A Spectator’s Guide to Crucifixion

John Dickson provides a short guide to the practice of crucifixion in the Ancient World.

1. Where did crucifixion come from?

Crucifixion was an ancient form of torture/death probably invented by the Persians (King Darius 500 BC), passed onto the Carthaginians (400 BC), before being perfected by the Romans (from 200 BC – AD 337)

2. Was it a formal penalty or a random act of violence?

Of the three forms of official capital punishment in the Roman empire—crucifixion, decapitation and burning alive—crucifixion was regarded as the summum supplicium, the ‘ultimate punishment’, usually reserved for rebels against the Empire. 

3. Was there a 'correct' method of crucifixion?

There was no correct method of crucifixion, some common elements included:

  • victims being scourged beforehand, enhancing the appearance (and reality) of brutalization
  • victims being stripped naked, taken to a visible place, often a hill, and then fastened to a large wooden beam
  • ropes were sometimes used for fastening the victim to the cross but nails were preferred
  • victims were fastened in a variety of postures; the first-century writer Seneca even tells us of victims being nailed through the genitals, as well as through the hands and feet
  • sometimes a simple vertical pole was used; other times a cross-beam was affixed creating a capital-T shape or the cross shape (†) we usually associate with crucifixion. The Greek word stauros (‘cross’) simply means ‘stake’ or ‘pole’.Death usually resulted not through blood loss – though this didn’t help – but through asphyxiation, the depletion of oxygen through interrupted breathing. Death often took days.

4. How common was crucifixion in ancient times?

Thousands of crucifixions of (mainly) political rebels are known to us from antiquity.

  • In 4 BC, the Roman governor of Syria, Varus, crucified 2000 men after a rebellion against Roman rule.
  • In AD 70, as Jerusalem was sacked, the Romans crucified 500 men a day, stationing the crosses in full view of the city walls.
  • A century before Christ, Alexander Jannaeus, the ruler of Jerusalem, crucified 800 rebel Pharisees in full view of their wives and children. As the men hung there slowly dying, their families were slaughtered in front of them.

5. Do we have any physical/archaeological evidence for crucifixion?

Despite copious literary evidence of crucifixion, only one example of archaeological remains of crucifixion has yet been discovered.

  • In 1968 Israeli archaeologists discovered a tomb just north of Jerusalem in which were found some Jewish burial boxes (ossuaries). One of them was inscribed “Jehohanan and Jehohanan ben Jehohanan,” meaning that the box contained the bones of a father and his son of the same name. Analysis of the bones revealed the remains of a male right heel bone which had been pierced through by an 11.5cm iron nail. He was clearly a victim of crucifixion.

6. How do we know Jesus was crucified?; What's the evidence for his execution?

Jesus’ execution is mentioned in three non-Christian sources from antiquity, making the event historically certain:

  • Tacitus, the greatest of ancient Rome’s chroniclers
  • Josephus, a first-century Jewish writer
  • Mara bar Serapion, a Syriac writer.

7. Christian writers were obviously biased toward Jesus; how do historians treat the New Testament evidence for his death?

Even without the non-Christian references above, no reputable historian would doubt Jesus’ crucifixion, and for two reasons:

  • while secular historians do not privilege the New Testament as a sacred text (as Christians do), nor do they approach it with sceptical prejudice; it is an ordinary first-century source.
  • the scandal of crucifixion was so great in antiquity, it is exceedingly unlikely people would invent a story of their revered master meeting his end in the summum supplicium.

8. Historically speaking, why was Jesus crucified?

All four Gospels – with some variation – agree that the charge against Jesus was his claim to be ‘King of the Jews’. He was killed for sedition, in other words. This fits well with the fact that crucifixion was usually reserved for political rebels.

  • Jesus’ staged entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey was a deliberate ‘fulfilment’ of a well-known Jewish prophecy about the Messiah and was probably interpreted by the Romans as a politically subversive act.

9. Would Jesus have expected his impending death? 

Almost certainly.

  • Many prophets in Israel’s past had been killed by the powers-that-be.
  • Jesus’ own mentor, John the Baptist, had been executed (by beheading) just 3 years earlier.
  • His clashes with Palestine’s elite had reached fever pitch by the time he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey.

10. What's the origin of the traditional Easter idea that Jesus’ death was a ‘sacrifice for sins’?

The evidence that Jesus himself thought of his impending death as an atonement for sins is very strong.

  • Scholars used to think the notion was invented by the apostle Paul years after Jesus’ death—it was thought to be inspired by pagan notions of ritual sacrifice.
  • Today, most experts believe it was Jesus’ own Jewish background that inspired the idea: sacrifice was a core part of Israel’s religion right up until the year 70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem.
  • Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper, widely accepted as one of the most reliably preserved statements in earliest Christianity, clearly reflects this sacrificial theme: “This is my body given for you … This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
  • The sacrificial theme was heightened by the fact – attested by all four Gospels and a later Jewish text (Talmud) – that Jesus was executed during the Jewish Passover festival, when a lamb was sacrificed in memorial of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.

11. Was it difficult for the first Christian to promote their message about a crucified man to others in the Roman Empire?

It was an extremely difficult message to promote because, for Romans, the cross was an instrument of torture and a symbol of shame.

  • A piece of anti-Christian graffiti was found scratched into guardhouse wall in Rome (dated 2nd or 3rd century): it depicts the crucified Jesus with the head of a mule; next to the cross is a man with arm raised in homage; beneath, in poor Greek, we read “Alexamenos worships his god.” Alexamenos was probably an incarcerated Christian, and this was the Roman guards’ way of mocking his belief: the stupidity of worshipping a crucified man!

12. Were any of the early followers of Jesus also crucified?

Many other Christians after Jesus were executed by crucifixion:

  • Emperor Nero crucified literally hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christians in Rome in the 60s AD. He set them alight and invited people into the palace grounds to observe the spectacle. The ancient Roman chronicler Tacitus wrote: “the Christians were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer.”
  • There is some evidence that the apostle Peter was himself crucified in Rome around the year 64. It is said that he asked to be crucified upside down, for he was unworthy to die in exactly the same way as Jesus.

13. When was the practice of crucifixion abolished?

Emperor Constantine, the first ‘Christian’ emperor, abolished the practice of crucifixion in the 4th century.

  • Only after Constantine’s abolition of crucifixion did the cross (†) become a key public symbol of Christianity.

Dr John Dickson is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

For further study

Accessible works by leading biblical historians

Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress Press)

Markus Bockmuehl (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge University Press)

Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford University Press)

James Charlesworth (editor), Jesus and Archaeology (Eerdmans Publishing)

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