The Crucifixion of Christ
Crucifixion was probably the most horrible form of capital punishment ever devised by man. It was employed by the Persians (c. 522 B.C.). Darius had 3,000 Babylonians crucified when he conquered that territory. Later, it was employed by the Greeks. Following the destruction of Tyre, Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 men of military age. The Jews even used crucifixion on occasion. In the inter-biblical age, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) crucified 800 Pharisees who had been involved in a revolt. But the Romans were most noted for the practice. In 71 B.C., following a slave revolt in Rome, 6,000 recaptured slaves were crucified on the Appian Way leading to the city (Vos, p. 439).
The prospective crucifixion victim, as a rule, was first subjected to flagellation, i.e., a beating with a three-thong whip (fashioned of plaited leather, and studded with bone and metal). The victim was stripped naked and then was secured with leather ties. He was then beaten from his upper hack to the lower extremities of his legs. The flesh was flayed from the muscle. Eventually muscle could he shredded from the bone. The bones of the back, including the spinal column might well be exposed in a bloody mass. Not infrequently these whippings were fatal (Kittel, Vol IV, p. 517). In an article which appeared a few years back in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. W. Edwards wrote:
“The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical” (p. 1458).
The shape of the cross is a matter of some controversy. Some scholars believe that the victim was forced to carry, only the upper crossbar (which weighed about 125 pounds) to the place of torture. (It is little wonder that the Lord required assistance in carrying the beam – Lk. 23:26). At the death site, the upright post might have been secured in the ground already, awaiting the attachment of the crossbar (Kittel, Vol. VII, pp. 572-4).
The criminal would be made to lie upon the ground, with the crossbeam under his upper back. The arms were then attached by nails. The nails almost certainly were driven through the wrists, since the palm tissue “cannot bear the weight” of the body (Bloomquist, p. 48), The Greek term rendered “hands” (
cheiras, Jn. 20:27) can also mean “arms” (Liddell, p. 1807; cf. Ezek. 23:42 where “hands” extends to wrists).
The feet were nailed also. In 1968 the first remains of a crucified man were discovered in Jerusalem. A seven-inch spike was wedged through a young man’s heels (Tzaferis, pp. 47,52). One source has suggested that only one heel was pierced by the nail and that the feet may have straddled the upright beam, with nails affixing the legs to each side of the olivewood post (Zias, pp. 22-27). The Romans were not always uniform in their methods of crucifixion.
The actual cause of death was the loss of blood volume and the inability to breathe due to the extension of the body (Edwards, p. 1461). The victim, unable to support his body so as to inhale/exhale easily, eventually suffocated; he usually died within 36 hours, though he could survive for days. Jesus lived only 6 hours. Let us reflect upon several matters relative to the Lord’s crucifixion.
The Nature of the Narration
It is an amazing thing that the biblical narratives recording the crucifixion of Jesus are so void of emotion. There is no shriek of anguish; there is no vindictive spirit evinced toward the Lord’s murderers. This is all the more remarkable since the Gospel records were written by those who deeply loved the Savior. But the record is so matter-of-fact. "And when they came unto the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him. . . " (Lk. 23:33). One can only imagine the sort of “write-up” this event would have been given by a modern-day reporter. The subdued presentation of the Gospel writers is a subtle evidence that the authors were guided by the Spirit of God in the composition of their records.
Then there is the matter of prophecy. A thousand years before Jesus’ birth, David, speaking on behalf of the coming Messiah, described the ordeal of the crucifixion.
“I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint: My heart is like wax; It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; And my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; And thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: A company of evildoers have inclosed me; They pierced my hands and my feet. I may count all my bones; They look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, And upon my vesture do they cast lots” (Psa. 22:14-18).
This context is doubtless the most comprehensive portion of the biblical record detailing the physical and emotional trauma of the Son of God during the crucifixion ordeal. Moreover, it is an amazing declaration inasmuch as it was penned five centuries prior to the invention of the torturous system.
The prophetic details in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus are amazing. Note the following abbreviated list of prophetic details. Jesus’ back was to be beaten (Isa. 50:6), and his hands and feet pierced (Psa. 22:16). His garments would be divided (Psa. 22:18), and he would he given vinegar and gall to slake his thirst (Psa. 69:21). Though it was common to break the legs of the victim (Jn. 19:32), such did not occur in Christ’s case because the Lord was the antitype of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:46; Psa. 34:20; Jn. 19:33; 1 Cor. 5:7). Too, a crucified person normally was not given a burial (Horace, Epistle 1.16.48); the body was left to rot or be devoured by animals. But Jesus, by divine decree, was interred in the tomb of a wealthy Jew (Isa. 53:9; Mt. 27:57ff). These prophecies are powerful evidence of the divine origin of the Bible.
The Theological Significance
During the first century, the Jews employed four methods of capital punishment – stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation (Goldin, p. 141). But Jesus was executed according to Roman procedure. Aside from the political considerations, there were reasons for this.
First, Christ had to die in some fashion that involved the shedding of his blood, without which there could be no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). Since the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), man, by virtue of his transgression, forfeited his right to live. However, in the marvelous sacred scheme of things, it was determined that God’s Son would offer his life in exchange for man’s (1 Cor. 15:3). Inasmuch as the “life” (Heb. –
nephesh) resides in the blood (Lev. 17:11), it was necessary for the Lord to shed his blood to effect redemption. Isaiah speaks of the Messiah’s “soul/life” (
nephesh) being “poured out” unto death (53:10-12). Centuries later, the Savior said: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28). The crucifixion thus accommodated a method of death consistent with the heavenly plan.
Second, under the Old Testament regime, hanging a body upon a tree was a special token of accursedness; “He that is hanged is accursed of God” (Dt. 21:23). J.H. Thayer noted that crucifixion was a most “ignominious punishment” designed for the “guiltiest criminals” (p. 586). By his death upon the cross, the Savior “was made a curse for us: for it is written: Cursed is everyone that hangeth upon a tree” (Gal. 3:13). It is significant that the “cross” is designated as a “tree” several times in the NT (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 1 Pet. 2:24). The Lord’s death by means of the crucifixion upon the cross, therefore, was a fitting symbol of the fact that he was hearing the “curse” and “shame” (Heb. 12:2) of sin for the human family.
All who so choose may take advantage of that wonderful gift (Rev. 22:17), by being immersed into Jesus’ death (Rom. 6:3-4).
The Cross as a Witness
There is a another brief but important point that must be made at this juncture. How was it that a mode of death so despised as “the cross” – became such a glorious badge of honor for Christians? The “word of the cross” was synonymous with the gospel (1 Cor. 1:18), and in that cross the early saints gloried.
Paul wrote: "But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . " (Gal. 6:14; cf. Phil. 3:18; Col. 1:20). Why should such a hideous instrument of shame be transformed into an object of glory by the early Christians? Do men today honor the hangman’s noose, or the electric chair? Does anyone wear these emblems as an item of adornment? Hardly. It was because the cross “ceased to be an embarrassment _in the light of the resurrection”_ (Unmack, p. 152, emp. WJ). Had Jesus remained dead, the cross would have been forever an object of infamy. The cross, then, becomes a silent witness, an apologetic, for the authenticity of Christianity.
The Irony of History
When Pilate asked the Jews, “What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called the Christ?,” they screamed: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Mt. 27:22; Jn. 19:6). When the governor inquired as to the nature of Jesus’ crime, no answer was forthcoming – only the bloodthirsty echo, “Crucify him!” Pilate therefore symbolically washed his hands, thinking he would relieve himself of culpability. When the Jews saw this act, they all said: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Mt. 27:25). Little did they fathom the implication of that request.
In this culminating act of rebellion, the Jews were filling up “the measure” of their ancestors’ rebellion, and upon them full wrath would be visited (Mt. 23:31-36; 1 Thes. 2:14-16). Providentially, God would send “his armies” (the Romans) and destroy those murderers (Mt. 22:7; cf. 21:41).
When Rome’s forces marched against Jerusalem in the spring of AD. 70, it was the beginning of a bloodbath unrivaled in history (cf. Mt. 24:21). After a bitter six-month siege, vividly detailed by Josephus, the city fell. The Romans so despised the Jews that they crucified thousands of them – 500-a-day for many months (Tzaferis, p. 48). Josephus starkly says that “room was wanting for the crosses” (Wars 5.11.1). One cannot but be reminded of the maxim: “Whatsoever a man [or nation] sows, that shall he [it] also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
- Bloomquist, Edward, M.D. (1964), “A Doctor Looks at the Crucifixion,” Christian Herald, March.
- Edwards, William, M.D., et al. (1986), Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21.
- Goldin, Hyman (1952), Hebrew Criminal Law (New York: Twayne Pub.).
- Kittel, G., ed. (1967), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 10 Vols.
- Liddell, H.D. & Scott, Robert (1869), A Greek English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon).
- Thayer, J.H. (1956), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Tzaferis, Fassillios (1985), Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February.
- Unmack, Robert (1999), Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
- Vos, Howard (1999), New Illustrated Bible Manners & Customs (Nashville: Nelson).
- Zias, J., Sekeles, E., (1985), Israel Exploration Journal, 35.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.