In my last column (Feb. 28) I began a discussion on the historical reliability of the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the saying goes, if Christ be not raised, then Christianity is a farce. Gary Habermas writes, “[T]he resurrection was the center of the earliest Christian preaching. This is a fact admitted by essentially all scholars, based especially on Paul’s use of the ancient creed in 1 Cor. 15:3.”
Thus, it is important that we are prepared to defend the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this piece, I want to defend the historical account of Jesus’ crucifixion. Though some of the details may vary, most ancient Near Eastern historians concur that Jesus was indeed killed by the Roman authorities via crucifixion.
Crucifixion was a horrendous form of execution (human beings are creative at killing one another). The entire process started with a public beating and flogging with a flagrum (or cat-of-nine-tails). According to Jewish law, one could not receive more than 39 lashes; however, we have no record that the Romans had such a law. The beating and flogging were presumably pretty bad given that, following them, Jesus was unable to carry His cross to the execution site.
After the beating, Jesus was nailed to a cross. Generally, crucifixions killed by asphyxiation. In order to breathe, the individual would have to pull himself into the proper position – a painful and exhausting act. Some people lasted two or three days on the cross, but we know Jesus was dead within several hours.
Jesus’ crucifixion is likely one of the most recorded events in ancient history. The crucifixion is listed not only in the gospel narratives, but also in several extra-biblical accounts. These extra-biblical accounts include Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. Josephus mentioned that Jesus lived, was sentenced by Pilate, was crucified, and resurrected. Granted, these extra-biblical accounts don’t make it certain that Jesus was crucified, but certainty is an impossible quality in historical investigations; we are simply looking for high probability. What we see in the historical evidence is a consistent notation by ancient authors – from the gospels to extra-biblical sources – that Jesus Christ lived and that He was indeed crucified.
William Lane Craig writes, “One of the most remarkable facts about the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection was that it flourished in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified.” Now this is a telling claim. If Jesus’ resurrection had been a popular discussion in ancient Jerusalem, then the method of His death must also have been well known. If Jesus had been killed by any other means, it is likely that there would be counternarratives to the crucifixion, but that isn’t the case.
It seems reasonable by any standard measure of historical determination that Jesus Christ not only lived, but also was crucified in Jerusalem.
Chad Meeks is associate pastor of youth and discipleship at Cedar Heights Baptist Church in North Little Rock.
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