III. What is Crucifixion?
Merriam Webster's definition
"to put to death by nailing or binding the wrists or hands and feet to a cross"
Merriam Webster's definition
"causing excessive mental/or physical pain or anguish, very intense"
Origin and Etymology
Latin excruciatus, past participle of excruciare, from ex- + cruciare to crucify, from cruc-, crux cross, excruciatus, or "out of the cross."
In other words, there were no words in antiquity to describe the type and amount of pain a person experienced when they were crucified; therefore excruciatus, or "out of the cross" was invented.
Martin Hengel (1926-2009, German historian of religion, focusing on the Hellenistic Period of early Judaism and Christianity) points out in his book "Crucifixion," on page 22-23 entitled "Crucifixion as a 'Barbaric' Form of Execution of the Utmost Cruelty"
"As a rule, books on the subject say that crucifixion began among the Persians. This is true to the extent that we already find numerous references to crucifixion as a form of execution among the Persians in Herodotus, and these can be supplemented by later evidence from Ctesias. However, according to the ancient sources crucifixion was regarded as a mode of execution used by barbaric peoples generally, including the Indians, the Assyrians, the Scythians and the Taurians. It was even used by the Celts who according to Posidonius offered their criminals in this way as a sacrifice to the gods, and later by the Germani and the Britanni, who may well have taken it over from the Romans and combined it with their own forms of punishment. Finally, it was employed by the Numidians and especially by the Carthaginians, who may be the people from whom the Romans learnt it."
The crucifixion practice in antiquity was borrowed, but you can be sure that the Romans perfected it. Its effects were made for a very slow, painful, agonizing, and humiliating death. Crucifixion was reserved for criminals of the most heinous crimes and treason. It was a gruesome public site that people experienced, lived, and viewed with their own eyes, day in and day out.
I think that this contributes to the reason why the Gospel writers did not go into great detail about this savagely cruel process. It was just not necessary because the word said it all. The idiomatic expression, "the elephant in the room," in the time of antiquity was perhaps crucifixion. It was a very large issue that everyone was acutely aware of because crucifixions were always done in public. As a matter of fact, only the most visibly and prominent places were selected, usually at a crossroads, in the theatre, or elsewhere on higher ground for all to see. Victims were also usually crucified naked and all of this gives reason to intensify the sense of both personal and social humiliation. No doubt, these barbaric visual scenes were a constant gross reminder for men, women, and children, both locals and outsiders, to refrain from criminal activity, obey the law, and know that Rome was in charge.
With these graphic and vivid scenes happening people did their best to try and ignore it and nobody surly wanted to write about it or even talk about it in great detail, because a discussion about it would be a bit uncomfortable. The rationale behind the "elephant in the room" idiom is that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook, but people in the room can nevertheless choose to behave as if the elephant was non-existent.
Seeing a person or many people being crucified at the same time in antiquity had to have been a heart breaking event, even though the ones being crucified were thought to be criminals. Did the general public really think everyone that was being crucified were getting what they deserved?
Just imagine yourself in the time of antiquity walking down a road with your young children...
Then imagine coming to a cross roads and seeing naked individuals hanging from a cross who were crucified two or three days prior...
One or two of them may be dead because the smell of death is in the air and the hot mid day sun is making the stench unbearable..
Vultures are pecking away at the two rotting carcasses, while wild dogs are licking their chops anxiously awaiting for some scraps to fall to the ground...
But you can see that the other individual is still alive, barely hanging on, as you observe him blink his eyes, and hear him whisper, "Please help me. Have mercy. I am innocent."
What would you say to your children?
"Don't look away! Look at these people. They got what they deserved!"
"Look away. Ignore it. Forget it ever happened. We will never discuss this again."
And then go on your way in silence or try to change the subject to a more upbeat conversation, in dire hopes that there will not be another crucifixion along the way in your travels for you and your children to have to see and try to ignore?
The "elephant in the room" would have truly been crucifixion in the time of antiquity if you were to go the route with the second proposal, as your children would never forget this horrid, barbaric, and inhumane image. Now, although this was an imaginary scenario that I just made up, it is quite probable that instances occurred such as this quite frequently.
From what we know about the horrors of crucifixion, it could not only have just been painful for the one being crucified, but for anyone who had a conscience and was a witness to the event must have been scarred and traumatized in some way, shape, or form. This would be especially true for the family or friends of the person being crucified who witnessed the event.
Titus Flavius Josephus was a first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, historian, and hagiographer. He is our best literary source for the practice of crucifixion in Palestine during the Greco-Roman period. I am now going to share some of his records about crucifixion (there are more), only in part, to show how brutal this process was. The sheer numbers of how many people were crucified at a time will blow your mind. It is almost impossible to fathom the incredible and disturbing sites..
Antiquities 13: Chapter 14
Alexander Jannaeus, the Maccabean king (103-76 B.C.E.), turns against the Pharisees and has hundreds crucified.
"... for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. This was indeed by way of revenge for the injuries they had done him; which punishment yet was of an inhuman nature,..."
Antiquities 17: Book 10
Following the death of Herod in 4 B.C.E. there were outbreaks of revolt throughout Judea. Varus, the Roman legate of Syria took two legions and brutally pacified the country, particularly in Galilee.
"... he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. ..."
War 5: Chapter 11
Josephus reports that the Romans crucified many before the walls of Jerusalem during the siege of 70 C.E. The idea was to terrorize the population and force a surrender. The number reached 500 a day at one point until there was no wood left in the area...
..." and when they were going to be taken, they were forced to defend themselves for fear of being punished; as after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so 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: yet it did not appear to be safe for him to let those that were taken by force go their way, and to set a guard over so many he saw would be to make such as great deal them useless to him. 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."
Jewish War 4: Chapter 5
Josephus reports on the Jewish custom of taking down the bodies of those crucified by the Romans during the Great Revolt and burying them, if permitted, before sundown. This was in response to the Torah Mitzvah found in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
"...although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun. ..."
At the time of this next writing Josephus was a general in command of the Jewish forces of Galilee in the Great Revolt against Rome (66-73 C.E.). He reports his attempts to save the lives of three crucified captives who were his friends by appealing directly to the Roman general Titus. One survived the cross under a physician’s care, the other two could not be saved. It is interesting to note that this is the only recorded survival of a crucifixion. Three people were saved from crucifixion; no doubt then received medical attention from Rome's best physicians at the time, and only one person survived. It just goes to show that the crucifixion sole purpose is to end the life of the individual.
"And when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealins, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered."
Antiquities 18: Chapter 3
I'll now end with Josephus mentioning the crucifixion of Jesus. Although he only mentions it in passing, it gives way to address the specific topic of Jesus' crucifixion, what we can gather from the Gospels, what we know from other sources, and try to put it all together.
"...And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross..."