Jesus on cross

The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the very heart of the Christian faith. Without both those events, Jesus is not the Messiah but another Jewish prophet. The Christian religion does not exist. Constantine does not convert, the Roman Empire remains pagan and the world likely looks overwhelmingly different that it does today. Jesus did, however, die and rise from the dead. The Christian religion was born, spread and formed the backbone of the modern Western world. 

For all that Christianity has shaped the globe, many Christians know surprisingly little about the events that created their faith in the first place. There are a large number of Christians who have never read the Bible and its accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even those that have, however, often misunderstand parts of the story. Some of this is due to modern readers examining the text through the lens of contemporary beliefs rather than thinking about the context in which the Bible was written. Other times the confusion is due to poor translations or lost cultural understanding. Sadly, many Christians struggle to fill in the resulting gaps. This can lead to people misunderstanding some of the most important events in the Bible, and Christ’s death is no exception to this rule. Here are five things about the crucifixion that all Christians get wrong.

“Pilate wanted to free Jesus.”

The idea that Pontius Pilate would have let Jesus go if the people had not insisted on His crucifixion is one of the most enduring misunderstandings in the entire Bible.
It is also one of the most baffling implications in the entire Scripture because it would have taken an order straight from the emperor to get Pilate to free Jesus. Judea was a hotbed of rebellion. A minor rebellion was put down less than 30 years before Jesus’ death and had resulted in the crucifixion of 2,000 Jews. This revolt occurred less than a year after Rome annexed Judea. After that, Jews reacted negatively to the idea of a census and kept themselves separate from the Romans in every way possible out of thinly veiled hostility. Into this powder keg comes an extremely charismatic man whose followers worship Him. This man preaches against the existing social order in favor of a new kingdom and is said to be the Messiah. The Messiah, among many Jews, was believed to be a man who would lead a successful revolt against Rome. Add in Jesus’ miracles suggesting that He had true supernatural power, and Pilate would have been terrified of what Christ’s mere existence would have brought. Under no circumstances could he have allowed this fearless rebel to live.

“Jesus carried the entire cross.”

For centuries, Christian iconography has shown Christ carrying and dying on a cross that looks like a lowercase “t.” This cross, called the Latin cross, is not, however, what Christ likely died upon. Instead, Christ would have likely been nailed to a Tau cross, a cross that looks like a capital “T.” Latin crosses were heavy, unwieldy and required serious work for Roman soldiers to raise into an upright position. The central pillar of Tau crosses, however, could be left in place. Only the crossbeam, or patibulum, would need to be raised and replaced. This is likely what Jesus carried through the streets. 

Tau crosses were more common in the Roman Empire, especially in areas that would see numerous crucifixions. They were easier to create, maintain and use, something that Roman soldiers posted in rebellious areas would have preferred. Tau cross patibulums could also be carried through the streets. Most depictions of Christ’s final walk to Golgotha show Him carrying a Latin Cross, but that would actually have been all but impossible. Latin crosses would have weighed hundreds of pounds. A man who had just been scourged would have been incapable of dragging the massive cross through the streets. A petibulum, on the other hand, would have weighed around 100 pounds. It would have still been a difficult and painful thing to carry, but the condemned would have been capable of making the walk to the execution site. 

“Crucifixion was an unusual punishment.”

Given the importance of Christ’s crucifixion in Christianity, most Christians subconsciously assume that the world stood still during His death. In reality, however, crucifixion would have been a horrific but common sight. Judea and Israel had never suffered occupation quietly. The Jews revolted against every empire that ever tried to control them. The Assyrians and Babylonians both had to fight wars to quell Jewish rebellion even temporarily, and the Seleucid dynasty was driven out of Judea entirely. The Israelites did not submit meekly to Rome either. Small revolts were constantly flaring up in ancient Israel, and Rome was forever attempting to squash any ideas about Jewish independence with limited success. Within Jesus’ own lifetime there was a rebellion that lead to the capture of over 2,000 Jews. In an effort to crush rebellious sentiment, Rome dealt brutally with rebels. They were tortured and murdered with careful, creative cruelty, and one of Rome’s preferred methods of execution was crucifixion. Armed rebels would not have been the only ones crucified either. The cross was used to silence anyone who was seen as a potential threat to Roman control. The crucifixion of one more rebel, even one as charismatic and popular as Jesus, would not have stood out in anyone’s mind until word began circulating that the Galilean teacher had risen from the dead. 

“Jesus’s death was long and drawn out.”

Ironically enough, the most famous victim of crucifixion actually received a swifter death than most who were nailed to a cross. Jesus’s scourging, march to Golgotha, nailing to the cross and death all occurred in a matter of hours. Many crucifixion victims hung on the cross for days. Jesus, by comparison, died quickly. 

Rome did thousands of crucifixions. According to Josephus, Rome crucified 3,000 Jews in A.D. 7 alone. Roman soldiers were very, very good at making sure their victims stayed alive on the cross as long as possible. Jesus, however, died faster than many crucifixion victims. Interestingly, Jesus’ relatively swift death may have been deliberate. Jewish law dictates that if a man is “impaled on a stake” or “hung on a tree,” both commonly interpreted as forms of crucifixion, the Jews “must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day.” If Rome was willing to respect Jewish laws, crucifixion victims would have needed to be dead before sundown.  Archeological and Scriptural evidence suggest that, in the case of Jesus and the two thieves, Roman soldiers and officials were willing to bow to Jewish law and allow crucified men to die must faster than their unfortunate counterparts in other areas. The Bible states that the thieves’ legs were broken, and Jesus’ feet are almost always depicted as being impaled one over top of the other by a single nail. 

Crucifixion forces a person’s entire weight to rest on their raised arms and lengthens the chest cavity. This makes breathing naturally almost impossible. Victims would have to push themselves upward to be able to breathe. Once they ran out of energy, they would suffocate. For this reason, the position in which the victim was nailed determined how long they would survive.
Those to whom Rome wanted to give especially lingering deaths would have a small seat or step, called a sedile, on the cross to allow them to breathe. Jesus’ position, however, would have made breathing difficult. Rome would have known this, but may have used the more unusual position in order to ensure He was dead by sundown. Furthermore, the gospels say that the thieves’ legs were broken. This, again, would have led to a quick death by suffocation rather than leaving them to linger for days. In addition, Jesus’ body was allowed a proper burial. This was unusual, as most crucifixion victims were left to rot on the cross as a warning to all who saw them, but honorable burials for crucified Jews was not unheard of in Judea. The remains of Yehohanan, son of Hagakol, were found in a respected family tomb, and the nail from his crucifixion was still lodged in his heel bone. Given that Jesus’ body was handed over to his family and friends and the thieves’ legs were deliberately broken to hasten their deaths, it is quite possible that the last two people to speak to Jesus before His death were also laid properly to rest.

“Jesus was crucified next to a pair of thieves.”

The Bible describes the two unfortunate men crucified alongside Jesus as being a pair of thieves. This, however, is highly unlikely. Roman crucifixions were pageantries of violence, and even proud Romans recognized the sheer horror of the practice. As such, crucifixion was used only in specific circumstances. Roman citizens, such as the Apostle Paul, could not be crucified under Roman law. Even in occupied territories, however, this most awful of punishments was reserved for serious offenses. People found guilty of violent crimes such as murder and disobedient or rebellious slaves would have been crucified, as would those who were found guilty of political crimes against Rome such as treason, sedition, conspiracy and rebellion. As such, it is highly unlikely that the “thieves” were actually crucified for stealing. Instead, they were probably condemned for rebellion. Judea was a powder keg waiting to go off, and Passover was always the most likely time for a full blown revolt to erupt. After all, the entire holiday is dedicated to remembering when the Jews were freed from oppression.

The crucifixion is one of the most important events in the entire Christian religion, but that does not mean that people do not misunderstand elements of the Bible’s recounting of it. If anything, the sheer number of people that read and tell the story every year makes it even more likely that people will make a mistake. That does not mean, however, that it is better to only allow those with a serious background in the history and culture of first century Judea share the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. People can go back and fill in the details and correct the misunderstandings later. The most important thing is to make sure that they get the basics. Jesus did not die, after all, for scholars, experts and elites. He died for those that had needed Him most, for everyday sinners.
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