Jesus Christ: A Closer Look at the Crucifixion

Today, some methods of execution, such as electrocution, are called “cruel and unusual punishment.” No execution mode ever fit that definition more than crucifixion. After the criminal was condemned by the Roman authorities to die by crucifixion, he was usually scourged with a whip. The convicted person was then compelled to carry the crossbar (when there was one) to the execution site.

Was Jesus hung on a tree?

The New Testament uses the word tree five times to refer to Christ’s crucifixion on a cross (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24). Most of the time, the noun stauros (stake) and the verb stauroo (crucify) are used in connection with Jesus’ death. These two words appear 74 times in the New Testament.

One of the five appearances of tree occurs in Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” wrote Paul, “for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Paul was quoting a phrase found in Deuteronomy 21:23.

Paul was referring to the Torah’s prescribed form of execution by stoning for blasphemy and idolatry. After being stoned to death, the person’s body was hung on a tree to show that the individual was under God’s curse. To the Jews, hanging on a tree had become a metaphor for an apostate, a blasphemer or a person under God’s curse. That’s how the Jews viewed Jesus (John 5:18; 10:33; Matthew 26:63-65).

Their attitude would explain why Peter and Paul sometimes used the Greek word for “tree” (xylon) to describe Jesus’ execution, even though he was crucified on a cross. Three times in the book of Acts the word tree is used to refer to Jesus’ crucifixion. In these cases, it appears in a Jewish context as well.

For example, Peter told the Jewish authorities they had killed Christ “by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30). Peter was denouncing them for wrongly having subjected Jesus to a humiliating death. But, said Peter, God had glorified Jesus by raising him from the dead (verse 31). Peter did not mean to say the Jews had personally carried out a crucifixion. When Pilate suggested that the Jewish religious leaders judge Jesus, they said, “We have no right to execute anyone” (John 18:31).

Peter’s remark to the religious authorities was meant to point out something else. By clamoring to the Roman authorities for Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s as though they had hung him on a tree as a blasphemer or criminal.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states, “In Judea at the time of Jesus sentencing to crucifixion and execution was entirely in the hands of the Roman authorities” (vol. 1, page 392). The Romans did not hang criminals from trees, except perhaps in exceptional cases. When they crucified, the Romans used some form of a cross — a platform that had a crossbar attached to the main vertical stake.

What kind of cross?

The New Testament word cross is a translation of the Greek word stauros. It referred to any upright wooden stake. A stauros could serve a variety of purposes as, for example, a pole in a picket fence. The word stauros could also refer to a pointed stake used for impalement of human beings. This was an ancient form of punishment used to publicly display the bodies of executed criminals. The Assyrians, for example, used impalement to execute deserters, captured enemies and rebels. Sometimes they displayed the corpses or heads impaled on stakes.

The Greek words stauros (stake) and stauroo (crucifixion) do not convey the exact technical form of execution. That is, to be executed by crucifixion was not the same as being hung on a simple upright stake. This distinction is important because the official mode of execution in the Roman Empire changed. However, the same Greek words were used to describe it because a stake was still used.

The execution stake, once used to impale a victim, became a vertical pole with a horizontal crossbar placed across it at some point, though it is not certain when, in history, the crossbar started to be used. Simple impalement became crucifixion.

By New Testament times, the Romans were using several cross forms for crucifixion. One was the so-called St. Anthony’s cross, shaped like a T. Another was called the Latin cross, in which a horizontal crossbar intersected the upright beam somewhere along its upper half. One of these two cross forms most likely was used for the execution of Jesus Christ.

Earliest tradition held that the Latin form was the shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The theologian Irenaeus (a.d. 120-202) assumed Jesus was crucified on a stake with a crossbar that traversed the vertical beam below the top (Against Heresies, 2.24.4).

There is another indication that Jesus’ cross was taller than the crossbar. His cross had an inscription nailed to it. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “From the mention of an inscription nailed above the head of Jesus it may safely be inferred that this was the form of the cross on which He died.” All four Gospel writers mentioned this inscription (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38). John wrote: “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

We have few detailed descriptions of crucifixion. Secular writers avoided giving details of something too ghastly to discuss. That means we cannot come to any final conclusion as to the precise form of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. But as stated, either the Latin or the T-shaped cross is the best candidate.

Archaeology does give us one vital clue as to the kinds of crosses used in Jesus’ time by the Roman authorities. In June 1968, a tomb or depository for the bones of the dead was discovered on Ammunition Hill, north of Jerusalem. It contained the bones of a young man who had been crucified, probably between a.d. 7 and a.d. 66.

The remains included the victim’s two heel bones fastened together by a nail. His arms — not his hands — were nailed to the crossbar. The weight of the young man’s body was borne by a plank nailed to the upright beam. This would have supported his buttocks. The victim’s legs had been bent at the knees. Both of his legs had been broken, as were the legs of the two criminals crucified with Jesus Christ (John 19:32). “If Jesus died in similar fashion,” says the New Bible Dictionary, “then his legs were not fully extended as in traditional Christian art.”

Also, the victim’s feet were probably only inches above the ground. If that is so, we need to revise our mental image of Jesus’ crucifixion on this point as well. Based on such archaeological discoveries, the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states, “It seems that the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus describe a standard Roman procedure for crucifixion.”

How a crucifixion was carried out

The upright stake for the crucifixion had probably already been securely implanted in the ground. Or it could have been tethered to the crossbar at the place of execution and then lifted into place. The crucifixion usually took place outside the city walls. As the victim carried the wooden crossbar, a herald walked in front, carrying the written accusation. Or the accusation was placed around the convicted person’s neck, then removed and nailed to the cross for all to see.

At the execution spot, the condemned person was stripped naked and laid on the ground with his shoulders on the crossbeam. The victim’s arms were then outspread, and his arms or hands tied or nailed to the wooden beam. The crossbar with the victim was then lifted and secured to the upright post. The victim’s feet were then tied or nailed to the upright post.

Death was slow and agonizing, sometimes taking days. Eventually, it would come through loss of blood and shock. Exposure, exhaustion, disease and hunger would also contribute to death. Death of the crucified individual could be speeded up. This was accomplished by breaking the victim’s legs below the knees with a club, making it impossible for the person to breathe. Usually the body was left on the cross to rot, or it might provide food for predatory animals and birds. In some instances, as in the case of Jesus, the body was given to friends or relatives for burial.

For many people, the portrayal of Jesus on the cross is sacred. Some people have made the cross itself an object of adoration. However, it is Christ crucified — and now resurrected – we should worship, not the instrument of his death.

The cross as a symbol

Jesus said, “Anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). He also said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23).

“Carrying the cross” is a meaningful analogy. When the Romans crucified an individual, the condemned person was forced to carry the crossbar, on which the body would be nailed or tied, to the execution site.

The suffering of the crucifixion made the cross a dramatic symbol of pain, distress and burden-bearing. Jesus used the cross as a symbol to portray the spiritual sacrifice required of his followers.

Author: Paul Kroll

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