Crucifixion was a method of capital punishment commonly used among the ancient peoples surrounding the Mediterranean basin from approximately the 6th century b.c. to the 4th century a.d.. Crucifixion was finally banned by Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, in a. d. 337 as a token of respect for Jesus Christ, who chose to redeem the world through death on a cross. This article discusses crucifixion in the ancient world, the Crucifixion of Christ, and the significance of the cross.
Crucifixion Among the Ancients. Because of its cruelty, crucifixion was intended as both a severe punishment of the victim and a frightful deterrent to others. Crucifixion developed from a method of execution by which the victim was fastened to an upright stake either by impaling him on it or by tying him to it with thongs. Impalement inflicted extreme pain but brought death in a short time. When the victim was merely fastened to the stake, he suffered much longer and finally died of exhaustion, exposure, or torments inflicted on him by passersby and even wild animals, if he was sufficiently close to the ground. From this form of execution was developed crucifixion in the strict sense, whereby the outstretched arms of the victim were tied or nailed to a crossbeam (patibulum ), which was then laid in a groove across the top or suspended by means of a notch in the side of an upright stake that was always left in position at the site of execution.
The oldest known written reference to impalement is in the Code of Hammurabi [par. 153; J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 2 (Princeton 1955) 172] dating from about 1700 b.c. Mention of impaling prisoners of war is frequent in the inscriptions of the kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (10th to 7th centuries b.c.), and portrayals of such impalements are common in their bas-reliefs. The earliest historical record of crucifixion as such dates back, on the authority of Herodotus (Hist. 9.20), to the beginning of the Persian period (6th century b.c.). Later Persian history is replete with stories of crucifixions. From the Persians this method of execution spread to other peoples, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Grecian colonies (though it seems it was never practiced in Greece itself), the Carthaginians, and the Romans. Among the last, crucifixion was practiced with great abandon whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it.
The Romans considered crucifixion so shameful a penalty that it could not be inflicted on Roman citizens. Roman crucifixion was always preceded by a scourging of the victim at the place of judgment. Then the criminal, still naked after the scourging, was made to carry his own cross (i.e., the crossbeam) to the place of execution, where he was exposed to public ridicule and death. On the top of the upright stake was fastened a placard with the culprit's name and a statement of the crime for which
he was being put to death. The full weight of a body hanging by the arms would prevent the functioning of the lung muscles and so cause death by asphyxiation after not too long a time. Therefore, to prolong the agony of the victim, support was given to his body by a kind of seat block and by binding or nailing his feet to the cross. Death could later be hastened by breaking the victim's legs (crurifragium ), so that shock and asphyxiation soon ended his life. Sometimes, however, the side and heart would be pierced by a spear to cause immediate death. After death the body was left to rot on the cross as an additional sign of disgrace and as a warning to the passersby.
Although among the Israelites stoning was the common form of capital punishment, the Old Testament sometimes speaks of hanging the condemned on a tree (Dt 21.22–23; Jos 8.29, 10.26). In these cases, however, the culprit was first killed by other means and was then "hanged on a tree" as a token of further disgrace and warning. Another instance of hanging on a tree is given in 2 Sm 21.6–9 (possibly also in Nm 25.4), where it is
not certain whether suspension was the means of execution or whether the victims were dead before they were hanged. But crucifixion was always something foreign to Jewish law.
Crucifixion of Christ. Jesus suffered crucifixion at the hand of the Roman authorities then ruling in Palestine (Lk 3.1, 23.1). The account of His execution as narrated by the Evangelists agrees entirely with what is known about the Roman method of crucifixion and their way of dealing with their subjected peoples. Thus, Jesus was scourged (Mk 15.15 and parallels) before He was led forth to the place of execution carrying His cross (Jn 19.17). The Jews, however, with their sense of public decency, objected to a man going about naked in public, and as a concession to their feelings the Romans in Palestine allowed the condemned criminal to put his clothes on again after he had been scourged instead of being driven naked through the street. Thus Jesus, too, was given back his clothes after His scourging (Mk 15,20; Mt 27.31). see flagellation (in the bible)). As usual, the execution was also to serve as a warning to the public, and so, to prevent Jesus from dying on the way, He was given aid in carrying his cross (Mk 15.21 and parallels). When He had arrived at the place of execution, Jesus was offered a drink of spiced wine to numb the pain, but He refused to drink it (Mk 15.23; Mt 27.34). Such a drink was another concession made by the Romans to the more humane feelings of the Jews. After this, Jesus was stripped of His garments (Mk 15.24 and parallels) and nailed to the cross, at least by His hands (Jn 20.25).
On the top of the cross was placed the customary placard with His name and, at Pilate's insistence, the statement of His "crime," that He was actually the King of the Jews (Mk 15.26; Mt 27.37; Lk 23.38; Jn 19.19). The four Evangelists differ slightly in the wording of the inscription, which shows that they were citing from memory and hearsay evidence; but all agree that it was in three languages, "Hebrew" (i.e., Aramaic), Greek, and Latin. As was their custom with more notorious criminals, the Romans raised Jesus on a rather high stake, so that He could be seen by everyone; it was in fact so high that, when the soldiers wanted to put a sponge soaked in wine to His lips, they first had to put it on the end of a stick (Mk 15.26; Mt 27.48; Jn 19.29).
Because of the Jewish law that the body of an executed criminal should "not remain on the tree overnight" but had to be buried the same day (Dt 21.23), the Romans, at the request of the Jewish authorities, decided to hasten death by breaking the legs of the Crucified; since Jesus, however, was already dead, His legs were not broken, but "one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance" (Jn 19.31–34). Again because of the Jewish law, the dead bodies were not to be left on the cross to rot but were taken down before sunset of the same day and given decent burial (Mk 15.42 and parallels).
Significance of the Cross. The significance of Christ's death on the cross can be learned from the many references made to it throughout the New Testament. All of them, however, can be reduced to one single idea, God's great love for man. Among the Jews and the Romans death on the cross was a sign of shame and ignominy (1 Cor 1.18, 23; Heb 12.2). Yet Jesus did not shrink from this extreme manifestation of His love for man (Phil2.8). For the Jews a man hanging on a tree was cursed, an object of reprobation (Dt 21.23). Christ chose to do just this, to redeem man from the malediction of the Law that imposed obligations but was unable to save (Gal3.10–13).
Through Jesus the cross became a means of reconciling fallen and sinful mankind with the holy God (Eph2.16; Col 1.20, 2.14). The cross is, therefore, the instrument of man's liberation from slavery to this world and to sin (Rom 6.6) and the means of his renewal (Gal 3.1,6.14). Through the cross the redeemed become new creatures, new men, to be coheirs with the God-man in the kingdom of Heaven (Gal 6.15–16).
The cross is thus a symbol of complete union with Christ. To take up one's cross means to turn away from the service of the world and the flesh (Gal 5.24), and thus to be a true disciple (Lk 14.27), a follower of Christ (Mk8.34; Mt 16.24). Anyone who refuses to take up the cross is unworthy of Jesus (Mt 10.38); the true disciple takes up his cross daily to follow the Master (Lk 9.23). As a follower of Jesus he is willing to deny himself many things (Mt 10.34–39) and even to make the supreme sacrifice of his life for the sake of Christ and the gospel (Mk8.35).
The Crucifixion is ultimately a mystical event representing the whole redemptive work of Christ and its proclamation throughout the world. It is the fulfillment of all the salvific deeds of Yahweh in the Old Testament, prefigured by the bronze serpent made by Moses at the Lord's behest and raised on a pole (Nm 21.4–9) and prefigured by the Hebrew letter tau (at that time shaped like a "T" or an "X") marked on the forehead of the citizens of Jerusalem who were not to be struck down because of abominations of the city (Ez 9.4–6). It is a total commitment to the way of life as it was lived for us by God's own Son. The cross is the pivotal point of history from which all history, prior and subsequent, derives its meaning.
Bibliography: h. f. hitzig, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 4.2 (1901) 1728–31. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 462–465. h. marucchi, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 1895–1912) 2:1127–34. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mc hugh (New York 1961) 158–160. j. blinzler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 1957–65) 6:621–622; The Trial of Jesus, tr. i. and f. mc hugh (Westminster, Md. 1959). n. lalibertÉ and e. west, The History of the Cross (New York 1960). w. bulst, The Shroud of Turin, tr. s. mckenna and j. j. galvin (Milwaukee 1957) 44–52, 106. p. barbet, A Doctor at Calvary (New York 1954) 41–67.
[m. w. schoenberg]
CRUCIFIXION , mode of execution by fastening the condemned to two crossed beams. Being the form of death to which *Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate between 27 and 36 c.e., crucifixion subsequently acquired momentous historical, theological, and legal significance, providing subject matter for research and discussion until the present day. Its origins cannot be traced with precision; it is thought to have preceded hanging, of which there is early evidence (see *Capital Punishment). Hanging may have been introduced as a more humane and lenient mode of execution than crucifixion; at any rate hanging superseded crucifixion in most countries of Europe, after crucifixion had been abolished by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century because of its Christian symbolism. In non-Christian, especially Far Eastern countries, it was practiced until early in the 19th century. Beheading was also practiced by the Romans (e.g., the beheading of John the Baptist), and it was apparently a more dignified procedure of execution because of the swiftness of the death experience as opposed to the prolonged suffering that crucified individuals endured. Stoning was the preferred method of execution practiced by Jews in the first century and earlier (Lev. 20:2, 27; 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 21:21).
There are reports of crucifixions from Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Punic, and Roman sources. It has been said to have first been imported into ancient Israel by the Persians (cf. Ezra 6:11), but there is no report of a single instance of a crucifixion under the powers conferred on Ezra. If the hangings reported in the book of Esther (7:10, etc.) were crucifixions, they were carried out in Persia, where crucifixions seem to have been customary. Crucifixion was the standard Roman mode of execution for non-Roman criminals and enemies of the state, and hence was practiced on a large scale in Judea under the Roman occupation. The extent of such crucifixions is demonstrated by the legal rules which had to be elaborated to meet contingencies. As the exact time of death was not ascertainable, the fact that a man was seen hanging on a cross was not sufficient evidence of his death (Yev. 16:3). It might be otherwise when wild beasts or birds had already attacked him at vital parts of the body (Yev. 120b). The reason given for the rule that the crucified cannot be considered dead is that a rich matron may still come along and redeem him (tj, Yev. 16:3,15c), an indication of the length of time often passing before death ensued, and of the amenability of Roman officers to bribes to save the lives of executed convicts. A man hanging on the cross may order a bill of divorce to be written for his wife. Even if his body has become weak, his mind is presumed to have remained sound (Tosef., Git. 7:1; Git. 70b). On such a bill of divorce being handed to the wife, she may remarry without evidence of death being required. As the blood from a dead body is impure, the question arose as to when the blood of the crucified becomes impure (Oho. 3:5). There is one benefit apparently derived from crucifixions; the nail of a cross is considered by some to have healing effects in cases of swellings or stings, and may therefore be carried around even on a Sabbath (Shab. 6:10; Shab. 67a; tj, Shab. 6:9, 8c). Similarly, Romans used nails from crosses on which people had been crucified for healing epileptics (Pliny, Natural History, 28:36).
Josephus reports many incidents of crucifixion: Antiochus iv crucified Jews in Jerusalem who would not relinquish their faith (Ant., 12:256). Two thousand rebels were crucified by Quintilius Varus (Ant., 17:295). Tiberius Julius Alexander ordered two rebels, sons of *Judah the Galilean, to be crucified (Ant., 20:102). Seven years later (about 52 c.e.) there was another wholesale crucifixion of zealots at the hand of Quadratus (Wars, 2:241); Felix crucified not only zealots and rebels, but also citizens suspected of collaborating with them (Wars, 2:253). Florus had Jewish judges tortured and crucified before his eyes (Wars, 2:306–8). When Jerusalem was besieged, Titus ordered all Jewish prisoners of war to be crucified on the walls of the city and there were as many as 500 crucifixions a day (Wars, 5:449–51). Bassus erected a huge cross on the city wall for the execution of Eleazar, a young Jewish commander, whereupon the Jews surrendered to the Romans to spare Eleazar's life (Wars, 7:201–2). Josephus also reports crucifixions at the hands of the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus, adding that this act of cruelty was an imitation of gentile usage. While he and his concubines were carousing, he ordered 800 Pharisees to be crucified and their wives and children killed before their eyes (Ant., 13:380–1), an atrocity said to be alluded to in the Qumran commentary on the Book of Nahum (4QpNah 2:13) with the postscript: "such a thing has never before been done in Israel, for the Scripture [Deut. 21:23] designates a man hung up alive as a reproach unto God." The hanging of people on trees (i.e., on wooden crosses) is also referred to in the Temple Scroll (11Q Temple 64.6–13). Some account of the laws and customs of crucifixion is contained in most books on the trial and death of Jesus. This crucifixion could only have taken place after the execution of John the Baptist in 28 c.e. and before the High Priest *Caiaphas had been removed from his position in 36 c.e. Hence, the latest possible date for the final Passover attended by Jesus in Jerusalem must have been in the spring of 36 c.e. The accepted view is that the death of Jesus took place late in the 20s or early in the 30s of the first century. It seems reasonable, therefore, that the crucifixion took place in the year 30 c.e. when Jesus was 36 years of age, and only two years after the beheading of John.
Archaeological evidence of crucifixion in Jerusalem emerged in 1968 during the excavation of a burial cave from the first century c.e. at Givat ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem. In one of the stone burial boxes (ossuaries) were the skeletal remains of a male named Jehohanan, whose right heel bone (calcaneum) had been pierced by an iron nail (length 11.5 cm). The anthropological study of these remains suggests that the arms of this individual were tied to the horizontal bars of the cross and that only his feet were nailed.
H. Fulda, Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung (1878); H. Hentig, Die Strafe, 1 (1954), 253ff.; E.G. Hirsch, Crucifixion from the Jewish Point of View (19213); M.B. Saint Edme (E.T. Bourg), Dictionnaire de la Pénalité, 1 (Paris, 1824), 310ff.; E. Stauffer, Jerusalem und Rom im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (1957), 123ff.; S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (19644); T. Mommsen, Roemisches Strafrecht (1899, repr. 1955), 918ff.; H. Cohn, Mishpato u-Moto shel Yeshu ha-Noẓeri (1968), 132–58; idem, Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus (1967), 39–49. add. bibliography: J. Hewitt, "The Use of Nails in the Crucifixion," in: htr, 25 (1932), 2–45; V. Tzaferis, "Jewish Tombs at and near Giv'at ha-Mivtar," in: iej, 20 (1970), 18–32; M. Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (1977); J. Zias and E. Sekeles, "The Crucified Man from Giv'at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal," in: iej, 35 (1985), 22–27; W. Edwards et al., "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ." in: Journal of the American Medical Association, 255 (1986), 1455–64; F. Zugibe, "Two Questions About Crucifixion," in: Bible Review, 5 (1989), 35–43; J. Zias and J.H. Charlesworth, "Crucifixion: Archaeology, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls," in: J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), 273–89.
[Haim Hermann Cohn /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
cru·ci·fix·ion / ˌkroōsəˈfikshən/ • n. chiefly hist. the execution of a person by nailing or binding them to a cross. ∎ (the Crucifixion) the killing of Jesus Christ in such a way. ∎ (Crucifixion) [in sing.] an artistic representation or musical composition based on this event.