The Resurrection: Searching for Answers

ByABC News
May 19, 2005, 3:03 PM

May 20, 2005 — -- Sometime around A.D. 33, Roman authorities in the city of Jerusalem sentenced to death a young Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. He was ordered crucified for treason.

Crucifixion was a common method of execution. "It was the Roman way of letting it be known that they were the boss," said New Testament scholar the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor.

And it's a particularly brutal sentence. "It's a death that involves, first, a scourging, a beating," said Lee Strobel, host of PAX television's "Faith Under Fire."

The condemned had to make their way through the crowded streets of the city, dragging a heavy wooden cross.

"Many people died before they even got to the cross," Strobel said.

Today, conventional wisdom suggests that everyone in the streets stopped to watch Jesus' struggle and crucifixion. But because crucifixions were fairly common, scholars say Jesus' crucifixion probably went largely unnoticed by the people of Jerusalem. "The attitude would be what we do in an accident on the highway, 'Isn't this awful?' But we're losing time,' " said Albert Baumgarten of Jerusalem's Bar Ilan University.

"You have to remember that the original Jesus movement was a very, very small group. They all get together in one room for dinner. So that will give you some notion of just how small they are," Baumgarten said.

Most of Jesus' closest friends -- his disciples -- had run away. "Jesus was now marked out as a criminal, and therefore anyone who was associated with him, especially those who were in his inner circle, so to speak, would expect that they might be next," said the Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame.

According to the Gospel stories, only one of Jesus' male disciples, John, was at the crucifixion site along with a few women, including Jesus' mother.

"Peter wasn't there and the other heavyweight Apostles were not there. They weren't even there at the foot of the cross. It was all over for them," said McBrien.

William Lane Craig, research professor at the Talbot School of Theology in LaMiranda, Calif., said Jesus' death sentence was a more devastating blow to the Apostles than many today might imagine. "I think it's difficult to underestimate the catastrophe that the crucifixion was for these first disciples. They had hoped Jesus of Nazareth would be the messiah who would bring the Kingdom of God to Israel. And instead he was crucified and now dead," he said.

The frightened disciples did not even show up to bury Jesus. The Gospels say that after he died, John and two mysterious sympathizers named Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus helped the women take Jesus' body off the cross.

Many of those crucified under Roman rule were denied burials. "They simply left the body of the person who'd been crucified out, and the dogs and the birds finished off whatever was left of the person who had been crucified," Baumgarten said. "In the case of Jesus, they were able to get permission to bury him."

In the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, according to the Gospels. "His body is wrapped in linens. And he was laid inside the tomb and a rock was rolled in front of that tomb," said Strobel.