What Crucifixion Was Like in Jesus' Day

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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The cross in Jesus' day was an instrument of torture and execution, pure and simple. There wasn't a figurative use of "cross" as a "burden" or "trial" in those days. Death on the cross was shameful, excruciating, and often protracted. An ancient Greek poem describes it this way:

"Punished with limbs outstretched, they see the stake as their fate;
they are fastened (and) nailed to it in the most bitter torment,
evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs."[1]

From the Third Century BC onwards there is evidence of the use of crux as a vulgar taunt among the lower classes, found on the lips of slaves and prostitutes, the English equivalent of which might be "gallows-bird" or "hang-dog."[2] Hengel says that the attitude of people of the ancient world was not casual or a matter of indifference. "It was an utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word."[3]

There was no "norm" for execution on the cross, though it often included flogging beforehand, the victim carrying the beam to the place of execution, being nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up, and seated on a small wooden peg. But Seneca indicates there were many variations: "I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet."[4]

Josephus, an eyewitness of Roman cruelty to the defenders at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, gives us a gruesome picture:

"... They were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more... The main reason why he did not forbid that cruelty was this, that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies."[5]


References:

  1. Psuedo-Manetho, Apotelesmatica 4:198ff, cited by Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress Press, translated 1977), p. 9.
  2. Hengel, pp. 9-10.
  3. Hengel, p. 22.
  4. Seneca, Dialogue 6 (De consolatione ad Marciam) 20.3. Cited by Hengel, p. 25.
  5. Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5, 11, 1. http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/?book=War_5&chapter=11

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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