Was Jesus Actually Dead?

“Marley was deader than a doornail, of that there was no doubt.” So begins Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the author not wanting anyone to be mistaken as to the supernatural character of what is soon to take place. In the same way, before we take on the role of CSI (crime scene investigator) and piece together evidence for a resurrection, we must first establish that there was, in fact, a corpse. After all, occasionally the newspapers will report on some “corpse” in a morgue who was found stirring and recovered. Could something like that have happened with Jesus?

Some have proposed that Jesus lived through the crucifixion and was revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb. But that theory doesn’t square with the medical evidence. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains why this so-called “swoon theory” is untenable: “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead. The spear, thrust between His right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured His death.”¹ But skepticism of this verdict may be in order, as this case has been cold for 2,000 years. At the very least, we need a second opinion.

One place to find that is in the reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus.

Lucian (c.120 – after c.180 ) referred to Jesus as a crucified sophist (philosopher).²

Josephus (c.37 – c.100 ) wrote, “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so.”³

Tacitus (c. 56 – c.120) wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty … at the hands of our procurator, Pontius Pilate.”4

This is a bit like going into the archives and finding that on one spring day in the first century, The Jerusalem Post ran a front-page story saying that Jesus was crucified and dead. Not bad detective work, and fairly conclusive.

In fact, there is no historical account from Christians, Romans, or Jews that disputes either Jesus’ death or his burial. Even skeptical scholars who deny the resurrection agree Jesus was dead. Noted skeptic James Tabor stated, “I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.”5 John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the notoriously skeptical Jesus Seminar, agrees that Jesus really lived and died. He states, “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”6

There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus’ alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.
  2. The “resurrection” was a conspiracy.
  3. The disciples were hallucinating.
  4. The account is legendary.
  5. It really happened.

In light of such historical and medical evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of these five options. Jesus was clearly dead, “of that there was no doubt.”

 

This post was excerpted from the article “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”

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¹ William D. Edwards, M.D., et al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,”Journal of the American Medical Association 255:11, March 21, 1986.

² Lucian, Peregrinus Proteus.

³ Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, 18. 63, 64. [Although portions of Josephus’ comments about Jesus have been disputed, this reference to Pilate condemning him to the cross is deemed authentic by most scholars.]

4 Tacitus, Annals, 15, 44. In Great Books of the Western World, ed. by Robert Maynard Hutchins, Vol. 15, The Annals and The Histories by Cornelius Tacitus (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

5 James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 230.

6 Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 49.