How did the Romans crucify someone?

Roland Werner

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Two beams, one rammed into the ground, the other pulled up and fitted into a notch at the top. A person attached to it, nailed until he dies. Crucifixion in the Roman Empire.

The Romans had become experts in crucifixion. They had adopted this cruel method of execution from their archenemies, the Carthaginians, whom they had crushed in the three great Punic wars. Without a doubt, this was one of the cruelest methods by which people were brutally and terribly killed.


Repulsive and disgusting

Although they had long since used them en masse, a crucifixion and with it the cross still had the smell of the foreign and offensive, even for Romans. The well-known statesman Cicero expressed the common Roman citizen's disgust for the crucifixion:

"Executioner, covering the head and even the mere word" cross "should stay away not only from the body of Roman citizens, but also from their thoughts, their eyes, their ears." [1]

For the Romans, the cross was repulsive and disgusting. So it was clear that the crucifixion was only used as the death penalty for very extreme crimes - riot, high treason, temple robbery and murder. Only non-Romans and slaves were allowed to be crucified. The crucifixion was the punishment for the lowly, the lawless, the slaves. [2] She was called "Cruelest and most terrible of all punishments"[3] referred to.

The execution on the cross was too shameful to be subjected to a free Roman citizen, even if he had committed a capital crime. That is why the apostle Paul was not crucified in Rome like his fellow apostle Peter, but was beheaded with the sword because, unlike Peter, he had Roman citizenship.


Incomprehensible and ridiculous

That a crucified one should be the Messiah, the Son of God and Savior of the world, was an unheard-of impertinence for the ancient world. One could only earn derision and incomprehension for such a thought. Graffito, a wall scribble that expresses this lack of understanding, has been preserved in the ruins of ancient Rome. A man with a donkey's head hangs from a cross. A young man kneels in front of him and raises his hand in prayer. Next to it the words: "Alexamenos worships his god!“[4]

With this drawing, a slave in the imperial court apparently wanted to mock a fellow slave who was a Christian. How can Alexamenos be so crazy to believe in a God on the cross! Whoever worships a crucified, a despicable criminal, as God, may just as well worship a donkey!


Cast out and cursed

But not only the Romans themselves took offense at the cross. For the Jews at the time, this type of death was a sign of the greatest shame. Whoever hung on the cross was not only excluded from the national community, but was unmistakably punished and abandoned by God. Death on the cross was the worst that could happen to you.

Because if someone was hanging on the cross, it was absolute proof that God had turned away from him, that he was cursed by God. This view was based on an Old Testament statement that the Jews of the time related to the crucifixion. In the Mosaic Law it says:

“If someone has committed a sin worthy of death and is killed and he is hanged on a wood, his corpse should not stay on the wood overnight, but you should bury him on the same day - because a person is hung up cursed by God - so that you do not defile your land, which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance. "[5]

Those who were hung up were considered unclean, cursed and forsaken by God for the Jews. The original intention was to forbid an executed person to be hung on a stake for public display after his death, because crucifixion was not practiced in Israel before the coming of the Romans. [6] Later, however, this instruction in the Book of Moses was also applied to those hanging on the cross, as we know from the Gospel accounts.


Offensive and absurd

Even today the cross is still offensive. Despite a Christian history that goes back over a thousand years, the matter with the cross is not at all clear to many people in the West. This may be due to the inability of us Christians to explain this central point in the Bible. But that may also be because, and that is certainly the more important reason, that what the Bible says about the cross is so contrary to our natural being. And so there are countless inquiries to the biblical statement that here, in the crucified Jesus, God's love for our lost world is shown.

How should one imagine that God reveals himself in Jesus crucified? Isn't God more to be found in the beautiful and the good, in the romantic sunset, in the rustling of the forests and the immensity of the universe? Why does it even need to die on the cross? Can't God forgive like that without this ugly spectacle? Isn't it outright contrary to God's love to allow Jesus to die in this terrible way? Question after question.

Not only modern humans provide them. Even then, the proclamation of Jesus' death on the cross, a central event in God's history, met with incomprehension, head shaking and sheer horror. The great missionary of the nations, Paul, felt exactly the same way before his conversion experience. But after meeting the living Jesus, he became the preacher of precisely this apparently absurd message. He was aware of the difficulty of getting this news out to the man. In his letter to the newly won Christians in Rome, he describes this difficulty as follows:

“The Jews ask for signs and the Greeks ask for wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, an offense to the Jews and folly to the Greeks. "[7]

For the devout Jews it was unthinkable that a crucified one should be the Messiah. For them, death on the cross in particular showed that Jesus was forsaken by God, even rejected by him.

For the educated Greeks, every non-Greek was a barbarian from the start. If the highest God, who for them, if he existed at all, had to be the epitome of the good and the beautiful, would communicate, then as Greeks they were certainly the first address. After all, the great philosophers were to be found with them, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. And last but not least, the great poets and authors were all Greeks, from Homer to Thucydides to their own time. How should one, if you please, imagine that God revealed himself to the barbaric Jews? And what did an obviously failed would-be philosopher from the obscure town of Nazareth have to do with it?

A scandal, an offense for the Jews, an absurdity, a folly for the Greeks, that was the message of the cross in the ancient world. The early Christians knew that very well. But they had no choice. That was the message they knew was true. They couldn't weave their own gospel together. And the cross was and remained central.


Misunderstood and unheard of

Not only Jews and Greeks had their difficulty with the cross. It was similar with a man who appeared on the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the 6th to the 7th century AD claiming to be a prophet of God. Of the God who spoke to the Jews and the Christians. Mohammed was his name. As someone who could not read or write, he had to rely on the stories of others. And they weren't always accurate. In the Koran we find many of the biblical stories slightly modified. Sometimes there are obvious historical errors, for example where Mohammed put Moses' sister, Mirjam, in one with Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose Hebrew name is Mirjam, and thus simply skipped over a thousand years. [8]

But much more serious than such historical errors is the Koran's denial that Jesus was crucified at all. To this day, this is the official Islamic teaching. At the same time, Mohammed, who appeared several centuries apart in the distant Mecca, had no new sources available that could have told him what really happened in Jerusalem around the year 30. No, the crucifixion of a prophet, and Jesus is to him, just didn't fit into his picture of how God acts. If God is omnipotent, Mohammed argues, then he is stronger than the Jews who tried to kill Jesus and can thwart their plans. And so Mohammed says in Sura 4,156-158 [9]:

“… And because they [the Jews] disbelieved and brought a tremendous slander against Mary [that she had slept with a man] and [because they] said:“ We crucified Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary and Messenger of God ". But they did not kill him [in reality], nor did they crucify him. Rather, [another] appeared similar to them [Arabic: shubbiha lahum] [so that they mistook him for Jesus and killed him]. Rather, those who disagree about him are guessing. You certainly didn't kill him. No, God raised him to Himself. God is mighty and wise. "[10]

Without being able to explain this verse in detail, [11] one thing becomes clear: Mohammed sees in the cross a defeat or a victory of the Jews over God. But he can protect his prophet Jesus and saves him with a trick in which the Jews think that they crucified Jesus, but that God has long since lifted him up to heaven. For Mohammed, a crucifixion by Jesus contradicts the omnipotence of God.


Realistic and inevitable

The more we deal with the objections to the cross, the more closely we look at the misunderstandings surrounding the biblical statements, the clearer one thing becomes: we have to deal again, and this time thoroughly, with the biblical message. And to do this, we have to take a fresh look at the accounts of Jesus' contemporaries. In other words, we need to reread the Gospels, all of which are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. These extremely sober reports about the last days and hours of Jesus are exciting to read. To print them here would go far beyond the scope of my contribution. That is why I encourage every reader to sit down for a moment and - perhaps again, perhaps for the very first time - to let these texts sink in. What strikes us there is first of all the extremely concise style. Nothing is portrayed emotionally or dramatically exaggerated here. The Gospels read like newspaper reports. Short, precise, informative. As a skeptic who read them carefully once said, they have the “sound of the truth”. No wonder he soon went from a doubter to a believer!

The Gospels also show us the extraordinary character of Jesus. He confronts his accusers calmly and firmly. Until the end he shows the unique connection between truth and clarity on the one hand and love and mercy on the other. Even on the cross, in great pain, he still turns to the people around him and even prays for those who torment and kill him.

And one more thing we read in the Gospels: The crucifixion of Jesus is not an accident in history, not a mistake in God's plan. It is the fulfillment of ancient promises. Here on the cross the different lines of God's history come together. There is the line of promise that runs through the entire Old Testament. It begins with the statement at the very beginning of the Bible that a descendant of Adam and Eve will crush the head of the "serpent", that is, the evil one, but that he himself will be mortally wounded in the process. [12] This hope for a Savior ran through the history of the people of Israel. Often this savior was understood primarily as a political liberator from oppression by foreign powers. However, it seems more and more that it is about an even deeper liberation. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the “servant of God” and described him quite differently: He will bring freedom to the oppressed and eyesight to the blind. He will preach good news to the poor and heal broken hearts. [13] And in the process he will be beaten, tortured, and even killed himself. All of this is to be done so that people may be freed from the burden of guilt and the power of sin. [14] In the end, however, he himself will overcome death and bring God's deliverance to all people around the world. [15]

All of these predictions are fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Anyone who studies it in depth will notice that his life - and also his death - corresponds to the predictions of the Old Testament down to the last detail. Every probability calculation would reach its limits here. And the eye-witnesses of the life and death of Jesus came to exactly this conclusion: He really is the promised Savior!


Necessary and compassionate

But why did Jesus have to die? Wasn't this ultimately a miscarriage of justice, a whim of history without meaning or purpose, the failure of a good and well-meaning man? To understand why the cross was necessary, we need to look a little deeper. The key to the cross is in the heart of God. The Bible tells us that God is holy and righteous. He cannot and will not tolerate injustice. Lies, hatred, murder, resentment, slander and whatever else we produce in this world are contrary to its nature. God is the Creator and Judge, the beginning of life and the one to whom everything returns. Each individual will give an account of his life to him at some point. This knowledge of man's ultimate responsibility is deeply anchored in mankind. We humans also know that we are guilty. Even those who cannot see guilt in themselves, see it all the more clearly in everyone else! Man becomes guilty. That's a fact. Broken relationships with one another show this as well as our alienation from God. And so there are many attempts to cope with guilt. The religions are full of it.

The Bible shows us that God is not only the Creator and Judge, but reveals him as a loving Father. The alienation of people from him and from one another is not indifferent to him. That is why he takes the initiative. This is also already mapped out and announced in the Old Testament: “He will have mercy on us again and step our guilt under his feet!” [16] He knows that we humans cannot cope with the problem of injustice and guilt on our own . And then the unthinkable happens: God, the judge himself, comes and takes the place of the guilty. He takes on the burden of sin. It is God himself who bears the guilt of the world in Jesus: "God was in Christ and reconciled the world to himself." [17]

It is a misunderstanding of the biblical message to believe that God let the innocent Jesus die while looking down from heaven indifferently. No, God's heart broke there on the cross. He gave himself to death in order to bring back to himself the creation that was separated from him. The suffering of Jesus is the suffering of God the Father. Here he enters into the suffering of humanity. So the cross is the place where God's righteousness and God's love are perfectly shown. So is God: He loves us so much that he takes on the suffering, the pain, even the guilt and death of people.


The open question

The death of Jesus on the cross is not the end of the story. That's why we celebrate Easter. Death could not hold him, the lord of life. The resurrection of Jesus is the seal under his life and death. It shows: Everything that Jesus said and did is true. He really is the savior of the world. With him is the answer to the question of sin, suffering and death.

And yet one question remains unanswered. The question of whether we trust in him what God did for us there. Or whether we are trying to heal the illness of our life on our own. On the cross, God opened a door for everyone. But everyone has to go through it themselves.

[1] Cicero, Pro Rabirio 16

[2] In Latin: servile supplicium, the punishment of slaves

[3] Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.165

[4] The graffito dates from the 1st century AD. and was found in the servants' (slaves) apartments in the imperial palace. This is also an indication that the Christian faith soon spread in the capital Rome.

[5] Deuteronomy 21: 22-23

[6] An exception was the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus, who had his political enemies executed in a cruel way out of revenge. The author of a Nahum commentary notes: "He hung men alive, something that had never happened before in Israel."

[7] 1 Corinthians 1: 22-23

[8] See sura 19 of the Koran

[9] Here, too, the Koran is a little difficult to understand, so explanations are inserted in the brackets to clarify the intended meaning.

[10] According to Rudi Paret: The Koran. (5th edition 1980) The parts in brackets are not included in the Koranic text, but for greater clarity.

[11] I did that in my book “Provocation Cross - Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” Hänssler 2005. The other statements of the Koran about the cross of Jesus are also explained there.

[12] Genesis 3, ...

[13] Isaiah 61, 1ff

[14] Isaiah 53: 1-7

[15] Isaiah 53, ...

[16] Micah 7:19

[17] 2 Cor. 5, 19

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