Is the crucifixion narrative reliable?

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity. Leviticus 17:11 says, “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”

If Jesus had not shed his blood to pay for the penalty of our sins, we remain liable to pay for the penalty ourselves. That is why the crucifixion of Jesus is so important to Christianity. And we need to be convinced that this event actually took place in history.

The main bulk of historical literature on the crucifixion of Jesus is found in the New Testament. That is why we need to ask, “Is the crucifixion narrative in the New Testament reliable?” Critics have attacked the New Testament claiming that it does not provide reliable historical evidence. Some have even pointed out discrepancies in the biblical accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection as proof that the New Testament is not reliable.

Are the New Testament documents reliable? The answer is Yes, for five reasons. 1. We are able reconstruct the original New Testament documents. 2. The time gap between the event and the time of writing is short. 3. The variants in the manuscripts are not significant. 4. The gospels contain testimonies of eyewitnesses. 5. There are evidences outside the New Testament to substantiate the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection.

We no longer have a single original copy of the New Testament. That is because the New Testament was written on papyrus which was made from plants. After a while, the plant materials start to decompose, and to preserve the content, people had to rewrite onto new materials. While we do not have the original manuscripts, we have a very large number of copies.

We are able to reconstruct the original New Testament documents because we have so many copies of them. The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work of literature, with over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts catalogued, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. The dates of these manuscripts range from 125 AD.

The large number of copies stand out even more when we compare with other historical literature. For example, the historical literature with the second highest number of manuscripts is Homer’s Illiad, and it has only 643 copies, compared to 25,000 plus we have of the New Testament. If we doubt the reliability of the New Testament, we might as well doubt all other historical literature.

The large number of manuscripts is important. Imagine if you only have one surviving copy. How do you know that this copy is the same or close to the original? You have nothing to compare with. The large number of manuscripts allow us to compare one copy with another to reconstruct the original.

For example, if we have five copies each with a slight variant, we will have no difficulty in arriving at what the original manuscript is saying, which in this case is “God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

In addition to being able to reconstruct the original New Testament documents from copies, we are also able to reconstruct the New Testament from the quotations of early church fathers. The New Testament has been quoted extensively by church fathers, allowing us to reconstruct almost the entire New Testament just on these quotations.

Not only do we have a large number of copies, the time gap between the date of writing and the events taking place is short. The New Testament was written between AD 35 and 100. This time gap is much shorter when we compare with other historical literature.

Why is a short time gap important? If the New Testament documents were written shortly after the death of Jesus, and circulated among people who were eyewitnesses of Jesus, it cannot afford to contain fabricated stories. Imagine reading an article with plenty of false information about an event that happened 20 years ago. For sure, many will write their opposing views.

It is only documents that were written hundreds of years after the event that may contain myths, because people who witnessed the events were already dead. We know that the New Testament documents were written at an early date because the of the authors’ ability to account for historical information accurately. For example, the following verse alone contains many points that can be verified for accuracy.

In Luke chapter 3 verse 1, we read, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene…” In this one verse alone, Luke stated many facts that could be verified. The accuracy of Luke was by no means an easy task when one considers the fact that at that time, there were no efficient records for easy reference.

Critics claim that the bible must have been written after AD 70 because Mark 13 mentions the destruction of the temple, and they don’t believe that Jesus could have the ability to prophesy the future. Coming to a conclusion this way is not relying on facts, but rather putting in our own presumptions.

Critics claim that the bible is not reliable because it contains many errors. It is often said that the New Testament contains 400,000 errors. This is true. However, the large number of errors or variants is due to the large number of manuscripts. The same error is counted each time it appears in a different manuscript.

Which is better? 400,000 variants due to a large number of copies, which allows us to reconstruct the original? Or zero variant because we only have one copy, and cannot reconstruct the original? Which situation gives you more confidence in the text?

If we analyse the 400,000 variants, we see that 75% of them are spelling mistakes, 22% don’t even impact our English translation, and 2% are non-variable variants, leaving us only less than one percent to analyse in detail.

Spelling mistakes could be “John” spelled with a single “n” as in “John” or spelled with a double “n” as in “Johnn”. Many times, they are not even spelling errors, but are due to regional differences in spelling. For example, we could spell “color” as C-O-L-O-R or C-O-L-O-U-R, none of which is wrong, but these would be counted as variants. 75% of variants fall under this category.

22% of variants don’t impact translation. In Greek, the definite article is placed even before names. For example, “the Jesus”, “the Peter”. Some places in the manuscripts omit the definite article but some don’t. These variants don’t impact our English translation because we don’t place the definite article in front of names anyway.

2% of variants are non-viable variants. These could be variants that appear in only one copy, or in a late copy. We know that these should not be in the text, and we don’t even include them in our bibles today.

About 0.2% of variants are “significant variants”. For example, one version of Romans 5:1 reads, “we have peace with God”, and another version reads, “let us have peace with God”. You see that these variants do not affect our understanding of the verse.

Another example is Romans 10:17. One version reads, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Jesus”, while another version reads, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”

A third example is the story of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery, found in John chapter 7 and 8 of our bible. Some believe this passage is authentic, while some don’t. Yet even we remove this passage, we lost nothing of the teachings of the bible about Jesus’ compassion towards sinners, and warning against judging others.

A final example we want to bring up is the account of Jesus’ ascension in Mark chapter 16. Some believe that this portion is not authentic. But even if we don’t take this account to be authentic, we have teachings elsewhere in the bible that Jesus ascended into heaven.

Even these so-called “significant variants” don’t affect any single doctrine of the bible. In fact, the well-known critic of the New Testament, who frequently pointed out that the bible has 400,000 errors, has this to say in his book “Misquoting Jesus”.

“To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything, other than showing us that scribes could not spell, or keep focused any better than the rest of us…

…In fact, most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away, the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple – slips of the pen, accidental omission, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another”

One reason why the New Testament accounts can be trusted is that they were the accounts of eyewitnesses. History tells us that the gospel of Matthew was written by someone based on the compilation of the disciple Matthew. The gospel of Mark was written by Mark, the interpreter of the disciple Peter. The gospel of Luke was written by Luke, a physician and researcher.

In the opening of the gospel of Luke, he wrote ,“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus”

History tells us that the gospel of John was written by the disciple John. We have these testimonies from early church fathers about the authorship of the gospels.

Papias writing in Turkey in AD 125 says…

“Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully…all that he remembered of the Lord’s saying and doings”

Papias also wrote…

“Matthew wrote the logia in the Hebrew dialect.”

“Logia” means “little words”. Therefore, Matthew compiled the sayings and deeds of Jesus, and these were used as the basis for another author to write the gospel in Greek.

Iraneus writing in France in AD 180 says…

Matthew wrote a “gospel among the Jews in their own style”

“Mark, the disciple of Peter, handed to us the preaching of Peter”

“Luke, a follower of Paul, set forth a gospel”

“Later, John the disciple of the Lord, put out a gospel while residing in Ephesus”.

Clement writing in Alexandria in AD 180 says…

“Mark was done by request of Peter preaching in Rome.”

Tertullian writing in North Africa in AD 200 says, “…the documents of the gospels” were written by “the apostolic men of Luke and Mark.”

Not only do we have these attestations to the sources being Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we have no other tradition which attributes the authorship of the gospels to anyone else. It is true the writers of the gospels do not put their own names in the writings, but this is how the majority of writings were done in the ancient world.

By not putting their names, the writers meant that the text was to be taken as an authoritative source of information, rather than saying, “this is my version of the truth”.

Looking at the map indicating the location of these early church fathers, we can see that we have wide attestation of the authorship of the Gospels from all over the ancient world.

Critics say that we cannot take for granted that eyewitness testimonies are true. That is why the court of law would interrogate several witnesses. This is true. However, the bible accounts were not based on the testimony of one eyewitness but many. Furthermore, the testimonies of Jesus’ death came from people who were hostile to Jesus’ claims.

Thallus is the earliest non-biblical writer to mention Jesus, and he wrote in the middle of the first century. His works don’t exist anymore but Julius Africanus, writing around 221 AD, said that Thallus tried to explain away the darkness occurring at Jesus’ crucifixion as an eclipse of the sun.

“On the whole world, there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.”

Phlegon was a historian writing around AD 140. His work was quoted by later historians Julius Africanus and Origen.

“Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour.”

“And with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place…”

“Jesus, while alive was of no assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails.”

Lucian, another historian who lived from AD115 to 200 wrote about Jesus.

“The Christians you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account….”

Tacitus a Roman historian wrote in AD 116,

“…Nero fastened the guilt 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…”

Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote in AD 93 to 94.

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day…”

It was long thought that crucifixion could not have actually taken place because it was just too cruel. However, archaeology has uncovered proof that crucifixion did actually take place.

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated some tombs in Jerusalem and found a 19-cm nail that had penetrated the body of the right heel bone before being driven into the wood.

Critics also point out that the New Testament accounts cannot be trusted because they contain numerous discrepancies.

For example, it was alleged that there were discrepancies about the time of the crucifixion.

Mark’s gospel says that Jesus was crucified in the third hour, while John’s gospel says that Jesus’ trial started in the sixth hour. How can the trial come after the crucifixion?

These are not discrepancies. Differences arise because Mark followed the Jewish system of counting time while John the Roman system. Under the Jewish system, the new day starts in the evening at 6 pm and the clock is based on 6 pm and 6 am. Therefore, when Mark said that Jesus was crucified in the third hour, he meant 9 am. John followed the Roman method of counting time and the clock is based on midnight and noon. When John said that Jesus was tried in the sixth hour, he was referring to 6 am. That means that Jesus’ trial took place three hours before his crucifixion.

We know that John used the Roman system of counting time from his other verses in the gospel.

In John chapter 1, we read that at the tenth hour, Jesus showed his first two disciples where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. If John were to use the Jewish system of counting, “the tenth hour” is 4 p.m. and the day finishes at 6 p.m. [] It is hard to see in what sense the disciples “stayed that day”, as they were only with Jesus for two hours. This would make more sense if tenth hour refers to 10 am.

Another alleged discrepancy has to do with how many women went to the tomb?

Critics say that John records only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, while Matthew, Mark and Luke report that she was with other women.

This is an argument from silence. By mentioning only one woman, John was not saying that Mary Magdalene was the only woman. John’s account of Mary’s response to Peter and John indicates that he knew other women were with her. The later verse says “she ran . . . and said to them . . . “we” do not know where they have laid him.”

Another discrepancy is: Did the women witness the angel rolling away the stone?

Critics say that Matthew records the women seeing the angel roll away the stone whereas Mark and Luke record the women finding the stone already rolled away.

Actually, Matthew did not say the women witnessed the angel rolling away the stone. The details concerning the angel and the stone are introduced with the Greek conjunction “gar”.

“And behold, there was a great earthquake; for [] (the Greek conjunction “gar” is used here) [] an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it”. Such an explanatory conjunction is used to introduce a clarification of a previous part of the sentence, not to assert that the women witnessed a stone-moving spectacle.

Another discrepancy is: How many angels were at the tomb?

Critics say that Mark and Luke recorded that two men were sitting at the tomb, and Matthew said it was one angel, which also contradicts John’s account of two angels being present.

Again, this is an argument from silence. Matthew did not say that there was only one angel. He simply focused on the one who spoke to the woman.

Another discrepancy is: Did the women see men or angels?

Mark and Luke describe what the women saw (which is “men”), whereas Matthew and John give an interpretation (or perhaps the women’s own interpretation) of what the women saw (which is “angels”).

Recall that angels often appear as men.

Another discrepancy is: Did the women speak to anyone?

Critics say that according to Mark, the women “said nothing to anyone” because they were afraid, but Luke says the women told the disciples what they had seen and heard.

A reasonable reading of Mark’s report is that the women ran straight to where the disciples were gathered without stopping to speak to anyone on the way. This is supported by Mark’s explanation that the women fled from the tomb “trembling”.

Another discrepancy is: What did the angel say to the women?

We can see that while different gospel writers record for us different parts of the conversation, these don’t contradict.

In conclusion, we can say that the New Testament accounts about the crucifixion of Jesus can be trusted as a reliable source of information.