The Shame of the Cross

…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross

Crucifixion was considered worse than decapitation, being killed by wild animals, or being burnt alive.1 It was considered “a terrible calamity2, it “was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein;3 it was the supreme Roman punishment.

Such was the horror of Roman crucifixion that Cicero argued that Roman citizens should not ever have to hear the word ‘cross’. In his defence of Rabirius he said:

Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man.4

The gospel writers, fully aware of the unspeakable torture, horror, and shame that victims suffered at the hands of their executioners, almost attempt to distract the reader from the event of Christ’s crucifixion. In both Matthew 27:35 and Mark 15:24 the record places emphasis on how the Romans divided Christ’s clothes rather than on what had just happened to the man above them, whereas Luke 23:33 and John 19:18 focus on the location of the event rather than on what happened there. In each instance the phrase “they crucified him” appears as part of a sentence that is about something else altogether. In the same vein, elsewhere in the New Testament Christ’s crucifixion is sometimes spoken of in almost abstract terms (e.g. Ga 5:24, 6:14) – the reader is saved the gruesome details of the most awful form of execution practiced in the Roman world.

However, unlike the actual act of crucifixion, the gospels give us plenty of historically accurate information about the events leading up to the cross, and those that took place on it.

Before crucifying their victims, the Romans tortured them. They would “…have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified…5; thus began the degrading loss of all dignity. The flogging that Christ endured (Mt 27:27, Mk 15:15, Lk 23:22, Jn 19:1) would have made “the blood flow in streams.6 The sadism didn’t stop there: “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Mt 27:28–31)

Of those who tortured a Christian named Blandina before her death Eusebius writes, “…they were astonished at her endurance, as her entire body was mangled and broken; and they testified that one of these forms of torture was sufficient to destroy life, not to speak of so many and so great sufferings.7 Pre-crucifixion torture was extreme.

The victim would then have to walk to the site of crucifixion, carrying either the crosspiece, or the entire cross. Luz explains:

Jesus’ cross was either in the shape of a T with a crossbeam laid on top of a vertical beam (= crux commissa) or it consisted of a vertical beam with a crossbeam inserted into it (= crux immissa). Then the vertical beam extended somewhat above the crossbeam, exactly as was later portrayed in pictures. Among the early church fathers we find both images. The vertical stakes were usually already at the site; then the crossbeam (Latin patibulum) of each person to be executed was fastened to the stake. The readers of the Gospel of Matthew, because of v. 37 where the inscription with the charge is placed over Jesus’ head, would most likely have pictured a crux immissa.8

We can get a sense of just how brutal the flogging and beating Christ endured was by the fact that he had to have help from Simon of Syrene on his way to Golgotha. It’s thought that the extreme nature of the beating also led to his quick death – very often death on the cross could “come slowly, sometimes after several days of atrocious pain.9

As it was as much a deterrent to would-be criminals as it was a punishment, crucifixion normally took place next to a busy road. Quintilian explains:

When we crucify criminals the most frequented roads are chosen, where the greatest number of people can look and be seized by this fear. For every punishment has less to do with the offence than with the example.10

This was certainly the case for Christ as “many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city…” (Jn 19:20). It was also on or near the rocky outcrop that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was cut out of (Jn 19:41).

The victim was then stripped, and crucified. It’s clear from Josephus that “there was no fixed pattern for crucifying people. Much depended on the sadistic ingenuity of the moment.11 Seneca, a Roman philosopher, writes: “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.12

In Christ’s case, his hands and feet (Lk 24:39) were nailed to a cross that allowed Pilate’s inscription to be seen above his head (Mt 27:37), so the cross shape traditionally used as a symbol for Christianity seems likely.13 The cross would then have been lifted up and dropped into the hole cut out for it to stand in. The jarring of the cross as it fell into place would have caused unimaginable pain in his hands and feet.

A nail through the anklebone of Yehohanan the son of Hagakol, discovered in Givat ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem, the only anthropological evidence for crucifixion ever discovered. (Replica, Israel Museum)

A common misconception is that the cross would have lifted Christ high over the soldiers below him. Instead, victims were often kept close to the ground allowing stray dogs to chew their legs. It is recorded that, “…they are fastened (and) nailed to it in the most bitter torment, evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs.14 In Scotland, it was bears: “Laureolus, hanging on no unreal cross, gave up his vitals defenceless to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs lived, though the parts dripped blood and in all his body was nowhere a body’s shape.15

Some victims lasted for days on the cross; others died quite quickly. A recent study16 shows that there were a number of reasons a victim might die on the cross:

  • They could choke themselves to death when they became too tired to hold their head up.
  • They could die from blood loss as a result of the flogging and the bleeding from the nails.
  • They could die from dehydration after spending more than a few days on the cross without water.

Why all this grim detail? Surely if the gospel writers left it out we can be spared the reality of crucifixion? We must remember that the original audience of the gospels would have known full well about the details. It was because they knew the details that their opponents thought them mad. Justin Martyr writes “For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.17

An appreciation of the reality of crucifixion and what people thought of it can give context to many parts of the New Testament. For example, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians writes:

1 Co 1:18–24 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Christians have the same difficulty today as they did in the first century – the cross was an object of scorn; it was “foolishness.” To become the disciples of a man executed by the state made no sense to many who heard the apostles preach. But to follow a man who suffered crucifixion, the supreme Roman punishment was taking this “foolishness” to an extreme, a point made by Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

Php 2:8 …he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

This same counter-cultural aspect of Christ’s calling is aided by an understanding of the brutality of crucifixion, e.g.

Mk 8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The Galatians had explained to them exactly what that meant, and the same words guide us today:

Ga 5:22-26 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Further reading

  • Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 22.
  • Gerald G. O’Collins, “Crucifixion,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1208.
  • Maslen, M. W., & Mitchell, P. D. (2006). Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(4), 185–188.

Footnotes

  1. “All this also helps us to understand how in his speech against Verres Cicero could already describe crucifixion as the summum supplicium. The continuing legal tradition which can be seen here is brought to an end by the jurist Julius Paulus about AD 200. In the Sententiae compiled from his works towards AD 300, the crux is put at the head of the three summa supplicia. It is followed, in descending order, by crematio (burning) and decollatio (decapitation). In the lists of penalties given in the sources, damnatio ad bestias often takes the place of decapitation as an aggravated penalty.” Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 33.
  2. “Nay, he was not ashamed to look even that audience in the face and bring such a terrible calamity upon an innocent man…” Dem., 21.105. Demosthenes, Demosthenes with an English Translation by A. T. Murray, Ph.D., LL.D. (Speeches (English); Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1939).
  3. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 25.
  4. Cicero, Rab. Perd. 5.16. M. Tullius Cicero, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Literally Translated by C. D. Yonge, B. A. (ed. C. D. Yonge; Medford, MA: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Covent Garden., 1856), 266.
  5. Plat., Rep. 361e–362a. Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes & 6 Translated by Paul Shorey (vol. 5; Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1969).
  6. Op. cit., Hengel, 32.
  7. Eus., Hist. eccl. 5.1.18. Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert; vol. 1; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 1214.
  8. Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28: A Commentary (ed. Helmut Koester; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2005), 531.
  9. Gerald G. O’Collins, “Crucifixion,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1209.
  10. Quintilian, Decl. 274. Quintilian, The Lesser Declamations, Volume I (ed. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Loeb, 2006), 259.
  11. Gerald G. O’Collins, “Crucifixion,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1209.
  12. Seneca, Dial. 6 [Cons. Marc] 20.3.
  13. Op. cit., Luz, 531.
  14. Op. cit., Hengel, 9, translated from Apotelesmatica 4.198ff. (Koechly, p. 69)
  15. Martial, Liber Spectaculorum 7. Martial: Liber Spectaculorum, (ed. Kathleen M. Coleman, OUP Oxford, 2006)
  16. Maslen, M. W., & Mitchell, P. D. (2006). Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(4), 185–188.
  17. Justin, 1 Apol. 13. Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; vol. 1; The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 1167.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.