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Crucifixion: The Cruelty of the Cross

by Brant Pitre October 10, 2019 0 Comments



Most Christians today are familiar with the crucifixion. Even non-Christians have heard of crucifixion or the cross, simply by way of reference to Jesus of Nazareth. It’s widely known that this is the manner in which Jesus was executed and it’s also widely known that this was a terribly painful and cruel way to die. And in particular, in our context, this has been made ever more apparent by the recent film—I guess it’s not so recent now—Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Even non-Christians, non-Catholics went and saw that film and got kind of a window into the brutality of ancient Roman crucifixion.

However, on the other hand, some of us can be a little too familiar with crucifixion. And on a certain level, we tend to not see the horror of the cross because in the Christian tradition we consider the cross to be beautiful, right? And it is beautiful. But the question is how do you get from the horror of a method of execution to regarding the crucifix as something beautiful? How do we get from A to Z? What’s the link that moves us from one point to another?

So we want to try to be sure that we’re not too familiar with crucifixion and that we can help ourselves see it the way it would have been seen in the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived — the shock and the horror with which crucifixion was regarded — as well as in the Jewish world, which had the same connotations but even more theological implications for the way they regarded this particular mode of execution. So I want to try to help us see the cross through ancient Jewish eyes by looking at, again, its history—in other words, what would Jesus’s death on the Cross have meant to his disciples in that context—as well as the mystery, the theology. How could Jesus have described hiss death as nuptial and what does that mean for our understanding?

So today what I’ll do in this first session is just take you through some basic data about the cross. I’m drawing here on Hengel’s book, of course, but also on another book that I just got this summer, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion by David Chapman. This was a dissertation that was done and published by Baker Academic in the United States, and this is everything you ever wanted to know about crucifixion in the ancient world. It’s even far more exhaustive than Hengel and it’s very well done.

The first point, crucifixion was, as you might expect, a very cruel form of execution, and this was known even among the ancients. It was widely regarded, number 1, by Jews and Gentiles as the most horrible way to die, okay? For example, Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, described crucifixion as “the most wretched of deaths,” and then again, Paulus, a Roman Jurist, called it the “most severe punishment”. So this was common parlance, that crucifixion was the worst way to die.

Why was it regarded as such? Well, because of the brutality that attended the way the execution was carried out in the ancient world. For example, it was ordinarily the case before you were crucified that you would be scourged. It’s not unique to Jesus Christ that he experienced scourging before his crucifixion and the scourging was an extremely brutal, preliminary form of torture to the actual crucifixion itself. In the ancient world, as Josephus tells us, the way they would scourge a person before being crucified was with leather whips or thongs that were fitted with spikes or pieces of iron and bone.

So it wasn’t just like a whipping. It was a whipping that was designed to lacerate the body as much as possible before bringing the person to the cross. In fact, Josephus talks about one man being flogged “until his bones were laid bare”, and another example speaks of people being scourged until their "entrails were visible”. So the whips would wrap around the stomach and rip it open so that the entrails would be either visible or begin to fall out. So this was a very, very brutal form of preliminary torture that was the ordinary method before a person would be crucified.

And Hengel points this out in his book. He goes against some scholars because sometimes in the last 30 years or whatever, for whatever reason, some scholars have described crucifixion as a bloodless form of death, right, that it’s death by suffocation. And that is true insofar as it goes with regard to the suffocation in the way of the body, but it’s not a bloodless form of execution because it was ordinarily proceeded by a scourging, and the scourgings were meant to make you bleed almost to death. And in some cases, men didn’t even make it to the cross because they died under the scourging.

This is one of the reasons why Jesus died so quickly on the cross, right? And there’s debate about exactly how many hours he’s on the cross, whether it’s three or six—we won’t go through all that. But even if it’s six, that’s not a long time to be hanging up there before he expires, right? You’ll notice, the other two thieves, it takes…they have to go and smash their legs with mallets to be actually put them out of their misery, so that they’ll die more quickly. So the flogging, as Hengel points out, was a stereotype part of the punishment that would make the blood flow in streams. I mean, if you have ever had a bad cut on the forehead, right? There are certain parts of the body that just bleed profusely and scourging would open them all up, and it was a horrible preliminary.

Second point, another aspect of the torture was the carrying of the cross. The condemned…those condemned with crucifixion ordinarily are forced, after being scourged, to carry the cross beam to the execution site. So even though in traditional Christian iconography, we’ll have Jesus carrying the whole cross, it’s likely—although we can’t prove it—that he’s only carrying the cross beam itself and they would carry those out to the site and then those would be anchored onto posts that were already situated in the ground.

They were often whipped along the way just to keep the torture up. They were ordinarily whipped along the way. And then the execution site to which the condemned would be brought are always as public and as visible as possible. Quintilian, another Roman writer, says:

Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear” (Declamations 274)

So what Quintilian is pointing out here is that crucifixion had as a motive, in the Roman world, not simply the death of the condemned, but also deterrent, right? It was an execution as a deterrent to others so it would be put in a very public, very visible place, and you can imagine the effect that’s going to have on passersby, right, who see this and the government’s telling you, “Don’t go against us. This will happen to you.”

Once the victim is brought to the cross, crucifixion itself, in technical terminology, is accomplished by what Chapman and others have referred to as "suspension". The suspension of the human body in some manner or other upon a post or a tree. In Greek the word is stauroō. So stauros is the word for cross in Greek and then in Latin it comes over to us as crux.  When we talk about the crux of a problem, right? It’s the cross.

The reason crucifixion was designed or was viewed as the most horrible way to die is because it’s a method of execution that is designed to make the victim suffer as long as possible. It’s specifically designed to be torturous, contrasted for example with the famous French guillotine, right? It’s quick, it’s clean and you're dead, right? Or even ancient Roman beheadings, as long as you have a strong enough swordsman, right — you hope you do, you don’t want them to have difficulty in beheading the person—it’s a clean cut and you're dead. St. Paul was beheaded because he was Roman citizen. But this form of execution, crucifixion, is designed to torture you, to make you suffer as long as possible. And Seneca, another famous Latin writer, in one of his Epistles, had this to say—so this is a Roman perspective:

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…

The accursed tree as—this is a Roman speaking so the image of a tree which sometimes confuses Christians is simply a synonym for a cross, right? He was hung on a tree. He was hung on the wood of the tree. The accursed tree is how the Romans referred to the cross.

…long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest [Where would that be from? The Scourging, right, and from the carrying.], and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying before mounting the cross. (Seneca, Epistle 101 to Lucilius)

So what Seneca is saying here is, “Give me any other form of execution over crucifixion.” I mean, who would ever choose this method of death? Because it was so torturous, it’s so brutal and it’s just dying slowly. That’s the cruelty, the physical cruelty of the cross.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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