Apologists Nick Spencer and Joel Furches examine the evidence for the event at the heart of Christianity
Today, it is not uncommon to see a cross as a decoration or piece of jewellery and to think nothing of it. It is vaguely associated with religious symbolism, but little more than that. This contemporary attitude towards the symbol of the cross evidences the vast gulf that lies between the modern and the ancient world.
In the days of the Wild West, outlaws were hung at the gallows in front of a crowd, and their lifeless bodies were left twisting in the wind. In revolutionary France, Nobles were dragged up to the guillotine and the crowd watched as their head rolled down a ramp and into a basket. Both European and Asian conquerors were reputed to impale the bodies of their victims and leave them rotting on pikes as a warning to their enemies.
Public executions have always served one purpose: to disgrace the convicted person in front of an audience and to ensure the world knew they had been defeated and shamed in death. Crucifixion was merely the 1st Century vestige of this ancient tradition. The crucified person hung naked in front of the crowds who watched the person die of exposure and asphyxiation. Frequently, the dead body would remain nailed to the structure for several days as a public warning that this is the fate of traitors and criminals: that Roman law was absolute and Roman justice was a horror to behold.
If an ancient Roman were to be brought from the past into modern times, he would be absolutely stunned to see that what they had used as a torture device is now an adornment, and even a symbol of religious devotion. He would want to ask the question: “What happened?” Something had to happen that the cross is no longer a symbol of shame, horror and defeat. What was it that, as it were, redeemed the cross? The answer can only be Jesus Christ or, at the very least, the stories about Jesus.
At root, there are only two groups of people that categorically dispute that Jesus was crucified: Muslims and Jesus mythicists. Muslims deny the crucifixion because of their doctrine and traditions. Muslims hold Jesus as the Messiah and, like the Romans, would see crucifixion as a disgrace. The fourth chapter of the Qur’an appears to deny that Jesus was crucified at all.
The so-called ‘Jesus mythicists’ are committed to the notion that Jesus was entirely mythical – a fictional character invented over time by early Christians. And of course, the Romans – as mighty as they were – did not have the power to crucify a fiction.
Most serious scholars hardly even make this a point worth discussing, and it is worth pointing out that most of these respected scholars are not Christian evangelicals. Gerd Ludemann, a non-Christian scholar, starts out his book on what happened to Jesus by saying that Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pilate is a certain fact of history and there will not be any discussion at all about any theories to the contrary. Because of this, the focus of this article will be: why do so many scholars think there are good grounds for this belief?
The historical evidence for the crucifixion is overwhelming. In addition to the scriptural accounts, the crucifixion can be found in the works of non-Christian writers like Josephus, Tacitus, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian and others. It can be found profusely in the early Church fathers and when the New Testament is considered, it is mentioned in nearly every book – not just the Gospel accounts. The crucifixion was a central fact to every historical account about the life of Jesus – both scriptural or otherwise. Jesus is never mentioned in ancient accounts without some reference to his crucifixion.
The shame of crucifixion
If a person was wanting to paint a religious figure in the most glorious light possible, they would probably not include anything that would make the hero look bad in the eyes of those they wished to convince. If they had to have their hero die, they would try to airbrush it as much as possible rather than describing it in the most horrifying way imaginable.
Perhaps a death in glorious battle, as with Sampson crushing all his enemies in his death. Perhaps a noble self-sacrifice, as with Socrates drinking down the poison of his executioners with a smile of defiance. Does the crucifixion fit this same mould? Again, this is a negative.
If anything, most of the information scholars have today about crucifixion in the ancient world comes from the Gospels as these contain the fullest account of this treatment. Anyone reading the account would understand that crucifixion was something they would not want to go through. Jesus even makes statements in the account that, at times, are hard to reconcile with Christian theology, such as begging God in the garden to take this fate away from him and saying: “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” on the cross.
All of this confirms the significance and shame of this event in the ancient world. In the ancient world, honour and status were everything. What one’s honour was in the ancient world can be comparable to what someone’s credit score is today.
In the Gospels, Jesus regularly bests his opponents in intellectual challenges. These aren’t just trivia matches that are taking place. In each of these, the reputation of the person challenging Jesus dies quickly in front of an audience. In his regular verbal sparring, Jesus gained a great deal of honour in the eyes of his contemporaries, while the religious leaders lost their honour. For these leaders, something had to be done – not just to rid themselves of this upstart, but to recover their reputation by destroying his. Merely killing him would not do. In fact, an honourable death might make him a martyr. They needed to shame him in death and to make a public statement.
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Crucifixion fit the bill. Not only would Jesus be dead and thus out of the hair of those he challenged, but he would be remembered as a figure of shame and disgrace. In the book of Deuteronomy – one of the five core books that made up the Hebrew scripture – it is said that anyone who was hung on a tree was to be considered not merely disgraced, but actually cursed by God. Crucifixion was quite literally being hung from a tree. Among the reasons that even Muslims deny this event is that surely a prophet of God, which they hold Jesus to be, would not be allowed to be crucified. The Romans also saw it as shameful. Honour and shame were, and still are, realities throughout the Middle and Far Eastern world.
Since the Gospels and epistles present Jesus as a king, this would be a major problem for them. What king would let himself be crucified? What Son of God would undergo such shameful suffering? It would be like wanting to stand up and give a speech to endorse a politician and in it having to state that your candidate was a convicted murderer. Christians presenting Jesus as a crucified king would be starting off with a major hurdle. So why did they do it? Because they had to. It was an undeniable fact, and one which was widely known at the time they wrote their accounts.
Why not if
One might respond by saying: “Yes, but the resurrection undid that shame.” A resurrection might or might not undo this shame, but the person would have to believe that a resurrection did, indeed, happen. If they did not believe this, they would still see Jesus as accursed. One reason some would be sceptical is that Jesus was crucified and a person so disgraced in death would not be a prime candidate to become the right hand man of any dignified deity.
Sceptics of Christianity ought to ask the why of Jesus’ crucifixion. The Christian would likely respond: “He died for the sins of the world.” However, the Roman Procurator, Pilate, would not decide to crucify Jesus for the world’s sins. He must have had some other reason for making this decision. Nor did the Pharisees and Sadducees even imagine such a thing. Jesus did something to warrant the death penalty in the eyes of his accusers.
The crucifixion is something that makes Historical Jesus Studies fascinating for theologian and historian alike, as everyone agrees on its authenticity. The dispute between the two is the why, never the if.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.
Nick Peters has mentored under apologists Michael Licona and Norm Geisler and currently attends seminary, pursuing a degree in philosophy. Nick has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-function form of autism, which has become a guiding force in his ministry to disabilities within the Church. Nick’s apologetics focus is on the historical Jesus, biblical scholarship and evidence for the resurrection.
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