Definition of Crucifixion, an Ancient Method of Execution

Crucifixion Definition
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Crucifixion was an ancient method of execution in which the victim's hands and feet were bound and nailed to a cross. It was one of the most painful and disgraceful methods of capital punishment ever performed.

Crucifixion Definition

The English word crucifixion (pronounced krü-se-fik-shen) comes from the Latin crucifixio, or crucifixus, meaning "fix to a cross." Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution used in the ancient world. It involved binding a person to a wooden post or tree using ropes or nails.

Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. Other terms for crucifixion are "death on a cross," and "hanging on a tree."

The Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed live crucifixions during Titus’ siege on Jerusalem, called it "the most wretched of deaths." Victims were usually beaten and tortured by various means and then forced to carry their own cross to the crucifixion site. Because of the long, drawn-out suffering and horrible manner of execution, it was viewed as the supreme penalty by the Romans.

Forms of Crucifixion

The Roman cross was formed of wood, typically with a vertical stake and a horizontal cross beam near the top. Different types and shapes of crosses existed for different forms of crucifixion:

  • Crux Simplex: single, upright stake with no crossbeam.
  • Crux Commissa: upright stake with a crossbeam, capital T-shaped cross.
  • Crux Decussata: X-shaped structure, also called St. Andrew's cross.
  • Crux Immissa: lower case, t-shaped cross upon which the Lord, Jesus Christ was crucified.
  • Upside-down cross: history and tradition say the Apostle Peter was crucified on an upside-down cross.
Crucifixion of Peter
'Crucifixion of St Peter', c1600-1642. Artist: Guido Reni. Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images

History

Crucifixion was practiced by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians and then later quite extensively by the Romans. Only slaves, peasants, and the lowest of criminals were crucified, but rarely Roman citizens.

Historical sources reveal the practice of crucifixion being used in many other cultures, as well, including the Assyrians, the people of India, the Scythians, the Taurians, the Thracians, the Celts, the Germans, the Britons, and the Numidians. The Greeks and Macedonians adopted the practice mostly likely from the Persians.

The Greeks would fasten the victim to a flat board for torture and execution. Sometimes, the victim was secured to a wooden plank only to be shamed and punished Then he would either be released or executed.

Crucifixion in the Bible

The crucifixion of Jesus is recorded in Matthew 27:27-56, Mark 15:21-38, Luke 23:26-49, and John 19:16-37.

Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ was crucified on a Roman cross as the perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins all of mankind, thus making the crucifix, or cross, one of the central themes and defining symbols of Christianity.

Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
nazarethman / Getty Images

The Roman form of crucifixion was not employed in the Old Testament by the Jewish people, as they saw crucifixion as one of the most horrible, cursed forms of death (Deuteronomy 21:23). In New Testament Bible times, the Romans used this torturous method of execution as a means of exerting authority and control over the population.

An Excruciating Ordeal

Pre-crucifixion torture usually involved beatings and lashings, but could also include burning, racking, mutilation, and violence toward the victim’s family. Plato, the Greek philosopher, described such torture: "[A man] is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled or tarred and burned alive."

Usually, the victim would then be forced to carry his own crossbeam (called a patibulum) to the place of execution. Once there, the executioners would affix the victim and the crossbeam to a tree or wooden post.

Sometimes, before nailing the victim to the cross, a mixture of vinegar, gall, and myrrh was offered to alleviate some of the victim's suffering. Wooden planks were usually fastened to the vertical stake as a footrest or seat, allowing the victim to rest his weight and lift himself for a breath, thus prolonging suffering and delaying death for up to three days. Unsupported, the victim would hang entirely from nail-pierced wrists, severely restricting breathing and circulation.

The excruciating ordeal would lead to exhaustion, suffocation, brain death, and heart failure. At times, mercy was shown by breaking the victim's legs, causing death to come quickly. As a deterrent to crime, crucifixions were carried out in highly public places with the criminal charges posted on the cross above the victim's head. After death, the body was usually left hanging on the cross.

Sources

  • New Bible Dictionary.
  • “Crucifixion.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary
  • Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.
  • The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary.