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The Crucifixion

“Crucifixion was an extremely cruel form of death penalty. The victim was sometimes scourged or flogged beforehand, but not to the extent that he lost consciousness.

The person was crucified naked, thereby enhancing the overall humiliation to him and his family. There was probably not one consistent form of crucifixion; Josephus reports that people were crucified in different postures and in accordance with the different types of wooden stakes and beams available (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. VIII.8).

Some of these may have been typically cross-like in appearance (crux immissa), but others may have been put together in the shape of a T (crux commissa). If the vertical post (stipes) of the cross was already erected at the place of the execution, all the soldiers needed to do were to take the victim, whose arms were already bound to the patibulum (crossbeam), and attach him to the vertical post.

The scarcity of wood around Jerusalem probably meant that vertical posts and crossbeams were frequently reused. Unsuitable types of wood, such as the knotted olive, would also occasionally be used. In some cases the victim was roped and nailed to the cross before it was set vertically in position.

Owing to the fact that the victim had no way of supporting his body, death ensued within a matter of hours, accompanied by muscular spasms and asphyxiation. To prolong agony and the moment of death, the Romans placed the victim on a kind of wooden seat or crotch support (sedile) halfway down the cross, which gave the victim something to lean against but no relief. A foot support (suppedaneum) was also sometimes provided.

The nailing of feet to the cross inflicted pain and had a function similar to that of the deliberate breaking of legs in that it hastened death. Crucified criminals are described by Pseudo-Manetho as follows: “punished with limbs outstretched, they see the stake as their fate; they are fastened (and) nailed to it in the most bitter torment, evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs” (Apotelesmatica 4.198).” (From Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus, Oxford 2009, pp. 113-115).

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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