“In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting off our shoes, at the bath, at the table . . . whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” — Tertullian
The cross, symbolizing Christ’s saving death by crucifixion, has been a sacred sign and symbol for Christians from the beginning. Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus as a real event in history is at the heart of the Christian Faith.
But there are some who deny that Christ died on the cross. Although all four Gospels testify to the Crucifixion, some skeptics chalk up the narratives—or even Christ’s existence—to pagan mythology. Many Muslims also reject the crucifixion event, a denial rooted in the Quran: “And [for the Jews’] saying, ‘Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.’ And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him” (Sura 4:157).
Despite these dissenting claims, the evidence is one-sided in favor of a real, historical crucifixion of Jesus. Here are four reasons why.
1. Early sources confirm the crucifixion of Jesus
The Quran was written in the seventh century, almost 600 years after the crucifixion of Christ. The Gospels, in contrast, were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after the events they describe. St. Paul’s epistles were written even earlier. His first letter to the Corinthians, written around A.D. 55, contains an early Christian creed that begins:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-7).
Scholars date this creed, which represents an early oral tradition of the Christian Church, to within six years after Christ’s death. Some have argued that it may have been written months after Christ’s death and resurrection. Although this creed does not explicitly mention crucifixion, earlier in the same epistle Paul mentions “Christ crucified” on multiple occasions (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2), confirming the sort of death Jesus died.
We can be confident in the reliability of St. Paul’s testimony, because he confirmed the contents of his preaching with Peter and other apostles (Gal. 1:18; 2:1-2). Furthermore, the writings of Clement of Rome and Polycarp—disciples of St. Peter and St. John, respectively—ensure St. Paul’s integrity when they refer to him as “blessed” and “glorious” Paul. Some have even argued that Polycarp considers some of Paul’s writing to be Sacred Scripture (Epistle to the Philippians 12:1). The Gospels, St. Paul’s eyewitness-informed writings, and a very early creed provide strong historical testimony to the crucifixion.
2. Multiple ancient sources from Christians and non-Christians
Early canonical and non-canonical Christian sources testify to Jesus’s crucifixion, and we can also confirm that early non-Christian sources confirm our case. In the first century, Roman historian Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus confirm more than just Christ’s crucifixion: they note Pilate’s association with the execution. Tacitus, referring to the crucifixion as the “extreme penalty”, writes in The Annals:
Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus (15.44).
Other early, non-sympathetic writers who refer to Christ’s execution include Lucian of Samosata and Mara Bar Serapion. The Greek writer Lucian writes, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account” (The Passing of Peregrinus). He adds that Jesus was crucified in Palestine, a further corroboration of the Gospels.
While noting that there are multiple Christian and non-Christian sources corroborating Christ’s crucifixion, it is important to note the great diversity of genres that mention this event: ancient biography, historiography, creed, epistle, and hymn. It would be absurd to indifferently pass over the broad impact of Jesus’ death in the ancient world.
3. Eyewitness testimony
Recent scholarship persuasively confirms that the four Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. A leading scholar in this area, Richard Bauckham, concludes that the Gospels “embody the testimony of the eyewitness, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). He shows that the Gospel writers were “in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses.” Consider, for example, the prologue of St. Luke’s Gospel which resembles the style of ancient historiography:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word… (Luke 1:1-3)
Bauckham further argues that St. John’s Gospel was not merely based on firsthand testimony, but written by an eyewitness to the crucifixion. This is suggested in John’s epilogue where the evangelist confirms, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things” (John 21:24).
4. Embarrassing testimony
Some skeptics have posited that the Gospels, including the crucifixion, are fabrications, but this is unlikely given a few important points.
First, attributing the Gospels to non-apostles such as Mark or Luke is unlikely unless they really were the original authors. If you want people to believe your false Gospel, why not go with a prominent apostle like Peter or Andrew? Or, as theologian Brant Pitre offers, “why not go straight to the top and attribute your Gospel to Jesus himself?” (The Case For Jesus).
Second, the Passion narratives sparkle with authenticity because of their uncensored portrayal of Jesus’s suffering. Although at times even his enemies notice his composure under extreme duress, other scenes such as Jesus’s agony in Gethsemene or his anguished cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” portray a weakened, suffering Messiah. New Testament historian Michael Licona confirms that, in antiquity, “a number of accounts existed of Jewish martyrs [i.e the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees, Eleazar, and Stephen] who acted bravely under extreme torture and execution. In light of these, reports of a weaker Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion could cause embarrassment in contrast” (The Resurrection of Jesus). Historians consider the criterion of embarrassment to be an important consideration when determining a source’s reliability. Thus, these potentially unflattering details in the Passion accounts are unlikely inventions.
No mainstream scholar today argues against Jesus’ historical existence. In fact, nearly all New Testament scholars today, many of whom are non-Christians and skeptics, consider not only Christ’s existence but his crucifixion to be “historical bedrock.” Critic John Dominic Crossan writes that “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). With similar conviction, atheist scholar Gerd Lüdemann concludes, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (The Resurrection of Christ).
The rejection of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is historically untenable. Thus all non-Christians who are willing to face the fact are left with a jarring conundrum. They must face the questions: How in the world, in light of their Messiah’s brutal execution, did the small group of common Jewish men and women known as “Christians” ever come to believe that Christ was God? How on earth did Christianity ever get off the ground? Only one answer comes close—and it is the same answer that Christians have given for two thousand years: Christ has died, Christ is risen.
By Matt Nelson