The History of Crucifixion

by Professor Michael Cook of Hebrew Union College

Given the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's new movie, I thought that the following article is worth reading. It is by a Professor at Hebrew Union College, Howard Lifshitz. (Shlomoh)

Crucifixion was widely practiced in the ancient Mediterranean and Babylonian worlds by most of these civilizations, except the Greeks and the Jews. The laws regulating crucifixion had been codified by the king and lawgiver, Hammurabi 1700 years before Jesus.  Men and women were crucified for a wide variety of misdemeanors, from adultery to insurrectionary activity. Since traditionally women have been punished preeminently over men for adultery, Babylonian women no doubt bore the brunt of this punishment for sexual misdemeanor.  In the history of torture techniques, crucifixion remains among the cruelest because of the protracted and incremental agony of the victim. Death on the cross took three and a half days to complete.  The victim died of multiple causes: broken bones, lacerated limbs, asphyxiation when the weight of the hanging body crushed the lungs, strangulation and exposure. Often, while left hanging in this decaying state, the victim's organs were dragged from his body by roaming animals and eaten in front of him.  But the final cause of death was dehydration, and after three days without water, the victim descended into madness.

Jesus, who hung on the cross for six hours, was spared these agonies, and it was the thrust of a spear from a Roman soldier which killed him. Nor was the crucifixion of Jesus a focus of Christianity for its first three or four centuries, during which time the cross lingered as a symbol of Jewish death. From the time crucifixion was introduced into Judea to the fall of the temple in 70 C.E. thousands of Jews were crucified, often as many as five hundred a day.  Some historians have claimed that the stony landscape around Jerusalem owes its appearance to the fact that it was denuded of trees to make crosses.  The sight of the crucified, the sounds of their dying, the smell of their decaying bodies pervaded the hills, and generations of Jewish children grew up beneath these shadows and smells.  So common was crucifixion, many legends grew up about it.

A coterie of behavior developed about the crucified.  Under such circumstances as the dying on the cross experienced, there could be no "moment" of death. Mostly, it was a sliding towards death for three and half days, while the victim's family and friends gathered around the site, sometimes even pressed by the victim to make arrangements about his final effects, sometimes to bargain with or attempt to bribe the Roman soldiers about when they could claim the victim's body, hoping to spare him hours of pain. (Such bargaining is depicted in the Gospels.) Then, as always, bribery formed the means of shadow arrangements, and victims were sometimes rescued.

Often people of power, such as Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels, prevailed on the Roman soldiers.  Most frequently nothing prevailed, and women and children, as well as men, were hung from the crosses.  Whole families, suspected of insurrectionary involvement, were hung together. Pregnant women were hung, lactating women were hung.

In the reign of the Roman procurator, Gessius Florus, during the years 64-66 C.E., when the revolt against Rome began and Judea, crazed with pain, descended into madness, 3600 Jewish men, women and children were crucified.

If it is painful to imagine a grown man on the cross, imagine a pregnant woman or a child! Crucifixion was introduced into Judea by Varus, the legate of Syria, on his own responsibility; and shortly after the death of Herod he crucified 2,000 Jews. Such conduct he repeated in Germany in 9 CE against the Druids, when he served as consul there.  He provoked a revolt of such magnitude for his behavior, the entire Roman army in Germany was destroyed by the uprising.  The emperor Augustus declared it a "day of disaster," and marked it with yearly mourning.

Before this time, the symbolism of the cross was already familiar to Jews. According to the eminent scholar, Erwin Goodenough, "The Jews knew and used the sign of the cross ... as a token for eschatological protection." They carried amulets with crosses, with circles around them, or with dots in the interstices.  The "X" or "+" had significance even for those Jews who lived in the Diaspora, in Rome itself. Discoveries of the tombs of Jewish and Roman bodies reveal these marks on their tombstones. Goodenough, however, believes that the "X" goes back to an earlier era than the Roman conquest of Judea, where it is found in Ezekiel as the distinctive mark of "TAW ."  He points out that the Hebrew "TAW" was made as a cross, "X" or a "+" and connects this sign painted on the doors of the Hebrews in Egypt on the night of the Passover.  He also speculates that it may have represented the sign of Yaweh.

By the first century C.E. Jews were familiar with the sign of the cross as a Jewish symbol, and with crucifixion as a Jewish death which by now powerfully shaped their collective psyches. So common was the sight of crucifixion for Jews during the Roman occupation that the cross acquired a heightened symbolic and religious anchor in their imaginations.  The belief that a nail from a cross had healing powers was widespread and many Jews carried such nails. The rabbis even permitted them to carry the nails on the Sabbath.  Conversely, and particularly interesting against this background, is the fact that neither the cross nor the theme of crucifixion was used by Christians until the fourth century.

Goodenough points out "that Christian art seems to have no crosses at all until the fourth century."  The theme of crucifixion is absent from first century Christian art and absent from Christian catacombs, but it makes its appearance on Jewish tombs in catacombs in Rome. We are so accustomed to identify ing the cross and crucifixion with Christianity, that it is difficult to imagine a time when this was not so, or a time when the cross was a Jewish symbol.

The cross appears to be the emblematic identifying mark of Christianity, to have been born with it, but in fact it developed slowly over centuries. The significance of the crucifixion to Christianity and the deicide charge developed slowly and together.  It was in the tenth to twelfth centuries, and partly as a consequence of the wars against the Moors and the Crusades, that these themes came into Christian focus.

Crucifixion scenes and passion plays (developed in the twelfth century) not only inspired hatred for Jews, but crucifixes carried into battle against the Infidels (Muslims) and heretics (mainly in southern France) were intended to inspire blood rage for "those who were an offense to the Lord."

It is often the function of symbols to streamline historical content, but in becoming the symbol of the Roman' s barbarous method of punishment, the figure of Jesus absorbed and erased the collective memory of the thousands of Jews, Druids and Pagan slaves, who died with greater agony.  This is an instructive instance of the peculiar and not uncommon tendency for the symbol of an historical era to redirect or even to reverse its original meaning, which is what happened by the time the Church fathers put together the New Testament.

Pontius Pilate, that most bloody of Roman procurators (by Rome's standards) emerges as saintly from the New Testament, and the Jews, themselves victims of crucifixion, emerge as the villains who committed deicide. The symbol of the cross, as it has come down to us, not only erased a part of early Jewish history, but became the instrument for further persecution of the Jews.

Rabbi Richard Rubenstein's phrase, "The Cunning of History," applies.

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