Crucifixion

General Information

Crucifixion was a method of execution used by the Romans to punish slaves and foreigners. Hung from a crossbar astride an upright peg, the naked victim was allowed to hang as a public spectacle until dead. No vital organs were damaged, and death was slow agony. Prior to crucifixion, the victim was scourged and made to carry the crossbar to the execution site. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ followed this order of events (Mark 15:15; John 19:17).

Though closely associated with Rome, crucifixion originated with the Phoenicians and Persians. It was practiced from the 6th century BC until the 4th century AD. The Roman emperor Constantine I banned crucifixion in 337.

Because Jesus was crucified, the Cross has assumed theological significance for Christians. It symbolizes reconciliation with God through faith in Christ (1 Cor. 1:18 - 25), whose life, death, and Resurrection are proof of God's forgiveness of human sin.

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Douglas Ezell


Crucifixion

(Editor's Comments)

There appear to be a number of misconceptions regarding the Crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus was NOT the first nor the only person to be crucified. The Romans had used that method of execution for at least 70 years before Jesus was Crucified. Around seventy years before Jesus' Crucifixion, in around 40 BC, in Rome, a historian recorded that 2,000 people were crucified in a single day, for the entertainment of Quintilius Varus! About 40 years after Jesus' Crucifixion, the Romans crucified around 500 per day in 70 AD.

Even by Jesus' time, it is clear that they had developed "efficient" methods. For example, on that day of the 2,000 crucifixions, it seems unlikely that the workers would have had the time to dig 2,000 holes and built 2,000 crosses, just for practical reasons. The following articles indicate that it was extremely common for the upright pole to be left in place, at the standard location for the crucifixions, and that Jesus (and the others) almost certainly carried just the horizontal cross-bar, still a heavy burden. Once there, the execution crew would have lifted Jesus and the cross-bar up onto the already vertical pole. (That also explains the impossibility of how Jesus could have carried the full Cross through the narrow streets and passageways of the Via Dolorosa. He didn't, but still had to struggle to get the crossbar through the tunnels.)

Most modern depictions of the Crucifixion show Jesus being quite high up, but that almost certainly was not the case. Victims of crucifixion generally had their feet just a foot or two above the ground. Also, part of the "punishment" of crucifixion (and a visible example of that punishment for the community as a whole) was that it was generally an extended process. One of the following articles below even mention that some crosses had a small "seat" area to partially support the weight of the body, with the intent of extending the suffering further, often for days.

These matters are confirmed by a variety of Jewish laws of the time. Several dealt with the "official" ways of determining the moment of death such that the body could be taken down. Yev. 120b mentions that one of those methods of confirmation was when stray animals began to feed on the flesh of the feet and legs, which could be reached because of the legs being close to the ground. Oho. 3:5 mentions ways of determining when the blood had become impure. Many other laws associated with crucifixion existed in Jewish law of the time. Tosef, Git 7:1, Git 70b, describe how a person could get a divorce from a person being crucified. Interestingly, Yev. 16:3, 15c, apparently allowed the possibility that a rich matron could "redeem" a person being crucified to become her husband! (It was NOT a quick process and generally lasted for days).

Also, a modern misconception is that the spikes were driven through the hands. People even experience Stigmata where sores appear through the hands, but that cannot be like what happened to Jesus. The Romans had discovered much earlier that the weight of the body would pull at the skin, such that the skin would just tear away and the body would fall from the cross. The Romans did NOT like the idea of extra work to have to re-hang the bodies! The spikes were certainly driven through the wrist area, between some bones there.

Finally, as a confirmation of the reality of the Crucifixion of Jesus, Jewish records record the event. In the Talmud, Sanh. 7:4 refers to Him being subjected to halakhah, being "hanged alive". This, along with stoning, was the legal punishment for "leading others astray or practicing sorcery". Sanh. 6:4 also refers to the event. (The word Crucifixion had not yet been invented, and Hanging was the common term then used for the process.)

There are also serious problems with time issues. If Jesus was Crucified on the day that is now called Friday (then called Preparation Day), and He died in the Ninth Hour, that is around 3 pm, the extremely religious Sabbath began less than three hours later, at sunset. The amount of walking and getting permissions and other activities that Joseph of Arimathaea needed to do, including carrying the Body to the Tomb, are simply not possible as normally understood. In fact, a careful reading of the text of Luke mentions sunset and THEN Joseph getting permission. Such permission would NOT have been given if the Sabbath had already begun! There IS a completely logical explanation, totally compatible with the Bible texts, but it is a little different than people commonly understand today.


Crucifixion

Advanced Information

Crucifixion was a common mode of punishment among heathen nations in early times. It is not certain whether it was known among the ancient Jews; probably it was not. The modes of capital punishment according to the Mosaic law were, by the sword (Ex. 21), strangling, fire (Lev. 20), and stoning (Deut. 21). This was regarded as the most horrible form of death, and to a Jew it would acquire greater horror from the curse in Deut. 21:23. This punishment began by subjecting the sufferer to scourging. In the case of our Lord, however, his scourging was rather before the sentence was passed upon him, and was inflicted by Pilate for the purpose, probably, of exciting pity and procuring his escape from further punishment (Luke 23:22; John 19:1).

The condemned one carried his own cross to the place of execution, which was outside the city, in some conspicuous place set apart for the purpose. Before the nailing to the cross took place, a medicated cup of vinegar mixed with gall and myrrh (the sopor) was given, for the purpose of deadening the pangs of the sufferer. Our Lord refused this cup, that his senses might be clear (Matt. 27:34). The spongeful of vinegar, sour wine, posca, the common drink of the Roman soldiers, which was put on a hyssop stalk and offered to our Lord in contemptuous pity (Matt. 27:48; Luke 23:36), he tasted to allay the agonies of his thirst (John 19:29). The accounts given of the crucifixion of our Lord are in entire agreement with the customs and practices of the Roman in such cases. He was crucified between two "malefactors" (Isa. 53:12; Luke 23:32), and was watched by a party of four soldiers (John 19:23; Matt. 27:36, 54), with their centurion.

The "breaking of the legs" of the malefactors was intended to hasten death, and put them out of misery (John 19:31); but the unusual rapidity of our Lord's death (19:33) was due to his previous sufferings and his great mental anguish. The omission of the breaking of his legs was the fulfilment of a type (Ex. 12:46). He literally died of a broken heart, a ruptured heart, and hence the flowing of blood and water from the wound made by the soldier's spear (John 19:34). Our Lord uttered seven memorable words from the cross, namely, (1) Luke 23:34; (2) 23:43; (3) John 19:26; (4) Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34; (5) John 19:28; (6) 19:30; (7) Luke 23:46.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


Cross, Crucifixion

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The Greek word for "cross," stauros, literally refers to an upright, pointed stake or pale. The word xylon is usually "wood" or "tree." In the NT and in some other literature of the time both frequently refer to a particularly cruel and degrading form of capital punishment known as crucifixion. In both canonical and later Christian literature "cross" and "crucifixion" take on a particularly important significance because of their connection with the death of Jesus and his expectations of his disciples. Any understanding of crucifixion in the ancient world must include the facts related to the act itself, its effect upon the victim, and the sociocultural implications attached to it.

Method of Crucifixion

Crucifixion involved elevating the condemned upon a pole, some form of frame or scaffolding, or a natural tree, thus exposing him to public view and derision. In many cases the individual was put to death through some other means and all or a part of the body (usually the head) then elevated. In other circumstances it became the actual means of execution. Because of both the effect of crucifixion upon the body and the lengthy period which usually elapsed before death, it represented the most painful, cruel, and barbaric form of execution. Its roots are lost in history. In one form or another it is known to have been practiced by many groups (such as the Indians, Scythians, Celts, Germani, Britanni, and Taurians) but is most closely associated with the Persians, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and especially the Romans. Some evidence suggests that it may have been associated with religious human sacrifice as well as a means of punishment.

Earlier forms probably involved impaling the condemned on a single pole or suspending him by wedging the head between a "Y" at one end of the implement. By NT times there seem to have been several different forms of "crosses" commonly used by the Romans. In addition to the single pole (crux simplex), most involved the use of at least two separate pieces of wood to construct a frame. However, crucifixion gave executioners opportunity to use their most cruel and sadistic creativity; victims were occasionally hung in grotesque positions by a variety of means. The two cross forms most likely used for the execution of Jesus are the St. Anthony's cross (crux commissa), shaped like a "T," or the Latin cross (crux immissa), on which the vertical piece rises above both the horizontal cross-bar (patibulum) and the head of the victim; the statement in Matt. 27:37 (cf. Luke 23:38) that the inscription was placed "over his head" and most ancient tradition favor the latter.

Detailed descriptions of crucifixion are few; writers seem to have avoided the subject. Recent archaeological discoveries, including skeletal remains of a crucifixion in first century Palestine (at Giv'at ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem), have added considerably to knowledge of the act. It seems that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus describe a standard Roman procedure for crucifixion. After the pronouncement of sentence, the condemned was required to carry the horizontal piece to the place of execution, always outside the city. The leader of the four-man execution squad led the procession bearing a sign detailing the reason for the execution. There the victim was flogged (this seems to have preceded condemnation in the case of Jesus, possibly to elicit sympathy). The victim's outstretched arms were affixed to the cross-bar by either nails or ropes. This was then raised and secured to the perpendicular pole (which in some areas may have been left in place permanently, both for convenience and as a warning). A small board or peg may have been provided as sort of a seat to bear some of the weight of the condemned (this actually may have prolonged suffering by prohibiting suffocation). The feet were then secured in a manner forcing the knees into a bent position. Contrary to popular contemporary opinion, crosses were not high; the feet were probably only a few inches above the ground. The sign describing the accusation was secured to the cross.

Death usually came slowly; it was not unusual for persons to survive for days on the cross. Exposure, disease, hunger, shock, and exhaustion were the usual immediate causes of death. Occasionally death was "mercifully" hastened by breaking the legs of the condemned. In Jesus' case death came much more swiftly than usual. A spear was thrust into his side to assure he was really dead before the body was removed (John 19:31-37). Bodies of the crucified were often left unburied and eaten by carnivorous birds and beasts, thus adding to the disgrace.

The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the ancient world can hardly be overstated. It was usually reserved for slaves, criminals of the worst sort from the lowest levels of society, military deserters, and especially traitors. In only rare cases were Roman citizens, no matter what their crime, crucified. Among the Jews it carried an additional stigma. Deut. 21:23, "A hanged man is accursed by God," was understood to mean that the very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. Thus, the idea of a crucified Messiah posed a special problem for such Jews as Paul (cf. Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Significance of the Cross

NT writers assume the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus and focus their attention upon its significance. In it they understand that he, "who was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped at," was willing to "humble himself," take "on the form of a servant," and endure "even the death on the cross" (Phil. 2:6-8). This demonstrates the ultimate of humiliation and degradation. Yet, they affirm, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Messiah (Christ), was the will and act of God with eternal and cosmic significance. At the simplest level, the crucifixion of Jesus was the means by which God provided salvation, the forgiveness of sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3). Christ crucified becomes the summary of the Christian message (1 Cor. 2:2). The cross of Jesus, the beloved Son of God, is the supreme demonstration of the love God has for sinful man (cf. John 3:16; 15:16). In Jesus' death God deals concretely with the sin and guilt which offends his holiness and separates man from his Creator. Because of the cross God becomes both the righteous and just Judge and, at the same time, the one who makes forgiveness available and justifies believers (cf. Rom. 3:26). The condemning legal demands set against man have been "canceled," nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). The word of the cross is God's word of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:19).

The cross is also the symbol of discipleship. To first century Palestinians, who often witnessed the condemned carrying the crossbar to the site of their final torture, Jesus' word, "If any man will come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34; cf. Matt. 10:38; Luke 14:27), must have come with a jolting, graphic impact. Jesus insists that the humiliation and suffering that culminated in his crucifixion were to characterize the experience of his followers. "It is," he says, "for the disciple to be like his teacher" (Matt. 10:24). Crucifixion becomes a part of the identification between Christ and the believer who is "crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20). The negative side of the characteristics of the new life of the Christian consists in having "crucified" sinful natures and desires (Gal. 5:24).

When understood in its historical, social context, Paul's statement that the proclamation of Christ crucified is a "stumbling block" or "scandal" (skandalon) to the Jews and "foolishness" (moria) to the Gentiles is both logical and clear. Yet for Christians it remains an act and demonstration "of the power and wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

J J Scott, Jr.
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
B. Siede et al., NIDNTT, I, 389-405; J. F. Strange, IDB Supplement, 199-200; M. Hengel, Crucifixion.


Crucify (verb)

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Crucify signifies (a) "the act of crucifixion," e.g., Matt. 20:19; (b) metaphorically, "the putting off of the flesh with its passions and lusts," a condition fulfilled in the case of those who are "of Christ Jesus," Gal. 5:24, RV; so of the relationship between the believer and the world, 6:14.


Crucify (verb)

Advanced Information

"to crucify with" (su, "for," sun, "with"), is used (a) of actual "crucifixion" in company with another, Matt. 27:44; Mark 15:32; John 19:32 (b) metaphorically, of spiritual identification with Christ in His death, Rom. 6:6, and Gal. 2:20.


Crucify (verb)

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(ana, again) is used in Heb. 6:6 of Hebrew apostates, who as merely nominal Christians, in turning back to Judaism, were thereby virtually guilty of "crucifying" Christ again.


Crucifixion

Jewish Viewpoint Information

Crucifixion was the act of putting to death by nailing or binding to a cross. Among the modes of Capital Punishment known to the Jewish penal law, crucifixion is not found; the "hanging" of criminals "on a tree," mentioned in Deut. xxi. 22, was resorted to in New Testament times only after lapidation (Sanh. vi. 4; Sifre, ii. 221, ed. Friedmann, Vienna, 1864). A Jewish court could not have passed a sentence of death by crucifixion without violating the Jewish law. The Roman penal code recognized this cruel penalty from remote times (Aurelius Victor Cæsar, 41). It may have developed out of the primitive custom of "hanging" ("arbori suspendere") on the "arbor infelix," which was dedicated to the gods of the nether world. Seneca ("Epistola," 101) still calls the cross "infelix lignum." Trees were often used for crucifying convicts (Tertullian, "Apologia," viii. 16). Originally only slaves were crucified; hence "death on the cross" and "supplicium servile" were used indiscriminately (Tacitus, "Historia," iv. 3, 11). Later, provincial freedmen of obscure station ("humiles") were added to the class liable to this sentence. Roman citizens were exempt under all circumstances (Cicero, "Verr." i. 7; iii. 2, 24, 26; iv. 10 et seq.). The following crimes entailed this penalty: piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery, false testimony, mutiny, high treason, rebellion (see Pauly-Wissowa, "Real-Encyc." s.v. "Crux"; Josephus, "B. J." v. 11, § 1). Soldiers that deserted to the enemy and slaves who denounced their masters ("delatio domini")were also punished by death on the cross.

Mode of Execution.

The crosses used were of different shapes. Some were in the form of a , others in that of a St. Andrew's cross, , while others again were in four parts, . The more common kind consisted of a stake ("palus") firmly embedded in the ground ("crucem figere") before the condemned arrived at the place of execution (Cicero, "Verr." v. 12; Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 4) and a cross-beam ("patibulum"), bearing the "titulus"-the inscription naming the crime (Matt. xxvii. 37; Luke xxiii. 38; Suetonius, "Cal." 38). It was this cross-beam, not the heavy stake, which the condemned was compelled to carry to the scene of execution (Plutarch, "De Sera Num. Vind." 9; Matt. ib.; John xix. 17; See Cross). The cross was not very high, and the sentenced man could without difficulty be drawn up with ropes ("in crucem tollere, agere, dare, ferre"). His hands and feet were fastened with nails to the cross-beam and stake (Tertullian, "Adv. Judæos," 10; Seneca, "Vita Beata," 19); though it has been held that, as in Egypt, the hands and feet were merely bound with ropes (see Winer, "B. R." i. 678). The execution was always preceded by flagellation (Livy, xxxiv. 26; Josephus, "B. J." ii. 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1); and on his way to his doom, led through the most populous streets, the delinquent was exposed to insult and injury. Upon arrival at the stake, his clothes were removed, and the execution took place. Death was probably caused by starvation or exhaustion, the cramped position of the body causing fearful tortures, and ultimately gradual paralysis. Whether a foot-rest was provided is open to doubt; but usually the body was placed astride a board ("sedile"). The agony lasted at least twelve hours, in some cases as long as three days. To hasten death the legs were broken, and this was considered an act of clemency (Cicero, "Phil." xiii. 27). The body remained on the cross, food for birds of prey until it rotted, or was cast before wild beasts. Special permission to remove the body was occasionally granted. Officers (carnifex and triumviri) and soldiers were in charge.

This cruel way of carrying into effect the sentence of death was introduced into Palestine by the Romans. Josephus brands the first crucifixion as an act of unusual cruelty ("Ant." xiii. 14, § 2), and as illegal. But many Jews underwent this extreme penalty (ib. xx. 6, § 2; "Vita," § 75; "B. J." ii. 12, § 6; 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1; Philo, ii. 529).

During the times of unrest which preceded the rise in open rebellion against Rome (about 30-66 B.C.), "rebels" met with short shrift at the hands of the oppressor. They were crucified as traitors. The sons of Judas the Galilean were among those who suffered this fate. The details given in the New Testament accounts (Matt. xxvii. and parallels) of the crucifixion of Jesus agree on the whole with the procedure in vogue under Roman law. Two modifications are worthy of note: (1) In order to make him insensible to pain, a drink (ὁξος, Matt. xxvii. 34, 48; John xix. 29) was given him. This was in accordance with the humane Jewish provision (see Maimonides, "Yad," Sanh. xiii. 2; Sanh. 43a). The beverage was a mixture of myrrh () and wine, given "so that the delinquent might lose clear consciousness through the ensuing intoxication." (2) Contrary to the Roman practise of leaving the body on the cross, that of Jesus was removed and buried, the latter act in keeping with Jewish law and custom. These exceptions, however, exhaust the incidents in the crucifixion of Jesus that might point to a participation therein, and a regulation thereof, by Jews or Jewish law. The mode and manner of Jesus' death undoubtedly point to Roman customs and laws as the directive power.

From the Jewish point of view, the crime of which Jesus was convicted by the Jewish priests is greatly in doubt (see Jesus). If it was blasphemy, lapidation should, according to Jewish law, have been the penalty, with suspension from the gallows after death (Mishnah Sanh. iii. 4; Sifre, iii. 221). Nor were any of the well-known measures taken (Sanh. vi.)which provide before execution for the contingency of a reversal of the sentence. Neither was the "cross"-i.e., the gallows for hanging-constructed as usual after lapidation, and as ordained in Sanhedrin vi. 4. His hands were not bound as prescribed; the "cross" was not buried with his body (Maimonides, "Yad," Sanh. xv. 9). Whether the Jewish law would have tolerated a threefold execution at one and the same time is more than uncertain (Sanh. vi. 4; Sifre, ii. 221).

Date of Jesus' Crucifixion.

The greatest difficulty from the point of view of the Jewish penal procedure is presented by the day and time of the execution. According to the Gospels, Jesus died on Friday, the eve of Sabbath.

Yet on that day, in view of the approach of the Sabbath (or holiday), executions lasting until late in the afternoon were almost impossible (Sifre, ii. 221; Sanh. 35b; Mekilta to Wayaḳhel). The Synoptics do not agree with John on the date of the month. According to the latter he died on the 14th of Nisan, as though he were the paschal lamb; but executions were certainly not regular on the eve of a Jewish holiday. According to the Synoptics, the date of his death was the 15th of Nisan (first day of Passover), when again no execution could be held (Mishnah Sanh. iv. 1; and the commentaries: Yer. Sanh. ii. 3; Yer. Beẓ. v. 2; Ket. i. 1). This discrepancy has given rise to various attempts at rectification. That by Chwolson is the most ingenious, assuming that Jesus died on the 14th, and accounting for the error in Matthew by a mistranslation from the original Hebrew in Matt. xxvi. 17 (, due to the omission of the first ; see his "Das Letzte Passamahl Christi," p. 13). But even so, the whole artificial construction of the law regarding Passover when the 15th of Nisan was on Saturday, attempted by Chwolson, would not remove the difficulty of an execution occurring on Friday = eve of Sabbath and eve of holiday; and the body could not have been removed as late as the ninth hour (3 P. M.). Bodies of delinquents were not buried in private graves (Sanh. vi. 5), while that of Jesus was buried in a sepulcher belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. Besides this, penal jurisdiction had been taken from the Sanhedrin in capital cases "forty years before the fall of the Temple."

These facts show that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of the Roman government. That it was customary to liberate one sentenced to death on account of the holiday season is not corroborated by Jewish sources. But many of the Jews suspected of Messianic ambitions had been nailed to the cross by Rome. The Messiah, "king of the Jews," was a rebel in the estimation of Rome, and rebels were crucified (Suetonius, "Vespas." 4; "Claudius," xxv.; Josephus, "Ant." xx. 5, § 1; 8, § 6; Acts v. 36, 37). The inscription on the cross of Jesus reveals the crime for which, according to Roman law, Jesus expired. He was a rebel. Tacitus ("Annales," 54, 59) reports therefore without comment the fact that Jesus was crucified. For Romans no amplification was necessary. Pontius Pilate's part in the tragedy as told in the Gospels is that of a wretched coward; but this does not agree with his character, as recorded elsewhere (see Süchrer, "Gesch." Index, s.v.). The other incidents in the New Testament report-the rending of the curtain, darkness (eclipse of the sun), the rising of the dead from their graves-are apocalyptic embellishments derived from Jewish Messianic eschatology. The so-called writs for the execution (see Mayer, "Die Rechte der Israeliten, Athener, und Römer," iii. 428, note 27) are spurious.

Kaufmann Kohler, Emil G. Hirsch
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.

Bibliography
Ludwig Philipson, Haben die Juden Jesum Gekreuzigt? 2d ed., reprint, 1902; Hirsch, The Crucifixion from the Jewish Point of View, Chicago, 1892; Chwolson, Das Letzte Passamahl Christi, St. Petersburg, 1892; works of Jewish historians, as Grätz, Jost, etc.; Schürer, Gesch.; commentaries on the Gospels.K. E. G. H.


Also, see:
Cross
Seven Words On The Cross
Words Inscribed on the Cross, INRI
The Arising of Jesus

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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