|Crime and punishment in ancient times
was a form of capital punishment, but it was much more. It was a means of slow torture and
public display, intended to shame and degrade the criminal and to deter others. Because of
these added elements, its use throughout the Roman Empire was limited to slaves and
non-Roman lower classes.
procedures of a typical Roman crucifixion were certainly well known in ancient times, but
there was considerable room for variation in practice. The condemned was scourged and
usually forced to carry the cross-beam of his cross to the place where the upright part
was fixed in the ground. He was stripped to his undergarments and nailed to the cross-beam
with a four-or five-inch spike through the wrists. The cross-beam was hoisted up and
attached to the top of the gibbet, usually forming a "T" shape. The weight of
the body usually rested on a short crosspiece beneath the buttocks. This support helped
prolong the torture, so that the condemned would not die quickly. The feet were nailed to
the cross by a spike that was driven through both feet together. If the executioners
wished to hasten death, the victims legs could be broken, so that the body would
slump down and constrict breathing.
The reality of
this procedure has become particularly vivid through the recent discovery of a tomb near
Jerusalem. Dating from the first century of our era, the tomb contained a partial skeleton
of a man crucified perhaps during the census revolt of A.D. 6. The remains include
the heel bones, still fastened together by a spike more than four inches long, and the
lower leg bones, which showed that both legs had been broken.
Without such a
coup de grace to speed death, a victim might remain alive on a cross for several days
until he died of starvation, exposure, or the effects of his wounds. Often the corpse
would be left on public display until it became, as one ancient author wrote, "food
for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs." The grotesque realities of crucifixion
were seldom spelled out in literature, but they provided a grisly show for the public in
practically any city, and Jerusalem had seen its share.
The Torah did
not specify crucifixion as a means of capital punishment, but it did allow for the corpse
of a criminal, executed by stoning perhaps, to be hanged publicly for one day. The body
had to buried by nightfall, however, because its continued exposure would defile the land,
"for a hanged man is accursed by God" (Deuteronomy 21:23). This divine curse
applied fully to crucified criminals and made the cross a particularly hateful form of
execution among the Jews.
The Crucifixion of Jesus
into thy hands I commit my spirit!"
Proclamation first began, it quickly became clear that the fact of Jesus crucifixion
was a major problem. "We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly
to Gentiles," wrote Paul, a Jewish Christian and an apostle to the Gentiles. A
paradox of the Christian message is that what was most offensive became most central, as
Paul went on to say, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him
crucified" (1 Cor1:23; 2:2). Christian proclamation had to come to terms with the
hard fact that Jesus was executed as a criminal by the Roman governor of Judea using the
extremely harsh form of execution, crucifixion.
certainly never any expectation that Gods Messiah would suffer such absolute
degradation. There were traditions concerning the suffering of the righteous, but such
suffering was what the Messiah would relieve, not what he would experience. Clearly the
task of early Christians as they tried to make sense of a crucified Messiah was quite
formidable. There was no need to emphasize the gruesome character of crucifixion, that was
well known. But there was a need to illuminate the mystery of how such degradation could
be the revelation of God.
Each of the
four Gospels wrestled with this mystery, interpreting it in two ways. First, they gave
emphasis to those details of the story that seem to fulfill patterns or prophecies of
Scripture. Especially important here was Psalm 22, a psalm of lament to which all four
Gospels refer. Second, they cited the words of Jesus from the cross.
crucifixion narratives of Mark and Matthew are especially dark. Step by step, they show
Jesus isolated and ridiculed. After he was condemned, the Roman soldiers scourged Jesus
and mocked him as "King of the Jews." The scourging evidently so weakened him
that he could not carry the beam of his cross; the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to pick
with two other condemned men, was taken outside Jerusalem to the execution ground called
Golgotha, meaning skull. Matthew and Mark say nothing about the crucifixion
procedure of nailing Jesus to the cross, nor about the physical suffering, but mention
seemingly lesser details: giving Jesus wine mixed with gall (hemlock) or myrrh; the
executioners casting lots for his clothes. Such details are signposts alluding to
Scriptures and thus suggest that the crucifixion is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
For example, Psalm 22:7 says, "All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me,
they wag their heads"; so also, Matthew notes that "those who passed by derided
him, wagging their heads." Moreover, when the chief priests mocked Him by saying,
"He trusts in God; let God deliver him now," they echo, Psalm 22:8. Even the
bandits crucified with him reviled him. His disciples abandoned him; Jesus was alone.
however, is but preparation for the most somber mystery of the story. Matthew and Mark
tell how at midday darkness covered the land for three hours. Then in the darkness Jesus
cried aloud in the only words from the cross that Matthew and Mark record, "
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which means, My God, my God, why hast thou
forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). Abandoned by disciples, enemies, and onlookers, and
now, in his word, "forsaken" by God, Jesus descended into the darkest experience
that a human being can know.
anguished cry also echoes the first words of Psalm 22, again showing the role that this
psalm plays in the narrative. The Gospel writers did not try to tone down the anguish or
explain the meaning of Jesus cry. Instead they chose to show the consequences. First
there was confusion as those around the cross completely misunderstood Jesus words.
The second was the declaration by the centurion who was executing Jesus. This unknown
person became, especially in Mark, a focus of the whole Gospel. It was he who saw how
Jesus died and was the first to exclaim, "Truly this man was the Son of God."
The focus of
Lukes narrative was not on Jesus anguish, but rather, his serenity and
confidence. Luke knows that Jesus understood dearly the divine mystery that was occurring.
Just after he was placed on the cross, Jesus prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they
know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). The executioners acted in ignorance; only Jesus
grasped what was happening. A little later, when one of the criminals defended Jesus
against the reviling, Jesus promised him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be
with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42). Luke was showing that even on the cross, Jesus had
full competence to forgive sin and grant eternal blessedness.
Death held no
threat at all to him. As in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the final words of Jesus are
a quotation of Scripture, this time Psalm 31:5; "Father, into thy hands I commit my
spirit!" (Luke 23:46). Here Luke lets us see the serenity that comes from
understanding Gods will and living it to the last moment.
The Gospel of
John notes how quickly Jesus died. Like the Passover lamb, his bones were not broken, but
his side was pierced after death, and blood and water came forth. John also records three
distinctive sayings of Jesus from the cross, each of which emphasizes his control of
events. In extremis, his love and concern for his mother moved him to care for her future
by appointing the "disciple whom he loved" to act as her son (John 19:26). The
last two sayings come in quick succession. John shows Jesus desire to fulfill the
Scriptures, and thus he says "I thirst." The reference is probably in Psalm
69:21, "For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Though all the power of
Rome is striving to kill him, Jesus is largely unaffected. It is only when that last deed
is completed that the moment arrives to utter the words toward which his whole life has
been moving; "It is finished." Then Jesus "bowed his head and gave up his
spirit" (John 19:30).
gospel has its own voice and contribution. Together they reveal how for the early
Christians a grotesque and brutal act of torture and execution became the mystery of
Gods love revealed in the world.