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Crucifixion Notes


CRUCIFIXION. The act of nailing or binding a living victim or sometimes a dead person to a cross or stake (stauros or skolops) or a tree (xylon). Generally Herodotus uses the verb anaskolopizein of living persons and anastauroun of corpses. After him the verbs become synonyms, “to crucify.” Josephus uses only (ana)stauroun, Philo only anaskolopizein. The verb stauroun occurs frequently in the NT, which always employs stauros and never skolops for the cross of Christ (see TDNT 7:572–84).


A.  Crucifixion among Non-Romans

B.   Crucifixion under the Romans

C.  Forms of Crucifixion

D.  Jesus’ Crucifixion

E.   Christian Interpretations of the Crucifixion


A.  Crucifixion among Non-Romans

In his History, Herodotus notes that the Persians practiced crucifixion as a form of execution (1.128.2; 3.125.3; 3.132.2; 3.159.1). He reports that Darius (512–485 b.c.) had 3000 inhabitants of Babylon crucified. Other ancient sources, which are not necessarily reliable, speak of the use of crucifixion among the people of India (Diod. Sic. 2.18.1), the Assyrians (ibid. 2.1.10; Lucian Iupp. Trag. 16), the Scythians (Diod. Sic. 2.44.2; Tert. Adv. Marc. 1.1.3), the Taurians (Eur. IT 1429–30), and the Thracians (Diod. Sic. 33.15.1; 34/35.12.1). Diodorus Siculus says that the Celts crucified criminals as a sacrifice to the gods (5.32.6). According to Tacitus, the Germans (Ann. 1.61.4; 4.72.3; Germ. 12.1) and the Britons (Ann. 14.33.2) practiced crucifixion. Sallust (Iug. 14.15) and Julius Caesar (B Civ. 66) report that the Numidians used this form of execution. According to many sources (e.g., Polyb. 1.11.5; 24.6; 79.4–5; 86.4; Diod. Sic. 25.5.2; 10.2; 26.23.1; Livy 22.13.9; 28.37.2; 38.48.13), the Carthaginians employed crucifixion. The Romans may have taken over the practice from them.

In the Greek-speaking world, criminals were at times fastened to a flat board (tympanum) for public display, torture, or execution. This form of punishment closely resembled crucifixion whenever the victims were nailed to the planks. According to Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius I of Syracuse captured and crucified some Greek mercenaries employed by the Carthaginians (14.53.4). Alexander the Great repeatedly resorted to crucifixion. On one occasion he had 2000 survivors from the siege of Tyre crucified. “Then the anger of the king offered a sad spectacle to the victors. Two thousand persons, for whose killing the general madness had spent itself, hung fixed to crosses over a huge stretch of the shore” (Curtius Rufus Hist. Alex. 4.4.17). After Alexander’s death Greece itself witnessed mass crucifixions. In 314 b.c. an administrator of Alexander’s kingdom quashed a rebellion in the city of Sicyon (near Corinth) and had thirty of its inhabitants crucified (Diod. Sic. 19.67.2). In 303 b.c., after their town fell to Demetrius Poliorcetes, the commander of Orchomenus (in Arcadia) and eighty of his men were crucified (ibid. 20.103.6). Under Antiochus IV in 267 b.c. Judea saw the crucifixion of men who remained faithful to the Jewish law (Joseph. Ant 12 §256). During the pre-Roman, Hellenistic period in the Greek-speaking East, crucifixion was practiced in the context of war or for acts of high treason. After Roman rule arrived, crucifixion was also used as a punishment for slaves and violent criminals. As Plutarch (ca. a.d. 46–120) remarks, “every criminal condemned to death bears his cross on his back” (Mor. 554 A/B).

Among Jews, crucifixion was occasionally practiced during the Hellenistic-Hasmonean period. The Sadducean high priest, Alexander Janneus (in office 103–76 b.c.), had 800 Pharisees crucified and ordered their wives and children to be slaughtered before their eyes as they hung dying (Joseph. Ant 13 §380–83; JW 1 §97–98). According to Jewish law, the corpses of executed idolaters and blasphemers were hanged on a tree to show that they were accursed by God (Deut 21:22–23). In pre-Christian Palestine this text of Deuteronomy was applied to those who died by crucifixion, as the pesher of Nahum from Qumran Cave 4 shows. Another Qumran document (11QTemple 64:6–13) also connects Deuteronomy 21:23 with crucifixion, which was apparently an Essene punishment for some very serious crimes.


B.  Crucifixion under the Romans

Cicero calls crucifixion the summum supplicium or most extreme form of punishment (Verr. 2.5.168). Josephus, who witnessed men dying by crucifixion during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, calls it “the most wretched of deaths” (JW 7 §203). In order of increasing severity, the aggravated methods of execution were decollatio (decapitation), crematio (burning), and crucifixion. At times damnatio ad bestias (throwing victims to wild animals) took the place of decapitation, but one needed the animals and an arena to organize such a form of execution. Crucifixion was much easier to carry out and could also serve as a public spectacle. For example, at the time of Caligula (a.d. 37–41) under the prefect Flaccus some Jews were tortured and crucified in the amphitheatre of Alexandria to entertain the people (Philo Flacc 72.84–85).

Among the Persians and to some degree in Greece, as we have seen, crucifixion could be a punishment for grave crimes against the state. At times the Carthaginians crucified generals and admirals who had been defeated or had failed in other such ways. Very occasionally Roman citizens were crucified for high treason, desertion during wartime, and similar serious offenses. For instance, just before the outbreak of the Jewish War in a.d. 66, the Roman procurator Gessius Florus had some Jews who were Roman knights flogged and crucified in Jerusalem (Josephus JW 2 §308). But normally Roman citizens and, in particular, members of the upper class were safe from the possibility of crucifixion, no matter what their crimes. Death on the cross generally was limited to foreigners and people of the lower class, particularly slaves.

In 63 b.c. Rabirius, a Roman nobleman and senator, was threatened with the penalty of crucifixion. In defending him Cicero argued that the very mention of the “cross” and of the executioner (who tied the criminal’s hands, veiled his head, and crucified him) was intolerable for a respectable Roman citizen.


How grievous a thing it is to be disgraced by a public court; how grievous to suffer a fine, how grievous to suffer banishment; and yet in the midst of any such disaster we retain some degree of liberty. Even if we are threatened with death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very wordcross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man (Rab. Perd. 16; italics added).


This speech reflected the horrified disgust which “good” Roman citizens felt for any of their own being subjected to, or even threatened with, crucifixion. For such people, crucifixion was “that most cruel and disgusting penalty,” (crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium; Cic. Verr. 2.5.165).

The Romans used crucifixion to bring mutinous troops under control, to break the will of conquered peoples, and to wear down rebellious cities under siege. Dangerous and violent robbers could be crucified—often near or at the scene of their crimes. Quintilian (ca. 35–95 a.d.) approved of crucifixion as a penalty for such criminals, and thought that this form of execution had a better deterrent effect when the crosses were set up along the busiest roads. “Whenever we crucify the guilty, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this fear. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect” (Decl. 274). The Romans used crucifixion above all as the servile supplicium (“the slaves’ punishment” ), a terrible form of execution typically inflicted on slaves, (servitutis extremum summumque supplicium; Cic. Verr. 2.5.169).

Plautus (d. 184 b.c.), who happens to be the first writer to provide evidence about Roman crucifixions, has more to say about the theme than any other Latin author. He writes of the “terrible cross” of slaves (Poen. 347; see Capt. 469; Cas. 611; Men. 66, 859; Pers. 352; Rud. 518; Trin. 598), and reflects the grim gallows humor of their subculture. From his time on, the lower classes used “crux” as a vulgar taunt. The much-quoted confession of Sceledrus in Miles Gloriosus (written about 205 b.c.) suggests that for a long time before Plautus slaves had been frequently crucified: “I know the cross will be my grave: that is where my ancestors are, my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers” (372–73).

Livy reports that twenty-five slaves made a conspiracy in Rome (in 217 b.c.) and were crucified (22.33.2). In 196 b.c. the leaders of a slave revolt in Etruria were crucified (Livy 33.36.3). Especially during the 2d century b.c., crucifixion was used to deter rebellions among the masses of slaves who lived in Rome or worked on the great estates elsewhere in Italy. According to Orosius (5.9.4), the first slave war in Sicily (139–132 b.c.) saw the crucifixion of 450 slaves. Appian (BCiv. 1.120) states that after the final defeat and death of Spartacus in 71 b.c., Crassus had more than 6000 slaves crucified along the Via Appia between Capua and Rome.

Even under “ordinary” conditions slaves had little legal protection. Juvenal describes the Roman matron who wanted a slave crucified and overrode her husband’s objections with the notorious response: Hoc volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione volantas (“This is my will and my command. If you are looking for a reason, it is simply that I want it” (Sat. 6.223). Horace may condemn a master who had his slave crucified for tasting the soup while bringing it from the kitchen (Sat. 1.3.80–83), but he can also toss off a cruel remark about slaves “feeding crows on the cross” (Ep. 1.16.46–48). At the time of Nero a decree of the Senate revived the custom of executing (often by crucifixion) all the slaves of a household if the master was killed (Tac. Ann. 13.32.1). A few years later this was done after the murder of a city prefect (ibid. 14.42–45). A slave called Mithridates was crucified for “having damned the soul” of Caligula (Petron. Sat. 53.3). Slaves who questioned astrologers about the future of the emperor, of the state, or even that of their own masters faced crucifixion (Paulus Sent. 5.21.3–4). Suetonius says that Caligula (Calig. 12.2) and Domitian (Dom. 11.1) capriciously crucified imperial slaves and even freedmen. In his Histories Tacitus reports the crucifixion of several freedmen (2.72.2; 4.3.2; 4.11.3).

Cicero (see above), Seneca (see below) and other Romans recognized that crucifixion was an atrociously cruel form of execution. Yet Varro (Sat. Men. Fr. 24) was practically alone in protesting against the barbarism of crucifixion. Most took it for granted that this frequent form of execution was needed to deter the lower classes from committing serious crimes. Although crucifixion was frequent in Roman times, cultured writers preferred to say little about it. Unlike Josephus, Tacitus does not mention the innumerable crucifixions in Palestine (Hist. 5.8–13).


C.  Forms of Crucifixion

Generally the victims were crucified alive; at times it was a matter of displaying the corpse of someone already executed in another way. Polycrates of Samos exemplifies the latter case. He was treacherously seized by the Persian satrap Oroites, killed “in an unspeakably cruel way,” and his body fastened to a stake (Hdt. 3.125.3). Whether living or already dead, the victims suffered a degrading loss of all dignity by being bound or nailed to a stake. Herodotus offers a few details when reporting the way the satrap Artayctes was crucified by the Athenians at the Hellespont: “They nailed him to planks and hung him there. And they stoned Artayctes’ son before his eyes” (9.120). Normally ancient writers were reluctant to describe particular crucifixions in much detail.

Under the Roman Empire, crucifixion normally included a flogging beforehand. At times the cross was only one vertical stake. Frequently, however, there was a cross-piece attached either at the top to give the shape of a “T” (crux commissa) or just below the top, as in the form most familiar in Christian symbolism (crux immissa). The victims carried the cross or at least a transverse beam (patibulum) to the place of execution, where they were stripped and bound or nailed to the beam, raised up, and seated on a sedile or small wooden peg in the upright beam. Ropes bound the shoulders or torso to the cross. The feet or heels of the victims were bound or nailed to the upright stake. As crucifixion damaged no vital organs, death could come slowly, sometimes after several days of atrocious pain. See also IDBSup, 199–200.

Executioners could vary the form of punishment, as Seneca the Younger indicates: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet” (Dial. 6 [Cons. Marc.] 20.3). In his account of what happened to Jewish fugitives from Jerusalem, Josephus also lets us see that there was no fixed pattern for crucifying people. Much depended on the sadistic ingenuity of the moment.


When they [the fugitives] were going to be taken [by the Romans], they were forced to offer resistance, and when the fighting ended it seemed too late to sue for mercy. Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall [of Jerusalem]. Titus indeed realized the horror of what was happening, for every day 500—sometimes even more—fell into his hands. However, it was not safe to let men captured by force go free, and to guard such a host of prisoners would tie up a great proportion of his troops. But his chief reason for not stopping the slaughter was the hope that the sight of it would perhaps induce the Jews to surrender in order to avoid the same fate. The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in different postures as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses and no crosses for the bodies (JW 5 §449–51).


Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome exemplified a similar capricious cruelty: “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of wild beasts, they were torn to death by dogs. Or they were fastened on crosses and, when daylight faded, were burned to serve as lamps by night” (Tac. Ann. 15.44.4).

In the course of a debate on happiness, Plato’s Gorgias indicates various kinds of torture that a condemned man might suffer before dying by crucifixion:


If a man is caught in a criminal plot to make himself tyrant, and when caught is put to the rack and mutilated and has his eyes burnt out and after himself suffering and seeing his wife and children suffer many many other signal outrages of various kinds, is finally crucified or burned on a coat of pitch, will he be happier than if he escaped arrest, established himself as a tyrant and lived the rest of his life a sovereign in his state, doing what he pleased, an object of envy and felicitation among citizens and strangers alike? (473 bc).


Different tortures that could precede crucifixion appear again when Plato describes the fate, not of a would-be tyrant, but of the perfectly just man: “The just man will have to be scourged, racked, fettered, blinded, and finally, after the most extreme suffering, he will be crucified” (Resp. 361e–362a).

In Epistle 101 to Lucilius, Seneca argues that it is better to commit suicide than face such extreme and drawn-out suffering as death by crucifixion. To press his argument he describes what such a death was like:


Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.



D.  Jesus’ Crucifixion

All four gospels record that Jesus foretold his own death. Matthew specifies that it would be by crucifixion (Matt 20:19; 26:2) and that some of Jesus’ followers would suffer the same fate (Matt 23:34).

Jesus’ crucifixion is recounted in Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; and John 19; and is often referred to elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Acts 2:36, 4:10; 1 Cor 2:8; Gal 3:1; Rev 11:8). According to the Synoptics, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. The crucifixion took place at Golgotha or “Place of a skull.” It seems that Jesus was nailed to the cross by his hands (Luke 24:39; John 20:25) and feet (Luke 24:39). Two robbers were crucified on either side of Jesus, whose cross carried a sign saying “the King of the Jews,” indicating the crime for which he was being executed. Jesus refused the drugged wine offered to deaden his pain. He was taunted by some of the passers-by, used the opening words of Psalm 22 to cry out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and died around three in the afternoon—his death being hastened by the severe scourging he had previously undergone. With Pontius Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ corpse down from the cross and gave it honorable burial.

Beyond doubt, devout reflection on Jesus’ death and the desire to find prophetic anticipations of it introduced some details into the passion narratives. Nevertheless, the version just given is a defensible historical account of his crucifixion.

As we saw above, the Romans frequently employed the sadistically cruel and utterly shameful death by crucifixion to uphold civil authority and preserve law and order against troublesome criminals, slaves, and rebels. In Palestine crucifixion was a public reminder of Jewish servitude to a foreign power.

Hence Jesus’ cross was a sign of extreme “shame” (Heb 12:2). Paul did not exaggerate when he called the crucified Christ “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23; see 2:2; Gal 5:11). Nothing in the OT or in other Jewish sources suggests that the Messiah could suffer such a fate. On the contrary, a crucified person—so far from being chosen, anointed, and sent by God—was understood to be cursed by God (see A. above). The nonbelievers it seemed “sheer folly” (1 Cor 1:18) to proclaim the crucified Jesus as God’s Son, universal Lord, and coming Judge of the world. The extreme dishonor of his death by crucifixion counted against any such claims. A century after Paul, Justin Martyr (ca. 100–65) noted how utterly offensive it was to acknowledge the divine status of a crucified man: “They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world” (1 Apol. 13.4). In a liturgical rather than an apologetical setting, Melito of Sardis (died ca. 190) also recognized the strange “scandal” of Christian faith in the crucified Jesus.


He who hung the earth [in its place] hangs there, he who fixed the heavens is fixed there, he who made all things fast is made fast upon the tree, the Master has been insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been slain by an Israelite hand. O strange murder, strange crime! The Master has been treated in unseemly fashion, his body naked, and not even deemed worthy of a covering that [his nakedness] might not be seen. Therefore the lights [of heaven] turned away, and the day darkened, that it might hide him who was stripped upon the cross (Pass. 96–97).


The utter disgrace of crucifixion encouraged Celsus to dismiss derisively the redemptive role of Jesus, who had been “bound in the most ignominious fashion” and “executed in a shameful way” (Origen Cels. 6.10). Gnostic docetism eliminated the scandal of the death on the cross by alleging that the living, spiritual Christ remained untouched and laughed when his image was crucified (e.g., Apoc. Pet. 82.1–83.15). Against such theorizing Ignatius of Antioch insisted that Christ did not merely appear to suffer but was “truly crucified” (Trall. 9.1).

Nothing expresses more forcefully the paradoxical Christian claims about the crucified Jesus than the hymn in Philippians 2:6–11. Whether it existed as a pre-Pauline element or was added by Paul himself, the phrase “even death on a cross” (2:8) presents the extreme contrast between Christ’s glory (2:9–11), on the one hand, and the shameful death when he was crucified like a slave (supplicium servile), on the other.


E.   Christian Interpretations of the Crucifixion

Paul sees in the crucifixion the revelation of Jesus’ obedience (Phil 2:8) and love (Gal 2:20). The crucifixion discloses God’s power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:24; 2 Cor 13:4). It brings deliverance from sin (Col 2:14) and “the curse of the Law” (Gal 3:13); it effects reconciliation and peace (Col 1:20; Eph 2:16). Becoming Jesus’ follower means the crucifixion of one’s former, sinful self (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20; 6:14). The Law has no more claim on those who have died with Christ (Gal 2:19). They renounce sin and leave behind the ungodly world (Gal 6;14). Paul is persecuted because in these terms he accepts and preaches the cross of Christ (Gal 6:12).

To convey what discipleship metaphorically (and sometimes literally) entailed, the Synoptic Gospels spoke of “taking up one’s cross” and following Jesus (Mark 8:34; Matt 10:38; 16:24; Luke 9:23; 14:27). “Taking up one’s cross” may have been a profane and/or Zealot expression which then was applied to Christian discipleship. For the Synoptics it meant saying no to oneself, accepting suffering, and even surrendering one’s life for and with Jesus—in short, being a cross bearer all one’s life.



Dinkler, E. 1967. Signum Crucis. Tübingen.

Fitzmyer, J. A. 1978. Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament. CBQ 40: 493–513.

Hengel, M. 1977. Crucifixion. Philadelphia.

Thornton, T. C. G. 1986. The Crucifixion of Haman and the Scandal of the Cross. JTS 37: 419–26.

Zias, J., and Sekeles, E. 1985. The Crucified Man from Giv>at ha-Mivtar—A Reappraisal. BA 48: 190–91.

                 Gerald G. O’Collins


Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday) 1997, 1992.



A particularly cruel form of execution popular in the first-century Roman Empire. Numerous sources—both Christian and non-Christian—attest to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under Pontius Pilate (e.g., Mk 15:1–39 par.; Josephus Ant. 18.3.3 §§63–64; Tacitus Ann. 15.44). Outside the Gospels and Acts Paul is responsible for all but one use of both the verb “to crucify” (staurooµ: 1 Cor 1:13, 23; 2:2, 8; 2 Cor 13:4; Gal 3:1; 5:24; 6:14; cf. also “to crucify with” [sustaurooµ]: Rom 6:6; Gal 2:19) and the noun “cross” (stauros: 1 Cor 1:17, 18; Gal 5:11; 6:12, 14; [Eph 2:16]; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 1:20; 2:14). For him, the historical event of Jesus’ execution on the cross had enormous theological importance, even if it proved to be a major obstacle in the early Christian mission (see especially the programmatic statements in 1 Cor 1:18–25; Gal 3:1–14).

The practice of crucifixion as a form of execution (or impalement after death) dates back at least to the Persians, and was also utilized by other barbarian peoples (as they were known to Greek and Roman historiographers), including the Assyrians and, later, the Carthaginians. No regular practice of crucifixion is attested among the Jews, though some evidence suggests it was employed as a mode of execution before the time of Herod the Great (Josephus J.W. 1.4.6 §§97–98; Ant. 13.14.2 §§379–83; 11QTemple 64:6–13).

Descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare in the extant literature of antiquity, primarily due to literary-aesthetic concerns. Greek and Roman authors who wrote about crucifixion underscored its brutality, but did not dwell long on the procedure itself. M. Hengel regards the passion narratives of the canonical Gospels as the most detailed description of their kind, but even they are noticeably brief in their accounts of the execution itself. The Evangelists simply report, “They crucified him” (Mt 27:35 par.), so we must go elsewhere to discover, for example, the tradition that Jesus was nailed to the cross (cf. Lk 24:39[?]; Jn 20:25; Acts 2:23; Col 2:14; Gos. Pet. 6.21; Justin Dial. Tryph. 97).

The available literary evidence suggests three general observations. First, the act of crucifixion was heinously cruel. The procedure itself damaged no vital organs, and it is unlikely that any wounds inflicted in the practice would have resulted in excessive bleeding. The likely cause of the consequently slow death, then, would have been shock or a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing were exhausted.

As a result, Roman citizens were generally spared this form of execution. Crucifixion was largely reserved for those of lower status and, above all, for dangerous criminals and insurrectionists. In Judea crucifixion was generally effective as a deterrent against open resistance to Roman occupation until the Jewish War.

Second, crucifixion was a public affair. Naked and fastened to a stake, cross or tree on a well-traveled route or crossroads, the executed was subjected to savage ridicule by passersby. Moreover, under Roman practice the person crucified was denied burial, the corpse left on the cross as carrion for the birds or to rot. In this way, the general populace was reminded of the fate of those who resisted the authority of the state.

Third, it is clear that no standard form of crucifixion was uniformly practiced. The victim might be bound or nailed to the cross, with or without a crossbeam, in one of a variety of positions. It is not even clear whether crucifixion always took place before or after the death of the subject. The Romans appear to have practiced a more constant form of crucifixion: It included a flogging beforehand; victims often carried the crossbeam to the place of crucifixion, where they were nailed or bound to the cross with arms extended, raised up, and perhaps seated on a sedicula, or small wooden peg (Hengel, 22–32). On the other hand, as Josephus reports, even among the Romans the method of crucifixion was subject to the whims of military leaders (Josephus J.W. 5.11.1 §§449–51).

To date, direct archeological evidence related to the practice of crucifixion is limited to one ossuary discovered in 1968 in northern Jerusalem. It contained the bones of an adult male who had died by crucifixion in the first half of the first century a.d. Initial study of the skeletal remains indicated that a nail had been driven through each of his forearms, and his heel bones had been pierced by a single iron nail. The latter nail was found still embedded in the heel bones of both feet. Wood fragments found at both ends of the nail indicated that the nail first passed through a small wooden plaque, then through the victim’s feet, and then into a vertical, olivewood beam. Apparently as a coup de grâce, his shins had deliberately been broken.

A recent reevaluation of the skeletal remains of the ossuary, together with related photographs, casts and radiographs by Zias and Sekeles suggests a number of amendments to those earlier conclusions, however. Most importantly, they determined that the still-intact iron nail had passed from the right side to the left of the right heel bone (calcaneum) only. A different picture of the crucified man emerges, for on this reconstruction the feet were not anchored, one on top of the other, with one nail, but the victim apparently straddled the upright beam. Moreover, finding no clear evidence of traumatic injury to the bones of the forearm or hands, they propose the victim was tied to the crossbeam, not nailed. Finally, they questioned whether the bones of the lower limbs had been broken prior to death.

Although this discovery adds archeological evidence to literary descriptions of crucifixion, it is nevertheless clear that the paucity of direct anthropological evidence of this nature restricts the certainty one might attach to its interpretation.

The negative perceptions associated with crucifixion in the first-century world are suggested by two Pauline texts, 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 and Galatians 3:13. This stigma is grounded not only in the barbaric nature of crucifixion, but also, in a Jewish context, in the linkage of Deuteronomy 21:22–23 with crucifixion already by this period. In its OT context, the Deuteronomic passage—“anyone who is hung on a tree is under the curse of God” (LXX)—refers to the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. But both Philo and the Qumran community provide evidence that, in first-century Judaism, this text was being used with reference to the practice of crucifixion (Philo Spec. Leg. 3.152; Poster. C. 61; Som. 2.213; 4QpNah 3–4.1.7–8; 11QTemple 64:6–13). Given these data, it would seem that a positive assessment of crucifixion within first-century Jewish circles would have been out of the question.

The theological gravity accorded the cross of Christ, together with its overwhelmingly positive significance in early Christian circles, stands in stark contrast to this expectation, however. Interestingly, Deuteronomy 21:23 had an apparent role in early Christian reflection on the meaning of the cross, as indicated by the allusions in Acts 5:30; 13:29 and Galatians 3:13–14. The oxymoron thus produced—that the “cursed one” is, in fact, the “Anointed One” (i.e., “Christ”)—is emphasized by Paul in his kerygmatic expression “Christ crucified” (christos estauroµmenos) in 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2 (cf. Gal 3:1; 2:19).

See also Cross, Theology of the; Death of Christ.

Bibliography. E. E. Ellis, “ ‘Christ Crucified,’ ” in Reconciliation and Hope: New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to L.L. Morris on His 60th Birthday, ed. R. Banks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 69–75; J. A. Fitzmyer, “Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament,” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Essays (New York: Crossroad, 1981) 125–46; M. Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); M. Wilcox, “ ‘Upon the Tree’—Deut 21:22–23 in the New Testament,” JBL 96 (1977) 85–99; J. Zias and E. Sekeles, “The Crucified Man from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” IEJ 35 (1985) 22–27.

J. B. Green


Crucifixion —  a common mode of punishment among heathen nations in early times. It is not certain whether it was known among the ancient Jews; probably it was not. The modes of capital punishment according to the Mosaic law were, by the sword (Ex. 21), strangling, fire (Lev. 20), and stoning (Deut. 21).

   This was regarded as the most horrible form of death, and to a Jew it would acquire greater horror from the curse in Deut. 21:23.

   This punishment began by subjecting the sufferer to scourging. In the case of our Lord, however, his scourging was rather before the sentence was passed upon him, and was inflicted by Pilate for the purpose, probably, of exciting pity and procuring his escape from further punishment (Luke 23:22; John 19:1).

   The condemned one carried his own cross to the place of execution, which was outside the city, in some conspicuous place set apart for the purpose. Before the nailing to the cross took place, a medicated cup of vinegar mixed with gall and myrrh (the sopor) was given, for the purpose of deadening the pangs of the sufferer. Our Lord refused this cup, that his senses might be clear (Matt. 27:34). The spongeful of vinegar, sour wine, posca, the common drink of the Roman soldiers, which was put on a hyssop stalk and offered to our Lord in contemptuous pity (Matt. 27:48; Luke 23:36), he tasted to allay the agonies of his thirst (John 19:29). The accounts given of the crucifixion of our Lord are in entire agreement with the customs and practices of the Roman in such cases. He was crucified between two “malefactors” (Isa. 53:12; Luke 23:32), and was watched by a party of four soldiers (John 19:23; Matt. 27:36, 54), with their centurion. The “breaking of the legs” of the malefactors was intended to hasten death, and put them out of misery (John 19:31); but the unusual rapidity of our Lord’s death (19:33) was due to his previous sufferings and his great mental anguish. The omission of the breaking of his legs was the fulfilment of a type (Ex. 12:46). He literally died of a broken heart, a ruptured heart, and hence the flowing of blood and water from the wound made by the soldier’s spear (John 19:34). Our Lord uttered seven memorable words from the cross, namely, (1) Luke 23:34; (2) 23:43; (3) John 19:26; (4) Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34; (5) John 19:28; (6) 19:30; (7) Luke 23:46.

 [1][1]Easton, M. G., M. A. D. D., Easton’s Bible Dictionary, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1996.





[1]Easton, M. G., M. A. D. D., Easton’s Bible Dictionary, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1996.


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