Was Jesus crucified like we see in the movies?
This question was posed to Dr. James Fleming, one of the most knowledgeable teachers of Biblical Archaeology, on our show Christ in Prophecy. Dr. Fleming lived and taught in Israel for 37 years at Jerusalem University College and at the Hebrew University. His first claim to fame is that he discovered the ancient Eastern Gate buried beneath the current one. Dr. Fleming has walked or motorcycled about every square mile of Israel, and is so familiar with Israel past and present that Israeli tour guides come to him for training.
He now operates the Explorations in Antiquity Center in LaGrange, Georgia, an interactive museum where people here in the U.S. can experience the life and times of Jesus Christ in the First Century. It’s a fascinating place, and so in this series we’re going to tour the facility to glean new insights into the Bible by understanding the manners, customs and times of the Bible.
Purpose of Crucifixions
Dr. Reagan: What can you tell us about the crucifixion techniques of the First Century that will help us better understand the Bible?
Dr. Fleming: Before we get into this, I have to say that when something is really gruesome and horrific, well sometimes all you can do is speak matter-of-factly. Just describe it. That’s what the Gospels do when they report simply “and they crucified Him,” and then move on. So, certainly I realize we are talking about our Lord Jesus Christ, but let’s speak matter-of-factly like the Bible when I give you some background on the Crucifixion. We just have to be descriptive about it.
Okay, had Jesus been tried in the Jewish court system and found guilty, His death would have been by stoning. Jews were not allowed an instrument of torture or slow pain, but Jesus would be made to suffer. He was referred to by the Jewish religious authorities to the Roman court system and brought to Pontius Pilate so that His death would be the worst by crucifixion.
Pilate liked crucifying Jews. He liked humiliating them. Normally, the governors before him allowed the criminals to still be robed, but Pilate had them crucified in the nude as a more excruciating form of humiliation. Of course, religious art for modesty purposes put a loin cloth on crucifixion renderings.
The day of Jesus’ crucifixion saw two others up for crucifixion. Did you know, though, that the historian Josephus born about 30 AD said that in 6 AD there were 2,000 crucifixions in just one day in Jerusalem? The point I want to make related to that is that all the trees lining all the roads to and from Jerusalem became crucifixion places. So, to be biblically accurate, in my museum we have a steep roadway and along it several trees that have been turned into crucifixion places. Do you see how lining the streets with the suffering and dying would be a way of intimidating the people as they approach a town?
Dr. Reagan: That’s very interesting to me, because I didn’t know where the Romans in Israel got the wood for all these crucifixions. I knew there were a lot of crucifixions, but there’s not that much wood in Israel.
Dr. Fleming: Right, so the Romans just used trees. They tended to have the criminal bring the crossbar along themselves. The word for cross means “crossbar.” That’s why you’ll see on our models a transportable crossbar. The upright portion of the cross is a rooted tree.
Dr. Reagan: You are already destroying my images of Jesus walking through the Via Dolorosa dragging this huge cross. Jesus just had the crossbar then?
Dr. Fleming: Yes.
Jesus had been scourged by Pilate, and quite frankly, scourging is a form of torture. There is no word in the Hebrew for scourge.
Dr. Reagan: Some didn’t even live through that.
Dr. Fleming: True. I was interested to see a number of years ago when the New Testament was being translated into Hebrew what word would be used for scourge, because there is no such word. The translators simply stated, “Pilate tortured Jesus.” Scourging used a cat-of-nine-tails which is a multi-whip with one handle. That way you could strike 40 spare one, 39, but the guy could still have 200 marks on his back.
In any case, Pilate scourged Jesus. Having been scourged, I am sorry for the detail, but that meant Jesus didn’t have the use of His back muscles. Even though it is quote “only the crossbar,” Jesus is stumbling because He can’t really carry it. When the procession got to the upright tree that was going to be used, Jesus and the crossbeam would be fastened to it. Don’t necessarily picture a high cross with ladders leading up.
Jerusalem is a city and the trees around it are not forest trees. The trees available are being pruned such as olive trees, fig trees, and ones like that. Probably the soldiers could lift the crossbeam without a ladder to the upright.
Dr. Reagan: Yes, and the Romans would have wanted those crucified down close to the people so they could see them to get the ultimate impact.
Dr. Fleming: Sure, right. Part of the torture of crucifixion was the amount of time the criminal would last. It could be a long time, even days. To make it last, the Romans provided a saddle beam where the buttocks would rest on the saddle. With your feet having a nail or nails driven through them, you could then push down on your feet if you slid off and to get a few more breaths in as you rested on the saddle, that is until you slid off again. It was not merciful for you to last longer.
Archaeologists have found a case of a man who was crucified revealing an ankle bone with the spike through it. The skeleton was found in a tomb in 1968 while building an apartment compound. What is unusual about this is the ankle bone had a spike that hit a knot in the upright and it was bent. At my Center I have duplicated this find, so we have here on the crucifixion tree a spike there along with a piece of wood.
Dr. Reagan: So, even though the crucified man may be sort of sitting, he would have his legs pulled back?
Dr. Fleming: In that particular case, maybe the tree wasn’t tall enough to have the legs down straight. In the find’s case, the knees came out and then back and on either side of the tree so that the ankle bone had the spike coming in through the sides. Because the spike hit a knot, the loved ones couldn’t pull it out.
That’s how we knew that.
Dr. Reagan: This is the first I’ve ever heard a cross having a saddle beam. My impression was that the Romans wanted those suffering to hang there so the position would cause them to suffocate.
Dr. Fleming: Eventually they would slide off from exhaustion, which would make it hard to breathe.
In the fifteenth part of this series with archaeologist Dr. James Fleming at his Explorations in Antiquity Center, we’ll glean some biblical insights by looking at the archaeology behind some of the aspects of the Crucifixion.