The act of putting to death by nailing or binding to a cross. Among the modes of Capital Punishment known to the Jewish penal law, crucifixion is not found; the "hanging" of criminals "on a tree," mentioned in Deut. xxi. 22, was resorted to in New Testament times only after lapidation (Sanh. vi. 4; Sifre, ii. 221, ed. Friedmann, Vienna, 1864). A Jewish court could not have passed a sentence of death by crucifixion without violating the Jewish law. The Roman penal code recognized this cruel penalty from remote times (Aurelius Victor Cæsar, 41). It may have developed out of the primitive custom of "hanging" ("arbori suspendere") on the "arbor infelix," which was dedicated to the gods of the nether world. Seneca ("Epistola," 101) still calls the cross "infelix lignum." Trees were often used for crucifying convicts (Tertullian, "Apologia," viii. 16). Originally only slaves were crucified; hence "death on the cross" and "supplicium servile" were used indiscriminately (Tacitus, "Historia," iv. 3, 11). Later, provincial freedmen of obscure station ("humiles") were added to the class liable to this sentence. Roman citizens were exempt under all circumstances (Cicero, "Verr." i. 7; iii. 2, 24, 26; iv. 10 et seq.). The following crimes entailed this penalty: piracy, highway robbery, assassination, forgery, false testimony, mutiny, high treason, rebellion (see Pauly-Wissowa, "Real-Encyc." s.v. "Crux"; Josephus, "B. J." v. 11, § 1). Soldiers that deserted to the enemy and slaves who denounced their masters ("delatio domini")were also punished by death on the cross.Mode of Execution.
The crosses used were of different shapes. Some were in the form of a , others in that of a St. Andrew's cross, , while others again were in four parts, . The more common kind consisted of a stake ("palus") firmly embedded in the ground ("crucem figere") before the condemned arrived at the place of execution (Cicero, "Verr." v. 12; Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 4) and a cross-beam ("patibulum"), bearing the "titulus"—the inscription naming the crime (Matt. xxvii. 37; Luke xxiii. 38; Suetonius, "Cal." 38). It was this cross-beam, not the heavy stake, which the condemned was compelled to carry to the scene of execution (Plutarch, "De Sera Num. Vind." 9; Matt. ib.; John xix. 17; See Cross). The cross was not very high, and the sentenced man could without difficulty be drawn up with ropes ("in crucem tollere, agere, dare, ferre"). His hands and feet were fastened with nails to the cross-beam and stake (Tertullian, "Adv. Judæos," 10; Seneca, "Vita Beata," 19); though it has been held that, as in Egypt, the hands and feet were merely bound with ropes (see Winer, "B. R." i. 678). The execution was always preceded by flagellation (Livy, xxxiv. 26; Josephus, "B. J." ii. 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1); and on his way to his doom, led through the most populous streets, the delinquent was exposed to insult and injury. Upon arrival at the stake, his clothes were removed, and the execution took place. Death was probably caused by starvation or exhaustion, the cramped position of the body causing fearful tortures, and ultimately gradual paralysis. Whether a foot-rest was provided is open to doubt; but usually the body was placed astride a board ("sedile"). The agony lasted at least twelve hours, in some cases as long as three days. To hasten death the legs were broken, and this was considered an act of clemency (Cicero, "Phil." xiii. 27). The body remained on the cross, food for birds of prey until it rotted, or was cast before wild beasts. Special permission to remove the body was occasionally granted. Officers (carnifex and triumviri) and soldiers were in charge.
This cruel way of carrying into effect the sentence of death was introduced into Palestine by the Romans. Josephus brands the first crucifixion as an act of unusual cruelty ("Ant." xiii. 14, § 2), and as illegal. But many Jews underwent this extreme penalty (ib. xx. 6, § 2; "Vita," § 75; "B. J." ii. 12, § 6; 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1; Philo, ii. 529).
During the times of unrest which preceded the rise in open rebellion against Rome (about 30-66 B.C.), "rebels" met with short shrift at the hands of the oppressor. They were crucified as traitors. The sons of Judas the Galilean were among those who suffered this fate.
The details given in the New Testament accounts (Matt. xxvii. and parallels) of the crucifixion of Jesus agree on the whole with the procedure in vogue under Roman law. Two modifications are worthy of note: (1) In order to make him insensible to pain, a drink (ὁξος, Matt. xxvii. 34, 48; John xix. 29) was given him. This was in accordance with the humane Jewish provision (see Maimonides, "Yad," Sanh. xiii. 2; Sanh. 43a). The beverage was a mixture of myrrh () and wine, given "so that the delinquent might lose clear consciousness through the ensuing intoxication." (2) Contrary to the Roman practise of leaving the body on the cross, that of Jesus was removed and buried, the latter act in keeping with Jewish law and custom. These exceptions, however, exhaust the incidents in the crucifixion of Jesus that might point to a participation therein, and a regulation thereof, by Jews or Jewish law. The mode and manner of Jesus' death undoubtedly point to Roman customs and laws as the directive power.
From the Jewish point of view, the crime of which Jesus was convicted by the Jewish priests is greatly in doubt (see Jesus). If it was blasphemy, lapidation should, according to Jewish law, have been the penalty, with suspension from the gallows after death (Mishnah Sanh. iii. 4; Sifre, iii. 221). Nor were any of the well-known measures taken (Sanh. vi.)which provide before execution for the contingency of a reversal of the sentence. Neither was the "cross"—i.e., the gallows for hanging—constructed as usual after lapidation, and as ordained in Sanhedrin vi. 4. His hands were not bound as prescribed; the "cross" was not buried with his body (Maimonides, "Yad," Sanh. xv. 9). Whether the Jewish law would have tolerated a threefold execution at one and the same time is more than uncertain (Sanh. vi. 4; Sifre, ii. 221).Date of Jesus' Crucifixion.
The greatest difficulty from the point of view of the Jewish penal procedure is presented by the day and time of the execution. According to the Gospels, Jesus died on Friday, the eve of Sabbath. Yet on that day, in view of the approach of the Sabbath (or holiday), executions lasting until late in the afternoon were almost impossible (Sifre, ii. 221; Sanh. 35b; Mekilta to Wayaḳhel). The Synoptics do not agree with John on the date of the month. According to the latter he died on the 14th of Nisan, as though he were the paschal lamb; but executions were certainly not regular on the eve of a Jewish holiday. According to the Synoptics, the date of his death was the 15th of Nisan (first day of Passover), when again no execution could be held (Mishnah Sanh. iv. 1; and the commentaries: Yer. Sanh. ii. 3; Yer. Beẓ. v. 2; Ket. i. 1). This discrepancy has given rise to various attempts at rectification. That by Chwolson is the most ingenious, assuming that Jesus died on the 14th, and accounting for the error in Matthew by a mistranslation from the original Hebrew in Matt. xxvi. 17 (, due to the omission of the first ; see his "Das Letzte Passamahl Christi," p. 13). But even so, the whole artificial construction of the law regarding Passover when the 15th of Nisan was on Saturday, attempted by Chwolson, would not remove the difficulty of an execution occurring on Friday = eve of Sabbath and eve of holiday; and the body could not have been removed as late as the ninth hour (3 P. M.). Bodies of delinquents were not buried in private graves (Sanh. vi. 5), while that of Jesus was buried in a sepulcher belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. Besides this, penal jurisdiction had been taken from the Sanhedrin in capital cases "forty years before the fall of the Temple."
These facts show that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of the Roman government. That it was customary to liberate one sentenced to death on account of the holiday season is not corroborated by Jewish sources. But many of the Jews suspected of Messianic ambitions had been nailed to the cross by Rome. The Messiah, "king of the Jews," was a rebel in the estimation of Rome, and rebels were crucified (Suetonius, "Vespas." 4; "Claudius," xxv.; Josephus, "Ant." xx. 5, § 1; 8, § 6; Acts v. 36, 37). The inscription on the cross of Jesus reveals the crime for which, according to Roman law, Jesus expired. He was a rebel. Tacitus ("Annales," 54, 59) reports therefore without comment the fact that Jesus was crucified. For Romans no amplification was necessary. Pontius Pilate's part in the tragedy as told in the Gospels is that of a wretched coward; but this does not agree with his character, as recorded elsewhere (see Süchrer, "Gesch." Index, s.v.). The other incidents in the New Testament report—the rending of the curtain, darkness (eclipse of the sun), the rising of the dead from their graves—are apocalyptic embellishments derived from Jewish Messianic eschatology. The so-called writs for the execution (see Mayer, "Die Rechte der Israeliten, Athener, und Römer," iii. 428, note 27) are spurious.
- Ludwig Philipson, Haben die Juden Jesum Gekreuzigt? 2d ed., reprint, 1902;
- Hirsch, The Crucifixion from the Jewish Point of View, Chicago, 1892;
- Chwolson, Das Letzte Passamahl Christi, St. Petersburg, 1892;
- works of Jewish historians, as Grätz, Jost, etc.;
- Schürer, Gesch.; commentaries on the Gospels.