The Crucifixion by David

The Crucifixion by David

The Crucifixion by David - History

History of crucifixion and archeological proof of the cross, as opposed to a stake.

Britannica reports that the first historical record of Crucifixion was about 519 BC when "Darius I, king of Persia, crucified 3,000 political opponents in Babylon" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, crucifixion)

Some further detail is given in "The Eerdman's Bible Dictionary", Rev. Ed., 1975: CROSS . Crucifixion is first attested among the Persians (cf. Herodotus, Hist. i.128.2 iii.132.2, 159.1), perhaps derived from the Assyrian impalement. It was later employed by the Greeks, especially Alexander the Great, and by the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans adapted the practice as a punishment for slaves and non-citizens, and occasionaly for citizens guilty of treason. Although in the Old Testament the corpses of blasphemers or idolaters punished by stoning might be handged "on a tree" as further humiliation (Deut. 21:23), actual crucifixion was not introduced in Palestine until Hellenistic times. The Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes crucified those Jews who would not accept hellenization (Josephus Ant. xii.240-41 cf 1 Macc. 1:44-50).

Archeological proof of the cross, as opposed to a stake.

(Text and photo is From Refuting Jehovah's Witnesses, by Randall Watters)

Historical findings have substantiated the traditional cross. One finding is a graffito 1 dating to shortly after 200 A.D., taken from the walls of the Roman Palatine. It is a drawing of a crucified ass a mockery of a Christian prisoner who worships Christ. The Romans were no doubt amused that Christians worshiped this Jesus whom they had crucified on a cross.

In June of 1968, bulldozers working north of Jerusalem accidentally laid bare tombs dating from the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. Greek archeologist Vasilius Tzaferis was instructed by the Israeli Department of Antiquities to carefully excavate these tombs. Subsequently one of the most exciting finds of recent times was unearthed - the first skeletal remains of a crucified man. The most significant factor is its dating to around the time of Christ. The skeleton was of a man named Yehohanan son of Chaggol, who had been crucified between the age of 24 and 28. Mr. Tzaferis wrote an article in the Jan/Feb. 1985 issue of the secular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), and here are some of his comments regarding crucifixion in Jesus' time:

At the end of the first century B.C., the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain limited transgressions. Initially, it was employed not as a method of execution, but only as a punishment. Moreover, only slaves convicted of certain crimes were punished by crucifixion. During this early period, a wooden beam, known as a furca or patibulum was placed on the slave's neck and bound to his arms.

. When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground. Sometimes the victim was attached to the cross only with ropes. In such a case, the patibulum or crossbeam, to which the victim's arms were already bound, was simply affixed to the vertical beam the victim's feet were then bound to the stake with a few turns of the rope.

If the victim was attached by nails, he was laid on the ground, with his shoulders on the crossbeam. His arms were held out and nailed to the two ends of the crossbeam, which was then raised and fixed on top of the vertical beam. The victim's feet were then nailed down against this vertical stake.

In order to prolong the agony, Roman executioners devised two instruments that would keep the victim alive on the cross for extended periods of time. One, known as a sedile , was a small seat attached to the front of the cross, about halfway down. This device provided some support for the victim's body and may explain the phrase used by the Romans, "to sit on the cross." Both Eraneus and Justin Martyr describe the cross of Jesus as having five extremities rather than four the fifth was probably the sedile . (p. 48,49)

In a followup article on this archeological find in the Nov/Dec. issue of BAR, the statement is made:

According to the (Roman) literary sources, those condemned to crucifixion never carried the complete cross, despite the common belief to the contrary and despite the many modern re-enactments of Jesus' walk to Golgotha. Instead, only the crossbar was carried, while the upright was set in a permanent place where it was used for subsequent executions. As the first-century Jewish historian Josephus noted, wood was so scarce in Jerusalem during the first century A.D. that the Romans were forced to travel ten miles from Jerusalem to secure timber for their siege machinery. (p. 21)

Similar are the details mentioned under "Cross" in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology :

It is certain only that the Romans practised this form of execution. But is is most likely that the stauros had a transverse in the form of a crossbeam. Secular sources do not permit any conclusion to be drawn as to the precise form of the cross, as to whether it was the crux immissa (+) or crux commissa (T). As it was not very common to affix a titlos (superscription, loanword from the Lat. titulus ), it does not necessarily follow that the cross had the form of a crux immissa .

There were two possible ways of erecting the stauros. The condemned man could be fastened to the cross lying on the ground at the place of execution, and so lifted up on the cross. Alternatively, it was probably usual to have the stake implanted in the ground before the execution. The victim was tied to the crosspiece, and was hoisted up with the horizontal beam and made fast to the vertical stake. As this was the simpler form of erection, and the carrying of the crossbeam ( patibulum ) was probably connected with the punishment for slaves, the crux commissa may be taken as the normal practice. The cross would probably have been not much higher than the height of a man. (Vol. 1, p. 392)

Other archeological finds:

Aside from the most recent discoveries, there are a few others of interest we will note. Here is one involving a discovery in 1873:

In 1873 a famous French scholar, Charles Clermant-Ganneau, reported the discovery of a burial chamber or cave on the Mount of Olives. Inside were some 30 ossuaries (rectangular chests made of stone) in which skeletal remains were preserved after their bodies had disintegrated. . . . One (ossuary) had the name "Judah" associated with a cross with arms of equal length. Further, the name "Jesus" occurred three times, twice in association with a cross. . . .

It would be unlikely that Christian Jews would have been buried in that area after 135 A.D. since the Romans forbade Jews to enter Aelia Capitolina . . . after the second Jewish revolt. (from Ancient Times , Vol. 3, No. 1, July 1958, p. 3.)

In 1939 excavations at Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii (destroyed in 78 A.D. by volcano) produced a house where a wooden cross had been nailed to the wall of a room. According to Buried History , (Vol. 10, No. 1, March 1974 p. 15):

Below this (cross) was a cupboard with a step in front. This has considered to be in the shape of an ara or shrine, but could well have been used as a place of prayer. . . . If this interpretation is correct, and the excavators are strongly in favor of the Christian significance of symbol and furnishings, then here we have the example of an early house church.

Jesus' Crucifixion Story in the Bible

The Jewish high priests and elders of the Sanhedrin accused Jesus of blasphemy, arriving at the decision to put him to death. But first they needed Rome to approve of their death sentence, so Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Judea. Although Pilate found him innocent, unable to find or even contrive a reason to condemn Jesus, he feared the crowds, letting them decide Jesus' fate. Stirred by the Jewish chief priests, the crowds declared, "Crucify him!"

As was common, Jesus was publicly scourged, or beaten, with a leather-thonged whip before his crucifixion. Tiny pieces of iron and bone chips were tied to the ends of each leather thong, causing deep cuts and painful bruises. He was mocked, struck in the head with a staff and spit on. A prickly crown of thorns was placed on his head and he was stripped naked. Too weak to carry his cross, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for him.

He was led to Golgotha where he would be crucified. As was the custom, before they nailed him to the cross, a mixture of vinegar, gall, and myrrh was offered. This drink was said to alleviate suffering, but Jesus refused to drink it. Stake-like nails were driven through his wrists and ankles, fastening him to the cross where he was crucified between two convicted criminals.

The inscription above his head tauntingly read, "The King of the Jews." Jesus hung on the cross for his final agonizing breaths, a period that lasted about six hours. During that time, soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothing, while people passed by shouting insults and scoffing. From the cross, Jesus spoke to his mother Mary and the disciple John. He also cried out to his father, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?"

At that point, darkness covered the land. A little later, as Jesus gave up his spirit, an earthquake shook the ground, ripping the Temple veil in two from top to bottom. Matthew's Gospel records, "The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life."

It was typical for Roman soldiers to show mercy by breaking the criminal's legs, thus causing death to come more quickly. But this night only the thieves had their legs broken, for when the soldiers came to Jesus, they found him already dead. Instead, they pierced his side. Before sunset, Jesus was taken down by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and laid in Joseph's tomb according to Jewish tradition.

The facts of crucifixion

This article is disturbing. There is nothing pleasant about crucifixion.

However, having an understanding of crucifixion helps us understand what Jesus went through on the day of his death. This article is based on various articles written by medical doctors, including a study by the Mayo Clinic published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1989.

Crucifixion probably started first with the Persians (what is modern day Iran). Initially, the victim was suspended to keep their feet from touching holy ground. The Phoenicians, traders to many lands, seem to have also acquired the practice and probably spread it to other cultures, including the Greeks.

Alexander the Great (a Greek) introduced the practice to Carthage, where it was picked up by the Romans. The Romans started using it around the time Jesus was born.

The Romans perfected crucifixion as a punishment designed to maximize pain and suffering. It wasnt about killing somebody — it was about killing somebody in a really horrible way. Someone who was crucified suffered the maximum amount of pain.

Crucifixion was also the most disgraceful form of execution. It was usually reserved for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and vile criminals. The only time a Roman citizen was ever crucified was for desertion from the army.

What was flogging?

Flogging, or scourging, was done before every crucifixion. The scourging was intended to bring a victim to a state just short of death.
Also, it hurt. A lot.

The whip had iron balls tied a few inches from the end of each leather thong on the whip. Sometimes, sharp sheep bones would be tied near the ends. The iron balls would cause deep bruising, while the leather thongs would cut into the skin. The sheep bones would hasten the process of cutting into the skin. After a few lashes, the skin would be cut through, and the muscles would begin to be cut. Blood loss was considerable, and the pain would probably have put the victim in a state of shock.

What was a typical crucifixion like?

After the flogging, the victim would carry his own cross bar (called a patibulum) from the flogging area inside the city to the crucifixion area outside of the city walls. The crucifixion area was always outside the city, because the process was horrible and disturbing to citizens.

The upright part of the cross (the stipe) was permanently mounted in the crucifixion area. The part that the victim carried was the cross bar, weighing in at 75 to 125 pounds. The cross bar would be balanced on the victims shoulders, and their arms would be tied to the crossbar. In this position, if the victim tripped or fell, they could not use their arms to break their fall, and they would likely fall face first into the ground.

The victim was escorted by a Roman guard (probably a centurion and several soldiers), who were responsible for guarding the victim until his death. One of the soldiers would display a sign with the crime written on it.

Once the crucifixion area was reached, the victim would be offered a drink of wine mixed with myrrh to act as a mild pain killer. The drink was a charitable service performed by an association of women in Jerusalem.

The victim would then be nailed to the cross bar. The nails would be driven through the wrists, not through the palms, as these would not support the body weight.

The cross bar would be raised and placed on the upright post, where the victims heels would be nailed to the post.

Once crucified, a victim would live for a period ranging from a few hours to a few days. How long he lived depended mostly on how severe the scourging was.

If no one claimed the body, it would be left on the cross to be eaten by predatory animals. The family could, however, claim the body for burial. In this case, a Roman soldier would pierce the chest with a sword or spear to make sure the victim was dead.

What actually kills the victim?

The initial scourging would weaken the victim, cause massive blood loss, and probably induce shock. By the time the victim had carried thecross bar to the crucifixion area, he would be exhausted.

Once up on the cross, the victim would have his body weight suspended by their arms. In this position, it is difficult to completely exhale. The victim could take shallow breaths for a while, but eventually would be forced to push himself up to take a full breath.

At this point three things happen:

  • The victim's weight is now fully supported by his feet. The nails through the feet would be likely to hit two major nerves running through the area. The result would be excruciating pain in the legs.
  • The nails in the wrists would be likely to pierce the main nerve running through the arm. As the victim pushed up to breath, the wrists would rotate against the nail, irritating the nerves and causing intense pain in the arms. Some authorities also believe that the crucifixion position would dislocate the shoulder or elbow. Any movement would aggravate the pain from these injuries.
  • The wounds on the victims back from the scourging would push up against the rough part of the centerpiece. This would tend to re-open the wounds, leading to more pain and blood loss.

This combination of pain would quickly force the victim to lower himself back down. Eventually, the victim would no longer be able to raise himself up and would suffocate. The shock from blood loss due to the scourging would hasten this process.

In some cases, the victims legs were broken to finish him off. This would prevent the victim from being able to raise himself up and hewould suffocate in a matter of minutes.

Specifics of Jesus crucifixion

Jesus crucifixion mostly followed the standard procedure, although there were some differences. These differences help account for the fact that he died after a relatively short period of time on the cross.

There is a condition called hemohidrosis or hematidrosis which occurs in people under extreme physical or emotional stress. The blood vessels in their sweat glands rupture and leak blood into their sweat. The effect is one of sweating blood. Several authorities believe that this is a plausible explanation for what happened to Jesus.

Although the loss of blood would not be significant, it shows that he was under extreme stress, which would have weakened him physically.

Before the scourging and crucifixion, Jesus was beaten by his guards, which would weaken him. In addition, he would have had no sleep that night, and walked back and forth from trial to trial.

Typically, a prisoner carried his own cross to the crucifixion site. The fact that Simon was pressed into carrying Jesus cross suggests that Jesus was too weak to carry his own cross.

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus body.

Since the Jewish Sabbath would begin at Sunset, it was important that the bodies not be left up, as Jewish law required that they be buried by the Sabbath.

Note that Pilate is surprised that Jesus is already dead.

As mentioned earlier, breaking the legs of a crucified person would cause suffocation within minutes, because they would not be able to raise themselves up to breath.

Again, this was typical crucifixion practice — to stab the victim to make sure he was dead before releasing him to relatives.

The water that John describes as flowing is probably serous pleural and pericardial fluid — fluid that would build up from shock and blood loss. This fluid would tend to accumulate in the chest cavity and lungs.

Short bits

The second drink, which He accepts moments before His death, is described as a wine vinegar. Two points are important to note. The drink was given on the stalk of a hyssop plant." Remember that these events occurred at the Feast of the Passover. During this feast, (Exod 12:22) hyssop was used to apply the blood of the Passover lamb to the wooden doorposts of the Jews.

Robert Gidley. "The facts of crucifixion." The Cross Reading (Lent, 2000).

The Cross Reading, is a quarterly publication of Holy Cross (Episcopal) Church in Redmond, Washington.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author. You may reprint this article as long as you don't charge people for it, and you send a copy to [email protected]


Robert Gidley. "The facts of crucifixion." The Cross Reading (Lent, 2000).

The Cross Reading, is a quarterly publication of Holy Cross (Episcopal) Church in Redmond, Washington.

This article is reprinted with permission from the author. You may reprint this article as long as you don't charge people for it, and you send a copy to [email protected]

The Author

Robert Gidley belongs to All Saints Episcopal Church in Redmond, Washington, where he also works as a Technical Writer. He has four computers, two cats, and one wife.

Luke 22:44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

"the Spirit of God. crushed"

From the upper room, Jesus went outside of the city walls where he spent time in prayer at the Garden of Gethesemane. The garden has many ancient olive trees today, some of which may have grown from the roots of the trees that were present in Jesus' time. (All trees in and around Jerusalem were cut down when the Romans conquered the city in 70 A.D. Olive trees can regenerate from their roots and live for thousands of years.) The name "Gethesemane", comes from the Hebrew Gat Shmanim, meaning "oil press" (Kollek). Since "oil" is used in the Bible to symbolize the Holy Spirit, it may be said that the garden is where "the Spirit of God was crushed".(Missler). It was here that Jesus agonized in prayer over what was to occur. It is significant that this is the only place in the KJV where the word "agony" is mentioned.(Strong's concordance) The Greek word for agony means to be "engaged in combat" (Pink) Jesus agonizes over what He is to go through, feeling that He is at the point of death.(Mark14:34) Yet He prays, "Not my will, but thine be done."

Of medical significance is that Luke mentions Him as having sweat like blood. The medical term for this, "hemohidrosis" or "hematidrosis" has been seen in patients who have experienced, extreme stress or shock to their systems. (Edwards) The capillaries around the sweat pores become fragile and leak blood into the sweat. A case history is recorded in which a young girl who had a fear of air raids in WW1 developed the condition after a gas explosion occurred in the house next door.(Scott)) Another report mentions a nun who, as she was threatened with death by the swords of the enemy soldiers," was so terrified that she bled from every part of her body and died of hemorrhage in the sight of her assailants."(Grafenberg) As a memorial to Jesus' ordeal, a church which now stands in Gethesemane is known as the Church of the Agony. (also called the Church of the Nations because many nations donated money to its construction.(Kollek)

Donatello, David

The following is a conversation about Donatello’s David between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker:

Donatello, David, c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

SZ: Seeing Donatello’s David in the Bargello in Florence makes me realize just how different it is from the later, more famous version of David by Michelangelo. It feels so much more intimate and so much less public.

BH: Well, it is MUCH smaller! After all, this one is only about five feet tall—that’s a few inches shorter than me. And Michelangelo’s David is more than three times this size!

SZ: Because of the small size, and perhaps also because of the warm tones of the bronze, this sculpture seems so immediate and beautiful and vulnerable.

BH: Yes, and of course, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture WAS a public sculpture—it was meant to go in a niche high up in one of the buttresses of the Cathedral of Florence, commissioned by the Office of Works for the Cathedral. We don’t know who commissioned Donatello’s David, but we do know that it was seen in the courtyard of the Medici Palace in Florence, a much more private and intimate setting.

SZ: This intimacy is not simply a result of the nudity, but also of the emotional experience Donatello renders through the face and even the stance of the body—and it’s so unexpected in the telling of the story of David and Goliath! I would expect rather a triumphal victorious figure, maybe holding the sword and the enemy’s severed head aloft… Instead, here is a thoughtful, quiet, contemplative face.

Donatello, David (detail), c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Donatello, David, c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

BH: I don’t know, he doesn’t look so contemplative to me—instead he seems proud of his victory over the giant Goliath—which is strange since the story is very much about how David defeats Goliath because he has God’s help—he doesn’t do it on his own!

SZ: Really? Look at his calm, downcast eyes… the lids are half closed. That is not the usual expression of victory. Note that the facial muscles are totally relaxed, the mouth is lightly closed though there is the slightest hint of a smile—and yes, that is subtle pride, but to me this is the face of interior thought not exterior boasting. It’s as if he is coming to terms with the events that have taken place, including God’s intervention, here Donatello foreshadows the wisdom that will define his later reign as king.

BH: Fair enough, perhaps it’s primarily his pose that speaks of pride to me. The relaxed contrapposto and the placement of his left hand nonchalantly on his hip feels to me like confidence and pride. His right hand holds the sword that he used to cut off Goliath’s head, which we see below, resting on a victory wreath. The gruesome head seems to conflict with the sensuality and beauty of the young David.

Goliath’s head (detail), Donatello, David, c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

SZ: Agreed. There is a certain swagger in that stance and the horrific contrast to the head of Goliath is wild and unnerving. But the contrapposto is also Donatello’s swagger, the sculptor’s rendering of David offers the most complete expression of this natural stance since antiquity. We know he was studying ancient Roman art with his friends, Masaccio and Brunelleschi and it’s worth noting that he reclaims more than just the classical knowledge of contrapposto, he has also reclaimed the large-scale bronze casting of the ancient world. It must have been such an extraordinary revelation for a culture that until this moment, had not seen human-scaled bronze figures.

BH: It IS amazing how Donatello, after a thousand years, reclaims the ancient Greek and Roman interest in the nude human body. Of course, artists in the middle ages, a period when the focus was on God and the soul, rarely represented the nude. Donatello does so here with amazing confidence, you’re right. In fact, this is the first free-standing nude figure since classical antiquity, and when you consider that, this achievement is even more remarkable! But let’s face it, there’s an undeniable sensuality here that almost makes us forget that we’re looking at an old testament subject.

Donatello, David, c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

SZ: Right, Donatello’s figure of David is almost too sensuous for the subject being represented. In some sense this isn’t really a Biblical representation at all Donatello seems to have used the excuse of the boy who eschews armor in order to represent not the Judaic tradition but instead the ancient Greek and Roman regard for the beauty of the human body and he uses the classical technique of lost wax to cast the form. Then, just like the Greeks and Romans, he worked the bronze to smooth the seams and the surface and to cut in details such as in the hair.

BH: I think it’s important to stress that this figure is free-standing. Sculpted figures have finally been detached from architecture and are once again independent in the way they were in ancient Greece and Rome. And because he’s free-standing, he is more human, more real. He seems able to move in the world, and of course the contrapposto does that too. It’s easy to imagine this figure in the Medici palace garden, surrounded by the ancient Greek and Roman sculpture that they were also collecting. I wish I could go back in time to Florence in the 1400s, to this remarkable moment, to witness the rebirth of Humanism.

SZ: I’d love to meet the artists and thinkers of the era but am not at all sure that I would find their world hospitable. Disease, want, cruelty, and a permanent hierarchy among social strata defined the period—not to mention the terrible position women found themselves in. You can go, I’ll stay here in the 21st century thank you!

BH: Like David, Florence was the underdog that withstood repeated attacks from Milan and yet, like young David, thanks to God’s favor, Florence was victorious (or at least that’s how the Florentines interpreted these events!). And as a result, many Florentine artists will tackle this subject.

SZ: True, and each one will have to grapple with Donatello’s great achievement.

David and Goliath

Donatello, David, c. 1440, bronze, 158 cm (Museo Nazionale de Bargello, Florence) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The subject of this sculpture is David and Goliath, from the Old Testament. According to the story, Israel (the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is threatened by Goliath, a “giant of a man, measuring over nine feet tall. He wore a bronze helmet and a coat of mail that weighed 125 pounds.” Goliath threatened the Israelites and demanded that they send someone brave enough to fight him. But the entire Israelite army is frightened of him. David, a young shepherd boy, asserts that he is going to fight the giant, but his father says, “There is no way you can go against this Philistine. You are only a boy, and he has been in the army since he was a boy!” But David insists that he can face Goliath and claims he has killed many wild animals who have tried to attack his flock, “The LORD who saved me from the claws of the lion and the bear will save me from this Philistine!” They try to put armor on David for the fight, but he takes it off. David faces Goliath and says to him,”You come to me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD Almighty—the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” David kills Goliath with one stone thrown from his sling into Goliath’s forehead. Then he beheads Goliath.

The people of Florence identified themselves with David—they believed that (like him) they defeated their enemy (the Duke of Milan) with the help of God.

The Critical Issue of the 21st century

The claim of many Muslims that Christ was never crucified, and that early Christians were mistaken or were myth-makers, goes against all the historical and intuitive evidence. The key issue between Christians and Muslims is not first and foremost the identity of Allah, but the fact and meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. This is also true for Judaism and Christianity: Who was this Jesus and why did he die? Both Judaism and Islam deny the essence of Christianity—that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah, the divine Son of God, who was crucified and raised from the dead to bring forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in him.

This makes Jesus incredibly relevant and controversial in the 21st century. The massive movement of Islam (over 1.3 billion people), and the comparatively small people of Israel have explosive significance in world affairs. The most critical issue between Islam and Judaism on the one hand, and Christianity on the other, is not whether Islam and Judaism are monotheistic. Nor is the issue whether Islam and Judaism try to honor Jesus. The issue is: Do Islam and Judaism—or any other faiths besides Christianity—cherish the righteous suffering and death of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, as the only ground of our acceptance with God?

The answer to that question is No. Only Christians base their acceptance with God on the death of a crucified, risen, and reigning person. All other faiths reject the unique saving relevance of Jesus Christ. That is the critical issue of the 21st century: What happened between man and God when Jesus Christ died?

Five myths about Jesus

Perhaps no historical figure is more deeply mired in legend and myth than Jesus of Nazareth. Outside of the Gospels — which are not so much factual accounts of Jesus but arguments about His religious significance — there is almost no trace of this simple Galilean peasant who inspired the world’s largest religion. But there’s enough biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus to raise questions about some of the myths that have formed around Him over the past 2,000 years.

1 . Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’s early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents about Him: the letters of Paul (written between A.D. 50 and 60) and the Gospel of Mark (written after A.D. 70). But as interest in the person of Jesus increased, the nascent Christian community tried to fill in the gaps of His youth to align His life and mission with the myriad, and often conflicting, prophecies about the messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.

One of those prophecies requires the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, the city where most scholars believe He was born, that He was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so He could be born in the same city as David.

For the evangelist Luke, the answer lay in a census called by Rome in A.D. 6, which he claims required every subject to travel to his ancestral home to be counted. Since Jesus’s father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his wife, Mary, left Nazareth for the city of David, where Jesus was born. And thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

Yet this Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria and Idumea — not Galilee, where Jesus’s family lived. What’s more, since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace.

Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem . . . from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”

2 . Jesus was an only child.

Despite the Catholic doctrine of His mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can be certain that the historical Jesus came from a large family with at least four brothers who are named in the Gospels — James, Joseph, Simon and Judas — and an unknown number of sisters. That Jesus had brothers and sisters is attested to repeatedly by the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Even the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus’s brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death.

Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brothers — “adelphos” — could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child.

3 . Jesus had 12 disciples.

This myth is based on a misunderstanding of the three categories of Jesus’s followers. The first was made up of those who came to hear Him speak or to be healed by Him whenever He entered a village or town. The Gospels refer to this group as “crowds.”

The second category was composed of those who followed Jesus from town to town, village to village. These were called disciples, and according to the Gospel of Luke, there were 70 or 72 of them, depending on which version of the text you believe.

The third category of Jesus’s followers was known as the apostles. These 12 men were no mere disciples, for they did not just follow Jesus from one place to another. Rather, they were given permission to go off on their own and preach His message independently and without supervision. They were, in other words, the chief missionaries of the Jesus movement.

4 . Jesus had a trial before Pontius Pilate.

The Gospels portray Pontius Pilate as an honest but weak-willed governor who was strong-armed by the Jewish authorities into sending a man he knew was innocent to the cross. The Pilate of history, however, was renowned for sending his troops onto the streets of Jerusalem to slaughter Jews whenever they disagreed with even the slightest of his decisions. In his 10 years as governor of Jerusalem, Pilate eagerly, and without trial, sent thousands to the cross, and the Jews lodged a complaint against him with the Roman emperor. Jews generally did not receive Roman trials, let alone Jews accused of rebellion. So the notion that Pilate would spend a moment of his time pondering the fate of yet another Jewish rabble-rouser, let alone grant him a personal audience, beggars the imagination.

It is, of course, conceivable that Jesus would have received an audience with the Roman governor if the magnitude of His crime warranted special attention. But any “trial” Jesus got would have been brief and perfunctory, its sole purpose to officially record the charges for which He was being executed.

5 . Jesus was buried in a tomb.

The Gospels say that after the crucifixion, Jesus’s body was brought down from the cross and placed in a tomb. If that were true, it would have been because of an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans.

Crucifixion was not just a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, some criminals were first executed and then nailed to a cross. The primary purpose of crucifixion was to deter rebellion that’s why it was always carried out in public. It was also why the criminal was always left hanging long after he died the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.

It is possible that, unlike practically every other criminal crucified by Rome, Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea. But it is not very likely.

Who Killed Jesus? The Historical Context of Jesus’ Crucifixion

Much of the scholarly discussion about the circumstances of Jesus’ death relates to the question of who was responsible for his arrest and crucifixion.

Who was responsible? The Jews or the Romans?

Historically, the primary responsibility has been placed on the Jewish leadership and the Jews in Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries, this has sometimes had tragic consequences, resulting in anti-Semitism and violence against Jews.

More recent trends in scholarship have shifted the blame to the Romans.

The tendency to blame the Jews, it is said, arose in the decades after the crucifixion with the church’s growing conflict with the synagogue and its desire to convince Rome that Christianity was no threat to the empire.

Most contemporary scholars recognize that there is not an either-or solution to this question, but that both Jewish and Roman authorities must have played some role in Jesus’ death.

First, Jesus was crucified—a Roman rather than a Jewish means of execution. (Stoning was the more common Jewish method.) There is good evidence that at this time the Jewish Sanhedrin did not have authority to carry out capital punishment (John 18:31 y. Sanh. 1:1 7:2). The Roman governor Pontius Pilate no doubt gave the orders for Jesus’ crucifixion, and Roman soldiers carried it out.

At the same time, all that we know about Jesus’ teachings and actions suggest that he was more apt to offend and provoke the Jewish religious leaders than the Roman authorities. It is unlikely that the Romans would have initiated action against him without prompting from the Jewish authorities.

So was Jesus crucified for political reasons or religious reasons?

Raising the question this way actually misrepresents first-century Judaism, in which religion and politics were inseparable. Jesus’ death was no doubt motivated by the perceived threat felt by the religio-political powers of his day.

Let’s take a look at the motivations, tendencies, and actions of these authorities.

The motivations of Pilate and the Romans

The evidence points to the conclusion that Jesus was executed by the Romans for sedition—rebellion against the government.

  1. First, he was crucified as “king of the Jews.” As noted in the last unit, the titulus on the cross announcing this is almost certainly historical.
  2. Second, he was crucified between two “robbers” or “criminals”—Roman terms used of insurrectionists (Mark 15:27 Matt. 27:38 Luke 23:33 John 19:18). Another insurrectionist, Barabbas, was released in his place (Mark 15:7 Matt. 27:16 Luke 23:19 John 18:40).
  3. Finally, the account of charges brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin in Luke’s Gospel are related to sedition: “And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king. . . . He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here’ ” (Luke 23:2, 5).

While this evidence confirms the charge against Jesus, it raises the mystifying question of why Jesus was crucified, since he had almost nothing in common with other rebels and insurrectionists of his day. He advocated love for enemies and commanded his followers to respond to persecution with acts of kindness (Matt. 5:38–48 Luke 6:27–36). He affirmed the legitimacy of paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:14, 17 Matt. 22:17, 21 Luke 20:22, 25). At his arrest, he ordered his disciples not to fight but to put away their swords (Matt. 26:52 Luke 22:49–51). His few enigmatic sayings about taking up the sword probably carry spiritual rather than military significance (Matt. 10:34 Luke 22:36, 38).

Jesus’ kingdom preaching would hardly be viewed by Pilate as instigating a military coup.

Furthermore, the fact that Jesus’ followers were not rounded up and executed after his death, and were even allowed to form a faith community in Jerusalem, confirms that Jesus was not viewed as inciting a violent insurrection. The early church was surely following the teaching of its master when it advocated a life of love, unity, and self sacrifice (Acts 2:42–47 4:32–35).

Why did Pilate have Jesus crucified?

While it is unlikely that Pilate viewed Jesus as a significant threat, he also had little interest in justice or compassion.

We know from other sources that Pilate’s governorship was characterized by a general disdain toward his Jewish subjects and brutal suppression of opposition. At the same time, his support from Rome was shaky at best, and he feared antagonizing the Jewish leadership lest they complain to the emperor. Pilate had originally been appointed governor of Judea in AD 26 by Sejanus, an advisor to Emperor Tiberius. When Sejanus was caught conspiring against Tiberius and was executed in AD 31, Pilate too came under suspicion. Pilate’s tenuous position is well illustrated by the Jewish philosopher Philo, who writes about an incident when the Jews protested against Pilate’s actions in placing golden shields in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem:

He feared that if they actually sent an embassy [to Rome] they would also expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injustices, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty. So with all his vindictiveness and furious temper, he was in a difficult position.*

While Philo may be exaggerating Pilate’s faults, the picture here is remarkably similar to that of the Gospels—an unscrupulous and self-seeking leader who loathed the Jewish leadership but feared antagonizing them.

When the Jewish leaders warn Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12), he would surely have felt both anger and fear.

Most likely, Pilate ordered Jesus’ execution for three reasons:

  1. It placated the Jewish leaders and so headed off accusations against him to Rome.
  2. It preemptively eliminated any threat Jesus might pose if the people actually tried to make him a king.
  3. It ruthlessly warned other would-be prophets and messiahs that Rome would stand for no dissent.

Jewish opposition to Jesus

During Jesus’ Galilean ministry, he faced opposition primarily from the Pharisees and their scribes.

In his last week in Jerusalem, the opposition came especially from the priestly leadership under the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin, which was dominated by the Sadducees.

Torah (the law) and temple were the two great institutions of Judaism. Jesus apparently challenged the authority and continuing validity of both, posing a significant threat to Israel’s leadership.

Why the Pharisees opposed Jesus

The opposition Jesus faced from the Pharisees and scribes centered especially on his teaching and actions relating to the law and the Sabbath. He claimed authority over the law, treated the Sabbath command as secondary to human needs, and accused the Pharisees of elevating their oral law—mere human traditions—over the commands of God. He also accused them of pride, hypocrisy, and greed, warning the people to do as they say but not as they do (Matt. 23:3). These actions certainly did not win him friends among the religious leaders.

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God and his calling of twelve disciples would have also provoked anger among the Pharisees, who considered themselves the rightful guardians of Israel’s traditions.

Jesus’ call for them to repent, his warning of coming judgment, and his actions in creating a new community of faith all sent the message that Israel needed restoration and that her leaders were illegitimate and corrupt. In the boiling cauldron of religion and politics that was first-century Palestine, Jesus’ words would have provoked strong opposition.

Why the Sadducees opposed Jesus

While Jesus certainly made enemies before his final journey to Jerusalem, it was the events of the final week which resulted in his crucifixion.

In fact, Jesus’ clearing of the temple is widely recognized as the key episode which provoked the Jewish authorities to act against him. His attacks were aimed at the Sadducees, who represented the religious leadership of Jerusalem.

Here’s what happened: in Mark’s account of Jesus’ Jewish trial, “false witnesses” are brought forward who testify, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ ” The high priest then questions him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” to which Jesus’ replies, “I am . . . and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest responds with rage and accuses Jesus of blasphemy. The whole assembly calls for his death (Mark 14:58–65 cf. Matt. 26:55–68 Luke 22:66–71).

Questioning the historicity of Jesus’ trial

Some have questioned the historicity of this scene, claiming it violates Jewish trial procedures. For example, the Mishnah states that it is illegal for the Sanhedrin to meet at night, on the eve of Passover, or in the high priest’s home.

A second hearing would also have been necessary for a death sentence, and a charge of blasphemy could be sustained only if Jesus had uttered the divine name of God (m. Sanh. 4:1 5:5 7:5 11:2).

This argument is not decisive for four reasons:

  1. First, the procedures set out in the Mishnah were codified in AD 200 and may not all go back to the time of Jesus.
  2. Second, even if they do go back to the first century, they represent an ideal situation which may or may not have been followed in Jesus’ case. The existence of guidelines suggests abuses in the past. They may have arisen as correctives to illegitimate trials like this one.
  3. Third, the Mishnah represents predominantly Pharisaic traditions, but the Sadducees were dominant in the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day.
  4. Finally, there is good evidence that blasphemy was sometimes used in Judaism in a broader sense than uttering the divine name, including actions like idolatry, arrogant disrespect for God, or insulting his chosen leaders.

On closer inspection, Mark’s trial account makes good sense when viewed in the context of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus’ temple action would naturally have prompted the high priest to ask if he was making a messianic claim.

Jesus’ response combines two key Old Testament passages, Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. The first indicates that Jesus will be vindicated by God and exalted to a position at his right hand. The latter suggests Jesus will receive sovereign authority to judge the enemies of God.

By combining these verses, Jesus asserts that the Sanhedrin is acting against the Lord’s anointed, that they will face judgment for this, and that Jesus himself will be their judge!

Such an outrageous claim was blasphemous to the body, which viewed itself as God’s appointed leadership, the guardians of his holy temple. Jesus was challenging not only their actions but also their authority and legitimacy. Such a challenge demanded a response.

What a rebellion would mean

There were also political and social consequences to consider. Jesus’ actions in the temple—probably viewed by the Sanhedrin as an act of sacrilege—together with his popularity among the people, made it imperative to act against him quickly and decisively.

A disturbance of the peace might bring Roman retribution and disaster to the nation and its leaders. The earlier words of the Pharisees and chief priests in John are plausible in this scenario: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:48).

The Sanhedrin therefore turned Jesus over to Pilate, modifying their religious charges to political ones—sedition and claiming to be a king in opposition to Caesar—and gaining from Pilate a capital sentence.

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* See Philo, Legum allegoriae 302f. (Colson, LCL). Pilate was eventually recalled to Rome in AD 36 after a typically ruthless military action against the Samaritans (Josephus, Ant. 18.4.2 §§85–87).

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The Criminal Penalty of Crucifixion

Every year in the time leading up to Easter reenactments of the suffering and execution of Jesus Christ take place around the world. While the story of Christ’s crucifixion is nearly universally known, knowledge about crucifixion as criminal punishment, its widespread use and the horrible nature of death is not. The brutal[1] method of execution dates at least to the 7 th Century BC and remains the law in some countries today.

As a method of execution, in which the condemned prisoner is tied or nailed to a large tree or wooden cross and left to hang there until dead, crucifixion is perhaps the death penalty at its worst.

Retribution, Incapacitation and Deterrence

Criminal punishment has several ends among them are retribution, deterrence and incapacitation.[2] Crucifixion certainly addresses these goals, in the cruelest fashion.

Retribution imposes suffering for the alleged crime and incapacitation imposes an inability to repeat the crime. Crucifixion’s pain and death serves those ends. The most repressive regimes impose the most abhorrent penalties, perhaps as much for deterrence as for retribution and incapacitation.

That Jesus was taken down from the Cross soon after he died was unusual.[3] Typically, following a crucifixion, the condemned were left hanging as a public display. This was a warning to others: Do not do what this man did as you will suffer the same fate. It was publicly conducted to serve as a warning and deterrent for those who might consider disobeying the law. An excerpt from Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ represents vividly the cruel nature of crucifixion.

From the Persians to the Romans

Crucifixions are recorded among ancient civilizations, originating with the Persians. The original crucifixions were not on a cross traditionally associated with Jesus. The victim was tied or impaled upon a single upright stake. The victim’s hands and feet were bound and nailed to the stake using just one nail through both wrists and one nail through both ankles, with a wooden plank fastened to the stake as a footrest.

From the Persians, crucifixions spread to the Assyrians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans, Celts and Britons. Execution by crucifixion became common under the rule of Greek King Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). Eventually, crucifixion became the principal Roman form of capital punishment. During the Roman Empire, violent offenders, those guilty of high treason, despised enemies, deserters, slaves and foreigners were crucified.

Roman citizens, especially the upper class, were generally exempt from such a shameful death regardless of their crime (St. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded). The explanation for this was that crucifixion was not just an execution, but a show of shame and disgrace.

The Legal Basis for Jesus’ Crucifixion

There is controversy over the criminal charges that were used to justify Jesus’ crucifixion. Ultimately, at His trial Jesus was asked by Pontius Pilate if He was a king. Though He denied ruling an earthly kingdom, the Roman legal system branded Him a traitor, guilty of treason. His was a capital offense requiring the death penalty of crucifixion.

Cause of Death by Crucifixion

Death could come in hours or days, depending on the methods used, the health of the person crucified and environmental circumstances.

One theory holds that death was caused by asphyxiation. With the whole body weight borne by the stretched arms, the victim’s ability to exhale was severely compromised. In order to breathe the victim would have to draw himself up by his arms, or have his feet supported by tying or by a wood block.

Roman executioners would break a victim’s legs in order to hasten death. The two thieves on either side of Christ had their legs broken. With broken legs a man could not support himself to breathe and died within a few minutes. This cause of death bears resemblance to how the novel corona virus kills by destroying lung function.

It was typical to prepare a condemned for crucifixion by inflicting other wounds. Each wound was intended to produce intense agony. This is consistent with accounts of Christ’s scourging.[4]

While asphyxiation has been proposed as the principal cause of death from crucifixion, the fact remains that sometimes individuals survived on a cross for days. Modern science has proposed that death resulted from a number of other causes, including physical shock, dehydration, and exhaustion. Historical records indicate that besides the breaking of legs, death could be hastened by building a fire below the cross with the smoke choking the victim, or inflicting additional wounds.[5]

A 2006 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine looked at medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion. The conclusion of the study, given that the researchers could not humanely reenact an actual crucifixion was that “there is insufficient evidence to safely state exactly how people did die from crucifixion in Roman times”.

Crucifixion in the Modern World

Though of ancient origin and brutal in its application, crucifixion has survived to modern times in parts of the world. German soldiers are said to have crucified a Canadian during World War I. In Japan it was used for prisoners[6] during World War II. Crucifixion as a criminal punishment remains as part of Iran’s Islamic Criminal Law. Crucifixion survives as part of the penal code in Sudan. In March, 2013, a man convicted of armed robbery in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to be crucified for three days.

The Easter season involves remembrances of Christ’s suffering and death. For Christians it has special theological meaning involving God’s love and His sacrifice. Attention to the nature of Christ’s death and its use through history should remind all of us of the need to battle the darkest sides of humanity.

[1] The painful nature of crucifixion has become part of the English language with the word excruciating, literally translated as “out of the cross”.

[2] There is generally a fourth goal of criminal punishment: rehabilitation. As crucifixion is a death sentence, rehabilitation is obviously not a goal of a government inflicting that punishment.

[3] Pontius Pilate took into consideration Jewish Passover beliefs and traditions, and in response to a special request allowed Jesus’ body to be removed and buried: “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).

[4] The crown of thorns served two purposes, one of additional pain and the second of humiliation for the “King of the Jews”.

[5] While the spear in Christ’s side comes to mind, biblical accounts indicate that this was to be certain He had died and that in fact He was dead when his side was pierced.

[6] An Australian soldier, Ringer Edwards, survived a 63 hour ordeal of crucifixion at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.

Watch the video: The Crucifixion (October 2021).