In a book that I highly recommend, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D. and Michael R. Licona, Ph.D. lay out five facts about Jesus that are basically beyond dispute. These facts are nearly universally accepted by scholars, both Christian and skeptic. They are strongly attested historically, and they do not rely on the Bible being divinely inspired or even reliable to be accepted. Let’s take a look at those five facts, and while we’re at it, I’ll add one of my own:
- Jesus existed
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them
- The church persecutor, Paul, suddenly changed and became a leading Christian missionary
- The skeptic (and brother of Jesus), James, suddenly changed and became a Christian
- The tomb was empty
In this post, the first of a three-part series, we’ll address the first two facts.
Fact 1: Jesus Existed
I’ve added this one to Habermas’ and Licona’s list. Why? Because there have been a number of authors who have claimed that Jesus never existed, that he was nothing more than a mythical construct. Almost to a person, these authors have made unsupported assertions, used shoddy “scholarship,” and tried to peddle false stories to support their own biases. Unfortunately, a large number of people who read the works of these authors are not well-informed, and could easily be swayed by such false claims.
For example, one common assertion is that the “Jesus Myth” is an outgrowth of other “dying and rising god” myths. Never mind that some of those myths were not known in Jesus’ part of the world…and that Jesus actually predates a number of them. In another example, some authors claim that Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, did not exist in the first century. Their arguments sound plausible, too, until one learns that recent archeological findings show that Nazareth existed as described in the New Testament.
At any rate, I don’t have the space to fully dismantle the “Jesus Myth” argument here. However, an excellent book on the topic has been written by Professor Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman is an agnostic, and no friend of Christianity. His agnosticism stems from his philosophical inability to reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of an all-powerful, good God (an issue which we’ll address via other posts). Nevertheless, in his book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Erhman does an excellent job of eviscerating proponents of the “Jesus Myth.”
Ehrman’s book does, in my opinion, run off the rails when he attempts to explain who he believes Jesus really was (a poor, illiterate, apocalyptic prophet). It’s in that section that he departs from scholarship and enters into the realm of unsupported assertion.
Nevertheless, his book is highly recommended for its skillful annihilation of the “Jesus Myth” argument. According to Ehrman (p.4), “The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist…I hardly need to stress what I have already intimated: the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.”
Fact 2: Jesus Died by Crucifixion
Crucifixion was a tortuous means of execution employed by the Romans, and it was typically reserved for lower-class criminals, traitors, slaves, violent insurrectionists, and others that the Roman authorities deemed undesirable.
Often, the condemned was beaten with a scourge prior to being tied to a wooden cross that was laid on the ground. Then, nails would be driven through the condemned person’s wrists and feet, effectively nailing them to the cross. The cross would then be raised into the vertical position and dropped into a post hole to keep it vertical.
As a result of all this, the person would die a slow, painful death, primarily due to asphyxiation. The manner in which the person was hung—with outstretched arms—made breathing very difficult unless they pushed upward (on nailed feet) to relieve pressure on the diaphragm. If a person lingered too long, then Roman soldiers would sometimes use a heavy club to break their legs while on the cross. This hastened death by making it impossible to push up, and therefore impossible to breathe.
Death by crucifixion was considered a disgrace and a curse by Jewish people at the time.
The fact that Jesus died by crucifixion is extremely well attested historically. All four canonical gospels relate the crucifixion story. Remember that these books were written by different people at different times, two of whom would have been eyewitnesses.
In addition, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about the crucifixion in The Antiquities, saying, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.”
Tacitus, the first century Roman historian, also writes in his 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.”
Other non-Christian writers also mention the crucifixion. One of whom is Lucian, the 2nd century Greek satirist. In The Death of Peregrine, he writes, “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished person who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.”
Considering that death by crucifixion was considered a disgrace and a curse, it’s highly unlikely that followers of Jesus would invent the notion that he died in that manner. The bottom line is this: Jesus was executed by crucifixion. All reputable scholars—Christian and skeptic—accept this fact.
In the next part, we’ll address two more facts that are widely acknowledged by scholars of all types, and that don’t rely on the Bible’s “inspired nature” or even its general trustworthiness to be accepted.
Image Attribution: “Henry Thomas Bosdet , Painting of Jesus before his crucifixion 2″ by Man vyi – own photo. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – Link