Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 4, “Crucifixion as a ‘Barbaric’ Form of Execution of the Utmost Cruelty”)

Chapter four of Hengel’s book focuses mostly on the cruelty involved in crucifixion and its associations with the ‘barbaric’. (NB: this post probably will not be enjoyable reading.)

To the best of our knowledge, crucifixion as we normally think of it came from Persia, and was found among the Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Carthaginians, and others. In the Greco-Roman mind it was associated with barbarian peoples in general (see Crucifixion, 114-15), and no doubt this was part of the reason that the Romans deemed it a punishment unfit for a Roman citizen—who if convicted of a capital offence would be beheaded rather than crucified. Though the Romans and various Greek city-states adopted it, crucifixion stood remote from the very idea of civilisation and humanity (as did its victims). This owed largely to the nature of the practice itself.

Crucifixion took various forms among the barbarian peoples, and even in its implementation among Greeks and Romans, it did not exclusively resemble the portrait that Christian art has made so iconic over the millennia. The ‘common factor’ according to Hengel, though, is ‘that the victim—living or dead—was either nailed or bound to a stake’ (116). Beyond this, crucifixion could take many forms, and did. It was not merely a form of execution: it was a sadistic art into which its practitioners poured all their creativity. Understandably, there are not too many detailed descriptions of crucifixion of the gospel passion narratives, and even the gospels do not describe the act of crucifixion itself in any great detail. That said, the literature does validate Hengel’s claim that ‘the form of execution could vary considerably: crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein’ (117). Hengel refers to several classical sources, notably Seneca: ‘I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch their arms on the gibbet’ (117). Josephus similarly describes the fate of those who tried to escape Jerusalem before its fall in 70 AD: ‘So the soldiers, out of the rage and hatred they bore the prisoners, nailed those they caught, in different postures, to the crosses, by way of jest’ (118); of the persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero, Tacitus says that in addition to being ‘covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs’, ‘they were fastened on crosses and, when daylight faded, were burned to serve as lamps by night’ (118). Seneca also writes (see 122-23):

Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.

In short, crucifixion relished pain and sought publicly to draw it out to the greatest imaginable heights. ‘It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word’ (114).

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