Why Historians Know Jesus Was Crucified

Jesus Christ, one of the most influential figures in all of human history, met His end at the hands of the Romans, whom crucified Him. His crime was calling Himself the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One, and He paid dearly for it. Indeed, this is a record of history written by Christians, Jews and pagans alike, and is has been established in the frame of history beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, it is a fact, and so I decided to put together exactly why it is universally recognized as one of the most well-established historical facts in all of ancient history, by every single expert on the planet. Indeed, the great historian E.P. Sanders says this;

I shall first offer a list of statements about Jesus that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career… Jesus was born c 4 BCE near the time of the death of Herod the Great; he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village; he was baptised by John the Baptist; he called disciples; he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities); he preached ‘the kingdom of God’; about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover; he created a disturbance in the Temple area; he had a final meal with the disciples; he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest; he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.

E.P. Sanders correctly notes that the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate is virtually beyond dispute, and indeed, this fact is affirmed by all credible historians in the entire field. Therefore, it is important to know why scholars hold this opinion. Here, we will be reviewing the overwhelming historical data and evidences to affirm the veracity of the crucifixion narrative.

The first thing to look at is the gospel narratives, however, we will not yet look at what they say about the historicity of the crucifixion. First, we will examine their reliability.

Indeed, it is now understood in scholarly circles that the four gospels are generally pretty reliable historical sources, and the data that has brought historians to this conclusion is nothing less than overwhelming. The genre that the gospels were written in is ancient biography. Craig Keener, professor of the New Testament thus remarks;

Through most of history, readers understood the Gospels as biographies, but after 1915 scholars tried to find some other classification for them, mainly because these scholars confused ancient and modern biography and noticed that the Gospels differed from the latter. The current trend, however, is again to recognize the Gospels as ancient biographies.

Likewise, Richard Burrige, professor of Biblical Interpretations also remarks;

In recent years, many genres have been proposed for the Gospels, but increasingly they have been again seen as biography. The work of Charles Talbert and David Aune has contributed greatly to this development, while my own work has attempted to give a detailed argument combining literary theory and classical studies with Gospel scholarship

So, why exactly have historians come to this conclusion? This conclusion is based off of a wealth of resources, to say the least, and one especially is the overwhelming historical confirmation of the gospel narratives. Countless figures of the New Testament, especially important ones like Peter, John, and Paul are well attested in historical records, and sometimes themselves wrote. For example, Paul is credited with at least seven epistles bearing his name, including Romans, Galatians, Philemon, Phillipians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and 1 Thessalonians (and he wrote as many as thirteen). So for example, the historicity of Paul is well beyond dispute, as we have his very writings. Clement of Rome (70-96 AD) tells us about the martyrdom of both Paul and Peter. He says;

Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects. -1 Clement, V

The apostle John is even mentioned as a known baptizer by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2! Countless other of the early disciples, if not every single one of them, are all historical and well known. The gospels record not only the historical figures of the gospels, but countless other historical figures, including the Roman emperor of the time Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1), Lysanius, the tetrarch of the time of Jesus (Luke 3:1), the high priest of the time of Jesus Caiaphas (John 11:49), and countless others. Other cities recorded in the New Testament, such as Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, etc, have all been found confirmed in and before the time of Jesus, despite being small cities. The gospel narratives record that an earthquake erupted during the crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew 27:54). In 2012, a scientific report published to the International Geology Review titled An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea confirmed that a major, 6.3 magnitude earthquake took place sometime between 26-36 AD, the exact time of the crucifixion of Jesus. The gospel narratives are overwhelmingly substantiated by countless historical facts, and are simply embedded into historical narratives.

In fact, the author of the Gospel of Luke has even been confirmed to have been a historian! Sir William Ramsay, one of the foremost scholars of his time said “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” To know why historians acknowledge this, one will need to try to look into the overwhelming compilation of historical details confirmed from the smallest aspects of the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts (both written by the same author) available, and perhaps they can start by reading about 84 confirmed historical details in the last 16 chapters of Acts alone by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek. The Gospel of John, which is traditionally dated to the 90’s AD is so familiar and well versed in the archaeology of Jerusalem before 70 AD, that renowned scholars including James H. Charlesworth have come to the belief that the Gospel of John was originally written before 70 AD, but enlarged into its current form later in the 90’s AD.

This brings us to the first reason why we can consider the crucifixion a historical fact, beyond potential dispute. The story of the crucifixion of Jesus simply emerges from historical reality, it is filled, detail by detail, with confirmed facts and simply woven into historical reality, especially that of the 30’s AD. Let’s see exactly how it does so. The beginning of the crucifixion narrative begins when he is first tried before the authorities of his time, the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate.

Mark 26:57-58: Those who had arrested Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had convened. Meanwhile, Peter was following Him at a distance right to the high priest’s courtyard. He went in and was sitting with the temple police to see the outcome.

As previously noted, Caiaphas has already been historically confirmed to have been a high priest during the time of Jesus, and he was specifically so in the 30’s AD, not a period later on. Secondly;

Mark 15:2So Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You have said it.”

According to the gospels, Jesus was tried before the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate has also become a historically established figure, and is known to have reigned over Judea between 26-36 AD. As we’re seeing so far, the crucifixion narrative is immersed in the historical reality of the 30’s AD. Later on, we are told exactly where Jesus was crucified:

Mark 15:22: And they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means Skull Place).

According to the crucifixion narrative of the Gospels, Jesus was crucified in a place called Golgotha. Golgotha has been found in the site where the biblical requirements of its location have been called for, and it was an ancient site of crucifixion. The gospels tell us that Jesus carried His own cross (John 19:17), but it becomes apparent that because of the extreme torture he had undergone before, he was no longer able to carry it, and thus a man named Simon from Cyrene had to carry the cross of Jesus for Him. Nevertheless, we are told by the gospel narratives that Jesus was initially carry His own cross, and it’s a well known Roman method during crucifixion to force the victim to carry his own cross before he is actually crucified. In Plutarch’s Moralia, section 554, he writes “every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross on his back” — confirming this practice mentioned in the gospels. The crucifixion narratives write that after the crucifixion, a Jew, likely an admirer of Jesus (Joseph of Arimathea) requested permission from Pontius Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. That Jews were concerned with burying their fellow Jews after their death, even their enemies, is confirmed by the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who recounts  “We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies” (Against Apion II.29). To recount as well, we’ve also previously seen that the gospels record an earthquake during the time of the crucifixion, one that has been confirmed.

In other words, as we can see, the crucifixion narratives document an account that is filled to the brim with historicity, especially history known from the time of the crucifixion of Jesus (c. 30-33 AD). This is important for two reasons. One, ancient fictions do not contain significant historical details, especially when they are talking about events that happened decades earlier — when historical accounts try to create fictions of events that have transpired decades ago, they usually get those details wrong. However, the gospel writers, even though they write decades later, all easily get the right emperor, procurator and high priest of the time. Secondly, if the gospel authors were inventing a fiction, they do not embed historical detail and historical customs into them, especially at a significant scale. However, the complete contrary is to do with the gospel accounts when they speak of the narrative of the crucifixion, they clearly outline the practices of crucifixion that occurred to Jesus, a region where crucifixion actually happened, and Jewish practice that was applied to Jesus after His crucifixion.

The reality is that, because almost every single thing about the crucifixion narrative of Jesus is historical for a fact, the evidence speaks that it is most certainly true that the crucifixion itself was not invented, rather the authors of the gospels were doing nothing more then writing the history as it happened. As we’ve seen earlier, the gospel accounts contain significant historical accuracy, and thus there is not the slightest reason for us to belief that Jesus crucifixion, which is immersed in historical data, was some kind of fiction all of a sudden popping out.

Jesus’ crucifixion is recorded by countless figures. For one, all four gospel narratives record it, and as we’ve seen, the gospels are historically reliable accounts (and again, Luke’s account was written by a historian, because the Gospel of Luke was written by a historian). Matthew and Luke likely have some dependency on Mark, but John is correctly recognized as a completely independent account, therefore we have at least two independent sources from the gospel narratives both confirming the same thing: Jesus was crucified. Secondly, Jesus’ crucifixion was recorded by an even earlier source, Paul. In the Book of Galatians, Chapter 3, Paul records “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” Paul’s writings were first written in the 50’s AD, and are also independent of the gospel narratives as well, as well as being a very early, and reliable source about the crucifixion of Jesus, especially by a man who lived contemporaneously with Jesus Christ.

The crucifixion of Jesus is also noted in the writings of the historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.3.3). Although it is popular on the internet to try to claim that historians believe this is a forgery, actual historians have, contrary to these internet myths, concluded that the passage contains nothing more than a partial interpolation, whereas the account of crucifixion is well enough recorded in the original. Secondly, the crucifixion of Jesus is also recorded in the ancient Roman works, especially that of the historian Cornelius Tacitus. In Annals 15.44, Tacitus tells us about a group of people called Christians, whom were persecuted under the Roman emperor Tiberius. Tacitus then tells us that this group originated from a man known as Chrestus (a variant spelling of Christus, or Christ, in the time of Tacitus) had been executed and crucified in the reign of Tiberius, by the procurator Pontius Pilate. Tacitus information came almost certainly, directly from the Roman records themselves, as Tacitus almost certainly had access to them and most of his documented information came from such sources, or similarly reliable sources. Indeed, Tacitus always tells his readers whether or not the information he is recording comes from an unreliable resource, and in the case of Jesus, Tacitus makes no such disclaimer at all.

The execution of Jesus at the least, without precise notion to the crucifying part of this execution, is perhaps also noted by Mara Bar Serapion, who says “What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?” Mara Bar Serapion is generally thought to have written about 74 AD by scholars, and here, the Jews executing their ‘wise king’ (a well-known mockery title of Jesus by the Romans) most-likely means Jesus Christ Himself.

In other words, we have considerable attestation to the crucifixion of Jesus from sources throughout the New Testament, even ranging to many sources outside of it, be they Jewish (Josephus), Roman (Tacitus), or pagan (Mara Bar Serapion). It seems to have been a universally recognized historical fact from its inception, a detail only possessed by events that happened in the reality of history. Most events we know of ancient history are usually based on one account, but historians are usually very happy when they have two ancient accounts of an event. But of course, most are based on one. However, the accounts we have for the crucifixion of Jesus exceed much, much more than just two. Therefore, this is indeed one of the reasons why historians consider it one of the indisputable facts of history, right up there with events such as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the reign of emperor Constantine and the expansion of the Egyptian empire that was undergone during the reign of the king of Egypt, Rameses II. In other words, as E.P. Sanders notes, indisputable.

We are not done, though. Another major reason for why we know that the crucifixion of Jesus happened was recounted by Bart Ehrman in his debate with the insane mythicist Robert Price, where Price was understandably demolished and most of the time hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. Ehrman revealed an overwhelming fact: That the crucifixion of Jesus would never have been invented, had it not happened in reality. For decades, centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews mocked the Christians for believing in a man that had been crucified. The writer Lucian of Samosta, who wrote somewhere between 165-175 AD was a well-known mocker of the Christians, calling Jesus a “crucified sage”. That Jesus, whom was thought to be quite literally God to the Christians, was crucified couldn’t even have comprehensibly have been made up. Indeed, a truly mythical account would have claimed that, rather than being killed, Jesus was actually caught up into heaven and escaped death by the Romans (such as the Islamic account of the life of Jesus). Indeed, the Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah of the Old Testament, and according to contemporary Jewish thought of the 1st century AD, the Messiah would have come as a king on Earth who was going to destroy the Roman allegiance, and establish an eternal Jewish kingdom based in Jerusalem. This never happened with Jesus, Jesus was instead crucified. No Jew would have possibly made this up about their own Messiah. It was humiliating, and that was the way it was meant to be: Crucifixion was invented to humiliate the person being killed. Jesus was crucified. And that is the humble fact of Christianity.