by Dr. Erin K. Vearncombe
Even though we know surprisingly little about the historical Jesus, how Jesus died has never been questioned. Jesus was crucified by Roman officials acting on behalf of the Empire. Crucifixion, we know, was a method of torture and execution popular in Rome in the first century CE. Crucifixion involved fastening a living person to a cross, leaving them suspended until they died.
The surprising thing about how Jesus died, however, is that he did not actually die on a cross.
At least, not on a cross the way it has been imagined for some 1,500 years now.
Jesus’s crucifixion was a more complex process than we have assumed. Understanding this process enables us to read the stories of Jesus’s death as told in the gospels of the New Testament with more historical perspective and precision. Jesus’s execution by Rome via crucifixion is at the heart of early storytelling about Jesus, and the cross became the dominant symbol of the diverse traditions known as Christianity. Given the significance of Jesus’s death to so many people, it makes sense to try to know as much as we can, as best we can.
Much of our understanding of Roman practices of crucifixion comes from the four writings of the early Jesus peoples known now as the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of these gospels concludes with the arrest, trial, sentencing and death of Jesus. Even before Jesus’s arrest, many of the events and teachings in the gospels foreshadow Jesus’s eventual death by crucifixion. The gospels contain more detail about crucifixion than any other ancient source we have. Most of what we know about crucifixion, therefore – or more accurately, most of what we have assumed that we know about crucifixion – has come from these writings. They do not contain all the details, however, and other ancient writings describe a diverse set of processes and tools associated with this wide-spread Roman practice.
The gospels cannot be read as historical reports of the process of crucifixion, however. These writings are interested in the crucifixion of Jesus specifically, not in general Roman practices of crucifixion as a whole. The gospels are also interested primarily in the interpretation of Jesus’s crucifixion. They are interested in what his crucifixion meant, how it might be meaningful for the peoples and communities who followed him.
We can learn a lot about how Jesus died if we look at other ancient writings about crucifixion alongside the gospel accounts. The historian Josephus talks about mass crucifixions of Judeans during the Judean revolt against Rome in the first century CE (see book 5. Scroll down to chapter 11), for example. The Roman philosopher Seneca also discusses crucifixion practices in his letter To Marcia on Consolation and in his Moral Letters Letter 101. (Scroll down to #14). The poet Martial describes a crucifixion scene as part of the opening games of the new Roman Colosseum (On the Public Shows of Domitian, scroll down to VII “On Laureolus”). Again, from the diverse details about crucifixion in these sources, the most surprising thing that we learn about Jesus’s death is that Jesus was crucified, yes. But Jesus did not die on a cross. At least, not the singular wooden structure we have come to know as a cross.
When Jesus is pictured on the way to his execution, overwhelmingly the image is of Jesus dragging a wooden cross, that t-shape structure that became a symbol of the diverse traditions identified as Christianity today, through the streets of Jerusalem. This detail about Jesus’s torture and execution, while so prominent in our collective imagination, comes from one gospel story alone: the Gospel of John (John 19:17). But Jesus likely did not drag this structure at all.
Many ancient sources attest to the use of a Roman technology of torture called a patibulum as part of the process of crucifixion. A patibulum was a horizontal wooden beam to which an individual’s arms would be fastened. Usually, these individuals were enslaved persons, foreigners to Rome, those who rebelled against Rome, and those who did not have the status of Roman citizen. While attached to this horizontal beam, these condemned persons would be forced to walk the local streets as they were insulted and beaten. Commonly their torturous walk would end in crucifixion. Still fastened to the patibulum, they would then be suspended from an upright post. This post was called a crux in Latin which, though more accurately meaning upright post, tends to be translated as “cross.”
When Jesus is pictured moving through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to his execution, it is more likely that he was attached to a patibulum, a horizontal beam, not a cross. There was no Greek equivalent for the Latin patibulum; this technology was specific to Rome. The closest the Greek writers of the gospels could come was stauros, usually translated as cross, though in the first century CE it more precisely meant post or stake. “Cross” became a common translation after the stories of Jesus’s death began to reverberate in the Empire. This horizontal beam (patibulum or stauros) would then have been affixed to the vertical post. Taken together, the two beams made a t- or cross-shape.
The argument here is about nuance. The Roman Empire crucified Jesus. Jesus was not crucified on a cross, however. That concept of the cross came a few centuries later. The structure we call a cross was actually made up of two different technologies of torture: the horizontal beam and the vertical post.
Why are these technical details and ancient Latin words for torture important? Why does a re-imagination of Jesus’s death matter? Jesus did, after all, still die on a cross-shaped scaffold, even if that scaffold was not called a cross.
When we put Jesus’s death in the bigger first century CE Roman context of crucifixion we can see that Jesus’s crucifixion can be understood in much greater detail when we read the gospel accounts alongside of other ancient sources that mention crucifixion. We start to see Jesus in a richer historical context. Given the centrality of Jesus’s death to the traditions of Christianity that emerged out of the ancient world, precision in our imagining and recounting of this death is of the utmost importance. Context matters. It is only in context, when we place Jesus in his time and place, that we can see how Jesus was – and for so many, continues to be – meaningful. The more complete our picture is, the more nuanced our details, the better we can understand and appreciate the stories of Jesus’s death by crucifixion, and the profound importance these stories have for so very many.