The cross and crucifixion of Jesus are at the core of Christianity.
There is a great deal of background information on crucifixion. Unfortunately, some of it is not in line with sources of antiquity.
Where was it done and how do we know about it?
Many Bible readers would like to know how crucifixion was done in antiquity. The crucifixion accounts in the Gospels are the most detailed reports that we know of. Authors in antiquity did not want to describe the repulsive and ugly event. Nevertheless, there are so many references to it that we are treading on firm ground here.
Crucifixion is known from sources around the Mediterranean world. The earliest sources point to Persia, but this effective method of execution spread everywhere. Every nation must have had its traditional punishment for the worst major criminals, and these methods were influenced by crucifixion. So, people were crucified all around the Mediterranean world – even though the methods varied greatly and the word ‘cross’, as we understand it, is not necessarily the right word to describe all of them. Anyway, the Romans used the word ‘crux’ to describe them all.
Who were crucified?
Those crucified were usually major criminals, freedom fighters i.e. terrorists, and slaves. It is a common belief that free Roman citizens were not crucified, but it did happen sometimes. For the Romans, everyone rebelling against their authority was a criminal and a murderer, and they were not spared. The Roman agriculture was based on slavery, and a large farm could have thousands of slaves. There was a constant fear of a slave rebellion, and extreme punishments were used to thwart them. The aim of all crucifixions was to scare others from trying the same as the one crucified, i.e. some exceptionally gross crime, rebellion, or fleeing, if the crucified person was a slave. Someone hanging on the cross was a sight that was meant to make young rascals think twice before attacking a caravan next time. Crucifixion was known, at the least, wherever there were Romans, because it was a common punishment for slaves. In Palestine, 800 pharisees were nailed on the cross, so the practise was known there too.
Some books tell us in detail how crucifixion took place. A closer inspection shows that their information is on a very weak foundation. All sources of antiquity show that crucifixion could happen in many ways. The crosses were of various shapes, a person was nailed head up or down, and the victims could be subjected to who knows what sadistic tortures, be it fire or mauling by some beasts. However, with the Romans doing it, there were nearly always a couple of recurring elements. The Romans considered that whipping and death penalty went together. For this reason, those who were to be crucified were also whipped, and what resulted was probably a horrendous sight. On the other hand, bleeding also shortened the suffering. Ultimately, the Romans wanted to present a scary sight.
Part of the Roman practise was that the criminal had to carry the cross from the place of judgment to the place of execution. The cross – i.e. the crossbar – was tied on the victim’s shoulders, and the executioner forced them to walk to the destination. In Rome, there was a place of execution for the slaves, and the walk through the city was part of the punishment.
In other respects, the details vary in the accounts. A person could be tied or nailed to the cross, the shape of the cross varied – and even dead people could be nailed to the cross. After all, the aim was to give a warning, the key part of which was the desecration of corpse.
What was the cause of their death?
What caused death in a crucifixion? As people were crucified in different ways, so also the cause of death varied. Stopping of the heart, bleeding, pain shock – all these were potential causes. It is often claimed that the crucified person stayed alive for many days on the cross. I know of no such case from antiquity, and none of the doctors I interviewed thought it possible. The pain shock is immense and leads to fatal consequences. The decreased volume of blood is unable to remove carbon dioxide from the body. First aid would include blood transfusion and plenty of fluids – the crucified person was extremely thirsty. Death could be hastened by breaking the legs of those crucified. It caused inner bleeding which decreased the volume of blood even more and made their condition collapse rapidly.
Jesus and the cross
In the crucifixion of Jesus, appalling events follow one after the other. After mental torture and whipping, he was forced to bear the crossbar of his cross to Golgotha. It is not likely that the Romans let him give up very easily, but human beings have a limit after which no threats or beatings will make them get up and carry on any longer. Our Lord was pushed over this limit. They made Simon of Cyrene carry the only burden our Lord could not carry to Golgotha.
Myrrh, which was offered to Jesus, is resin from a small thorny tree. Mixed in wine, resin gives a bitter taste in the mouth. Several researchers think that myrrh wine was used as a painkiller, but that is hardly the case. A person who was crucified suffered from burning thirst. Myrrh wine was more bitter than turpentine, and therefore they had it for those being tortured.
Death was merciful to Jesus faster than to the two victims crucified next to him. Their legs were broken. After a few moments, the struggles of all three were over. The Romans did not bury the bodies after crucifixion but left them for the scavengers to eat. Jews, on the other hand, were careful to keep the statute in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 21:22-23): those who were put to death by hanging on a tree must be buried the same day before sundown so that they, cursed by God, would not defile the Holy Land. So, also Christ was taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb before sunset. At that point, none of his own understood that on the third day, everything would change by God’s unfathomable power, and redemption for the whole world was completed to be taken to the ends of the earth.
Core of the Faith
After the resurrection of Jesus, the good news of atonement for sins was spread everywhere. Many listeners considered talk about Son of God hung on a cross absurd. Anyone who even once had witnessed this scene knew what it was all about. Crucifixion was not a conventional matter and did not inspire religious feelings. On the contrary, listeners were offended by this talk about Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Even early on, some Christians tried to be silent about Jesus’ disagreeable death. It was hard to talk about the Lord, who had been “lifted up” to be scorned and despised (John 3:14-15). There were some who even said that Jesus only seemed to suffer and, in fact, was not in his body. It was necessary to tackle this belief even in the Epistles of John.
Contrary to these reactions, it was specifically Jesus’ death on the cross that the disciples saw as the essence of the faith. Jesus was obedient to the loving will of God to the end. It is precisely the offence, the scandal, that is the core. The above-mentioned passage in Deuteronomy says that anyone put to death by execution is cursed by God and people:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance."
It is this that Paul talks about. On the cross, Christ was forsaken and cursed by God: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal.3:13-14)
This is how he took upon himself the punishment for our sins. We may change places with Jesus this way:
He bore the wrath of God that we deserved.
We received God’s love that Jesus deserved:
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now isthe day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 5:19 – 6:2)