Crucifixion Historicity

I have heard the claim that Jesus never died on the cross many times over the years, in person, in the press, on the web and via social media. Here is my reply.

First it’s important to understand where the question comes from. Occasionally you hear it from people claiming Jesus only ‘swooned’ and revived in the tomb and exited, thus explaining the empty tomb in a way that removes the need for resurrection. It’s not a theory generally pursued much today.

But more often these days, the claim Jesus never died on the cross is asserted strongly by Muslim conversation partners, based on this verse from the Qu’ran 4:157, which includes these words (translated into English):

And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them.

I myself have sometimes raised raised the death of Jesus by crucifixion as a test case when people say that really all religions basically teach the same things.

In this case, I am simply applying the law of non-contradiction. That is, Jesus was either crucified, as the Bible says, or he was not, as the Qu’ran says. (There is a third possibility: that both claims are wrong, for example, if he never existed, which I have previously addressed.)

How do we assess such a claim? One might simply accept the claim of a particular source of revelation and authority. That is, for other reasons, which may be better or worse, you come to trust (i.e. exercise faith) in the claims of the Bible or the Qu’ran on this matter.

However in the public arena, I proceed by making an historical argument. And historical judgments are based on the balance of probabilities, rather than certainties. Since we have no direct access to the past, that is the only way we can proceed.

On that basis, let me summarise why Jesus’ execution by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate can be considered such a secure fact of ancient history.

Multiple Attestation

Firstly, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested, by a fair number of ancient sources, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

In regards to Christian sources which mention his death, I list from the first century AD all four canonical Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, all within the Bible; then Ignatius’ Epistles (dating around 110 AD, for example, his Letter to the Symrnaeans, chapters 1 and 2). Many, if not all, of these sources are independent.

Here’s one example I focused on recently in preaching through Mark (usually dated as the earliest Gospel). The narrative in Mark 15:44-45 makes it clear Jesus really was dead. The history books record that men who were crucified sometimes took two or three days to die. A more rapid death was unusual. So in this case, the governor Pilate gets the expert executioner to confirm the death certificate! The observation that Roman centurions were professional soldiers and didn’t make mistakes is well taken. So satisfied, Pilate permitted the body of Jesus to be buried.

By the way, there was a very low probability of surviving execution by crucifixion. Apparently there is only one extant account (in Josephus) of one person surviving crucifixion out of the hundreds reported in ancient literature. (And that case was only when excellent medical care was immediately provided by the Romans, and even so, only one out of three who were so rescued actually survived!)

Criterion of Embarrassment

Mark also stresses that it was women who witnessed the events: death, burial and empty tomb. And each time, verbs of seeing are emphasized. And each time, some of them are named. Mark 15:40 says that when Jesus has just died, at least three women are there. Two of these same women witnessed the burial (Mark 15:47). And in Mark 16:1, all three women are again mentioned as arriving back at the tomb on resurrection Sunday. The appeal to these women’s role as eyewitnesses couldn’t be clearer.

And notice how Mark reports only two of the three are at the burial? Presumably because that’s how it was. Mark wasn’t going to exaggerate. This precision shows a real concern for accuracy.

And presumably these people are mentioned by name in the Gospels, because they were well-known in early church times for their testimony to these crucial events in the origins of Christianity. It’s an accepted method of ancient historiography: the appeal to witnesses, many of whom could be cross-examined. It would have been hard to write, if there were not real people around to back up these claims.

Now both Graeco-Roman and Jewish sources from around the Mediterranean at this time indicated that a woman’s testimony was mostly considered unreliable at law. Much as it sounds sexist to modern ears, with the prejudice of those days, women were seen as gullible. So if you were embellishing a ‘Jesus story’ later on, you wouldn’t compound the difficulty by inventing women as key witnesses!

So the obvious reason for naming women is that the embarrassing fact was true. This is the criterion of embarrassment. Ironically, the reason for the report’s lack of credibility in the 1st century is the reason for its credibility in the 21st century!

Non-Christian sources

In regards to non-Christian sources, I mention Josephus (Antiquities 18:3, writing c. 93 AD, citing Jesus’ name, the method of crucifixion, and the governor who ordered it, Pilate), Tacitus (Annals 15:44, writing c. 115 AD, mentioning execution under Pilate, but not the method), and a bit later, Lucian (b. c.125 AD in The Death of Peregrine). I could add many others later, all of which pre-date the Qu’ran by a several centuries.

In regards to reliability of Josephus, and his so-called ‘Testimonium Flavianum’, there is enormous literature debating this issue. There are three main positions. The first, a minority position among scholars, favours its entire authenticity. The second, also a minority position, treats the entire section as Christian interpolation. The third, which is by far and away the majority position among scholars suggests Josephus mentions Jesus in this text but his words were subsequently doctored. While there is debate about how much of the material is interpolation, most include the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion under Pilate, while excluding part or all reference to the resurrection.

By contrast, it is an interesting exercise to ask sceptics for any extent examples of ancient non-Christian sources to the contrary, dating in the first or second century, and insisting that Jesus did not die by Roman execution, for example, suggesting that it only looked like Jesus was crucified!

Early dating

These reports, especially those in the New Testament, are early. Paul mentions the death of Jesus no later than 55 AD in 1 Corinthians and earlier in Galatians. And he reports he preached the same message to the Corinthians when he was with them in 50-51 AD, which is within 17-21 years of the time Jesus is said to have died (depending on whether you go for 30 or 33 AD). And the oral tradition formula he reports preaching in 1 Cor 15:3ff is widely assessed by scholars who have considered the subject to have been composed very early, reflecting what was taught by the Jerusalem apostles, very likely within a few years, or maybe even months of the events being reported.

For example, atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann, in The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (2004), agrees that,

the discovery of pre-Pauline confessional formulations is one of the great achievements of recent New Testament scholarship. (p. 37)

Indeed Ludemann thinks the formula within 1 Corinthians 15:3ff was composed very early, within,

the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus. (p. 31)

All this underlines my point about the earliness of the reports of the death of Jesus. This is the criterion of antiquity.

By contrast, the Qu’ran dates no earlier than 610 A.D. when Muslims indicate that the angel Gabriel first appeared and began to speak to Muhammad. And so its testimony that Jesus did not really die on the cross dates more than 5 centuries later than the earliest written claims of his crucifixion. There is a massive gap back to the events it claims to report.

The verdict of modern historians

Historians judge on how they assess the balance of probabilities. Almost all scholars who have studied the subject conclude Jesus died by crucifixion. Here are some representative samples.

John McIntyre, “The Uses of History in Theology”, Studies in World Christianity 7.1, 2001:

Even those scholars and critics who have been moved to depart from almost everything else within the historical content of Christ’s presence on earth have found it impossible to think away the factuality of the death of Christ. (p. 8)

Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, 2004:

Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable. (p. 50)

JD Crossan, who denies the authenticity of many of the saying and deeds attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels, says in The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 1999:

 [there is not the] slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. (p. 375)

He’s repeating his point from Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1994:

That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be. (p. 145)

Geza Vermes, the late Jewish New Testament scholar, The Passion: The True Story of an Event that Changed Human History, 2006:

The passion of Jesus is part of history. (p. 9)


Bart Erhrman, renowned textual critic, but no friend of traditional Christianity, in The Historical Jesus: Lecture Transcript and Course Guidebook, 2000, says:

One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. (p. 162)

Roman Catholic scholar, RE Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1994:

Most scholars accept the uniform testimony of the Gospels that Jesus died during the Judean prefecture of Pontius Pilate. (p. 1373)

It’s getting a bit tedious. I could cite many other scholars to this end.


I have used several standard aspects of reputable historical method (e.g. the criteria of multiple attestation, of embarrassment, of antiquity).

And the assessment that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is factual is shared by a very wide consensus of scholarship, including many of those unsympathetic to biblical Christianity. In fact, the wideness of the consensus is almost unprecedented in biblical scholarship.

I think it fair to say this manages the bias of my own horizons more than adequately. I am not so sure about others who ignore this consensus.

And so I am confident to say the Bible is absolutely correct and truthful when it says Jesus died by crucifixion and therefore (although I am sorry to put it so bluntly) the Qu’ran is wrong when it asserts Jesus did not die this way.

16 thoughts on “Crucifixion Historicity

  1. Once again, a tip of the hat to Michael Licona, as a source for many quotes from modern scholar, in his magisterial, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP/Apollos; 2010)

  2. Perhaps “Jesus was hung on a tree” as per early tradition of 1 Peter 2:24 and this story was built on Deuteronomy 21:22-23 and Joshua 10:26.

    BTW this article makes so many nonsense apologists claims that get repeated and believed.
    – Four canonical Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles and Ignatius’ Epistles are not independent sources
    – Nobody was embarrassed about women being witnesses
    – Women were not considered unreliable witnesses in the 1st century in this matter
    – There are no “any examples of ancient non-Christian sources to the contrary”. Having possessed that after Christians got to power would have got you killed and Christian made sure all those copies would have been burned
    – 1 Cor 15:3ff is a confession of faith. Eye witnesses would not have needed that. It is probably a later addition.

    But the biggest misinformation here is:
    “Almost all scholars who have studied the subject conclude Jesus died by crucifixion”
    None of the thousands Muslim scholars agree with this.
    You should have said that almost all Christian scholars…

    So there is no “very wide consensus of scholarship” of people “unsympathetic to biblical Christianity” like you claimed. Your claim that you used “standard aspects of reputable historical method” is misleading as you said you “exercise faith” as your starting point. Starting from the faith position does not lead to historical truth and Muslim start from their faith and don’t end up in your historical truth.

    • Jon, your refutation by assertion is not compelling. To make it credible you’re going to need to provide some evidence.

      So, for example, can you offer anything to substantiate your assertion that “nobody was embarrassed about women being witnesses”? There’s certainly ample evidence that the testimony of women in Second Temple Judaism was not held in high regard (e.g. Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:8; compare also “In postexilic times, rabbinic codes make comprehensive but not categorical prohibitions against women’s testimony,” The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 560).

      I suspect Sandy’s point in mentioning the array of scholars who do claim that the crucifixion was historical was that there are many who are not Christians who hold that position. So perhaps it would be more correct to say “almost all non-Muslim scholars…”

    • Martin,

      Encyclopedia Judaica states “Women are admitted as competent witnesses in matters within their particular knowledge, for example, on customs or events in places frequented only by women” and “for purposes of identification”. Women job was mourning. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, Folio 31b has more to read. It is not true that women were “not credible”.

      In ancient Near East myths had commonly women going and looking for their dead God and witnessing the miracle of hero getting back to life; Osiris, Baal story etc. People were used to this kind of happy endings in their religious stories. So no embarrassment there.

      I haven’t read “The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary”. Is that another apologist book?

      RE: “Sandy’s point in mentioning the array of scholars” – Sure. Christians support Christian positions on crucifixion.

    • Hi Jon,

      I think the key phrase is “in matters within their particular knowledge.” That would readily allow the women’s report in the gospels to be called into question where a man’s report would have been given more weight (and these are among the more favourable treatments of women at the time).

      Can you point out where human women are recorded as witnesses to the “resurrection” of specific deities in the ancient Near East?

    • You said:
      “That would readily allow the women’s report in the gospels to be called into question”
      Why? They were considered credible in mourning events and identification.

      But even if women’s report in the gospels was called into question that does not follow that somebody was embarrassed about.

      You asked:
      “Can you point out where human women are recorded as witnesses to the “resurrection” of specific deities in the ancient Near East?”
      You missed my point.

    • Jon, by “you missed my point” do you mean that your claim that “ancient Near East myths had commonly women going and looking for their dead God and witnessing the miracle of hero getting back to life” was wrong? I don’t recall this happening in either the Baʿal cycle or Osiris.

      And given the rather unusual claims, I don’t think that expertise in “mourning events and identification” would automatically qualify their testimony as valid.

  3. Jon, sorry not to reply earlier. But thanks to Martin for chipping in.

    I have several comments.

    1. Have the courage to follow our commenting rules and leave your full name.

    2. Back up your confident assertions with proper and specific references. E.g. re. Osiris and Baal – you make the point clear by your proper citations, re. Christians in power burning all alternative documentary sources.

    3. For my wide consensus of scholars who grant the historicity of the crucifixion of Christ, I quoted scholars who are atheistic, who are Jewish and who are very liberal Christians (for example, denying the resurrection), and not just Bible-based Christians. I made this clear in how I introduced those scholars and yet you wilfully or obtusely ignore that and suggest I was just citing Christian scholars. I think it’s obvious whose bias this reveals.

    4. Re. multiple attestation, Paul is clearly textually independent of the Gospels. Re. the Gospels, there is some overlap, e.g. Matthew and Luke seem to depend on Mark at some (but not all points). But Mark and John are independent on many matters, and M (Matthew-specific) and L (Luke-specific) each have information regarding the crucifixion that it independent of the other sources. I don’t think this is an especially controversial suggestion.

  4. 2. citation:
    RE Osiris: Life on earth: Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book 1; Death: Plutarch, On
    Isis and Osiris
    E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, Volume 1, is old but good with pictures of Osiris and Isis hieroglyphs

    RE Baal; Read Baal Cycle in Ras Shamra tablets section where Mot kills Baal and following Anat’s role (available online)

    RE Christians in power burning all alternative documentary sources:
    Read J. Kirsch “God against the Gods” about Christian persecution of pagans
    Read “The Codex Theodosianus” (available online) which includes persecution of Gnostics who had different view of crucifixion. The Codex Theodosianus gave the power to Christians to do whatever they wanted to pagans. This continued over 1000 years under many rulers.

    3. You excluded from your “wide consensus of scholars” people who disagres with your “wide consensus of scholars”; Muslims, Gnostics, some Hindu scholars, etc. When I point this out you claimed that I am biased. LOL.

    Let’s be honest here. Include all scholars who have investigated the issue and then see how wide the consensus is.

    4. 1 Cor 15:3ff and crucifixion stories in Gospels originated from small group of Jesus’ followers during the weekend Jesus died. These people talked about it among each other and told about it to other people. Paul, Mark, Luke and other Christians wrote about this event years later based on what they heard. They had the same original source of information. Their source of information was not independent like you claimed; all the info depended on single source.

  5. Nice post, Sandy. Together with your clarifications in the comments (such as Matthew’s and Luke’s probable dependence on Mark) this is pretty much the kind of argumentation accepted in secular Classics and Ancient History Departments around the world. Anyone who thinks this line of reasoning is a particularly ‘Christian’ track simply has not read widely in the literature, which is vast and done without any recourse to theology and belief. At my own university (Macquarie), the scholarly books on the historical Jesus would outnumber those on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar combined – and this is the largest Ancient HIstory Department in the Southern Hemisphere.
    Talk of Gnostic sources and, worse, dependence on the Osiris myth is simply avoidance and not history.
    Muslims may still believe that Jesus did not die on a cross but they cannot rely on secular historical argumentation. Their best argument – their only one – is the theological one: the Quran is the Word of God and so it trumps the word of men, even if those human words are multiple, independent and predate the Quran by more than half a millennium.
    In short, you could lay out this article as a lecture in any Classics / Ancient History Department and it would not raise an eyebrow.

  6. John,

    Anyone who thinks I wrote about “dependence on the Osiris myth” clearly did not bother reading my comment before jumping into apologist autopilot mode. So please address my argument, don’t build your own straw men.

    The fact that there are way “more scholarly books on the historical Jesus than on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar combined” does not mean that evidence of historical Jesus is better or worse that Caesar’s. It is more a reflection of people’s interest. So I don’t know what your point is regarding your library size.

    Sandy made it clear how some Christians/he? assess “Jesus was crucified” claim. These Christians/he? exercise *faith* in the claims. But in the public arena, Sandy procees by making an historical argument. This is the mental bait-and-switch. Sandy or historians would not use this faith based method assessing events with Caesar’s or Alexander the Great.

    Starting privately from faith based position, just like many Muslims do, does not lead to reliable conclusion.

    I agree that this faith based method would not raise an eyebrow at your Ancient History Department. I also heard that it is the second home of “Life of Jesus” DVD series. Maybe I should critically review it from non-apologist non-faith-based point of view ;-)

  7. Pingback: Sandy Grant – Crucifixion Historicity » Christian Apologetics & Intelligence Ministry

  8. Thanks Sandy. Jesus death seems hard to dispute on historical grounds. But the discussion in the comments was also helpful in the end. Made me think thru the historical method itself, and how we can actually work out what happened in the past. I wonder if an article on that from someone would be worthwhile.

  9. Simon, it’s more than article length, but Mike Licona’s book, mentioned in the first comment above, spends plenty of time on historiography – the actual historical method.

  10. Simon, a brief summary…

    1. Have a careful method. E.g. for collection and weighing data, testing adequacy of hypotheses, with fair consideration of alternatives. So historians talk about things like the criteria of multiple attestation, of embarrassment, of antiquity). The assessment that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is factual is shared by a very wide consensus of scholarship, including many of those unsympathetic to biblical Christianity. In fact, the wideness of the consensus is almost unprecedented in biblical scholarship.

    2. Make your horizon (or presuppositions) along with your method public and open to scrutiny and challenge.

    3. Accept that peer pressure may (not must) play a role in minimizing the impact of your own horizon on your work as a historian. Although sometimes a peer consensus needs to be challenged and has developed uncritically.

    4. Submit your ideas to unsympathetic experts. They have a motive to locate the weaknesses in hypotheses that compete with their own.

    5. Account for the historical ‘bedrock’ – which means the facts that are so strongly evidenced that they are virtually indisputable (understanding that historical judgments are probabilistic).

    These points suggest that when a wide consensus exists about a matter across a significant number of scholars from a variety of different camps, then this gives you confidence that horizons of personal bias have been well managed.

    Licona goes on to suggest that in weighing hypotheses in terms of how they account for historical bedrock one might consider the following criteria:

    1. Explanatory scope – the hypothesis that accounts for more of the facts is preferable to the one that account for less.

    2. Explanatory power – the hypothesis that explains data with least amount of effort, vagueness, or ambiguity is more likely to be correct.

    3. Plausibility. Does the hypothesis fit to a greater degree with a greater variety of the accepted background truths?

    4. Less ad hoc. Does the hypothesis smuggle in non-evidenced assumptions? Other things being equal, it’s to be preferred less.

    5. Illumination. Does the hypothesis also provide solutions to other historical problems without undermining other areas of knowledge held with confidence? If so, it has something extra to commend it.

    Get the Licona book.

Comments are closed.