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The Crucifixion

By Darrell A. McCulley mcculley@lightspeed.net

Darrell McCulley is a ordination student with the theologically conservative Lutheran Synod of Missouri and has a special interest in apologetics.


Crucifixion was considered by the ancient world, especially the Romans, to be one of the greatest sources of physical suffering a human being could endure. It was reserved for provincials, non-citizens, and the most heinous of traitors. It is to be noted that it was considered such an indignity that no Roman citizen, however hated, was to be crucified. When the Emperor Vitellius was deposed in 69 AD after a reign of only a few months, he was slapped and beaten by the crowd, publicly humiliated, ridiculed, and a hook was passed through his neck and his body thrown off the Tarpeian Rock into the Tiber--but even he was not crucified; that punishment was considered too extreme. When Nero was deposed by the Senate, the pronounced sentence (prevented by his timely suicide) was to be beaten with rods and thrown into the river. Not even the hated Nero would have been nailed to a cross. Paul of Tarsus, as a Roman citizen, was beheaded, which was considered a "kinder, gentler", even merciful mode of execution. The idea was that beheading at least permitted the person to retain a little dignity and honor, so important in the Roman world. The only methods of execution permitted by Jewish law were strangulation, stoning, beheading, and burning.

Crucifixion was adopted by the Romans from the Phoenicians, and when done publicly was a most effective deterrent as well as punishment. The criminal first was flogged with a Roman flagrum, a short leather whip consisting of a handle at the end of which were two or three leather scourges. It had either jagged pieces of bone or metal, or dumbbell-shaped pellets of lead, sewn or bound onto the ends of the leather scourge. The pellets would have had the effect of pelting the victim repeatedly with the ancient equivalent of lead musket balls, pulverizing but not puncturing the skin. The skin would break down fairly quickly, becoming quite degraded. The person would bleed, but the main punishment would come from blunt trauma.

On the other hand, if the jagged pieces were sewn into the scourge, they would upon impact flick out tiny chunks of flesh and there would be profuse bleeding. The destruction of the integrity of the flesh and loss of blood by both types of flagrum was such that forty lashes was considered to be tantamount to a death sentence, so when a Roman magistrate wished to cause the victim suffering, but not the full horror of crucifixion, the criminal might be sentenced to thirty-nine lashes before crucifixion. This would usually result in death, thus sparing them the lingering pain and suffering of a cross. Roman crosses came in three types: The St. Andrew's Cross (crux decussata), which is shaped like an "X"; The crux commissa, also called St. Anthony's Tau, in which a crossbar is affixed to the top of a stake, forming a "T" shape; and the familiar crux immissa, forming the well-known shape that is traditionally associated with the death of Jesus. It was undoubtedly this type of cross used during that day on Golgotha, as the Gospels record that a record of Jesus' "crimes" was affixed to the top above His head. This would only be possible with the crux immissa.

Greek crucifixions would use a variation of the crux immissa in which the crossbeam (patibulum) was of equal length to the upright beam (crux simplex). Usually a peg (sedile), or occasionally a seat, was provided for the offender to straddle. It would be large enough to bear his weight.The above mentioned record of crimes, called the titulus, was put on a white painted piece of wood and the centurion led the procession, carrying the titulus, to the place of death. In Jesus' case there was an additional painful indignity: the Crown of Thorns. It was probably in the form of either a circlet or cap. There were two Greek words usually translated by the English "crown."

Though the distinction between the two was often blurred and sometimes the two were used interchangeably, in general the diadem (diadema) was the royal crown which is inherited and indicated a person of high rank. The stefanos, from where we get the name Stephen, was the crown awarded for athletic or other achievement. It was this latter crown made for the Lord during His ordeal, possibly indicating that He was not to be permitted the symbolic royal rank which the Romans thought He thought He deserved. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 dictates what to do if a man is found murdered and the killer is not known. The elders of the nearest town were to kill a heifer and wash their hands over the sacrifice, declaring their innocence of the crime. Pontius Pilatus, a learned man who had the intellect to prepare for a magisterial post by familiarizing himself with local law & tradition, might well have been conscientious enough to acquaint himself with this commandment of the Lord. He even paraphrases David in II Samuel 3:28 (Septuagint) and declares himself innocent of the blood of Christ.

So the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ probably went something like this: After Pilate pronounced the death sentence, he performed a version the rite of judicial cleansing, quoting David while doing so. He then turned Christ over to the centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail, believed by some researchers to be named Longinus. Wrapping Him in the "royal" robes of mocking, they bound His arms to the forty-pound patibulum, painfully stretching them out so that the beam would have been in at least partial contact with the flogging scars.

Remember, too, that the Crown of Thorns had been on His head for over an hour. He had already been beaten about the face and head and spat on, and His face would have been aching from having His beard pulled on and jerked around--almost pulled out.The titulum was prepared, dictated by the Governor himself. Normally the charge of "blasphemy" would be written on the sign; but Pilate, his ego still smarting from being maneuvered into ordering a crucifixion with which he was not comfortable, was determined once more to proclaim the man's innocence and tweak the noses of the Sanhedrin at the same time. Instead of admitting to the public that Jesus had indeed been guilty by writing "blasphemy" on the sign, Pilate instead wrote Jesus' true earthly title, thus implying that the Jews could not be trusted even to obey their own hereditary King.

On the top it read IESOUS HO NAZORAIOS HO BASILEUS TON IOUDAION--Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews. It was followed by the Latin HIC EST IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVD'ORVM. Finally, written last as if to pour salt on the open insult of the sign itself, were the Aramaic words Y'shua Han Notsriy, Malkha D'Yihudiy (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). The Sanhedrin objected to the blatant statement that Jesus was their King, but Pilate told them in effect "I wrote what I wrote. If you don't like it. . . tough!"Jesus was then paraded through the streets. The combination of blood loss, shock form the flogging, and physical and spiritual stress made Him by this time very weak.

A strong man, named Shimon from the Roman province of Cyrene on the north coast of Africa, was forced to bear the patabulum because Christ was too weak. (Some scholars contend that, since he was from Cyrene, Simon was a black man; others believe that the name Shimon was exclusively Hebrew, thus they reason that he was probably Semitic.) By this time, removal of the crossbeam may have been as painful as putting it on Him in the first place; flexing the arms downward and the change in posture required could be excruciating.

Finally, the procession reached the Place of the Skull. The entire walk was close to three-quarters of a mile, and Jesus was in an extremely weakened condition. Even if He had wished to offer resistance, by this time it would not have been possible for Him to put up much of a fight. The spot was probably already occupied by the two thieves, crucified about twelve feet apart and hanging only a few inches off the ground. Shimon was allowed to put down the crossbeam. The mocking purple robes, which by this time because of the drying blood had begun to adhere to the wounds, were yanked off Him. It would have had all the unpleasantness of a band-aid being yanked off an unhealed wound, magnified by a hundred times larger area. The scars in His back that had begun to clot and close were probably opened up and began to bleed again. However, even though this was an execution carried out by Rome, it was at the behest of the Sanhedrin; hence, to remove Jesus' inner modesty garment would have offended Jewish sensibility, so He probably was allowed to retain His personal covering.

At this point Jesus was first offered a drink of wine vinegar mixed with gall, a powerful anesthetic mercifully provided by the women of Jerusalem to crucifixion victims to dull their pain--and their wits. Jesus, knowing that His atonement for our sins required His suffering, refused it. Jesus was laid on the ground over the crossbeam, allowing cold dirt and gravel into the lower scourge wounds. His arms were bound to the cross, at the shoulders or the elbows or both, with rough rope. Then Longinus ordered one of the soldiers to take an iron nail, about 4.5 inches long and with a square shaft about 1cm in diameter, with a head of about three quarters of an inch. Jesus' hand was stretched out, and the nail hammered in at about the place where the meaty part of the hand joins the wrist, not through the palms as is frequently depicted in Renaissance art. This would have severed the median nerve, causing an involuntary, spasmodic, and painful flexing of the thumbs inward toward the palm of the hand.

Though nails alone would probably have been enough to hold the body, no chances were taken that the person could get themselves down or open the wounds wide enough to mercifully bleed to death; hence the tying to the cross as well as the nails. A ladder was lifted up after the nailing, and with the help of ropes Jesus was lifted about a foot off the ground and affixed to the crux simplex. Either pegs, nails, rope, or a combination of the three were used to attach the crossbeam. He was seated on a small, short peg between His legs which acted as a support for the body. It was smaller, harder, and more painful than the smallest bicycle seat, but in essence the same idea. A flat piece of wood like a board was placed over his feet, and a somewhat larger spike (smaller than but akin to a railroad spike) was hammered through the wood, both feet, and the cross. His feet were first turned to the side and His legs bent at the knees. This position would have twisted His back in a constant wrenching, causing muscle strain and even more agony to the already existing wounds.

Then, using the ladder, one of the soldiers climbed up and attached the sign. As this was being done, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; they have no idea what they're doing."The scarlet "robe" Jesus wore was originally the outer cloak of a Roman soldier, and the tunic He Himself owned had been woven on a new kind of loom recently invented which allowed wider cloth to be made than was previously possible. The old type had a horizontal seam near the midsection where the two pieces were sewn together, top and bottom; but with the new wider cloth this was no longer necessary. This is what was meant by His "seamless" garment. Jesus' tunic was of this new kind, and the soldiers decided that the garment was too valuable to throw away; so in fulfillment of Psalm 22:18 they threw dice for Jesus' meager belongings.

Dice was a common game in Roman society and many soldiers had a set; but gambling for the deceased's possessions was not only un-Jewish, it was against Roman army regulations, so they were breaking their own rules. One wonders why Longinus did not put a stop to it.Not only the soldiers, but also the passers-by, probably on their way to the Upper City via the Gennath Gate, and even the two thieves, teased and insulted Him, until His lack of response no longer made it fun. Jesus hung there from approximately 9:00 AM until noon, suffering. Then at noon, all of a sudden, clouds began to form over the whole of Palestine. For three hours, the land was so overcast that it was called "darkness."

During this time, one of the two thieves between whom Jesus had been crucified began to insult Him yet again and say things like "So You're the Christ? Then save Yourself--and us!" But the other thief, after three hours of seeing the Lord on the cross, had stopped mocking long ago and come to believe. He chewed out the first thief by reminding him that their punishment was legitimate while Jesus' was not, and that since he was about to meet God face to face he had best shut up. Then, turning to the Lord with regret in his heart for his previous ridicule, said, "Jesus, remember me when you enter Your Kingdom." Jesus forgave him and said, "I'm telling you the truth: today you will be with Me in The Paradise."After a while, Jesus saw His beloved friend Yohannan (John) standing with Miriam (Mary) His mother. Using a polite form of address of the time, "woman", said, "Woman, behold your son", referring to John. Then He told John, "Son, behold your mother." In this way, Jesus was performing His last temporal act by seeing that Miriam would be provided for.

It is noteworthy that Jesus, as eldest son, heir, and head of the family, would customarily have passed these jobs, along with the responsibility of being Israel's legal regent, to His brother Yaqov (James). However, at this moment James was not a believer; so, though Jesus' temporal authority passed to James, He entrusted the care of His mother not to the logical and expected person (His brother) but quite properly to the believing one (John).By this time, breathing for Jesus would have been excruciating, and so He would most likely have been taking shallow breaths. This, over that period of time, would mean that gradually His lungs would fill with fluid and his body would not be able to utilize oxygen properly. In addition, it is entirely possible that one or both of His shoulders had become dislocated and His back was thrown out. Certainly His legs, bent and held fast for so long, would have been spasming and cramping involuntarily, but being affixed by the nail they could not move at all. This would likely have resulted in great shuddering spasms from the lower part of His body, exacerbating His back and breathing difficulties, twisting and jerking the spike wounds in the feet and inflaming the flogging scars, which by this time would be drying and adhering to the wood of the cross. Any breaking of that adhesion would open the wounds and ignite the nerves yet again.

At about 3:00, Jesus shouted out Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic--Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Some of the observers speculated that He was calling out for Elijah, possibly mistaking Eloi for Eliahu. Jesus, knowing that His work was finally done, now requested something to drink. The gall mixture was gone, but a jar of just the wine vinegar was found and He was given a drink by the only means possible without climbing the cross: a sponge was soaked in the wine and lifted to His lips on a stick. hen things began to happen rapidly, almost simultaneously. Looking up to Heaven, He said tetelestai, "It has been completed." He added, "Father, into Thy hands I entrust My Spirit."

Then, following an agonizing cry, He of Whom the prophets spoke and by Whom the sick were healed, the blind given sight, and the dead raised to life . . . died.At that moment, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the inner Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, signifying that He Himself had entered into the Holy of Holies in Heaven, of which the earthly version was just a pale copy. Then, presenting Himself at the altar, the Father accepted His sacrifice. There was now no longer a need to separate men from God. Man was once again welcome at the feet of his Creator. The souls of the godly, waiting for so long for the sacrifice to be made, could at last with their sins atoned for enter into the Presence, no longer just of Abraham, but of the great I Am. A great earthquake was felt in the darkness, and those who had believed in Christ but had died before Him had their very graves ripped open by unseen hands and, whole and new-raised, they entered into the city of Jerusalem. What a walk into the city that must have been! Many of them, under threat of death, were forced to flee Jerusalem shortly thereafter.

However, one can hardly doubt that having been dead once and raised by the power of God, they cannot have been all that afraid of going through it a second time, knowing that this last time they would receive not their resuscitated old flesh, but the new bodies of the First Resurrection.One of the soldiers, remembering the request of the Sanhedrin to break the legs of those on the crosses (a common practice--when the crucifiers figured the criminals had suffered enough they broke their legs with either the shaft of a spear, a rock, or a hammer, thus accelerating their death from pain, shock, and the inability to rise an inch or so off the peg and draw a clear breath) broke the thieves' legs first. Then, seeing that Jesus was already dead, he did not break His legs. However, for good measure he impaled His body on a spear, piercing upward on the left side between the fifth and sixth ribs. The wound was made about halfway between the side and the front. It pierced the pleural cavity and the heart, releasing the flow of water and blood as recorded in the Gospels. The clear fluid came from the lungs and chest cavity, filling up for six hours now with fluid. The blood came from the heart.

Longinus, seeing all this, fell on his knees and confessed what all believers throughout the ages have confessed, and what we as Christians and partakers of His suffering, confess to this day: "This Man was certainly righteous; He truly was the Son of God!" We participate in all these agonies through the Communion, in which we remember His death. But the joy underlying the sadness and agony of the death of Christ, and always in the back of the Christian's mind as he or she participates in the Lord's Supper, is that Jesus did not stay that way. Three days later, on a brisk Sunday morning in Palestine, He rose from the dead. He proved that the One who could conquer death by His own power and could raise Himself from the dead . . . can certainly raise us.

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.