Faith

Easter and Holy Week: What skeptics get wrong about the crucifixion

FILE -- March 26, 2005: A cross is silhouetted against the sun in Pinellas Park, Fla.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

FILE -- March 26, 2005: A cross is silhouetted against the sun in Pinellas Park, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)  (AP)

Every year around Easter, the same old stories begin appearing in the media: The Romans executed Jesus of Nazareth for being a zealot revolutionary, his body allowed to hang on the cross for days and then what remained of it discarded in an anonymous grave reserved for criminals. 

The trial before Pilate, the placement of Jesus’ body in a tomb, all that was just made up later by the early Christians.

However, it may come as a surprise to many that this standard skeptical line – much of it more than two centuries old -- is vigorously contested today by many secular scholars. 

First, research by experts such as the late Martin Hengel demonstrates that Roman crucifixion practices were, in fact, very close to how the Gospels describe them. 

The idea that the Romans took Jesus away and executed him in secret does not fit with what historians know of how the Romans did things. Instead, it’s likely that thousands witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.

The Romans did nothing in secret. The entire point of crucifixion was to make a public spectacle of the condemned.

In Italy, the Romans often crucified prisoners along major highways and allowed them to talk with taunting passersby – just as the Gospels say occurred with Jesus. 

The idea that the Romans took Jesus away and executed him in secret does not fit with what historians know of how the Romans did things. Instead, it’s likely that thousands witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.

Second, there is evidence that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who took office in AD 26, could very well have hesitated to condemn Jesus as the Gospels claim -- not because he was compassionate but because his past brutal treatment of Jewish religious figures had already resulted in an official reprimand.

Less than a year earlier, “tens of thousands” of rioting Jews had surrounded the Roman headquarters in Jerusalem, protesting Pilate’s seizure of hundreds of talents of gold from the Temple treasury to build a new aqueduct for Jerusalem. Pilate’s soldiers killed many of the protesters.

According to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, Pilate received an angry letter from the Emperor Tiberius himself, condemning his past actions. 

Tiberius insisted that Pilate maintain the longstanding Roman practice of forbearance for Jewish religious customs, such as not bringing Roman military standards into Jerusalem. 

What’s more, Philo portrays Pilate as a brutal but vacillating ruler, “inclined to change his mind.”

Thus, contrary to what many skeptics say, the Gospel portrayal of Pilate agonizing over what to do with Jesus of Nazareth – with thousands clamoring for Jesus’ release, and others condemning him as a false prophet – actually fits what historians know about him from contemporary sources outside of the gospels.

Third, despite the claim by skeptics that Jesus was executed as a zealot revolutionary, this, too, doesn’t fit the evidence.  

The reason: Had the Romans truly believed that Jesus was a zealot revolutionary there would have likely been a thousand crosses on Calvary hill, not just three. 

The Romans would have hunted down all of Jesus’ followers and crucified them all -- as the first-century Jewish historian Josephus reports they did after the last serious rebellion, in AD 6. 

Instead, historians know that the Romans permitted Jesus’ followers to operate freely for decades after his crucifixion.

It’s therefore likely that Pilate saw the situation just as the Gospels claim: that Jesus was an otherworldly prophet, potentially a troublemaker, but certainly not a real threat to Roman military rule.

Finally, skeptics claim Pilate would never have surrendered Jesus’ body to his supporters as the gospels portray. 

They assert that the Romans would have left Jesus’ body on the cross to rot and then buried what remained in a mass grave for criminals – as was often done in Rome. 

The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar even famously claimed that Jesus’ body was likely eaten by wild dogs.

However, as we have just seen, the Romans did in fact make allowances for Jewish religious customs, if only to keep the peace. 

Once, Pilate had even been forced to back down and remove Roman military standards from Jerusalem after Jewish protesters threatened mass suicide.

If, as is likely, Jesus was executed on the Day of Preparation before Passover – with hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims crowded into Jerusalem – then Jewish officials would have wanted his body removed prior to sundown, as the Gospels portray.  According to Jewish law, to leave a dead body hanging overnight was a desecration. 

Skeptics claim that the brutal Pilate couldn’t have cared less and would not have released Jesus’ body – but, as we have just seen, Pilate likely did care if only to protect his troubled career. 

In fact, historians have concrete evidence that Pilate was specifically ordered by the emperor to respect Jewish customs.

Thus, in the end, the portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels is actually far more plausible historically than alternative reconstructions proposed by skeptics.

Jesus’ crucifixion happened in public, likely witnessed by hundreds, if not thousands of his friends and enemies. 

His body was almost certainly taken down from the cross, hurriedly placed in a temporary tomb before the start of the central Jewish festival of Passover.

Skeptics raise legitimate questions about many parts of the Gospel accounts, but their questions about the crucifixion are not among them.

Robert J. Hutchinson new book is "The Dawn of Christianity", a journalistic retelling of the birth of the Jesus movement based on recent discoveries in archaeology and New Testament studies.