Good Friday is when Christians make annual special observance of Jesus’ crucifixion, so a few observations of a more historical nature.
- Jesus’ crucifixion was a state execution, under the authority of the Roman governor and carried out by Roman soldiers.
- Those crucified were executed publicly and at locations where their end would be witnessed by many.
- Crucifixion was one of several means used by Romans in cases of capital punishment, and carried a distinguishing significance and function. It was not intended simply to end the subject’s life but more particularly to degrade, humiliate and make shameful the person crucified. Moreover, it was deployed particularly for the execution of those deemed to have raised a hand against Roman authority. Hence, crucifixion was a Roman statement of power: Effectively, it said “See, this is what happens to those who challenge Rome.”
- The precise form of crucifixion varied. It was not intended to be formal and orderly execution. Essentially, the subject was handed over to a crucifixion detail who were told to make it “interesting” and make it last a while.
- It’s probably significant that Jesus alone was seized and crucified. To crush a movement, governments often round up the circle of ring-leaders, the better to make a statement about the movement’s failure. But it appears that the authorities believed that executing Jesus would suffice to snuff out the movement he represented. That suggests that he was seen as in some special sense “the” leader of those linked to him, not one among others. As I’ve written elsewhere, it suggests that already during his own career Jesus had become “the issue” that polarized people, either for or against him, and at least some people in the most extreme ways. (Anytime some people forsake their livelihoods to follow someone, and others regard him as such a threat that execution is necessary, I’d say that’s a pretty clear case of polarization!)
- For historical background on the practice of Roman crucifixion and how it was regarded, probably the best source is still Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).