The Historical Jesus

As a Christian, you believe that Jesus was put to death by means of crucifixion by the Romans under Pontius Pilate, that He was buried and that He was resurrected from the dead.  In truth, our Christian faith is based upon these facts.  1 Corinthians 15:14 “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.”  The Bible plainly tells us the events concerning His death and resurrection.  But what if you didn’t have the Bible account?  What if you are trying to convince someone who doesn’t believe in the Bible?  Is there sufficient historical evidence to convince someone that the Biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is true?

There exist today ancient writings by non-Christians from the first and second century who testify concerning Jesus.  The authors of these writings include Cornelius Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Flavius Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and Celsus.  These non-Christian authors tell us that Jesus Christ did exist, that He was the “founder” of Christianity, that He was crucified by Pilate, and that Christianity started in Judea.

While many non-believers accept the fact that Jesus really did live on the earth, some question that He died on the cross.  Since the Bible says that he rose from the dead, unbelievers want to discount His resurrection by claiming that He didn’t really die; maybe He faked His death.  The Romans were experts at killing people and especially in killing them by crucifixion.  It was their standard practice to flog an individual before he was crucified.  The Bible clearly states that Jesus was flogged or scourged (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1).  Flogging involved removing a person’s clothes and beating the back side from the shoulders to the feet with a whip.  The whip would have small pieces of metal or bone at the tips to cause disfigurement and serious trauma.  For the Romans, there was no limit to the number of blows inflicted.  The result was severe pain and shock due to loss of blood.  Sometimes, the victim would die as a result of the flogging.  Do not discount the tremendous suffering that Jesus endured from the flogging.  The victim next was forced to carry the cross to the place of crucifixion.  The Bible states that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for Jesus (Luke 23:26), probably because Jesus was so weakened by the flogging that He was unable to carry it.  Jesus was then nailed to the cross.  The hands were likely nailed in the wrist area.  The intent was that the victim would hang from his hands.  The knees were slightly bent and the feet were nailed to the cross.  Since the full weight of the crucified victim was hanging from his arms stretched above his head, it was very difficult to get a good breath.  It was then necessary for the victim to push up with his nailed feet just to breathe.  This meant that his traumatized back was rubbed up and down the cross.  The victim would eventually succumb to the pain, the trauma, the loss of blood and exhaustion and would cease breathing.  It was obvious when a crucifixion victim was dead because he would stop pushing up with his feet to breathe.  To hasten death, the Romans would break the legs so that the victim could no longer push up to get a breath.  The Bible states that they broke the legs of the two other crucified individuals next to Jesus (John 19:32).  They did not break Jesus’ legs because it was obvious that Jesus was already dead.  The Roman soldiers had likely witnessed many crucifixions and knew when a victim was dead.  But to ensure death, a spear was thrust through the heart.  The Bible records that the soldiers pierced the side of Jesus with a spear and out came blood and water (John 19:34).  If the soldiers were to somehow release a person before he was dead, the soldiers would have been killed instead.  The point is that there was no faking the death of Jesus.  The Romans made his death a sure thing. 

If Jesus really did live and He really was put to death by crucifixion, skeptics will next question His resurrection.  Is there any historical proof for His resurrection?  The Bible says that He showed Himself to his apostles during forty days after His death.  Acts 1:3 “To whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”  He then ascended into heaven.  Acts 1:9 “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.”  Jesus did not show Himself to the Roman or Jewish authorities, so they would not have recorded His resurrection.   We are left with the testimony of His apostles.  History records that eleven of the twelve apostles were martyred because of their belief in Jesus and His resurrection.  A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce a belief as demanded by an external party.   It is said that liars make bad martyrs.  In other words, someone who lies is not likely to be willing to die for their lie.  The apostles were thoroughly convinced that Jesus was resurrected and they were willing to die for their conviction.  The apostle Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:16 “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”  You can depend upon the testimony of the apostles that Jesus was resurrected.

What can we conclude?  First, be thankful to Jesus for being willing to suffer such a cruel death for your salvation.  Second, be assured that Jesus did live, that He was put to death by crucifixion, and that He was resurrected from the dead.   Lastly, use the information given above to provide an answer to those who may question your faith.  1 Peter 3:15 “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”

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