crucifix illustration


It’s Lent, the season of contemplation and preparation for the holiest week in the Christian calendar, celebrating the supreme central mystery — the return from death of Christ and his promise to return again. The story of the last week of Christ is the primary topic of the Gospels, and is the focus for Christians during the Holy Week prior to Easter. On Good Friday, the Crucifixion of Christ is theatrically re-enacted in churches across the country.

And once again, the same parade of errors about crucifixion are brought out into the public domain and waved about, before being patiently re-folded and stored again in the seasonal holiday bin under the Easter Bunny costume.

Prior to the tenth century, crucifixion wasn’t a prominant element of the theology or practice of Christianity. It wasn’t a part of the ritual, it wasn’t a part of the discussion, it wasn’t part of the art. Christ was a Teacher or a Shepherd, a Healer or a King. The whole point was that he was a living god. Not dead.

It wasn’t until the Church needed an outpouring of soldiers to retake lands occupied by Islam that the importance of self-sacrifice and the worship of the cross began. Bishops began writing impassioned edicts, and deacons faithfully echoed their words. Suddenly, every artistic depiction of Christ had a cross, and the agony of Christ became a central icon of faith until Christians flocked to the Holy Lands on Crusade.

Curiously, by that time, it had been so long since anything as abhorrant as crucifixion had been afflicted on anyone, that the artists were on their own to make up a representation that matched what they understood from scripture and the few, conflicting references that remained to them. Consequently, what a lot of folks today “know” about crucifixion, even engage in heated arguments about, are based on incorrect assumptions made by artists a thousand years ago.

For example, that whole “T”-shaped cross thing had more to do with Neo-Pythagorean mysticism than any kind of historical reference. Because the Romans didn’t actually use crossbars in this form of torment, but instead hoisted people onto vertical poles. So all those dramatic scenes of Christ carrying his cross or a crossbar, or in a pose with hands outstretched are historically improbable.

Similarly, the notion that spikes driven through the palms of the hands would hold the weight of an adult body is gruesomly laughable. Or that they would waste three expensive, heavy spikes when one would do (remember, hands over the head), or when rope would suffice. Archeologists have uncovered bones with a single spike connecting two heels, so spikes were certainly used.

There’s also a question of whether the writer(s) of the Gospels actually intended to describe crucifixion accurately, or was more concerned with a poetic interpretation of prophetic materials. Much of what is written in the Gospels about the crucifixion of Christ appear to be highlighting how his experience was different than usual, at least, it’s difficult to find any examples of other victims being treated as gingerly as he was.

For instance, the scene where the Roman soldier proffers some vinager for the Christ to drink is a really dirty joke and a reference to Hebrew prophecy all in one. The solder offers wine “seasoned” with myrrh by dipping a sponge on a stick in the wine and holding the sponge next to the face of Christ. There’s a line in Psalms about being forced to drink vinager — that’s it, that’s the whole “prophecy”. Talk about dialing it in. Anyway, after pooping, Romans would clean their bums with the same sponge on a stick the Roman soldier offered Christ. That’s the dirty joke. In Real Life, they probably wouldn’t have stopped passers-by from offering food or water to crucifixion victims, as it would simply prolong their torment, but this whole scene isn’t really about that.

The subsequent scene, where a soldier breaks one of Christ’s legs in order to ‘hasten his demise’ is completely out of character and bizarre in this specific context. The only way it makes sense is by connecting it to the behavior of the Roman governor Pilot, who did a job he was required to do but clearly found distasteful in the execution of Christ. Because the Romans liked Christ, it was the Jewish establishment that is shown as being opposed to him.

The Romans had a vast array of wretched cruelties they would apply to those deemed worthy. Their favorites were methods that broke the body, but didn’t allow for immediate death. Crucifixion is shown in the Gospels as causing the death of Christ in just a few hours, but this particular form of torment was applied precisely because it didn’t result in immediate death. Instead, victims would dangle, hands affixed over their heads, exposed to the weather and slowly suffocating by their own weight for many days, often weeks, before finally perishing.

People taken down after only a few hours often survived the ordeal, although with significant physical injuries. From the way the Gospel stories are written, it’s clear that Christ is taken down with plenty of time to ensure survival. This also colors the following scenes of disciples finding empty tombs with particularly dark humor. As it would have been clear to Roman readers that the disciples were the object of mockery here as they searched, unsuccessfully, for a corpse that couldn’t have existed.

Artistic interpretations of the event often show a single cross, or sometimes three crosses in reference to a scene in the Gospels. But crucifixion was a tool of group torment. In the few instances we have of crucifixion in the historical record, the Romans would line major roads with hundreds of crucifixion victims, all generally close enough to hear and smell each other dying, but not close enough to offer comfort or sing in harmony. It was expected to send a powerful message about crossing the Empire to everyone else. It wasn’t worth the trouble to just hang up two or three people, far easier just to dispatch them in one of the dozens of other, faster methods they had devised.

There was a specific reason for including crucifixion in the Gospel story, and it followed from the reason for the creation of the Gospel stories. Those involved in writing these books had an agenda, and didn’t care what folks a millenia or two later would think about it. Understanding that agenda can help us understand original motivations, but it doesn’t really help to clear away the morass of nonsense that has filled in the area since that time.

The Gospel stories were intended to serve a number of purposes for the people who wrote them. They serve as a reminder that the Judean state was completely obliterated by the Romans, to mock the Jews and their culture, and to subvert the mythology of the Jewish Messiah, carving out a political liability into a tool of the Roman Empire. That tool, both keen and efficient, continues to carve into society today when people are gaslit into feeling shame about the torments of a man who never existed in a death that never occurred, so that they will look to an authoritarian leader to give them a sense of belonging again.


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