Many years ago when I was in college I took some fencing classes. No, not classes that teach you how to string barbed wire across your property, but classes that instruct on sword play. The class started with the foil, then expanded to an epee, and finally the sabre. With some martial arts experience under my belt, I felt I had a slight advantage over some of the other beginning students. Several months down the road, I participated in a local college tournament and earned 2nd place after losing to a young woman who was also in her 20’s. Despite her having a reach 6 inches less than mine, I lost. She was as fast as I was, but had more experience and knew some techniques I was unprepared for. I remember being frustrated because I could not score on her, and in my frustration I moved in closer to press the attack, which is when she would score. A few minutes later she had won the match.
So often in conversations we give away our advantages by making statements or claims we might have difficulty backing up if we don’t have the knowledge, background, or experience. Many Christians feel the pressure to be bold and evangelize about their faith and are called to do so, but the truth is they hope no one will ask them any difficult questions they can’t answer. Then when questions start flying they’re at a loss on what to say or how to respond.
The other day a co-worker Jennifer, who knows I enjoy blogging on apologetics and wrestling with tough questions, asked me about the crucifixion. She explained that someone asked her why Jesus was buried in a tomb. “Everyone” knows when the Romans crucified someone, they were thrown into an open grave or pit. In other words, why was Jesus so special? Sounds rather fishy, this whole placed-in-a-tomb-story which is followed by a resurrection claim.
My initial response to her was to ask how does he know that no one was buried in a tomb after being crucified? How did he come to that conclusion? That places the burden of proof on him, not because you are trying to avoid having to respond or that you don’t know the answer, but because you honestly want to know. We can’t expect to know all the answers to questions skeptics may ask, and it is important to be honest when asked something you can’t answer. If you don’t know the answer, tell them. At the same time, when you ask someone how he came to that conclusion, or what evidence he has for his reasoning, you may learn something in return. He may have good reasons for his claim and you want to hear them. Worse thing that can happen is you will learn something. Not only from him, but if you then go home and research an answer, you will be better prepared to respond the next time someone asks you.
I personally had not heard that particular push-back before, and other than pointing out that Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy and a follower of Jesus who asked for his body so he could put him in a tomb, Matthew 27:57, I would not have had anything else to add. So I went home and began my research for a blog post. What I found out surprised me and maybe it will surprise you, too.
History is not clear on who invented crucifixion, but most scholars believe it to be the Persians. Romans crucified enemies since 300 B.C., until it was outlawed by the Roman emperor Constantine in 337 A.D. One of the more famous accounts would be the slave uprising led by Spartacus in 73 B.C. After overpowering the Roman guards, the gladiators and slaves escaped from a gladiator school in Capua. The slave army expanded while pillaging the country side, and won several battles against the Romans until Spartacus and his army were trapped between two Roman legions with a 3rd soon to arrive. In 71 B.C., Spartacus and his army was defeated. Those who were captured, (over 6000), were crucified along the road from Capua to Rome, over 100 miles in length.1
The ancient historian Josephus has multiple account of crucifixions; for example Alexander Jannaeus, the Maccabean king, crucified hundreds while dining with his concubines. Varus, a Roman commander in Syria, crucified over 2000 Jews. Josephus even reported that during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Romans were crucifying up to 500 Jews a day until they ran out of timber in the surrounding countryside.2
With crucifixion such a common practice for centuries, you would expect there to be an overflowing amount of skeletal evidence for this practice. Other than the multiple ancient historical accounts, (Josephus is only one of many), we only have one archaeological piece of evidence, which just happens to have been found in a tomb.
His name was Yehohanan, a young man in his mid twenties, who around the time of Christ did something to offend the Romans. For this offense he was crucified. Because he was from a wealthy family, he was placed in a tomb and after a year his bones were gathered together and then placed in a stone box called an ossuary. Two thousand years later in 1968, a Jewish archeologist made the discovery, which is now on display in a museum in Israel.3
The reasons for the lack of evidence is not necessarily obvious at first, but substantial when you give it some consideration. First, nearly all who were crucified were not placed in a tomb, but rather tossed into an open grave or left for animals to devour.
Second, it is a Jewish custom not to leave someone hanging up overnight, and often the bodies were taken down after several hours. Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Over time, the bones would be scattered with little evidence remaining, and often they were criminals, (at least on the view of Romans), and were not placed in tombs.
Third, injuries were often through soft tissue, not piercing bones, but if the bones were damaged it would be difficult to tell from damage animals may have caused by gnawing on the bones. Some were not nailed, but only tied to the cross.
Finally, crucifixion nails were considered magical or as holding special healing properties and collected when found. Consequently, the most hardy, (long lasting), evidence was often removed from the location of the crucifixion. The wooden crosses and the victims themselves would not last centuries, unlike the nails used.4
I find it ironic that the claim, “No one crucified was ever buried in a tomb” is not only false, but the ‘only’ physical evidence we have for the ancient practice of crucifixion which spanned roughly 500 years was found in a tomb of someone who was crucified.
What you just read is an example of apologetics in action. Do you know what apologetics is? Apologetics is not apologizing for your faith – it is defending your faith. It stems from the Greek word apologia and means a verbal defense. Christians should be able to defend verbally why they are a Christian.
If someone asks you why you are a believer, can you give them reasons, evidence, or are you going to pull the experiential card, which is often based on feelings and emotions.
Why should a church engage in apologetics? Why should pastors teach apologetics? Why should youth groups be exposed to apologetics?
- 1 Peter 3:15
- It feeds certain members of the congregation who may be more evidentially minded in their faith.
- It prepares youth to hear arguments, reasoning, and conclusions counter to their faith.
- Those who are confidant in their answers are more willing to engage the culture and move beyond their comfort zone of fellow believers in conversation.
Whether you want to admit it or not, you are walking the streets with a sword hanging from your hip. You are walking by others who are also armed. These different swords are not called foils, epee’s, or sabre’s but by the more familiar names of explanation, ideas, reasons, evidence, justifications, beliefs, assertions, faith, and truth. When someone makes a truth claim, and you cross swords, you have two choices, and only two choices. Learn from the experience, or remain the same; no better swordsman or swordswoman, than you were before you engaged them. Which kind will you be?
1. Czeck, Kenneth P. “Ancient History: Spartacus and the Slave Rebellion.” HistoryNet, historynet.com, n.d., http://www.historynet.com/spartacus.htm
2. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Blacksburg: Unabridged Books, 2011. Print.
3. Friedman, Matti, “In a stone box, the only trace of crucifixion.” The Times of Israel, timesofisrael.com, 26 March 2012, http://www.timesofisrael.com/in-a-stone-box-a-rare-trace-of-crucifixion/
4. Killgrove, Kristina. “This Bone Is The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World.” Forbes, forbes.com, 8 December 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/12/08/this-bone-provides-the-only-skeletal-evidence-for-crucifixion-in-the-ancient-world/#10012eee403c