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April 22, 2011

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).

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  1. Speaking of Barabbas. Was there a tradition for letting a prisoner go each easter? I’ve heard several scholars deny that. Is there any extra-biblical material that support the portrayal in the gospels?

  2. Howard permalink

    Here is a brief quote from the TDNT on the subject

    “In Josephus [ληστης] is constantly used for the Zealots who, along with those who help, accept or merely tolerate them, make armed conflict against Roman rule the content of their life, and are prepared to risk everything, even life itself, to achieve national liberty.”

    (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (4:258). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.)

  3. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘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’

    Well, yes, the others would have been safe enough.

    As Paul said ‘For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’

    The followers of Jesus had done nothing wrong. They would have been free from fear of the one in authority.

    • In a perceived insurrection (which is what a messianic claim made for/about Jesus would have comprised) governmental authorities often arrest the ring-leaders. Those prominently associated with Jesus could have been so perceived. You don’t have to “do something wrong”. My point stands that the arrest and execution of Jesus alone suggests that the authorities believed that snuffing him would snuff the trouble.

      • Howard permalink

        Just a quick question, are we talking about Jewish leaders or Roman authorities here? Because as I understand it, Pilate found nothing deserving of death in Jesus and wished to release him. So Pilate would have no interest in his followers, if he even knew who they were. Now if we are talking about the Jewish leaders, that’s another story. But I would agree that the Jewish leaders did not consider Jesus’ followers a threat at this time. They figured when Jesus was gone, his followers would just go back to their previous lives.

      • I’m speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, which required the active judgement of the Roman governor. Some of the Gospel narratives of Pilate impute to him a hesitance about executing Jesus, but this doesn’t fit what else is said about him. If he hesitated, it would more likely have been simply to give the temple priests the gears, not because he was a man of delicate conscience. Although it seems to me that the temple authorities were complicit in denouncing Jesus to Pilate, Jesus’ execution was a state affair and done by the authority of the governor. A “critical” reading of the Gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ execution involves an awareness of the polemical purposes that helped to shape what the authors wrote.

  4. Wieland permalink

    Another very good book is:
    “The Crucifixion of Jesus, A Forensic Inquiry”
    by Frederick T. Zugibe
    Second Edition, Completely Revised and Expanded
    352 pages
    M. Evans and Company

    • Well, yes, if what you want is the forensic stuff. Hengel’s book is good for understanding how crucifixion was viewed, its social stigma, its cultural role. But Hengel also cites a number of ancient texts that speak about how it was carried out. Pretty gruesome stuff!

  5. Ryan permalink

    The two criminals crucified on both sides of Jesus are often described as murderers or thieves in sermons. In view of what you have just written about the reasons for crucifixion, can we assume the crimes these men were being punished for were also of a political nature? In other words, is it fair to assume that these other criminals were in some sense a threat to the state as well?

    • Yes, likely that’s how the authors intended us to take these figures. The Greek word translated “thief” (ληστης) was used sometimes to refer to individuals who were acting against the Roman authority. (You know, one man’s “freedom fighter” is another man’s “criminal”.) In Luke 23:25, Barabbas is portrayed as imprisoned for “insurrection and murder”.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer was released, while Jesus was killed very very quickly in a hasty trial, despite never doing a thing which could be deemed as active revolt.

        Why was Barabbas imprisoned rather than crucified, if the Romans were in such a hurry to kill insurrectionists?

        And Paul clearly has not got a clue that the Romans killed Jesus or else he would not blithely claim that they do not bear the sword for nothing. These people killed the Son of God, yet Paul says they hold no terror except for wrong-doers.

        This makes as little sense as Osama bin Laden claiming the Americans only punish wrongdoers.

      • Your comments, Steven, are a charming combination of naivety (feigned or real?) about the available sources, and an undisclosed but nevertheless obvious agenda. Never assuming that anything could move you to re-think your agenda, for the sake of the issues and other readers, some brief comments:
        The Barabbas vignette is a separate historical issue, about which there are justifiable questions. But I spoke to the fairly obvious indications that Jesus was executed by the Roman governor, and that the form of execution and other factors indicate that the charge was likely a royal-messianic claim (whether made by Jesus or on his behalf). So, let’s stay with that issue.
        Second, Paul clearly knew that Jesus had been executed by state authorities, which he explicitly mentions in 1 Cor 2:7-8. Moreover, his frequent references to Jesus’ crucifixion indicates his familiarity with that detail as well. And everyone knew that under Roman rule crucifixion was exclusively a state punishment and for stated crimes.
        I think we’re done.

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