Friday, March 29, 2013


Early Christian artists refrained from drawing scenes of Christ’s crucifixion until the early sixth centuries AD (about 200 years after crucifixion was legally abolished by the emperor Constantine). And while the literary sources indicate that tens of thousands of people were crucified in the Roman Empire, it was not until 1968 that a single victim of this horrifying method of execution had been discovered archaeologically. This discovery in some Jewish tombs in Jerusalem has significantly advanced our understanding of crucifixion and gives us a fuller appreciation of the suffering of our Lord.


Many people assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium BC.

Crucifixion later became popular among the Greeks. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, crucifixion was employed by the Seleucids (who governed Syria) and the Ptolemies (who governed Egypt).

The traditional method of execution among Jews was stoning (cf. Deut. 21:22-23). Yet certain Jewish tyrants occasionally used crucifixion during the Hasmonean period. According to Josephus, Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews on a single day.

The Romans adopted crucifixion as the official punishment for non-Romans. Initially, it was a method of punishing slaves. Since its main purpose was to punish, humiliate and frighten disobedient slaves, the victims were usually removed from the cross before death occurred.

Later crucifixion was used by the Romans to execute rebels. During the revolt of Spartacus in 71 BC. the Roman army lined the road from Capua to Rome with 6,000 crucified rebels on 6,000 crosses. During Titus’s siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, Roman troops crucified as many as 500 Jews a day for several months.


Outside of Italy, only the Roman procurators possessed the authority to impose the death penalty. Thus when a local provincial court prescribed the death penalty, the sentence of the Roman procurator had to be obtained in order to carry out the sentence.


During peacetime, crucifixions were carried out according to certain rules by special persons authorized by the Roman courts. They were to take place at specific locations, usually outside the city walls (i.e. Golgotha).

Once a defendant was found guilty and condemned to be crucified, the execution was supervised by a Roman official known as the Carnifix Serarum.

1.      Taken 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 thick thongs were attached. On the ends of the leather thongs were lead or bone tips. The number of strokes imposed was not fixed, but care was taken not to kill the victim.

2.      Following the beating, the horizontal crossbeam of the cross was placed upon the condemned man’s shoulders. This he carried to the execution site, usually outside the city walls.

3.      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 attached to the victim’s cross.

4.      When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground. The victim was then placed on the cross either by ropes or with nails.

5.      If ropes were used, the victim, who was already bound to the crossbeam, would simply be hoisted to the vertical beam and his feet would be bound with a few lashes of rope. If nails were used, the victim would be laid on the ground with his shoulders on the crossbeam. His arms were held out nailed to the cross. The victim’s feet were then nailed down against the vertical stake.


Without any body support, the victim would die from muscular spasms and asphyxiation in a period of two to three hours. In order to prolong the agony, the Romans devised two instruments which would extend the ordeal of the victim.

1.      A small seat (sedile) was attached to the front of the cross. This device provided support for the victim’s body and explains the phrase used by the Romans, “to sit on the cross.” To increase the victim’s suffering, the seat was pointed, thus inflicting great pain as body weight rested upon it.

2.      A second device was a foot support (suppedaneum). With the use of this support, victims could be kept alive on the cross for several days. Josephus refers to three crucified Jews who survived on crosses for three days.

3.      Normally the Romans left the crucified person undisturbed to die slowly of physical exhaustion, thirst, and asphyxiation. However, Jewish law required burial on the day of execution (Deut. 21:22-23). Therefore, in Palestine the executioner would break the legs of the crucified person in order to hasten his death and thus permit burial before nightfall. This practiced is mentioned in the Gospels (John 19:33).


1.   Edwards, William D., etc., “On the Physical Death of Jesus,” Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21, 1986): 1455-1463.
2.   Fitzmyer, Joseph A. “Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament” in To Advance the Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1981): 125-146.
3.  Vassilios Tzaferis, “Crucifixion: The Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeoloqy Review (January-February, 1095): 44-53.
GALATIANS 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree."

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