Although various forms of “crucifixion” had been used as punishment by ancient cultures prior to the Romans, such as the Assyrians, Persians, Carthaginians, and Greeks, the Roman Republic and Empire seem to have made the practice a science and a political tool (Hengel, Crucifixion). Due to the extreme pain and shame associated with crucifixion, it was typically not allowed for use in the execution of Roman citizens. However, in cases of treason against the state, crucifixion is known to have been used even on Roman citizens and leaders. The words “cross” and “crucify” are derived from Latin crux, meaning cross, tree or stake on which a person was impaled, hanged, or executed, while the verb was originally used to more generally refer to torture or execution (Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary; Harden, Dictionary of the Vulgate New Testament, 30). In the Gospels, the equivalent Greek word for cross is stauros (Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 1635). Neither of these words were restricted to a particular type of stake used for torture or execution, but in the time of the Roman Empire when death by crucifixion was employed on a massive scale, two major types of “crosses” came to be more common than a simple stake or tree. Besides the basic vertical stake or tree, which seems to be the earliest form for crucifixion in ancient times, the Romans typically used a vertical pole with a beam across the top (patibulum), appearing like a Latin T, or a vertical pole with an intersecting crossbeam, which according to early iconography associated with Christianity seems to have been the type used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Regardless of the exact shape of the cross, the victim of execution, whether still living or already dead, was placed on the cross as a public spectacle (Hengel, Crucifixion; Josephus, Wars; Pseudo-Quintillian, The Lesser Declamations).
In the Republic and the Empire, punishment by crucifixion was usually reserved for slaves, criminals of low social standing, and foreign rebels, while crucifying a Roman citizen was almost unheard of, and only occurred in the most extreme of circumstances (Josephus, Wars; Cicero, Caius Rabirius). However, when one committed treason against the state, which was considered among the highest of crimes by Romans, even citizens were sometimes executed by crucifixion (Cicero, Caius Rabirius; Livy, War With Hannibal). In Roman times, crucifixions were usually conducted outside of the sacred border of a city or military camp and along the major roads so that all could see and the maximum effect on the public could be reached (Pseudo-Quintillian, The Lesser Declamations; Appian, Civil Wars; Josephus, Wars; Rupke, “You Shall Not Kill. Hierarchies of Norms in Ancient Rome”). In Rome the typical place for public executions was outside the Esquiline Gate (Tacitus, Annals).
Once the sentence had been approved, the convicted criminal would first undergo flogging with a flagellum or rods, sometimes placed in a furca (a forklike yoke) and often other forms of torture which severely weakened the victim and could even kill them before they were placed on the cross (Josephus, Antiquities and Wars; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities; Lucian, Piscator; Cicero, Verres; Retief and L. Cilliers, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion”). The convicted then were bound to and forced to carry their crossbeam, weighing up to 100 pounds, to the place of execution, if possible (Plutarch, Coriolanus; Platus, Miles Gloriosus and Carbonaria; Clodius, History). After arriving where the crucifixion would occur, the convicted would be nailed to the crossbeam and the stake, either being raised up to connect the crossbeam to the stake, or raising the entire apparatus after the pieces of wood were attached (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica; Seneca, Dialogue to Marcia on Consolation; Herodotus, Histories; Pseudo Manetho, Apotelesmatica). However, alternative positions were also used when the executioners chose (Josephus, Wars). The nailing could include feet in addition to arms (Platus, Mostellaria). The Alexamenos Graffito and the Orpheos Bakkikos crucifixion seal indicate that in some cases a small crossbeam may have been used for the feet to be nailed into. Nails, rather than ropes, were the standard means of attachment for crucifixion known from ancient records, including sources referring to people who believed that crucifixion nails had magical powers (Apuleius, Metamorphoses; Pliny, Natural History). Skeletal remains of two individuals have been recovered which show conclusive signs of the use of nails in crucifixion during the 1st century AD in Judaea Province. The remains of Yehohanan indicate that the man had been attached to the cross by placing nails in his wrists between the radius and ulna bones, and a 11.5 cm iron nail still present in the heel bone with remnants of wood demonstrated that the feet were nailed to the cross (Haas, “Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar”). Subsequent examinations have both agreed and disagreed with the conclusions of the primary study, but no conclusive evidence was offered to refute the original reconstruction (Yadin, “Epigraphy and Crucifixion”; Zias and Sekeles, “The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal”). On the contrary, recently discovered skeletal remains of another crucified man from Roman period Judaea Province demonstrate the use of nails driven into the wrists, as the nail was still lodged between the bones when discovered. Thus, skeletal remains indicate that nails were driven into the wrists near the hands and into the foot through the heel. Further, the skeletal analysis indicates that the legs were broken, presumably to lead to a quick death. Those fastened and raised on the cross were probably not very far from the ground, as ancient sources suggest that animals could reach the legs of the corpse (Philo, Against Flaccus; Pseudo Manetho, Apotelesmatica; Horace, Epistles). On the cross, the convicted was stripped either naked or down to minimal clothing (Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities; Melito of Sardis, Passion; Artemidorus, Oneirokritikon; Alexamenos Graffito). Death by crucifixion was normally slow and agonizing unless severe punishment or torture prior to being placed on the cross sped up the process (Seneca, Letters). However, the severe trauma of the preliminary beatings and then nailing to the cross was so great, that very few could survive even if rescued. In the 1st century, although three associates of Josephus were removed from their crosses and given immediate medical care, only one of them lived (Josephus, Life). Ultimately, death was a result of things like hypovolemic shock (blood or fluid loss), heart failure, dehydration, asphyxiation, or stabbing by the attending soldiers (Maslen and Mitchell, “Medical Theories”; Barbet, “A Doctor at Calvary”; Retief and Cilliers, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion”). The legs of the crucified person may be broken (crurifragium) if a speedier death was desired (Koskenniemi et al., “Wine Mixed with Myrrh (Mark 15.23) and Crurifragium (John 19.31-32): Two Details of the Passion Narratives”). After it was confirmed by the Roman soldiers that the crucified person had died, the corpse could be removed from the cross and buried. Roman law in rule and in practice allowed the bodies of those crucified to be given to relatives for burial or other funeral rites, although the body also may end up in a mass grave with other criminals (Ulpian, Digest; Philo, Against Flaccus; Cook, “Envisioning Crucifixion”). Survival was not an option for the crucified, but an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death sentence that one hoped would be swift.
According to the Gospels, Jesus was sentenced to and endured death by crucifixion, experiencing the same punishments, protocols, and sequences known from antiquity and especially the Romans. After the trial of Jesus concluded, He was handed over for execution by crucifixion alongside two convicted criminals (Matthew 27:22-26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:33). Unlike Paul, Jesus was not a Roman citizen and therefore His execution, even though not demonstrated to be guilty of treason, was eligible for crucifixion rather than a swift and clean death such as beheading (Acts 21:39, 22:28, 25:10-11). The preliminary torture that Jesus endured included flogging, beating, and a crown of thorns, which except for the crown of thorns was common methodology preceding a crucifixion in the Roman Empire (Matthew 27:26-28; Mark 15:17-18; John 19:1-2). After a severe beating that many would not even survive, following protocol the Romans tried to force Jesus to carry His wooden crossbeam to the place of execution (John 19:16-17). However, Simon of Cyrene ended up carrying the crossbeam for Jesus at least part of the way, probably because Jesus was too weak at that point to do it Himself (Matthew 27:31-32; Mark 15:20-22; Luke 23:26). Once they reached Golgotha, the place of the execution, Jesus was nailed to the cross and crucified (Matthew 27:33-35; Mark 15:22-24; Luke 23:33; John 19:17-18). The piercing of the wrists and feet by nails in the crucifixion of Jesus is specified by two of the Gospel writers (Luke 24:39-40; John 20:20-27). Although it is usually thought to be the hands of Jesus that were nailed, the Greek words used for “hand” in those passages (xeir) can also refer to the wrist or arm, which would be a more logical placement of nails for holding a body on a cross than through the palms of the hands, and in agreement with what is known from other ancient texts and archaeological discoveries (Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 1983). Near the top of the cross, above His head, an inscribed titulus (caption, title, or inscription) from Pontius Pilate stated the accusation against Jesus, identifying Him as Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Judeans in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19-20). The exact contents of the inscription may have varied from language to language. Although criticized as an unhistorical addition to the Gospels by a few scholars, the titulus used with an execution has parallels in ancient Roman history (Maier, “The Inscription on the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth”). This is an aspect of the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels that may have been rare in Roman executions, but it is known from a few instances from the 1st century BC through the 2nd century AD, including an inscription stating the reason that a condemned man would be crucified in Rome, and inscriptions with the accusations of others condemned to death (Dio Cassius, Roman History; Suetonius, Caligula and Domitian; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History). The titulus was probably inscribed on a wooden board and whitened, perhaps with gypsum, and the letters may have been painted in black or red to be easily visible, as was a known practice for inscriptions during the period. A wooden titulus inscribed in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, reading Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Judeans in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin was supposedly found at the site of Golgotha in the 4th century AD after the dismantling of the Roman temple (Egeria, Itinerarium Egeriae; Macarius of Jerusalem; Ambrose, Death of Theodosius; Rufinus, Church History; John Chrysostom, Commentary on John). A wooden artifact, supposedly this same titulus, has been housed at the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme since at least 1145. Recently, examination of the inscription and the wood was conducted. The fragmentary plaque is made of walnut wood which appears to have been painted white long in the past, measuring 25 cm by 14 cm, 2.6 cm thick, letters about 1.3 cm high, and inscribed on one side with Aramaic (probably), Greek (reversed script), and Latin (reversed script), although many of the letters are no longer visible (Hesemann, “Titulus Crucis”; Maier, “The Inscription on the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth”). Several professional epigraphers analyzed the inscription and placed the form of the letters from the 1st century to the 4th century AD. However, radiocarbon tests conducted on the wood dated it to about the 10th century AD (Bella and Azzi, “14C Dating of the Titulus Crucis”). As a result, it has been suggested as a medieval forgery or a medieval copy of the original, or a Byzantine or Roman period artifact that shows later radiocarbon dates due to handling contamination in the medieval period. Although the two criminals crucified next to Jesus had their legs broken to ensure a quick death, the soldiers saw that Jesus appeared already dead, confirming this by means of piercing His side with a spear to see the separated blood and water pour out, and then the body was removed from the cross and allowed to be taken for burial (Mark 15:43-45; John 19:33-38). Although various medical theories have been suggested about the blood and water flowing out after a Roman soldier pierced the side of Jesus, the exact cause seems undecided, with possibilities such as a buildup of fluid around the lungs and a ruptured heart (Ball, “The Crucifixion and Death of a Man Called Jesus”; Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View”; Edwards et al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”). Removal from the cross and subsequent burial was especially important in the observation of the Mosaic Law (John 19:31; Deuteronomy 21:23; Josephus, Wars). Following His death, the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried in a new tomb, which is now located underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
In addition to the accurate and detailed portrayal of Roman crucifixion in the Gospel accounts, the crucifixion of Jesus is also briefly described by a few Roman period writers and depicted on a wall in Rome. In the late 1st century AD, while writing as an official Roman historian, Josephus recorded that Pilate had condemned Jesus to be crucified (Josephus, Antiquities). Lucian, a Roman living in the 2nd century AD who enjoyed mocking Christians, thought that it was humorous how Christians worshipped a man who had been crucified (Lucian, Death of Peregrinus). Celsus, another 2nd century AD Roman who criticized Christianity, affirmed that Jesus was nailed to a cross (Celsus in Origen, Contra Celsus). Around the same time, Justin, a pagan turned Christian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius in defense of Christianity, mentioning the crucifixion of Jesus and how the events in the Gospels can be confirmed by checking the Roman records such as the Acts of Pilate (Justin Martyr, Apology). The earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Jesus comes from Rome, found inscribed into a wall of the Paedagogium on the Palatine Hill. Known as the Alexamenos Graffito, the drawing shows Jesus on the cross with the head of a donkey and a man looking up to the cross, while the accompanying Greek inscription reads “Alexamenos worships (his) god.” Because the building it was found in association with was originally constructed ca. 90 AD, then modified and partly buried ca. 200 AD, it dates to somewhere within this period (Vaananen, Graffiti Del Palatino I. Paedagogium). Therefore, not only do the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels perfectly match what is known about Roman period crucifixion from various ancient sources and archaeological discoveries, but the event of Jesus being crucified in Jerusalem is confirmed by multiple sources in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.