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What follows are excerpts of different articles on the issue of crucifixion. We do not do any editing but place here the work untouched so you can see for yourself what others are saying and then look up the resources to get the full article.

#1. Fiensy, D. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Crucifixion. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Ancient Views of Crucifixion

Ancients thought of crucifixion as a disgustingly cruel form of punishment. Hengel has collected several quotations concerning this issue:

•  The cross was called the “infamous stake,” the “criminal wood,” and the “most evil cross” (Crucifixion, 7–8).

•  Cicero described crucifixion as “the cruelest and most terrible punishment” (Verr. 2.5.165).

•  Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths” (J.W. 7.203).

Ancients also considered crucifixion to be the ultimate shame. For example, Celsus, the second century ad detractor of Christianity, wrote that Jesus had been executed in a “dishonorable and shameful way” (Origen, Cels. 6.10). The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb 12:2). In crucifixion, everything was done to humiliate and dishonor the victim in addition to torturing him or her to death.

Jews treated the idea of a crucified man of God with great suspicion, since Deut 21:23 pronounced a curse on anyone who was “hanged on a tree.” The Dead Sea document from Qumran, the Temple Scroll, had changed this curse to include those hanged on a tree while still living (thus crucified; 11QT 64:7–13; compare Pesher Nahum [4QpNa] and 4Q448). Paul may have referred to an argument some Jews had used that Jesus could not have been the Messiah because He was cursed (Gal 3:13–14). Nearly a century after Paul wrote, Justin Martyr maintained that some Jewish persons of his day appealed to Deut 21:23 to oppose the messianic claims the church was making about Jesus (Dial. 89.2).

Medical Hypotheses

The medical cause of death by crucifixion is disputed. Death may have come from asphyxiation, as hanging with one’s arms stretched out to the sides would make breathing labored, forcing death when the victim grew tired (e.g., Halperin, “Crucifixion”). Zias, however, maintains that only victims with hands bound or nailed directly overhead (affixed to a stake only, with no crossbeam) would be susceptible to asphyxiation. Alternate suggestions as to the cause of death in crucifixion include hypovolemic shock, heart failure, and dehydration (Maslen and Mitchell, “Medical Theories”). Maslen and Mitchell conclude: “It is quite likely that different individuals died from different physiological causes,” depending on how they were affixed to the cross (Maslen and Mitchell, “Medical Theories”).

Crucifixion in the New Testament

All four New Testament Gospels narrate Jesus’ crucifixion, and many of Paul’s letters refer to it as well. The Gospels’ description of Jesus’ crucifixion corresponds well to other ancient sources. Jesus was flogged, carried His crossbeam, and was fixed to the stake with nails (John 20:25).

The New Testament author Paul wrote the most about the meaning of the cross. He considered Jesus’ crucifixion to be the ultimate act in “emptying Himself” of His heavenly glory. For example, in Phil 2:6–11, Paul wrote that Christ Jesus “humbled himself … unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8). Paul recognized that many would see the cross as the great folly of the followers of Jesus, but affirmed that to those being saved, the cross is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Therefore, Paul paradoxically boasted or gloried in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14). In Ephesians and Colossians, the author(s) write that the cross has brought reconciliation to the races (Eph 2:16), and indeed to the entire cosmos (Col 1:20). Further, Col 2:14 writes that the “document of indebtedness” kept on all humanity was nailed to the cross, and thereby destroyed (see Schneider, TDNT 7, 574–77).

First-Century ad Non-Christian Views of the Crucifixion of Jesus

Many non-Christians in the first century ad were evidently hindered from following Jesus as a spiritual teacher or savior because of His crucifixion. The Jewish view was probably based on Deut 21:23 and the curse upon anyone “hanged.” Paul writes, “The word of the cross is folly to those that are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18). No literary sources from the first century ad mention the pagan view of Jesus’ crucifixion; however, the prevailing views of the second century were probably also expressed in the first. In the second century, Celsus attacked Christianity by appealing to the shameful means of Jesus’ execution. Another second century pagan author, Lucian of Samosata, called Jesus the “crucified sophist” (Death of Peregrinus 11–13). Evidently, he thought the two titles, juxtaposed, were humorous.

#2. Fiensy, D. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Crucifixion. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press

Crucifixion (σταυροω, stauroō, “put up posts”; cruci affigare, “bind to a cross”; תלה, tlh, “hang”; צלב,tslb, “hang”). A form of torture and execution in the ancient world that involved fixing a person to a wooden post or tree using ropes or nails; used in the execution of Jesus.

Pre-Roman Use

Though the Persians are often attributed as having invented the practice of crucifixion, ancient sources indicate that several other cultures and peoples employed it, as well (Schneider, TDNT 7:573; Hengel, Crucifixion, 22), including the Assyrians, the people of India, the Scythians, the Taurians, the Thracians, the Celts, the Germans, the Britons, the Numidians, and the Carthaginians. The Greeks and Macedonians evidently learned the practice from the Persians (Hengel, Crucifixion, 22).

The Greeks would fasten the victim to a flat board (τυμπανον,tympanon) for torture or execution (Hengel, Crucifixion, 70). Sometimes, they only nailed or tied the victim to the wooden planks to shame them and torture them. They might then release them or execute them. For example, Pericles had 10 men bound to planks for 10 days, and then ordered them to be beaten to death (Plutarch, Per. 28.3). Plato, however, refers to Greeks practicing crucifixion—that is, attaching a living person to a wooden stake until he or she dies (Gorgias, 473bc). Alexander the Great employed crucifixion as a punishment and terrorizing tactic, crucifying 2,000 Tyrians after conquering their city (Curtius Rufus 4.4.17).

Roman Practice

The Romans probably learned about this form of execution from the Carthagenians (Watson, OCD, 300; Hengel, Crucifixion, 23; Schneider, TDNT 7:573). Crosses could be in one of three shapes (Schneider TDNT 7:572):

1.   A vertical stake with no crossbeam.

2.   A vertical stake with a crossbeam, shaped like a capital T.

3.   A vertical stake with an intersecting beam—the shape traditionally celebrated in Christian iconography.

Roman sources attest to the general sequence of events involved in Roman crucifixion:

1.   The victim was tortured by various means.

2.   The victim carried his or her cross-bar (patibulum) to the place of crucifixion.

3.   The victim was fastened by ropes or nails to the crossbeam.

4.   The crossbeam and victim were then raised to the wooden post or tree and fastened to it. Occasionally, the post or tree may have had a wooden seat (sedile) for the victim (Watson, OCD, 300; Schneider, TDNT 7:573).

Precrucifixion Torture

Precrucifixion torture usually involved flogging, and could also include burning, racking, mutilation, and abuse of the victim’s family. Plato (though Greek) describes the general practice in precrucifixion tortures: “[A man] is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled (i.e., crucified) or tarred and burned alive” (Plato, Gorgias 473bc; translation in Jowett, “Gorgias”). In another text, Plato writes: “The just man who is thought to be unjust will be scourged, racked, bound—will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled (i.e., crucified)” (Republic 361e–362a; Jowett, Republic, 50).

Several other sources attest to precrucifixion torture as well. In Lucian’s Piscator, a group of men decide to flog someone, put out his eyes, cut off his tongue and then crucify him. The story is fictional and intended to be humorous, but illustrates what the common precrucifixion tortures entailed. Cicero, in his prosecution of Verres for illegally crucifying a Roman citizen, described what happened before the crucifixion: “He ordered the man to be whipped [with rods] most intensively on all parts of his body” (Cicero, 2 Verr. 5.62.161; text in Cook “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 268). The New Testament Gospels also note that Jesus was flogged before His execution (Matt 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1).

Carrying the Crossbeam

After undergoing the precrucifixion torture, the victim was compelled to carry his or her crossbeam (patibulum) to the place of crucifixion. The Roman comedy writer Plautus wrote: “I believe that you will soon go out the gate in that direction led with hands spread out on the patibulum which you will have” (Miles Gloriosus, 359; translation in Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 267). Another source makes a similar statement: “They (convicted criminals) are bound to the patibula. They are bound and led around and fixed to the cross” (Clodius, History; text in Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 266).

The New Testament also attests to this practice. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus said to Peter: “When you become old, you will stretch out your hands and someone will bind you and carry you where you do not want (to go)” (John 21:18). Jesus was describing Peter’s manner of death—specifically, his being bound to the crossbeam and led to crucifixion. Jesus also admonished His followers to “take up their cross” and follow Him (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). The Gospel of John describes Jesus as “carrying his own cross” to the place of execution (John 19:17), while the Synoptic Gospels state that the executioners compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ crossbeam (Matt 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).

Fixing the Victim to the Stake

Once the victim had arrived at the place of execution, executioners fixed him or her and the crossbeam to a tree or wooden post. Pseudo Manetho (third century ad) describes how crucifixion must have looked: “Punished on their tortured [bodies], they see the stake (i.e., cross) as their fate. In the bitterest of torment, they have been fastened with nails, [to become] evil banquets for birds and terrible scraps for dogs” (Apotelesmatica 4.198f; Greek text in Hengel, Crucifixion, 9). This brief description indicates that crucified persons were in a state of torture, that they were attached to their crossbeam and perhaps the wooden post or tree by nails, and that their corpse often was left to the scavenger animals.

Seneca describes a similar image: “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and draw the breath of life amid long—drawn-out agony?” (Ep. 101; translation in Gummere, Seneca). This text indicates that death by crucifixion took a long time. The “ugly tumors” were probably the result of the precrucifixion tortures.

One depiction of crucifixion has survived from the ancient world—a graffito evidently mocking Christians. Under the crude drawing are the words “Alexamenos worships god.” This drawing was carved in a wall on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Its date is uncertain—probably sometime between the first and third centuries ad. Though the figure on the cross has the head of a donkey (in mockery), the drawing may depict some accurate details about crucifixion. For example, the arms are stretched out to the sides and the figure is raised a bit off the ground. In this drawing, however, the figure seems to have a platform to stand on, but no literature attests to such platforms (Schneider, OCD, 573). Cook notes the crucified figure is wearing a short tunic, whereas the literary sources indicate that the victims were crucified naked (Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 283–85).

Victims could be placed on the cross in several different ways. Seneca wrote: “Some [executioners] hang [their victims] upside down; others drive stakes through the genitals [of the victims]; still others extend [the victims’] arms on the patibulum” (Dial. 6.20.3; Latin text in Hengel, Crucifixion, 25). Josephus described that, when the Romans crucified large numbers of Jewish rebels in the Jewish War (ad 66–73), they “out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures” (J.W. 5.51, trans. Thackeray).

Literature frequently refers to nails, suggesting they were usually used in crucifixions:

•  Seneca (Dial. 7.19.3) writes of the criminals having driven their own nails into the crosses (by their behavior; see Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 272).

•  Piso was charged with nailing some soldiers—including a Roman citizen—to crosses without a trial (see Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 273).

•  Those practicing the magical arts were known to covet the nails of crucifixion victims since they were believed to have great power (Apuleius, Metam. 3.17; Pliny the Elder, Nat. 28.46; see Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 271).

•  Josephus writes that the Roman soldiers “nailed” their victims to crosses (see quote above).

Archaeologists have discovered the bones of a crucified man who was buried north of Jerusalem in the first century ad (Tzaferis, “Jewish Tombs”; Haas, “Anthropological Observations”; Zias and Sekeles, “Crucified Man”). In a tomb near Giv’at Ha-Mivtar, an ossuary was discovered which contained the bones of a man who had an 11.5 centimeter iron nail driven through his heel. These are the only remains of a crucified person to be found to date, with the possible exception of the skeleton in the Abba cave whose ossuary contained nails thought by some to have been used in crucifixion (Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions”).

Raising the Victim on the Stake

Victims were almost always executed without clothing, probably to make them more susceptible to blows and to increase their shame (Artemidorus II.61; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 7.69). Melito, the second century ad bishop of Sardis, wrote in his sermon on the passion of Christ: “The Sovereign has been made unrecognizable by his naked body, and is not even allowed a garment to keep him from view” (Passion 97; translation in Hall, Melito, 55). Because people of his day had witnessed crucifixions, Melito knew that the victims were executed without clothing. Seneca also indicated that the genitals of the victim were sometimes impaled.

The executioners usually raised the one being executed by crucifixion a bit from the ground so the executed person could not support his or her weight by standing. Apparently, however, they did not lift the person very high. Schneider (TDNT 7:573) suggested that the criminal was elevated just above his or her own height or, if he or she was to be displayed to persons from afar, a little higher. Several texts suggest that the victim was kept low enough to the ground that dogs and other wild beasts could gnaw on the legs of the corpse (Philo, Flacc. 2.84–85; Pseudo Manetho 4.198f; Horace, Ep. 1.16.46–48).

The condemned were usually crucified beside well-traveled roads. Quintilian writes: “Whenever we crucify criminals, the most frequented roads are chosen” (Quintilian, Decl. 274; Latin text in Hengel, Crucifixion 50). Crassus, the roman triumvir and general, crucified the slaves in the Spartacus rebellion (6,000) along the Appian Way (Appian, Bellum Civile 1.120). Jews were crucified within view of the walls of Jerusalem during the Jewish rebellion (J.W. 5.449–51).

Perhaps the cruelest practice was abusing or even executing the victim’s family members as he hung on the cross. The Athenians crucified Artayctes by nailing him to a wooden plank; while he was thus fastened, they stoned his son in front of him (Herodotus 9.120; see also 4.202). Alexander Jannaeus, the Jewish high priest and prince, crucified 800 Pharisees and had their wives and children slaughtered in front of them as they hung from the crosses (Josephus, Ant. 13.380–83; see also Diodorus Siculus 18.16.3; compare 4Q448 and Babylonian Talmud ‘Abod. Zar. 18a).

Use of Crucifixion

Sources attest to cases of women being crucified as well. Josephus reports of a freed women who was crucified for helping in the seduction of a Roman lady (Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 278; Ant. 18.66–80). Tacitus (Ann. 14.42, 45) reports that every slave in the household of Pedianus Secundus was executed after he was murdered by one of them. He specifies that both sexes were among the number executed. Since the slave’s form of execution was always crucifixion, it would mean that some women were crucified on that occasion. However, the meager attestation of the crucifixion of women seems to indicate that it was rare.

Most ancient writers seem to have relegated crucifixion for slaves and occasionally for rebellious foreigners (Hengel, Crucifixion, 51–63; Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion,” 275–78). In general, if a slave was deemed worthy of execution, the deed was done by crucifixion. For example, Juvenal, the Roman satirist, preserved a dialogue between a Roman lady and her husband (6.219–23; Latin text in Hengel, Crucifixion, 58):




#3. (1991). Biblical Archaeologist, 54.

Crucifixion. Undoubtedly, one of the cruelest and most humiliating forms of punishment described in ancient sources is crucifixion. This form of punishment, which was practiced by non-Jews and occasionally by Jews (Antiquities of the Jews, book 13, 380; Marcus 1966), has captured the public’s imagination for centuries. Volumes have been written about the subject, which continues to be a source of widespread speculation and error (Edwards 1986). Over the years, much of what has been published on crucifixion has been flawed and belongs in the realm of forensic mythology due to being based uncritically on the fourteenth century forgery the Shroud of Turin. (Recent carbon-14 tests, performed in three independent laboratories, confirmed what many have been saying for decades [Meacham 1983], that the Shroud of Turin was the work of a fourteenth century forger.) Crucifixion scenes continued to be artistically rendered uncritically because, aside from one case discovered in Jerusalem (Tzaferis 1970), there is no archaeological evidence on which to base conclusions.

Since this form of execution was widespread in the ancient world, with up to 6,000 victims being crucified in one day following the Spartacus revolt in 71 BCE, the lack of direct evidence is particularly puzzling. A solution to this problem may be derived from the evidence of eyewitness accounts by prisoners of war in World Wars I and II who reported that victims suspended by their wrists from bars, a form of crucifixion, expired within 10 minutes if their feet were weighted and approximately one hour if their feet were unweighted. Death was the result of suffocation due to a weakening of the muscles used in respiration (Barbel 1953). This evidence seems to suggest that mass executions like the one following the Spartacus revolt had to be done in a manner in which time was a consideration. By tying the victims’ hands and hanging them from an upright, a tree or a cross, the usual manner in which the “good” and the “bad” thieves are generally depicted, execution can be accomplished in a quick and efficient manner. If most of the victims were tied to crosses, rather than nailed, the lack of any direct osteoarchaeological evidence in the Roman world, save the above, is not surprising.

The complicated and much debated issue as to how people die from crucifixion has recently been examined by an American physician who tied student volunteers to a makeshift cross in a laboratory and monitored their physiological response (Zugibe 1984). The often quoted theory that death is the result of asphyxiation appears no longer tenable if the victim is suspended from a cross with arms outstretched in the manner traditionally depicted by artists. Volunteers who were suspended on a cross in this manner, for periods ranging from five to 45 minutes, experienced no trouble breathing. Of critical importance in the experiment was the manner in which the individual was affixed to the cross; that is, if the arms are placed over the head in line with the body, asphyxiation appears to be the cause of death. On the basis of this experiment, Frederick T. Zugibe concluded that the cause of death when the victim was crucified with arms outstretched was hypovolemic shock.

The only reported direct evidence of crucifixion, found in 1968 in a Jewish cemetery north of Jerusalem, is unique in the paleopathological literature. Like the Shroud of Turin, it created a controversy and renewed the question as to how victims died in this form of execution. Pressure exerted on anthropologists by religious authorities for a quick reburial resulted in a flawed analysis and conclusions that were not in agreement with the data (Haas 1970).

Therefore, in 1985, prompted by several requests from biblical scholars, a reappraisal of the “Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtara was undertaken (Zias and Sekeles 1985). This reappraisal showed that many of the original conclusions were inaccurate or based on evidence that, in our estimation, was equivocal. One of the main errors in the original article was the reported length of the nail that had pierced the individual’s heel. This was crucial in the attempted reconstruction of how the individual was crucified. Nico Haas incorrectly measured the nail as being 17–18 centimeters long and believed that both heels were pierced by a single nail. The reappraisal showed that the nail was actually 11.5 centimeters long, and therefore it was anatomically impossible to nail both feet with a single nail as Haas had suggested. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the legs had been broken by a blow, nor was there any unequivocal evidence that the forearms had been nailed to the cross as Haas had theorized. Therefore, based on this new evidence, we proposed an alternative position in which both arms were tied to the cross or tree and the legs were affixed to the upright with two nails.

#4. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1985). BAR 11:01 (Jan/Feb 1985).

Crucifixion was practiced as early as the first millennium B.C. by Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians; written accounts dating to 71 B.C. refer to crucifixions numbering in the thousands. Yet, only one victim of crucifixion has ever been discovered in an excavation. In 1968, Vassilios Tzaferis, an archaeologist with the Israel Department of Antiquities, examined a tomb near Jerusalem that had been accidentally opened by a construction crew. Tzaferis discovered the bones of two generations of a Jewish family that lived in Jerusalem about the first century A.D. A large nail piercing the heel bones of one skeleton led to the conclusion that this man had been crucified.

In “Crucifixion—the Archaeological Evidence,” Tzaferis reconstructs the prolonged and painful death of this person. Relating the evolution of crucifixion from a form of punishment for slaves to a method of execution, Tzaferis places the victim, a young man possibly punished for a political crime, in the context of his times.

Born on the Isle of Samos, in Greece, Tzaferis received a Ph.D. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has directed many excavations, including those at Ashkelon, Tiberius, Beth Shean, Capernaum and at various locations in Jerusalem.

#5. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1985). BAR 11:01 (Jan/Feb 1985).

From ancient literary sources we know that tens of thousands of people were crucified in the Roman Empire. In Palestine alone, the figure ran into the thousands. Yet until 1968 not a single victim of this horrifying method of execution had been uncovered archaeologically.

In that year I excavated the only victim of crucifixion ever discovered. He was a Jew, of a good family, who may have been convicted of a political crime. He lived in Jerusalem shortly after the turn of the era and sometime before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

In the period following the Six Day War—when the Old City and East Jerusalem were newly under Israeli jurisdiction—a great deal of construction was undertaken. Accidental archaeological discoveries by construction crews were frequent. When that occurred, either my colleagues at the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums or I would be called in; part of our job was to investigate these chance discoveries.

In late 1968 the then Director of the Department, Dr. Avraham Biran, asked me to check some tombs that had been found northeast of Jerusalem in an area called Giv‘at ha-Mivtar. A crew from the Ministry of Housing had accidentally broken into some burial chambers and discovered the tombs. After we looked at the tombs, it was decided that I would excavate four of them.

The tombs were part of a huge Jewish cemetery of the Second Temple period (second century B.C. to 70 A.D.), extending from Mt. Scopus in the east to the Sanhedriya tombs in the northwest. Like most of the tombs of this period, the particular tomb I will focus on here was cut, cave-like, into the soft limestone that abounds in Jerusalem. The tomb consisted of two rooms or chambers, each with burial niches.

This particular tomb (which we call Tomb No. 1) was a typical Jewish tomb, just like many others found in Jerusalem. On the outside, in front of the entrance to the tomb, was a forecourt (which, unfortunately, had been badly damaged). The entrance itself was blocked by a stone slab and led to a large, carved-out cave chamber, nearly 10 feet square (Chamber A on the plan). On three sides of the chamber were stone benches, intentionally left by the carver of the chamber. The fourth wall contained two openings leading down to another, lower chamber (Chamber B on the plan) that was similar in design to the first but had no benches. When we found Chamber B, its entrance was still blocked with a large stone slab…

… We also found a considerable quantity of pottery in the tomb. Because all the pottery was easily identifiable, we were able to date the tomb quite accurately. The entire assemblage can be dated with certainty between the late Hellenistic period (end of the second century B.C., about 180 B.C.) to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple (70 A.D.). However, the bulk of the pottery dates to the period following the rise of the Herodian dynasty in 37 B.C. The assemblage included so-called spindle bottles (probably used for aromatic balsam), globular juglets (for oil), oil lamps and even some cooking pots.

The skeletal finds indicate that two generations were buried in this tomb. No doubt this was the tomb of a family of some wealth and perhaps even prominence. The eight ossuaries contained the bones of 17 different people. Each ossuary contained the bones of from one to five people. The ossuaries were usually filled to the brim with bones, male and female, adult and child, interred together. One ossuary also held a bouquet of withered flowers…

… As we shall see from the inscriptions, at least one member of this family participated in the building of Herod’s temple. But despite the wealth and achievement of its members, this family was probably not a happy one.

An osteological examination showed that five of the 17 people whose bones were collected in the ossuaries died before reaching the age of seven. By age 37, 75 percent had died. Only two of the 17 lived to be more than 50. One child died of starvation, and one woman was killed when struck on the head by a mace.

And one man in this family had been crucified. He was between 24 and 28 years old, according to our osteologists.

Strange though it may seem, when I excavated the bones of this crucified man, I did not know how he had died. Only when the contents of Ossuary No. 4 from Chamber B of Tomb No. 1 were sent for osteological analysis was it discovered that it contained one three- or four-year-old child and a crucified man—a nail held his heel bones together. The nail was about 7 inches (17–18 cm) long.

Before examining the osteological evidence, I should say a little about crucifixion. Many people erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium B.C. Crucifixion was introduced in the west from these eastern cultures; it was used only rarely on the Greek mainland, but Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy used it more frequently, probably as a result of their closer contact with Phoenicians and Carthaginians.

During the Hellenistic period, crucifixion became more popular among the Hellenized population of the east. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., crucifixion was frequently employed both by the Seleucids (the rulers of the Syrian half of Alexander’s kingdom) and by the Ptolemies (the rulers of the Egyptian half).

Among the Jews crucifixion was an anathema. (See Deuteronomy 21:22–23: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”)

The traditional method of execution among Jews was stoning. Nevertheless, crucifixion was occasionally employed by Jewish tyrants during the Hasmonean period. According to Josephus, Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews on a single day during the revolt against the census of 7 A.D.

At the end of the first century B.C., the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain legally limited transgressions. Initially, it was employed not as a method of execution, but only as a punishment. Moreover, only slaves convicted of certain crimes were punished by crucifixion. During this early period, a wooden beam, known as a furca or patibulum was placed on the slave’s neck and bound to his arms. The slave was then required to march through the neighborhood proclaiming his offense. This march was intended as an expiation and humiliation. Later, the slave was also stripped and scourged, increasing both the punishment and the humiliation. Still later, instead of walking with his arms tied to the wooden beam, the slave was tied to a vertical stake.

Because the main purpose of this practice was to punish, humiliate and frighten disobedient slaves, the practice did not necessarily result in death. Only in later times, probably in the first century B.C., did crucifixion evolve into a method of execution for conviction of certain crimes.

Initially, crucifixion was known as the punishment of the slaves. Later, it was used to punish foreign captives, rebels and fugitives, especially during times of war and rebellion. Captured enemies and rebels were crucified in masses. Accounts of the suppression of the revolt of Spartacus in 71 B.C. tell how the Roman army lined the road from Capua to Rome with 6,000 crucified rebels on 6,000 crosses. After the Romans quelled the relatively minor rebellion in Judea in 7 A.D. triggered by the death of King Herod, Quintilius Varus, the Roman Legate of Syria, crucified 2,000 Jews in Jerusalem. During Titus’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Roman troops crucified as many as 500 Jews a day for several months.

In times of war and rebellion when hundreds and even thousands of people were crucified within a short period, little if any attention was paid to the way the crucifixion was carried out. Crosses were haphazardly constructed, and executioners were impressed from the ranks of Roman legionaries…

… Once a defendant was found guilty and was condemned to be crucified, the execution was supervised by an official known as the Carnifix Serarum. From the tribunal hall, the victim was taken outside, stripped, bound to a column and scourged. The scourging was done with either a stick or a flagellum, a Roman instrument with a short handle to which several long, thick thongs had been attached. On the ends of the leather thongs were lead or bone tips. Although the number of strokes imposed was not fixed, care was taken not to kill the victim. Following the beating, the horizontal beam was placed upon the condemned man’s shoulders, and he began the long, grueling march to the execution site, usually outside the city walls. A soldier at the head of the procession carried the titulus, an inscription written on wood, which stated the defendant’s name and the crime for which he had been condemned. Later, this titulus was fastened to the victim’s cross. When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground. Sometimes the victim was attached to the cross only with ropes. In such a case, the patibulum or crossbeam, to which the victim’s arms were already bound, was simply affixed to the vertical beam; the victim’s feet were then bound to the stake with a few turns of the rope.

If the victim was attached by nails, he was laid on the ground, with his shoulders on the crossbeam. His arms were held out and nailed to the two ends of the crossbeam, which was then raised and fixed on top of the vertical beam. The victim’s feet were then nailed down against this vertical stake.

Without any supplementary body support, the victim would die from muscular spasms and asphyxia in a very short time, certainly within two or three hours. Shortly after being raised on the cross, breathing would become difficult; to get his breath, the victim would attempt to draw himself up on his arms. Initially he would be able to hold himself up for 30 to 60 seconds, but this movement would quickly become increasingly difficult. As he became weaker, the victim would be unable to pull himself up and death would ensue within a few hours.

In order to prolong the agony, Roman executioners devised two instruments that would keep the victim alive on the cross for extended periods of time. One, known as a sedile, was a small seat attached to the front of the cross, about halfway down. This device provided some support for the victim’s body and may explain the phrase used by the Romans, “to sit on the cross.” Both Erenaeus and Justin Martyr describe the cross of Jesus as having five extremities rather than four; the fifth was probably the sedile. To increase the victim’s suffering, the sedile was pointed, thus inflicting horrible pain. The second device added to the cross was the suppedaneum, or foot support. It was less painful than the sedile, but it also prolonged the victim’s agony. Ancient historians record many cases in which the victim stayed alive on the cross for two or three or more days with the use of a suppedaneum. The church father Origen writes of having seen a crucified man who survived the whole night and the following day. Josephus refers to a case in which three crucified Jews survived on the cross for three days. During the mass crucifixions following the repression of the revolt of Spartacus in Rome, some of the crucified rebels talked to the soldiers for three days.

Using this historical background and the archaeological evidence, it is possible to reconstruct the crucifixion of the man whose bones I excavated at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar.

The most dramatic evidence that this young man was crucified was the nail which penetrated his heel bones. But for this nail, we might never have discovered that the young man had died in this way. The nail was preserved only because it hit a hard knot when it was pounded into the olive wood upright of the cross. The olive wood knot was so hard that, as the blows on the nail became heavier, the end of the nail bent and curled. We found a bit of the olive wood (between 1 and 2 cm) on the tip of the nail. This wood had probably been forced out of the knot where the curled nail hooked into it.

#6. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 05:02.

Despite the uncertainties and controversies concerning Jesus’ life and death, there is universal agreement about at least one thing: He was crucified. Yet even here questions have been raised, questions about the physical cause of death and about how people were nailed to the cross. I would like to address these two questions, or at least particular aspects of them.

Since the 1920s, it has become common wisdom that victims of crucifixion die of asphyxiation when they lose the ability to raise the chest in order to breathe.

It is also widely assumed that nails in the palms of the hands would not hold the weight of the body on the cross; the flesh would tear and pull off; therefore, the nails must have gone through the wrists in order to obtain an adequately secure hold.

Both of these propositions are incorrect.

The suggestion that crucifixion victims die as a result of asphyxiation was first made by A. A. LeBec in 1925. LeBec theorized that the position of the crucified person on the cross, with the arms overhead, would immobilize the chest, making it difficult to breathe out. Thus, the person would suffocate. This was supported by R. W. Hynek in 1936. It was, however, Dr. Pierre Barbet, a surgeon from Paris, who gave the theory widespread currency. In 1953 Barbet refined the theory and presented it in a very simple and believable way.

Barbet used three kinds of evidence to support his asphyxiation hypothesis, the most important of which was evidence from hangings in the Austro-German army during World War I, and in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau during World War II.

Barbet’s World War I evidence derived from observations of punishments in the Austro-German army. Soldiers were strung up by their wrists with their feet barely raised off the ground. After a short time, violent contractions of all of the muscles occurred, causing severe muscle spasms. The tortured individual had extreme difficulty exhaling, and thus asphyxiation and death occurred in about ten minutes. Barbet reinforced this observation by using the World War II testimony of two prisoners from Dachau. The prisoners reported that condemned men were hung by their hands with their feet some distance from the ground, requiring them to raise them-selves by their hands in order to exhale. The victim would continuously raise and drop his body until he became exhausted and succumbed to asphyxiation.

Both observations by Barbet would support the crucifixion-asphyxiation hypothesis only if the arms of the crucified person were suspended directly above his head in supporting his body. But this is not the position of a person suspended from a cross. On the cross, a victim’s arms are extended at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees from the upright (stipes).

If arms were extended directly above the head breathing would unquestionably be difficult, but not where the arms are extended at a 60 to 70 degree angle from vertical. This has now been demonstrated by several experimental studies.

An Austrian radiologist, Hermann Moedder, suspended medical students by their wrists with their hands above their heads, less than 40 inches apart on a horizontal bar. In a few minutes the students became pale and the vital capacity of their lungs decreased from 5.2 to 1.5 liters. Their respiration became shallow, blood pressure decreased and pulse rate increased. Moedder concluded that orthostatic collapse, or inability to breathe, would occur in six minutes if the students were not allowed to stand. If the students could rest for a few minutes, alternating with three minutes of hanging, they could last longer. Moedder’s results confirmed that asphyxiation would occur if the crucified person (cruciarius) were suspended by his hands directly above his head. If Jesus’ arms had been suspended directly above his head, rather than extended at 60 to 70 degrees, then I would have no difficulty accepting the asphyxiation hypothesis as the cause of his death.

To test the validity of the asphyxiation hypothesis when the victim’s arm are extended at a 60 to 70 degree angle. I conducted the following experiment.

A very sturdy cross was constructed for me by the late Father Peter Weyland, S.V.D., with the vertical stipes measuring 92 inches high and the horizontal patibulum measuring 78 inches wide; the base was secured with a reinforced angle iron. A series of numbered holes was drilled through each arm of the patibulum to allow for different arm spans. Each hole was drilled in a slightly downward direction from front to back. In this way bolts could be inserted from back to front in an upward direction. Leather gauntlets were firmly laced around the gloved hand of the subject without restricting his blood supply. A hole was provided at the level of the base of the middle fingers so the gauntlet could be placed over the bolt that corresponded to the arm length of the volunteer. The angle of the bolt through the beam prevented slippage of the gauntlet. Volunteers between the ages of 20 and 35 were given physical examinations to obtain resting values for a variety of heart function indicators before suspension on the cross. Heart monitoring electrodes were placed on the chests of the volunteers and attached to a stress testing apparatus that monitored the electrical patterns of the heart minute by minute. A blood pressure cuff was placed on one arm and attached to an electronic blood pressure recording unit, and an oximeter probe was attached to an ear and connected to an instrument that records the oxygen concentration of the blood at all times. Each volunteer was instructed to inform us of any breathing difficulties, pains of any kind, muscle cramps or any other problems. Volunteers were also requested not to attempt to raise their bodies by pushing their feet against the seat belt that secured them to the upright of the cross.

Each volunteer climbed up on a stool, placed his outstretched arms along the patibulum to line up the holes in the gauntlets with the respective holes on the patibulum corresponding to his arm length. Bolts were inserted into the appropriate holes through the back of the patibulum, then through the holes in the gauntlets. The stool was then carefully removed, allowing the volunteer to be fully suspended. The modified seat belt secured the feet to the vertical stipes of the cross. An emergency crash cart complete with resuscitation supplies was on hand to provide for the volunteer’s safety. Individuals were stationed to the right and left of the subject in case of an emergency.

During the period of suspension, ranging from 5 to 45 minutes, the following information was tabulated: muscle twitching, chest movements, skin color, sweating, breathing problems, and subjective information including pain, psychological feelings, etc. The heart-lung evaluation included examination with a stethoscope, measurement of arterial blood gases, ear oximeter readings, vital capacity, electrocardiograms, blood pressure and periodic blood chemistry screening. Douglas bag collections of the inhaled and exhaled air were taken at various intervals to determine relative oxygen content.

#7. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 11:03.

The author of the Gospel of Luke was a well-educated gentile Christian. He may have been originally a God-fearer—a gentile who had become an adherent of a Jewish synagogue community before he was converted to the message of Jesus. Luke had an excellent knowledge of the Bible of Israel (the Christian Old Testament) in its Greek translation. He never had any doubt that Jesus, a Jew from Galilee who came from the family of David, belonged to the people of Israel. When the angel announces Jesus’ birth to Mary, he says that “God will give to her child the throne of his ancestor David” and that “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33). In her song, the “Magnificat,” Mary praises God that “he has helped his servant Israel” (Luke 1:54). It is also only this Gospel that includes the story of Joseph and the pregnant mother of Jesus going to Bethlehem, the city of David.

When Luke wrote his Gospel, some time at the very end of the first century, it was not clear who would emerge as the legitimate heir to the tradition of Israel and its scriptures. There were a number of groups who claimed that they were the only legitimate Israelites: the successors of the Pharisees of the time of Jesus, known as the founders of rabbinic Judaism; the Samaritans, who represented a significant Israelite constituency both in Palestine and in the diaspora; the followers of Jesus, who had just become known under the name Christians; other groups, such as the followers of John the Baptist; and the remnants of the defeated revolutionaries of the Jewish War of 66–70 against Rome. All these groups appear in Luke’s Gospel in relationship to the ministry and fate of Jesus, either as enemies or as sympathizers.

Luke is painfully aware of two facts:

(1) Jesus was crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate while the authorities in Jerusalem were only too eager to cooperate with their Roman overlords; (2) followers of Jesus had repeatedly experienced the hostility of Jewish synagogues—a fact recorded by the apostle Paul (see Corinthians 11:24) and by the Gospel of John (9:22). Moreover, in the Book of Acts Luke reports, on the basis of reliable historical information, that Stephen was martyred by the Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 7) and that King Agrippa had the apostle James executed (Acts 12:2). Luke wrote this at a time when Christians were also persecuted by the Roman authorities. This is confirmed by the roughly contemporary letter of the governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger (Epistle 10:96), written in about 112 C.E., to the emperor Trajan, in which he reports that he had executed several people because they had confessed that they were Christians and had refused to sacrifice to the emperor. At the same time, the Pharisees were desperately trying to reestablish whatever was left of the scattered Jewish people after the disastrous war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

Jesus, the Jew, had been crucified in Jerusalem. Luke tries to explain in his Gospel why this happened. Rejection by various groups in Israel came early in Jesus’ ministry. While Mark’s Gospel places Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth to a relatively later point in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 6:1–6), Luke begins the story of Jesus’ career with the account of his rejection there (Luke 4:14–30). Thereafter, in Luke’s rewriting of the story, Jesus preaches to the poor and heals the sick freely in Galilee and Judea. But the Pharisees are critical of Jesus’ breaking of the Sabbath (Luke 6:2, 11). That Jesus is in trouble is apparent again as soon as he sets his mind toward going to Jerusalem: The Samaritans do not allow him to pass through their country (Luke 9:51–55). One would expect that henceforth, in Luke’s eyes, the Samaritans would be singled out as especially hostile to Jesus. However, this is not the case. The man who rescues the victim of robbery is identified as a Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), and of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, the only one who returns to give thanks is a Samaritan (Luke 17:11–19).

It is clear that the Samaritans did not pose a threat to Luke’s church, but some of the Jewish people did. One might think that the Pharisees, representing the Jewish leaders in Luke’s time, continue to be presented as the enemies of Jesus. They are indeed attacked in the “Speech against the Pharisees” (Luke 11:37–12:1), they complain that Jesus accepts the sinners (Luke 15:2) and a boasting Pharisee is contrasted with the repentant publican in the famous story of Luke 18:9–14.

The Pharisees, however, are not accused of having engineered the death of Jesus. They are never mentioned in the narrative of the trial and execution of Jesus. Rather, it is the leadership of Jerusalem and the high priests who have Jesus arrested by their servants (Luke 22:47–53), and the council of the elders of Jerusalem, high priests and scribes send Jesus to Pilate for execution (Luke 23:1). These are the people who are ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death, not the Pharisees.

Thus Luke distances himself from the leaders of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, but he knows very well that the Pharisees and their successors, the leaders of rabbinic Judaism at his own time, did not have any part in this travesty of justice. To be sure, they are the rivals of the Christians at the time of Luke—and so the Gospel of Luke presents them as Jesus’ opponents. But even in the continuation of Luke’s story, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, in which Jewish hostility is mentioned repeatedly, the Pharisees are not described negatively: Gamaliel, their leader in Jerusalem, counsels against further persecution of the apostles (Acts 5:34), some of the Pharisees are mentioned as people who have become believers (Acts 23:9). If Luke describes the leaders of rabbinic Judaism at his own time with the term “Pharisees,” it is clear that he does not hold them responsible for Jesus’ death or for the persecution of the apostles.

Christians today should take note that neither the Gospels of Luke, Matthew or Mark accuse the Pharisees or “the Jews” in general as the parties responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, but rather the leaders of Jerusalem, who first collaborated with the Romans and later caused the disastrous revolt of the Jewish people against Rome.

#8. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 13:01.

Scholars have long recognized that the Evangelists do not simply report the events of Jesus’ life. They select, arrange and modify material at their disposal to stress important themes—like the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament, the inclusion of gentiles in the kingdom and the nature of discipleship.

Mark’s gospel was probably written for gentile Christians living in Rome. Could this audience have understood the various allusions to the Hebrew Bible worked into Mark’s narrative? On the other hand, Mark’s contemporaries might well have grasped a pattern of meaning that has gone unrecognized by modern Bible commentators: In Mark’s gospel, the crucifixion procession is a kind of Roman triumphal march, with Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa replacing the Sacra Via of Rome. In this way, Mark presents Jesus’ defeat and death, the moment of his greatest suffering and humiliation, as both literally and figuratively a triumph.

Here we will examine more closely the crucifixion procession as described in Mark 15:16–39 (see the sidebar to this article). But first let’s look at the triumphal march, especially the features with which Mark’s first-century A.D. Roman contemporaries would have been familiar…

… Mark’s crucifixion narrative contains a number of striking parallels to the Roman triumph. While the cumulative force of the comparison is significant, the most obvious allusions are made at the beginning of the narrative, perhaps signaling to Mark’s audience that there is more to come for those “on the inside” …

… Contemporaneous accounts of Roman triumphs suggest that Mark’s description of Jesus’ clothing (“They clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him” [Mark 15:17]) follows a formula. In one source after another, the triumphator is introduced clad in a ceremonial purple robe and a crown.5 The wearing of purple was outlawed for anyone below equestrian rank. The only available robe of this kind for Jesus would belong to Pilate, but it is inconceivable that he would lend his garment to be spat on by soldiers. Along similarly practical lines, one wonders where in the courtyard of a palace thorns would be available to make a crown. Are we to imagine that the soldiers delayed their mockery while someone went to look for a thornbush? The strangeness of these details, their likeness to the ceremonial garb of a triumphator and their combination with other details of the narrative suggest purpose rather than coincidence…

… Crucifixions were common enough in the Roman world that major cities set aside special places for them. The crucified bodies, in various stages of suffering or decomposition, provided a public warning to potential malefactors. In Rome, the place was the Campus Esquilinus; in Jerusalem, it may have been either the site of the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre or on the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley from the Temple. Mark gives the name of the place, Golgotha; then, untypically, he translates it for his readers: “which means the place of a skull.” In Hebrew Golgotha denotes not an empty skull but more generally the head. This is also true of the Greek translation. Therefore, “place of the head” or perhaps “place of the death’s-head” would be a more accurate rendering…

… Another remarkable detail reported by Mark is that Jesus is executed with “two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27). This account not only appears to be an unnecessary interruption of the narrative but also draws the attention of readers to the shamefulness of the crucifixion. Why accentuate the scandal of the cross by associating Jesus with criminals?

In the world of Mark’s audience, placement on the right and left of an elevated person signified royal enthronement. Earlier in Mark’s narration, for example, he tells us that two disciples request to be seated on Jesus’ right and left when he is enthroned (Mark 10:37). In the triumph itself, the triumphator is normally alone, but the few exceptions are notable both because they occur at the point of elevation to the rostrum and because they occur very near to the time of Mark’s writing…

… To summarize Mark’s narrative as now decoded: The praetorian guard gathers early in the morning to proclaim the triumphator. They dress him in the purple triumphal garb and place a crown of laurel on his head. The soldiers shout in acclamation of his lordship (“Hail, King of the Jews” [Mark 15:18]) and perform acts of homage to him. They accompany him through the streets of the city. The sacrifice walks alongside a person who carries the implement of the victim’s death. The procession ascends to the place of the (death’s) head, where the sacrifice is to take place. The triumphator is offered ceremonial wine. He does not drink it but pours it out on the altar at the moment of sacrifice. Then, at the moment of being lifted up before the people, at the moment of the sacrifice, the triumphator is again acclaimed as lord (“The King of the Jews” [Mark 15:26]), and his viceregents appear with him in confirmation of his glory. The epiphany of the triumphator is accompanied by divine portents (“The curtain of the Temple was torn in two” [Mark 15:38]), confirming that he is one with the gods.

The opening sentence of Mark’s gospel identifies Jesus as “the Son of God,” but no human voice gives him that title until after he dies. Struck with wonder as he watches Jesus breathe his last, a Roman centurion gasps, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). The moment of Jesus’ death, the moment of his sacrifice, is the culmination of Mark’s parable of triumph. But Mark presents the crucifixion as an “anti-triumph”—with Jesus mocked and killed—to show that the seeming scandal of the cross is actually an exaltation of Christ.

Mark’s anti-triumph, I would argue, was composed in reaction to the self-deification of the emperors Gaius (37–41 A.D.) and especially Nero (54–68 A.D.). Gaius would regularly visit the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus to engage in confidential chats with the deity.16 He required that courtiers hail him as Jupiter and built a temple to his own godhead containing a statue with whom he regularly exchanged clothing. Similarly, Nero’s conduct in public triumphs confirms his own flirtation with divinity. At the culmination of one procession, King Tiridates paid obeisance to Nero by saying, “I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mithras.”17 On this occasion, Nero was dressed in triumphal garb, and the canopy over his head depicted him in the attitude of the god, “driving a chariot, with golden stars gleaming all about him.”18 During another triumph, Nero was hailed as, among other things, Apollo and “Divine Voice.”

#9. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 13:01.

  The Crucifixion Procession: Mark 15:16–39

16 Then the soldiers led [Jesus] into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20 After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passerby, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now, when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

(New Revised Standard Version)

#10 I.S.B.E.


As an instrument of death the cross was detested by the Jews. “Cursed is

everyone that hangeth on a tree” (<480313>Galatians 3:13; compare

<052123>Deuteronomy 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, a mode of deathpunishment

still well known among the Mongol race. 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


If he was nailed to the cross, at least in Judea, a stupefying

drink was given him to deaden the agony. 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


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 (<411544>Mark 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.


TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

OCD Oxford Classical Dictionary

TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

OCD Oxford Classical Dictionary

TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

OCD Oxford Classical Dictionary

TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament