Evidence persuades us that the cross did not kill Jesus

Did Jesus really die on the cross?: A revisitation

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Christian missionaries confidently declare to Muslims that Jesus, according to them, as a fact of history, was crucified and died on the cross at the behest of Pontius Pilate. They cite scholars such as Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman and Gerd Ludemann who, in their quoted writings, appear so certain about Jesus’ termination on the cross. But is the death of Jesus on the stipes and patibulum truly a certain historical incident? If it was, it would have been rather foolish of the BBC to produce a documentary, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, featuring such eminent theologians as John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright with the following eye-opening narration:

“But a man nailed to a cross does not die from his wounds. He dies surprisingly from suffocation. Hanging by your arms the chest is compressed. It’s hard to breathe without supporting your weight with your legs. Overtime, the strain and the pain make that impossible and you’re unable to breathe. In the Philippines, the volunteers are brought down from their crosses within an hour. Death from crucifixion takes much longer; often, several days. The only way to hasten death on the cross was to break the legs, making it immediately impossible to support your weight, and therefore, to breathe. But the gospels are all agreed that Jesus died after only three to six hours. The crucifixion began at the third hour (Mark 15:25). Some claim that the Gospel of Luke has the shortest crucifixion (Luke 23:44-46). Matthew and Mark have Jesus surviving a little longer. The disciples wanted to take Jesus’ body down from the cross immediately, but the Roman governor Pontius Pilate wasn’t convinced that he was dead (Mark 15:44). Pilate was reassured by the Centurion, but this was the same Centurion who had earlier said, “Truly this man was the son of God.” (Mark 15:39). Jesus’ body was then laid in a tomb donated by a rich man Joseph of Arimathea. This Joseph and a man named Nicodemus came to minister to the body. “(They)…came to Jesus by night and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes about an hundred pounds weight.” (John 19:39). These accounts when viewed as an historical rather than sacred record may raise some questions: Why did Jesus die so quickly? Why did Joseph and Nicodemus take so many herbs into the tomb? So it’s perhaps not surprising that some people have even dared to ask whether Pilate was right to have his doubts– whether Jesus did die on the cross.” [1]

Pilate’s doubt enshrined in Mark 15:44 did not die with the Centurion’s alleged assurance. It has in fact persisted to this very day. The late celebrated expert in the historical Jesus quest Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford entertains the possibility of Jesus’ survival from the cross in his book ‘The Resurrection’:

“Less extreme believers in Jesus’ survival argue that recovery after crucifixion was possible, as it is attested by Flavius Josephus. In his autobiography, Josephus recalls that on an occasion when he was returning to the capital, he saw many crucified Jews by the roadside. Among them he recognized three of his friends who were still alive. On his pleading, Titus, the future emperor, promptly ordered them to be taken down and treated by Roman physicians, and as a result one of the three survived (Life 420).

Jesus remained on the cross for such a short time that Pilate wondered whether he was truly dead when Joseph of Arimathea asked for his body (Mk 15:44). One may further speculate that the piercing of his side by one of the executioners was a later invention introduced by John (Jn 19:34) to dispel doubts as to whether Jesus was dead.” [2]

If the death of Jesus upon the cross was such a certain historical fact, the BBC would not have embarrassed itself by contravening that “fact” and wasted its sterling pounds on narrating the above as the thesis statement for the expensive documentary and such a respectable scholar as Vermes would not have bothered to entertain the possibility in his book to the point of voluntarily suggesting that John’s piercing story was invented to quell doubts concerning Jesus’ death, which is, by the way, a strongly held position among biblical commentators. In fact, the BBC hits the nail on its head by referencing Pilate’s doubt, which is founded upon the miracle that Jesus died only after several hours on the cross. The BBC is soundly germane when it says that “death from crucifixion takes much longer; often, several days” and when it asks the reverberating question in light of the fact that crucifixion is typically a long and drawn out process, “Why did Jesus die so quickly?

Where does that leave us?

Historical research has yielded the undeniable fact that a crucified victim, without extraneous measures such as the breaking of the legs, would typically suffer a long process of agony, that often spans several days, before he eventually succumbs to the elements, his injuries and suffocation.

Associate pastor of First Lutheran Church in Nashville Jeffrey Ingold writes:

“It usually takes several days to die that way. This is the common practice for an execution by crucifixion.” [3]

Robert C. Girard and Larry Richards tells us that crucifixion could take days to end and the way to expedite death by crucifixion is through breaking the legs as the BBC says, but we know that Jesus’ legs were left unharmed and intact.

“Death by crucifixion could take several days. In cases where a speedier demise was to the advantage of the powers that be, legs of victims were broken.” [4]

Bruce McNab writes:

“Rome would adopt a spot in every city for judicial crucifixions and use it repeatedly, leaving in place several large, notched vertical posts for crosses. Because it usually takes several days for victims to die, an execution site adjacent to a busy road is invariably selected. Crucified men suffering for days in public view provide passersby a vivid reminder of the fate in store for all who provoke the empire’s wrath.” [5]

Regina Boisclair, who is Professor of Religious Studies, Cardinal Newman Chair at the Alaska Pacific University writes:

“However, to prolong their suffering, victims were seated onto a wooden block or peg (sedile) that was affixed in the horizontal stake, and their legs, feet, or heels were bound or nailed to the upright beam. In this position no vital organs were damaged, and death could take several days while the victims suffered in agonizing pain.” [6]

The thinker and skeptic John Remsburg writes:

“The Jews esteemed it sinful to allow a criminal to “remain all night upon the three;” but the Jewish law was inapplicable to the Roman mode of punishment which presupposed that the criminal would remain on the cross several days and nights before death ensured… Crucifixion, as we have seen, was a lingering death; several days usually elapsing before the victim expired.” [7]

Noted scholar Paul Liberman writes:

“Normally death by crucifixion takes several days.” [8]

As it becomes clear that crucifixion, according to the Roman method, was intended to be a long and agonising process, typically ending with the victim’s death through asphyxiation after several days, we must wonder, “What caused Jesus to die through this method of execution in less than even half a day?” In a previous article on the same topic, I ask the question, “If ordinary men were able to survive for over three days on the cross and upon release one was actually able to recuperate [according to Josephus’ account] why exactly did Jesus die in much less than half a day?” Since his legs were not fractured or shattered to expedite death, what could have caused his immediate demise? The eminent New Testament scholar Father Raymond Brown states the problem thus:

“Crucifixion pierces no vital organ, and so inevitably one must wonder what physical or organic factor caused Jesus to die. The extremely brief Gospel descriptions of the death of Jesus are of little help in answering this question.” [9]

With no traceable cause of death along with Pilate’s doubt engendered by the strange and unprecedented speedy death, one must take hold of the BBC’s hand in stating, “So it’s perhaps not surprising that some people have even dared to ask whether Pilate was right to have his doubts– whether Jesus did die on the cross.” The trail of evidence as presented above does not lead the reasonable observer to the firm conviction that Christian fundamentalists have that their lord and saviour died on a tree. His alleged death is evidently not a certain fact of history after all.

To read more on the topic, you may proceed to Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?


[1] [National Buddhist Authority Srilanka]. (2011, December 11).
Jesus was a Buddhist Monk BBC Documentary. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAaW6BYhfNM

[2] Vermes, G. (2008). The Resurrection: history and myth. United States: Doubleday. p. 145

[3] Ingold, J. R. (1999). Artisans of the Crucifixion: A Dramatic Program for Lent. Ohio: CSS Publishing. p. 20

[4] Girard, R. C. & Richards, L. (2000). Life of Christ: God’s Word for the Biblically-Inept, Volume 2. Pennsylvania: Starbust. p. 249

[5] McNab, B. (2013). Believing is Seeing: A Guide for Responding to John’s Gospel. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications. p. 286

[6] Boisclair, R. A. (2007). Crucifixion. In Orlando O. Espin & James B. Nickoloff (eds), An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. p. 298

[7] Remsburg, J. E. (n.d.). The Christ a critical review and analysis of the evidences of His existence. New York: The Truth Seeker Company. p. 271

[8] Liberman, P. (1977). The fig tree blossoms: Messianic Judaism emerges. Texas: Fountain Press. p. 26

[9] Brown, R. E. (1994). The Death of the Messiah, Volume 2. New York: Bantam Doubleday DellPublishing Group, Inc. p. 1088


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