Roman Crucifixion

QUESTION: What was roman crucifixion like?


Roman crucifixion was a form of capital punishment reserved for individuals considered to be the very worst criminals. Jesus of Nazareth was executed in this way. That this punishment was reserved for the most odious was also supported by Hebrew culture, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'" (Galatians 3:13).

Roman crucifixion was a particularly severe execution. The cross, the instrument of execution, consisted of two beams of wood called the stipes and the patibulum. The stipes was the upright beam which remained implanted in the ground at the place of execution. The patibulum or crossbeam was carried across the shoulders of the prisoner to the execution site. This crossbeam generally weighed approximately 110 pounds.

Scourging of prisoners was a separate form of punishment which consisted of flagellating the prisoner with a short, heavy whip made of leather thongs with lead balls at the end of each thong. That Jesus of Nazareth was both scourged and then crucified reveals the enormity of the price He paid for the ransom of sinners. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

Once the prisoner had made the journey to the place of execution, exhausted and chaffed from moving under the extreme weight and discomfort of the patibulum, he was then laid on the ground. The prisoner's wrists were nailed to each end of the patibulum by iron spikes five to seven inches long. These spikes were driven in by hammer through the median nerve as the prisoner's arms were stretched wide across the beam. The arms were not stretched utterly tight; a small amount of flexibility and movement was allowed to better enable the hanging process. The sufferer, nailed to the crossbar is hoisted up so that the patibulum can be attached to the vertical stipes. A sign called a titulus is placed at the top of the stipes which identifies the prisoner.

Now with the criminal's left foot pressed behind the right, another spike is driven through the arches and heels going through the lower portion of the upright beam. The knees are slightly bent; the body is turned unnaturally sideways. The prisoner is allowed a small seat, called a sedile, a small board attached to the cross. It offered little assistance, actually causing more pain as the person attempted to actually sit on it. As the prisoner writhes in response to each new painful atrocity, each movement causes a counter pain and torment. As excruciating as the agony was that the prisoner suffered, Roman crucifixion sometimes lasted for hours, even days before the individual succumbed to the torture, and finally died. The method for ending the crucifixion was the breaking of the bones of the legs, called crurifracture. This act was done to hasten the criminal's death as was done to the two other criminals executed on the day Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This was performed that day in response to the concern that the Sabbath was approaching.

The prisoner could not push up as a result and would quickly succumb to suffocation. Suffocation was due to the prisoner's inability to exhale air once it had been inhaled; the muscles of the chest had been incapacitated as he sagged down from the nailed wrist and then attempted to push up from the nailed feet. The bones of Jesus were not broken, however, because He gave up His life; when the Roman soldiers came to Him, they found Him already dead. "But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. These things happened so that the Scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken. . ." (John 19:33, 36).

Roman crucifixion was a heinous, barbarous act; it served, however, the purposes of holy God. Through it the penalty for sin was forever paid when the Son of Man was lifted up on the cross. "And they crucified him. . ." (Mark 15:24).

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