Lecture 31: Life of Jesus: Crucifixion
Course: New Testament Survey - Gospels
Lecture: Life of Jesus: Crucifixion
After the trial of Jesus and his being handed over by Pontius Pilate, he is flogged. Now, usually flogging proceeded all crucifixions, and we read on page 314 that Pilate now, line 9, so Pilate wishing to satisfy the crowd released for them Barabbas and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
A scourging was a whipping with a cat of nine tails, to which the ends, the ends had been tied things like pieces of metal, bone, or sharp branches, stones that would lacerate the flesh. And it would tear open a person’s back. Many times, a person would die just from a flogging. Probably, we shouldn’t talk about a flogging. Use that…Talk about scourging and keep it more technical, in that regard. But that was customary to do so before the crucifixion itself.
As to crucifixion, it was a very common form of capital punishment. We have records going back to the Code of Hammurabi in 1700 BC that refers to this form of capital punishment. Alexander the Great, when he conquered the city of Tyre, apparently crucified, around 300 or so BC, some 2000 Tyrrhenians who resisted his attack. Uh we have even Jews crucifying other Jews. Alexander Jannaeus, for instance, crucified 600 Jews Pharisees who opposed him. And the scoundrel as they were hanging on the crosses brought the families of these uh, Pharisees who were crucified and slew them before their eyes.
Josephus tells us that when Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 during the time of the siege, as Jews were trying to flee, those in the city who were caught were all crucified by the Romans and that there were something like 500 Jews a day being crucified, he said. He said that there were so many crosses on the hill surrounding Jerusalem, there was no longer room to put any more crosses up, and that there were no trees standing any longer for 20 miles in any direction.
Allowing room for exaggeration on the part of Josephus it was a horrible, horrible form of punishment and it was the chief form of punishment for the Romans until AD 337. In AD 337, this form of capital punishment, which was not simply executing a person, but torturing them to death, came to an end. You can talk all you want about the emperor at the time, but there’s something good about Constantine just by ending this horrible form of punishment. And Constantine is the first so-called Christian emperor.
Now, usually the accused victim would go to the place of execution carrying the cross. Actually, it was not the whole cross. It was the cross beam or the patibulum. The basic trunk like part of T remained in the ground and left there for people to see it. It was kind of a like a scaffold, so when people went by, they would see this and they say, “We better behave, otherwise this could happen to us. This was the Roman intention. And so it would be the cross beam that they would be forced to carry and, and Jesus does that until he is no longer able to do this and then Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service to do so. The bottom of page 315. “They let him out to crucify him.” Mark 15:20. And they compelled the passerby Simon of Cyrene who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.
Uh, apparently Mark puts a little note that the person who carried the cross of Jesus on that day was the father of Alexander and Rufus. The auth—the readers must know who Alexander and Rufus would be otherwise it wouldn’t put this kind of biographical note there. It is interesting to note when you talk about uh, um, authorship and place of writing that in Paul’s letter to the Romans, a man by the name of Rufus is referred to. Is it the same Rufus? It’s a common name, so you can’t say something like that but it is intriguing, in some ways.
Since this was intended to be a public spectacle, the site would be outside the city walls. Again, if we look at Mark verses 20 they led him out in other words they lead him out of the city to bring about his crucifixion. And, the writer of the book of Hebrews refers to this in Hebrews 13:12 when he speaks of “Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.”
Now, the place is called different things. Uh, Golgotha is the Aramaic term. Calvary comes from the Latin Bulgate translation. And Cranium is the Greek word. They all mean place of the skull. The exact location of this crucifixion according to tradition, is the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus, that site would have been outside the walled city of Jerusalem.
By AD 70, as the Jews were preparing their defense against the Romans, the city walls had been enlarged, so that this now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site, lay between the wall that existed in Jesus’ day and the wall that was built later on and existed in AD 70.
Another site has come on the scene since the turn of the 20th century. The 19th and 20th. And that’s called Gordon’s Calvary if you look at it, it’s a hill that looks somewhat like a skull, and it’s a very popular place for tourists to go because it’s a wonderful garden there. There’s a tomb there, a garden tomb. No tradition that it’s the Lord’s tomb. But it’s a nice one to see and get some sort of an understanding of what this would be like.
Once again here, these traditions about holy sites are very, very old. And Origin in the middle of the second century went about visiting these sites and judging them for their credibility in that regard. Uh, about a century or so after that. And we know that there was a tendency to venerate the places where great things had taken place. Today, if you go to the church you notice that the site of the traditional place of crucifixion and the burial, which is nearby and within the same church, are low. And you say “Well how can this be, have been a hill?” And the reason is that they leveled it. When you build a monument on holy sites, you’re not concerned about the original look of the holy site, you build a church on it, and to do that, you level the holy site. And if any of you have gone to the church of the holy sepulcher, you wish that they had left it alone.
It uh, it, and it is a travesty about the whole thing. There’s no getting together, because there is a Protestant element in the church. There is a Catholic element. There’s a Russian and there’s a Coptic Greek, Greek orthodox, and you have these people always fighting among themselves. It’s it’s a real sham and a shame for the church. They can’t even agree when the roof is leaking how to fix it.
But probably it is the original place. It is. I think the tradition is pretty trustworthy. With regard to uh crucifixion, usually the victim was forced to carry the patibulum naked because this was to be not only a physically painful death, but a shameful death. But it looks like Jesus was permitted to go with some clothing there because after he is scourged, on page 315 verse 17 of Mark, lines 5. “And they clothed him in a purple cloak and plated a crown of thorns they put on him and they began to salute him. They mocked him. Then they put his own clothes on him verse 20 and led him out to crucify him.”
So it looks like in that respect, Jesus went to his cross wearing his clothes and not naked in that sense. It may well be that the Romans were somewhat sensitive to uh, Jewish uh sensitivities in that regard. With regard to the crucifixion itself, um, it was a slow, a shameful, a painful death. It was thought that the more painful it would be, the more the result would be that it would be that it would be a deterrent to crime. It’s usually a way of putting a person to death that is associated with criminals, revolutionaries, and the like.
A Roman would not ever experience that. Notice when we talk about the death of Peter and Paul, tradition has Peter being crucified, but not Paul. Paul is beheaded because he’s a Roman citizen, and they were excused from that. And you say, “He was still executed.” There’s a difference between a quick execution and a long drawn out painful execution. And sometimes, crucifixions would last for days on end. Six, seven, eight days where the victim would be suffering during that time.
The shape of the cross is somewhat debated. There are three main possibilities. The crux commissa as it’s called, like a capital T. the crux immissa, and then the traditional cross. Most probably, it is the traditional cross that was the form being used. Sometimes, they used scaffolds where they had, had people lined up with one another, But in Matthew 27:37, it says “And over his head they put uh, the charge against him which read, ‘This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.’” It’s hard to see how this could take place over the head of the victim here unless the victim had really sunk down a great deal. Here, it would tend to be more of the side, but here, it would work well to have it directly above the head.
And then Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers at the end of the second century, assumes that is the shape of the cross. Now, whether he has specific information, we don’t know. As he is about to be crucified, Jesus is offered a drink. In 15:23, bottom of page 316, beginning at verse 22: “And they brought him to a place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull, and they offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he did not take it.”
At this point, the offer of this beverage is an act of mercy and compassion. It is one to help dull the senses so that uh, the victim would not feel as much pain. In Sanhedrin 43A, all right, Sanhedrin 43A comes from what? The Babylonian Talmud, right? The Jewish traditions of the Talmud. Now, in the Babylonian Talmud, and Sanhedrin Chapter 43A, “When one is led out to execution, he is given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense in order to benumb his senses. For it is written, give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish and wine until the bitter end soul.”
Comes from Proverbs 31:6. “And it has also been taught the noble women in Jerusalem used to donate and bring this.” So here you have a reference to that kind of an act, which probably helps us to understand what’s going on in the biblical account, that this is what’s taking place. That this guild of women and their compassion are offering uh, Jesus a drug drink so that uh the pain will not be as great.
The time of the crucifixion is disputed because in Mark 15:25, we read it is the 3rd hour which would be 9 am. But in John, it is the 12th hour, which is 12 am. Now when I was wrestling with this, when I, with this particular issue and difficulty, I looked through the new testament and noted that there are 23 specific references in the new testament to time. When we talk about the hour of the day. 22 references, all but 3 of them refer to either the 3rd, the 6th, or the 9th hour. In other words, you talk about the morning, noon, midafternoon.
There are three others that are exceptions to that. Like parable of the 11th hour workers and things of this nature. But the great majority all seem to divide time 3rd, 6th, 9th hour. And that makes sense if you don’t have watches. If you don’t have a watch or alarm clock or something like that with you, how do you know and are able to tell the difference? And so if you went to see somebody in the morning, you might say “I’ll see you at the 3rd hour or I’ll see you at the 6th hour, because in between it becomes a little more difficult.
Now, if something like this, the crucifixion, if you were to date it for the sake of example, at 10:30 in the morning, how would you describe it? You wouldn’t say “Oh, at the 4 and a half hours.” You don’t have halves. So you generally talk about 3rd hour or 6th hour. And therefore if something took place at, say, 10:30, I could see one writer referring to it as the 3rd hour and the other at the 6th hour because that’s the way they count time.
So, what we have to be careful of is not to say that they’re using stopwatches here and each one, one of, Mark, by the time of his Rolex is giving us 9 o’clock, and someone else who’s using uh, um, watches made in Ecuador, which are 3 hours off or something like that or talk about the 9th hour. It’s just a general way of talking. If you, if something is the middle of the morning, you say the 3rd or the 6th hour or something. That would be the general way of discussing time.
If you nailed a victim to a cross through the hands, the hands will not support the weight of the body. They’ll just tear. So what they usually did was through the wrists. Because now you have, in between the bones, something that can hold. And the nailing to the cross had nothing to do with the killing of the victim. It was simply the way of affixing him to the cross. Some people would be tied to a cross, not even nailed, not nailed.
So, how to affix them to the cross was, there were variations of that. But what ultimately would kill the victim would be after long, long, long periods of time, days, the body would just collapse eventually. Now, that collapse would take place quickly unless you prevented it. And so, to keep the victim from dying quickly because if you just left a victim hanging on a cross, eventually, the lung muscles would become so weak that they would no longer be able to breathe. They’d gasp for air and they would not be able to breathe any longer because the lung muscles have had all the weight of the body straining on it. So you don’t want to do that and what you do is you put something below his feet that he can push against to rest himself his lung muscles and regain his breath.
And you did that one of two ways. Sometimes you have a little step called a sedile. S-E-D-I-L-E. That was placed under his feet. And you see that lots of times on pictures of the crucifixion where the feet can touch that. Another way would be to nail the feet to the cross and then the victim could push against the nails. And then he would regain the lung capacity and be able to breathe. Remember, you do not want the victim to die quickly.
Now, as I say, death by crucifixion was horrible and precautions were made to keep the victim from dying too quickly. Such as a place under his feet that he could rest his, his lungs and gain strength again.
As far as Jesus is concerned, it’s probable that he was crucified and nailed to the cross, not tied. Let’s look at some passages there. Luke 24:39: When Jesus appears to the disciples, that, they are startled, and he says in verse 38, line 6, “Why are you troubled? Why do you, um, why do you question, why do questions rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet that it is myself.” John also shows him his hands and his side, but Luke particularly refers to the feet as well. So there’s no questions about it, nails being crucified, his hands being crucified. But I think Luke implies that also his feet were crucified in this way.
Now because of Jewish sensitivity to the Sabbath, they do not want the bodies to remain over the Sabbath. That would be a contamination of a Holy Day. This coming Sabbath. And goes back to Deuteronomy 21. In Deuteronomy 21 Verses 22 and 23 it talks about what not allowing that to take place. Let me read it to you.
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed and you hang him on a tree, his corpse may not remain all night. You shall bury him the same day for anyone hung on a cross is under God’s curse.” So that according to Jewish law and probably the Romans, therefore, to permit this to take place, they did something that would help bring about the death of the victims.
And that would be is as the victims are hanging on the cross, they would take uh, a lance, a javelin with a heavy end and they would use it like a baseball bat and crush the legs, the bottom of the legs, they’d break the legs. And that would add both an additional stress on the body, but it also would now not allow the victim to rest his lungs and regain strength, and it would sort of just drown in water his, and fill the lungs and die very quickly that way.
In the case of the two thieves on the sides of Jesus, that takes place but when it comes to Jesus himself, there’s no need to do that, so there is no crurifragium, but instead you have the lance piercing the side, and outflow of water and blood that way. Maurice Goguel years ago wrote a work called The Life of Jesus, and he talks about crucifixion, and let me just read that paragraph to you because I think it’s easier to read it than to talk about it.
“We can hardly imagine the suffering endured by those unfortunate beings who died by crucifixion. Crucifixion, says Albert Revel, is one of the most abominable forms of torture that has ever been invented by those whose genius created forms of torture. We perhaps may even regard it as first among the most cruel and the most hideous of tortures, as Cicero says.”
Uh, Cicero says those very words—the most cruel and most hideous of tortures—and that the very name cross should not, should only be far from the body of the roman citizen but also from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. It’s so terrible that Romans shouldn’t even know about it essentially.
“It represents the acme of the torturer’s art: the atrocious physical sufferings, length of torment, ignominy, the effect of the crowd gathered to witness the long agony of the crucified. Nothing could be more horrible than the sight of this living body breathing, seeing, hearing, and still able to feel. And yet reduced to the state of a corpse by forced immobility and absolute helplessness. We cannot even say that the crucified person writhed in agony, for it was impossible for him to move. Stripped of his clothing, unable even to brush away the flies which fell upon his wounded flesh, already lacerated by the preliminary scourging, exposed to the insults and curses of people who can always find some sickening pleasure in the sight of the torture of others, a feeling which is increased and not diminished by the sight of pain, the cross represented miserable humanity reduced to the last degree of impotence, suffering, and degradation. The penalty of crucifixion combined all that the most ardent tormenter, or torturer could desire: torture, the pillory, degradation, and certain death, distilled slowly drop by drop. It was an ideal form of torture.”
Now, with regard to the Gospel accounts, the accounts are very, very brief in our Gospel. They do not describe some of the things we’ve talked about. Marc has: “And they crucified him.” Matthew: “And when they had crucified him.” Luke: “There they crucified him.” John: “There they crucified him.”
Probably there are a couple reasons why the accounts are so brief. One is that the readers all knew what crucifixion involved. Most of them had seen this, and you don’t have to describe it to them. Most of us don’t and therefore forgive me for explaining it a little more but otherwise I don’t think most of us would understand it as well.
But it is a second thing here, and I want, I think we need to learn from the Gospel writers. If you know someone who, say, had a wife who had a very terrible last few months of their lives, terrible pain, suffering, withering away and eventually died or something like that, you know they don’t want to talk about it to other people. If you loved that person, you don’t want to share the pain and suffering they’ve experienced. Because you just love them too much.
And I can’t help but wonder if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John find it very difficult to talk about the pain of their Lord. And, if that’s so, what we need to be very careful about is not theatricalize, if we can make a word, the death of Jesus for some cheap emotional effect in the church. I think we can talk about the death of Jesus. We’re not ashamed of it. He brought about our redemption. But I think we want to treat the one who was crucified with dignity and great reverence, and just as you would not want to describe someone you love very dearly having suffered I don’t think we want to do that with Jesus himself. Uh, I realize that my very teaching may somehow betray that, but I hope you have no sense that we’re trying to make a, a theater production out of this. We want to talk about it. And if we talk about it, let’s do so with reverence and dignity.
Now, Jesus, after he is crucified, is buried by friends. Joseph of Arimathea goes to the leaders Pontius Pilate, asks for the body of Jesus, and he and Nicodemus go to the tomb of Joseph, his own tomb, and prepare the body for burial. And the guard then is posted because of fear that the disciples might steal the body and then this or that will become even worse now because of the myth of the crucified savior having risen from the dead. But we’ll talk more about the resurrection at our next meeting.