Holman Bible Dictionary
Historical Development Originally a cross was a wooden pointed stake used to build a wall or to erect fortifications around a town. Beginning with the Assyrians and Persians, it began to be used to display the heads of captured foes or of particularly heinous criminals on the palisades above the gateway into a city. Later crucifixion developed into a form of capital punishment, as enemies of the state were impaled on the stake itself. The Greeks and Romans at first reserved the punishment only for slaves, saying it was too barbaric for freeborn or citizens. By the first century, however, it was used for any enemy of the state, though citizens could only be crucified by direct edict of Caesar. As time went on, the Romans began to use crucifixion more and more as a deterrent to criminal activity, so that by Jesus' time it was a common sight.
The eastern form of crucifixion was practiced in the Old Testament. Saul was decapitated and his body displayed on a wall by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:9-10 ), and the “hanging” of Esther 2:23; Esther 5:14 may mean impalement (compare Ezra 6:11 ). According to Jewish law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ) the offenders were “hung on a tree,” which meant they were “accursed of God” and outside the covenant people. Such criminals were to be removed from the cross before nightfall lest they “defile the land.” During the intertestamental period the western form was borrowed when Alexander Janneus crucified 800 Pharisees (76 B.C.), but on the whole the Jews condemned and seldom used the method. Even Herod the Great refused to crucify his enemies. The practice was abolished after the “conversion” of the emperor of Constantine to Christianity.
A person crucified in Jesus' day was first of all scourged (beaten with a whip consisting of thongs with pieces of metal or bone attached to the end) or at least flogged until the blood flowed. This was not just done out of cruelty but was designed to hasten death and lessen the terrible ordeal. After the beating, the victim was forced to bear the crossbeam to the execution site in order to signify that life was already over and to break the will to live. A tablet detailing the crime(s) was often placed around the criminal's neck and then fastened to the cross. At the site the prisoner was often tied (the normal method) or nailed (if a quicker death was desired) to the crossbeam. The nail would be driven through the wrist rather than the palm, since the smaller bones of the hand could not support the weight of the body. The beam with the body was then lifted and tied to the already affixed upright pole. Pins or a small wooden block were placed halfway up to provide a seat for the body lest the nails tear open the wounds or the ropes force the arms from their sockets. Finally the feet were tied or nailed to the post. Death was caused by the loss of blood circulation and coronary failure. Especially if the victims were tied, it could take days of hideous pain as the extremities turned slowly gangrenous; so often the soldiers would break the victims legs with a club, causing massive shock and a quick death. Such deaths were usually done in public places, and the body was left to rot for days, with carrion birds allowed to degrade the corpse further.
Four types of crosses were used: 1) The Latin cross has the crossbeam about two-thirds of the way up the upright pole; 2) St. Anthony's cross (probably due to its similarity to his famous crutch) had the beam at the top of the upright pole like a T. 3) St. Andrew's cross (supposedly the form used to crucify Andrew) had the shape of the letter X; 4) the Greek cross has both beams equal in the shape of a plus sign.
The Crucifixion of Jesus Jesus predicted His coming crucifixion many times. The Synoptic Gospels list at least three (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:33-34 and parallels), while John records three others ( Mark 3:14; Mark 8:28; Mark 12:32-33 ). Several aspects of Jesus' passion are predicted; 1) it occurred by divine necessity (“must” in Mark 8:31 ); 2 ) both Jews (“delivered”) and Romans (“killed”) were guilty (Mark 9:31 ); 3 ) Jesus would be vindicated by being raised from the dead; 4) the death itself entailed glory (seen in the “lifted up” sayings which imply exaltation in John 3:14; John 8:28; John 12:32-33 ).
The narration of Jesus' crucifixion in the Gospels emphasized Jewish guilt, but all four carefully separated the leaders from the common people, who supported Jesus all along and were led astray by the leaders at the last. Yet Roman guilt is also obvious. The Sanhedrin was no longer allowed to initiate capital punishment; only the Romans could do so. Furthermore, only Roman soldiers could carry it out. Roman customs were followed in the scourging, mock enthronement, bearing the crossbeam, and the crucifixion itself. The site on a hill and the size of the cross (the use of the hyssop reed shows it was seven to nine feet high) showed their desire for a public display of a “criminal.” The Jewish elements in the crucifixion of Jesus were the wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23 ), the hyssop reed with vinegar (Mark 15:36 ), and the removal of Jesus' body from the cross before sunset (John 19:31 ).
The four Gospels look at Jesus' crucifixion from four different vantage points and highlight diverse aspects of the significance of His death. Mark and Matthew centered upon the horror of putting the Son of God Himself to death. Mark emphasized the messianic meaning, using the taunts of the crowds to “save yourself” (Mark 15:30-31 ) as an unconscious prophecy pointing to the resurrection. Matthew took Mark even further, pointing to Jesus as the royal Messiah who faced His destiny in complete control of the situation. Jesus' vindication was found not only in the rending of the veil and the centurion's testimony (Matthew 27:51 ,Matthew 27:51,27:54 paralleling Mark) but in the remarkable raising of the Old Testament saints ( Matthew 27:52-53 ) which links the cross and the open tomb. For Matthew the cross inaugurated the last days when the power of death is broken, and salvation is poured out upon all people.
Luke has perhaps the most unique portrayal, with two emphases: Jesus as the archetypal righteous Martyr who forgave His enemies and the crucifixion as an awesome scene of reverence and worship. Luke omitted the negative aspects of the crucifixion (earthquakes, wine with myrrh, cry of dereliction) and overturned the taunts when the crowd “returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48 RSV). Luke included three sayings of Jesus which relate to prayer (found only in Luke): “Father, forgive them” ( Luke 23:34 , contrasted with the mockery); “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 , in response to the criminal's prayer); and “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46 ). A wondrous sense of stillness and worship color Luke's portrayal.
John's narration is perhaps the most dramatic. Even moreso than Luke, all the negative elements disappear (the darkness and taunts as well as those missing also in Luke), and an atmosphere of calm characterizes the scene. At the core is Jesus' sovereign control of the whole scene. The cross becomes His throne. John noted that the inscription on the cross (“JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS”) was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek (John 19:19-20 ), thereby changing it into a universal proclamation of Jesus' royal status. Throughout the account to the final cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30 ), Jesus was in complete control.
One cannot understand Jesus' crucifixion until all four Gospels are taken into account. All the emphases—the messianic thrust, Jesus as Son of God and as the righteous Martyr, the sacrificial nature of His death, the cross as His throne—are necessary emphases of the total picture of the significance of His crucifixion.
Theological Meaning While a theology of the cross is found primarily in Paul, it clearly predates him, as can be demonstrated in the “creeds” (statements of belief/teaching) Paul quoted. For instance, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 says Paul had “received” and then “delivered” to the Corinthians the truth that Jesus “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Three major themes are interwoven in this and other creeds ( Romans 4:25; Romans 6:1-8; Romans 8:32; Colossians 2:11-12; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 1:3-4; 1 Peter 1:21; 1 Peter 3:18-22 ): Jesus death as our substitute (from Isaiah 53:5; compare Mark 10:45; Mark 14:24 ); Jesus' death and resurrection as fulfilling Scripture; and Jesus' vindication and exaltation by God.
For Paul the “word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18 NAS) is the heart of the gospel, and the preaching of the cross is the soul of the church's mission. “Christ crucified” ( 1 Corinthians 1:23; compare 1 Corinthians 2:2; Galatians 3:1 ) is more than the basis of our salvation; the cross was the central event in history, the one moment which demonstrated God's control of and involvement in human history. In 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 Paul contrasted the “foolishness” of the “preaching of the cross” with human “wisdom” ( 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 ), for only in the cross can salvation be found and only in the foolish “preaching of the cross” and “weakness” can the “power of God” be seen (1Corinthians 1:21,1 Corinthians 1:25 ). Jesus as the lowly One achieved His glory by virtue of His suffering—only the crucified One could become the risen One (1 Corinthians 1:26-30 ). Such a message certainly was viewed as foolish in the first century; Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius looked upon the idea of a “crucified God” with contempt.
The cross is the basis of our salvation in Paul's epistles (Romans 3:24-25; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20; Colossians 2:14 ), while the resurrection is stressed as the core in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:33-36; Acts 3:19-21; Acts 5:31 ). Romans 4:25 makes both emphases. The reason for the distinct emphases is most likely seen in the fact that Acts chronicles the preaching of the early church (with the resurrection as the apologetic basis of our salvation) and the epistles the teaching of the early church (with the crucifixion the theological basis of our salvation). The three major terms are: “redemption,” stressing the “ransom payment” made by Jesus' blood in delivering us from sin ( Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18 ); “propitiation,” which refers to Jesus' death as “satisfying” God's righteous wrath (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17 ); and “justification,” picturing the results of the cross, the “acquittal” (“declaring righteous”) of our guilt (Romans 3:24; Romans 4:25; Galatians 2:16-21; Galatians 3:24 ).
The cross did even more than procure salvation. It forged a new unity between Jew and Gentile by breaking down “the dividing wall of hostility” and “made the two one” (Ephesians 2:14-15 NIV), thereby producing “peace” by creating a new access to the Father ( Ephesians 2:18 ). In addition the cross “disarmed” the demonic “powers” and forged the final triumph over Satan and his hordes, forcing those spiritual forces to follow his train in a victory procession (Colossians 2:15 NIV). The cross was Satan's great error. When Satan entered Judas in betraying Jesus, he undoubtedly did not realize that the cross would prove his greatest defeat. He could only respond with frustrated rage, knowing that “his time is short” ( Revelation 12:12 NIV). Satan participated in his own undoing!
The Symbolic Meaning Jesus Himself established the primary figurative interpretation of the cross as a call to complete surrender to God. He used it five times as a symbol of true discipleship in terms of self-denial, taking up one's cross, and following Jesus (Mark 8:34; Mark 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27 ). Building upon the Roman practice of bearing the crossbeam to the place of execution, Jesus intended this in two directions: the death of self, involving the sacrifice of one's individuality for the purpose of following Jesus completely; and a willingness to imitate Jesus completely, even to the extent of martyrdom.
Closely connected to this is Paul's symbol of the crucified life. Conversion means the ego “no longer live(s)” but is replaced by Christ and faith in Him (Galatians 2:20 ). Self-centered desires are nailed to the cross (Galatians 5:24 ), and worldly interests are dead (Galatians 6:14 ). In Romans 6:1-8 we are “buried with him” (using the imagery of baptism) with the result that we are raised to “newness of life” ( Romans 6:4 ). This is taken further in 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 . The believer relives the death and resurrection by putting to death the old self and putting on the new. In one sense this is a past act, experienced at conversion. Yet according to Ephesians 4:22 ,Ephesians 4:22,4:24 this is also a present act, experienced in the corporate life of the church. In other words, both at conversion and in spiritual growth, the believer must relive the cross before experiencing the resurrection life. The Christian paradox is that death is the path to life! See Atonement; Christology; Justification; Passion; Propitiation; Redemption.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Cross, Crucifixion'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/c/cross-crucifixion.html. 1991.