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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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LEGS (John 19:31 f.).—The breaking of the legs with a heavy club or bar (σκελοκοπία, crurifragium) was inflicted as a capital punishment on slaves and others who incurred the anger of irresponsible masters (for reff. see Westcott’s note). The victim, with legs broken, hands cut off, and otherwise mutilated, was thrown still alive into a pit; often the deathblow was given in some other way (‘fractis cruribus occiduntur,’ Ammian Marcell. Hist. xiv. 9). Crurifragium formed no part of crucifixion itself, but was perhaps usually added in Judaea to secure a speedy death, as otherwise those crucified might linger for several days (cf. Lactantius, iv. 26, ‘His executioners did not think it necessary to break His bones, as was their prevailing custom’). Death would then ensue in one of the following ways—(1) From shock; in which case it would be immediate. (2) From haemorrhage; such blows given by a heavy bar might cause complete tearing of the skin, producing what is known as ‘a compound fracture,’ which would speedily result in bleeding to death owing to the tearing of the blood-vessels. This would be especially likely to occur from the upright position in which the victim was suspended. (3) From gangrene, which would ensue if neither shock nor haemorrhage were fatal, and would make recovery impossible. Thus the bodies might be removed. Edersheim says (Life and Times, ii. 613): ‘The breaking of the bones was always followed by a coup de grâce by sword, lance, or stroke (the Perforatio or percussio sub alas), which immediately put an end to what remained of life. Thus the “breaking of the bones” was a sort of increase of punishment by way of compensation for its shortening by the final stroke that followed.’ Cf. Quinctilian, ‘cruces succiduntur: percussos sepeliri carnifex non vetat.’ But Meyer is of opinion that the addition of a finishing blow by which (and therefore not by crurifragium in itself) death was brought about, cannot be shown, and least of all from John 19:34. Crurifragium, as well as crucifixion, was abolished by Constantine, the first Christian emperor. The Jews did not make their request to Pilate with the desire to intensify the sufferings of Jesus and the robbers, but because only in this way could they have the bodies taken down. They had in view Deuteronomy 21:23 (though this law did not refer to crucifixion, a punishment unknown to the Israelites), more especially as they feared the pollution of the coming Sabbath, which was a high day (John 19:31).

Jesus being crucified ‘in the midst,’ the soldiers would naturally begin with the robbers who were on either side, and so come last to Him. This is better than Bengel’s explanation (‘cui destinatum crurifragium distulerant, diuturnioris doloris causa’). His legs were not broken as He was already dead, but a soldier gave the spear-thrust to make sure. Thus the type of the Paschal lamb (Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12), and the declaration of God’s protection of the righteous (Psalms 34:20), were remarkably fulfilled (John 19:36); and the sacred body of Christ, which had previously been subjected to insult and abuse, was preserved from the last indignity when once His work was finished. The omission of the crurifragium is very important, showing that the executioners were convinced of the reality of the death of Jesus. The Synoptists make no mention of the incident, probably (as Godet) because Jesus Himself was not affected by it and His Person alone was of consequence to them, not those of the two male-factors. Neither would St. John have mentioned it but for the relation of the fact to the prophecy which struck him so forcibly. ‘To understand what John felt at the moment which he here recalls, we must suppose a believing, Jew, familiar with the OT, seeing the soldiers approach who are to break the legs of the three victims. He asks himself anxiously what is to be done to the body of the Messiah, which is still more sacred than the Paschal lamb. And lo, simultaneously and in the most unexpected manner, this body is rescued from the brutal operation which threatened it, and receives the spear-thrust, thereby realizing the spectacle which repentant Israel is one day to behold.’

The so-called Gospel according to Peter has a curious perversion of the account, representing the crurifragium as omitted not in the case of Jesus, but in that of the penitent robber. ‘One of the malefactors reproached them, saying, We have suffered this for the evils that we have done, but this man having become the Saviour of men, what wrong hath He done to you? And they, being angered at him, commanded that his legs should not be broken, that he might die in torment’ (see Robinson and James, Gospel and Revelation of Peter; also the edd. [Note: editions or editors.] by Swete (p. 7) and by the author of Supern. Rel. (p. 63)).

Literature.—Neander, Life of Christ; Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Godet, St. John; Keim, Jesus of Nazara, vi. 253; Lipsius, de Cruce, ii. 14, iii. 14; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 94a.

W. H. Dundas.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Legs'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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