Question 188:

The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus was not crucified but hung on a stake. Is there historic evidence for Jesus death by crucifixion?



The cross is a tool for execution, originally a stake (Greek staurós; cf. lat. crux) the Roman version of which generally had a crossbar; to crucify denotes the corresponding type of execution. Crucifixion was generally understood to be the most cruel and terrible way of dying (Cicero, In Verrem II, 5, 64, 165). Origin and age of this kind of death penalty are unknown. Some trails lead to the Medes and the Persians. In Palestine it was used from the 1st century before Christ, although in the Old Testament only those already executed may be impaled or hung on a stake. (Gen 40:19; Deut 21:22). According to Roman law robbery, murder, high treason, lèse majesté and insurgency are punishable by crucifixion. Because of a lack of clear instructions crucifixions could take several shapes. Most commonly the condemned person was flogged and then tied and or nailed to the crossbow (patibulum) which he himself had had to carry to the place of execution (patibulum), and then hoisted up a fixed stake, usually of low height (in t-shape: crux commissa or †-shape: crux immissa). To reduce his agony he was first given an intoxicating drink. To delay death a peg (sedile) for sitting on is fixed to the middle of the stake. The crucified suffocated to death in agony. His body was generally left on the cross for beasts of prey or until it decayed, but it could also be released.

Jesus crucifixion corresponded largely to this picture, but there are questions about the detail. Because of the flogging carried out right outside the praetorium (Mk 15:15 and parallels.; Jn 19:1) Jesus was too weak to carry his crossbar on his own up to Calvary (Mk 15.22 and parallels). According to Mk 15:23 he rejected the customary intoxicating drink. Naked (Mk 15:24 and parallels; Jn19:23f) he was probably nailed through hands and feet (Jn 20:25, Lk 24:39; Acts 2:23) to a T-shaped cross, which was barely taller than the crosses of the two co-sufferers either side of him (Mk 15:27 and parallels). A small plank which can no longer be located notes, presumably in Aramaic and Greek, name and type of guilt (Mk 15:26 and parallels; Jn 19:19). Witnesses of this cruel event were women from Galilee (Mk 15:40 and parallels; Jn 19:25ff.). The removal of Jesus body from the cross before the dawn of the Sabbath by Joseph of Aramathea had the permission of Pilate (Mk 15:43; Jn 19:38). [An almost literal transcript of the essay‚ “Kreuzigung” (crucifixion), by Willibald Bösen, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd.6 (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1997). See there also for further references].

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