The Day Crucifixion Was Transformed

The Persians started it. Alex the Great and his successors ‘imported’ it to the Mediterranean. The Romans perfected and re-exported it to whatever lands they conquered. Thus, until Emperor Constantine abolished it in the fourth century AD, crucifixion — nailing a dude against two wooden beams as formal punishment — was almost as common throughout the Roman empire as MCO fines were in the Klang Valley.

Today is Good Friday. Thanks to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, people (even non-Christians) are generally familiar with the significance of this day, not to mention the trauma surrounding crucifixion.

Still, why did Romans crucify people in the first place? What was the process really like? And what ‘happened’ to crucifixion after, or because or, Good Friday?

Purpose

This form of capital punishment belonged to the top three most brutal forms of executions in the ancient world (the other two were burning and decapitation).

In those days, the Romans could crucify people for crimes ranging from desertion (for soldiers, obviously), betraying of political secrets, incitement to rebellion, murder, prophecy about the welfare of rulers (although I’m guessing these applied only to prophets bringing ‘bad news’), the practice of magic, the falsification of wills and even what Roman jurist Julius Paulus termed “nocturnal impiety” (ahem).

Nevertheless, the Romans employed crucifixion primarily as a tool to crush and deter political rebellion; historian Josephus reported mass crucifixions along the Jerusalem wall during the Jewish Wars of the first century. The only place for folks who committed treason or plotted insurrections against Rome was to be nailed to two pieces of wood, shaped in the form of an ‘X’ or a ‘T’.

But that was just the finale.

Process

Those condemned to be crucified were first sentenced to a round (or more) of scourging or whipping (but note this was only for men; women were spared these “preliminaries”). The person was stripped naked, tied to a post and whipped in the back, buttocks and legs (there are some reports that criminals were hit in the front as well, but these are rare). And what was he hit with? A feather-duster? No, it was called a flagrum. This is a whip consisting of leather thongs at the end of which were tied small sharp bits of bone or lead.

Imagine of a cruel-looking mop head made of leather with sharp razor tail-ends.

The Roman legionnaire will bring the whip down with full force all over the prisoner’s body, producing bruises and deeper bruises and bleeding and more bleeding until it looks like strips of ribbon hanging of the victim’s back. The scourging only stops when the Roman in charge decides that more flagrum action will lead to death. One easy indication is when the victim simply faints and collapses from the beating which, as one may expect, is quite common.

What happens next? Well, the beaten up guy doesn’t exactly get a 2-hour time-out in a sofa-bed. In Jesus’ case, the Roman soldiers fashioned a ‘crown of thorns’ and stuck it on to him, before striking him across the head which drove the thorns deeper into his scalp.

But, usually, after the scourging the condemned person is forced to carry (only) the lateral portion of the cross to the execution site. Jesus had to carry his beam more than 600 yards from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha, a small hill where he was crucified.

In most cases there’ll be someone, called a herald, who walks in front of the condemned person and carrying an inscription to be nailed above him on the cross. In Jesus’ case, the inscription read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (clearly, the Romans knew a thing or two about mockery).

This underscores the fact that crucifixion was a deliberate public spectacle meant to ‘make a point’.

Now for the bad news.

If we thought carrying a wooden beam weighing around 50kgs was tough, remember that the prison wasn’t quite allowed to take his time, get a breather every now and then, etc. Instead, the whipping never stops throughout the trip. So the victim suffers continual blood loss, shock and more shredded skin in the midst of heaving his own execution device.

If he’s lucky, his tormentors would NOT have also gouged out his eyes or cut off a body part or — in a case where king Antiochus IV of Syria wanted to do something especially nasty — have his strangled child hung around his neck.

A little known fact that even Mel Gibson got wrong is that nails were driven through the wrists of Jesus, not his palms. The Romans would’ve learnt by then that nailing a person through the palms would likely tear the hand loose as it couldn’t support the body weight. This is why sometimes nails are driven into the forearms as well.

Nailing the legs was usually ‘straight-forward’ in that the feet would bent downwards and nails driven straight through the meta-tarsal bones. Occasionally the prisoner’s feet was put into a box and/or twisted to the side.

Interestingly enough, there remains debate on how a person actually dies when crucified with the most popular answer being asphyxiation. Hanging from one’s arms makes exhaling very difficult, to say the least. Add in the scourging, maiming, wounding, bleeding and dehydration and one can almost imagine how death by beheading is a mercy.

For it can be hours or even days before the person dies. And because Roman soldiers can’t leave the site until death has occurred, sometimes they expedite the process by breaking the legs of the victims, after which the hanging man can no longer push himself upwards to breathe and he suffocates almost immediately. Other ways to speed up death include stabbing the victim in the heart, striking a huge club-blow to the chest or lighting a fire beneath the cross to smother the victim.

With Jesus, he probably died of heart failure, so his legs weren’t broken. He was nevertheless speared between the ribs (because the soldier wanted to make doubly sure) which resulted in a small gush of blood mixed with water from the sac near the heart.

Progress?

Good Friday is arguably the holiest day in the Christian calendar because this is the day Jesus died. Because his death was on a Roman cross, the historical phenomenon of crucifixion will always be a part of this central event in Christian worship and spirituality.

Nevertheless — in a slow, painful and even beautiful way — one could argue that because of the crucifixion of Jesus (and the events it unleashed), there was birthed the idea that victimhood can somehow be linked to a source of inexplicable strength.

Good Friday brought about something ‘new’ to the cross. The fact that Malaysians wear crosses on their necks (an act which, in early antiquity, would be akin to wearing a mini-electric chair as a necklace) says a lot about how the history of crucifixion has progressed.

For within a few weeks of Jesus’ death, the first Christians would begin spreading throughout the Roman empire. Within ten years, the man called Paul the Apostle would have begun a career which resulted in many (more) mini house-churches throughout Asia Minor over the next two decades, not to mention the very famous letters he wrote which are now collected in the New Testament (and read out loud in Kuala Lumpur every now and then).

Finally, before the reign of Constantine the Great was over, the practice of crucifixion would’ve been officially abolished. Three hundred years or so from Jesus’ death, this utterly barbaric form of punishment was ended. The Romans eventually adopted the sign of the cross as a political symbol (which, of course, didn’t always produce the most magnanimous results).

In short, Good Friday was a kind of depth-charge which rippled out into history, occasioning the birth and growth of Christianity which, in turn, transformed the cross from being a cruel instrument of imperial power and punishment into a symbol of love, hope and joy.

There are many other reasons why this Friday is called good, but the redemption and transformation of possibly the most vicious method of execution in history? That’s surely one of them.

Further Reading

Davis, C Truman. 1965. “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View.” Arizona Medicine March(22): 183–87. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14267674/.

Hengel, Martin. 1977. Crucifixion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Retief, Francois P, and Loius Cilliers. 2003. “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion.” South African Medical Journal 93(12): 938–41. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/samj/article/view/134402.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.