Olsen Park Church of Christ

“They Crucified Him”

Introduction. Matthew 27:35 records the simple words: “Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots” (NKJV). These few words record what was in the same moment…

·         The most horrific and yet

·         The most wondrous event this world has ever known.

Yet what do we know about this? Do we really understand the scope of what Christ endured for us?

            The apostle Paul spoke of “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11). The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion, “the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone” (Against Verres, 2.5.169). Crucifixion was not considered an honorable way to die, and yet the Lord of all the universe poured out His life on a cross.

            My brother, Curtis Pope has suggested, “Knowledge of the process of crucifixion certainly adds profound meaning to Matthew 27:35 which in understated fashion simply mentions ‘when they had crucified Him’ to record the horrors” of the cross (“Taking Up the Cross,” 152). In this lesson I would like for us to explore what it really means when the Holy Spirit records for us the simple words “they crucified Him.”

I. Roman Crucifixion. It is often suggested that crucifixion was a Roman innovation. That is not strictly correct.

A. In the period between the Old and New Testament…

1.The Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes practiced crucifixion (Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.4).

2. The Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 men (Ibid. 13.14.2).

B. The Qumran text known as the Temple Scroll commands “hanging on wood” (thought to be an allusion to crucifixion) as the punishment for treason (11QTemple 64.6-13).

C. The procedure of Roman crucifixion. It usually involved three phases. Dr. Anthony Sava lists these as: 1) Flagellation (a severe scourging intended to weaken the victim). 2. Crucifixion (the actual binding of the victim to a cross); and finally. 3. Crurifragium (breaking the legs of the victim to hasten death) (Sava, “The Wound in the Side of Christ,” 343).

1. Flagellation (or scourging) could be administered alone, but it was often the first stage of crucifixion. The severity of the scourging determined the time the victim spent on the cross.

a. Eusebius records accounts of witnesses to the scourging of Christians in the second century seeing their bodies torn to such a degree that their “entrails, and organs were exposed to sight” (Ecclesiastical History 4.15.4).

b. Jesus experienced this (Mark 15:15).

2. Crucifixion. When a victim was finally put on the cross, crucifixion was usually a slow and lingering death. Horace described ravens feeding on the bodies that hung on a cross (Epistles. 1.16.48).

a. Seneca wrote: “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross” (Moral Epistles to Lucilius 101.14).

3. Breaking Legs. We will talk about this a little latter.

II. The Instruments of Crucifixion.

A.    Types of Crosses. There were different forms of crosses that were used.

1.      The most basic was the crux simplex (or stipes) - I. This was a simple vertical stake to which a victim was nailed, tied or even impaled (Seneca, Moral Epistles to Lucilius 14.5).

a. It is believed that the Romans first adopted the use of this form of punishment from the Phoenicians after the Punic wars.

b. The Romans had long practiced the custom of parading condemned men to their death bound to a wooden yoke called a patibulum (or furca).

·         The Roman historian Livy describes a slaveholder punishing a condemned slave by driving him through the forum bearing a “yoke (furca)” and scourging him while he went (History of Rome 2.36.1).

·         Plutarch describes the same custom, using the Greek word xulon used in Acts 5:30 of the “cross” (or “tree”) on which Jesus was hung (Coriolanus 24.5).

2. The Romans combined the simple stake with the yoke or cross-beam to form the crux compacta, which could take several forms:

·         The crux immissa (or capita) - .

·         The crux commissa (or tau) – T.

·         The crux decussata - X.

a.       The Roman poet Plautus described the combination of these two elements, describing a condemned man “with hands spread out and nailed to the patibulum” (Miles Gloriosus 2.4)

b.      And declaring of another, “let him bear the yoke (patibulum) through the city; then let him be nailed to the cross (crux)” (Fragments, Carbonaria fr. 2). The picture here is that of carrying the cross-beam, which would be attached to the upright when actually crucified.

3.      Jesus probably carried His own patibulum (John 19:17-18a) until they compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry it for Him (Matt. 27:32), and at Golgotha they likely joined the patibulum to the crux simplex and “crucified Him.”

III. The Form of Jesus’ Cross The New Testament does not specify the form of cross on which Jesus was crucified, but it is likely that it was a crossbeam form of some type. Four second century writers support this conclusion.

A.     Ignatius speaks of the “rope” that draws one up to be “raised up” on a cross (Second Epistle to the Ephesians 14), possibly referring to raising a patibulum into place.

B.      Justin described Jesus’ cross as a beam set upright with a beam raised up to it (Dialogue 91).

C.     Tertulluan described Jesus’ cross as consisting of a “cross-beam (antenna)” and a “projecting seat (sedile)” (Ad Nationes 1.12; cf. Contra Marcian 3.18).

1.      The sedile was a short post that went between the victim’s legs in order to bear some of the weight of the body.

2.      Justin Martyr described the sedile of Christ’s cross projecting “out like a horn” (Dialogue 91).

D.     Irenaeus claimed the cross of Christ had five extremities, describing the height and length but also the seat, “on which the person rests who is fixed by the nails” (Against Heresies 2.24.4).

E.     In spite of the numerous depictions of Christ on a crucifix with a foot-rest, John Wilkinson explains, that this, “was an invention of medieval Christian art, and is not mentioned by any ancient author as part of the cross used for crucifixion” (“The Physical Cause of Jesus’ Death,” 106).

IV. Cross or “Torture Stake” The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the publishing control of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is adamant in their claim that “Jesus died on an upright stake, and not on the traditional cross” (“Cross,” 90).

A.    They argue, “It was not until about 300 years after Jesus’ death that some professed Christians promoted the idea that Jesus was put to death on a two-beamed cross” (“Did Jesus Really Die on a Cross?”).

B.     Their motivation for this position is likely opposition to the idolatrous worship of religious images of Christ on a two-beam cross.

1.      We agree that symbols of a crucifix should never be treated as objects of veneration.

2.      However, the clear claims of early church writers, and the evidence from pagan Greek and Roman authors force us to acknowledge that two-beamed crosses were in common use in the first century.

3.      One of the earliest evidences of this in connection with Christ, is found in the so-called Alexamenos Graffito discovered etched into a plaster wall on the Palatine Hill in Rome. This mocking, anti- Christian graffiti depicts Christ on a two-beamed cross with the head of a donkey. Beneath, is a worshipper with the words “Alexamenos worships his God.” This etching is believed to date between the first and third centuries, and is now kept in the Palatine Antiquarian Museum in Rome.

C.     While such mocking is distasteful to us, it reminds us of Paul’s words to the Corinthians—the cross is foolishness to the perishing, but the power of God to those being saved (1 Cor. 1:18).

V. “My Hands and My Feet.” Apparently crucifixion did not always involve nailing the feet. This has led some scholars to question whether Jesus’ feet would have been nailed.

A. It is clear that in the case of Jesus His hands and feet were nailed.

1. After His resurrection He told His disciples, “behold my hands and my feet” (Luke 24:39).

2. Psalm 22:16 had prophesied, “The congregation of the wicked has enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps. 22:16).

a. In the second century Justin and Tertullian both applied this prophecy to Jesus (Justin, First Apology 35; Dialogue 97; Tertullian, Against Marcian 3.19).

B. What we don’t know is whether Jesus’ feet would have been crossed with a single nail or with two nails.

1. Plautus spoke of one put on a cross being fastened “twice in his feet and twice in his arms” (Mostellaria 2.1).

a. Were Jesus’ feet nailed with soles against the wood, or to the sides of the cross?

C. In 1968, north of Mount Scopus in an area of Jerusalem known as Giv‘at ha-Mivtar, an ossuary (or bone box) was found containing the bones of an adult male, dated to the first century. The man was clearly the victim of crucifixion as revealed by the fact that a large nail was still driven through the right heel bone.

1. Wood fragments were still present under the head and tip of the nail, indicating that it had first been driven into a wooden plate before it was nailed through the man’s heal and into the cross. This likely was intended to prevent the heel from slipping off the nail.

2. Dr. N. Haas, of Hebrew University, who wrote the initial report about the remains, claimed that the size of the nail indicated that, “the feet had not been securely fastened to the cross” leading him to conclude that a seat such as those mentioned by Irenaeus and Tertullian must have been used to support the body (58).

3. The man’s legs were broken, similar to what is described of the thieves crucified with Jesus (John 19:32).

VI. The Cause of Jesus’ Death.

A. Asphyxiation Theories. Since the mid-twentieth century, with the publication of A Doctor at Calvary by French surgeon Pierre Barbet, many commentators have explained Jesus’ death as the result of asphyxia.

1. According to Barbet’s theory, built upon the earlier work of his predecessor Dr. A. LaBec, a victim suspended on a cross suffered intense constriction of the rib cage compressing the lungs.

2. Barbet argued that when exhaustion (or the breaking of legs) took place, the victim could no longer push himself up allowing the lungs to expand, resulting in a sustained inhalation ultimately depriving the victim of oxygen (74- 80).

3. Barbet cited eyewitness accounts of European prisoners of war suspended by their wrists with their feet weighted dying within six to ten minutes from asphyxia, due to the inability to exhale (76, 174).

4. Barbet also challenged the view that a victim of crucifixion would be nailed through the palm of the hands.

a. He argued that the weight of a suspended body would tear through the palms where the nail had been driven into the cross (92-105).

b. This led to numerous theories that argued that the arms would have been nailed through the wrist or even the forearm in crucifixion.

B. Modern Re-evaluation. Within recent years Barbet’s theory has been seriously challenged by Dr. Fredrick Zugibe.

1. In his book, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Study, Zugibe tested the effects of suspension on a cross within a laboratory and found that with arms extended the effects on respiration were not as pronounced as Barbet theorized (101-122).

2. Zugibe argued instead, that the effects of severe scourging, followed by crucifixion would produce two conditions known as hypovolemic and traumatic shock, ultimately resulting in cardiac arrest.

a. Zugibe explains hypovolemic shock as resulting from “a significant fall in the blood volume due to hemorrhage or a loss of body fluids” and traumatic shock as “resulting from a serious injury” sometimes associated with “severe pain” (130-131).

b. This is not necessarily external blood loss, but internal hemorrhaging.

VII. The Breaking of Legs. One of the strengths of Barbet’s theory was that it appeared to explain the practice of crurifragium (breaking the legs of the victim).

A. We noted at the beginning of the lesson that this was generally considered the third and final stage of Roman crucifixion.

1. The gospel of John clearly records the breaking of a victim’s legs as a means of hastening death (John 19:31-32).

2. Barbet argued that the reason the legs were broken was to hasten asphyxiation (Barbet, 78).

B. His theory, however, failed to acknowledge the use of the sedile (or seat) commonly used on some crosses, and said to have been present on the cross of Christ according to church writers in the second century (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.24.4; Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1.12; Contra Marcian 3.18).

1. Barbet cited the testimony of early church writers and even Seneca regarding the use of the sedile (45), and even acknowledged the problems that its use would pose to his theory (78), but even so he did not believe that it was used in the case of Christ’s crucifixion (100-101).

2. Wilkinson explains, “If this were present then the arms would not pull on the ribs to the same degree as if it were absent, and the chest would not be kept in a position” that impaired breathing in the same way (106).

C. The question is, if a sedile was used, why would a victim’s legs be broken?

1. Zugibe argues that the fracture of a single thigh bone results in internal blood loss of two liters.

a. This would not only accelerate hypovolemic and traumatic shock, but would be a final “coup de grace blow to hasten death” (106).

2. If the sedile was used, it would also take some of the weight off of the hands.

a. Zugibe, argues from studies he has done on the hands of wound victims, that the upper palm, just under the thumb is “very strong and anatomically sound” and would be capable of supporting the body (78).

b. It has been argued that the Aramaic word for “hand” could refer to the wrist as well as the hand properly (Sava, “The Wounds of Christ,” 441). It is true that even in modern Hebrew the wrist is called “the joint of the hand.”

c. Since, however, the crucified remains from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar are no longer believed to support the idea of a nail through the forearm (Zias and Charlesworth, 280)…

d. …And one of the earliest depictions of Christ on the cross, from a fifth century ivory casket now housed in the British Museum show nails through the palms, there seems little reason to even consider a broader definition of “hands” (cf. Luke 24:39; John 20:27).

VIII. Piercing Jesus’ Side.

A. Jesus’ legs were not broken, as Scripture had prophesied (cf. Num. 9:12; John 19:33-36).

1. When His side was pierced and it was determined that He was already dead.

B. Why did “blood and water” flow from His side? Why did this indicate that He was dead?

1. A common explanation is that the spear pierced Jesus’ heart and the pericardial sac surrounding the heart.

a. Medical doctor Anthony Sava, rejects this conclusion as a result of his own experiments on cadavers within six hours after death. He found that no such clear separation of blood and water resulted from this type of wound (“The Wound in the Side of Christ,” 344).

b. He argues instead, that trauma caused by scourging could have led to conditions which have been observed. He explains: ...Non-penetrating injuries of the chest are capable of producing an accumulation of hemorrhagic fluid in the space between the ribs and the lung....Such collections of blood in closed cavities do not clot. The red blood cells tend by their weight to gravitate toward the bottom of the containing cavity, thus dividing it into a dark red cellular component below, while the lighter clear serum accumulates in the upper half of the collection as a separate although contiguous layer...the settling by this fluid into layers and its ultimate evacuation by opening the chest below the level of separation must inevitably result in the “immediate” flow of blood followed by the water (Ibid., 345).

IX. “Sent Away the Spirit.”

A. Scripture records that when Jesus died, He “cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matt. 27:50, NKJV).

1. John and Luke seem to record what He “cried out.”

a. John records that He said the simple words, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

b. Luke records His cry, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, KJV).

2. After these words Jesus “yielded up His spirit” or literally from the Greek “sent away the spirit.”

a. The other gospels record, “he breathed out His life” (Mark 15:37) and “He gave up the spirit” (John 19:30), which Vincent suggests, “seems to imply a voluntary yielding up of his life” (145).

B. In some of the earliest texts that addressed the cause of Jesus’ death, the voluntary choice on the part of Christ to release His spirit at His will was the accepted explanation.

1. Tertullian wrote, “At his own free-will, he with a word dismissed from him his spirit” (Apology 21).

2. We can certainly appreciate some of the medical theories above that offer explanations for the physical and biological factors involved in crucifixion.

a. Perhaps some or all of these factors played a role.

b. Even so, we must not discount the fact that in Jesus we are not talking about One who could simply be overtaken by death.

C. Jesus declared: “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18, NKJV).

1. Wilkinson writes, “We believe... that the view which most satisfactorily explains our Lord’s death is that he voluntarily surrendered his life on the cross before the usual physical causes of death in crucifixion could operate. He did not die from some inevitable physical necessity or pathological process” (“The Physical Cause of Jesus’ Death” 107).

2. We must not allow the consideration of science and medicine to blind us to who Jesus truly was. He was God in the flesh, laying down his life for man by His own choice!

3. Augustine, commenting on Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished,” wrote that Jesus said this “as if he had been waiting for this, like one, indeed, who dies when he willed it to be so” (Harmony of the Gospels 3.18).

4. He wrote further, “He came to the death of the flesh, because he did not leave it against his will, but because he willed, when he willed, as he willed” (On the Trinity 4.13 {16}). Amen!

Conclusion. Why did Jesus do this? Out of love for a lost and dying world (John 3:16). Brother Sewell Hall is correct, “Above all other things, the cross provides the strongest evidence of God’s love. The man on the cross is the very Son whom God loved so much that He desired other sons ‘conformed to His image, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29)” (“The Cross,” 23).

Kyle Pope 2013

  Home     Directions     Times     Elders     Deacons     Preachers     Lessons     Members Section     Post Question     Contact Us