Some of the most intelligent people I’ve met in education and professional life have had limited or no knowledge about Jesus Christ or how the events of his life gave rise to the world’s largest major religion. One reason must be the general animus that exists toward Christianity in colleges and universities. This was true when I was in college and continues today. A general disregard of Christianity among educators and a dearth of cogent teaching about the life of Jesus have created measurable effects. An estimated sixty percent of young people who have grown up in church leave their faith during college years. This is an epidemic.
Is the significance of Jesus Christ so easily debunked? Can Christian beliefs about Jesus’ death and resurrection withstand logical scrutiny? The answers lie in painstaking explication of the facts about Jesus’ execution and of his disciples’ belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead to bodily life.
The Bible contains the most detailed accounts of Jesus’ life and message. In referring to biblical texts we are forced to consider the question of whether or not they are accurate. If we cannot establish the reliability of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, further discussion has little value. That being said, there is considerable evidence that Jesus’ life and teachings were recorded by those who knew him best and that the texts have been handed down through time without error. Within this present book, evidence for the validity of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life is discussed as well as historical references to Jesus from outside the Bible.
Jesus lived in Judaea and Galilee, areas that were part of the Kingdom of Herod the Great. Herod ruled the Jewish kingdom as a client state of the Roman Empire from 37 BC to 4 BC. The Romans divided the kingdom among Herod’s sons after his death. While the borders of the first century Jewish kingdom differ from those of modern Israel, regions within the Herodian kingdom are collectively referred to as “Israel” within this book for simplicity’s sake.
The politics in Jesus’ time were complex and can be missed with a casual reading of the Bible. Jesus lived in Israel during Roman occupation. (More precisely, Jesus lived in the regions of Judaea and Galilee. Both are collectively referred to as “Israel” within this book for simplicity’s sake). Jewish leaders attempted to preserve a tenuous favorable relationship with Rome plus maintain internal political stability within Israel. Class tensions existed among the Jews, in addition to a palpable disdain for their foreign rulers. The threat of a Roman police state and seizure of Israel’s monetary reserves loomed large. The common citizenry hoped for a dynamic leader sent by God who would free them from Roman occupation and reestablish Israel as an autonomous theocratic nation state. Many thought Jesus would be that leader. Jewish religious leaders felt differently. They rejected the idea that Jesus was God’s Messiah and imminent leader. More than that, they feared Jesus’ rising popularity would attract Roman attention and trigger martial law. Their personal wealth and social status were at risk. Understanding the political turmoil in Jesus’ time sheds light on why killing Jesus seemed so important.
Many find it difficult to accept the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life as trustworthy historical documents. Still, the biblical passages describing Jesus’ crucifixion have stand-alone historical importance. By Jesus’ time, Romans had used crucifixion as their most severe form of capital punishment for three centuries. Crucifixion was a perfected method of execution. There are no compelling reasons to question the accuracy of the biblical descriptions of Jesus’ execution. Roman crucifixion practices are well known and will be discussed in detail here.
Death by crucifixion was the result of slow torture, without a mortal wound or direct injury to vital organs. What ultimately caused Jesus to die? Did Jesus’ heart rupture from emotional agony? Did hanging on the cross cause Jesus to suffocate? Was he killed when a Roman soldier impaled his chest with a spear? Did he die from shock? The plausibility of each is examined in light of current medical understanding.
It is an inescapable fact that Jesus’ disciples experienced somethingthat made them believe he had been resurrected to bodily life after dying on the cross. The martyrdom of his disciples and the rapid expansion of Christianity in the first century defy explanation otherwise. The litmus test that they experienced something that for them was realis that they would not recant their belief in Jesus’ resurrection even though for many it meant torture and death.
Were the disciples tricked somehow? Was Jesus’ body snatched? Did they go to the wrong tomb? Could psychiatric illness explain the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection? Were the disciples hallucinating when they saw Jesus after his crucifixion? Hallucination hypotheses for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection have largely escaped commentary by medical professionals yet the medical implications are significant.
Many physicians have written about the crucifixion of Jesus. I do not seek to supplant their work. Rather, I humbly stand on the shoulders of the distinguished medical scholars who have sought to understand and explain how Jesus died. I am indebted to their scholarship.
I do not endorse any particular church or denomination. Rather, I have focused on the most foundational beliefs common to all traditional orthodox Christians, the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
May you find the reading insightful. To Christians, I trust you will appreciate the detailed descriptions and better understand what happened to Jesus the day he was crucified. To those unsure of what they think about Jesus, I applaud your academic integrity and desire to seek further knowledge. To all, I trust you will apprehend the logical basis for belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
– Joseph W. Bergeron, M.D.
Barna Group Staff, “The Priorities, Challenges, and Trends in Youth Ministry,” The Barna Group, April 6, 2016. https://www.barna.com/research/the-priorities-challenges-and-trends-in-youth-ministry/(accessed November 12, 2017).
Staff writer, “The Herodian Period: 37 BCE – 73 CE” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2013, http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/maps/pages/kingdom%20of%20herod- %2030%20bce%20to%2070%20ce.aspx/ (accessed July 3, 2018). See also Chapter 3 for further discussion.
After the death of Herod the Great, the Romans divided Herod’s kingdom among his children. Herod Antipas became the ruler of Galilee, and Archelaus initially ruled Judea, both were client rulers within the Roman empire. See Chapter 3 for further discussion.