his heel bone. There was even a small wedge of wood remaining between the heel bone and the head of the nail, put there by some Roman soldier to hold the nail and his foot firmly in place. According to the ossuary box inscription, his name was ‘Yehochanan’, which in English is ‘John’.
Both his leg bones had been smashed, something done by the Romans to hasten the death of the crucified man. Incidentally, even this small detail is highlighted in the Gospel of John, so that those evaluating the reliability of the biblical accounts would have even greater evidence of their authenticity: “The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs… he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.” (John 19:32-35).
In addition to the fact of crucifixion from archaeology, we have records from nonbiblical authors for the fact of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ! Two of them are noted here: in 115AD, Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded this: “ Christus, the founder of the name (Christians), was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” Then within his 20-volume work “Antiquities of the Jews”, Flavius Josephus records this in 95AD: “At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.”
There is abundant evidence for both the reality of crucifixion and the Bible’s account of the crucifixion of Christ. Have you examined the evidence? His death on the cross was intentional – it was for you, so that you could have the opportunity to have all your sins paid for by Him. What will you do with Jesus?