Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

Jesus' Death: Did Jesus really die on the cross?

The death of Jesus Christ is a central element of The Main Message of the Bible. It is therefore hotly disputed by skeptics. The Koran also denies Jesus' death by crucifixion. This article will examine the evidence for it.

A Mistaken Identity?

Some skeptics suggest that instead of Jesus, some one else was crucified on the cross. This cannot be so because:-

  • Jesus spent the previous week teaching in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. So he was a familiar face at least to those who frequented the temple - including the Pharisees who got him killed.
  • Jesus had no identical twin brother.
  • Jesus was handed over to armed men by Judas Iscariot, who had spent three years with him, and so obviously recognized him. The image shows the Garden of Gethsamane, the place where Jesus was arrested.
  • Jesus had three trials (with Caiaphas, Herod and Pontius Pilate). If the wrong person was on trial, he would have pleaded so and verification would have been easily accomplished.
  • The maid would not have been able to confront Peter if someone other than Jesus was on trial (Luke 22:56-57)
  • There was no time lag between the final trial/sentencing and the execution. Therefore there is no possibility of a different victim being brought in just after the trial.
  • The Pharisees, full of hatred towards Jesus, were present at the trial and the crucifixion. They certainly would not keep quiet if Jesus was allowed to disappear!
  • Finally, the crucifixion itself was a public affair, with a large section of the city watching.

Some objections

Muslim apologists offer the following arguments to oppose the Biblical teaching on Jesus' death:-
  • "The early Christians did not believe that Jesus was crucified." To support their claim, they cite second century groups such as the Basilidians, the Cerinthians, and the Carpocratians. However, unlike the apostles, the leaders of these groups were not eye-witnesses to Jesus - their disbelief in Jesus' death was more a matter of what they believed rather than saw. Details. Also note the poetic feel of passages such as Philippians 2:5-11; these passages were evidently poems or songs in circulation among first century Christians. This shows that first century Christians believed in Jesus' death.
  • "Judas was crucified instead of Jesus" The only support for this idea (apart from Muhammad's claims) is the Gospel of Barnabas, an error-ridden forgery from the 16th century
  • "The Bible of today (which affirms Jesus' death and resurrection) is a corruption of the original, so what it says cannot be trusted." This claim is invalid
  • "How could God let his son be killed by scoundrels?" We believe stuff because because it is true, not because it fits our preconceived ideas of what God should do or what reality should be like. The (incredible) fact that God gave His Son to die for us only magnifies our gratitude for Him.

Accompanying signs

The Bible says that Jesus' death was accompanied by darkness and an earthquake. What do the historians say?

"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [AD 32-33], a failure of the Sun took place greater than any previously known, and night came on at the sixth hour of the day [noon], so that stars actually appeared in the sky; and a great earthquake took place in Bithynia and overthrew the greater part of Niceaea," - Phlegon Trallianus records in his history, Olympiades. See John Chapman, Phlegon Examined Critically and Impartially (Cambridge University Press, London, 1734) 

Phlegon was a Greek freedman who wrote his histories during the reign of Hadrian (117-138 AD). His birthplace, Tralles, was near Ephesus.

Phlegon's Olympiades are largely lost to history, but this fragment concerning the failure of the Sun is unusually well-attested. Seven ancient historians directly quote it: Eusibius, The Chronicon Alexandrinum, Syncellus, Jerom, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, The Historia Miscella and Freculphus Lexoviensis. Other ancients, such as Julius Africanus, Joannes Philoponus, Maximus, Malelas and Origen, cite Phlegon's account without quoting it.

Another historian, Julius Africanus also comments:-

"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History [written in ~52 AD], calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun."

Africanus realized that a solar eclipse cannot occur at the time of the Passover full moon. Note that within a few decades of the start of the church, the story of Christ's death and its accompanying darkness was well known and secular Romans felt the need to explain it away. A similar explanation by the Jews occurs in 'Acts of Pilate' (11.6), fourth century.

The Reliability of the Biblical Record

The Bible records:

“Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him [Jesus]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he speaks the truth, so that you may believe [John is referring to himself as an eye witness]. For these things were done that the [Old Testament] Scripture should be fulfilled: Not one of His bones shall be broken. And again another Scripture says: They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” – John 19: 31 to 37

Thus, Roman soldiers wanting to kill the victims for the day found that Jesus was dead. Now you and I (like 7th century Arabians such as Muhammad) are not used to crucifixion. But the Roman soldiers were, since they performed it every other day. Needless to say, the word of a Roman soldier who was present at that place at that time is more reliable than the Koranic claim made a thousand miles away, 700 years later.
 
Also:-

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming, boldly went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate marveled that He had already died; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for awhile. And when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.” – Mark 15:43-45

Here we have the certification of a Roman centurion (captain of hundred soldiers). If you know anything about the Roman Empire, you know that they were very particular about law enforcement (see Acts 23, for example). If there was a lapse, the centurion would be on a cross the next day. Again, when a Roman official, who will be severely penalized for any lapse (see Acts 12:1-19 and Acts 16:27 for examples) certifies that Jesus is dead, there is no reason to doubt that. It is unwise to ignore the death certificate issued by the Roman authority, and trust an Arab nomad who lived seven centuries later instead. The hillock near the Garden Tomb (image), Jerusalem, is the most probable location of Golgotha (Matthew 27:33), the place where the Bible mentions Jesus was crucified.
 
Doctor Simpson (the discoverer of chloroform) studied crucifixion, and concluded that Jesus died of extravasation of the blood. The blood escapes into the pericardium and prevents the heart from beating. There the blood stands for a short time; it separates into the serum (water) and clots (the red corpuscles). Such a death is characterized by:-
  • Outstretched arms
  • A loud cry
  • Water and clotted blood accumulating in the body near the heart.
This is perfectly consistent with the Biblical narrative (see Luke 23:46, John 19:34).
 
Having quoted Mark and John, let us see how the other Biblical writers reported Jesus' death:-
  • "Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded his Spirit" - Matthew 27:50. Matthew also tells us the Pharisees insisted to Pilate that there was a danger of resurrection claim being made and so the body had to be kept safe (Matthew 27:63-65). The easier way to refute the resurrection would obviously be to wait for Jesus to revive. The very fact that the Pharisees agreed for a burial proves that there was no doubt that Jesus was dead.
  • "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost." - Luke 23:46
  • The apostles affirmed Jesus' death (Acts 3:15, 4:10, 5:30), as did Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:52)
  • Paul affirms Jesus' death (1 Corinthians 15:3). If what he wrote wasn't true, his letter would be rejected since the Corinthian church was visited by many Jewish opponents of Paul (2 Corinthians 11:22).
Thus, the Biblical record of Jesus' death is impeccable. There is no need to doubt it. Also see: general arguments for the authenticity of the Bible.

Conclusion

Jesus indeed died on that cross of Calvary - for you.