Crucifixion was a particularly cruel method of execution used by the Romans to terrorize those over whom they ruled.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Golgotha". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. (Mark 15:20)

Pilate turned the prisoner over to his soldiers. They took the royal robe of Herod Antipas from Him (it was quite valuable) and dressed Him in His own clothes. Then they led Him out, along with two others, to be put to death.

The Torah does not prescribe crucifixion as a means of carrying out a death sentence. Crucifixion was not a Jewish mode of execution; it was itself a violation of Jewish law. The wicked Antiochus Epiphanes introduced crucifixion to the land of Israel. He crucified Jews who refused to submit to his anti-Torah edicts:

They were whipped with rods, and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified, while they were still alive, and breathed: they also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses. (Josephus, Antiquities)

Rome used crucifixion to terrorize the people they ruled. Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion, but anyone without citizenship could be crucified. The Romans punished a wide variety of crimes with crucifixion: piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery, false testimony, mutiny, sedition, rebellion, etc. The Romans also crucified soldiers who deserted and slaves who denounced their masters.

The Romans preceded crucifixion with scourging to hasten the death of the crucified. They used crosses of different shapes. A cross could be a tree or simply a post embedded in the ground. Some formed a capital T. They shaped others like the letter X, while still others formed the recognized lowercase t-shape (crux immissa), which later church tradition and iconography associated with the shape of the Master’s cross, perhaps primarily on the basis of the text, “above His head they put up the charge against Him” (Matthew 27:37).

New Testament commentator Raymond Brown collected many details about crucifixion from ancient writers in his Commentary on the Passion Narratives. The condemned man carried the crossbeam to the place of execution with the titulus, an inscription identifying his crime, hanging from his neck. Contrary to popular assumptions and religious artwork, the condemned did not carry the whole cross—just the crossbeam. According to Plutarch, “Each criminal who suffers in his body bears his own cross on his back.” Another ancient writer, Artemidorus, reported, “The person who is nailed to the cross first carries it out.”

The Romans stripped the men to be executed and crucified them naked. They raised the man tied or nailed to the crossbeam into position with forked poles and inserted the cross beam into a slot in the upright post.

Outside of Judea, the Romans did not remove the bodies immediately after death. Instead, they left the corpse on the cross as food for birds of prey until it rotted away or until they cast it before wild beasts. Pseudo-Manetho observed, “Punished with limbs outstretched … they are fastened [and] nailed to the stake in the most bitter torment, evil food for birds of prey and grim picking for dogs.”

Rome introduced this cruel and satanic method of execution in Judea as a means of punishing Zealot rebels and terrorizing the populace. They crucified their victims beside the main roads and thoroughfares so that the greatest number of people could see and be moved by fear.

Routine crucifixions had been going on for as long as three decades before the birth of the Master. The Roman governor of Syria crucified two thousand Jews in 4 bce. As a small child visiting Jerusalem at festival times, Yeshua became accustomed to seeing crucified men posted outside the city’s gates. The Romans did not take the crosses down; they just changed the bodies hanging on them. The tortured men reminded the pilgrims of their ongoing subjugation to the empire.

The crucifixion of Yeshua served as a frightening harbinger of the darkness to come. During their war against the Jewish people in the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans went on a crucifixion frenzy. Thousands of Jewish men died by crucifixion, and by the end of the siege of Jerusalem, the Romans had surrounded the city with crosses, nailing up their victims in grotesque positions:

Because of the wrath and hatred that [the soldiers] had for the Jews, they nailed those they caught to the crosses. For sport, they nailed one in one way and another after another manner. The number of crucified grew so great that they lacked room for the crosses, and crosses lacked room for the number of bodies. (Josephus, Jewish War)

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis discovered the skeletal remains of a crucified man in a Jerusalem tomb. Based on the remains, Tzaferis determined that the crucifixion nails were driven through the wrists and ankles instead of through the palms and feet as Christian artwork usually depicts.

The crucified suffered intensely. Inflammation of the wounds inflicted by scourging and nail puncture produced traumatic fever. The heat of the sun and the strained position of the body aggravated the fever and intensified the pain, producing an insufferable thirst. The wounds around the nails underwent swelling, and the lacerated tendons and nerves produced excruciating pain. A surcharge of blood pressure produced a throbbing headache. The suspended position labored breathing.

Death rarely ensued before thirty-six hours had elapsed, and in some cases, the crucified could languish for up to three days on a cross. To prolong his suffering, the Romans sometimes provided the crucified with a footrest built into the upright stake on which he could lift himself for breath. (The Russian Orthodox cross depicts a footrest.) Some crosses had a block of wood attached that the crucified could use as a seat. To hasten death, the Romans could break the legs of the crucified, rendering them unable to lift themselves to draw breath.

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