Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Crucifixion

The story of the Crucifixion of Jesus is probably one of the most powerful tales in the Bible. In fact, it could be said that the Crucifixion is the most important story in all of Christianity. It gave them a Hero, one who gave his life so they may have salvation in another life. That’s pretty much standard dogma right there.

Jesus was flogged by Roman soldiers, nailed to the cross, and upon his death was buried in a tomb. That’s the gist of it anyways, but something about this story doesn’t make sense. It’s not that it couldn’t have happened, quite the contrary. Almost all cultures crucified people in some way, and it definitely predates the Roman Empire. They did it in Japan up until the 17th century for Christ’s sake (Haha)! To really delve into this topic, we need to learn more about this form of capital punishment itself.

The victims of crucifixion usually fell into three categories: slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. It was a shameful and disgraceful way to die, and like many other forms of capital punishment (like burning at the stake) it was a way to send a message to a large number of people at once. Its goal was to mutilate and dishonor the body of the criminal, as well as to showcase the criminal’s low social status. Usually Roman nobles were exempt from crucifixion, for that very reason.

Most often, the criminals were beaten (flogged) before they were put up onto the cross. In fact, the process was so common that it’s no wonder Jesus was beaten on the way to his death. The fact that this is often brought up as a selling point for the concept of Jesus’ sacrifice is ludicrous, as it was done to all criminals. One of the most important things we have to remember here is that what happened to Jesus was not out of the ordinary.

The flogging was mostly just for shock value, being public, but it also had a physiological effect. It was used to bring the convict close to shock, so that he may die faster. After the person was beaten, he was forced to carry the crossbeam to the site of his crucifixion. Criminals were not made to carry the whole cross. Generally speaking, the tall beam was already in place, and only required that the crossbeam be added. The purpose of the carrying was to humiliate the beaten criminal.

Once the crossbeam was in place, the criminal was hung to the structure. Nails are often written about, but there is little archeological evidence to support this. This is due to the fact, I believe, to the symbolic importance of being nailed as opposed to being tied. Nevertheless, whether he was tied to the cross or nailed, the criminal was made to stay there until his death. He would always be nude, despite most depictions of victims having a loin cloth. A painful repercussion of this was that if the person had to use the restroom that was too bad, he had to do it in public.

Death usually came about by suffocation, depriving the body of the necessary oxygen that it needed. The lack of blood usually came from wounds that didn’t heal.

As soon as the person was dead, his body was left to hang for all to see. Vultures would eventually eat it, leaving very little behind. The Romans forbade burial, and so would leave the body up until it was gone. By the way, when I say forbade, I mean it.

So, that’s how crucifixion went down. Quite the process just to get rid of a lowly criminal, but it served its purpose. So, how does any of this involve Mr. Jesus?

The myths concerning his crucifixion do not line up perfectly with Roman practice. First off, it was very common for criminals to be beaten on the way. This is not something that the Romans did to Jesus because they really feared him; it was just how it went down. Secondly, there is little evidence to support the notion that people were nailed to crosses. It is most likely that Jesus would have been tied to the cross with rope and left to die. Lastly, the Romans did not bury crucifixion victims; they left them to rot on the beams. They would not, and I repeat, would not have allowed Jesus to have been buried in a tomb, or allowed anyone to take him to a tomb. The Romans would have treated him like any other criminal and left him there.

Some of the stories about the crucifixion from outside sources (other than the bible) come from the Jewish writer Titus Flavius Josephus (Yosef Ben Matiyahu in Hebrew). He mentioned nails, but once again there is very little evidence in the archaeological record to support this. Josephus is also used by apologists to prove the existence of the Christ, but I have not seen a secular scholar confirm the historicity of anything Josephus said. That fact ties in to my nail problem.

So you see, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion do not line up with what was common Roman practice in the Empire. This, to me, is just another one of the ways that the story behind Jesus himself is just that, a story.

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