For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures[.]
– 1 Corinthians 15:3
It may seem an unnecessary point to begin a series on the resurrection on: Doesn’t almost everyone almost everywhere know that the man called Christ died on a Roman cross? Isn’t that a properly basic fact of history? Well…no, and yes, respectively.
You see, while there is overwhelming historical evidence that Jesus Christ was indeed put to death on a Roman cross, there are still those who deny that this happened. The Swoon theory of the resurrection accounts denies that Christ actually physically died. Rather, in an effort to deny the resurrection, proponents assert that He just passed out, and was buried alive. He revived, rather than resurrected, in the tomb.
Muslims also dismiss the historicity of the death of Jesus. Sura 4:157 says:
And [for] their 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; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.
In other words, Christ was not crucified, but someone else was made to look like Him, and was crucified in His place, while He was taken up into heaven. We’ll come back to refuting both of these notions. For now let us ask: What do we know about Jesus’ death?
An examination of hostile sources — both pagan and Jewish — will render us able to confidently state that Jesus was indeed put to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus, the “great historian” of ancient Rome, records in his acclaimed work Annals, “Christus…suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out…” (XV). As F. F. Bruce famously pointed out, Tacitus ironically joined hands with the Creed, affirming that Christ “suffered…[under] Pontius Pilate.” The extreme penalty is synonymous with capital punishment, which was most often crucifixion. Lucian of Samosata twice references the crucified Christ whom we “misguided creatures” follow (The Death of Peregrine). And finally, the Babylonian Talmud records how Jesus was “hanged on the eve of Passover” (Sanhedrin 43a). “Hanged” is used throughout the Talmud to refer to crucifixion. All of these — and more, excluded for the sake of brevity — bear independent and hostile witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross — a very good start!
But for more detail, we must turn to the eyewitnesses of the life of Christ: His disciples. However, I’m sure that the objection will be raised “well of course they’re going to say He died and rose again. After all, they’re Christians!” Eyewitness bias is indeed to be taken into consideration. That’s one reason I appealed to hostile sources. No one can accuse Tacitus of Christian proselytizing! But consider this: The disciples were not previously Christians who wrote down what they saw; rather, they became Christians because of what they saw, and then wrote it down for others. In other words, the accusation of bias doesn’t make sense.
We will begin the night of Jesus’ betrayal. After the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus bowed to pray. Here, Luke records that Jesus, “in an agony,” began to sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). This was, for a very long time, regarded as a legend that had accumulated into the Christian tradition. Sweating blood? Unbelievable! As medical science has advanced, however, we now know of hematidrosis: Sweating blood! This incredibly rare medical condition is most often precipitated by “[a]cute fear and intense mental contemplation” (1). The details of Luke’s account testify to the thoroughness of his research (Luke 1:1-4)! The rarity of this condition makes this an unlikely legendary accretion.
After His flesh had been sensitized by the hematidrosis, Christ was taken from the garden to the high priest’s home (Lk. 22: 54). Here those who had captured Him — or rather, those with whom He went willingly — blindfolded and beat Him (Lk. 22:63-65). From here, Jesus goes to see Pilate, and Pilate has Him scourged (Lk. 23:16; cf. Jn. 19:1).
Roman scourging was a terrible thing. From history we know that a Roman flagrum was a terrible tool of torture. It had multiple cords, with bits of glass, bone, and stone woven into it. Each cord was weighted at the end, causing the scourge to bite into the flesh; the woven teeth tore out huge chunks of the victim’s body. Eusebius records how “sometimes the scourges tore into [the] innermost veins and arteries, revealing [entrails] and organs” (Ecclesastical History, 4:15). Unlike the Jewish authorities, who only permitted 39 lashes, the Roman authorities had no such limit. In the case of capital punishment, it seems they encouraged lengthy whippings, so as to ensure a timely death. So Christ was stripped of His garments, tied to a post, and stripped of His skin. The damage inflicted by scourging alone was known to cause death.
Hypovolemic shock occurs when you lose %20 or more of the normal amount of blood in your body. At the end of His scourging, Christ was almost certainly undergoing hypovolemic shock. The kidneys shut down to save fluid; your heart starts to pound because your blood pressure drops. After a long night without sleep or food, Christ endures the agony of a Roman scourging, but just barely. Carrying His cross proved too much, so the Roman guards press-ganged Simon of Cyrene into carrying the cross for Him (Lk. 23:26; Mk. 15:20-21; Matt. 27:31-32). In Mark 15 we read that “they brought Him to the place called Golgotha” (22). The phrase “they brought Him” indicates that Christ had collapsed — they carried Him to His execution.
Although the method of crucifixion has come under fire, recent archaeological findings at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar have shown that perpetrators were indeed nailed to the cross through the hands and feet. The fact that this practice was known indicates that this was not a later Christian invention, but John faithfully recording what he saw.
Another interesting inference from the Giv‘at ha-Mivtar findings: Because wood was sparse in the Ancient Near East, it is likely that crucifixions were carried out with olive wood. Because olive trees are not very tall, this would mean that crucifixions would have taken place at or just above eye-level. With a crowd of people gathered around to see Christ’s punishment, those more cowardly disciples in the back row would have a different perspective than that of John the Beloved at the feet of his Lord. Thus the different perspectives in the Gospel narratives.
Crucifixion may kill in a number of ways. Because crucifixions were known to last for days, some victims passed of sepsis, dehydration, starvation, or any of a number of other horrific reasons. However, in the case of Christ, death was the combined result of asphyxiation and cardiac arrest caused by hypovolemic shock. This is evidenced by the record of “blood and water” flowing out of Christ’s spear wound (Jn. 19:34).
As previously mentioned, hypovolemic shock raises the heart rate. This constant pounding away at next to no blood wears the heart down rapidly. Fluid begins to collect around the heart and lungs; a pericardal and pleural effusion, respectively. As the heart fails, the blood slows through the veins and begins to clot. As the soldier’s spear pierced Christ’s side, this mixture of dark red semi-coagulated blood and watery clear serum would have been very obvious to the closer bystander John. His credibility as an eyewitness is increased by the fact that he would have not understood nor been able to explain the “blood and water” that he saw, and yet he recorded it. This phrase is definite evidence that Jesus Christ died on the cross.
In spite of all the demonstrative medical, historical, and archaeological evidence to the contrary, — in spite of the mental anguish, the multiple beatings with fists, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the long walk to Golgotha in His pitiful state, and the sufferings of crucifixion so great that they had to come up with a new word (excruciating, or “out of the cross”) to describe the horrors — some still insist that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. To the Muslim we must ask, do you really believe that John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was confused about what or whom he saw? As he stood near the cross, did he suddenly forget what his rabbi of three and a half years looked like? How could he be so pinpoint accurate about a forensic detail he had no knowledge of, and yet so mistaken as to the identity of a man he had given his life to?
And let us indulge for a moment, against all odds, the strange notion that Christ did not, in fact, die on the cross. First, the idea that He could recover in the tomb unaided is absurd. Josephus had the emperor Titus remove three of his friends from their crosses and got them the best medical help available. Two of them died within a few days (Autobiography, ch. 76; Wars of the Jews, IV v.2). But suppose Jesus’ did all of this: Survived the scourging, the crown of thorns, the various beatings, and the cross itself, and awoke in the tomb. How did He, in His doubtlessly pitiful state, move the stone, pass the guard, walk whatever distance back to Jerusalem, and convince His disciples that they would one day have a resurrection body just like His, and that this was a thing worth dying for? No, the swoon hypothesis clearly falls apart as soon as it faces the facts of history; “that Christ died” is a sure and certain thing.
Stay tuned for part 3: For your sins. As of right now, this series is on hold. I will revive it eventually. Read part 1 here. Questions or comments are both welcome and expected in the form below!