Was Jesus Crucified?
An Examination of the Death of Christ
The crucifixion of Jesus is central to how He is viewed in Christian theology. The Bible is clear that Jesus came down from Heaven so that He may bear the punishment of sin on the cross in place of humanity. This act of self-sacrifice displays the ultimate love of God for His people as He is willing to suffer on the behalf of His children so that they may be one with Him. However, can the crucifixion of Jesus be regarded as an event that actually happened? After all, the Christian faith is in vain if the death of Christ never occurred to begin with. So, therefore, how does one prove that Jesus did indeed die at calvary?
Apart from the attestation of Jesus’ crucifixion by Tacitus as explored in the previous newsletter “Did Jesus Exist?”, the death of Jesus does expand into many other facets of history. Below is a series of information regarding accounts of what really happened the day Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion.
Firstly, it is essential to consider the method of crucifixion in regard to its intent. The Romans adopted the process of crucifixion from the previous Persian Empire. After its adoption, the Romans then tweaked crucifixion in order to ensure its efficacy in killing criminals. By the time of Jesus, the Romans had already been performing crucifixions for almost two centuries and effectively, became master executioners. In fact, the Romans were so good at crucifying people that there is no record of any individual surviving a full crucifixion. This obviously means that everyone subjected to death from crucifixion died. No exceptions. Furthermore, it is then safe to conclude that if Jesus was indeed sentenced to death by crucifixion, death is the only outcome of such an ordeal.
Because Jesus was such a prominent religious leader, His death certainly became wide known by many people all across the Mediterranian region. The death of such a famous and influential figure, therefore, lingered in the conversations of many. An example of such conversation is exhibited in the writings of Syrian philosopher, Mara bar Serapion. In 70 AD, Mara wrote a letter from prison to his son. In the letter, Mara states:
What good did it do the Athenians to kill Socrates, for which deed they were punished with famine and pestilance? What did it avail the Samians to burn Pythagoras since their country was entirely buried under sand in one moment? Or what did it avail the Jews to kill their wise king, since their kingdom was taken away from them from that time on. God justly avenged these three wise men. The Athenians died of famine, the Samians were flooded by the sea, the Jews were slaughtered and driven from their kingdom, everywhere living in the dispersion. Socrates is not dead thanks to Plato; nor Pythagoras, because of Hera’s statue. Nor is the the wise king because of the new law which he has given.
From this message, although Jesus’ name is not outwardly used, it is clear that Mara bar Serapion is indeed referring to Jesus. This conclusion can be made as no other person during that historical era was referred to as the “wise king” of the Jews while also being killed at the hands of the Jews. Additionally, there is a clear diaspora of the Jews following the killing of the “wise king”, and based on history, it is known that the Jews were scattered from Israel shortly after the death of Jesus, thus further proving that Jesus was the subject matter at hand. It is also interesting to note that Mara groups Jesus’ death with other historically sound events such as the death of Socrates and Pythagoras. This goes to show that the death of Jesus is affirmed the same way the death of Socrates and Pythagoras is affirmed and a denial of His death would be based upon no historical ground.
Now, after establishing the historicity of the crucifixion, an analysis of accounts surrounding the event should be done.
In 55 AD, there lived a man named Thallus who was an Eastern Meditteranean historian, most famous for his written pieces regarding the Trojan War. His written works may very well have been written before the Gospels themselves and thus, serves as an important piece regarding the events of the early first century. While many of Thallus’ writings were lost, in 220 AD, a man named Julius Africanus found remnants of his work. These discovered texts were then compiled in Africanus’ own document known as History of the World. A particular text of interest then goes on to describe some peculiar events that Thallus attests to have happened. The text reads:
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.
This excerpt from Africanus illustrates that Thallus documents a period during the first half of the first century in which an earthquake and darkness simultaneously occurred in a region of the Mediterranean. This is very interesting because the only other time such an event is proposed to have happened is in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion. The Gospels assert that at Jesus’ crucifixion, there was an earthquake and darkness that ran across the land (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44, 45). At face value, the Gospels would seem to be asserting a supernatural claim with no real basis, yet the writings of Thallus seem to indicate that this was a real and historical event that happened. There may be some pushback to this as Thallus never mentions Jesus, yet the chances of this being a coincidence are slim. Conclusively, the events within the crucifixion appear to be as historically sound as the crucifixion itself.
The evidence suggests that the Christian worldview can be deemed as one of which is based upon real and historical events regarding a real and historical Jesus.
Yet the question now arises: What happened to Jesus after He died? How can we know for certain the events that took place following the crucifixion? Such questions are of utmost importance to answer as the Christian faith continues to rest on the fate of Jesus after His crucifixion.
Follow Chasing Truth on Instagram and Twitter @thechasingtruth
-“Evidence That Demands A Verdict” by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell
-Habermas, Gary R., "Ancient Non-Christian Sources" (1996)