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Doctrine of Crucifixion in the Ancient World

January 16, 2011

Crucifixion in the Ancient World

It seems that the Persians invented or first used this mode of execution. The historian Herodotus (484-425 B.C.)
writes that the Persian king Astyages ordered Magian interpreters to be “impaled” for giving him poor counsel (The
History, Book I 128). Also, King Arxes ordered Sataspes “impaled” for not following his orders (The History, Book
IV 43). The Persians probably invented it in order not to defile the earth, which was consecrated to Ormuzd, by the
body of the person executed. Later the cross is used by Alexander the Great, the Diadochoi princes and especially
the Carthaginians. The Romans acquired crucifixion from the Carthaginians. They seldom executed Roman citizens
by this method of punishment. Usually only slaves and the most serious criminals such as traitors, perjurers were
crucified. In Greece this punishment was restricted to slaves and was never considered for free Greeks. Only
barbarians crucified free men (Hdt. I, 128; IV, 43).
In Rome it was already a mode of executing slaves even in the days of the republic. In the imperial period it was
regarded as servile supplicium but was also used on aliens who were not Romans citizens. It could not be imposed on
citizens (Cicero Verr. II, 5, 62, 162-165). But autocratic governors ignored this. In the Roman provinces the penalty
of crucifixion was one of the strongest means of maintaining order and security. Governors imposed this servile
punishment especially on freedom fighters that tried to break away from Roman rule. Josephus mentions
innumerable crucifixions-mass executions of rebels-in Judea. The Maccabean king Alexander I, when he had
captured the rebellious city of Bethome, had the prisoners brought to Jerusalem and he crucified 800 men (Jews)
(Josephus Antiquities 13, 380).
Punishment by crucifixion was seen as a disciplinary measure for the maintenance of existing authority, intended
more as a deterrent than as a means of retribution. This explains why the instrument of execution was set up in a
public place. Contemporary writers condemned this form of execution as excessively cruel and disgraceful (Cicero,
In Verrum, 64, 165 and often; Tacitus, Historia, 4, 3, 11; Josephus, War, 7, 203). The Jewish Historian Josephus
(37-100 A.D.) described crucifixion as a “most miserable death” (Wars Book 7, 203). Tacitus the historian described
it as “the most pitiful of all means of death”. The one to be crucified experienced the ridicule and mockery of his
executioners; onlookers participated in this too, as did the judges (Matt. 27:27-31, 39-44; Mark 15:16-20; 29-32;
Luke 23:35-39). The site of execution, outside the town gate, was itself a place of disgrace (Heb. 13:12-13) and
because of this understanding; a crucified Messiah caused many Jews to disbelieve (1 Cor. 1:23).

Crucifixion Procedure

First, there was a legal conviction and only in extraordinary cases, such as in times of war, did this occur at the
place of execution itself. After sentencing, the criminal was stripped and scourged, itself a punishment so painful and
horribly debilitating that some died from it. This took place either immediately after the sentence was pronounced or
en route to the execution site. In Jesus’ case the scourging probably took place before He was sentenced, perhaps in
the hope that the crowds might have compassion on the exhausted bleeding Man from Galilee ask Pilate to release

Him (Luke 23:16; John 19:1). That His punishment was so severe may explain why Jesus did not have to bear the
cross the last steps to Golgotha (Matt. 27:32).
If the execution took place at somewhere other than the place of sentencing, the condemned man carried the
patibulum to the spot, which was usually outside the town. The expression “to bear the cross (stauros)” which is a
typical description of the punishment of slaves has its origin here. Ordinarily the criminal was forced to carry the
crossbeam all the way to the execution site. The upright stake was usually left in place at the crucifixion site. Then
on the ground he was bound with outstretched arms to the beam by ropes, or else fixed to it by spikes. Jesus was
nailed to the crosspiece (John 20:25). The beam was then raised with the body and fastened to the upright post.
About the middle of the post was a wooden block, which supported the suspended body. There was no foot-rest in
ancient accounts. The height of the cross varied. It was either rather more than a man’s height or even higher when
the offender was to be held up for public display at a distance.
On the way to the execution a tablet was hung around the offender stating the causa poenae, and this was affixed
to the cross after execution so that all could see (Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). The charge was
displayed above the criminal on a board or a tablet in black or red letters. In Jesus’ case the charge was written in 3
languages: (1) The language of Judea: Hebrew (2) The language of the occupying force from Rome: Latin (3) The
common language of the day: Greek.

Mental and Physical Torture of Crucifixion

To die upon a cross meant excruciating pain. Death came slowly after extraordinary agony, probably through
exhaustion or suffocation. The terrible open wounds from scourging and spikes in the hands and feet, the agonizing
thirst and hunger, the hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the head and heart, the scorching heat of the sun by day
or the cold of the nights gradually robbed the victim of all strength. He became insane from the pain. Medical studies
show that death itself was caused by asphyxiation. Ordinarily the crucified person lived for some time, frequently
lasting more than 24 hours and sometimes as long as 48 hours. Some records exist of crucifixions lasting from 3 to 6
days.
At times the legs of the victim were broken to put an end to the suffering of the victim (John 19:32). Thus Pilate
was surprised when he was told that Jesus died within 6 hours (Mark 15:44f). The condemned person was exposed to
mockery. Sometimes he was stripped and his clothes were divided among the executioners, thought this was not the
common rule. Crucifixion took place publicly on streets or elevated places. Usually the body was left to rot on the
cross to provide food for predatory animals and carrion crows. There is evidence that the body was occasionally
given to relatives or acquaintances. The physical and mental sufferings, which this slow death on the cross involved,
are unimaginable. Crucifixion as a capital penalty was ended only by Constantine the Great.
In June 1968 an ossuary was discovered on Ammunition Hill, north of Jerusalem, containing the bones of a
young man who had plainly been crucified, about the beginning of the 1st century A.D. One nail had been driven
through each of his forearms, and a third, which was still in situ, through both his ankles together. His legs were
broken like those of the 2 criminals on either side of Jesus (John 19:32).

Crucifixion of Christ

The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ is a historical fact and attested to by secular historians. Tacitus writes,
“Christus, from whom the name (Christians) had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius
at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the
moment broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and
shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular” (Annals XV, 44). Josephus writes,
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful
works-a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and
many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had
condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again
the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and
the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (Antiquities Book 18, chapter 3).
The apostle Paul declares to King Agrippa that the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ “had not been done in a
corner” (Acts 26:26). On the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter declares to the Jews the well-known fact that in
Jerusalem the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead (Acts 2:22-25). Christ crucified is said to
be a “stumbling block” to Jews and “foolishness” to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22-25). The Mosaic Law pronounced a

curse on anyone who was hung on a tree (Deut. 21:22-23). The cross is called the “power of God” and “foolishness”
to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18). We are reconciled to God and now have peace with God through the Lord
Jesus Christ death on the cross (Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 1:20-22). The cross dealt with man’s sins, which have all been
forgiven and have been “nailed to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14).
The Cross is the central point of all human and angelic history for the Lord Jesus Christ won a great strategic
victory over Satan and the kingdom of darkness (John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15). The Cross defeated Satan who had the
power of death over the human race (Heb. 2:14-15).

The Chronology of the Crucifixion of Christ

The procession arrived at Golgotha (Matt. 27:33). The Lord Jesus Christ was offered a stupefying drink of
vinegar and gall, which He refused (Matt. 27:34). Jesus was crucified between 2 thieves (Luke 23:32-33), followed
by the 1st cry on the Cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The soldiers
gambled for His clothes, as was the Roman custom (Matt. 27:35-36). The Jews began to mock Him (Matt. 27:39-43).
The thieves began mocking Him, but one of them believed (Luke 23:39-43). The 2nd cry on the Cross, “Today you
shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The Lord made sure His family was taken care of, this was His 3rd
cry, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26-27). Noontime, darkness covered the earth (Matt. 27:45). This was
followed by the 4th cry, “Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani” (Matt. 27:46). The 5th cry, “I thirst.” Christ thirsted so that
we might never thirst. (John 19:28). The 6th cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The 7th cry, “Father, into your
hands I commit my human spirit” (Luke 23:46). After this our Lord dismissed His human spirit (Matt. 27:50).

Pneumatic (Spiritual) Death of Christ

There are 2 word groups which speak of death in the NT: (1) Thanatos (2) Nekros. Both words are used in the
NT for spiritual and physical death. They are synonyms. The difference in usage between the 2 words is that
thanatos is always used by the NT writers in reference to our Lord’s voluntary substitutionary spiritual death on the
cross. Nekros and its word group is never used in relation to the substitutionary spiritual death of Christ on the cross.
The words pneumatic and somatic come from 2 Greek nouns: (1) Pneuma, “spirit.” (2) Soma, “body.”
Pneumatic death refers to spiritual death. Somatic death refers to physical death or the death of the human body.
Pneumatic or spiritual death precedes somatic or physical death. The humanity of Christ died twice, spiritually and
physically, so that we might be born twice, physical birth and spiritual birth. Our Lord died 2 unique deaths occurred
on the Cross: (1) Spiritual or Pneumatic (2) Physical or Somatic.
Our Lord in His perfect humanity first died spiritually or pneumatically (Matt. 27:44-45), and then He died
physically or somatically (John 19:30). It was our Lord’s substitutionary spiritual death in the last 3 hours on the
Cross-, which was the payment for our sins (Matt. 27:45-46; Mark 15:34). Our Lord was still alive when He said “It
is finished” (tetalestai, “it (the work of salvation) is finished in the past with results that go on forever”) (John
19:30).
His physical death was not the payment for our sins but rather His spiritual death when in His perfect humanity
He was separated from His Father in the last 3 hours on the Cross when He was receiving the imputation of the sins
of the whole world-past, present and future, and was being judged for them.
The humanity of Christ accomplished the following through His substitutionary spiritual death on the Cross: (1)
The Defeat of Satan (John 12:31; 16:8-11; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). (2) God the Father’s Salvation Plan for all mankind
(Rom. 5:18-19; 6:10a, 8:3; Heb. 2:14-18; 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 18-19; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; John 3:17;
1 Tim. 2:4-6; 2 Pet. 3:9). (3) Fulfillment of the Mosaic Law (Mt. 5:17-18; Rm. 10:4).
The humanity of Christ’s spiritual death provided mankind with redemption which that He purchased the entire
human race out from the slave market of sin in which every human being is born as a result of the imputation of
Adam’s sin (1 Tim. 2:6; Mark 10:45; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). The humanity of Christ’s
spiritual death propitiated or satisfied the perfect justice of God (Rom. 3:22-26; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). The
humanity of Christ’s spiritual death reconciled the entire human race to God (2 Cor. 5:18-21; Eph. 2:14-16; Col.
1:20-22; 1 Pet. 3:18). The humanity of Christ was judged by the justice of God for every personal sin committed by
the human race-past, present and future.
Salvation was completed while our Lord was still living (John 19:30). Our Lord in His perfect, sinless humanity
died twice on the cross so that we could be born twice (John 3:1-7). He died spiritually so that we could be born
again spiritually.

Somatic (Physical) Death of Christ

The Lord Jesus Christ did not die from suffocation or exhaustion. The Lord Jesus Christ died triumphantly, in
control of His senses and of His own volition. Matthew 27:50, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and
yielded up His spirit.” “Cried out” is kraxas, which is an aorist active participle from krazo, “to cry out aloud,
scream, shreik.” Kraxas is a constative aorist which takes the action of the verb in its entirety and takes us from its
beginning to its conclusion. Kraxas describes the actual sound of the Lord Jesus Christ’s dying. The Lord Jesus
Christ screamed or shouted with a loud voice. “Yielded up” is apheken which is an aorist active indicative from
aphiemi, “to dismiss, to release, to let go.” Apheken is a culminative aorist, which views an event from its existing
results, the Lord Jesus Christ’s physical death.
Mark 15:37, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.” “Uttered” is apheis, which is also a
constative aorist and describes the breath control of the Lord Jesus Christ at His physical death. The constative
describes the last breath of our Lord. The constative aorist describes states that the Lord Jesus Christ died of His own
volition.
John 10:18a, “No one has taken it (His life) away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” The
Lord Jesus Christ did not bleed to death, die of a broken heart, or die from exhaustion. If He had bleed to death, He
would have fainted. The Lord Jesus Christ was in total control of His faculties and was totally and completely alert
throughout all His suffering on the cross.
Luke 23:46, “And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.’
And having said this, He breathed His last.” “Crying” is phonesas is constative aorist active participle and is from
phoneo, “to speak clearly, to enunciate.” Phonesas emphasizes the content of The Lord Jesus Christ’s last words on
the cross. Ekpneo is used by both Mark and Luke to indicate that at the close of the Lord’s words, He did not breath
again. Matthew uses aphiemi to state that the sound of His words were discontinued at the point of His last exhale.
The Lord Jesus Christ of His own volition and in total control of His faculties dismissed His spirit by clearly
enunciated the words, “Father into Thy hands I commit (“deposit”) My Spirit,” and then did not breath again.
The perfect sinless humanity of Christ was born trichotomous: (1) Body (2) Soul (3) Spirit. Therefore, our
Lord’s somatic or physical death was unique because it was a trichotomous separation: (1) His physical body went to
the grave (Luke 23:50-53). (2) His human spirit went to heaven (Luke 23:46; John 19:30). (3) His human soul went
into Paradise a compartment of Hades (Luke 23:43; Acts 2:27; 2:31; Eph. 4:9).
The Lord was brought back from the dead by 3 Categories of divine omnipotence: (1) Omnipotence of God the
Father sent back our Lord’s human spirit to the body in the grave (Acts 2:24; Rom. 6:4; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1
Thess. 1:10; 1 Pet. 1:21). (2) Omnipotence of God the Holy Spirit sent back our Lord’s human soul to the body in
the grave (Rom. 1:4; 8:11; 1 Pet. 3:18). (3) Omnipotence of God the Son raised His physical body from the grave
(John 6:39-40, 54 10:17-18).

Imputation of Personal Sins To Christ

We are all reproductions of Adam after the Fall. We share his original sin nature by real imputation. We share
his sin nature because it is passed down to us genetically, and as a result of this, we share his spiritual death. Adam’s
sin becomes our sin. Adam’s sin nature becomes our sin nature. Adam’s condemnation becomes our condemnation.
The Lord Jesus Christ was born a type of Adam before the Fall (Rom. 5:14). Adam was created perfect. The Lord
Jesus Christ was born perfect. The Lord Jesus Christ did not have a sin nature. The Lord Jesus Christ did not have a
human father; therefore, he had no sin nature. Adam did not have a human father and neither did the Lord Jesus
Christ.
Adam’s original sin could not be imputed to the Lord Jesus Christ because He had no sin nature. There was no
target or home for a real imputation with the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ was not “in Adam” because He had no human
father and consequently, no sin nature. The Incarnation made this possible. The Virgin pregnancy was the reason
why the Lord Jesus Christ had no sin nature. Jesus Christ was born both physically and spiritually alive. He is called
the “uniquely born” Son (John 3:16). Christ was the only free Man ever to enter Satan’s world (John 834-36). Christ
was free from: (1) The devil’s rulership. (2) The sovereignty of the old sin nature. (30 The imputation of Adam’s sin.
(4) The condemnation of spiritual death. (5) There was no principle of sin in Him.
Jesus Christ had to be acceptable to the righteousness of God in order for the justice of God to judge our sins in
Him as our Substitute. He could not be our Substitute unless He was perfect and He is. He was perfect at birth and
He was perfect when He went to the Cross. This means the Lord Jesus Christ could not commit any personal sins
during His life on earth; otherwise, He would be disqualified to be our Substitute. Christ in His humanity could be
tempted and could have sinned. Christ in His deity could not be tempted and could not sin. The Lord Jesus Christ in
Hypostatic Union was temptable but impeccable. The Hypostatic Union is the union of 2 natures, deity and true
humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ was able not to sin in His humanity (posse non
peccare). The Lord Jesus Christ was not able to sin in His deity (non posse peccare). The Father’s plan for the
Incarnation was the Cross. The Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity could have used negative volition to that plan and
would have sinned.
Adam when he was without sin and perfect committed an act of negative volition when he ate from the tree of
the knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, like perfect Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ could have sinned by
committing an act of negative volition to the plan of God. The Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity was tempted not to
go the cross repeatedly by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11; 16:22-23; Luke 22:39-46; Heb. 4:15). First Adam and Last Adam
(Christ) Comparisons (1 Cor. 15:22, 45): (1) First Adam: Unique as perfectly created man. (2) Sinned (3) Physical
birth (4) We are condemned in Adam. (5) Condemnation, Justice of God: condemns man. Last Adam: (1) Unique as
the God-Man. (2) Impeccable (3) New Birth and spiritual life. (4) We are born again in Christ. (5) Salvation (6)
Justice of God: free to bless man. (Read Romans 5:14-21)
The imputation of personal sins to Jesus Christ is a judicial imputation. A judicial imputation emphasizes the
function of divine justice. A judicial imputation has no target or home but emphasizes the source, the justice of God.
Jesus Christ is God’s gift of grace to mankind. Our Lord was acceptable to the integrity of God because He was
impeccable. Adam’s original sin was not imputed to Him at birth because He had no sin nature. Our personal sins had
absolutely no place in Him on the Cross; thus, the justice of God imputed our sins to Him. This was a judicial
imputation. A judicial imputation is “attributing or crediting to a person something which does not belong to him.”
When the sins of mankind were charged to the impeccable humanity of Christ, the justice of God took action. God
judged the Lord Jesus Christ. Cursing must precede blessing. God’s judgment of our sins in Christ including Adam’s
first sin wiped our slate clean. God forsook Christ for our sakes. Now, all we need to do is accept God’s action on
our behalf. The Cross was an act of love (Rm. 5:6-8) and an act of justice (Rm. 3:22-26; 5:12-19). God’s love is His
perfect integrity and virtue. God’s love is characterized by righteousness and justice. Justice imputed our sins to
Christ, and justice judged them. Now, all we need to make a non-meritorious decision to believe in Jesus Christ.
Salvation is provided for us by 2 imputations, which are both judicial. One is for cursing and one is for blessing:
The 1st judicial imputation is for cursing: Our personal sins were imputed to the impeccable humanity of Christ and
were judged. The 2nd judicial imputation is for blessing: At the moment of personal faith in Christ, God imputes to
us His own divine righteousness. These 2 judicial imputations add up to form the greater salvation. The greater
salvation is a reference to the a fortiori principle used by Paul in Romans 5:15, which says, that if God could
accomplish the greater, i.e., our salvation, then He certainly can do the lesser and bless us in time. Therefore, the
imputation of our personal sins to Christ on the Cross results in the blessing of imputed divine righteousness when
we make a nonmeritorious decision to believe in Jesus Christ. Cursing always precedes blessing.

The Removal of the Barrier by the Cross of Christ

There is a barrier, which separates man from God. The Finished Work of Christ on the cross removes thisbarrier (Eph. 2:14-16). The barrier was removed by the substitutionary spiritual death of Christ on the cross. It was

not removed by His physical death. The Barrier consists of the following: (1) Mankind commits acts of sin (Isa.
64:6b; Rom. 3:23). (2) The penalty of sin is spiritual death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23a). (3) All are born spiritually dead at
physical birth (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1). (4) Man’s relative righteousness cannot compare to God’s perfect
righteousness (Isa. 64:6a; Rom. 9:30-33). (5) The character of God demands that our personal sins be judged (Isa.
46:9b; 64:6b; Rom. 8:8). (6) Man’s position in Adam as a result of the imputation of his sin (1 Cor. 15:22a).
The Work of Christ on the cross which removes the Barrier is as follows: (1) Redemption resolves man’s
problem with sin (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Eph. 1:7; Titus 2:14; 1 Tim. 2:6a). (2) The Unlimited Atonement also resolves
man’s sin problem (1 John 2:2). (3) Expiation resolves man’s problem with the penalty of sin, which is spiritual
death (Col. 2:14). (4) Regeneration resolves man’s problem with being born spiritually dead (John 3:1-18). (5)
Imputation resulting in justification resolves the problem of man’s relative righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21;
Rom. 4:1-5; Gal. 2:16). (6) Propitiation resolves man’s problem with the perfect character of God (Rom. 3:22-26; 1
John 2:2). (7) Our position in Christ resolves man’s position in Adam (1 Cor. 5:22b; 2 Cor. 5:17).