I met a student at Saddleback Community College yesterday who asked, “How can we be sure that Jesus died?” I shared the following information with her, but I didn’t have the quotes at the time. I gave her the website address http://www.contradictmovement.org and told her that there were links to a blog and Facebook and that I would post this for her. I pray that she finds this and that others who need this information will find it too. The important part is not just that he died, but that he was buried, and then raised!
Did Jesus die on a cross?
The Gospel accounts record that darkness fell over all the land for a three hour time span as Jesus hung on the cross. (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44,45) This darkness covering the land is confirmed by the words of Thallus, a Samaratin historian who wrote about twenty years after Jesus’ death, as well as by the Greek historian Phlegon. Their accounts of the darkness are preserved by the 2nd and 3rd century historian, Julius Africanus, who records both Thallus and Phlegon to confirm the same year and time of the darkness as the Gospels. Julius records that Thallus tried to explain the darkness as an eclipse of the sun, yet Julius doesn’t buy this argument because:
The Jews celebrate their Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the death of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover. But an eclipse of the sun can only take place when the moon comes under the sun, how then could an eclipse have occurred when the moon is directly opposite the sun?1
Concerning Phlegon’s account, Julius records, “It is evident that he did not know of any such events in previous years.”2 This darkness is even recorded in Chinese history:
Summer, fourth month, on the day of Ren Wu, the imperial edict reads, “Yen and Yang have mistakenly switched, and the sun and moon were eclipsed. The sins of all the people are now on one man. [The emperor] proclaims pardon to all under heaven.3
The time of this eclipse recorded during the Han Dynasty is placed at 31 A.D., and if the darkening of the sun occurred from noon to three P.M. in Jerusalem that would correspond to be from five to eight P.M. at the current capital of China at the time, Luo Yang, explaining why the Chinese records claim not just a darkening of the sun, but also the moon!4
With such internal and external evidence connecting an unprecedented and unexplainable extinguishing of the sun to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, coupled with accounts of subsequent bodily resurrection; it’s likely that such news reached even the ears of the Roman emperor, who could have sent an investigator who would have had the authority to access all pertinent parties to verify if Jesus was in fact crucified. Many other investigators of lesser political or wealthy status could have made inquiries about his death. It wasn’t as if Pontius Pilate was completely inaccessible. The Jewish Sanhedrin clearly had no problem bringing Jesus before Pilate and Herod to be tried for insurrection. (Luke 23:1-25) Without a doubt, many Jews and Romans in the region would have wanted to investigate Jesus’ death and would have had the means of verifying if Jesus did die by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Even if they couldn’t speak with Pilate in person, there were plenty of witnesses who saw him sentenced to death, since a riotous crowd shouting for Jesus to be crucified forced Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross. (Matthew 27:15-24, Mark 15:9-15, Luke 23:20-25) Surely, an eyewitness from this scene could be found rather easily in the months to years following Jesus’ sentence.
Both Matthew and Mark record that after Jesus’ death sentence, that he was taken to the Praetorium, the governor’s residence, where the entire company of soldiers stationed there stripped him, put a scarlet robe on him, gave him a crown of thorns, mocked him, spit on him, beat him, and had him flogged! (Matthew 27:27-31 and Mark 15:16-20) After this treatment, the Gospels record that the soldiers led Jesus away to his crucifixion. Many of these men would be able to serve as witnesses to Jesus’ death, or if they didn’t see execution through until the end, they would be able to point you to centurion and his soldiers who oversaw his final hours.
Another witness that could likely be found was a man from Cyrene, named Simon. The Synoptic Gospels record that the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. Mark records that this man was the father of Alexander and Rufus. (Mark 15:21) He writes these names as if his audience would have known who they were. Surely, a man named Simon, from Cyrene, who has two sons named Alexander and Rufus, could have been found and interrogated in the early first century. He should be able to answer the following questions with ease: Were you forced to carry a cross at the time of the Passover? Was the man whose cross you carried, Jesus of Nazareth? Did he say anything to you? What was his condition like when you carried his cross? Was he crucified at Golgotha, The Place of the Skull, as Jesus’ disciples claim? Is it true that a sign was placed over his head that said, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”? Did you see Jesus nailed to the cross? What about his death? Did you stay to witness it? Could you tell if any of his followers or family was there for his execution? What did you think about the sky going dark at his crucifixion? Or the earthquake at his death? Do you think they are linked?
The Gospels make mention that many women followers of Jesus were watching his crucifixion: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, Salome, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Jesus’ mother and her sister. Any of these women could have been interrogated to confirm the death of Jesus, as well as the apostle John, who claims in his Gospel to have witnessed the crucifixion, even receiving instructions from Jesus to take care of his mother, Mary, while his rabbi hung on the cross. Already, a large list of supposed witnesses could be located and examined to verify the Gospel accounts that Jesus did in fact die. The greatest witness of them all though, would be the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion, and the soldier who stuck Jesus in the side with a spear (possibly the centurion). The following is what John records of the death that he witnessed:
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19:31-35)
If Jesus was not sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, surely Pontius would publically squelch that rumor, or Herod or the Sanhedrin. If someone other than Jesus was nailed to the cross, the mob who demanded his crucifixion, the women disciples who stayed to his final breaths, his closest disciple, John, should have been able to confirm that Jesus did not die on a cross. If anyone questioned if Jesus could have survived the crucifixion as a possible explanation for how his tomb was empty and people saw him alive post-mortem, the executioners would certainly be able to affirm if he was dead or not. The man who thrust the spear into Jesus’ breathless body would be able to confirm if Jesus died on the cross. The Gospels record that the centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after seeing how Jesus died, said, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). The first century inquirer would seek the centurion for confirmation of Jesus’ death and would learn if he truly did believe Jesus was the Son of God based on the way he died. If any of the Gospel accounts were false on how Jesus died, these witnesses would deny them. Living in the 21st century we have no record that they ever did.
1. “Historical Evidence for Crucifixion Darkness” retrieved from http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/crucifixion_darkness.htm on March 21st, 2013
3. Chan, Kei Thong. Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China. Shanghai, China, 345 Xianxialu, 2006. p. 318.
4. Ibd. p. 318.