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Crucifixion: The Shame of the Cross

by Brant Pitre October 23, 2019 0 Comments



Honor and shame were very important categories in antiquity, so a second element, a more interior suffering, a more internal suffering associated with the cross was the shame of being crucified, the shame of crucifixion. In fact, Cicero, a famous Roman rhetorician, talked about the cross as “the tree of shame.” So he can actually call it “the tree of shame.” And the reason it was regarded as such was because crucifixion specifically a punishment for slaves. Seneca calls it “the extreme and ultimate penalty for a slave” and Valerius Maximus calls it “the slaves’ punishment.”

So again, I mentioned Saint Paul and his death by beheading in Rome during the persecution of Nero—the reason he received that more merciful form of execution was because he was a Roman citizen, whereas St. Peter, Bishop of Rome, was a Jew from Judea. He was an immigrant to Italy, to Rome, and so he suffered the penalty of a non-citizen of crucifixion — although he asked to be crucified upside down. Think about how that exacerbated the torture because he didn’t feel worthy of being crucified in the exact same way as his Lord.

So this death is meant to shame you. It’s meant to mock you. It’s meant to embarrass you in front of everyone, okay? And if you’ve ever been really, really embarrassed, you know the pain of embarrassment cuts deeply if it’s a serious one, yes, right? But it’s an interior suffering. So that’s what we would call an embarrassment; they would call it shame. It’s deeper than just being embarrassed. And again, we have both Roman and Jewish witnesses to this effect. So crucifixion is a form of mockery. For example, Seneca tells us in his Dialogues about the ways in which the Romans would crucify their victims. And he says this:

I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground [like St. Peter]; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet. (Seneca, Dialogue 6.20.3)

So in some cases…our Lord had the nails driven through his hands and his feet. In some cases the executioners would have fun by driving them through the privates, right, through the genitalia of the victims. I mean you can imagine not just the shame but the pain, right, of such a death. Seneca says “I see”; this is common, right? This is a horrible, horrible way to die. And you think about the modesty of antiquity too in general — not every culture has the same standards of modesty. Especially among Jewish standards, the idea of being exposed before everyone would be shameful enough, but to be executed by being impaled in those sensitive parts of the body is just horrific. I mean, it’s something that’s difficult to even imagine.

Sorry, this is kind of a drag of a class. It’s a little bit of a downer, but this is the reality of it. I want you to think about this as we move through the semester because this is going to be the great Mystery of the Cross. It’s the Christian Mystery too. What does it mean for God, not only to will from all eternity this fate for his own Divine Son, but then to draw us into it too—the martyrs and all the baptized in some way, shape or form?

Okay. Josephus, again, tells us about some crucifixions that took place in the Jewish-Roman war and he says this about Titus, who was the Roman general who captured Jerusalem. He says:

[Titus] allowed his soldiers to have their way, especially as he hoped that the gruesome sight of the countless crosses might have moved the besieged to surrender.

So the Jews are in the city of Jerusalem. They’re besieged. Titus and the Roman armies are outside. It’s 70 AD and they’re trying to get the besieged to give up the siege. And so in the order to do that, they start crucifying people. So this is what he says:

So the soldiers, out of the rage and hatred they bore the prisoners, nailed those they caught in different postures to the crosses, by way of jest… (Josephus, War 5:451)

So they would put them in funny positions, you know, humorous positions in order to let them die in that way. So they’re having fun with the bodies of these victims out of venting their rage and their cruelty on the crucified. And Titus, the general, let’s them do it, and he says, well at least I hope that it will move the Jewish people in the city to stop insisting on remaining as they are sieged.

The fourth point of crucifixion that heightened the shame of it was not simply the slavery, the identity as slave attached to it, or the mockery and cruelty that often attended it, but also the immodesty that was ordinarily part of it. It is the case, and as both Hengel and Keener and many other scholars have pointed out, that the victims are ordinarily crucified naked. This is something that we’re not really as familiar with because ordinarily we only know about Jesus of Nazareth’s crucifixion and ordinarily when we see him on the cross, we’ll see him with a loin cloth, right? That’s the general iconography.

And as you can see in the footnote there I get into…there’s some discussion amongst scholars about whether it is the case the Jesus was crucified with a loin cloth or without. The Fathers differ about this. Some of the early Church Fathers seem to suggest that Jesus was completely despoiled of his clothing. For example, Melito of Sardis, in his book On the Pascha. Others depict him as retaining the loin cloth. Which either way, it would be like being executed, for our purposes, in your underwear in front of everyone in a public place, which would be shameful in itself, right? So you have to think about not just ancient standards of modesty, but contemporary standards of modesty. To despoil someone of their clothings even down to their underwear in front of everyone would be a very, very shameful thing to undergo. Ordinarily though, it’s the case that they were completely naked. Most modern films, of course, don’t depict this aspect of crucifixion because it even offends our sensibilities, as base as those are, right?

For example, turn the page. On page 6, Dionysius of Halicarnassus who has a long book on Roman antiquities—almost as long as his name—wrote this:


A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him…

So if you've been down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, why the long walk through the city? Well, it’s a parade. It’s a crucifixion parade. We’re going to show you to everybody on your way to the tree, okay? So again, the shame element is very, very key here.

…that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god.

So they attached it to the local parade in favor of Dionysius and whatever.

The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips.

So there, we see again, the fact the he is naked in the actual carrying of the cross.

The culprit, overcome by such cruelty, not only uttered ill-omened cries, forced from him by the pain, but also made indecent movements under the blows. (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 7.69.1-2)

It’s not clear exactly what he means there but in that last time except that his…in other words, he was probably exposed in ways that would have been indecent, falling and such in front of everyone—very shameful. This isn’t just in Roman texts though. In ancient Judaism also, shame was a part of executions. So in the Mishnah, there’s a discussion in the Treatise Sanhedrin—sorry, back up. The Mishnah is an ancient Jewish collections of traditions of the rabbis from the time of Christ all the way up to the end of the second century AD. And in the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin, which is the Treatise on the Sanhedrin, the leading council of the Jews, they’re discussing the question of how executions ought to be carried out. And there’s the question of whether they would be done in the nude or not, right? And the Mishnah says this:

“When he was four cubits from the place of stoning they stripped off his clothes. A man is kept covered in front and a woman both in front and behind. So Rabbi Judah. But the Sages say: A man is stoned naked but a woman is not stoned naked.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:3)

So we see that even in Judaism, whose standards of modesty are going to be greater than, for example, the Greeks, the custom is to stone someone to death in the nude as a part of the shame. Again, St. Paul was stoned during his public ministry and suffered that fate. Although, he’s a hard man to keep down, so he just got back up and went back to the city and started preaching again. But it’s something we don’t think about. Again, in the scenes and descriptions of stonings that we usually see, this element is left out of this form of execution.

Obviously here, this is the text that makes some scholars wonder because it says that a man is kept covered in front and a woman in front and behind. It seems that the man is given some kind of undergarment or loin cloth, right, so you strip down to that and then the woman would be given some kind of undergarment as well just to conceal her. But then others say, “No, a man should be just stoned completely naked,” right? Completely naked. So there’s no real way to put into words just how shameful crucifixion was, or for that matter being stoned to death.

There’s another text I didn’t give you here that Chapman mentions about the hanging of men and women. They said the man would be hung facing outward, but for the sake of decency, they would hang the women facing the tree, so that you couldn’t see her front. So these are very brutal time. This is very, very different than what we would be used to given our sensibilities.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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