Monday, March 29, 2010

Jesus was Crucified

So in the run-up to Easter, I'm sharing the "minimal-facts" argument for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It comes from Gary Habermas, and the version I'm using this week comes from the book he coauthored with Michael Licona titled The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. It does not depend upon proving the reliability of the Bible, but instead uses only historical facts, events that virtually all scholars agree occurred.* Here's how Habermas and Licona put it:
This approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones... Most facts we use meet two criteria: They are well evidenced and nearly every scholar accepts them.
Seems reasonable, eh? So here's the first fact:

Jesus of Nazareth died by Roman crucifixion.

This historical event enjoys plenty of attestation, so much so that John Dominic Crossan, who has made a name for himself by denying the claims of Christianity, can write
That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.
The crucifixion of Jesus is, of course, recorded in all four gospels. Non-biblical sources that confirm this as an historical event include the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek Lucian, and Mara Bar-Serapion.

The Talmud includes the statement that "on the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged" (a Jewish way of referring to crucifixion). And while the Talmud was written long enough after the fact as to rely upon other earlier sources, no early Jewish source denies Jesus' existence, his working of miracles, or his death by crucifixion.

The Roman historian Tacitus renders it this way:
Nero fastened the guilt [for Rome's burning] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.
So the first historical event that goes into this argument is that Jesus died by crucifixion. Interestingly, the centrality of this event to all of human history is attested to by the language we use. When we seek to describe something as of central importance, we use words like "crucial" and "crux," which, as you might guess, take their etymology from the same word as "crucifixion," that is, the Latin word for torture. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are so central and important that the Western world sets its calendars by them. And so to say that the crucufixion--the atoning death of Jesus on a Roman cross--is the crux of all human history (or the most crucial event in history) is, in a very real way, to be guilty of redundancy.

In the next post, I'll share the second historical fact in the "minimal facts" argument.

* Complete unanimity is not a reasonable goal in historical research; you can find folks today who seriously insist that things like the Holocaust or mankind walking on the moon never actually happened.

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