Each spring, Christendom celebrates its most sacred holiday. That Jesus died and was resurrected is viewed as legend by skeptics, but most Christians accept it as fact. Even so, few know what the Bible actually says about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or stop to consider the evidence for these events.
New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans of Acadia University met with Vision’s David Hulme to discuss some of that evidence.
DH You’ve made the point that the public is largely biblically illiterate. Recent movies such as Noah and Exodus seem only to add to that. What steps do you advocate to counter this illiteracy?
CE Biblical illiteracy in our society is first and foremost the fault of the church itself. There’s a shift in emphasis—whether in the preaching from the pulpit or the material taught to children in Sunday school—to popularize things and make them seem a little more culturally relevant. That’s been at the expense (I am generalizing here) of the actual Bible content. So if people who are active in church—confessing Christians—don’t know the Bible very well, why would we expect the secular world, people outside the church, to know the Bible? These popular movies can take all kinds of license with the story, and the average person doesn’t have a clue.
DH In movies about Jesus, such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the crucifixion is a central element. What do we know about this method of execution at the time of Christ?
CE We’ve learned a lot about crucifixion, and of course it is gruesome. We have literary texts, but we have also found a number of depictions of it. A couple of them are inscriptions on plastered walls, and one of them, found in Rome, is clearly in reference to Jesus. He’s portrayed as having a donkey’s head, mocked, regarded as God; the donkey’s head is probably intended as an insult against Judaism. The figure on the cross is wearing a colobium, a shirt that slaves wore, and it’s late second century.
That depiction tells us that Jesus was viewed as a deity. It suggests that he died like a slave, and maybe he’s the kind of god a slave would worship. It’s actually very telling and agrees with a lot of what we know about Christianity in the late first century and on into the second. We’ve learned things about how crucifixion took place, who was crucified. And of course, we’ve found skeletal remains; the most spectacular is of the right heel of a man named Yehohanan, probably crucified by Pontius Pilate, according to our dating, in the 20s CE. The iron spike is still embedded in his heel. We have found 138 iron nails in tombs and ossuaries, many of them with calcium embedded in the nail, suggesting that some of these crucifixion victims were buried with the nails still in their wrists, hands, feet and so on.
You might wonder why there would be all these nails. A crucifixion nail was treasured. In antiquity it was viewed as a lucky rabbit’s foot. It’s bizarre. But when we learn these kinds of things, it makes sense, because we have statements in magical texts that say, “This charm will work if you have a crucifixion nail”; now we understand why. And of course, what the Gospels tell us about Jesus makes sense in light of these very helpful archaeological discoveries.
Two of the nails were found in the ossuary of Caiaphas, and someone suggested that they were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Now that’s just an outlandish speculation, but I don’t think there is much doubt that those two nails were placed in his ossuary as good luck charms. What’s interesting is that they give evidence of embedded human calcium still clinging to them. So these are crucifixion nails; they are not just for etching and writing people’s names on the ossuaries.
DH You say archaeologists have found 138 nails, some of which—perhaps many of which—were nails used for crucifixion. It’s often said that there’s only one extant nail from the time of Jesus: the one through the man’s heel.
CE No, that’s false. I know our good friend John Dominic Crossan pointed that out 20 years ago, and part of his argument was that Jesus would not have been buried because the odds were so slim. We only have one nail and one skeleton, he said, almost tearfully. No, we don’t; we have 138 nails. That’s the actual official count from [Israeli archaeologist] Rachel Hachlili. I visited her in June 2014 in her home in Jerusalem to confirm that. And we have other skeletons too.
“A crucifixion nail was treasured. In antiquity it was viewed as a lucky rabbit’s foot.”
DH What’s the documentary basis of the idea that these nails became lucky charms?
CE The documentary basis comes right from actual written texts I have studied—magical texts, and so on. Actually, my focus was on pagans invoking the name of Jesus for healing and for protection from evil spirits. I find that fascinating. Jesus’ reputation (and we have evidence of it during His lifetime) is such that people know He is powerful. He is already a rival of King Solomon in His own time. So it’s not surprising that people begin to invoke His name. I have read all the magical texts that are available, and occasionally one will say (not in reference to Jesus) that this charm or this incantation is especially effective if you can get hold of a finger or a lock of hair of a crucified victim, but especially a nail used in their crucifixion.
DH This makes me think of Mao Zedong. You can go to his hometown today and get a potion in the name of Mao that is supposed to help women if they are unable to conceive.
CE That sounds very similar, and of course, infertility was one of the problems in antiquity.
DH The apostle Paul wrote about eyewitnesses to Christ’s death and resurrection. Eyewitness testimony is often underestimated in skeptical discussions of the reliability of the New Testament as a whole. Today we bring witnesses into court; we cross-question them, and we place value on their testimony. How important is eyewitness testimony in the New Testament?
CE I think eyewitness testimony in the New Testament is very important, and there is a lot of evidence for it. Richard Bauckham’s work in this field is very good. It needs to be continued and followed up, because some of the studies that have been put forward by skeptics say people have unreliable memories. But we’re not talking about a one-off event, where somebody is standing on a street corner and an accident occurs, and then witnesses all see it differently or get their details confused. We’re talking about people remembering what Jesus taught, which was taught over and over again. It’s very deliberately, very pedagogically presented. The intent is that people memorize and learn His teaching. And I think the signature of that is everywhere in the Gospels. This is a rabbi—that’s what He’s called. He is teaching His disciples, learners—that’s what disciple means. So we have learners learning the teaching of their master, their rabbi.
But a lot of people don’t realize that in mastering a teacher’s teaching, it isn’t just memorizing it word for word; it’s understanding it. And the proof of that is being able to paraphrase it, to expand it, to contract it, to adjust it, to put it in a new context, but always to be true to the original point. We see this in the Gospels as they relate to one another. And so the evidence in the Gospels themselves—what we have learned from the old “school books” that have been recovered from antiquity—is that there really is eyewitness tradition in the Gospels, and it preserves Jesus’ teaching reliably and presents it in a way that’s very effective in a diversity of contexts.
“A lot of people don’t realize that in mastering a teacher’s teaching, it isn’t just memorizing it word for word; it’s understanding it.”
DH When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said Jesus was seen by 500 people after His resurrection, many of whom were still alive. The thought seems to be, “And you could go and ask them if you want to.” What do you make of that?
CE I think that’s precisely why Paul makes the comment that, in addition to the apostles and Jesus’ brother James, there were 500 at one time who saw the risen Jesus, and that many of them were still alive. When you go on reading in 1 Corinthians 15, you realize why he said that. He was countering some skepticism being voiced in the Corinthian context: “Resurrection? Really? Who needs that?” This probably reflects the Greek bias against physicality, the body; and so, if there is a resurrection, it would be only spirit, or something like that. I think that’s why Paul mentions that a risen Jesus—not a ghostly apparition but a risen Jesus—was in fact seen by 500 people at one time. It’s not somebody’s dream or hallucination, but it’s a whole group, and when Paul is writing at least 20 years later, many of these people are still living, so “if you don’t believe me, go ask them.”
DH The apostle John later wrote that “we touched him; we felt him; we heard him.” This is all physical evidence, isn’t it? We talk about the reliability of the Old Testament in terms of finding material evidence, but here we have eyewitness testimony—witness evidence, in that sense.
CE When you think about it, any kind of eyewitness testimony is going to be presented in a variety of ways. It might be a written record; it might be some kind of comment, some kind of description; it could be from a single person or from a group; and it could represent all of the different senses. And so you have people who say, “Well, we weren’t sure who it was initially. And then suddenly the light dawned. We realized it was Jesus, but we didn’t recognize Him until we sat down and He did something familiar. He broke bread, and it all came back: That’s none other than Jesus!” So there’s something about the mannerisms and the kinds of phenomena we would expect to see in genuine eyewitness tradition, because it doesn’t come across as canned. It doesn’t come across as a formulaic pattern of some sort. We wonder how to put it all together, but you get enough diversity—a variety of examples—that it doesn’t read as though it’s staged or fixed.
DH And it’s detail, isn’t it—the fact that the details are just true to life. They are what normal people do in these kinds of circumstances. They’re not inventions; they’re like somebody took a snapshot and we can see the detail.
CE Many of the later writings (second century) are Gnostic. You get a formulaic presentation that bedazzles you: There’s a bright light. Jesus appears. He looks like a young lad, then he looks like an old man. Then he looks like this, then he looks like that, and it’s almost like an illusion—He is putting on a grand show, and His disciples are absolutely blown away. And of course, the apostles are all there and they are named one by one. In fact, the account is from one of the apostles in the first person.
You don’t have any of that in the New Testament. Instead it’s a couple of men walking along the road. It’s a frightened woman or two and an empty tomb, or it’s this or it’s that. You get the diversity and the realism, and even a little bit of uncertainty and fear and questioning. In other words, the first-century Gospel accounts smack of realism. Later accounts, driven by apologetic agendas and so on, frankly come across sounding very canned and very artificial.
“The first-century Gospel accounts smack of realism. Later accounts, driven by apologetic agendas and so on, frankly come across sounding very canned and very artificial.”
DH The biblical resurrection accounts are startling, to say the least. What comment would you make about the documented resurrection of Jesus?
CE The resurrection of Jesus is well documented, because we have not just four Gospels and the book of Acts; the resurrection is referred to many times in Paul’s letters and in other writings in the New Testament, either presupposed or explicitly discussed. The documentation is overwhelming.
Paul isn’t somebody who got to know Jesus, who became a good friend, a disciple. You might say the other disciples were subject to psychological pressures, wishful thinking: “I can’t believe He’s dead,” and then you hear a rumor that maybe He’s alive. You can’t do that with Paul (which I know some skeptics do), because with Paul there wasn’t this psychological investment. Paul was opposed to Jesus until he met Him on the road to Damascus, and that changed everything for Paul. Of course, he then shared his experience with others who were already followers and discovered that his experience was in fact consistent with their experience and with the teaching of Jesus. That’s why they extended to him, as they put it, “the right hand of fellowship” and recognized the validity of both his conversion and his calling to be an apostle.
So it hangs together well. You have diverse sources, diverse contexts, different kinds of people. The resurrection of Jesus can’t just be blown off as some kind of myth or legend that developed as the years went by. It is the spark that starts the Church. Pentecost is just a few weeks after the crucifixion, and that’s what sparks the Church. It’s not the result of years of legend-building. That happened right then and involved everybody who knew Jesus, and I find that very compelling.