Crucifixion is a form of slow and painful execution. The victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead. Crucifixion was used by many ancient peoples; but the Romans used it extensively, as a form of punishment and terrorism, from the 6th century BCE until the 4th century CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine I abolished crucifixion in 337 CE out of respect for the “crucified Jesus.”
There is a general consensus among biblical scholars and historians of antiquity that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed crucified by the Romans around the year 30 CE. It happened under Pontius Pilate when he was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea between the years 26 and 36 CE. What role did Jewish religious authorities play in this? Certainly, as a conquered people, Jews did not have the power to execute. Jesus’ crucifixion was clearly a Roman act, done in the Roman way. The Romans therefore, not the Jews, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is also a general consensus that many of the crucifixion details in the Gospels are imaginative religious imagery and embellishment. I touched on this briefly last week.
Depending on time and place, Roman Crucifixion methods varied considerably. It was always a gruesome, terribly painful, and humiliating event. Quite often the condemned person’s arms were tied and/or nailed to a beam, which the condemned person then carried to the place of execution. Once there the person was stripped of all clothing and the beam (crossbeam) was fastened to a post already in the ground. This is probably what happened to Jesus: he carried the crossbeam.
A crucifixion was an extremely torturous execution. The Roman philosopher and writer, Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE – 65 CE), tells us that Roman executioners got a kick out of ramming a stick upwards through the victim’s groin. Quite often the legs of the crucified were shattered with an iron club, an act designed to frighten onlookers and hasten the death of the victim.
New Testament writings about Jesus’ crucifixion do not specifically mention the shape of his cross, but writings from about the year 100 CE describe it as shaped like the letter T.
A cruel prelude to crucifixion was scourging, which led to severe blood loss and put the victim in a state of shock. The convicted then had to carry the horizontal beam (after scourging one would not have been strong enough to carry an entire cross) to the place of execution. Once there, a specialized crucifixion team stripped the person naked, made insulting and derogatory remarks about the condemned, and then finished the job. Roman soldiers had perfected the technique down to the last details.
Jesus’ crucifixion is described in all four canonical gospels, referred to in writings by Paul the Apostle, attested to by other ancient sources, and is firmly established as an historical event confirmed by non-Christian sources.
There are several details that are only found in one of the Gospel accounts. Only the Gospel According to Matthew mentions an earthquake, resurrected saints who then go into town, and Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb. Only Mark gives a time for the crucifixion (the third hour, or 9 am) and a centurion’s report about Jesus’ death. The Gospel According to Luke gives Jesus’ words to the women who were mourning and one criminal rebuking the other. The Gospel According to John (written about seventy years after the event, when most eyewitnesses would have been already dead) is the only account mentioning a request that Jesus’ legs be broken, a soldier piercing Jesus’ side (echoing a Hebrew Scriptures prophecy), and Nicodemus assisting Joseph with the burial.
How many of the biblical details describing Jesus’ crucifixion were actual historic events? Perhaps fewer than many people think. As I wrote last week, the Gospels were written to promote faith and to interpret the deepest meaning of the Jesus experience.
Let’s begin with events as narrated in the Gospel According to Mark, which gave us the first account of the crucifixion that we possess. Mark says it was the Passover that brought Jesus to Jerusalem. A week prior to his crucifixion, Mark says Jesus rode into Jerusalem in what we today call “the Palm Sunday Procession.” The crowds waved “leafy branches” and shouted words from the 118th psalm, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is the one that comes in the name of the Lord.”
A week before Passover in the Middle East would have put the “leafy branches” procession in either March or April. However, in that part of the world, there are no leafy branches that time of the year. Perhaps we see here a bit of early Christian religious symbolism?
In the Jewish liturgical year, Sukkoth, the autumn harvest festival, does indeed have some leafy branch activities. Early Christian evangelists borrowed and moved these from the autumn to spring. During Sukkoth a procession through the streets and to the Temple was a major part of the celebration. The worshipers carried in their right hands a bunch of leafy branches made up of myrtle, willow, and palm which they waved while marching. They also shouted the words of the 118th Psalm. This was, however, during an autumn harvest festival. The gospel writers clearly moved the symbols from Sukkoth in the fall to the spring season of Passover.
Trying to convey the impact of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, the Gospels use powerful and dramatic imagery: darkness over the land, the earth shakes, rocks are split, tombs are opened, the dead are raised and walk into town; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
And what is the meaning of all of this?
What does Jesus’ crucifixion and death say to us today? All week I have been thinking about that tortured fellow on his lonely way to execution. It changes our entire perspective on human life. What courage. What commitment. What faith and love. What a frightening and awful way to die. Yet his death becomes our hope and encouragement. Powerful indeed. He gives us the courage to continue on our journey.
As my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, writes at the end of his Journey of the Magi:
“I should be glad of another death.”