The column I wrote this past Passover week on whether the Jews or the Romans were responsible for the death of Jesus resulted in an avalanche of mail from readers, who pointed out that, theologically-speaking, God the Father was mainly responsible for Jesus’ death, having sent him to Earth to be sacrificed for mankind’s sins, thereby making salvation possible.
True enough, but I was writing from a purely historical standpoint, which begs the question: How do historians know how Jesus died? After all, written accounts of Jesus’ life, including the four Canonical Gospels, were written decades after his death by people living far from where the events of his life took place.
The answer is: Historians use certain criteria to determine what is likely true—three criteria in particular.
The first criterion is “multiple independent attestation,” which is a fancy name for many sources. If stories about Jesus appear in many different written accounts, and those authors weren’t in collusion or weren’t borrowing stories from one another, then the story is probably true. Since the story of Jesus’ crucifixion shows up in all four Gospels and many other written accounts—and since most of the authors would not have known the other authors—this passes the “attestation” test.
A second criterion is “historical context.” Is it likely that a radical preacher in Jerusalem in 30 AD would have been tried before a Roman governor, found guilty of a high crime and crucified? The answer is, yes. Rome’s provincial governors, including Pontius Pilate, had the power to crucify troublemakers; Jesus’ preaching definitely would have been considered troublemaking, especially during Passover, and crucifixion was the preferred punishment when Romans wanted to send a “law and order” message.
The third and arguably most important criterion is “dissimilarity.” Simply put, if it is in the Bible, yet it is a story that most early Christians would prefer was not in the Bible, then it is probably true. And Jesus’ crucifixion certainly passes that test because the highest priority of early Christians was converting others, especially Jews, to Christianity, which they did by claiming that Jesus was the Messiah.
But in the Old Testament, which all good Jews (including Jesus) studied religiously, the Messiah is portrayed as a mighty leader, a fearsome warrior destined to defeat all of Israel’s enemies and establish a kingdom of God in Israel. So how could Jesus possibly be the Messiah since, rather than kill his enemies, he was killed by them?
Jesus’ crucifixion was a huge impediment to attracting converts, meaning no early Christian writer would have included that story unless it happened. So it probably did.
Proving that Jesus then rose from the dead is another matter entirely.