Seeking the historical reality, the extra-biblical facts of the final days and crucifixion of Jesus

The passion of Jesus Christ is the central event that divides Western civilization for both believers and non-believers.

It is, of course, the foundation of the Christian faith. Much of history has occurred because of this event: an awesome tangle of inspiration, dedication, vast accomplishment and also sweeping hatreds, bloody wars, millions of martyrs.

The death of Jesus of Nazareth is an event so momentous that 2,000 years later it continues to animate much of Western civilization. Yet at the same time as it inspires profound devotion, it remains the subject of historical controversy.

Until the 18th century few Christian scholars questioned the historical veracity of the Passion, related in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Yet by the 1700s, both believers and sceptics had begun to scrutinize the Scriptures and other reports, seeking the “historical Jesus.” They uncovered dismayingly little to verify the Gospels, which are a compilation of the oral traditions that were finally written down, to a great extent, 50 years after the events had taken place and often differing in significant detail.

Today, some of that has changed. Once the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, more than 60 years ago, theologians, archaeologists and anthropologists began busily trying to piece together historical accuracy and the theological meaning of the final events of Jesus’ life.

The conclusion drawn by most thoughtful scholars is that the Gospel narratives are a dramatic mixture of lore and fact, particularly concerning the final days of Christ.

Jesus was in trouble by the time he entered Jerusalem on what Christians now call Palm Sunday to observe the Jewish Passover. He had already had a number of clashes with the religious leaders of nearby towns. That attracted many common people who loathed the Roman occupiers and resented the Jewish Temple hierarchy. As an anti-establishment leader he came carrying a theological fuse into an extraordinarily volatile moment in the history of Judaism. The Pharisees for instance, constituted a lay reform movement, steadily gaining strength in village synagogues, criticizing the Sadducees, the priests who dominated the Temple in Jerusalem.

Further into the countryside were the Essenes, a “radical” monastic movement that totally rejected the Temple establishment. There were also the Zealots, Jews prowling the periphery of this competition, working to throw off Roman rule and those who collaborated with it.

Certainly, Jesus posed a prickly problem to the Temple establishment, especially to Caiaphas, the temple’s high priest at the time, who apparently had a working, if not comfortable, agreement with the Romans.

Because Jesus was a charismatic figure, who represented a humanistic trend in Judaism, ambitiously sought to purge the religion of many resentments and hatreds, and advocated love for and identification with one’s fellow beings, especially common people and outcasts, he was a threat to the existing social order. That order was built upon social and religious attainment, well-displayed righteousness, honor and position.

At that tension-ridden time, just being a charismatic leader with a growing following could bring a person a lot of trouble. At the same time, Jesus was warning of the fall for Jerusalem, another act that could only attract trouble in first-century Palestine. The Temple establishment was afraid Jesus’ movement would provoke religious unrest and even more dangerous, risk Roman intervention.

Basically, Jesus was killed because of blasphemy and sedition. He threatened the Temple (blasphemy) and by becoming a “radical” center of attention in Jerusalem during the explosive season of Passover (sedition), he attracted the intolerant attention of Palestine’s Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate. (“Rome was chronically suspicious of indigenous movements within its occupied territories,” according to one historian.)

While many dispute the details of his death, extra-Biblical sources seem to authenticate that Jesus, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, was executed in Roman-occupied Palestine. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus, writing in A.D. 11 of the persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Nero, refers to followers of “Christ, whom the prosecutor Pontius Pilate had executed during the reign of Tiberius.”

However, the method of Jesus’ death, so graphically described in the Gospels, has been the object of considerable scepticism. Some have contended that in first-century Palestine the customary death of criminals was by stoning, burning, strangling or beheading, not crucifixion. Other have argued that crucifixion was a Roman not Jewish practice. Others have questioned the use of nails, rather than bindings, and the shape of the cross.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls was found evidence that crucifixion was used at the time of Jesus death. And German theologian, Ernst Bammel, has pointed to the fact that crucifixion had been used in Palestine since the second century B.C. even by Jewish courts.

Bammel notes that it “was used especially in political cases such as those branded by Romans as rebellion.”

In 1968, just northeast of Jerusalem, three tombs were found, one of them containing a man who had been crucified between A.D. 7 and 70. The man’s feet had been nailed together at the heels, his forearms had nail wounds and the bones of his lower legs were broken. These wounds are consistent with the description in John’s Gospel of the crucifixion of Jesus beside the two thieves.