Written descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare. The more refined writers were hesitant to dwell long on an act so horrifying, brutal, and shameful. It is hard to describe a more cruel and unusual form of capital punishment.
Continuing our reflection on article four of the Apostles’ Creed, we examine what it means to confess faith in Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried.
In the ancient world crucifixion was believed to be an effective way to maintain law and order. The Romans reserved it for dangerous criminals, slaves, and the populations of foreign provinces. In the province of Judea, for example, it proved to be generally effective against resistance to Roman occupation. Applied as a form of execution, it was so frequent, and its details such common knowledge, that people in the first century were all too familiar with crucifixion. Despite its frequency—or maybe because of it—written descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare. The more refined writers were hesitant to dwell long on an act so horrifying, brutal, and shameful. Reading the NT Gospel accounts, we realize that none of them goes beyond the barest minimum when they describe it. All that they say is they crucified Him. It is hard to describe a more cruel and unusual form of capital punishment, but we will have to try.
Imagine the shape of the cross: X, T, and † were the most common. Imagine the height of the cross: ordinarily the victim’s feet were no more than two feet above the ground—to give wild beasts and scavenger dogs easy access to the dead body. Imagine the nails of the cross, the spikes used to impale the victim. Imagine the small wooden peg or block, often placed midway up the vertical post to prolong the victim’s agony by preventing his premature collapse.
Once impaled on the cross, the victim endured a seemingly endless cycle of pulling, pushing, and collapsing—pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing, then collapsing in exhaustion until the body’s need for oxygen demanded more pulling and pushing. The combination of flogging, blood loss, and shock from pain, all produced agony that could go on for days. The end ordinarily came from suffocation, or cardiac arrest, or blood loss. When there was reason to speed up death, the executioners would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing.