Monday, March 25, 2013

Jesus' Crucifixion Garners Historical Attention

Artist's conception
This Easter, millions of Christians worldwide will flock to churches to affirm their faith in Jesus and His rising from the dead on that Sunday.  They have no doubts of what happened and why.

Historians are the ones with the questions.

They mostly agree that Jesus died by crucifixion as described in the New Testament.  Those four books, however, were not written by eyewitnesses and contain little actual history.  Nevertheless, crucifixion seems plausible since no one would boast of such a humiliating death for the founder of a religion unless it had some basis in fact.

Other questions about crucifixion are not easy to resolve.

Historians know the Romans honed the skill of nailing criminals to wooden beams as a public execution.  They got the idea from the Phoenicians, who may have invented that technique, but lost three wars to the Romans in the battle for control of the Mediterranean. 
Multiple crucifixions from a movie

The Romans often crucified multitudes, such as the remnants of Spartacus’ slave army.  The public display served as deterrents in case anyone else was thinking of rebelling.  It was not always fatal.  Jewish historian Josephus in the first century C.E. described trying to rescue several friends he found crucified and succeeded in saving one of them. 

Heel bone with a nail in it
Historians also know that due to a shortage of wood, the upright beams were left in place while condemned prisoners carried the crossbeams to the execution site.

So far, so good.  However, no one is sure how process worked.  For example, were nails used on Jesus?  Three images and the lone skeleton of a crucified man found by archaeologists provide only clues. 

It’s clear that nails were definitely used, at least, on occasion, to hold the victim’s feet in place.  Several historians have argued Jesus was not nailed to the cross because nails were so expensive and not readily available in ancient Judea.  The evidence from the artifacts and from the skeleton found in Israel with a nail through its foot only demonstrates that at least some people were nailed to the cross, but not necessarily Jesus.

Ancient spikes used in crucifixions
Nails were likely used to prevent relatives from rescuing the victim.  Ropes could be cut, but nails were very difficult to extract from a living person.  After the victim died, nails were removed either to be reused or stolen because they were thought to now have magical properties useful in healing.

However, palms and hands are not strong enough to be held by nails.  They would have to be bound to the beam with ropes.   People who have developed stigmata – actual bleeding at the supposed points where nails were pounded through flesh – invariably and erroneously include their palms.

On the other hand, the earliest depiction of a crucified god does not show nails being used at all.  In the image dating from the 2nd century, the feet are depicted apart, and the figure is standing on a plank of wood.  The image is crude and meant to ridicule the belief, since the figure on the cross has a donkey’s head.  Nevertheless, it does show what the artist thought was how a person was crucified.
Recently found drawing of a crucifixion

A younger, equally crude illustration, found recently in Italy, does depict a man whose feet are nailed to the cross. His hands seem to be holding on to the wooden crossbeam.  His back also has welts, symptomatic of the usual Roman floggings.

The nude figure is also shown from the back.  Historians believe it was sketched by someone who witnessed a crucifixion there.  There is no religious symbolism that would connect it to Jesus.

On the other hand, it raises the question if Jesus was nude also.  The only note in the Bible about his clothing is that Roman soldiers took them.

In a third illustration, a gemstone from probably the 4th century contains an image of a crucified man.  In that one, the legs are separated; arms are tied. 

Without additional information, there’s no way to know exactly how the Romans crucified Jesus.

Then there’s the question of why Jesus was crucified.  Later exegesis argues that blood was necessary for true atonement.  That idea arose only later, however, when Christianity developed the philosophical answers to explain Jesus’ death. 
Artist's view

Since Romans only crucified criminals, Jesus must have been thought of as one.  His crime could not have been blasphemy against the Jews, who had no ability to impose the death penalty.  Instead, Romans must have perceived Jesus in the same light they saw other itinerant anti-Roman preachers of the day – as enemies of the state.  Anyone speaking out against the emperor would have been executed.

Roman and Jewish historians, as well as the New Testament, identify other Jewish leaders who suffered the same fate for that reason.

While it’s not clear what Jesus said that so infuriated the Romans – none of his quoted words differs from known Pharisee teachings --- he must have done something seriously wrong.  Perhaps the attack on moneylenders described in all four Gospels got him arrested.  The Temple, after all, was both a religious center and a citadel with soldiers stationed nearby.

In the end, anyone studying the death of Jesus is really left with more questions than answers.  Perhaps that’s more valuable anyway on Easter.  The answers then can come from belief. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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