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On Crucifixion

A History of Crucifixion                                                                                                                                                                                                                  


Crucifixion was a brutal, torturous form of death used for the execution of criminals in ancient times. Jewish historian Josephus called it “that most wretched of deaths” (Crucifixion Notes). It was reserved primarily for thieves, murderers, traitors, slaves, enemies of state and prisoners of war. The criminal was tied and nailed to a stake (or a stake with a crossbeam) and hung by hands and feet until dead. Victims could live while suspended on the stake or cross anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Due to the public display of crucifixion, in which the victim was generally stripped naked, it was considered a most degrading and humiliating way to die. After the victim died, the body was often left suspended on the device to be eaten by birds and/or other wild animals as a deterrent to would-be criminals and all citizens alike.

A Brief History of Crucifixion

Crucifixion first began in the 6th century BCE, probably with the Persians. From there, it gradually spread to other peoples and countries. Alexander the Great, in the third century BCE, used crucifixion to execute war enemies. At one point, Alexander had 2000 prisoners of war crucified. “Then the anger of the king offered a sad spectacle to the victors.  Two thousand persons, for whose killing the general madness had spent itself, hung fixed to crosses over a huge stretch of the shore” (Crucifixion Notes).

Crucifixion, however, is generally associated with the ancient Roman Empire. The Empire used crucifixion extensively beginning in the 2nd or 1st century BCE. During the Spartacus rebellion, for example, Roman authorities crucified 6,000 of the rebels. At the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Roman commander Titus Vespasian ordered the mass crucifixion of thousands of Jewish citizens. Jewish historian Josephus writes that as many as 500 Jews a day were crucified on the walls of the city. So many were crucified, Josephus says, that no wood remained in the area. Reportedly, Titus commanded the mass crucifixions in order to terrorize the citizens of Jerusalem and force them into surrender.

Throughout history, several types of crucifixion devices have been used. One was a single stake. The victim was placed with arms stretched above the head and legs stretched downward. Hands were placed one upon the other, and feet likewise placed one upon the other. Hands and feet were tied and nailed to the stake. Another type consisted of two stakes configured in an “X” formation upon which the victim was outstretched diagonally. As far as the cross formation, two types were used. One had the crossbeam attached on top of the stake in a “T” formation, while another, the familiar “Latin cross,” had the crossbeam attached somewhat below the top end of the stake, in a “t” formation. Jesus Christ reportedly was crucified on this type of cross; however, it is hard to know for sure because the Romans were known to use all of the types mentioned above.

In Roman crucifixion, the victim was first flogged on the back with a scourge consisting of leather strips outfitted with small rocks, pieces of metal and sheep teeth. The flogging ripped open the flesh, exposing muscle tissue, even bone, causing massive bleeding and perhaps hypovolemic shock. The victim was then forced to carry the heavy crossbeam laid across the flogged back to the site of execution. Once there, Roman soldiers laid the victim out on the ground, nailed both wrists or forearms to the crossbeam, then nailed both heels or feet towards the bottom end of the stake. Nails measured 5 to 7 inches long and approximately a half inch in diameter. The cross, with the victim attached, was then lifted up and dropped into a hole in the ground.

The primary cause of death in crucifixion is believed to be asphyxiation. With both arms outstretched, along with the force of gravity on the hanging body, breathing (in particular exhaling) is extremely difficult. But the presence of a small heel rest below the feet allowed the victim to lift himself just enough to take a small but painful breath. This only prolonged an already agonizing death. All of this, combined with pain from nail wounds and a flogged back, made crucifixion an especially long and torturous death.

Closing Note

Due to the fact that the cross has long been the symbol of Christianity, many people today simply forget that long ago it was an instrument of torture. It was a death tool used to execute criminals, not unlike the electric chair, gas chamber or a hangman’s noose of today. Imagine a church building today with a sculpted stone or wood electric chair perched atop the roof, or a hangman’s noose dangling over the front door. Clearly, this puts into context what the Christian cross really stands for. It should remind us of what Christ suffered for us all.


Bucher, Richard P. Crucifixion in the Ancient World. Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, April 2000. Accessed February 8, 2013.

The Nazarene Way. Details & History of Crucifixion. The Nazarene Way, n.d. Accessed February 8, 2013.

Errant Skeptics Research Institute. Crucifixion Notes. Errant Skeptics Research Institute, n.d. Accessed February 8, 2013.

Wikipedia. Wikipedia: Crucifixion. Wikipedia, n.d. Accessed February 8, 2013.

Note: Although Wikipedia can generally be considered a trustworthy source with thorough bibliographical information, please remember that articles posted there can be edited by ANYONE at ANYTIME anonymously. For more information see About Wikipedia.

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