Popular Beliefs About Jesus’s Death That Aren’t Actually In The Bible

Is there a more central moment in Christian theology than the death and resurrection of Jesus? Some scholars make a case for the virgin birth, and others for moments in the ministry of Jesus, like the casting out of the moneylenders. But the crucifixion and resurrection are practically inseparable from the very notion of Christianity.

In the centuries since the gospels were written, and the centuries since those writings were codified into what we know as the New Testament, the crucifixion story has taken on a life of its own. In art, literature, film, and television, this pivotal moment has been reconsidered and reinterpreted over the years. The core story has remained intact, but key details we associate with the event aren't actually in the Bible itself.

This is not unusual for a document as old and influential as the Bible. These stories have been translated and retold in dozens of forms, and it's natural that certain details would be altered or added during that time. It's fascinating to look at what is and isn't in the Bible - and what that can tell us about this story that has so dramatically impacted the lives of billions.

  • Jesus Was Hung On A Cross
    Photo: Cimabue / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jesus Was Hung On A Cross

    The cross, the central symbol of Christianity, may not actually be the most appropriate symbol for the passing of Jesus.

    When Jesus received his capital sentence, he was affixed to an object which, in Greek, was referred to as stauros. However, stauros does not mean "cross" in the sense that we understand it. Rather, it can refer to a simple pole or tree trunk to which a captive might be nailed. Nowhere in the New Testament is any reference made to a T-shaped object, and nowhere in literature from the period is it indicated that the event took place on a cross.

  • Jesus Was Extensively Harmed Before Hanging On The Cross
    Photo: Albrecht Altdorfer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jesus Was Extensively Harmed Before Hanging On The Cross

    Accounts of Jesus's physical suffering have grown more and more involved over the centuries. The early gospel writers seemingly weren't too interested in these details, but modern Christian artists have vividly fleshed out the punishments and have gone beyond the Bible's text in doing so.

    The most obvious case of this is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which many critics lambasted for its extreme aggression. Artistically, that may or may not be justified, but it has relatively little basis in scripture. True, Jesus was flogged according to the gospels, but there is no evidence to indicate he was extensively harmed.

  • He Was 33 Years Old When He Passed
    Photo: Fra Carnevale / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    He Was 33 Years Old When He Passed

    Common wisdom holds that Jesus was around 33 years old at the time of his passing and resurrection. According to Numbers 4:3, "from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting." This means that in order to be consecrated (which Jesus was), he would have needed to be at least 30 years old.

    Scholars estimate that his ministry would have taken around three-and-a-half years, meaning he would have been 33 at the time of his passing. It's solid logic, but nowhere is it confirmed in the text.

  • He Was Nailed To The Cross By His Hands And Feet
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    He Was Nailed To The Cross By His Hands And Feet

    In all the gospels, there is only one piece of evidence that indicates the use of nails during Jesus's time on the cross. It's in the Gospel of John, when Jesus shows the marks on his hands to Thomas. From this one moment springs the entire conception of Jesus's hands and feet being nailed to the cross. Ultimately, however, there is little evidence that Jesus's hands were nailed, and no evidence at all that his feet were.

    Furthermore, it would have been unusual for the Romans to nail someone to a cross. While there are a few contemporary accounts of nails being used in crucifixions, the only actual evidence is the pierced ankle bone of a victim from the 1st century AD. If the practice were more prevalent, we might expect to see more archeological evidence.