The Cross: Execution by Torture Barbaric, brutal, humiliating – and for us
The cross as a Christian symbol has been so sanitized and bathed in soporific haze that the ordinary Bible reader finds it hard to comprehend how barbaric, humiliating, and brutal this form of execution was to those who regularly witnessed it. While in antiquity its pre-eminent practitioners were of course the Romans, they were far from original in adopting the cross as a penalty, at least for political crimes. It seems to have originated with the Persians, though the Phoenicians also practised it.
The Greek historian Herodotus (4th century BC), in describing his travels in Persia, records several instances of crucifixion — even how Persian dignitaries suffered the penalty — but for them it appears not to have been so much part of their jurisprudence as the whim of the Persian monarch.
Also at that time the cross was as much for an intimidating public display of a corpse as actual execution, thus Herodotus uses the Greek term stauros for this display, while his term for a cross as an instrument of execution is skolops. After his time, however, the distinction disappeared, and stauros is the regular term in the New Testament.
When Alexander the Great subdued Tyre in 332 BC, in revenge for the long siege he crucified 2000 of the inhabitants, arranging their crosses along the seashore for maximum effect. The Phoenician settlement at Carthage had early institutionalised the practice; from them the Romans exploited the method, especially to subdue rebellion. Remember the famous example of the 6000 slaves crucified along the Appian Way after the defeat of the Spartacus rebellion in 71 BC. The movie depicted the horror of that dreadful spectacle.
Deterrence remained a prime motive for crucifixion of criminals and seditious persons: Quintilian, the Roman educational theorist (1st century AD), advocated the erection of crosses at the busiest intersections as a deterrent to crime.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, refers constantly to the excessive Roman use of crucifixion to “pacify” conquered territory, in particular Judea. In 7 AD the Roman Legate of Syria, Quintilius Varus, quelled a revolt by crucifying 2000 Jews in Jerusalem.
Rome reserved crucifixion with few exceptions for slaves, brigands, rebels and vile criminals, and perfected it as an instrument of slow death by the maximum of pain. Cicero referred to it as the slaves’ punishment: “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears!”
Because of this distinction the notion of a “crucified god” in pagan parlance was an offensive, self-contradictory affront to respectable religion. Likewise, the cross also offended Jewish sensitivities: according to Jewish law a crucified man was accursed by God (Deut. 21:23); therefore Jesus could not be Messiah. Paul before his conversion had baulked over this contradiction: only the realisation that he became a curse for us enabled him to surmount the offence which the cross constituted (Gal. 3:13).
Until 1968 scholars had to rely on classical sources for accounts of crucifixion, but then the Israeli archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis discovered the actual remains of a crucified victim from about the time of Christ in a burial chamber at Giv’at haMivtar, north-east of Jerusalem. In what is called an ossuary, a stone chest used for secondary burial (i.e. after the flesh had decayed the bones were gathered into this chest), were found the remains of a certain Jehohanan who had been nailed to a cross by his arms and ankles.
Taking the arms first, a small scratch on the radius bone just above the wrist of the right forearm revealed that the victim had been nailed to the horizontal bar or patibulum. To produce this mark the nail would have repeatedly rubbed against the radius in what would have been excruciating pain.
This aspect of the discovery helps to specify our understanding of Christ’s crucifixion wounds. You will remember how Thomas demanded to examine the wounds in His “hands” (Greek cheir), John 20:25. So much Christian art depicts the nail as piercing through the palm, but this is impossible: the nail would tear through the flesh under the body’s weight. Roman executioners knew this well: hence they drove the nails through the lower forearms, just behind the wrists. The Greek word easily accommodates this extended meaning.
The other and most interesting aspect of Jehohanan concerns the 17cm nail through his ankle bones. There are two interpretations of this. The more plausible one is that the legs were folded in an unnatural position which left the body contorted, then a single nail was driven through both ankles and into the upright of the cross.
Most likely, as in many cases, a small wooden “seat” (sedile) was also attached to the upright to provide partial support for the left buttock. This sounds like mitigation of the agony, but the Romans did this deliberately to prolong it. Furthermore, to ensure that the man would not pull himself free from the nail a small wooden plate was inserted between the nail head and the feet.
However, in this case the nail point apparently struck a knot in the olive-wood upright and bent around, hence after the man’s death the whole assemblage was pulled free, leaving the nail in place through the ankle bones.
The victim’s right tibia or shinbone had been brutally fractured by a single blow into several large and sharp slivers. This strikingly confirms the Palestinian variation on normal Roman crucifixion, attested in John 19:31-33. Because Jewish law required that a body be buried before nightfall (Deut. 21:23) they introduced the barbarous practice whereby to end the agony more quickly a soldier in the execution squad smashed the victim’s legs with an iron bar. With his means of support gone the hapless victim quickly expired from asphyxiation. Poor Jehohanan obviously suffered this fate to accelerate his death and enable a same-day burial.
An alternative view proposes that the legs were spread apart, and a nail driven through each ankle into the respective sides of the upright. While this remains a tenable interpretation of the available evidence, the above explanation is preferable. The discovery indeed casts light on this ancient practice, but several questions remain unanswered.
From classical sources we know the basic procedure of crucifixion from trial to death. Outside Italy, a court which imposed the death penalty could only carry it out with the consent of the procurator, who in our Lord’s case was Pilate. While governors were expected to decide with strict justice, as often as not they bowed to popular pressure, as also in the case of Christ.
Once convicted, the victim was tied to a post and flogged savagely, though not quite fatally, with the flagellum, similar to the old cat-o’-nine-tails of the convict era but with bone fragments inserted. After this the execution squad placed the heavy crossbar (patibulum) over the back of the condemned man’s neck and to it they bound his arms.
Then began the procession to the execution site. In front a soldier carried the inscription or titulus, indicating the name of the condemned and his crime. For Christ the two floggings, one to placate the Jews (John 19:1), the other the normal and harsher pre-execution flogging (Mark 15:15), were altogether too much, causing him to collapse under the burden. Thereafter a passer-by, Simon, carried the patibulum.
Once at the designated site, the victim was usually thrown to the ground, his outstretched arms then spiked by the wrists to the crossbar with large nails about 17cm long (sometimes they were bound). Then he was hoisted up to the already erected vertical post, while his feet were either bound, or spiked with another nail to the upright.
The executioners then attached the title to the cross above his head. Often they added the wooden mini-seat or sedile, usually pointed, to add to the pain and lengthen the death struggle. Ancient writers record many instances of victims staying alive on crosses for two to three days. Josephus records how he personally intervened for three acquaintances crucified along with other Jews. Titus had them taken down: two subsequently died while the other recovered.
For crucified victims the causes of death were manifold. The nails would either damage or sever the median nerves, which produced searing pain, especially when the victim flexed his arms in an effort to breathe. In addition, mortification of the wounds would make them gangrenous as blood progressively failed to reach the extremities and septicaemic toxins proliferated.
Shallow breathing was, however, the major factor: the weight of the body on the outstretched arms made it increasingly difficult to exhale. In the end he would die of muscular spasms and asphyxia as breathing became ever more difficult. In addition, failure of blood and fluid flow would result in severe loss of blood pressure (hypovolemic shock).
Towards the end a combination of exhaustion, delirium, and weakened breathing functions would intensify. Only two factors helped to mitigate this torture: the pre-execution scourging would hasten death somewhat, while in Judea a ladies’ aid agency gave the victim a drugging potion mixed from cheap wine and myrrh, a known narcotic. When this was offered to our Lord he refused it (Mark 15:23). When we observe therefore the revolting cruelties he suffered in our place, we can appreciate in greater depth how he “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24).
The reference to “blood and water” in John 19:34 has fascinated many through the years, and has also provoked theories of the immediate cause of our Lord’s death. One popular theory proposes that the blood came from a ruptured heart, and the spear thrust into the chest cavity then released the blood mixed with the watery fluid of the pericardial sac around the heart. Hence Christ died literally of a broken heart.
Despite the edifying appeal of this theory we must make several important qualifications. First, not all Christian medical authorities are convinced, and have offered counter-explanations.
Second, whatever view we adopt here, we must insist that Christ gave his life voluntarily (John 10:18; Luke 23:46) — the physical agonies did not overwhelm him. Third, the spear thrust was not to “finish him off”, but to ascertain whether he was really dead. It was by being “lifted up” on the cross that he was to die (John 12:33), not by a thrust from a lance.
For all this, we can nevertheless give qualified approval to the “broken heart” theory. As Dr. Stuart Bergsma in an article in 1948 pointed out, anything less than a ruptured heart would result in a minor flow of blood, a hardly noticeable trickle. However, a significant flow of blood was important for John’s purpose, to refute the then current view that Jesus was a mere phantom who only seemed to have a body.
More recently, three authors in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1986) have given qualified support to this conclusion, even if it is not their preferred one. They write: “Rupture of the left ventricular wall may occur, though uncommonly, in the first few hours after infarction.”
While we do not know from which side the spear thrust came (often assumed to have been the right), ultimately it does not matter: blood and serum would have filled the chest cavity which then flowed out through the wound.
Apart from this theory, we must also stress that Jesus actually died. The Roman executioners knew well their macabre business, and by law they could not release a body until they were quite sure that he was in fact dead (cf. Mark 15:44-5). To ensure this they made the customary spear thrust. Regrettably, variations of the hoary old swoon theory (“he didn’t really die but swooned and later revived”) not only persist, but also flourish, so this point needs to be insisted.
While a discussion of crucifixion should and probably does fill us with horror, and contemplation of the tortures our Lord’s endured should provoke a deep sense both of our sinfulness and the love of God, yet we should remember that the New Testament does not dwell on those physical sufferings. That the cross was for him the “death of deaths”, that he endured the wrath of God, divine abandonment and curse, being “made sin” and the like, is the all-important dimension.
The theology of the cross is the focus, since he suffered all this for our sins. From this perspective the crucifix sends entirely the wrong message: it would have us focus on and sentimentalize over Christ’s physical agonies when that focus should be elsewhere; also it proclaims ultimately that “Jesus is dead”, whereas he is gloriously alive. Let us therefore meditate on the cross as the New Testament presents it.