Crucifixion

A method of execution which arose in the East, a fixing to a cross as a means of torture, practiced by the Medes and Persians, and passed to the West among the Greeks and the Romans, in the 1st century especially related to the latter.

A means of torture

The Cross consisted of a perpendicular stake with a crossbeam either at the top of the stake or shortly below the top. The height of the stake was usually little more than the height of a man. A block or a pin was sometimes driven into the stake to serve as a seat for the condemned person, giving partial support to his body. Sometimes also a step for the feet was fixed to the stake. Victims of crucifixion did not usually die for two or three days, but this was determined by the presence or absence of the seat (sedile or cornu) and the foot rest, for a person suspended by his hands lost blood pressure quickly, and the pulse rate was increased. Usually the victim had been severely scourged before crucifixion took place. Orthostatic collapse through insufficient blood circulating to the brain and the heart would follow shortly. If the victim could ease his body by supporting himself with the seat and footrest, the blood could be returned to some degree of circulation in the upper part of his body. To fix the hands to the crossbeam (patibulum), either cords or nails and cords were used; sometimes the feet were nailed also. When it was desired to bring the torture to an end, the victim’s legs were broken below the knees with a club. It was then no longer possible for him to ease his weight, and the loss of blood circulation was accentuated. Coronary insufficiency followed shortly. The victim’s offense was usually published by a crier who preceded him to the place of execution. Sometimes it was written on a tablet (called titulus) which was carried by the condemned man himself. Or if he carried the crossbeam as was sometimes done, another bore the tablet with its charge before him. Later the charge or titulus was fixed to the cross at the time of execution.

Among the Romans

The Romans were the chief practitioners of this form of execution. There was no uniform method of fastening the victim to the cross, which was due to the fact that Rom. law authorized crucifixion only for slaves and degraded persons. Augustus Caesar boasted that he had captured 30,000 fugitive slaves and had crucified all of them who had not been claimed. Large numbers of people were crucified in mass executions. Over 6,000 of the rebellious slaves who had followed Spartacus were caught by Crassus and crucified beside the Appian Way from Rome to Capua; and, as was customary, their bodies were left to rot as a warning against such insurrection. Julius Caesar caught the pirates who had formerly held him captive for ransom and crucified them all, having cut their throats first as an act of kindness. In Pal. the Romans crucified two thousand followers of the rebel Judas who had captured the city of Sepphoris and operated from it throughout Galilee until his forces were killed or captured by Varus and his Syrian legions. Martial described the spectacle of a robber’s being crucified in the arena for the amusement of the citizens of Rome. Nero crucified many Christians, blaming them for the burning of the imperial city. Origen reported that Peter was crucified head down. Emperor after emperor persecuted the Christians, crucifixion being the means of death for many of them. Finally under Constantine, because of his vision and the celestial sign of the cross, crucifixion was abolished throughout the empire as a means of punishment.

Of Christ

The ministry of Jesus ended in crucifixion. The duration of His ministry has been supposed by some to have lasted three years (because of the Passovers mentioned in John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 13:1) The feast of the Jews in John 5:1 was prob. not, however, a Passover. The synoptic gospels mentioned only one Passover which would give a ministry of less than two years. The two Passover theory would add a year to the public ministry; and according to the Julian calendar, it placed the date of the crucifixion as April 7, a.d. 30.

The cross which Jesus bore (John 19:17), and which was subsequently carried for him by Simon of Cyrene (Matt 27:32), was prob. in actuality only the crossbeam (patibulum), which was customarily borne by the condemned man to the place of execution where the stake upon which it was to be fixed had already been set in the ground. Because the charge (titulus) was ordered to be placed over the cross, it has been deduced that the crossbeam did not rest on the top of the stake but intersected it a short distance below the top. The height of Jesus’ cross has been estimated from the length of the reed (hyssop, John 19:29). The reed was prob. about three ft. in length, and thus the height of the cross was probably seven to nine ft.


Death on a cross was judged by the Jews as a curse (Deut 21:23). It became to the Jews a most serious obstacle to the acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah. The cross, however, became the universally recognized symbol of Christianity, being acknowledged from the beginning of Christianity as the heart of the Gospel (Gal 6:14).

Additional Material

From the Cross Article: Physical Description of Crucifixion

Crucifixion was one of the most cruel and barbarous forms of death known to man. It was practiced, especially in times of war, by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, and later by the Romans. So dreaded was it that even in the pre-Christian era, the cares and troubles of life were often compared to a cross.

As an instrument of death the cross was detested by the Jews. "Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree" (Ga 3:13; compare De 21:23), hence, it became a stumbling-block to them, for how could one accursed of God be their Messiah? Nor was the cross differently considered by the Romans. "Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears" (Cicero Pro Rabirio 5).

The earliest mode of crucifixion seems to have been by impalation, the transfixion of the body lengthwise and crosswise by sharpened stakes. The usual mode of crucifixion was familiar to the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, Persians and Babylonians (Thuc. 1, 110; Herod. iii.125, 159). Alexander the Great executed two thousand Tyrian captives in this way, after the fall of the city.

The Jews received this form of punishment from the Syrians and Romans (Ant., XII, v, 4; XX, vi, 2; BJ, I, iv, 6). The Roman citizen was exempt from this form of death, it being considered the death of a slave (Cicero In Verrem i. 5, 66; Quint. viii.4). The punishment was meted out for such crimes as treason, desertion in the face of the enemy, robbery, piracy, assassination, sedition, etc.

It continued in vogue in the Roman empire till the day of Constantine, when it was abolished as an insult to Christianity. Among the Romans crucifixion was preceded by scourging, undoubtedly to hasten impending death. The victim then bore his own cross, or at least the upright beam, to the place of execution. This in itself proves that the structure was less ponderous than is commonly supposed. When he was tied to the cross nothing further was done and he was left to die from starvation. If he was nailed to the cross, at least in Judea, a stupefying drink was given him to deaden the agony. Such a potion was prepared by the merciful women of Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified, a drink that Christ refused (Mark.15.23). To such a death, the one who was coequal with God descended (Phil.2.5). The number of nails used seems to have been indeterminate.

A tablet, on which the feet rested or on which the body was partly supported, seems to have been a part of the cross to keep the wounds from tearing through the transfixed members (Iren., Adv. haer., ii.42). The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, especially in hot climates. Severe local inflammation, coupled with an insignificant bleeding of the jagged wounds, produced traumatic fever, which was aggravated the exposure to the heat of the sun, the strained of the body and insufferable thirst. The swelled about the rough nails and the torn lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths.

Tetanus not rarely supervened and the rigors of the attending convulsions would tear at the wounds and add to the burden of pain, till at last the bodily forces were exhausted and the victim sank to unconsciousness and death. The sufferings were so frightful that "even among the raging passions of war pity was sometimes excited" (BJ, V, xi, 1). The length of this agony was wholly determined by the constitution of the victim, but death rarely ensued before thirty-six hours had elapsed. Instances are on record of victims of the cross who survived their terrible injuries when taken down from the cross after many hours of suspension (Josephus, Vita, 75). Death was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims and by a hard blow delivered under the armpit before crucifixion. Crura fracta was a well-known Roman term (Cicero Phil. xiii.12).

The sudden death of Christ evidently was a matter of astonishment (Mr 15:44). The peculiar symptoms mentioned by John (19:34) would seem to point to a rupture of the heart, of which the Saviour died, independent of the cross itself, or perhaps hastened by its agony.

Recent medical studies have sought a specific answer to the question of what exactly killed Jesus. When a person is suspended by his two hands, the blood sinks rapidly into the lower extremities of the body. Within six to twelve minutes the blood pressure has dropped to half, while the rate of the pulse has doubled. The heart is deprived of blood, and fainting follows. This leads to an orthorastic collapse through insufficient circulation. Death during crucifixion is due to heart failure. Victims of crucifixion did not generally succumb for two or three days. Death was hastened by the “crucifragium” or the breaking of the legs. “But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs” (John.19.33). Sometimes a fire was built beneath the cross that its fumes might suffocate the sufferer.

The details of the crucifixion of Christ are passed over, the Evangelists content with the simple statement, “They crucified him” (Matt.27.35; Mark.15.24). Following his trial before the Jewish and Roman authorities, Christ was led forth for crucifixion. Before the actual ordeal itself, he was scourged. The prisoner was bent over and tied to a post, while the Roman soldier applied blow after blow on his bared back with a lash intertwined with pieces of bone or steel. This in itself was frequently sufficient to cause death.

Crucifixion

A form of execution practiced in the ancient world which involved fixing the victim to a wooden cross and leaving him to die. It seems to have been invented by the Phoenicians and to have been taken up by a number of other peoples. The Romans made considerable use of it for the execution of slaves, foreigners, or the lowest criminal classes. It was used in Palestine by Antiochus Epiphanes and by Alexander Jannaeus, as well as by the Romans. Josephus describes the crucifixion of 2,000 Jews by the Roman general Varus in 4 b.c.

Three shapes of cross were used: T-shaped and X- shaped as well as in the shape familiar to us through representations of the crucifixion of Christ. The victim was normally brutally flogged and then made to carry the cross-beam (patibulum) to the place of execution outside the city. The titulus (tablet of execution) would usually be hung round his neck. His clothes would be removed, and his hands were fastened by nails or cords to the cross-beam. That was then raised and fixed to the upright which would have been already erected. There was a peg on which the victim had to sit so that the weight of his body did not pull him down. His feet were attached to the upright, and he was left to die in intense suffering and often in the face of jeers and insults. On occasion, the process of dying took several days. Sometimes a drugged drink was given to relieve pain, and a victim's legs might be broken to hasten his death.

Jesus was put to death by crucifixion, as all the gospels narrate, and what was accounted as the most degrading form of punishment became a symbol for Christians of forgiveness and dedication (Gal. 3:13; 6:14; Phil. 2:8).

Bibliography

  • W. Durant, Caesar and Christ (1944), 138, 168, 281, 397, 543, 572f;
  • J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (1946), 252, 292, 431;
  • W. Keller, The Bible as History (1956), 375-377;
  • M. Gough, The Early Christians (1961), 83, 97, 180-182.
  • See also

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