Part IV: Triumph Over Death
Why The Demand For
Crucify Him! Crucify
The Son of Man must be lifted up . . .
And I, if I be lifted up,
will draw all men unto Me.
(John 3:14 and 12:32)
Looking unto Jesus
the author and finisher of our faith;
who, instead of the joy that was set before him,
endured the cross,
despising the shame . . .
It is now clear
that the Jewish authorities really had in mind two rather distinct
objectives in bringing the Lord Jesus to trial. The first was
to have Him put to death because they hated Him, for they could
abide neither the light of his life nor the truth of his words.
The second was to demolish his messianic claims. They had so
distorted the Old Testament prophetic previews as to the nature
and work of the Messiah that they entirely failed to recognize
the truth about his identity when He did appear before them.
To achieve the first objective
they were dependent upon Pilate
who alone could authorize
his execution, unless they could secretly murder Him without
attracting the attention of the Romans. This would have been
extremely difficult without creating an uproar, and the more
so as they delayed it, for his fame was spreading everywhere.
Moreover, the one or two attempts they had made to stone Him
had aborted because of their indecision or because of the sheer
power of his 'presence.' To achieve the second objective was
most easily effected by having Him arrested, publicly disgraced,
and condemned to death. If possible, they would press charges
of treason, for this would mean death by crucifixion, the ultimate
disgrace. If it should happen that some sudden divine interference
should effect his dramatic rescue, the Jews had probably persuaded
themselves that they would at once accept his messianic claims.
Some of those who agreed to this plan believed themselves to
be moved by the best of motives, namely, the protection of the
people from being imposed upon by a false Messiah. As we have
already seen, there is a great deal of incidental evidence that
in this they were genuinely mistaken, although the mistake
was really due to their own spiritual blindness and religious
Now, there were among the Jews
only four methods for executing a man condemned for a capital
crime. These were strangling, stoning, burning, and beheading.
Crucifixion was not one of them. The first was the least
severe by common opinion because it did not seriously mutilate
the body. Burning may have been, like crucifixion, a way of desecrating
the corpse: but only after death had been effected by stoning
� although it seems to be listed in the Midrash as a death
If, in answer to Pilate's question,
"What, then, shall I do with Jesus?" the Jews had demanded
that Jesus be executed by burning, God's purposes for man's redemption
would have been entirely thwarted. As we shall see, the same
would have been the case had He been stoned or beheaded. Crucifixion
alone could serve God's purposes in working out the Plan of Redemption,
for only the cross could provide the altar upon which the Lord
Jesus Christ could deliberately and under no compulsion but that
of his own will, offer Himself as a sacrificial Lamb.
In any other form of execution it would have required a miracle
to keep Him alive long enough to make this voluntary sacrifice:
whereas on the cross it was only by a miracle that He died when
It is hard for
us who have no first hand knowledge of crucifixion as a form
of execution to realize how long a person could linger in agony
in this awful predicament, and how the human body can endure
such agony and continue alive and fully conscious under conditions
2 of 18
which would seem so inimical
to life. History shows that the powers of the human body to survive
physical injury are truly extraordinary. Drs. G. M. Gould and
W. L. Pyle in their study of anomalies and curiosities of medicine,
give many amazing examples. One illustration will suffice.
A most remarkable case of a
soldier suffering numerous and almost incredible injuries and
recovering and pursuing his vocation with undamped zeal is that
of Jacques Roellinger, Company B, 47th N.Y. Volunteers. He appeared
before a pension board in New York, June 29, 1865, with the following
history (Medical Record, N.Y., 1875, p. 685 f.).
In 1862 he suffered a saber-cut across the quadriceps extensor
of the left thigh, and a saber-thrust between the bones of the
forearm at the middle third. Soon afterward at Williamsburg,
Virginia, he was shot in the thigh, the ball passing through
the middle third external to the femur. At Fort Wagner, 1863,
he had a sword cut, severing spinal muscles and overlying tissues
for a distance of six inches. Subsequently he was captured by
guerrillas in Missouri and tortured by burning splinters of wood,
the cicatrices of which he exhibited; he escaped to Florida,
where he was struck by a fragment of an exploding shell, which
passed from without inward, behind the hamstring of the right
leg, and remained embedded and could be plainly felt. When struck,
he fell and was fired on by the retiring enemy. A ball entered
between the 6th and 7th ribs just beneath the apex of the heart,
traversed the lungs and issued at the 9th rib. He fired his revolver
on reception of this shot and was soon bayoneted by his own comrades
by mistake, this wound also passing through his body. If the
scars are at all indicative, the bayonet must have passed through
the left lobe of the liver and the border of the diaphragm. Finally,
he was struck by a pistol ball at the lower angle of the left
lower jaw, this bullet issuing on the other side of the neck.
As exemplary of the easy mannerism
which he bore his many injuries, during a somewhat protracted
convalescence, it may be added that he amused his comrades by
blowing jets of water through the apertures on both sides of
Not satisfied with his experience of
our war, he stated to the pension examiners that he was on his
way to join Garibaldi's Army (in Italy).
Gould and Pyle
then recapitulate these injuries under twelve subheadings, each
with the potential for permanent injury, and comment that the
man can surely have had nothing but a charmed life!
They record the instance of another
soldier (a Lt. Avery) who, in the brutal capture of Fort Griswold,
Connecticut, in 1781, had "an eye shot out, his skull fractured,
the brain-substance scattering on the ground, was stabbed in
the side and left for dead. Yet he recovered and lived to narrate
the horrors of that day forty years later." (234)
One other case of facial mutilation
is so extraordinary that one can scarcely credit the account;
yet it is well authenticated in the
233. Gould, G. M. and W. L. Pyle, Anomalies
and Curiosities of Medicine, New York, Julian Press, 6th
printing, 1966, p.698.
234. Gould, G. M. and W. L. Pyle, ibid., p.697.
English medical journal The Lancet.
(235) This man's whole
face, including his two eyes, was literally blown away by the bursting
of a Prussian shell. Yet he survived. A false face was made for him and
a false nose, and he even recovered some sense of smell, learned to speak
and play a flute! Such is the stamina of the human spirit and of the body.
It will therefore not seem quite
so extraordinary to learn that men have survived crucifixion
for days on end before succumbing to death by starvation, exposure,
septic poisoning, or mutilation by predators (mammals, birds,
and insects). A few have, for one reason or another, been taken
down and have recovered from the experience.
Josephus had occasion to see untold
numbers of his countrymen crucified by the Romans at the time
of the fall of Jerusalem under Titus. He wrote of one instance:
"I saw many captives crucified: and remembered three of
them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my
mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of
them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and
to have the greatest care taken of them in order to aid their
recovery; yet two of them died under the physician's hand while
the third recovered" (Antiquities of the Jews, §
75, p.21). At least one did recover: and with proper treatment
perhaps all three would have done so, though we do not know how
long they had hung on a cross.
How long can a man survive crucifixion?
In 1617 Jacob Bosius published a work in Antwerp entitled Crux
Triumphans et Gloriosa ("The Cross Triumphant and Glorious")
in which he tells of the crucifixion of the Apostle Andrew who
is said to have lived on the cross for two days.* He refers
also to the crucifixion of Victor, Bishop of Amiterna, who although
crucified with his head down � a circumstance most unfavourable
to the continuation of life � survived in this manner for
two days. Bosius notes that according to Origen this was the
normal period of survival when death has not been hastened by
other means. Death in the case of those being crucified in the
head down position appears to have been hastened by starvation
since it was impossible to take food or drink.
Bosius also repeats the well-known
story of Timotheus and Maura, a married couple who suffered during
the Diocletian persecution in the year 286 A.D. After being horribly
tortured, these two godly souls were crucified together and,
according to dependable witnesses, actually survived nine days
while virtuously exhorting each
235. Gould, G. M. and W. L. Pyle, ibid.,
* Bosius, Jacobus, Crux Triumphans et Gloriosa, Antwerp,
1617, pp.8, 43, 47, 94, 112�115. According to W. S. McBirnie,
one record preserved in the Church of St. Andrew in Patras, Achaia,
where he was martyred, says that he was crucified and survived
for three days. [The Search for the Twelve Apostles, Wheaton,
Tyndale Press, 1977, p.85].
other in the faith, expiring
on the tenth day. It must be assumed, I think, that they had
water either by rain or through the ministrations of some who
were present. William Stroud, in his classic work, The Physical
Causes of the Death of Christ,* believed that this was possibly
an exaggeration. But it need not be assumed so. Surviving for
nine days without food is by no means exceptional provided that
some fluid is available and weather conditions are comparatively
In the year
297 A.D. by the order of Emperor Maximian, seven Christians at
Samosata were subjected to various tortures and then crucified.
According to Alban Butler,†
Hipparchus (one of them), a venerable
old man, died on the cross in a short time. James, Romanus, and
Lollianus expired the next day, being stabbed by the soldiers
while they hung on their crosses. Philotheus, Habibus, and Paragrus,
were taken down from their crosses while they were still living.
The emperor, being informed that they were yet alive, commanded
huge nails to be driven into their heads � by which they
were at length dispatched.
Much more recently,
a Captain Clapperton reported on capital punishment in the Sudan
in the year 1824.‡
He speaks of beheading as being reserved for Mohammedans, and
impaling and crucifixion for "unbelievers." He says
he was informed, just as a matter of interest, that these poor
wretches who are crucified generally lingered for three days
before death put an end to their sufferings. William Stroud referred
to one case of a crucified man who, having no one to defend him,
had his eyes pecked out by birds . . .° He
also mentioned a report by a Bishop Wiseman written in 1828,
in which a young man possessed of great physical strength was
crucified, in 1247 A.D., under the walls of Damascus for murdering
his master. The Bishop reported that though he was nailed to
the cross in hands and arms and feet, he remained alive from
midday on Friday to the same hour on Sunday, a period of 48 hours.◊
Kitto referred to two women who
were crucified but for some reason
* Stroud, William, The Physical Causes
of the Death of Christ, New York, Appleton, 1871, 422 pp.
Arthur Koestler mentions a "curious tale about an obscure
Christian Saint, Eustratus. Around 1100 A.D., he was apparently
a prisoner in Cherson in the Crimea, and was ill-treated. Eustratus
is said to have survived 15 days on the cross." [The
Thirteenth Tribe, Popular Library, New York, 1976, p 165].
† Butler, Alban, Lives of the Fathers, London,
1812�1815, vol.VI, p.251, 252.
‡ Clapperton, Captain: in Denham and Clapperton, Travels
and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa, London, 1826,
° Stroud, William, op. cit., p.60.
◊ Wiseman, Bishop, Twelve Lectures on the Connection
Between Science and Religion, London, 1836, vol.1, p.265ff.
were taken down after
a period of three hours on the cross.* They experienced most
pain, apparently, from the extraction of the nails but otherwise
seem to have suffered little injury and soon recovered. He expressed
the belief, on the basis of his perusal of a number of older
Classic works dealing with crucifixion in antiquity, that "thirty-six
hours (is) the earliest period at which this form of punishment
would occasion death in a healthy adult."
Now it is just
possible that the Jews were really expecting Pilate would execute
Jesus first and then hand his body over to them to do as they
pleased with it. I think the implications of their conversations
with Pilate bear this out. It would have served their purposes
entirely, for Jesus would then be dead and they could, by
crucifying the dead body, effectively demolish the force
of his claims as the Messiah without running any risk of bringing
the fury of the common people on their heads. For by this one
act, they believed they could secure general assent to the curse
of God upon Him. The fact that Pilate would have already undertaken
his execution would shatter all the common people's hopes respecting
the Lord's mission as Deliverer, and this would leave the way
clear for the Jewish authorities to do as they would without
any danger of an uproar by the people.
But when Pilate said, "Take
ye Him and crucify Him" (John 19:6), the Jews responded
with the rather curious statement, "We have a law and by
our law He ought to die" (verse 7). The statement is odd
because it seems querulous. One might have expected them to say,
in effect, "Good! Now you're talking. Just hand Him over
to us and we'll do the rest." But their actual words were
highly significant. What they implied was that granting them
the right to crucify Him was not enough because, in the first
place, they had no such practice of executing criminals
by this means, and in the second place, they would have been
forced by Mosaic law to take his body down by sunset and there
was a very real possibility that He would not be dead by then.
In which case they would actually be forced to save his life!
It is indeed possible that Pilate may have been aware of the
injunction in Deuteronomy 21:22 and 23 which forbade leaving
anyone on a cross overnight. The injunction is very specific:
And if a man have committed
a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang
him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree,
but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day: (for he that is
hanged is accursed
* Kitto, John, A Cyclopedia of Biblical
Literature, Edinburgh, Black, 1845, vol 1, under Crucifixion,
of God) that thy land be not defiled,
which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
Since it was
probably late morning and the new day began officially at 6 p.m.,
there were only some twelve to fourteen hours that He could possibly
hang on the cross, and there was therefore a very real likelihood
that the Lord might survive the ordeal of crucifixion. Pilate
cannot have been unaware of the capacity of the human body to
survive this kind of punishment. This contingency seems to have
been the reason why the Jews at once rejected Pilate's proposal
that they should crucify Jesus. Instead, they insisted
that He must be put to death, a statement which demonstrates
clearly that they did not consider crucifixion a form of actual
execution. They said, "We have a law, and by our law He
ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God"
(John 19:7). And we are told that when Pilate heard this, he
was all the more concerned for the life of his prisoner, a fact
which surely demonstrates that he did not expect that handing
Jesus over to the Jews for crucifixion would actually result
in his death.
So when Pilate wanted them (the
Jews) to crucify Jesus, it was by no means equivalent to their
demand that he (Pilate) crucify Him. If Pilate did it,
the Jews knew Jesus would die. If they did it, there was no such
certainty in the matter. They thus recognized the implications
of Pilate's suggestion that they crucify Him themselves. They
were being invited to crucify Him but not actually to execute
Him. For as we have now seen, it is quite possible to crucify
a person without executing him, unless the body is left on the
cross for a very considerable time. Indeed, one of the acts of
mercy which was occasionally permitted to a crucified man was
to give him a coup de grace, a merciful death blow to
put him out of his misery. This was done either by breaking the
legs to hasten death (perhaps by a form of suffocation resulting
from the body weight being now chiefly suspended from the arms)
or by shock. It is doubtful if the Jewish authorities would have
themselves undertaken to crucify the Lord and then have deliberately
applied this coup de grace. For all their hatred, they
were probably still not cold-blooded enough to murder the Lord
before all those who still stood around the cross.
Now most people do not see Pilate
in this more favourable light. Edersheim thinks that he was afraid
simply because he was a superstitious man and stood in fear of
the Lord as One who might do him personal harm later by some
magical means. But I believe the evidence supports a more favourable
view of his real character.
Suppose, for a moment, that Pilate was
not only convinced that the Lord Jesus was not guilty of anything
worthy of punishment by death but that he was also genuinely
impressed by the stature of the Man before him. We do not have
to assume that he understood the
Lord's identity or his mission.
He merely assessed Him as a man and was convinced that the Jews had delivered
Him for envy � and for no other reason. He must have been well acquainted
with Jewish custom and law and with the Jewish national mood at that time.
The Romans were not fools but very capable administrators; and although
they were ruthless in punishing offenders they seemed to have had a well
developed sense of justice � except where slaves were concerned. It is
unlikely that they made Procurators of men who were total strangers to
the customs and laws of the people they were sent to govern. Pilate must
certainly have known that crucifixion of the living was an agonizing slow
death. Indeed, according to Mark 15:44, he was amazed (,
ethaumasen) that the
Lord had died so soon, even in view of the tortures of the past hours.
It was most unusual for anyone crucified alive to die within a
Thus, leading Jesus out before
the people after having Him appallingly scourged and abused,
he presented this battered figure to the crowd and said in effect,
"I have punished this man. I do not believe him to be guilty
of any treasonable offense worthy of anything more." And
he appealed to their pity. But his appeal was wrongly aimed,
for the very finding that Jesus was not guilty of any treasonable
action against the Romans was precisely what the crowd did not
want to hear. Had Pilate said, "This man is guilty of treason:
he was plotting to overthrow us," the sympathies of the
crowd might well have shifted entirely in favour of the Lord
Jesus as being indeed the messianic figure of their wishful thinking!
Pilate's hopeful appeal to the crowd for sympathy towards a broken
Man may well have condemned Jesus because their aspirations were
oriented in precisely the opposite direction. It was a kind of
ironic "kiss of death."
Perhaps, with some surprise at
their increased hostility towards the prisoner, Pilate said,
"Now what do you want of me?" And they cried,
"Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" It was at this point that
Pilate had said, "All right, if it must be so for the sake
of peace, do you take and crucify Him." The response
of the Jewish authorities we already know. . . .
So Pilate returned to the quietness
of the Judgment Hall and again questioned Jesus: and I find it
difficult to read the four accounts of these sad events without
increasingly gaining the impression that Pilate was genuinely
disturbed at what was happening. Yet he could not make up his
mind exactly what should be done.
Once more he took his regal prisoner
before the crowd and said simply, "Behold your King!"
(John 19:14). And when they screamed back at him, "Away
with Him! Away with Him!" he suddenly seemed to realize
what they were really trying to get him to do. "Are you
really asking me," he said, "to crucify your
King for you?" (John 19:15). It must have been
clear to Pilate now that
while the Jews were determined to see Him executed, they did
not have the stomach to undertake the crucifixion themselves
unless He was already dead. Their reply, "We have no king
but Caesar," now left Pilate with no alternative from a
political point of view � and the political implications
began to override what may have previously been humanitarian
or even moral considerations. So he surrendered Jesus to their
will, delivering Him to the soldiers (the "them" of
verse 16 is surely not the Jews who had no such authority) and
they, the soldiers, took Jesus and led Him away to be crucified.
One thing stands
out above all else in this whole frightful travesty of justice,
involving both Jew and Gentile alike: the Jewish people had slain
their King out of hate long before they crucified Him out of
ignorance. From the historical point of view, He was "crucified
and slain" (Acts 2:23) by an act which was simply judicial
murder. From a moral point of view, He was "slain
and crucified" (Acts 5:30 and 10:39). The words are now
The changing of the word order
in these passages is highly significant, but I do not recall
seeing any commentary that has recognized its implications fully.
We often do not perceive a truth merely by the reading of it
unless our minds have been brought into a state of preparedness.
Then the truth suddenly strikes us with great force and we find
ourselves wondering why we did not see it sooner. Unfortunately,
in this particular case, some modern translators, having failed
to recognize this wonderful truth, have now effectively denied
the truth to their readers by concealing it through an alternative
rendering, the implications of which are quite different. The
circumstance is worthy of a moment's further consideration, since
it shows that translation is always dependent upon something
more than scholarship, though scholarship is certainly an essential
In the King James Version, both
Acts 5:30 and 10:39 are rendered "whom ye slew and hanged
on a tree." In a number of modern versions the same words
have been translated, "whom ye killed (or put to death)
by hanging on a tree. . ." In the original, the Greek
is literally, "whom ye killed, hanging on a tree."
This might quite fairly be taken to mean that the Jews did indeed
kill the Lord Jesus by hanging Him on a tree. Yet I think that
the wording in the King James Version is perfectly justifiable
in the light of the original, and is nearer to the truth.
In the first place, the Jews did
not execute people by hanging them on a tree. The Romans did:
but even they had qualms about it. The Carthaginians appear to
have been the first to make crucifixion a mode of execution.
Up to that time it had been only a method of
shaming the condemned
by desecrating his already dead body. The Jews had never adopted
crucifixion as a means of execution.* In
the second place � and this is even more important �
the Lord was not killed by being crucified. And in the third
place, it is not at all necessary to render the original Greek
as these modern versions have done so, the rest of Scripture
being opposed to such a rendering. The translators of the King
James Version allowed the rest of Scripture in fact to be
their guide, and thereby preserved a great truth for us.
The Lord Himself had predicted to the Jews
that in the years to come they would destroy other prophets sent to them
as they had destroyed prophets in the past. "Some of them,"
He said, "you will kill and crucify" (note the order here �
Matthew 23:34). In this passage the original Greek is as follows:
, which is, literally,
"(some) of them ye will kill and ye will crucify." The meaning
here is unequivocal and the prediction is entirely concordant with Jewish
procedure. Moreover, the Greek of this passage agrees in its structure
with that of the Septuagint Version of Joshua 10:26 in which the English
reads, "And Joshua slew them and hanged them on five trees."
The original here reads as follows:
As in Matthew 23:34 the same verb
(apokteino) "to kill," is used, and as in Acts 5:30 the
(kremannumi) "to hang,"
is used, thus nicely tying these three passages together.
The meaning seems to me to be clear
enough, and the fact that the real murder preceded the crucifixion
is reinforced. Were it not for our habit of thinking that the
Lord Jesus was put to death by crucifixion, the more modern
renderings of Acts 5:30 would perhaps have never been considered
as appropriate. It is of great importance once again to underscore
the fact that while Jesus died on the cross, He did not
die because of it.
Now for years
afterwards, people generally believed (particularly the Jewish
people) that Jesus was indeed accursed of God because God had
not "come to his rescue nor had God either assisted or permitted
Him to come down from the cross." When Paul wrote his letter
to the Corinthians, people were still saying Jesus was accursed
because He was crucified. But by inspiration, Paul warned that
no man who called Jesus accursed could possibly be speaking by
the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:3). By his crucifixion He
was made a curse for us
* Genesis 40:19, 22 show that even in Egypt
a decapitated man could also be hanged, and thus hanging is shown
to be a "punishment" applied after death �
not as a means of execution. The order in verse 19 is clear.
(Gal. 3:13), not because
He was an impostor but because He was the Lamb of God as well
as the Messiah. But the Jews found it impossible to believe that
the Messiah, the Anointed One, could also be the Crucified,
the Accursed One.
Later still, Trypho the Jew, in
a dialogue with Justin Martyr, said, "Your Jesus, having
fallen under the extreme curse of God, we cannot sufficiently
wonder how you can expect any good from God, you who place your
hopes upon a man who was crucified." Commenting on the fact
that even Gentiles found this incredible, Justin observed, "They
count us mad: that, next to the eternal God, the Father of all
things, we give second place to a man that was crucified! 'Where
is your understanding,' say the Gentiles, 'that you worship as
God One who is crucified!'" *
Trypho wrote further
in explanation of his position as a Jew: "Moreover, resting
your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain
some good thing from God." And in another place he wrote:
Christ should be so shamefully crucified, this we are in doubt
about. For whosoever is crucified is said in the Law to be accursed,
so that I am exceedingly incredulous on this point. Bring us,
then, by the Scriptures, that we may also be persuaded by you;
for we know that he should suffer and be led as a sheep. But
prove to us whether he must be crucified and die so disgracefully
and so dishonorably by the death cursed in the Law. For we cannot
bring ourselves to think this."
Paul was right
indeed: "We preached Christ crucified (a crucified MESSIAH!),
unto the Jews a stumbling block and unto the Greeks foolishness"
(1 Corinthians l:23). To the Greeks it was foolishness indeed,
for they and the Romans alike reserved crucifixion essentially
for slaves, i.e., for people who were in fact total non-entities,
"nobodies." It was for them one way of stamping the
condemned man as being utterly without significance at all. He
did not even have the right to be buried. He was left to rot,
a mere thing. Thus did the Jews hope to ensure the final repudiation
of this self-proclaimed Messiah by having Him crucified.
Never has a mistake in establishing
the identity of a single individual cost those who made it so
dearly � for in repudiating their own Messiah the Jewish
people committed national suicide. And when the time of their
national eclipse arrived, they were themselves crucified in such
numbers that the Roman soldiers could neither find trees sufficient
* Justin Martyr, "Dialogue with Trypho
the Jew" in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Scribner edition,
1913, vol.1, p199 (chap.X), p.244 (chap.LXXXIX), and p.247.
to make the crosses
nor space enough to plant them in the ground. By crucifying Messiah
they crucified themselves. . . .
Now Joshua 10:26
is by no means the only Old Testament instance of "hanging"
the dead.* Further examples will be found in 1 Samuel 31:10;
2 Samuel 4:12. But it might be wondered whether hanging on a
tree is really the same thing as hanging on a Cross.
be noted that when we speak of hanging a man, we have in mind
an entirely different form of punishment. When the Jews hung
a man on a tree, he was not fastened with a rope around his neck
but with ropes around his arms and legs � a quite different
concept, especially in view of the fact that they were dealing
with a corpse, a carcass as Joshua 8:29 has it. In so far as
the word cross is an appropriate translation of the Greek
words used in the New Testament in connection with crucifixion,
namely, stauros and xulon, it is evident that the
Jews themselves so understood it. Undoubtedly, live trees were
used at first for displaying the corpse in this fashion. But
trees became scarce in later times due to the practice by conquerors
in those days of cutting down all trees in the countryside. They
even rendered the soil totally unproductive by sowing it with
salt (commonly referred to as "laying waste the land").
So in due time some alternative to a live tree had to be devised.
And it appears from a study of the literature that the procedure
was to erect a single upright pole or stake, firmly fixing it
in the ground at some elevated spot used by the public and preferably
at an intersection of two highways.
The object was to make an example
by the display of the dead man's body slowly falling to pieces.
Throughout the Roman Empire live men were being crucified
and left to rot on the cross. For this reason it was customary
to set the stake some little distance from the city because of
the odour created. Such stakes were a fixture around the countryside.
It is not certain whether the crossbar, which has traditionally
been counted as part of the device, was also part of these earlier
stakes or not. There is some evidence that a standing tree-trunk
with a single fork in it was used in some cases.
Certainly in early Christian times,
the cruciform as we now know it, was not commonly used as a symbol
among Christians. In fact, during the first few centuries there
is actually no evidence that it was used at all. Dean Burgon
questioned whether the Cross occurred as
* A cuneiform tablet from c. 2000 B.C. tells
how the Queen of Heaven descended into Hades to rescue her beloved
Dumuzi but was captured, slain, and then crucified. A very ancient
idea. . . [J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating
to the Old Testament, Princeton, 1969, p.52 f., at line 167,
emblem during the whole of the first four centuries. Monseigneur
di Rossi, speaking of the catacombs, observed that there is no
authentic instance of the Cross, as we know it, prior to the
There are crosses
but they are probably drawings made by visitors in later times.
As a matter of fact, so rare in the catacombs is any symbol
of the Lord's death that it seems clear the early Christians
were almost wholly absorbed in his resurrection rather than in
his death. As Sir Kenneth Clark, though speaking with a rather
inadequate understanding of the elements of Christian faith,
stated the case:†
We have grown so used to the
idea that the crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity
that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christian
art its power was recognized. In the first Art of Christianity
it hardly appears; and the earliest example on the doors of Santa
Sabina (425 A.D.) in Rome is stuck away in a corner almost out
of sight. . . . Early Christian art is concerned with miracles,
healings, and with hopeful aspects of the faith like the Ascension
Church in 1563 even adopted a resolution to omit the making of
the sign of the Cross in baptism, though the attempt does not
appear to have been successful. In 1689 a further attempt was
made by an Anglican Committee consisting of bishops and ministers
to exempt all who felt any uncertainty about the Cross from using
it as a sign under any circumstance at all. The Reformed Episcopal
Church in England and in America and in Canada have officially
omitted its use since 1789.‡
The English word cross is
derived from the Greek krauo which means "to strike"
or "fasten together," implying at least two components.
But the Latin word crux does not necessitate this interpretation
and Livy used the word to mean simply a stake or a pole stuck
in the ground.
Whatever may have been the formal
arrangement of the structure itself, the actual penalty as the
Romans employed it for executing
* Porcelli, Baron, The Cross: Its History,
Meaning and Use, Protestant Truth Society, no date, p.13.
† Clark, Sir Kenneth, Civilization, London,
British Broadcasting Corporation and John Murray, 1969, p.29.
The matter has been frequently remarked upon. Edward Hutton in
an article on "The Wonder of the Roman Catacombs,"
observed: "[The early Christians] do not seen, to have been
preoccupied with the crucifixion, the death of Christ; they thought
only of the resurrection" [in Wonders of the Past, edited
by, J. A., Hammerton, London, Putnan's Sons, 1924, vol.IV, p.1015].
Indeed, Clifford M. Jones points out that it was not until the
fifth century that Christian artists dared to portray Christ
on the cross between two thieves. The Cambridge Bible Commentary:
New Testament Illustrations, Cambridge University Press,
‡ Porcelli, Baron, op. cit., p.3.
criminals was frightful.
It was frightful not only for the agony it brought by the very
fact of hanging in an attitude so full of stress, and the shame
it brought from personal exposure to the curious public, and
the prolonged nature of the suffering which could last for days,
and the total lack of defense against wild animals and birds
(men sometimes had their eyes pecked out while still alive) �
but from the sense of total forsakenness which such a situation
must have brought upon the condemned individual in the long hours
of darkness when there was no one present with whom to share
the agony of soul and when the sense of desertion must have been
utterly overwhelming. It is to the everlasting credit of the
Jews that up to this time they had not condemned their own people
to such an inhumane death.
If such a stake were left in place,
then the condemned man must have carried to the site something
other than the upright. Presumably it would be the crossbar.
We know from antiquity that the prisoner was required to carry
something which contributed to his own crucifixion, and we know
from the Gospels that it was heavy. The Lord Jesus could not
even carry this crossbar which is surely not surprising in view
of the terrible laceration of his body which must have resulted
from the Roman scourging as well as the probable absence of food
for many hours. He certainly could never have carried a whole
cross, in spite of artistic representations to the contrary
The Carthaginians, and the Romans
who borrowed the idea of crucifixion from them, appear to have
used ropes to secure the body to the cross. But they also seem
to have used nails through the hands and probably through the
feet as a double precaution against the possibility of the prisoner
wriggling free from the ropes during the night or being freed
by the cutting of the ropes. If the hands were first nailed and
the arms tied to the crossbar, it could then be hoisted up and
fastened on the upright stake. The feet were secured with ropes
and possibly with nails also, sometimes on a small platform for
the feet. Sometimes a peg, placed at the height of the crotch,
was used instead of the footrest. It was driven into the upright.
This was called a sedile (our "saddle"). It
helped to carry the weight of the body and relieved some of the
tension on the arms and hands, but it also greatly extended the
suffering of the condemned man who would otherwise have expired
more quickly from a form of suffocation. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus,
Tertullian, and other early Church Fathers tell us that a sedile
was used in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.
It is my impression that in the
absence of tying, a nail through the palm of each hand would
not suffice to carry the weight of a man's body, especially with
the writhing and twisting that must have accompanied the agony
of the ordeal. The nails served chiefly to prevent the withdrawal
of the arms from the binding ropes. By themselves,
the nails would, I think,
be insufficient to carry the weight alone since the structure
of the bones of the hands would tend to allow the enlargement
of the wound until the nails tore through the flesh. It is for
this reason that some writers have suggested the nails were driven
not through the palms but through the wrists where muscle, tendon,
bone, and other connective tissue would be sufficient to carry
the strain. Whether this alternative can be harmonized with the
action of the Lord in showing his pierced hands to the disciples
as proof of his identity is a matter of debate.
Since the first such hangings made use of
live trees, it is perhaps not unnatural that the later device, whatever
its precise form, was still referred to as a tree. The Greek word
the New Testament is used both for the instrument of crucifixion and for
a living tree. It is used for the Lord's cross in Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29;
Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24. It is used for a living tree in Luke
23:31 and Revelation 2:7; 22:2 and 14. Xulon is also used for what
we would call lumber, i.e., wood in some prepared form. Moulton and Milligan
give an instance of a papyrus recording a request for shipment of "the
remaining 200 beams (xula) as long and as thick as possible."
The other New Testament Greek word used in the same connection, stauros,
is the preferred word for the cross itself, being used 28 times.
the soldiers nailed and probably also tied the Lord Jesus to
the crossbar, hoisted it into place and secured it, and then
tied and nailed his feet, and set over his head Pilate's superscription
identifying Him as "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews."
This inscription was probably written in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic.
His one-piece outer garment they also removed, and they cast
lots for it rather than tearing it up and thus destroying its
value. Then they sat down to keep watch, not for the pleasure
of seeing Him die � for this they can hardly have anticipated
� but rather to see that no one assisted Him to escape. Two
others were condemned to a like fate.
For perhaps sixteen to eighteen
hours He had been without food and possibly even without water:
and during that interval He had endured indignities to his Person
and brutal treatment from the common soldiers. He had experienced
the pain of a totally unjust trial in a hostile court as well
as the appalling hatred of a crowd whose disappointment had given
a cutting edge to their anger and who were wholly bent on his
destruction and desecration. Moreover, He had been entirely forsaken
by all but a tiny handful of friends, especially by those who
had assured Him of their most steadfast loyalty. But the end
was by no means yet.
Even in the agony of crucifixion,
those who passed by still taunted
Him, and their taunts
must have reinforced the temptation to come down from the cross
and thereby demonstrate the validity of his messianic claims
and the wrongness of their judgment. "Come down from the
cross," they challenged. (Mark 15:32) And surely
to any other man in such a position, if he had had any power
to comply, the temptation to do so would have been overwhelming.
To the passers by, it must have seemed a fair enough challenge.
Surely He who could raise the dead, could have stepped down from
the cross miraculously and saved Himself � if He really was
what He claimed to be. And surely God would have supported Him
in such a course of action. All He needed to do now, to prove
that the Jewish authorities were mistaken and to validate his
messianic claims, was to set Himself free! How else, indeed,
could He become the triumphant Conqueror they were looking for?
Athanasius (c. 296�373), whose
name has become for ever attached to one of the great Creeds
of our Faith, wrote one of the most important early treatises
on the Lord Jesus Christ. He titled it, "The Incarnation
of the Word of God."
In Chapter 21, under the heading
Death brought to nought by the Death of Christ, he asked:
"Why did not Christ die privately or in a more honorable
way?" And he answered that question by saying: "Well,
it was not that He was subject to natural death, but that He
had to die at the hands of others. . . . If, therefore,
He had laid aside his body somewhere in private and upon a bed,
after the manner of men, it would have been thought that He also
did this agreeably to a natural vulnerability [i.e., to death]
and because there was nothing in Him more than in other men."
Then in Chapter 22, he asked: "Why
did He not withdraw his body from the Jews and so guard its immortality?"
And he answered: "It became Him not to inflict death
upon Himself, and yet not to shun it either. He came to receive
death as the due of others. . . . "
Thus we see why, and know why,
He could not act upon any such alternatives � not because
He lacked the power but because He had another work yet to complete.
And only when that work was done would He indeed do something
that was tantamount to escaping the shame and the horror of death
on the cross: He would escape from the tomb! For this "other
work" yet to be completed, a work that involved another
kind of death, the cross alone of all forms of capital punishment
was to be the stage on which the divine drama could be acted
The sequence of events from the arrest in Gethsemane to the
Resurrection are shown in tabulated and graphic form in Fig19
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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