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."

4 comments:

  1. Hi, I'm a Latter-day Saint and I'm really fascinated with the idea that Jesus Christ could've been crucified on a living tree. Do you have any more or know of any more information regarding this theory? I've been studying specifics regarding the crucifixion here and there and have heard different arguments of how Jesus' crucifixion took place. I have many questions on the subject. Such as, he if were to have, what type of tree would it have been? How would the cross (The diagonal beam that Jesus and then Simon would've carried) work within crucifying someone on a tree?

    I've been reading peoples arguments regarding this subject. I've read arguments that Jesus was crucified on a tree because of the references to it (Deut. 21:23, Gal. 3:13, Acts 5:30), though I've heard the rebuttals being that the reference of being crucified on a tree in the New Testament was merely an act of addressing the Jews using ideas they were familiar with, and that the tree itself was not an actual natural living tree but was just referring to the wood the cross the was made from.

    Let me know your thoughts.

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    1. Jack, sorry for the delay! Life has been pretty hectic. As for the type of tree, there is a bunch of debate. The one I have heard is possibly an olive tree, but I don't even recall where I heard that. There is so much speculation on the issue that to be honest, it is too hard to really say much. In my video I mentioned it as an interesting note, and a possible addition, but in the end we really just don't know. Wish I could help more!

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  2. I am deeply grateful that you have published these comments about the suffering that Jesus endured on our behalf. I have studied the Scriptures and prayed for many years to understand the sacrament prayers, the wording of which is so important that it must be said perfectly each Sunday. The part about always having his spirit to be with us echoes how we define the gift of the Holy Ghost, to always have his spirit to be with us unless we are sinning. A variety of different Experiences has caused me to think that the sacrament, while being a reminder of how greatly the Savior suffered, is also more than that. I have come to believe that the Savior suffered all of that on our behalf because Heavenly Father was telling him to do so by means of the Holy Ghost, and he obeyed for the great spiritual blessings that result from obedience to the Holy Ghost. I think that the message is to always Listen and do what causes us to continue to feel the spirit even unto death, but not just to submit to all the abuse and suffering that life throws at us unquestioningly. There were times in the New Testament when the Savior avoided Jerusalem because he said that it was not time yet for him to be taken. Further it was not righteousness on the part of those who scourged him and crucified him to do that to him. In fact we are told that there shall never be any forgiveness for Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus unto death. There seems to be some confusion about what is really meant by this ordinance but it has become clear to me from reading the Joseph Smith manual that Jesus also always had the spirit even more powerfully than did Joseph Smith, because all of the miracles that he performed including the creation of the heavens and earth, turning water into wine, healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water, calming the sea, and finally, raising himself from death to immortality, we are told he did by the power of the Holy Ghost. Yes, it becomes exceedingly significant that we are to always remember him and to keep his commandments in such a manner as to always have his spirit to be with us, otherwise we become like those who “have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof”. So thank you for this powerful message and testimony of the Savior and all that he suffered so that we can be forgiven when we sin and regain the spirit, because it is by seeking the spirit that I have found the most amazing feeling of inner rejoicing, peace, clarity, and both self-worth and humility at the same time. I am so very grateful for your beautiful message and the way in which you describe our redeemer. Thank you so much.

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    1. You are welcome, and glad you enjoyed the video and post. It is always nice to know that people appreciate the work. At some point I also hope to do a series on the sacrament, so I'll get into that. But that won't be for some time. I have a pretty long list of "to do" videos.

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