September 2022 | Jesus, the Door

Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Fact or Fiction?

Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus a Historical Fact or Fiction?

Dr. Rajeevan M. Thomas


The Christ event can be condensed or divided into three main segments: birth, death and resurrection. One can observe a progressive diagram of the theological and historical importance of these events.  In other words, if Jesus is not resurrected, he is one among the many. It is vital to note that no human beings in history except Jesus has ever been predicted and credited with supernatural traits. His life is so compound and comprehensive and unable to understand fully with any scientific apparatus or articulate vividly with the methodology of history. Both history and science are primarily a human endeavour rooted in reason/ evidence, and the question of faith or supernatural segments, its counterpart, has no room in these epistemologies. Since Jesus Christ is both human and divine, one should apply an inclusive study method equally embedded with both anthropological (reason) and theological methodologies (faith) to decipher a holistic picture of Christ event and, otherwise would naturally end up with the sprouting of partial or perverted understanding of Him. But the modern world has witnessed the emergence of the exclusive terms and ideologies on the person and work of Jesus such as ‘historical Jesus’ (‘Historians’ Jesus’), ‘earthly Jesus’, ‘resurrected Jesus’,  ‘mystical Jesus’, ‘Christ of faith’, and so on. Those who do not have a holistic understanding and association of the Christ event would ultimately eliminate from its efficacies (John.3:16).  As per the love of God and the Great Commission of Jesus (Mathew.28:19-20), the historicity of Christ event should reach the ultimate personal benefit of all kinds of people of the globe: theistic, agnostic and atheistic people. Some even count Christ event as not even a historical event but only a fiction!  In fact, this skim write up is an attempt to recap the person and work of Jesus particularly His death on the cross and resurrection as a historical reality to convince the last and least.


History is the recollection of past and also a process and product. Any history without sources is only story. The sources of history can be broadly divided into three: archaeological, literal and oral sources. After every moment and every day, the present is dying and burying   into the past, it is resurrected only when we interpret and write it, and then it became a product. So that at least one can read it and hear it and see it just likes a photo

Crucifixion and resurrection is a historical event corroborated by both secular and religious (Christian) sources.  In fact, it is not a fabricated or mythological source.  The chronological bifurcation of the world history (B.C and A.D) itself substantiate the historicity of Jesus. In one sense, there is no other historical person born in the world other than Jesus whose history/biography was foretold in the form of prophecy (O.T). The life of Jesus shows the real transformation of prophecy both in OT and Gospels into history. Before going to the details of it, let me furnish certain terminological discourses.

Brief Description of Cross and Crucifixion 

There are lot of models of cross with diverse shapes. The entire cross has two parts: vertical and horizontal parts. The vertical part is known as stipes and horizontal part is known as patibulum(cross bar). The titulus (title bar) is placing on the top of the patibulum.sedile /suppenadeum ( foot rest) is fixing on the stipes fixed on the execution grounds.  The average weight of the cross is about 136 kg. and the pitabulum weighs 34 to 57 kg. The executors use either rope or nail to fix the hands and legs to the cross.  But the Romans use the nail which is 13 to 18 cm. long. Scholars like Gunnar Samuelsson enumerate the eight general features or the basic segments of crucifixion as follows:

1. A general scourging.

2. Attachment of the arms (mainly by nailing) to the cross-beam (patibulum).

3. Carrying of the cross-beam to the execution spot where a fixed bare pole awaited.

4. Suspension and attachment of the victim together with the cross-beam to the erect pole.

5. The cross was shaped as either a T (crux commissa) or a regular cross (crux immissa)

6. The victim was suspended with the feet just above the ground, either nailed, tied to the pole or left dangling.

7. A wooden plug (sedle) on the middle of the fixed pole and a footrest (suppenadeum) offered to support the victim.

8. A sign (titulus) to proclaim the nature of the crime was attached to the cross. (Gunnar Samuelsson, 2011, 294)

One can see a succinct picture of the crucifixion from the Oxford Classical Dictionary as follows: the punishment of crucifixion commence with the flagellation of the condemned one, who was later compelled to carry a cross-beam to the execution place. He was stripped and attached to the cross-beam with nails and codes, and the beam was drawn up by ropes until his feet were clear off the ground. Some support for the body was provided by a ledge (sedile) which projected from the upright, but a footrest is rarely attested, though the feet were sometimes nailed or tied. Probably death happened through exhaustion. This could be speeded by breaking the legs. Usually the cross was destroyed after the removal of body. 

Brief Description of the history of crucifixion

The crucifixion was one of the most painful and brutal capital punishments of the ancient world. Traditionally, it is believed that crucifixion was historically commenced in Persia.  As per the available historical data, the first indication of the execution by suspension by impaling trace back to 9th century B.C and it was executed by the Assyrian king named Shalmaneser. Nevertheless, the execution by crucifixion was first done in 332 BC under the sway of Alexander the Great who is said to have hanged around 2000 people. Later, Alexander the Great initiated this system to Egypt and Carthage. Romans adopted this system to employ slow death by giving optimum pain to the slaves, traitors, revolting and similar culprits. Scholars are divided in their opinion on the exact model of cross. Some are holding the view that Jesus was crucified on Tau cross (T-shaped cross) and others are supporting the Latin cross.  The earliest Christians support the later.

Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus: Possible Historical Sources

There is no physical evidence or remains of Jesus body like that of other demised people at the spot of his resurrection. This is quite unusual with Jesus - neither his bones/skeleton, hair or any such fossils are quite seen. The only available archaeological evidences are the empty tomb and the cross. Nevertheless, the actual cross or the tomb of Jesus has no any historical attestation.

The empty tomb of Jesus was the primary evidence of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is well recorded by His followers and opponents. One can avail such instances from the gospel and historical narratives. It remains as a supernatural archaeological evidence to substantiate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Post-resurrection appearance of Jesus and its oral comments constitute the historicity of Christ event. One pertinent fact that verifies the resurrection of Jesus is the records of appearances (before and after the ascension) to the disciples and other men and women mentioned in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles (Mtt. 28:8ff; Mk.16ff; Lk.24:13ff; Jn.20:10, 21:1ff; Acts.1:4f, 7:55, 9:3,etc.). The 1 Corinthians chapter 15 depict the biggest crowd (more than 500) who witnessed the appearance of Christ and Revelation chapter 1 was the last recorded appearance of Christ to His disciple John.

Similarly, some of the practices of early church which can be regarded as the immediate circumstantial evidences for the historicity of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Scholars like Douglas Grothius identify three such important evidences (i) the Baptism (ii) the Lords Supper (iii) the Sunday worship. If the death and resurrection of Jesus is not a historical event or a truth, the disciples including Jews would not practice these dogmatic and pragmatic endeavours. 

There are certain literary sources coined by both religious (Christian) and secular writers with historical value besides the above mentioned archaeological and oral sources. Following are the select among them.


There are certain ancient non-Christian sources which show light on the historicity of Christ event The most important secular or non-biblical references about the historicity of the Christ event are the references of Cornelius Tacitus (the greatest historian of ancient Rome AD. 55-120) and Flavius Josephus (the greatest Jewish historian as well as the court historian of Roman emperor Vespasian, AD. 37-97). In his famous work Annals (15.44), while commenting on Nero’s decision to persecute Christians by alleging that they had fired the Roman city, Tacitus gives a reference about the Death of Jesus and he reported that Nero blamed the Christians had fired the Roman city and their name was derived from a man named Christus (Latin name for Christ) who suffered the extreme penalty from the hands of Pontios Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius. The historians like Edwin Yamachi considered this reference as probably the most important non-NT reference. All these names tally with the secular history.

In his famous Jewish historical book Jewish Antiquities, Josephus gives some references about Jesus and His brother James. He has reported the story of Jesus thus, “Now there was about Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher…He drew over to him  both many  of Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these…. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.”Similarly he also gives a reference about the killing of James, the brother of Jesus that, “But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood…so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”(See Jewish Antiquities, 18:3.3; 20:9.1.) Though Josephus did not accept Christianity, his reference is pretty usable to the historical reconstruction of Christ event.


Among the religious sources, the New Testament books, particularly the Gospels and Acts of Apostles hold the key position.  The four gospels cover the four versions of the biography of Jesus. Among the gospel authors, Luke deserves special attention on the ground of his quest for historical accuracy of his two volumes: Gospel and Acts. The prologue of the Gospel of Luke (1:1-3) depicts this fact explicitly. In fact, they are the primary sources to articulate/understand the history of Christ event. The rest of the books/epistles of NT also supplement and compliment the Christ events. The brilliant comments of Brian Watson are apt to support this fact. According to him, the 27 books of the NT are the best sources to know Jesus. The NT is not a single witness but it is a cluster of 27 separate documents written by 9 different authors from different places. They neither assembled together and decided to write this nor collaborated to write a false myth or legend. in fact, each one wrote independently about what they had heard and seen as well as what God revealed to them. They even dared to express their disagreements (see, Galatians 2:11).  Thus, 27 documents of the disciples/apostles about Jesus is a treasure to the historians. Even after deconstructing the faith/religious aspects from these sources, historians would get ample information to rearticulate the history of Jesus.

The resurrection is the culmination of the Christ event. According to theologian Wayne Grudem, “By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead.  There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt of liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained”(1994, 615).Similarly, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus had risen, just as he told them he would.  After a criminal does his time in jail and satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claims on him and he walks out free.  Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins.  That was an infinite sentence, but he must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday he walked out free.  The resurrection was God’s way of stamping "paid in full" right across history so that nobody could miss it” (2011, 2).

Besides the writings of Josephus, there are some other Jewish references about Jesus. The most important is their document Talmud, First century A.D document contains a reference about Jesus that Jeshu was hanged during the eve of the Passover. In the midst of all these evidences, certain people do not accep them on the ground of religious colour and flavour. Here, the comments of the great NT scholar F.F. Bruce is pretty good that, “If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.”


We live in the 21st century with all amenities to write/print/record any of our documents such as the history of our local church, region/centre or the autobiography/biography of its leaders as well as the ministerial details or the chronicles. But the question is how far we did so? If the answer is not satisfactory, how we condemn the first century people for not accurately articulating an abrupt historical document? The history of the death of Jesus is not seemed to be more pertinent to both Jewish and Roman historians. To them, death on the cross is the mark of the capital punishments and the history of a local anti-imperialist revolutionary who was neither accepted by Romans nor the Jewish people. It is not the national history but only a subaltern history.Here we need to understand that motive and motif of the historians of these streams. It is a colonial historical narration or a history from above/ elites. Nevertheless, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a historical reality. Jesus defeated history and history can/could not absorb Jesus. Gray R Hebermas, the expertise on the topic of the resurrection, gives certain consensual facts endorsed by the biblical and historical scholars regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus as follows:

(i) Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

(ii) He was buried in a private tomb.

(iii) Subsequently, the disciples were discouraged, grieved, despondent and hopeless.

(iv) Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after His burial.

(v) The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of risen Jesus.

(vi) The life of the disciples was meticulously transformed during the post-resurrection period.

(vii) The declaration of the resurrection took place at the very commencement of church history.

(viii) The public witness and preaching of disciples about the resurrection of Jesus took place in the city of Jerusalem, at the venue of His crucifixion and burial.

(ix) The centre of the gospel preaching was the death and resurrection of Jesus.

(x) Sunday was the main day of public gathering and worship.

(xi) James, the brother of Jesus who was a sceptic, was converted after his witness with the risen Jesus.

(xii) Saul of Tarsus (Paul) who also became a Christian believer due to his experience with the risen Jesus. (Gray R Hebermas, 2003, 9-10).

With His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus has remade the edifice of human history. After the resurrection event He resurrected from the clutches of history without leaving any of his material relics and escaped to the present / future. All the people, kings, leaders and so on of this world were buried to earth (tomb) and permanently chained in the prison of history. History is exclusively a matter of past or yester years and every one/everything of present ought to go to past and have no freedom to escape from it. They became historical figures. But the case of Jesus ever remains quite contrary to this unchanging natural phenomenon. He is the only person who escaped from the clutches of history. Nevertheless, cross became an object of veneration in the later times. It is purely a token of perversion and violation of biblical/ Christian spirituality. We can take cross as a symbol and not an idol. Cross without Jesus is just like a body without soul!

In the midst of the above religious and secular as well as the literary and archaeological sources to prove the historicity, some historical scholars and similar others are not ready to accept the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on the ground of its nexus with supernatural nature. They considered it as a matter of myth or fiction. As Daniel J Harrington stated, “Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most famous and influential human being who has ever lived on earth. Only the most sceptical observers have denied his existence as a historical figure (2010, ix, 4). How one can negate a historical event which is having a miraculous or divine nature? Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is not only a physical but metaphysical process.  Let me refute the mystical/fiction theory with the brilliant inferences of three eminent scholars. The scholars like Michael R. Licona (2008) argue that, “Miracle is an event in history for which natural explanations are inadequate”. Similarly, Bart D. Ehrman also commented that the historians have no access to the divine and have only the tool to record observable events.  Hence, they are unable to comment on God’s action in the world (2004, 225-6). Finally, F.F. Bruce also commented that, “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth’, but they do not do so on the grounds of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar” (1997, 119). In fact, one can logically convince that the crucifixion and resurrection is historical event. 

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