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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Crucifixion

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CRUCIFIXION.—Crucifixion was originally an Oriental punishment. It was practised by the Persians (Herod. ix. 122), by the Phœnicians and their colonists the Carthaginians (Valer. ii. 7), and by the Egyptians (Thuc. iv. 110). It was practised also by the Greeks, probably in imitation of the Persians (Plut. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] 72. § 2), and by the Romans, who, though Cicero ascribes its introduction to Tarquinius Superbus, probably learned it from their enemies the Carthaginians. Regarding it, however, as an ignominious doom, the Romans reserved it for slaves (whence it was called servile supplicium), the worst sort of criminals such as robbers (Sen. Ep. vii.), and provincials. To inflict it on a Roman citizen was reckoned an impiety (Cic. in Verr. v. 66). It was a horrible punishment. Cicero designates it crudelissimum teterrimumque supplicium. The verb cognate to crux, ‘cross,’ was cruciare, ‘to torture’ (cf. ‘excruciating’).

There were two kinds of cross:

1. The crux simplex, which was a single stake. Sometimes the victim was fastened to it by his hands and feet, the former being extended above his head. Usually, however, it was a sharpened stake (σκόλοψ), and the victim was impaled upon it. It passed through the length of his body, issuing from his month. Cf. Sen. Ep. xiv.: ‘adactum per medium hominem qui per os emergat stipitem’; cf. de Consol. ad Marc. xx. The former method was called affixio, the latter infixio.

2. The crux compacta, which was composed of two pieces. It had three forms: (1) The crux decussata X, called also the crux Andreana, because it is said to be the cross on which St. Andrew suffered at Patrae. It was this form of cross that the Fathers had in view when in the crossing of Jacob’s hands as he blessed Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:13-14) they saw a prophecy of the Crucifixion. Cf. Tert. de Bapt. § 8; Isid. Pel. Epp. i. 362. (2) The crux commissa or St. Anthony’s cross, resembling the letter T. Cf. Barn. Ep. § 9; Luc. Jud. Vocal. § 12. The upright was called stipes or staticulum, and the transom patibulum or antenna. (3) The crux immissa, which had the top of the upright protruding above the transom, ; From the middle of the upright there projected a peg, the seat (sedile) or horn (cornu), on which, to support its weight, the body rested as on a saddle. Cf. Iren. adv. Haer. ii. 36. § 2: ‘Ipse habitus crucis fines et summitates habet quinque, duos in longitudine et duos in latitudine, et unum in medio in quo requiescat qui clavis affigitur’; Just. Mart. Dial. circa (about) Tryph. p. 318 C (ed. Sylburg.): τὸ ἐν τῷ μέσῳ πηγνύμενον ὡς κέρας καὶ αὐτὸ ἔξεχον ἐστίν, ἐφʼ ᾦ ἐποχοῦνται οἱ σταυρούμενοι.

It was generally assumed in early times that the cross on which Jesus suffered was a crux immissa. Thus Augustine (in Psalm., ciii. § 14) finds in Ephesians 3:18 a mystic allusion to the cross: ‘breadth’ being the transom on which His hands were outstretched; ‘length,’ the upright on which His body was fastened; ‘height,’ the head of the upright protruding above the transom; ‘depth,’ the lower end buried in the earth. And it is a confirmation of this opinion that the board inscribed with His name and accusation was put up over His head (Matthew 27:37), apparently on the projection of the upright.

The early Apologists fancifully defended the sacred symbol of the cross against the sneers of unbelievers by pointing to its appearance everywhere, as though nature and art alike did homage to it. It is seen in the quarters of the heaven, two transverse lines, as it were, running from N. to S. and from E. to W.; in a bird soaring upward with spread wings; in a man swimming or praying with outstretched hands; in the nose and eyebrows of the human face; in a ship’s mast and yard; in a galley’s oars projecting on either side; in the yoke of a plough and the handle of a spade; in the shape of trophies and fasces.* [Note: Mart. Apol. ii., ed. Sylburg. p. 90 C–E; Tert. Apol. § 16; Jer. on Mark 15:21. Cf. Lips, de Cruc. i. ix.] See Tree.

The cruciarius was spared no circumstance of ignominy. He was required to carry the transom to the place of execution; [Note: de Ser. Num. Vind. § 9; Artemidor. Oneir. ii. 61; Wetstein on Matthew 10:38.] he was driven thither with goad and scourge along the most frequented streets, that the populace might profit by so signal an exhibition of the terrors of justice; and a herald went before, bearing a board whereon the victim’s name and offence were inscribed. [Note: HE v. 1; Lightfoot on Matthew 27:31.] Thus burdened and tormented, Jesus went His sorrowful way from the Praetorium till He reached the gate of the city (Matthew 27:32); and there His strength failed, and He could go no farther. Tradition has it that He fell. The soldiers relieved Him of His burden, and, impressing Simon of Cyrene, laid it on his shoulders. Even then Jesus was unable to walk unsupported, and had to be borne along to the scene of His crucifixion. Cf. Mark 15:22 φέρουσιν αὐτόν.

On arrival at the place of execution (See Golgotha), four soldiers were told off by the centurion in charge to do the work (cf. John 19:23). They proceeded in the customary way. First of all, the cruciarius was stripped naked, his garments being regarded as the rightful perquisites of his executioners.* [Note: Wetstein on Matthew 27:35.] Then he was laid on his back over the transom and his hands fastened to either end. Thereafter the transom was hoisted on the upright and his feet were fastened to the latter. Usually the hands were nailed through the palms and the feet were fixed either by two nails, one through each instep, or by a single nail transfixing both through the Achilles tendon; sometimes, however, the hands and feet were simply tied. [Note: Lips, de Cruc. ii. viii.] Though less painful at the moment, the latter was the more terrible method, since it protracted the victim’s sufferings. He hung till he died of hunger and exhaustion, or was devoured by birds and beasts of prey. [Note: ib. xii.–xiii.] The hands of Jesus were certainly nailed, but it seems that His feet were only tied (cf. John 20:20; John 20:25; John 20:27).§ [Note: Ευ. Petr. § 6: τότε ἀτέστασαν τοὺς ἥλους ἀτο͂ τὥν χειρῶν τοῦ Κυριου] The sole Evangelic authority for supposing that they were nailed is Luke 24:39 [40], which is probably assimilated to Psalms 22:16. From two circumstances, (1) that a soldier could reach the lips of Jesus with a short reed (Matthew 27:48 = Mark 15:36 = John 19:29), and (2) that wild beasts could tear out the entrails of the cruciarius as he hung,|| [Note: | Cf. Lips. de Cruc. ii. xiii.] it appears that the cross was of no great height. It was enough if the feet cleared the ground.

There was a humane custom among the Jews, based on Proverbs 31:6, that a potion of medicated wine should be administered to the cruciarii in order to deaden their sensibility. The merciful draught was provided by a society of charitable ladies in Jerusalem. [Note: Lightfoot on Matthew 27:34; Wetstein on Mark 15:23. See art. Gall.] It was offered to Jesus ere the nails were driven through His hands, and He raised it to His thirsty lips; but on tasting what it was He would not drink it. What was His reason for rejecting it? It was not that the endurance of physical pain was necessary to the efficacy of His sacrificial death;** [Note: * Cf. Calv.: ‘Nam et haec pars sacriflcii et obedientiae ejus erat, languoris moram ad extremum usque sufferre.’] nor was it merely that He had a sentimental repugnance to the idea of dying in a state of stupefaction.† [Note: † Cf. Dr. Johnson: ‘I will take no more physic, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.’] It was rather because He was bent on doing to the last the work which had been given Him to do. It was well for the penitent brigand that Jesus did not drink the potion.

It was usual for the victims of that frightful punishment, maddened by terror and pain, to shriek, entreat, curse, and spit at their execntioners and the bystanders;‡ [Note: ‡ Cf. Cic. in Verr. i. 3, pro Cluent. 66; Jos. BJ iv. vi. 1, vii. vi. 4; Sen. de Vit. Beat. 19.] but Jesus endured the torture meekly. A cry broke from His lips as they were hammering the nails through His hands; but it was a prayer—not an appeal to them for mercy on Himself, but an appeal to God for mercy on them: ‘Father, forgive them: for they know not what they are doing.’§§ [Note: § Luke 23:34, an interpolation, but unquestionably an authentic fragment of the Evangelic tradition. Cf. Wfi, Notes.] The transom with its quivering load was hoisted on the upright, and there He hung, conscious of all that passed around Him. It is said that St. Andrew, as he hung upon his cross at Patrae, taught the people all the while;|||| [Note: ||| Ahdiae, Hist. Apost. iii. 41.] and Jesus also in His anguish was mindful of others. Two brigands had been crucified with Him, two of those outlaws who infested the steep road from Jericho to Jerusalem, and by their deeds of violence gave it the grim name of ‘the Ascent of Blood’ (cf. Luke 10:30); and when one of them, recognizing the majesty of the meek Sufferer, turned to Him and prayed Him to remember him when He ‘came in his kingdom,’ He granted more than he sought, promising him a place that very day in Paradise. And He thought of His mother, as she stood by distracted with grief, and commended her to the care of the beloved disciple. While He hung, He was compassed with insults. The Jewish rulers, exulting in their seeming triumph, mocked Him, and the multitude joined in the poor sport. So did the soldiers who were charged with the duty of watching the crosses lest a rescue should be attempted.* [Note: Petron. Sat.: ‘Cruciarii unius parentes ut viderunt noctn laxatam custodiam, detraxere pendentem’; Jos. Vit. 75: three cruciarii taken down; one recovered from his wounds.] Heated by their labour, they were refreshing themselves from their jar of posea, the vinegar which was the only drink allowed to soldiers on duty (See Vinegar). Jesus was in their eyes a pretender to the Jewish throne, a rebel against the imperial government; and, hearing the gibes of the rulers, they joined in, and, holding up their cups in mock homage, drank His Majesty’s health (Luke 23:36).

Crucifixion was a lingering doom. The victims sometimes hung for days ere they died of hunger, exhaustion, loss of blood, and the fever of their wounds, [Note: Lips, de Cruc. ii. xii.] unless they were despatched either by a spear-thrust or by the coup de grace of the crurifragium, a brutality which the Romans practised usually on slaves, beating the life out of them by shattering blows with a heavy mallet. [Note: ib. xiv.] It was, however, contrary to the Jewish law (Deuteronomy 21:23; Deuteronomy 21:23) that they should hang overnight; and it was the more necessary that the requirement should he observed in this instance, since the next day was not only the Sabbath but the Sabbath of the Paschal week, a day of special solemnity (John 19:31). Therefore the rulers waited on Pilate, and requested that Jesus and the brigands might be despatched by the crurifragium, and their bodies taken down from the crosses ere 6 o’clock that evening, when the Sabbath would begin. Pilate consented, and the soldiers set about the brutal work. They despatched the two brigands, but when they came to Jesus, He was already dead. There was no need to strike Him with the mallet; but one of them, to ensure that He was really dead, drove his spear into His side. See Blood and Water.

The prominent characteristic of crucifixion was the ignominy of it (cf. Galatians 3:13, Hebrews 12:2). This constituted ‘the stumbling-block of the cross’ (Galatians 5:11) in Jewish eyes. Since it was expected that the Messiah would be a glorious and victorious King, it seemed incredible that one who was slain, and not only slain but crucified, should be the Messiah. In the eyes of the NT writers, on the contrary, its very ignominy constituted its supreme suitability to the Messiah. It identified Him utterly with sinners, making Him a sharer in the worst extremity of their condition. St. John recognized a providential dispensation in the enslavement of the Jews to the Romans, inasmuch as it brought about the Crucifixion (John 18:31-32). Had they been free, Jesus would have been stoned as a blasphemer; but since they were vassals of Rome, it was not lawful for them to put any one to death (John 18:31). The Sanhedrin’s sentence had to be referred to the procurator. It was invalid without his ratification, and it was executed by his authority after the Roman manner.

It is remarkable that, unlike the mediaeval artists, who loved to depict the Man of Sorrows as He hung on the cross abused and bleeding, the Evangelists have drawn a veil over the scene, detailing none of the ghastly particulars, and saying merely: ‘They crucified him.’ They recognized in the Crucifixion not the triumph of human malice but the consummation of a Divine purpose—‘the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). At the moment all was dark to the disciples; but when their minds were illumined by the Holy Spirit, they saw not only ‘the sufferings that befell Messiah’ but ‘the glories that followed these’ (1 Peter 1:11). Their Lord had never seemed so kingly in their eyes as when He ‘reigned from the tree.’* [Note: To the LXX version of Psalms 96:10 many codices add ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου after ὁ Κύριος ἑβασίλευσεν. So Old Lat. and Copt. versions, Just. Mart., Tert, Aug.; cf. Venant. Fortunat. Hymn. de Pass. Dom.:

‘Impleta sunt quae concinit

David fideli carmine,

Dicens: In nationibus

Regnavit a ligno Deus.’]

In early days, according to some authorities, Luke 9:31 ran: ‘They were speaking of the glory which He was about to fulfil at Jerusalem.’ [Note: in Matth. lvii.: τὴν δόξαν ἣν ἒμδλλε σληροῦν ἐν Ἱερουσαλήμ. τούτεστιν, τὸ πάθος καὶ τὸν σταυρόν. οὓτω γάρ αὑτὸ καλοῦσιν ἀεί. Euth. Zig. on Matthew 17:3 : τινὰ δὲ τῶν βιβλίων οὑκ ἕξοδον ἀλλὰ δόξαν γρἀφουσι. δόξα γὰρ καλεῖται καὶ ὁ σταυρός.] So Chrysostom quotes the passage; and this is the constant conception of the NT. ‘We look upon Jesus,’ says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour’ (Hebrews 2:9; cf. Philippians 2:8 f.).

Throughout His ministry Jesus recognized the inevitable necessity of His Passion. He had come to die. Cf. Matthew 9:15 = Mark 2:20 = Luke 5:35; Matthew 16:21 = Mark 8:31 = Luke 9:22; Matthew 17:22-23 = Mark 9:31 = Luke 9:44; Matthew 20:18; Matthew 20:13 = Mark 10:33-34 = Luke 18:32-33. As early as the close of the 2nd cent. Celsus stumbled at the idea that Jesus foreknew and foretold all that happened to Him (Orig. circa (about) Cels. ii. 13). Strauss pronounces those intimations mere vaticinia ex eventu. A crucified Messiah was ‘to Jews a stumbliog-block and to Gentiles foolishness’ (1 Corinthians 1:23); and the Apostles, eager to remove ‘the stumbling-block of the Cross,’ represented the Crucifixion as no ignominious catastrophe, but ‘a link in a chain of higher knowledge, part of a Divine plan of salvation.’ Keim, on the other hand, regards the announcement as ‘the expression of a natural, reasonable, correct anticipation,’ suggested by the fate of the Baptist and the difficulties wherewith Jesus was beset. The definite details, however, must be pruned away. In point of fact, the Lord’s prescience of the end is insxtricably interwoven with the Gospel history. The cross was His goal, and He knew it all along.

Literature.—In addition to the works quoted in the art. and the standard Lives of Christ, reference may be made to Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ, ‘The Crucifixion’; Newman, Selected Sermons, pp. 175–188; Liddon, Bampton Lect.8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 472 ff.; Farrar, Christ in Art, pp. 389–423; Dale, Atonement7 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 436 ff.

David Smith.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Crucifixion'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/crucifixion.html. 1906-1918.

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