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Major events in Jesus' life in the Gospels

Crucifixion is an ancient method of execution, in which the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden cross (Latin: crux) and left to hang there until dead. It was a common form of execution from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, especially among the Persians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, and Romans. Crucifixion has gained notoriety in Christianity as a method believed by Christians to have been used by the Romans to put Jesus to death, and the cross and the crucifix has become the main Christian symbol.


Details of crucifixion

Crucifixion was hardly (if ever) performed for ritual or symbolic reasons; usually, its purpose was only to provide a particularly painful, gruesome, and public death, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal. In fact, crucifixion is only an arbitrary subset of a much wider continuous spectrum of slow and painful execution methods, which include varied forms of impalement, hanging from hooks, burning at the stake, exposure to wild beasts, etc.

Therefore, the details of crucifixion must have varied considerably with location and epoch, and even from case to case; and very little can be said about the practice in general.

Cross shape

The horizontal beam of the cross, or transom, could be fixed at the very top of the vertical piece, the upright, to form a T called a tau cross or Saint Anthony's cross. The horizontal beam could also be affixed at some distance below the top, often in a mortise, to form a t-shape called a Latin cross, most often depicted in Christian imagery. Alternatively, the cross could consist of two diagonal beams to form an X alternatively known as the decussate cross (after 'decus', Latin for 'ten', insofar as 'X' is the Roman numeral for ten) or as Saint Andrew's cross. (This shape may be recognized from its white-on-blue manifestation in the flag of Scotland.)

For reasons of simplicity, a single, upright wooden pole (crux simplex), with no transom at all, was also often used for ancient crucifixions; the original Greek word for "cross" (stauros) is generally understood to indicate a simple upright pole or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, "to fasten to a stake or pale," are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiatical form of a two beamed "cross". The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz, being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name. By the middle of the 3rd century A.D. pagans were received into the churches were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the "cross" of Christ.(Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament.)

Location of the nails

Religious depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus typically show him supported by nails through the palms.
Religious depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus typically show him supported by nails through the palms.

For the sake of expediency, the victim was probably affixed to the cross by ropes, nails, or some combination of the two. In popular depictions of crucifixion (possibly derived from a literal reading of the translated description in the Gospel of John, of Jesus' wounds being "in the hands"), the victim is shown supported only by nails driven straight through the feet and the palms of the hands. However, the flesh of the hands cannot support a person's body weight, so some other means must have been used to support most of the weight, such as tying the wrists to the cross beam.

Another possibility, that does not require tying, is that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm (the radius and the ulna). The nails could also be driven through the wrist, in a space between four carpal bones (which is the location shown in the Shroud of Turin). As some historians have suggested, the Gospel word χειρ (cheir) that is translated as "hand" may have in fact included everything below the mid-forearm. Indeed, Acts 12:7 uses this word to report chains falling off from Peter's "hands", although the chains would be around what we would call "wrists". This shows that the semantic range of χειρ is wider than the English "hand", and can incorporate nails through the wrist.

Another possibility, suggested by Frederick Zugibe, is that the nails may have been driven in on an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel.

A sedile, or a seat, was often attached to the cross, for the purpose of taking the man's weight off the wrists. This was most likely a simple peg or slab of wood, upon which the man would rest. A nail was often placed through the penis, into the sedile, as a means of securing the male to the seat.

Cause of death

Death could come in hours or days, depending on exact methods, the health of those crucified, and environmental circumstances.

A theory attributed to Pierre Barbet holds that the typical cause of death was asphyxiation. He conjectured that when the whole body weight was supported by the stretched arms, the victim would have severe difficulty exhaling, due to hyper-expansion of the lungs. The victim would therefore have to draw himself up by his arms, or have his feet supported by tying or by a wood block. Indeed, Roman executioners were said to break the victim's legs, after he had hung for some time, in order to hasten his death. Once deprived of support and unable to lift himself, the victim would die within a few minutes.

If death did not come from asphyxiation, it could result from a number of other causes, including physical shock caused by the scourging that preceded the crucifixion, and the nailing itself, dehydration, and exhaustion.

Experiments by Frederick Zugibe have revealed that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly increasing discomfort and pain. This would correspond to the Roman use of crucifixion as a prolonged, agonizing, humiliating death. Zugibe claims that the breaking of the crucified victim's legs to hasten death, mentioned in the Gospel accounts, was done in order to cause severe traumatic shock or death by fat embolism, and only as a coup de grace. Crucifixion on a single pole with no transom, with hands affixed over one's head, would precipitate rapid asphyxiation if no block was provided to stand on, or once the legs were broken.

Archeological evidence for ancient crucifixion

Despite the fact that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, as well as other sources, refer to the crucifixion of thousands of people by the Romans, there is only a single archeological discovery of a crucified body dating back to the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus. It is not surprising that there is only one such discovery, because a crucified body was usually left to decay on the cross and therefore would not be preserved. The only reason these archeological remains were preserved was because family members gave this particular crucified criminal a customary burial.

The remains were found accidentally in an ossuary with the crucified man’s name on it, “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol.” The ossuary contained a heel with a nail driven through its side, indicating that the heels may have been driven through the sides of the tree (one on the left side, one on the right side, and not with both feet together in front). The nail had olive wood on it indicating that he was crucified not on a beam but on an olive tree. Since olive trees are not very tall, this would suggest that victims were crucified at eye level. His legs were found broken.

Important references for the ancient practice of crucifixion and an examination of archeological evidence:

  • Tzaferis, Vassilios. “Crucifixion -- The Archaeological Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 11, February, 1985: 44–53.
  • Zias, Joseph. “The Crucified Man from Giv’at Ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal.” Israel Exploration Journal 35(1), 1985: 22–27.

History of crucifixion

Persia and Alexander

Crucifixion probably originated with ancient Persians. There is evidence that captured pirates were crucified in the port of Athens in the 7th century BC. Alexander the Great is reputed to have executed 2000 survivors from his siege of the city of Tyre, as well as the doctor who unsuccessfully treated Alexander's friend (and probable lover) Hephaestion. Some historians have also conjectured that he crucified Callisthenes, his official historian and biographer, after Callisthenes objected to the adoption by Alexander of the royal Persian ceremony of adoration.

Roman Empire

Romans adopted the custom from Carthage and used it for slaves, rebels, pirates and especially despised enemies and criminals. Therefore crucifixion was considered a most ignominious way to die. Condemned Roman citizens were usually exempt from crucifixion (like feudal nobles from hanging) except for major crimes against the state, such as high treason. The Romans used it during the Spartacus rebellion, during the Roman Civil War, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Josephus tells a story of the Romans crucifying people along the walls of Jerusalem. He also says that the Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions. In Roman style crucifixion, the victim took days to die, slowly from suffocation. The dead body is not removed from the cross but is left on the cross for vultures and other birds to consume.

The goal of Roman crucifixion was not just to kill the criminal, but also to wreck and dishonour the body of the condemned. In ancient tradition, an honourable death requires burial, so to wreck the body and not permit them to be buried, but to leave them hanging on a cross to decay, is a grave dishonour on the person.

Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was not only a means of execution, but also a means of exhibiting the criminal’s low social status. It is the most dishonourable death imaginable. The elite of Roman society (only about 10% of the population) was almost never subject to corporal punishments, instead, they were fined or exiled. Josephus mentions Jews of high rank that were crucified, but this was to point out their status was taken away from them. Control of one’s own body was vital in the ancient world. Capital punishment took away control over one’s own body, thereby a loss of status and honour.

The New Testament gospels, which are dated around the same time as Josephus, describe soldiers gambling for the robes of Jesus, indicating criminals were crucified naked. They may have in fact gone to the cross naked, being stripped during their scourging or other torture before their execution.

A common prelude was scourging, which would cause the victim to lose a large amount of blood, and approach a state of shock. The prisoner then usually had to carry the horizontal beam (patibulum in Latin) to the place of execution, not necessarily the whole cross. Crucifixion was typically carried out by specialized teams, consisting of a commanding centurion and four soldiers. When it was done in an established place of execution, the vertical beam (stipes) was sometimes permanently embedded in the ground. The victim was usually stripped naked. The "nails" were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across.

The Romans often broke the prisoner's legs to hasten death. Burial afterwards was not usually permitted.

In some cases, the nails were gathered afterwards and used as healing amulets (similarly, folklore ascribed magical powers to things related to the gallows in feudal times).

Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire at the end of his reign.


Tokugawa Shogunate

Crucifixion was used in Japan before and during the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was called Haritsuke in Japanese. The victim—usually a sentenced criminal—was hoisted upon a T-shaped cross. Then, executioners killed him with spears. The body was left to hang for a time before burial.

In 1597, twenty-six Christians were nailed to crosses at Nagasaki, Japan. Among those executed were Paul Miki and Pedro Bautista, a Spanish Franciscan who had worked about ten years in the Philippines.


There are some reports that, after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, some natives performed human sacrifice by crucifixion due to their superficial understanding of Christianity.

Modern death on the cross

  • Execution by crucifixion, while rare in recent times, was used at Dachau during the Holocaust and in a number of wars, such as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and during the Sino-Japanese war, where it was among the many methods of torture and execution used by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians—largely in emulation of medieval Japanese military practices.
  • During World War I, there were persistent rumors that German soldiers had crucified an Allied (Canadian) soldier on a tree or barn door with bayonets or combat knives. The event was initially reported in 1915 by private George Barrie of the Canadian First Division, as follows:
"On 24 April at St Julien I saw a small party of Germans about 50 yards away. I lay still and in about half an hour they left. I saw what appeared to be a man in British uniform. I was horrified to see that the man was literally crucified, being fastened to the post by eight bayonets. He was suspended about 18" from the ground, the bayonets being driven through his legs, shoulders, throat and testicles. At his feet lay an English rifle, broken and covered with blood." [1]
According to a Red Cross Nurse and multiple testimonies from men of the same unit, the event supposedly happened to a Harry Banks of Canadian 48th Highland Regiment. This story was widely used in the black propaganda of the time, together with a similar rumor that Germans had bayoneted Belgian babies. Such rumours made for highly graphic and disturbing pictures and were ideal for helping to demonize the enemy.
After the war, investigators tried to determine the veracity of the story of the crucified soldier, but it was inconclusive.
  • There are persistent stories that crucifixions continue to occur in certain parts of Africa, particularly in Sudan. According to reports, hundreds if not thousands of Christian Sudanese have been nailed to crude crosses on the plains, in remote areas where access by reporters and Western witnesses is limited. Al Jazeera reported in 2002 of the crucifixion of 32 Christian priests and other males, some as young as their early teens. They were allegedly whipped severely and affixed to crosses with six-inch nails through their hands, ankles, and genitals. Other reports suggest that crucifixion has been making a comeback in such fundamentalist Muslim nations as Nigeria and Yemen.

Modern crucifixions without death

Crucifixion as a devotional practice

Since at least the mid-1800s, a group of Roman Catholic flagellants in New Mexico called Hermanos de Luz ("Brothers of Light") have annually conducted reenactments of Jesus Christ's crucifixion during Holy Week, where a penitent is tied--but not nailed—to a cross. [2] Some very devout Catholics are voluntarily, non-lethally crucified for a limited time on Good Friday, to imitate the suffering of Jesus Christ. A notable example is the ceremonial re-enactment that has been performed yearly in the town of Iztapalapa, on the outskirts of Mexico City, since 1833. [3]

Devotional crucifixions are also common in the Philippines, sometimes even driving nails through the hands. In San Pedro Cutad, devotee Ruben Enaje has been crucified 18 times, as of 2004, during Passion Week celebrations. [4]

In many cases the person portraying Jesus is previously subjected to flagellation (e.g. flailing) and/or wears a crown of thorns. Sometimes there is a whole passion play, sometimes only the mortification of the flesh.


In a more jocular context, the victim of a prank (such as a a bridegroom in 'macho' circles where he is traditionally abused at the end of his stag night) or of hazing may be bound to a cross as a variation of treeing.

Famous crucifixions

  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Spartacus' revolt: Spartacus himself died in battle, but approximately 6,000 of his followers were crucified along the 200 km road between Capua and Rome circa 71 BC, as a warning to any other would-be rebels.
  • Saint Peter, Christian apostle: according to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down at his own request, as he did not feel worthy to die the same way as Jesus
  • Saint Andrew, Christian apostle: according to tradition, crucified on an X-shaped cross, hence the name St. Andrew's Cross
  • Archbishop Joachim of Nizhny Novgorod: crucified upside down, on the Royal Doors of the Cathedral in Sevastopol, USSR in 1920

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