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A Deeper Look at Crucifixion

October 23, 2017

Throughout history, crucifixion has been considered one of the most ruthless and shameful ways to bring about the death of a person. 

The knowledge that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was willing to endure such a horrific death has inspired authors, artists, and musicians to create masterpieces, while giving others the strength to brave persecution and death in the name Jesus, their Lord.  However, the 21st century is far removed from the time in history when crucifixion was commonly used as a form of torture and execution.  Scholars and researchers over the years have uncovered the true brutality of crucifixion and how it ties in to the meaning of the death of Jesus.

 

The Purpose of Crucifixtion

 

            While the Romans were the ones to perfect the torture of crucifixion, it was around long before their empire ruled.  It is likely that crucifixion began with the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  The Persians most definitely used it as a mode of death in the 6th century B.C.  Rome started putting it into practice during the 3rd century B.C., when it was made known to them by the Phoenicians.  For about 500 years the Romans used crucifixion to strike fear into those who would oppose them, until Constantine I eradicated it in the 4th century A.D.[1]            

The purpose of crucifixion was to bring about the maximum amount of pain and shame to the person who was hanging from the cross. 

Cicero said that crucifixion was, “…the cruelest and foulest of all punishments.”[2]  Usually those who suffered the indignity and agony of crucifixion were slaves, bandits, rebels, thieves, disgraced soldiers, foreigners, or those who caused trouble for Rome. Typically, Roman citizens were spared the humiliation of crucifixion.[3]

            There were many different ways that a person’s body could be positioned during crucifixion. Sometimes a person was crucified upside down, fasted to the cross with either nails or rope. A person who was crucified upside down died quickly, as pressure built in the heart and it ruptured.[4] The most common method of crucifixion was having the arms tied or nailed to the crossbeam and the feet fastened or nailed to the upright beam. Sometimes a small ledge was included on the upright beam where the person could sit. This seat was not there to assist the person on the cross, but rather the purpose was to prolong the torture and execution.[5] When the person did finally succumb to death, it was due to multiple factors. Many were severely scourged and beaten before even making it to the cross, and were then required to help carry the wood to their place of execution. From the person’s treatment before the cross, his blood volume was often low, which could lead to hypoglycemic shock. Blood loss and dehydration also could lead to hypovolemic shock. If he was crucified on a hot day, then he could suffer from heatstroke, and if it was in a cold area, hypothermia. Due to the extreme trauma the person’s body was enduring, he could develop arrhythmias and irregular heart beats or lung clots.[6] What every person endured while on the cross was suffocation. For the length of time the person was hanging, he was progressively asphyxiated. To take a breath, he would have to push up on his feet, causing himself immense pain. [7] 

Since the Roman guards were not allowed to leave the execution until the person had died, sometimes they would break the legs, spear the heart, or build a fire at the base of the cross to more quickly suffocate the person. 

It could take anywhere between 6 hours to 4 days for a person to finally take their last breath.[8]

 

The Meaning of Jesus' Death

 

            Jesus was crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist who threatened Rome.  The Jewish leaders brought Jesus to the Roman authorities, since their own law precluded them from crucifying Jesus themselves.  The Roman guards treated Jesus as a revolutionary by mocking Him as king, placing on Him a robe and crown, and labeling Him as “the king of the Jews.”[9]    While the Jewish leaders and Rome instigated Jesus’ death, He went to the cross in obedience to the will of God.  There is immense significance and meaning behind His death.

            Jesus’ death was an act of redemption for humanity.  Ephesians 1:7, Hebrews 9:12, and 1 Timothy 2:6, all describe Jesus’ life as a ransom that obtained for God a people devoted to Him, coming from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9).  Jesus’ death was a victory; it freed people from the powers that hold them in bondage, and from sin and death.[10] 

            Jesus’ death brought mercy and forgiveness to those who accept Him as Savior.[11]  Jesus’ death is a covering for sin and placates God’s wrath.  It is through Jesus’ sacrifice that God is able to forgive people’s sins and call them righteous.  The relationship between God and man is restored.  Hebrews 2:17 says that Jesus atoned for the sins of the people.  Romans 3:25-26 states that because of Jesus’ death, those who place their faith in Him will be justified. 

            Jesus’ death brings about reconciliation between God and man.[12]  Romans 5:10-11 says that it is through the death of Jesus that people can be reconciled to God, and no longer be His enemies, but rather saved.  2 Corinthians 5:18 states that it was God who set this reconciliation into motion, seeking to restore relationships through the death of His Son.  It was God’s plan all along to bring people into a right relationship with Him.  This reconciliation is not just for humanity, but also for all of creation.  Through Jesus’ sacrifice, one day all of the cosmos will live in harmony.

            Jesus’ death is an example for mankind. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus use His life and death as an example of how they are to live.  Jesus’ sacrifice influences His follower’s thoughts, actions, and attitudes, as they live their lives to bring glory to God.  Philippians 2:3-8 depicts Jesus as an example of humility.  1 Peter 2:21-23 shows that Jesus was the perfect model for patient suffering.  Ephesians 5:2 says that Jesus is the standard for how His people are to love.

            Throughout history, crucifixion has always been considered one of the absolute worst ways to die, bringing the person agony and shame as they died.  Yet, Jesus, the Son of God, chose to let Himself be executed in such a manner.  While crucifixion might feel far removed from life in the 21st century, Jesus’ sacrifice has not been forgotten, nor has the significance and meaning behind His death faded or become obsolete.  His obedience to God brought mankind redemption, forgiveness and mercy, reconciliation, and stands as an example to all who put their faith in Him. 

To those who believe in Jesus as their Savior, His sacrifice will never be taken lightly.

[1] F.P. Retief, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion.” US National Library of Medicine 93, no. 12 (2003) 

[2] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 366. 

[3] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: an essential guide. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 120.

[4] Johnna Rizzo, “How the Romans Used Crucifixion – Including Jesus’ – As a Political Statement.” Newsweek Special Edition (March 4, 2016), http://www.newsweek.com/how-romans-used-crucifixion-including-jesus-political-weapon-318934 (accessed 09-Mar-2017).

[5] Bruce, The Gospel of John, 367

[6] Rizzo “How the Romans Used Crucifixion”  

[7] Retief, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion”

[8] Richard A. Horsley, In the shadow of empire: reclaiming the Bible as a history of faithful resistance. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 75.

[9] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 345-346.

[10] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 349-347.  

[11] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 347-348.

[12] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 345.

 

 

 

 

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