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Can We Be Certain that Jesus Died On A Cross?
A Look at the Ancient Practice of Crucifixion

By Mike Licona


All four New Testament Gospels report that Jesus was crucified and died as a result. Is the evidence sufficient to warrant the conclusion that these reports are accurate? Before investigating for an answer, I would like to note the importance of this question. The atoning death and resurrection of Jesus are the cornerstone doctrines of Christianity. If either failed to occur, the Christianity preached by the apostles is false. For if Jesus did not die on the cross, there is no sacrificial death on behalf of our sins as the New Testament teaches. Moreover, since the term "resurrection" refers to the transformation of a corpse into an immortal body, if Jesus did not die, there was no corpse to be transformed by a resurrection.

Without a resurrection, Christianity is falsified. The apostle Paul taught: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless" (1 Cor. 15:17 HCSB). The Gospels report that Jesus likewise said that his resurrection would serve as proof that His claims about Himself were true (see Matt. 12:39-40; John 2:18-22). Thus, according to Jesus and Paul, if the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, it is time to find another worldview. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus' death by crucifixion is a link that cannot be broken if Christianity is to be regarded as true.

In this article, I would like to provide four reasons that support the credibility of the claim that Jesus died as a result of being crucified.

First, Jesus' execution is reported in a number of ancient sources: Christian and non-Christian. In addition to the four Gospels and a number of letters contained in the New Testament, all of which were written in the first century, Jesus' execution is even reported by a number of ancient non-Christian sources. Josephus (late first century), Tacitus (early second century), Lucian (early to mid second century), and Mara bar Serapion (second to third centuries) all report the event. The fact that these non-Christians mentioned Jesus in their writings shows that Jesus' death was known outside of Christian circles and was not something the Christians invented.

Second, the probability of surviving crucifixion was very low. Crucifixion and the torture that many times preceded it may have been the worst way to die in antiquity. Many of us saw Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, and witnessed the brutal practice of scourging. A number of ancient sources describe it, such as Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century who tells of a man who had been whipped so severely that he was filleted to the bone.1 Elsewhere he reports that a group was whipped until their intestines were exposed.2 In a second century text named The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Roman whip is said to expose a person's veins and arteries.3 The victim was then taken outside the city walls where soldiers using nails would impale him to a cross or a tree.4 Then he was left hanging in excruciating pain. In fact, the word "excruciating" comes from the Latin "out of the cross." In the first century, a Roman philosopher named Seneca described crucified victims as having battered and ineffective carcasses, maimed, misshapen, deformed, nailed and "drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony." 5

Only one account exists of a person surviving crucifixion. Josephus reported seeing three of his friends crucified.6 He quickly appealed to his friend the Roman commander Titus who ordered that all three be removed immediately and provided the best medical care Rome had to offer. In spite of this action, two of the three still died. Thus, even if Jesus had been removed prematurely and medically assisted, His chances of survival were bleak. Even with that, no evidence exists that Jesus was removed while alive or that He was provided any medical care whatsoever, much less Rome's best.

Third, professional medical opinions are unanimous in concluding that Jesus certainly died as a result of being crucified.7 While some debate remains regarding the actual cause of death by crucifixion, the majority opinion is that He died by asphyxiation-or from a lack of oxygen. Our historical understanding of crucifixion supports that conclusion. A number of ancient sources report the practice of breaking legs in order to expedite death on the cross.8 How would this expedite death? I have two friends, each of which is a director of the emergency room at two metropolitan hospitals.9 I asked each of them if there were any medical reasons for why breaking the legs of a crucified victim would expedite their death. They answered that a few possibilities exist, but that these would certainly be rare. So how would breaking a crucified victim's legs expedite their death?

During the first and second World Wars, the Germans often tortured victims by a practice called aufbinden, during which they would tie victims by their wrists and lift them up so that only their toes could touch the ground if they tried. When the victim tired, they would relax. As a result, they would find it difficult to breath. Since the muscles used for inhaling are stronger than the muscles used for exhaling, carbon dioxide would build up and the victim would die an uncomfortable death. Experiments on live volunteers, suspended with the inability to touch the ground, revealed that one could not remain conscious longer than twelve minutes in this position, as long as their arms were at a 45- degree angle or less. Breaking the legs of a crucified victim would prevent them from pushing up against the nail in their feet, an excruciating move, in order to make it easier to breath, albeit temporarily. It is the opinion of my two ER physician friends that, due to the trauma already experienced by a crucified victim, once He had died on a cross from a lack of oxygen, and had remained dead in that position for five minutes, there would be no chance of resuscitating Him. In addition, the Gospel of John reports that one of the guards pierced Jesus to confirm that He was already dead (see John 19:34-37), a practice likewise mentioned by Quintillian, a Roman historian in the first century.10

Is there reason to believe that the Romans would desire to expedite Jesus' death on the cross? A well-known Jewish historian from the first century named Josephus mentions that prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, it was the custom of the Jews there to remove the crucified from their crosses and bury them prior to sunset.11 There are reports of a crucified victim living as long as three days on his cross and of victims left on their crosses for a lengthy period of time after death to serve as food for birds, dogs, and insects. However, this was not the practice in Jerusalem prior to its destruction in A.D. 70. Jesus was crucified in either A.D. 30 or 33. Thus, we have very good reason for believing that Jesus' death was ensured by the Romans prior to sunset on the day He was executed.

Fourth, even if Jesus had somehow managed to survive crucifixion, He would not have inspired His disciples to believe that He had been resurrected. Imagine Jesus, half-dead in the tomb. He revives out of a coma and finds Himself afraid in the dark. He places his nail-pierced hands on the very heavy stone blocking His exit and pushes it out of the way. Then, He is met by the guards who say "Where do you think you're going, Pal?" He answers, "I'm out of this hole." He then beats up the guards, after which He walks blocks if not miles on pierced and wounded feet in order to find His disciples. Finally, He comes to the house where they are staying and knocks on the door. Peter opens the door and sees Jesus hunched over in his pathetic and mutilated state and says, "Wow! I can't wait to have a resurrection body just like yours!" The historian must ask how likely it is that Jesus could have convinced his disciples in His wounded condition that He was the risen Lord of life in an immortal body. Alive? Barely. Risen? No way.

In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. It is attested to by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and, thus, not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events; the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak; the unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigors of crucifixion, and even if Jesus had somehow managed to survive crucifixion, it would not have resulted in the disciples' belief that He had been resurrected.

Even the highly skeptical co-founder of the Jesus Seminar John Dominic Crossan concludes, "That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."12 Then on three occasions in the same book, Crossan affirms that this event resulted in Jesus' death. Similarly, the atheist New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann writes, "Jesus' death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable."13 Thus, given the strong evidence for Jesus' death by crucifixion, without good evidence to the contrary, the historian must conclude that Jesus was crucified and that the process killed Him.

1Wars 6:304. See also 2:612; Antiquities 12:256.
2Wars 2:612.
3Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:2.
4An overwhelming majority of ancient sources mention the use of nails in impaling the punished to a cross or tree. Since John's Gospel mentions the use of nails in Jesus' crucifixion (20:25, 27) and Luke implies it (24:39), no good reasons exist for thinking that Jesus was not nailed to his cross.
5Seneca, Epistles, "To Lucilius" 101.
6Josephus, Life 420-21.
7A number of these are mentioned in Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Volume 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1088ff.
8Cicero, Orations, Speech 13, 12:27; Gospel of Peter 4:14. In the Gospel of Peter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would suffer longer.
9Dr. Jim Ritchie and Dr. Jack Mason.
10Declamationes maiores 6:9: "As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced."
11Jewish War 4:317. 
12John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollings, 1991), 145.
13Gerd Lüdemann. The Resurrection of Christ (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.