Roman Forms of Crucifixion

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Roman Forms of Crucifixion

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Crucifixion wasn’t always carried out the way we’ve seen it typically depicted in paintings and pictures. In fact, as noted in this chapter, a crucifixion victim likely wasn’t nailed through the hands, since their structure cannot support the weight of a human body. Most likely victims were nailed through the wrist or, in some instances, had their arms tied rather than being nailed.

Nor were victims always crucified on the kind of cross typically shown in depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. Note what The Anchor Bible Dictionary says in its article on crucifixion:

“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…

“Executioners could vary the form of punishment, as [Roman historian] 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 [cross-piece]’…

“In his account of what happened to Jewish refugees from Jerusalem [in the Jewish war of A.D. 67-70], [first-century historian] Josephus also lets us see that there was no fixed pattern for crucifying people. Much depended on the sadistic ingenuity of the moment” (David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief, 1992, Vol. 1, pp. 1208-1209).

“The accursed tree”

The Roman historian Seneca, describing the horror of crucifixion, argued that it would be better to commit suicide than endure such a tortured death. “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” (ibid., p. 1209).

Seneca’s reference to “the accursed tree” is strongly reminiscent of Peter’s words when he speaks of Jesus, “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24 1 Peter 2:24Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live to righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.
American King James Version×
; compare Acts 5:30 Acts 5:30The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew and hanged on a tree.
American King James Version×
). In some cases crucifixions seem to have been carried out on a literal tree, albeit one that was basically only a trunk from which the branches had been cut away.

In these crucifixions the condemned victim would be nailed to the upright trunk or would carry his own crossbeam, which would then be fastened to the trunk and him nailed to both. It’s possible that the “cross” Jesus carried to His execution, carried part of the time by Simon of Cyrene, was simply a large beam of wood.

Shape of the cross not spelled out

The word translated “cross” in the New Testament is the Greek word stauros, which “denotes, primarily, ‘an upright pale or stake’ ” ( Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, “Cross, Crucify”).

“Both the noun and the verb stauroo, ‘to fasten to a stake or pale,’ are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed ‘cross’ ” (ibid.).

The Bible contains no specific description of the stauros on which Jesus died. The word stauros was used in non-biblical writings of the time to refer to pieces of wood of various shapes, with and without crosspieces. If it were important that we know its exact shape, the Gospel writers could have easily provided us that information—yet none of them do. What is important for us to know is the willing sacrifice Jesus made of His own life for our sakes.

If we don’t know whether Jesus was executed on a stake or a cross, or what shape of cross, how did the t-shaped cross come to be the most popular symbol of Christianity?

Vine’s explains: “The shape of the [two-beamed cross] had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith.

“In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches…and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau, or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the ‘cross’ of Christ’ ” (ibid.).

Thus we see that the most common symbol of Christ and Christianity was a symbol that long predated Jesus and biblical Christianity.