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Historic Jesus

The "cross" originally was an upright stake embedded in the ground on which a victim was impaled. Often prisoners of war were impaled outside a besieged fortress or city to terrorize and weaken the resistance of the people. The victim could be hung by his arms. Or the stake could be thrust through his chest and out his back before it was set in the ground. Nearly all ancient societies practiced this form of execution.

As early as the sixth century B. C., in crucifixions conducted by Gentile nations a crossbeam was attached to the upright stake. The Phoenicians probably were the first to use a crossbeam, though this practice was noted in Persia, Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and among the Germanic tribes. The Romans adopted it from the Phoenicians. Crucifixion was the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens. During the final years of the Jewish revolt against Rome, hundreds of Jews were crucified. In A. D. 66, 3,500 Jews were crucified, including many of the aristocracy. This atrocity erupted in widespread revolt. During the final siege of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus, so many Jews were crucified that there was neither wood nor space left for further executions.

Three kinds of crosses were used: the "crux commissa" or St. Anthony's cross, in the shape of a T; the "crux decussata,,"or St. Andrew's cross, in the shape of an X; and the "crux immissa," or Latin cross. Since a sign describing Jesus as "The King of the Jews" was nailed above his head, he was probably crucified on a "crux immissa." Tradition has made this cross the Christian symbol. The Greek cross, in which the crossbeam is the same length as the upright and meets at the center, was used later than the first century.

After the sentence was pronounced, the victim was usually scourged with a "flagellum," a whip with many leather thongs, each of which had sharp pieces of bone or metal braided into them. This scourging lacerated the flesh, often stripping it to the bone, causing both loss of blood and severe shock. Its, purpose was to punish, humiliate, and hasten death by weakening the person before he was hung on the cross.

The victim was led to the place of execution, which was always outside the city walls. He carried the crossbeam of his own cross. A soldier or herald carried a sign informing the public of his offense, or the sign was hung about the person's neck. In Judea a group of pious women, following the precept of Proverbs 31.6 "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts"-formed a guild to give wine mixed with mvrrh to those who were crucified. This mixture was an effective narcotic to deaden pain and dull the senses. Jesus was offered this mixture, but refused to take it, thus preserving his mental and spiritual alertness on the cross. When the victim reached the place of execution, he was stripped of his clothes and stretched out on the crossbeam on the ground. His hands or wrists, first the right and then the left, were tied or nailed to the crossbeam, which then was hoisted with ropes to a slotted place on the upright that had been prepared to receive it. The practice of nailing the feet to the upright once the crossbeam was in place seems to have varied: Sometimes the feet were nailed together with a single nail; sometimes they were nailed separately with two nails. There was no footrest; instead, a peg protruded from the upright to support the body's weight. This prevented the pull of gravity from ripping the hands or wrists free. When the body was in place, the victim's feet were usually not more than one or two feet above the ground.

Death by crucifixion was painful and protracted. It seldom occurred before thirty-six hours, sometimes took as long as nine days, and resulted from hunger and traumatic exposure. The hands and feet are centers of a complex network of bones, muscles, tendons, and nerves. Nailing them and putting weight on them while they are immobilized caused excruciating pain but little loss of blood. The blood gathered in the arteries of the head, causing a pounding headache, and in the stomach, bringing nausea and weakness. Tetanus usually occurred because of the lack of circulation; the infection caused the system to burn with fever. If it was decided to hasten the death of a victim, his legs were usually smashed with a heavy club or hammer, and a final killing blow was struck with a sword or lance in the side.

In describing the medical aspects of death by crucifixion, R..V.G. Tasker quotes from a paper delivered at the Third International Congress of Catholic Doctors in 1947: "The soldier was a Roman: He would be well trained, proficient. and would know his duty. He would know which part of the body to pierce in order that he might obtain a speedily fatal result or ensure that the victim was undeniably dead. He would thrust through the left side of the chest a little below the center. Here he would penetrate the heart and the great blood vessels at their origin, and also the lung on the side. The soldier, standing below our crucified Lord as he hung on the cross, would thrust upwards under the left ribs. The broad, clean cutting, two-edged spearhead would enter the left side of the upper abdomen, would open the greatly distended stomach, would pierce the diaphragm, would cut, wide open, the heart and great blood vessels, arteries and veins now fully distended with blood, a considerable proportion of all the blood in the body, and would lacerate the lung. The wound would be large enough to permit the open hand to be thrust into it. Blood from the greatly engorged veins, pulmonary vessel and dilated right side of the heart, together with water from the acutely dilated stomach, would flow forth in abundance. The whole event as described by St. John must, indeed, have happened, for no writer could have presented in such coherent detail so recognizable an event, unless he or someone had actually witnessed its occurrence" (Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John, An Introduction and Commentary, Inter-Varsity 1960, pp. 212-213). But rather than dwell on the sufferings of Jesus during this most painful death, the Gospel writers simply recount that "they crucified him" (Matt. 27.34).