Jesus’s crucifixion.

Mark 15.22-32 • Matthew 27.33-38 • Luke 23.32-38 • John 19.17-24

Ever bang your funny bone? That’s the ulnar nerve. The equivalent in the leg is the tibial nerve.

Crucifixion (Распятие), by Nikolai Ge, 1892. [From Gallerix.]

About 26 to 24 centuries ago, humans in the middle east figured out the most painful way to kill someone: Take four nails. Put one through each of these nerves, and hang a victim by these nails to whatever—a wall, a tree, a pole, a cross. If you stretch out their limbs, it’ll squeeze their lungs and they’ll find it really hard to breathe. Can’t inhale unless they push themselves up by their pierced ankles, pull themselves up on their pierced wrists—and each pull feels like they’ve crushed the nerve all over again. With a hammer.

There’s no way to stop the constant pain, and no way to keep from generating fresh pain without suffocating—which is eventually what’d kill you. After days. The pain is so intense, Latin-speakers invented the word excruciare/“excruciating” to describe it.

The Persians get credit for inventing it, since it shows up in their history first. (Haman, fr’instance, built a 50-cubit ech/“tree” to hang Mordecai on, Es 7.9 and while the KJV calls it a gallows, Haman meant to crucify him on it.) It probably predates the Persians. But Romans were definitely known for it. Not just ’cause of Jesus: Crucifixion was their thing. Get on Rome’s bad side, get crucified.

Crucifixion is so nasty, Romans forbade it to be used on their own citizens. But exactly like Americans’ attitudes about torture, foreigners were fair game. It’s how you terrorize ’em. Mess with the Roman Empire and you’ll suffer the worst form of death possible. (Yet we Americans like to imagine ourselves on Jesus’s side. That’s rich.)

As usual, the threat of death, even a nasty one, doesn’t deter insurrection, doesn’t deter crime. ’Cause insurgents and criminals always think they’ll get away with it. So all crucifixion did was horrify the law-abiding subjects of the Roman Empire—“What sort of monsters do such things to people?”—and make ’em hate the Romans all the more, and think them inhuman. Americans, pay attention.

Christian art depicts it differently. Our crucifixes depict Jesus with nails in the palms in his hands, and one nail spiking through the top of both feet, sometimes into a little platform. It’s because people take Luke too literally when the resurrected Jesus showed his hands and feet Lk 24.39-40 —they assume “hand” doesn’t include “wrist,” and “foot” doesn’t include “ankle.” In real life, putting the nails there wouldn’t have held up a body; the weight of the body would rip right through the hands and feet.

Moviemakers figure this out pretty quickly, which is why some movies also include ropes. Jesus gets both tied and nailed to the cross. (Sometimes the thieves crucified with him only get tied, so it looks like Jesus suffered way worse than they.) But ropes defeat the purpose of crucifixion: Now the victim’s weight rests on the ropes instead of the nails, and it’s no longer a struggle to breathe. But archeology doesn’t match the art.

(And y’know, the LORD’s curse on the serpent in Eden did say it’d bruise the human’s heel. Ge 3.15 So you’d think Christians would pay a little more attention to that.)

Art tends to put Jesus in a loincloth for modesty’s sake. But victims would soil themselves quickly. Crucifixion hurts so much, you don’t care about other bodily functions. And even if you did, they weren’t taking you down for bathroom breaks. So for practical reasons, victims were crucified buck naked. Not to humiliate them, although the locals would definitely have found it humiliating: Romans didn’t care about nudity. You’ve seen their statues.

What Jesus went through.

The Romans tended to crucify people just outside town, near main roads so every passerby could see them. Outside Jerusalem they had a site called Skull Place, which we call Golgatha. In Latin it’s Calvariae locus, from which we get Calvary; Greek Kraníu Tópos; and Aramaic Gulgálta—which, when the gospels tried to render it into Greek, turned into our “Golgatha.”
From Gordon’s Calvary, taken around 1934. [Library of Congress.]
It’s where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands; Christians built it on top of both Golgatha and Jesus’s tomb in the early fourth century.

Fans of the nearby Garden Tomb insist it was called Skull Place because a nearby rock formation looked sorta kinda skull-like. That’s a stretch. British general Charles Gordon saw two caves that vaguely resembled eye sockets. (I’ve been there; it really doesn’t otherwise look like a skull. Even less so now that Jerusalem put a bus station there.) Gordon figured that’d be what he thought Golgotha should look like, but if you know your Old Testament, you’ll recall people named places after what happened there, not after what the rock formations resembled. Golgotha was named for skulls because the Romans killed a lot of people there.

Anyway, dragging out their convicts for the day, the Romans had them set down their crossbeams, held ’em down, nailed them to them, then set the crossbeams on the posts and nailed the victims’ feet to the posts. That done, they guarded the crosses lest anyone try to rescue the victims, and killed time by gambling for their bloodstained clothes (hey, they could reuse the cloth for all sorts of things) and taunting the victims.

Mark 15.22-32 KWL
22 They brought Jesus to Gulgálta Place (i.e. Skull Place).
23 They were giving Jesus myrrh-wine, which he didn’t take.
24 They crucified Jesus, and dividing up his clothing,
they threw dice for who would take which of them.
25 It was the third hour after sunrise when they crucified Jesus.
26 The epigraph of Jesus’s crime was written out: “King of the Judeans.”
27 They crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.
28 [The scripture was fulfilled which says, “He was counted with Law-breakers.” Is 53.12]
29 Passersby were slandering Jesus, shaking their heads and saying,
“Ha! The one who’d overthrow temple and construct another in three days!
30 Save yourself by coming off the cross.”
31 Likewise the head priests, mocking Jesus amongst themselves with the scribes,
said, “He saved others? He can’t even save himself!
32 Messiah, the king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now,
so we can see and believe him.” And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.
Matthew 27.33-38 KWL
33 Coming to the place called Gulgálta, called Skull Place, 34 they gave Jesus wine to drink—
with bile mixed in, and on tasting it he didn’t want to drink.
35 Crucifying Jesus, they divided up his clothing, throwing dice, [which’d fulfill the prophet’s word,
“They divided up my clothing, and threw lots over my clothing.” Ps 22.18]
36 Sitting there, they were guarding Jesus.
37 They placed over Jesus’s head his crime; they’d written, “This is Jesus, king of the Judeans.”
38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.
Luke 23.32-38 KWL
32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.
33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,
who were at right and at left.
34 [Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they do.”]
Dividing up Jesus’s clothing, they threw dice.
35 The people were standing, watching. The leaders were sneering, saying,
“He saved others? Then he has to save himself, if this is God’s chosen Messiah.”
36 They mocked him. The soldiers who’d come were bringing him wine vinegar 37 and saying,
“If you’re the king of the Judeans, save yourself.”
38 An epigraph was over Jesus, [written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic letters,]
“This is the king of the Judeans.”
John 19.17-24 KWL
17 Carrying his own cross, they came to what’s called Skull Place,
which in Aramaic is called Gulgálta, 18 where they crucified Jesus
and two others with him, on this side and that, Jesus in the middle.
19 Pontius Pilate also wrote a title, and they put it on the cross.
The writing was, “Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Judeans.”
20 Thus many of the Judeans read this title,
because the place Jesus was crucified was near the city,
and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.
21 So the Judean head priests told Pilate, “Don’t write ‘king of the Judeans’;
instead, ‘This man said, “I’m king of the Judeans.”’”
22 Pilate answered, “I’ve written what I’ve written.”
23 So when they crucified Jesus, the soldiers took his clothes and made four shares—
a share to each soldier.
And the tunic: The tunic was seamless, woven from top to bottom, 24 so they told one another,
“We shouldn’t split it. Instead we should throw dice for who’ll get it.”
Thus the scripture was fulfilled which says,
“They divided up my clothing for themselves, and threw dice over my clothing.” Ps 22.18
For indeed, the soldiers did this.

A horrible way to go.

Since God has ultimate control of history, including the place, time, and death of the Son, you gotta wonder why he was willing to involve crucifixion. Of all the ways to go, it’s the worst we humans have ever invented. Why was Jesus willing to die that way?

Most of us Christians figure God chose crucifixion because it’s so awful. Sin and death needed to be destroyed, and deserved to be destroyed in the worst way possible. Well, that’d be crucifixion.

It also makes a big statement of how much grace God offers the world. Here, we killed Jesus in the nastiest way, yet he forgave us. If God’s grace can overcome such an unjust, horrible death, surely it can overcome anything.

More than that: Because Jesus died by crucifixion, it spurred us humans to finally stop crucifying one another. (Well, not finally. Antichristians find it amusing to crucify us. But other than making sick statements against our religion, other societies don’t use it.) We finally saw how terrible it is, by virtue of our Lord, his apostles, and many of his followers dying that way. We realized we mustn’t do that to one another, no matter how much a person might deserve death.

And loads of us have also applied that to the death penalty in general. Many Christian countries got rid of it altogether (though it sure took ’em long enough), and in the rest, we try to make our executions as humane and painless as possible—despite all the vengeance-minded folks outside who’d love to watch the convicts suffer, and who wouldn’t mind at all if we did bring back crucifixion.

Lastly, in dying a slow death, Jesus had time to demonstrate for us how to die as a martyr. Not passively: Jesus actively refused the nasty stuff they offered him to drink. (Mark calls it wine and myrrh—meant to be medicinal, Matthew wine and bile—meant to make you puke, Luke and John wine vinegar, or really old wine.) But the gospels describe him speaking to various people from the cross, to offer them grace, forgiveness, and comfort. Not wrath, not cursing and damning his killers and persecutors, threatening them with destruction as soon as he was back from the dead, or took possession of his kingdom. We’d do that. He wouldn’t, and didn’t.

Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the torment, Jesus bore it with as much peace and self-control as he could muster. His was a noble death. And if we must ever go through anything like it—’cause you never know—may we be Christlike.