April 14, 2017

Holy Week: What was crucifixion like?



Crucifixion was one of the most dreaded and painful forms of execution in ancient times. Thousands of crucifixions were performed by the Romans, the most famous of course being Jesus Christ. Yet, because almost all depictions of Jesus on the cross were painted centuries later, our image of the death of Christ is in many ways incorrect. Understanding Jesus' death, though gruesome and painful in nature, can help us better understand the incredible love that the Savior has for us because of what he was willing to endure.

Crucifixion was often first preceded with the painful process of flogging or scourging, as is the case of Jesus. The scouring was done to physically weaken the condemned person, accentuating the already painful process of crucifixion. The whip, or flagrum, was made of strips of leather fastened to a handle, with broken glass, nails, bone, and lead weights fastened to the end of the strips. The flagrum was designed to rip through the flesh, tearing skin and muscle from the bone. The powerful symbol of the sacrament bread, which represents Christ flesh, being torn apart, is an apt reminder of the scourging that Jesus endured on our behalf.



Once flogged, the convicted person was made to carry his own cross through the city till they arrived at the place of execution. Unlike most depictions showing Jesus carrying an entire cross, the condemned man instead would actually only carry the cross piece. This was because of the incredible weight of a full cross, and because wood was such a scarce resource that it was common to use an already existing tree, or permanent post as the base of the cross. The fact that Jesus may have been crucified on a living tree, brings beauty to the title of Jesus as the Tree of Life.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified at "a place called Golgotha" from the Hebrew word meaning skull, most likely referring to a knoll or small hill, shaped like a bare skull. Today in Jerusalem there are two main traditional locations for Golgotha, the hill top in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Skull Hill, just outside Damascus gate.

The first location was chosen by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, in about 325 AD, because of several earlier traditions that marked this as the place. Today, the hill is located within this enormous church under slabs of stone, with only portions of the original hill visible behind sheets of glass. Interestingly, it because of this church, with its steep steps that lead up to the traditional place of crucifixion, that we so often see paintings and film depicting the crosses on top of a hill. However, Rome did not generally crucify on the tops of hills away from onlookers, but instead, right next to the main roads and gates of the city. Crosses were also much shorter then normally depicted, so as to bring their victims as low as possible placing them almost at eye level with onlookers. This was so that all who passed by would vividly see the consequences of opposing Rome.

The other traditional site, Skull Hill or Gordon's Calvary, was identified only about 175 years ago. It was chosen because of the hill's remarkable resemblance to a skull, and because of its close proximity to an ancient tomb, now known as the Garden Tomb. It was also identified because in the Law of Moses animals were to be killed on the north side of the altar of sacrifice. With this hill, being north of the Temple, and in a continuation of the same mount where the Temple stood, the place seemed to be an apt location for the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

In 1968, several tombs were discovered in Jerusalem dating to the time of Jesus. Within one tomb they found a stone ossuary, or bone box, with a nail driven through the ankle bone of the buried man. This find is extremely significant, as it is the only known archaeological find of a crucified person. Experts were able to learn several intriguing things from this discovery. First, the nail was not driven through the front of the foot, as is often depicted in art of Jesus, but instead through the side of the ankle, directly through the bone. This means that a separate nail was driven through each foot, with the feet straddling the cross, instead of in front. Archeologists were also surprised to find wood fragments on both sides of the ankle bone. This has led to the conclusion that the nail was first placed through a wood washer before being driven through the foot and cross. The washer would have prevented the victim, or family members from attempting to tear the body from the cross to avoid the excruciating pain of crucifixion.


Hanging on the cross, the victim would be forced to stand upon these nails driven through his ankles, alternating with holding his weight up through his outstretched nailed hands. This process was made all the more painful as the torn flesh on the back from scourging, would be pressed to the cross as they alternated between hanging from their hands, and standing on their feet. Victims were known to live for several days on the cross before dying, making Jesus' death after only a few hours, very unusual. It is believed that victims died from asphyxiation, or in other words the lack of air, caused from the sheer exhaustion of hanging on the cross.

The willingness for Jesus to die on the cross for us, in such a painful and agonizing way, teaches us of His incredible love. Jesus could have been killed by stoning, or by one of many other ways, but He instead chose to be crucified. He submitted to the most heinous and dreaded forms of death, so that He could understand and succor His people. None of us can claim that Jesus cannot fathom our sorrows, anguish and pains, for He has endured all things. Truly, as Isaiah so prophetically stated: "he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

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