What are the odds the circumstances surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth that correspond with many ancient prophecies was just a coincidence?

Death By Crucifixion On the Cross?

One of the common charges by critics and skeptics against the Resurrection claim of the Gospels is that Jesus of Nazareth did not die by crucifixion, sometimes called the “swoon theory.”[1] In fact, one of the world’s major religions teaches that Jesus never died on the cross.[2]

Roman crucifixions were rife during the century before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD documented by renowned authors of antiquity such as Josephus, Tacitus,  Suetonius, Lucian, Cicero and Seneca the Younger.[3] The assertion that Jesus was one of those crucified, but never died on the cross, inherently admits that he was indeed crucified – did a death occur?

Required for a death certificate today, three facts are to be established – when and where the death occurred and the identity of the person who died.*[4] Death confirmation typically requires involvement by a coroner, law enforcement official, medical expert, etc. – someone who can attest to these circumstances of the death.

In the age of antiquity, confirmation of a death was basically the same; it required witnesses. No modern technologies and sciences were available meaning a death determination relied on observations and simple common sense – lifeless; not breathing; limp, cold and still; rigor mortis; obvious mortal wounds; decomposition or other morbid evidence.

Crucifixion by the Romans was fully intended to cause death under the most excruciatingly painful and humiliating circumstances. No escape. Victims could do nothing to save themselves after a group of military men fastened severely flogged victims, typically by nails, to wooden beams and suspended them above the ground.

Gospels all four report that Jesus was crucified, witnessed by many. Luke brought the intended outcome of the crucifixion to dramatic closure stating, “he breathed his last.”[5]

At the top of the witness list is the Roman quaternion, the execution team consisting of four guards, and the exactor mortis who was a centurion.[6] Their job, at the risk of dire consequences for failure to perform their duty, was to ensure death by crucifixion was successfully carried out – expert executioners.[7] Mark’s  quote of the centurion’s reaction at the moment of Jesus’ death is dramatic: 

MK 15:39 “So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”’” (NKJV) [8]

An “excited utterance” by the centurion was his immediate gut reaction to his recognition that Jesus was dead and its significance. United States Federal Law defines an “excited utterance” as being made spontaneously under the influence of a startling event before the witness has had an opportunity for reflection.[9] The truthful utterance is an exception to the legal hearsay rule.

Quaternion wanted to be sure Jesus was truly dead prompting a soldier to thrust a spear into his side. Bold inaction also attests to the seasoned executioners’ assessment when they decided not to break the legs of Jesus to hasten death – they were already convinced he was dead.[10]

John “testified” he witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross along with the Roman execution squad.  With special emphasis, John calls out that he saw it happen:[11]

JN 19:35 “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.” (NASB, NKJV)

Seven women are identified in the Gospel accounts as being present at the crucifixion:  Jesus’ own mother Mary and her sister, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, mother of the sons of Zebedee, Mary the wife of Clopas, Salome and many other women from Galilee.[12]

Luke identifies the foremost witness – Jesus himself when he cried out announcing to his “Father” the moment of his death: [13]

LK 23:46  “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.” (NRSV)

Witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus on Golgotha, Joseph of Arimathea reached the same conclusion as the exactor mortis, the quaternion and John:[14]

JN 19:38 “…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.” (NRSV)[15]

Joseph, a prominent Jewish leader, approached Pilate with trepidation to ask for the body of Jesus.[16] Pilate was surprised at Joseph’s report and wanted official confirmation from the centurion.[17] The timing suggests Pilate’s orders sent to the centurion to break the legs of the men on the cross had only just been issued shortly before Joseph made his request.

Leaving the three crosses bearing their victims under the guard of the quaternion, the centurion left his post to make the report. He informed Pilate Jesus was, in fact, dead:

Mk 15:44-45 “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. 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.” (NIV)

As a government official of Rome, Pilate affirmed that Jesus was officially dead. Commanded to hand over the body of Jesus to Joseph, the centurion’s job was not yet finished requiring him to return to the crucifixion site.

Along the way back to the crosses on Golgotha, Joseph was joined by Nicodemus, another rich man and member of the Jewish Council who also had kept a low profile as a secret follower of Jesus out of fear of the Sanhedrin.[18] While Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate, Nicodemus had gone separately to purchase 75 -100 pounds of burial spices. [19]

Hanging lifeless on the cross, the centurion released the body of Jesus to the two members of the Jewish Counsel. Sunset was fast approaching and a quick burial preparation was needed before the Sabbath began.

MT 27:59-60 “And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.” (NASB)[20]

Up close and personal, Joseph and Nicodemus removed the body of Jesus from the cross, carried it to the nearby unused tomb of Joseph, wrapped it and applied the burial spices. Finished, they rolled a large stone in front the entrance of the tomb with the body of Jesus inside witnessed by the two Marys of Galilee.[21]

Judaism, perhaps the biggest opponent to Jesus being recognized as the Messiah, has always acknowledged the death of Jesus by crucifixion. The next morning, Saturday the Sabbath, Jewish leaders approached Pilate with concerns about the body of Jesus in the tomb.[22]

Fearing a fraudulent claim perpetrated by the Disciples, the Jewish leaders acknowledged Jesus had prophesied he would rise from the dead on the third day. Pilate agreed to allow the tomb to be sealed and guarded by an armed koustodia. The chain of custody of the body of Jesus is in full effect.

Fourteen witnesses are identified in the Gospel accounts as eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus – four Roman quaternion, the centurion, two members of the Jewish Council, two blood relatives of Jesus including his own mother, two mothers of Disciples, one Disciple as well as members of the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s legal affirmation.

Diversity of these witnesses in addition to the strength in numbers builds a level of unimpeachable evidence in today’s court of law that Jesus died on the cross. Did Jesus not die on the cross?

* When a victim cannot be identified, the name John Doe or Jane Doe are often substituted.

REFERENCES:

[1] Goldman, Russell. “Jesus Christ May Not Have Died on Cross?” ABC News. 2010. <https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/jesus-christ-died-cross-scholar/story?id=11066130>  Samuelsson, Gunnar.  Crucifixion in Antiquity.  2011.  Tübingen, Germany:  Mohr Siebeck.  <https://www.academia.edu/4167205/Crucifixion_in_Early_Christianity>  Bowen, Bradley. “Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 1: What is the Swoon Theory?” Patheos.com. 2019. <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2019/06/01/defending-the-swoon-theory-part-1-what-is-the-swoon-theory>   “The Swoon Theories.” ReviewOfReligions.org. 2010. <https://www.reviewofreligions.org/2323/the-swoon-theories>
[2] Assaqar, Monqith Ben Mahmoud. Central Intelligence Agency. “Was Jesus Crucified For Out Atonement?” n.d. p 6. <https://www.cia.gov/library/abbottabad-compound/CE/CE620DF8125A29EA4358631CA285D178_DID_JESUS_DIE_ON_THE_CROSS-.pdf>  “Did Jesus die on Cross?” Islamic Circle of North America. 2016. <https://www.icna.org/did-jesus-die-on-cross>  Quran Surah 4:157. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. n.d. <http://search-the-quran.com/search/Surah+An-Nisa/8>
[3] Josephus, Flavius.  The Complete Works of Josephus. William Whitson. 1850.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Lucian of Samosata.  “The Death of Peregrine.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Volume IV. p 82 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl420.htm>  Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “Secondary Orations Against Verres. Book 5. 70 B.C. <https://web.archive.org/web/20160430183826/http://www.uah.edu/student_life/organizations/SAL/texts/latin/classical/cicero/inverrems5e.html>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Books X, XV 109 AD. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>  Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.  “To Novatus on Anger+.” Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.”  Book III.   The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_1.html#ANGER1> Seneca. “De Vita Beata+.”  “To Gallio On The Happy Life.” Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.”  Book VII. The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98BEATA1> Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. “Julius Caesar.” #74. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Julius*.html>  “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4782-crucifixion>
[4] “Physicians’ Handbook on Medical Certification of Death.” 2003 Revision. p 9. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.  <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/hb_cod.pdf>  “Death Certificate Requirements.” Education Requirements.  2015. <https://web.archive.org/web/20181031044856/http://www.educationrequirements.org/death-certificate-requirements.html>
[5] Luke 23:46. Most English translations use these exact words. CR Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:39.
[6] Zugibe, Frederick T.  “Turin Lecture:  Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  E-Forensic Medicine. 2005. <http://web.archive.org/web/20130925103021/http://e-forensicmedicine.net/Turin2000.htm>
[7] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.” 1928-1935. Book III.  “To Novatus on Anger+.” Book I, p xviii. 2.  The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_1.html#ANGER1>  Brand, Clarence Eugene. Roman Military Law. pp 80, 99-100, 103, 141-142. 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=TWexDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=sacramentum+violation&source=bl&ots=cx2dAVJJkA&sig=ACfU3U0hRifTdhWkPhOVpdke7eZAyPEseQ&hl=en&ppis=_e&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsi7Xz___nAhVDWK0KHeYHDLMQ6AEwBXoECAwQAQ#v=onepage&q=insubordination&f=false>
[8] CR Matthew 27:54, John 19:30.
[9] “Excited Utterance.”  Cornell University Law School. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/excited_utterance>  “Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.  Cornell University Law School.  Rule 803. Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay.” <http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/rule_803>
[10] John 19:31-33.
[11] John 19:35.
[12] Mark 15:40-41. CR Luke 23:48-49. John 19:25. CR Matthew 4:21-22; Mark 1:19-20, 10:35; Luke 5:10.
[13] Luke 23:46. CR Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; John 19:30.
[14] Matthew 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33.
[15] CR Mark 15:42-43.
[16] Matthew 27:58; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-52; John 19:38. CR Mathew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50; John 19:38.
[17] Mark 15:44.
[18] John 3:1; 7:45; 19:39. CR Mathew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50.
[19] John 19:39. See NetBible footnote #5 conversion of Roman pounds to U.S. measurement pounds. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Joh&chapter=19&verse=39>
[20] CR John 19:42.
[21] Matthew 27:60-61.  CR Luke 23:55.
[22] Matthew 27:62-65.