A common objection by modern day skeptics is to deny that Christianity was founded upon the teaching of Jesus Christ, but instead is a mere copycat of other more ancient religions. More specifically, these skeptics deny that Christ was crucified, and point to other crucifixion accounts contained in these other religious traditions. In this, Islam is in agreement. While acknowledging that Jesus was an historical figure, the Qur'an denies the crucifixion. The Qur'an states in Sura 4:157, "And because of their [Jews] saying 'We killed Messiah Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam, the Messenger of Allah - but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it appeared so to them .. and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely they killed him not."
Was Jesus really crucified, or is this just a copycat legend borrowed from pre-Christian mystery religions? Was Jesus not really crucified as the Qur'an states? Is there any evidence outside the Bible itself to substantiate the crucifixion?
- A centurion, an officer over 100 men, guarded Jesus as he died on the cross (Matt. 27:54)
The Roman soldiers who beat Jesus sat and watched Him die (Matt. 27: 27, 36)
Chief priests, scribes, and elders all watched Jesus die (Matt. 27:41)
- Many unnamed women whom Jesus had known watched Him die (Matt. 27:55)
Thus, the death of Jesus was witnessed by a significant number of direct witnesses. This sort of eye-witness evidence would suffice in any court. But, is it possible that they only thought they saw Jesus die, when in reality it was somebody else?
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home (John 19:25-27).
By entrusting the care of his mother Mary to the disciple John, Jesus as he died demonstrated a level of compassion no stranger or substitute could have shown.
Gospel Writers Themselves
The crucifixion is recorded independently by each of the four gospel writers. This is akin to four independent witnesses today giving testimony in court of the events they record.
Thallos - Hostile Witness
Thallos was an ancient historian who wrote a three-volume history around 55AD. He would have been alive at the time of the crucifixion and any eyewitness to the events. In volume 3, Thallos mentions the darkness that occurred at the death of Jesus, just as recorded in Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44. Thallus is quoted by Julius Africanus:
On the whole 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 Thallos, in the third book of his history, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.
Thallos certainly was no friend of Christians; he attempted to attribute the darkness to a solar eclipse, a natural phenomenon, rather than a miracle as scripture and tradition proclaimed. Julius Africanus later critiqued and rebuffed Thallos’ argument by noting that Jesus was crucified during Passover, which occurs during a full moon. A solar eclipse cannot occur during a full moon. Thus, the darkening of the sky must have been an para-normal, or can we say miraculous, event.
"The Acts of Pilate"
This apocryphal work includes the following in 4:12: "Pilate sent for the Jews and said to them, 'Did you see what happened?' But they answered, 'There was an eclipse of the sun in the usual way.'"
Thus, two different independent sources confirm that at the crucifixion of Jesus, the sky became unusually dark, just as the Bible records.
Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.) - Hostile Witness
This respected Roman historian had a disdain for Christians, calling them believers “in a most mischievous superstition.” Nevertheless, Tacitus confirms that this “sect” was formed from followers of “Christus,” who suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberias at the hands of Pontius Pilate.” The term “extreme penalty” refers to crucifixion, the most extreme form of punishment used during the Roman Empire.
Lucian of Samosata (115-200 A.D.) - Hostile witness
A well-known satirist and lecturer, Lucian refers to Christians as “poor wretches” and “foolish people” who “accept such things on faith alone, without any evidence.” He also calls them ones “who worship the man in Palestine who was crucified because he brought this new form of initiation into the world.” Lucian further mocks Christians for believing “that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshipping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.”
In his Antiquities of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37-100) records "When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified..."
Mara bar Serapion (~73AD) wrote a letter in Syriac to his son from prison. His letter included, "Or What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished." Although he does not name Jesus specifically, the title King of the Jews was ascribed to Jesus, and Mara bar Serapion admits this Wise King was killed.
The Jewish Talmud, in Sanhedrin 43a, states, "On the even of Passover Yeshu was hanged." Yeshu is an alternate name for Jesus, and the term 'hanged' is an alternate reference to crucifixion - hanged on a tree (Luke 23:39 - criminals hanged with him)
Even John Dominic Crossan, skeptic and cofounder of the Jesus Seminar, writes, "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."
Thus, the crucifixion is one of the best attested historical facts. The Jesus of the Bible really was crucified, despite the insistence of some skeptics that the story is a mere copycat of earlier religions. And despite the assertion in the Qur'an denying the crucifixion.
For further study:
Habermas, Gary, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence For The Life of Christ, College Press Publishing, 1996
Van Voorst, Robert E., Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000