The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus: The Crucifixion

The central claim of the Christian faith is the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom come. It is the miracle that began a movement that would change the world. But what is the evidence that this grand miracle ever occurred? Do we have good reasons to believe that Jesus really did die and rise again or is it nothing more than a wild superstition?

The most widely used and digestible approach to examining the resurrection of Jesus is The Minimal Facts Approach. This approach, formulated by New Testament scholars Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, is the result of an investigation into every scholarly and historical work written on the claim that Jesus rose from the grave. What they uncovered were the minimal facts. Habermas describes it thusly,

This approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.

Habermas, Gary R.. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (p. 44). Kregel Publications. Kindle Edition.

The minimal facts approach is a look into the Resurrection of Jesus using only the pieces of evidence that are granted by the majority of credentialed scholars of the subject, both believers and unbelievers. The minimal facts are something that has been established outside of the Bible, meaning that one needn’t assume the reliability of the Bible, or even just the New Testament, to use them. These minimal facts are outlined as follows,

  1. Jesus was crucified on Golgotha
  2. The disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus
  3. The enemy of the church, Paul, was converted on Damascus Road
  4. Jesus’ unbelieving brother, James, converted and was eventually martyred

These are the four most well-attested pieces of data surrounding the resurrection. There is a fifth piece we could add, although with a caveat, being that it isn’t as well-attested as the four above. I will be arguing for it, however, due to the vast majority of arguments against it being flimsy. These arguments we will address when we arrive at them. So this fifth piece is,

5. The tomb of Jesus was empty.

One final note I’ll make here is that, as useful as this approach is, it is by no means a complete or comprehensive one. It focuses only on the data closest to the actual event of the resurrection, but what comes before (expectations and defining the resurrection) and after (the cultural climate and opposition) are just as important in our investigation.

Without further ado let’s dive right into piece one.

1. Jesus Was Crucified

Today, the image of the cross stands as the centrepiece of Christianity. It is the place where death died and the curse of sin was broken. Without the cross, there would be no atonement and no remission for sins. Without the cross, without death, there’d be no resurrection and therefore no Christianity. If one could prove, or, at the very least, make a strong, evidentially based argument against its historicity, many important aspects of the Christian faith would be blown away like a leaf. However, in my survey of the many arguments against the resurrection, this piece is the least argued. Copycat claims are all I could find, and those don’t tend to aim at the crucifixion exclusively. The crucifixion is so well-attested that atheistic scholar, Gerd Lüdemann, writes,

“The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.”

Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 17.

Likewise, Paula Fredriksen, another scholar who is no stranger to challenging Christianity, notes,

“The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.”

Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage, 1999),

It isn’t difficult to see why intellectually honest skeptics rarely bother to oppose this piece of data. Of course, if spun the right away, critics have used to it forward their own arguments (Jesus was never taken off the cross or Jesus never really died at all). To skeptics, Jesus is dead, and that’s all that matters. The means of death is arbitrary and meaningless.

But for the sake of providing further support for the Gospel accounts, let’s see how well established this piece of data is in the canon of history.

A. Crucifixion was the most common form of execution in Rome

Crucifixion was a common and horrific form of execution used by the Romans to punish slaves, lower-class criminals, violent rebels and those accused with treason. The Jewish authorities deemed Jesus a dangerous and wicked man, guilty of the highest form of blasphemy, so what better way to punish one as insidious as Jesus as crucifixion? And when pressed by a crowd as enraged as they, Pontius Pilate could only allow them to do as they pleased.

B. The Crucifixion is mentioned in many non-biblical writings.

In addition to being written about in all four Gospel accounts, the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion can be found in many non-biblical writings.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions Jesus twice in his work The Antiquities of the Jews. We will focus on the one that mentions the means of Christ’s death.

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day. Antiquities 18.3.3 (bold mine).

This is a version of the quote with all of the phrases regarded by scholars as interpolations (phrases that Christian copyists interjected into the text) removed. What is not regarded as interpolation is the note the Jesus was condemned to a cross. Fascinatingly, it also goes to mention the Jewish authorities who twisted Pilate’s hand. Indeed, if the Gospel accounts were true, a revolt of this nature in Roman court is just the kind of thing we would expect to see in historical writings.

Lucian, a Greek satirist and playwright of the second century, also mentions the tradition of the crucifixion.

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine, 11–13 (c. mid-second century).

Lucian was most certainly not a supporter of the Christian movement. He judged and ridiculed the Christians for their apparent simplicity and gullibility. Additionally, he was a very critical writer who treated history with the utmost respect for accuracy. In a lesser-known work from Lucian, titled The Way To Write History, he argues,

The historian’s one task is to tell the thing as it happened. p. 126

(The historian) must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this – to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse. p. 128

This highly critical enemy of the Christian movement, who would not allow any falsehood or lie to see the light of day in his writings, affirmed the tradition that the man the Christians worshipped was “crucified.”

Perhaps the most interesting quote comes from the well-known Roman historian, Tacitus. In the Annals of Tacitus, he notes,

Christus, the founder of the name (Christian), was Put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign Of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time Broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief Originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things Hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their Center and become popular. Annals 15.44

Not only does Tacitus mention Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate he also mentions, with a generous dose of disdain, the sudden outbreak of the Christian movement following. Like Lucian, Tacitus was a writer greatly concerned with historical accuracy and truth and was, most importantly, an enemy of the Christians.

In addition to these, we have the Pre-Pauline creed in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul cites,

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The crucifixion of Jesus is as well-attested as any significant moment in history and this is before we factor in the four Gospel accounts, which all mention the same event: Jesus was crucified by the Jews under the guise of Pontius Pilate. It makes sense then that many critics have tried to dodge this is by denying that Jesus ever existed at all. To adhere to a conspiracy theory that borders on the outrageous is a telling sign that this moment in history must be covered up at any cost. Yet, the desperation of the critic only serves as an acknowledgement of the evidential weight that this moment carries.