Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

Crucifixion: History, Archaeology (with photos!), and Why Jesus Died This Way
The Sacred Page ^ | April 6, 2012 | Michael Barber

Posted on 04/07/2012 6:27:56 AM PDT by NYer

Today we meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus. In places around the world, images of the Christ crucified will be contemplated and venerated. Indeed, the image of the cross is quite familiar to us. It is part and parcel of Christian iconography.

Perhaps, it is too familiar.

Put frankly, the cross has in many ways been sanitized. To some extent, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) helped bring attention to the actual violence associated with this form of ancient execution. Indeed, the attempt to re-dramatize the violence caused deep controversy.

Some have even claimed that the film exaggerated the violence of Jesus’ death. For example, some complained that the scene of the scourging, a vicious punishment carried out prior to crucifixion, was unrealistic.

Such complaints reveal just how “safe” Christian art has made Jesus’ suffering. As New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre explains, a quick look at ancient sources reveals Gibson actually showed some restraint. Describing the scourging of another first century man named Jesus—Jesus ben Ananias—Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, relates how his bones were “laid bare” (B.J. 6.304)(cf. Goodacre's piece defending the film here).

Ancient Accounts of Crucifixion

The reality is, crucifixion was ghastly. Here I can only offer a brief treatment of the evidence. The fullest study is written by Martin Hengel.1 I’d also recommend Joe Zias’ fine overview here. In addition, be sure to check out Mark Goodacre's fine podcast on the topic.

Josephus describes crucifixion as “the most wretched of deaths” (B.J. 7.203). The first century writer Origen calls it the “utterly vile death” (Commentary on Matthew 27:22). Cicero was horrified that any Roman citizen should crucified—in fact, he wrote that even the mention of the cross was too offensive to be mentioned:

But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word ̳cross‘ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man. (Pro Rabirio 16)
Seneca pointed to crucifixion to make the case for suicide. He made the case that no one would fault a person facing such a death for choosing to take their own life in order to avoid having to endure such a death.
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 weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.” (Seneca, Epistle 101 to Lucilius).
(Note the implicit reference here to the effects of the scourging prior to crucifixion—the body is “already deformed” when fastened to the tree.)

In short, crucifixion was ghastly. It was horrific. And it was supposed to be.

The Cross: An Instrument of Terror

Crucifixion was a way of terrorizing the population. It was meant as a deterrent. Oppose the might of Rome and this is what you’ve got coming.

Thus, crucifixion was employed against Rome’s political enemies. It was meant to shame them. Joel Marcus describes crucifixion as “parodic exaltation”—i.e., it parodied the supposed exalted status claimed by Rome’s enemies.2

Moreover, mass crucifixions were not unheard of. In 71 BC, six thousand followers of Spartacus were crucified on the Appian as part of a Roman victory celebration al ong in 71 BCE – appear in the literature (Appian, Bella Civilia 1.120). After two-thousand survived the siege of Tyre, Alexander had them crucified next to the Mediterranean Sea (Curtius Rufus, Hist. Alex. 4.4.17).

In particular, crucifixion was the punishment of the despised—runaway slaves and criminals. The cross was so closely associated with criminals, Plutarch writes, “each criminal condemned to death bears his cross on his back” (Plutarch, Mor. 554).

Specifically, then, crucifixion was often used to punish rebels. It is no wonder that Jesus is linked with Barabbas--a revolutionary (cf. Mark 15:7). Indeed, Jesus' crucifixion coheres well with the Gospel accounts describing him as a "Messianic" figure. It is no coincidence Jesus was executed as "King of the Jews" by crucifixion. Such was the fate of those who appeared to challenge Caesar's political authority.

Archaeological Evidence

There is little hard archaeological evidence regarding ancient crucifixion. The most significant find dates back to the first century. In 1968 archaeologists uncovered the bones of one “Yohanan Ben Ha’galgol” (or “Yohanan the son of Ha’galgol”), who apparently was the victim of crucifixion. He was somewhere between 24–28 years old when he died.

His legs had been broken. Even more striking, there was still a nail in the heel bone. Since iron was expensive, it seems Romans would typically remove these from the body. However, this nail was curved on the end. Apparently, after going through the foot, it encountered some resistance (perhaps a knot in the wood).

Based on the image scholars have come up with reconstructions of how Yohanan died.3 Though it should be pointed out that not all victims were hung from the cross in the same way. Josephus describes the way the Romans crucified figures in different positions (cf. B.J. 5.449–451).

The third image seems to be the most likely

Of course, one last image of crucifixion could be mentioned. Below is some graffiti that depicts a man crucified with the head of a donkey. It includes the words, "Alexamenos worships [his] god." While nothing about it makes it explicitly anti-Christian, we do know that Christians were mocked with similar images according to Tertullian (Ad nationes 1:11, 14).

Given all of this, it is no surprise that Christians were hesitant at first to even depict Christ crucified. In fact, the two earliest surviving Christian depictions of Jesus' crucifixion are found relatively late. The first is located on the fifth century bronze door at Santa Sabina in Rome (the Roman headquarters of the Dominican order). It depicts Christ crucified with the two other thieves. The other is the Maskell Ivories, a casket, also dating to the 5th century.

Scene on the wooden door of Santa Sabina, Rome. 5th cent.

Scene from the Maskell Ivories, a casket. 5th cent. (British Museum)

Cursed Be One Who Hangs Upon A Tree

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, crucifixion was associated with curse. Deuteronomy 21:22–23 states that anyone executed by being “hung on a tree” is cursed. This was applied to crucifixion in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QpNah 3–4.1.7–8; 11QTemple 64:6–13) and by Philo (Spec. Leg. 3.152; Post C. 61; Somn. 2.213).

Not surprisingly, Paul had difficulty preaching the “Crucified One”: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

In the Gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion is ironic. While crucifixion is meant as a kind of mock exaltation, the reader of the Gospel knows the truth—Jesus is the true King. In fact, it is precisely Jesus’ willingness to undergo this humiliation which triggers his exaltation. He exemplifies the righteous one whom God will reward for not refusing to lay down his life:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. (Matt 16:24–27)
Why Did Jesus Die This Way?

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas surveys the New Testament and gives the following five reasons for why the Crucifixion of Jesus was the most suitable way for our redemption (III. Q.46, Art. 3). They are worth pondering during this Holy Week:

1. Man knows thereby how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return, and herein lies the perfection of human salvation; hence the Apostle says (Romans 5:8): "God commendeth His charity towards us; for when as yet we were sinners . . . Christ died for us."

2. Because thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man's salvation. Hence it is written (1 Peter 2:21): "Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps."

3. Because Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him and the glory of bliss.

4. Because by this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, according to 1 Corinthians 6:20: "You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body."

5. Because it redounded to man's greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil; and as man deserved death, so a man by dying should vanquish death. Hence it is written (1 Corinthians 15:57): "Thanks be to God who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ's Passion than simply by God's good-will.

Thomas cites Augustine: "There was no other more suitable way of healing our misery" than by the Passion of Christ" (De Trin. xiii).

TOPICS: History; Religion & Culture; Religion & Politics
KEYWORDS: archaeology; crucifixion

1 posted on 04/07/2012 6:27:58 AM PDT by NYer
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: netmilsmom; thefrankbaum; Tax-chick; GregB; saradippity; Berlin_Freeper; Litany; SumProVita; ...

2 posted on 04/07/2012 6:30:21 AM PDT by NYer (He who hides in his heart the remembrance of wrongs is like a man who feeds a snake on his chest. St)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: NYer
Re-enactment of crucifixion held yearly for the last 12 years at the Masonic cemetery in Weston, West Virginia. (photo from The Intermountain)


3 posted on 04/07/2012 6:40:53 AM PDT by Roccus
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: NYer
"some complained that the scene of the scourging, a vicious punishment carried out prior to crucifixion, was unrealistic."

Hardly. There was, however, one somewhat glaring inaccuracy in Gibson's film during the scourging sequence, though. Christ was whipped by two men, one on either side, one more vicious than the other. He was whipped over his entire body except for His face, palms, and the soles of His feet. We all remember the horrid scene of the scrourging when a flagrum caught His face during one lash, digging in, and pulling His head back and to the side. That didn't happen. The rest.....pretty darned accurate.

It's common knowledge by now, but for those who don't know: He wasn't nailed through His palms to the crossbeam of the cross. He was nailed through the wrists. This severs the radial nerve, as well as providing more bone structure to actually hold the weight of the body of the victim. Severing the radial nerve does two things: A) it's horribly painful, and B) it causes the thumbs to fold inward onto the palms of the hands.

4 posted on 04/07/2012 6:44:48 AM PDT by RightOnline (I am Andrew Breitbart!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: NYer
6. Because for all to believe and fully understand the Resurrection, Christ's death had to be public and convincing. It was well known that no one could survive the tortures that finally ended Christ's Life.

Blessed be God.
Blessed be His holy name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Blessed be the Name of Jesus.
Blessed be His most Sacred Heart.
Blessed be His most Precious Blood.
Blessed be Jesus in the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
Blessed be the great Mother of God, Mary most holy.
Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception.
Blessed be her glorious Assumption.
Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.
Blessed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.
Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.

5 posted on 04/07/2012 6:50:54 AM PDT by LoveUSA (God employs Man's strength; Satan exploits Man's weakness.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Roccus

Link to story

6 posted on 04/07/2012 6:53:50 AM PDT by Roccus
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: RightOnline
He wasn't nailed through His palms to the crossbeam of the cross. He was nailed through the wrists. This severs the radial nerve, causes the thumbs to fold inward onto the palms of the hands.

As was the evidence provided by the Shroud of Turin.

Believe it or not.

7 posted on 04/07/2012 6:54:15 AM PDT by LoveUSA (God employs Man's strength; Satan exploits Man's weakness.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: NYer


Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

8 posted on 04/07/2012 7:10:09 AM PDT by G Larry (We are NOT obliged to carry the snake in our pocket and then dismiss the bites as natural behavior.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: NYer
I am not a believer in this "re-enactment of the crucifixion" stuff.

I fact, I have voiced strong opposition to it in a few locales where I have seen it.

One two (2) occasions this required the display of personal ability to support my beliefs.
9 posted on 04/07/2012 7:13:15 AM PDT by Tainan (Cogito, ergo conservatus sum)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: LoveUSA

As co-founder of the International Shroud of Turin Association for Research (”INSTAR”), I certainly “believe it”. :)

10 posted on 04/07/2012 7:28:20 AM PDT by RightOnline (I am Andrew Breitbart!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: NYer

Jesus was struck 5480 Blows as revealed to the Patron Saint of Europe St Brigitte

11 posted on 04/07/2012 8:46:12 AM PDT by philly-d-kidder (AB-Sheen"The truth is the truth if nobody believes it,a lie is still a lie, everybody believes it")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: NYer
Meditating on Good Friday with St. Francis de Sales
Crucifixion: History, Archaeology (with photos!), and Why Jesus Died This Way
THE SEVEN WORDS FROM THE CROSS [Good Friday Must-Read by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen]
Following the Truth: No Greater Love… [Catholic and Open]
Following the Truth: Don’t Just Feel Sorry For Jesus… [Catholic and Open]
Good Friday homily of Fr Raniero Cantalamessa (at the Vatican)
Good Friday - The Reproaches - Veneration of the Cross
Crucifixion: Ancient descriptions, archaeology (with photos!), and why Jesus died this way
Crown of Thorns Galaxy - a Good Friday Reflection

Good Friday 2012
Preparing for the Good Friday Liturgy [Catholic/Orthodox Caucus]
A Fiery Sermon (Good Friday Sermon at Vatican and NYT interpretation)
Today, On Good Friday, Here's Why I Remain Catholic
The Death of Jesus, An essay by Alphonsus Liguori
Good Friday Stations of the Cross at the Englewood, NJ Abortion Mill, Friday, April 2, 2010
Good Friday
The Sacred Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. The Mystery of Faith
Catholic Word of the Day: GOOD FRIDAY, 05-29-09
Pope warns of 'a desert of godlessness' in Good Friday address

This Friday Makes the Whole World Good
Why we call it 'Good' Friday
Good Friday
What Is Not True About the Good Friday Prayer for Jews (Errors in Understanding)
(Cardinal Murphy-O'Conner) Today Is the Feast Day for Those Who Suffer
Reflection: Why This Friday is So Good
The Seven Last Words of Christ
The Holiday Hallmark Can't Handle
Good Friday Reproaches
Online Exclusive: Good Friday: A good day for faith, family and food

Prostration and Vestments on Good Friday And More on the Precious Blood
Reflections for Good Friday: The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord
Last Seven Words of Christ Are Full of "Spirit and Life"
Divine Mercy Novena Begins on Good Friday
The Drawing of Christ on the Cross [Images]"
Good Friday
The Three Crosses: The Bad Thief or the Cross Rejected
The Three Crosses: The Good Thief or the Cross Accepted

12 posted on 04/07/2012 12:22:39 PM PDT by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: RightOnline

Not finding anything on INSTAR. Only found AMSTAR and STERA. Do you have more info?

13 posted on 04/09/2012 5:36:34 AM PDT by LoveUSA (God employs Man's strength; Satan exploits Man's weakness.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson