Jewish War 7.203.
2Bella Civilia 1.120.
one of the
cruelest and most humiliating forms of punishment in the ancient
was, according to ancient sources, crucifixion. The Jewish
Josephus best described it following the siege of Jerusalem by the
in AD 66-70 as "the most wretched of deaths."1 Whereas in Seneca's Epistle
Lucilius, he argues that suicide is preferable to the cruel fate
put on the cross. |
This form of state terror was widespread across the Roman Empire which included Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. It originated several centuries before the Common Era and continued into the fourth century AD when the practice was discontinued by Constantine, the emperor of Rome. While its origins are obscured in antiquity, it is clear that this form of capital punishment lasted for around 800 years and tens if not hundreds of thousands of individuals were subject to this cruel and humiliating death. Mass executions in which hundreds and thousands died96 such as the well known crucifixion of 6,000 followers of Spartacus as part, of a victory celebration along the Appian Way in 71 BCE96 appear in the literature.2
3 Plutarch (AD 46-120)
4 Curtius Rufus, Hist. Alex. 4.4.17.
|While many people believe that
reserved for criminals only as a result of Plutarch's passage that
criminal condemned to death bears his cross on his back,"3 the literature clearly shows
class of individuals were not the only ones subjected to this
fate. Alexander the Great had 2,000 survivors from the siege of
crucified on the shores of the Mediterranean.4 In addition, during the times
Caligula96 AD 37-4196 Jews were tortured and crucified in the
to entertain the inhabitants of Alexandria. Women are seldom if
mentioned specifically in the ancient sources aside from two
the Mishna, one in Tractate Mourning 2.11 which suggests
may have been sacrificed as well. The second reference is found in
Sanhedrin 6.5 in which Simeon B. Shetah had 70 or 80
hung in the city of Ashkelon. However, as crucifixion was widely
with slaves, one can assume that, in the ancient world its use was
not limited by gender but mainly by class. |
Crucifixion amongst the Jews was rare and except for a few instances, the subject was stoned to death first and then hung on a tree in accordance with the Biblical passage in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
"When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and 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."
6 V. Tzaferis, "Jewish Tombs at and Near Giv'at ha-Mivtar," Israel Exploration Journal 20:31, 1971.
|There was one notable exception to
in which the victims were first killed via crucifixion rather that
hung on a tree after death. This was the case with the high
Alexander Janneus in which 800 Pharisees were crucified in
267 BC before their wives and children. While on the cross,
Josephus5 the women and
were then slaughtered. Despite this plethora of literary evidence
crucifixion over the centuries in the ancient world, the direct
anthropological evidence amounts to but one case from Jerusalem
in 1968. |
THE CRUCIFIED MAN FROM GIV'AT HA-MIVTAR
in 1968 building contractors working in a suburb north of Jerusalem accidentally uncovered a Jewish tomb dated to the first century after the death of Christ.6 Lying in a Jewish ossuary bearing the Hebrew inscription 'Jehohanan the son of HGQWL' were the skeletal remains of a man in his twenties, who had been crucified. The evidence for this was based on the right calcaneum (heel bone) of the individual, pierced by an iron nail 11.5 cms. in length. The nail penetrated the lateral surface of the bone emerging on the middle of the surface in which the tip of the nail had become bent. The bending of the tip of the nail upon itself suggests that after the nail penetrated the tree or the upright it may have struck a knot in the wood thereby making it difficult to remove from the heel when the victim was taken from the cross.
|Remains of olive wood found between the head of the nail and the heel bone suggest that prior to penetrating the heel bone the nail was driven through a wooden plaque so as to increase the head of the nail thus making it difficult for the victim to free his legs from the upright. Due to the taphanomic process which occurred over a period of 2,000 years the skeleton was in a poor state of preservation. Being friable and fragmentary, with many postmortem breaks, the right heel bone was not amenable for proper anthropological investigation.|
7 J. Zias and E. Sekeles, 1985, "The Crucified Man from Giv'at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal", Israel Expoloration Journal 35:22-27.
|Despite the assertion by Haas in his
article that both legs were affixed by one nail, a subsequent
reexamination by Zias and Seketes in 1985,7 found that many of the
which his attempted reconstruction were made, were flawed. For
the nail which he reported to be 17-18 centimeters in length was
only 11.5cm thus making it anatomically impossible to affix two
one nail. Furthermore, there was no evidence of traumatic injury
forearms, therefore it would appear that the individual was bound
nailed to the cross as shown in the figure above.
8 E. Brandetiburger 1969, "Kreuz," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament II, I, 1969, 826f and J. Jeremias 1966, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, London and New York, p. 22396 quoted in Crucifixion Martin Hengel, pg 31, Fortress Press, Philadelphia.
Jewish War 5.11 & 451.
10 Shabbath 6.10
|This near total absence of any direct
anthropological evidence for crucifixion in antiquity bears the
of why, aside from the case described above, is the record silent.
are two possibilities which may account for this silence, one is
victims may have been tied to the cross. In Christian art, the
the Bad thieves are depicted as being tied to the cross despite
that the Gospels do not go into detail as to how they were affixed
cross. Scholars have in fact argued that crucifixion was a
of death because the victims were tied to the cross.8 Maxtin Mengel, however who
wrote what is
perhaps the definitive scholarly report of the subject of
antiquity, takes along with Hewitt (12) an opposing view. He
nailing the victim by both hands and feet was the rule and tying
victim to the cross was the exception. During the first revolt of
against the Romans in AD 66-73, Josephus mentions that in the fall
Jerusalem (AD 70), "the soldiers out of rage and hatred amused
by nailing their prisoners in different postures."9 In spite of these differences
opinion, I would take a differing view and suggest that the number
individuals being crucified may in fact determine the manner in
execution took form. If, as in the case with the account of 6,000
prisoners of war being crucified along the Via Appia between the
Rome and Cappua, as part of a victory celebration it would seem
that the most quick and efficient manner was employed. That would
simply tie the victim to the tree or cross with his hands
directly over his head. Death thus would occur within minutes or
an hour if the victims feet were not nailed or tied down. While
explain the lack of any direct evidence on the human skeleton when
the cross, it would not explain the lack of evidence when the
nailed. This latter issue is best explained by the fact that nails
victim crucified were among some of the most powerful medical
antiquity and thus removed from the victim following their death.
attested to by the Mishriaic passage10 which states that both Jews
Amorites (colloquium for non-Jews) may carry a flail or whip from
crucifixion as a means of healing. For the Jews, this was even,
to some Rabbis, permitted on Shabbath when Jews were normally
carry object. As this Mishnaic passage mentions both Jews and
carrying these objects, one can infer the power of these amulets.
PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE TO CRUCIFIXION
11 Stroud 1874; J.R. Whitaker 15 The Physical Cause of the Death of Our Lord, Address to the St. Luke's Guild, London England; U. Wedessow 1978 Considerazioni ipotetiche sulla causa fisica della morte dell' iliomo della sindone.
12 Zugibe, 1984
13 LeBec 1925, Hynek 16, Barbet 17, Modder 1949
14 F.T. Zugibe, 1984 "Death by Crucifixion, Canadian Society of Forensic Science 17(1):1-13.6.
15A condition characterized by low blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the cells and tissues which leads to irreversible cell and organ injury and eventually death.
Life of 75.420-421
17 P. Barbet 1953 Les Cinq Plaies du Christ 2nd ed. Paris: Procure du Carmel de l' Action de Graces.
|The complicated and much debated
regarding how the individual expired on the cross has generated
debate over the years. While many researchers have believed that
occurred as the result of a ruptured heart11 due to the story in John
19:34 of the
water and blood flowing out of the wound, pathologists such as
Zugibe,12 have ruled this
medically untenable. Other scholars13 have regarded asphyxiation as
cause of death, however the latest research findings have shown
to be more complicated, depending upon the manner in which the
affixed to the cross. A series of experiments carried out by an
medical examiner and pathologist on college students who
volunteered to be
tied to crosses, showed that if the students were suspended from
with their arms outstretched in the traditional manner depicted in
Christian art, they experienced no problems breathing.14 Thus the often quoted theory
on the cross is the result of asphyxiation is no longer tenable if
arms are outstretched. According to the physiological response of
students, which was closely monitored by Zugibe, death in this
the result of the victim going into hypovolemic shock.15 Death is this manner can be
manner of hours, or days depending on the manner in which the
affixed to the cross. If the victim is crucified with a small
sedile, affixed to the uptight for minimum support in the
the buttocks, death can be prolonged for hours and days. In fact,
reports that three friends of his were being crucified in Thecoa
Romans who, upon intervention by Josephus to Titus were removed
crosses and with medical care one survived.16 |
If, however, the victims are tied with their hands extended over their heads and left hanging, death can occur within an hour or, in minutes if the victims legs are nailed so that he cannot use his arms to elevate the body to exhale. For exhaling to occur in a normal manner two sets of muscles are needed, the diaphragm and. the intercostalis muscles between the ribs. With the victims being suspended by their arms directly over their heads, these sets of muscles cannot function properly which results in the victims inability to exhale and results in asphyxiation. Eyewitness accounts by prisoners of war in Dacchu during WWII reported that victims suspended from beams by their wrist, which were tied, expired within ten minutes if their feet were weighted or tied down and within one hour if their feet were unweighted and the victim was able to raise and lower himself to permit respiration. Death in this manner, which is one form of crucifixion, was the result of suffocation.17
As a deterrent in the ancient world, many of its victims were crucified where the criminal event took place as was the case with thieves or along the cities busiest thoroughfares. The situation can perhaps best be summed up by Quintilian who wrote that, "whenever we crucify the guilty, the most, crowded roads are chosen, where most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect."18
|18 Quintilian (AD
|As one of the main objectives of this
method of execution was its deterrent value, Roman authorities
devised various means whereby the victim could remain on the cross
days in public before eventually expiring. Thus the manner in
victims were crucified was not fixed by law but appears dependent
number of individuals involved, the sadistic ingenuity of those
out the execution and the time needed for this spectacle to have
maximum deterrent effect. |
Giving the victim a proper burial following death on the cross, during the Roman period was rare and in most cases simply not permitted in order to continue the humiliation. Thus the victim was in many cases simply thrown on the garbage dump of the city or left on the cross as food for wild beasts and birds of prey.
CopyrightA9 1998 Joseph Zias All rights reserved.
Joe Zias was the Curator of Archaeology/Anthropology for the Israel Antiquities Authority from 1972 to 1997. He is now retired. He is available for public lectures throughout the world. You may contact him directly or through the CenturyOne Foundation.
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Jerusalem, Israel 91371
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