All posts by Bill Pratt

Commentary on John 20b (Jesus Appears to the Twelve)

The Sunday evening of Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples are gathered in a house in Jerusalem, with the doors locked because they are afraid the Jewish leadership will find and arrest them. Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them and says “Peace be with you,” a common Jewish greeting, but filled with deeper meaning. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary , explains:

Though a common word, šâlōm was also the embracing term used to denote the unqualified well-being that would characterize the people of God once the eschatological kingdom had dawned. Jesus’ ‘” Shalom!” on Easter evening is the complement of “it is finished” on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted … Not surprisingly it is included, along with “grace,” in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT’ (Beasley-Murray, p. 379).

To prove that his body was physical, and not ghostly or immaterial, Jesus invites the disciples to look at the wounds in his hands and his side. Once they realize that he is physically present with them, the disciples are filled with joy.

Jesus then commissions them to continue his ministry after he is gone. He promises them the Holy Spirit as a seal on their authority to be his apostles (messengers). Jesus instructs them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Jesus is here referring to evangelism. Gerald Borchert, in John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary , explains:

Thus one could say that Jesus’ followers are to make the Gospel so clear that it is evident where people stand on the nature of sin. When these texts are understood in this perspective, it should become clear that Jesus’ commission to his followers is not one of privileged judgment but of weighty responsibility to represent the will of God in Christ with extreme faithfulness and to be honest and authentic about their evaluations or judgments.

This statement by Jesus would have been especially comforting to believers in the first century because the traditional Jewish authorities in the local synagogues had been the arbiters of God’s demands. First-century believers had mostly been excommunicated from synagogues, so John is making clear to them that Jesus’ followers have become God’s messengers, not the Jewish religious institutions of the day.

Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , adds:

Forgiveness of sins is one of the major benefits of the death of Jesus. It is the essence of the New Covenant (cf. Matt. 26:28; Jer. 31:31–34). Proclaiming the forgiveness of sins was the prominent feature of the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts. Jesus was giving the Apostles (and by extension, the church) the privilege of announcing heaven’s terms on how a person can receive forgiveness. If one believes in Jesus, then a Christian has the right to announce his forgiveness. If a person rejects Jesus’ sacrifice, then a Christian can announce that that person is not forgiven.

In verse 24, we learn that the disciple Thomas was not present on Resurrection Sunday when Jesus appeared before the Twelve. When the rest of the Twelve tell Thomas they saw Jesus, he is skeptical that Jesus is really alive. He likely believes that they saw a ghost or a spirit. Thomas needs to physically touch Jesus’ wounds before he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead.

One week later, the disciples are again gathered in the same house, and this time Thomas is with them. Again Jesus appears in a locked room among them. Jesus invites Thomas to inspect his hands and his side so that Thomas will believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. We are not sure if Thomas does touch Jesus, but regardless, he has seen enough!

In verse 28, Thomas exclaims the climactic confession of the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas, the most skeptical of the Twelve, has proclaimed that Jesus is God, thus affirming the words of John in the prologue of his Gospel. D. A. Carson writes:

The thoughtful reader of this Gospel immediately recognizes certain connections: (1) Thomas’ confession is the climactic exemplification of what it means to honour the Son as the Father is honoured (5:23). It is the crowning display of how human faith has come to recognize the truth set out in the Prologue: ‘The Word was God …; the Word became flesh’ (1:1, 14). (2) At the same time, Jesus’ deity does not exhaust deity; Jesus can still talk about his God and Father in the third person. After all, this confession is set within a chapter where the resurrected Jesus himself refers to ‘my Father … my God’ (v. 17). This is entirely in accord with the careful way he delineates the nature of his unique sonship (5:16–30). (3) The reader is expected to articulate the same confession, as the next verse implies. John’s readers, like Thomas, need to come to faith; and this is what coming to faith looks like.

Jesus (and John) both recognize that virtually everyone who hears about Jesus after his resurrection will not have the physical evidence that Thomas had. John’s readers, and certainly all of us living today, must believe based on the testimony of others. We will not be able to see Jesus’ physical body standing right in front of us. To John’s readers and us, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Everyone who comes to faith in Jesus, not having seen him with their own eyes, is blessed by Jesus himself!

In the final two verses of chapter twenty, John clearly presents the purpose of his Gospel. John first notes that Jesus performed many other miracles (signs) while he was on earth, a probable acknowledgment on his part that he is aware of the twenty-plus other miracles reported in the Synoptic Gospels. John, we learn, specifically chose to highlight seven miracles (signs) in chapters 2-12, and then, even more importantly, the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, so that readers would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

How Do Women Eyewitnesses Lend Credibility to the Resurrection Accounts?

In Matthew, Mark, and John, women disciples of Jesus are reported as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. Many biblical scholars have argued that this lends historical credibility to these Gospel accounts. Why?

Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus , provides an explanation.

The main argument posited for the historicity of the appearance to the women, and the empty tomb for that matter, is that the early Christians would not have invented the story, since the low view of women in first-century century Mediterranean society would raise problems of credibility. Bauckham provides evidence that in the Greco-Roman world educated men regarded women as ‘gullible in religious matters and especially prone to superstitious fantasy and excessive in religious practices.’ A number of Jewish sources indicating the low view of women in Jewish culture may likewise be cited, although those from the Talmud are admittedly later. We may also note Luke 24:11.

Precisely because of the low view of women in antiquity, many see the appearance to the women, and to Mary Magdalene especially, as historical given the criterion of embarrassment. It seems unlikely that the Evangelists, especially Mark, would either invent or adjust existing testimonies to make the women the first witnesses of the risen Jesus if that is not what was remembered in the earliest traditions.

Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses? If [the Gospel authors] originated the story of the appearance to the women disciples, it seems far more likely that [they] would have depicted men as being the first to see the risen Jesus . . . . Why not list Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, and avoid the female issue altogether? Thus, as Bauckham assesses, the reason for the report’s lack of credibility in the first century is a reason for its credibility in the twenty-first: ‘Since these narratives do not seem well designed to carry conviction at the time, they are likely to be historical, that is, believable by people with a historically critical mind-set today.’ Accordingly, the most plausible explanations for the inclusion of women witnesses in the resurrection narratives is that the remembrance of the tradition was so strong and widespread that it had to be included.

Put simply, legendary accounts of Jesus’ risen body would have featured men, not women, as the first eyewitnesses. Accounts featuring men would have been far more persuasive to a first-century audience, and the Gospels are all written to first-century communities in the Roman Empire.

The only reason to assert women as the first eyewitnesses is because that was what actually happened, and the oral traditions of the women were so well-known that even if the Gospel authors wanted men to be the eyewitnesses, they could not have succeeded in lying about it.

Commentary on John 20a (Jesus’ Resurrection)

Early Sunday morning, a woman named Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and sees that the stone that was rolled in front of the tomb has been rolled back. This is the same Mary who has been a disciple of Jesus since he cast seven demons out of her (see Luke 8:2). She runs to tell Peter and John that someone has removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary , writes,

The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common that the Emperor Claudius (ad 41–54) eventually ordered capital punishment to be meted out to those convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies or even displacing the sealing stones. John records no hint of the Jewish allegation that Jesus’ disciples were the ones who stole Jesus’ body (cf. Mt. 28:13–15), but the fact that such a charge could be levelled demonstrates that grave robbery was not uncommon. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did. In distress she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to Peter and the beloved disciple.

Peter and John run to the tomb, but John arrives first. He peers inside and sees that the linens which covered Jesus’ body are still there. Peter arrives and goes straight into the tomb and sees that not only the linens have been left behind, but the separate cloth that covered Jesus’ face has been folded neatly and placed a short distance away from the other linens. Carson remarks:

What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26). The description of the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head does not suggest that it still retained the shape of the corpse, but that it had been neatly rolled up and set to one side by the one who no longer had any use for it. The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up; and the fact that two men saw it (v. 8) makes their evidence admissible in a Jewish court (Dt. 19:15).

John follows Peter into the tomb and based on the linens and face cloth being left behind, he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. John mentions, parenthetically, that none of the disciples, at this point, understand that Scripture had predicted that Jesus must rise from the dead. At this point, Peter does not seem to have come to the same belief as John. Both of them return to the houses in Jerusalem where they are staying during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Mary Magdalene stays behind at the tomb (or comes back later to visit by herself) and weeps because she believes Jesus’ body has been stolen from the tomb. Mary peers into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. Mary laments that someone has stolen the body, but she then turns around and sees a man whom she does not recognize. The man also asks her why she is weeping and, also, whom she is seeking. She assumes he is a gardener, taking care of the grounds, and she begs him to tell her where the body of Jesus lies.

The man then calls her name and she immediately realizes that the gardener is not a gardener at all, but Jesus, risen from the dead. Mary probably falls to the ground and wraps her arms around Jesus’ feet and legs. She doesn’t want to lose him again, but she has misunderstood Jesus’ mission, for he is not going to resume his role as the earthly rabbi whom Mary had followed. He must return to heaven to reign with God the father and it is Mary’s job to tell the disciples. It is in this light that Jesus says to Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , remarks,

That a woman would be the first to see Him is an evidence of Jesus’ electing love as well as a mark of the narrative’s historicity. No Jewish author in the ancient world would have invented a story with a woman as the first witness to this most important event. Furthermore, Jesus may have introduced Himself to Mary first because she had so earnestly sought Him. She was at the cross while He was dying (John 19:25), and she went to His tomb early on Sunday morning (20:1).

Mary does exactly as Jesus commands her. She finds the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them that she has just seen Jesus, face to face, and that he is ascending to his Father.

How Did Roman Crucifixion Kill Jesus?

James A. Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , writes:

Crucifixion seems to have been invented by the Persians, who transmitted it to the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans learned it. It was the ultimate Roman punishment for slaves and provincials, but it was not used for Roman citizens. It was one of the most horrifying forms of execution ever devised. After having been stripped and flogged, the victim was lashed and/or nailed to a pole. John 20:25 certainly implies that Jesus’ hands at least were nailed (cf. Acts 2:23; Col 2:14). Evidently there were different styles of crosses including a single upright pole and two crossed poles in the form of an X, but the most common seems to have been a vertical pole and a horizontal one in the form of a T with the crossbar either at the top or near the top of the vertical piece. The usual practice was for the condemned to carry the crossbar to the place of execution where he was affixed to it and where it was hoisted upon the vertical stake that was permanently fixed. Death usually came slowly as a result of exposure and exhaustion. Inasmuch as no vital organ was damaged, it often took two or three days for the subject to die, although death could be hastened by breaking the legs (cf. John 19:31–33).

Norman Geisler writes in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics :

The nature of the crucifixion assures death. . . . Jesus hung on the cross from 9 in the morning until just before sunset (Mark 15:25, 33). He bled from gashes in his hands and feet and from the thorns that pierced his scalp. These wounds would have drained away much blood over more than six hours. Plus, crucifixion demands that one constantly pull up by the hands and push on the injured feet in order to breathe. This caused excruciating pain from the nails. . . .

Beyond these injuries, Jesus’ side was pierced with a spear. From this wound flowed a mixture of blood and water (John 19:34), a proof that physical death had occurred. This detail alone, and its confirmation by modern medical experts, strongly validates the claim that this narrative is an eyewitness account. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (21 March 1986) concluded:

‘Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.’

Jesus said he was dying when he declared on the cross, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And when ‘he had said this, he breathed his last’ (vs. 46). John renders this, ‘he gave up his spirit’ (John 19:30). His death cry was heard by those who stood nearby (Luke 23:47–49).

The Roman soldiers, accustomed to crucifixion and death, pronounced Jesus dead. Although it was a common practice to break the legs of the victim to speed death (so that the person could no longer breathe), they did not believe it necessary to break Jesus’ legs (John 19:33).

Pilate double-checked to make sure Jesus was dead before he gave the corpse to Joseph to be buried. ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph’ (Mark 15:44–45).

Jesus was wrapped in about 100 pounds of cloth and spices and placed in a sealed tomb for three days (Matt. 27:60; John 19:39–40). If he was not dead by then, the lack of food, water, and medical treatment would have finished him.

There is simply no way that Jesus did not die on the cross. But let’s pretend that somehow he was only near death when he was put in the tomb. What would have happened next? Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus, describes the scene:

D. F. Strauss’s critique is every bit as pertinent today as it was on the day he offered it. He asked us to suppose that a man was removed from his cross half dead, buried in a tomb and somehow reenergized after a few days. Having awakened from his stupor and wanting out of the dark tomb, he places his nail-pierced hands on the very heavy stone blocking his entrance and pushes it out of the way. He then walks blocks on pierced and wounded feet in search of his disciples. Finally, he arrives at the place they are staying and knocks on the door, which Peter opens only to see a severely wounded and dehydrated Jesus who is hunched over and looks up at Peter and through his extreme pain grimaces and says, ‘I’m the firstfruits of the general resurrection!’ Such a Jesus would never have convinced his disciples that he was the risen prince of life. Alive? Barely. Resurrected? Never. Allison comments, ‘How a flagellated, half-dead victim of the hideous torture of crucifixion could impress others as triumphant over death is hard to envisage.’

Commentary on Mark 15b (Jesus’ Crucifixion)

Crucifixion victims are often required to carry the horizontal crossbar of the cross, but Jesus is so weakened after his flogging that, sometime during the procession, the soldiers randomly choose a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar for Jesus the rest of the way to Golgotha. Simon, and later his sons, Alexander and Rufus, would evidently become Christians, since Mark assumes his readers are familiar with them.

Mark’s account of the actual crucifixion is succinct. During the first three hours after Jesus is crucified, Mark reports the following: 1) Jesus is offered wine to deaden his pain, but he refuses to drink it, 2) Jesus’ garments are divided up among the four soldiers, 3) Jesus is crucified at roughly 9 am with two other men on either side of him, 4) a sign reading “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, indicating Jesus’ crime, 5) Jesus is mocked by spectators, Jewish religious leaders, and the two criminals crucified beside him.

After three hours on the cross, darkness comes over the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , offers five possible meanings for the darkness:

  • “It was a sign of mourning (Jer. 4:27–28).”

  • “Darkness was associated in the ancient world with the death of great men.”

  • “In the Scriptures, darkness is an apocalyptic sign of judgment and could be construed as signaling the advent of divine judgment.”

  • “The darkness also announces the great Day of the Lord in prophets such as Amos, and the darkness that settles on the land signifies that the day has dawned with a new beginning.”

  • “The darkness may veil the shame of the crucifixion: ‘God hides the Son from the blasphemer’s leering.’”

At roughly 3 pm, Jesus cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What could Jesus mean by this statement? Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The important thing to recognize here is that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, a Davidic psalm expressing David’s feelings of estrangement. Jesus was revealing that he was the fulfillment of the typology of the psalm, that he was experiencing forsakenness because of our sins. What exactly that forsakenness entailed is uncertain, but it likely stemmed from Jesus’ taking on our sins so that sin would be judged. As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, God the Father ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

Mark Strauss adds:

One could not expect a crucifixion victim to recite an entire psalm, but it is possible that citing the first verse of the psalm refers to the entire psalm. Without chapters and verses to identify specific passages, initial words or key phrases were cited (see Mark 12:26). If this is the case here, Jesus prays the opening words of this lament psalm that, when read through to the end, expresses not only bitter despair but also supreme confidence. This interpretation does not deny the real anguish that Jesus experiences but understands his cry as an expression of trust that God will intervene and ultimately vindicate him.

Some bystanders misunderstand Jesus to be calling for the prophet Elijah to rescue him. According to Craig Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , “Members of some circles of Jewish tradition believed that Elijah was sent like an angel to rescue famous teachers, in addition to his role in the time of the end.”

Finally, Mark reports, Jesus utters a loud cry and dies after six hours hanging on the cross. The way Jesus dies is unusual because crucifixion victims tended to last more than a day before succumbing to asphyxiation. Keener explains, “Crucifixion generally killed by asphyxiation: one became too weary to keep pulling one’s frame up on the crossbeam, the diaphragm was increasingly strained, and eventually one became unable to breathe. But death usually took a few days—much longer than the few hours Jesus suffered.”

James Brooks adds:

Most people who were crucified grew weaker and weaker and gradually and quietly expired. Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ death was sudden and violent, that he was still quite strong at the moment of his death, that he voluntarily and deliberately died with the shout of a victor (cf. John 19:30). Therefore ‘breathed his last,’ although literal, is not an adequate translation in context. Mark’s concept of the death of Jesus is not unlike that of John 10:17–18.

When Jesus dies, one of the two giant curtains in the temple tears from top to bottom (we’re not told which). The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the outer porch and the inner curtain separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Regarding the inner curtain, the Mishnah reports it being a handbreadth thick, sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. This second apocalyptic sign (darkness being the first) that Mark reports has both positive and negative significance. Strauss writes:

Being torn from top to bottom points to its irremediable destruction and to God as the agent. It may signify the end of the Jewish cult and the destruction of the temple. . . . The rending of the veil may also be interpreted as a decisive opening. All barriers between God and the people have now been removed (Heb. 10:19–20).

The centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after taking in everything he’s seen, pronounces, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark also carefully notes that several women disciples of Jesus witness his death from a distance.

The profession of the centurion would have been important to Mark’s original audience. After all, earlier in the Gospel, a divine voice and demons have called Jesus the Son of God. Here, at the end of Gospel, we have the first human to do so, but he is a Gentile Roman soldier, not a Jew. James Brooks aptly comments, “At last [Jesus] is confessed as such by a human being who is a type of thousands and even millions of Gentiles who later will stand by faith before the cross and confess that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the unique Son of God.”

Did the centurion have a full understanding of who Jesus was? Doubtful, but he clearly knew that Jesus had a unique relationship to God. Mark Strauss writes:

After Julius Caesar was deified, his adopted son, Augustus, became widely known as ‘son of god’ (divi filius). It was not a title applied to emperors in general. This soldier transfers the title from the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who has just been executed. The opening words of the Gospel (1:1) and this confession directly challenge the claims of the imperial cult. Jesus, not Augustus nor any other emperor, is Savior and Lord.

Jewish law (see Deut 21:22-23) demanded that a body be buried the day of death. In addition, since the Sabbath would begin at sunset on Friday (no work could be done on the Sabbath), there was little time for Jesus to be buried. Instead of his disciples stepping forward to bury him, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret admirer of Jesus, goes to Pilate and requests that Jesus’ body be given to him. None of Jesus’ friends or family had approached Pilate, likely out of fear, so Pilate acquiesces to Joseph’s request. But first, Pilate asks his centurion to confirm that Jesus is indeed dead because he is surprised at how quickly Jesus died.

Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps a linen shroud around him, and then places him in a tomb cut out of rock. He then rolls a stone over the entrance to seal the tomb. The women disciples are watching the burial from a distance so that they know exactly where Jesus is buried. Thus Jesus is buried in a tomb before sunset Friday evening.

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 2

 

And the fourth line of evidence is

the very low probability of surviving crucifixion. As noted earlier, crucifixion and the torture that many times preceded it was a very brutal process. In fact, only one account exists in antiquity of a person surviving crucifixion. Josephus reported seeing three of his friends crucified. He quickly pleaded with 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 these actions, two of the three still died. Thus, even if Jesus had been removed from his cross prematurely and medically assisted, his chances of survival were quite bleak. In addition, no evidence exists that Jesus was removed while alive or that he was provided any medical care whatsoever, much less Rome’s best.

Licona summarizes the views of historians with quotes from across the ideological spectrum:

Given the strong evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion, without good evidence to the contrary the historian must conclude that the process killed him. This is the conclusion shared by virtually all scholars who have studied the subject. John McIntyre comments, ‘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.’ McIntyre is quite correct.  Atheist Gerd Ludemann writes, ‘Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.’ Crossan, who denies the authenticity of a large majority of the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels, comments that there is not the ‘slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate’ and, ‘That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.’ For the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, ‘The passion of Jesus is part of history.’ The rather skeptical scholar Paula Fredriksen writes, ‘The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.’

Licona wraps up his analysis:

In summary, the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion. The event is multiply attested by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and thus not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events. They appear in multiple literary forms, being found in annals, historiography, biography, letters, and tradition in the form of creeds, oral formulas, and hymns. Some of the reports are very early and can reasonably be traced to the Jerusalem apostles. The Passion Narratives appear credible, since they fulfill the criterion of embarrassment and contain numerous plausible details. Finally, the probability of surviving crucifixion was very low.

Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? Part 1

Many Muslims, and other skeptics of Christianity, deny that Jesus actually died on the cross. They promote theories that Jesus had a twin that died, or that someone took Jesus’ place on the cross, or that a drug put Jesus into a coma-like state until he revived in the tomb. What evidence is there that Jesus actually died from crucifixion?

Virtually all historical scholars agree that Jesus died from crucifixion. Historian Michael Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach , argues that there are at least four reasons that scholars come to this position.

The first evidence is that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested by a fair number of ancient sources, Christian and non-Christian alike. It is very probable that [the Jewish historian] Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. [The ancient Roman historian] Tacitus, [ancient pagan writers] Lucian and Mara bar Serapion are all certainly aware of the event. Lucian adds that Jesus’ crucifixion took place in Palestine.

In Christian sources, Jesus’ execution is widely reported, with and without specifying the mode of crucifixion. All four canonical Gospels report Jesus’ death by crucifixion as do numerous other books and letters of the New Testament that refer to it regularly. Jesus’ death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in noncanonical literature. Moreover, there is no ancient evidence to the contrary.

A second evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the reports are early. Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion no later than A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians, Galatians) and said he preached the same to those in Corinth in A.D. 51, or within twenty-one years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death may be alluded to in Q [a hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke], which may be contemporary to Paul. It appears numerous times in the kerygma of the oral formulas. The earliest report of Jesus’ death is found in the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Virtually all scholars who have written on the subject hold that Paul here provides tradition about Jesus that he received from others. There is likewise widespread agreement that it was composed very early, reflected what was being taught by the Jerusalem apostles, and is the oldest extant tradition pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. It is really quite amazing to think that we are probably reading what was taught by the original disciples of Jesus.

A third evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details. Earlier we observed that a number of accounts existed of Jewish martyrs who acted bravely under circumstances of extreme torture and execution. In light of these, reports of a weaker Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion could cause embarrassment in contrast. . . .

For this reason, we get a sense that in the canonical Gospels we are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death, even if Luke may have cleaned up or omitted some of those embarrassing details, and John all of them, and even if some embellishments are present. Accordingly, the embarrassing elements in the Passion Narratives weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels. These include, most importantly in our investigation, Jesus’ death by crucifixion.

What are some of the other peripheral details in the Passion Narratives that lend credence to the death of Jesus by crucifixion?

Lucian reports of crowds following those on their way to being crucified and renders plausible Luke’s statement that a crowd of people followed Jesus on his way to being crucified. John reports that because it was the day of preparation for the Passover, the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove from their crosses the bodies of Jesus and of the two thieves crucified with him so that they would not remain there on the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request and ordered that their legs be broken in order to expedite death. When they came to break the legs of Jesus, the soldiers noticed that he was already dead and instead pierced his side with a spear, upon which blood and water came out. . . . Breaking the legs of crucified victims is also reported by [ancient Roman orator] Cicero and the [third century apocryphal] Gospel of Peter. In the latter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would actually suffer longer. The skeletal remains of a crucified victim named Yehohanan ben Hagakol were discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. Of interest is that one of his shins had been smashed, although it has also been theorized that this occurred when removing his corpse from the cross.

Licona continues:

The Romans often left crucified victims on their crosses for some time after they had died in order to become food for birds and dogs. However, Josephus provides an interesting report that indicates Jerusalem was an exception. Two or three years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, mercenaries for Rome killed some Jewish high priests and did not permit their burial. Josephus adds that until then the Jews had taken great care in their burial of the dead, burying the crucified prior to sunset. . . .

John reports that when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, rather than break his legs, they pierced him in order to provide some ‘death insurance.’ This too has plausibility, given Quintilian’s statement: Cruces succiduntur, percussos sepeliri carnifex non vetat. (As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.)

 

Commentary on Mark 15a (Jesus on Trial)

As soon as dawn breaks Friday morning, the entire Sanhedrin is convened to ratify the sentence recommended during the previous pre-dawn trial. Since the Jews, under Roman law, are not allowed to execute anyone, they take Jesus to Pontius Pilate, who is likely staying at Herod the Great’s old palace in Jerusalem. John Grassmick, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary,  gives some background on Pontius Pilate:

Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect (a title later changed [in AD 44] to ‘procurator,’ i.e., imperial magistrate) of Judea held office a.d. 26–36. He was a harsh governor who despised the Jews (cf. Luke 13:1–2). Normally he resided in Caesarea by the Mediterranean Sea, but he came to Jerusalem on special occasions such as the Passover festival to help maintain order.

As the Roman-appointed governor of Judea, he presided over all judicial matters. The Jewish leadership who delivered Jesus to Pilate accused Jesus, among other things, of claiming to be King of the Jews. Anyone claiming to be a king (within Roman territories) without the consent of Roman authorities was guilty of treason, which is punishable by death. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews, Jesus merely says, “You have said so,” which is an indirect way of agreeing with Pilate. Regarding the other charges brought against him, Jesus refuses to speak in his defense, which amazes Pilate.

Pilate suspects that the charges against Jesus are being manufactured by the Jewish leadership out of jealousy for his popularity. Every year at Passover it is Pilate’s custom to release one Jewish prisoner, so Pilate assumes that the assembled crowd in front of his palace will choose Jesus to be released. Instead, the chief priests incite the crowd to ask for the release of the insurrectionist Barabbas. Barabbas has been arrested for his role in plotting to overthrow Roman rule in Judea. Even though Pilate attempts to convince the crowd to release a man whom he thinks is innocent, Jesus, the crowd instead demands the release of Barabbas and the death penalty for Jesus.

Pilate releases Barabbas and sentences Jesus to be scourged and then crucified. James Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , writes that scourging, or flogging,

was both a preliminary to crucifixion (perhaps to hasten death) and an independent punishment. It was a Roman punishment and must be distinguished from the much milder synagogue beatings of forty lashes less one. Bits of metal, bone, or glass were imbedded in leather thongs; and the flesh of the victim was shredded, sometimes until bones or entrails appeared. Flogging was sometimes fatal. The flogging fulfilled Jesus’ own prophecy in Mark 10:34 and perhaps also Isa 53:5.

After Jesus is flogged, he is taken to the interior of Herod’s Palace (also called the Praetorium) where he is mocked by a company of Roman soldiers. The soldiers are ridiculing Jesus for his claim that he is King of the Jews. Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains:

What the Roman soldiers are acting out (and they are Roman, as indicated by their leading Jesus into the praetorium) is a mock salute of the Roman emperor, as is done during the celebration of a triumph. It is at such a time that the emperor would wear an ivy crown and a robe with a purple mantle. His soldiers would shout, ‘Hail, Caesar!’

The soldiers put Jesus’ garments back on him and four of them lead him in a procession to Golgotha (place of the skull), the location outside the walls of Jerusalem where he will be crucified.

Is Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Trial a Fictional Invention? Part 2

 

James A. Brooks, in Mark, vol. 23, The New American Commentary , provides additional thoughts:

[T]he trial may have involved illegalities. Illegal trials and perversions of justice have occurred throughout human history in all societies (including ‘Christian’), and this trial may well have been such an instance. No injustice should be excused, but first-century Jews should not be condemned beyond all others for their error.

Brooks also offers the possibility that

what Mark described in chap. 14 was not a formal trial but an informal hearing. Some have compared it to a police interrogation following an arrest or to a grand jury inquiry. Therefore none of the prescriptions of the Mishna [Sanhedrin] would be applicable. According to one explanation of [Mark] 15:1, a formal trial was held the next morning. Therefore this explanation could have some validity, but confidence about it is elusive.

John Grassmick, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , explains the actions of the Jewish authorities in the following way:

The 71-member Sanhedrin (cf. comments on Mark 8:31), including the presiding high priest, was hastily assembled in an upstairs room (cf. 14:66) for a plenary night session. This was an ‘informal’ trial that required a ‘formal’ ratification after dawn (cf. 15:1) to satisfy strict Jewish legal procedure allowing trials only in the daytime. A quorum consisted of 23 members (Mishnah Sanhedrin 1. 6) but on this occasion the majority were probably there even though it was around 3 a.m. on Nisan 15 (Friday), a feast day.

This hasty night meeting was deemed necessary because: (1) In Jewish criminal law it was customary to hold a trial immediately after arrest. (2) Roman legal trials were usually held shortly after sunrise (cf. 15:1) so the Sanhedrin needed a binding verdict by daybreak in order to get the case to Pilate early. (3) With Jesus finally in custody they did not want to delay proceedings, thereby arousing opposition to His arrest. Actually they had already determined to kill Him (cf. 14:1–2); their only problem was getting evidence that would justify it (cf. v. 55). Perhaps also they wished to have the Romans crucify Jesus to avoid the people’s blaming the Sanhedrin for His death.

Some have questioned the legality of a capital trial on a feast day in light of certain Rabbinic legal ordinances. However, the Rabbis justified the trial and execution of serious offenders on a major feast day. That way, they argued, ‘all the people will hear and be afraid’ (Deut. 17:13; cf. Deut. 21:21; cf. tdnt, s.v. ‘pascha,’ 5:899–900).

In summary, there are serious questions about the applicability of the Mishnah Sanhedrin to the time of Jesus’ trial. Even if the rules from this document did apply, there were numerous extenuating circumstances that could have caused the Jewish Supreme Council to break the rules. Therefore, the fact that some of the procedures called for in this third-century document were not followed does not, in and of itself, cast serious doubt on the historicity of Mark’s account.

Is Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Trial a Fictional Invention? Part 1

Many critics of the Bible have noted that Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial, in chapter fourteen of his Gospel, must be an invention. They reason that the Jewish authorities would never have conducted themselves in such a manner. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Book) , explains why:

The trial described by Mark is highly irregular according to rules listed in the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin concerning the procedure for courts conducting capital trials.

(1) Capital cases were to be tried during the daytime, and the verdict must be reached during the daytime (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(2) Trials were not to be conducted on a Sabbath eve or on the eve of a festival day (m. Sanh. 4:1; see Acts 12:4, which reports that Herod intended to bring Peter to the people after the Passover).

(3) Capital cases were supposed to begin with reasons for acquittal and not with reasons for conviction (m. Sanh. 4:1). Attempts were to be made to find witnesses and arguments for the defense. If on the way to stoning someone should say, ‘I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal,’ or even if the accused does so, they bring him back four or five times. The herald was to cry: ‘Such a one, the son of such a one is going to be stoned for he committed such or such an offense. Such and such are witnesses against him. If any man knoweth aught in favor of his acquittal let him come and plead it’ (m. Sanh. 5:4). A later rabbinic tradition imagines that this was indeed done in Jesus’ case: On the Eve of Passover Yeshu [one text adds the Nazarean] was hanged. Forty days before his execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover!

(4) Verdicts of acquittal could be reached on the same day, but verdicts of conviction must be confirmed on the following day after a night’s sleep (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(5) Condemnation required the evidence of two witnesses. When witnesses disagreed, their evidence was null and void (m. Sanh. 5:2). If they were found to be false witnesses, they were required to suffer the ‘same death-penalty to which the accused had been made liable.’

(6) The Mishnah assumes that the Sanhedrin met in the inner courts of temple, the Chamber of Hewn Stone, not in the high priest’s home.”

Mark’s account of the proceedings against Jesus portray a hastily gathered group of religious leaders holding a blatantly biased “trial” in the middle of the night. How do we square this account with the rules recorded in Sanhedrin? Strauss argues that the rules written in Sanhedrin may have never been in force at the time of Jesus’ trial.

[T]his Mishnaic tractate, compiled around A.D. 220, reflects the circumstances and scruples of a later era. The laws regarding capital cases in Mishnah Sanhedrin may not be representative of the historical procedure for the Sanhedrin in the first century or, for that matter, any period. They are idealized and theoretical, assuming, for example, that the king rules, not a high priest under the thumb of a Roman governor. The laws for the Sanhedrin are perceived through the lens of the wishful thinking of the post-war rabbis who compiled the oral law—this is the way it should be when the temple is restored, and it is assumed that this is the way it must have always been.

Even if these rules were in effect, Strauss argues that the Jewish Supreme Council was dealing with special circumstances.

A Sanhedrin controlled by the high priest was also unlikely to follow Pharisaic procedures. If it were an informal hearing gathering evidence to bring to the governor, it would not need to observe legal formalities. According to Deuteronomy 18:20, a false prophet is to be killed immediately—even on a feast day. The chief priests considered Jesus such a serious threat that they made every effort to eliminate him by getting the Roman governor to put him to death and discredit him forever with death by crucifixion.