The Horror of Crucifixion
We do not abhor crucifixion as the ancients did. For us, the cross is little more than a religious symbol, like a crescent moon or a menorah. The image is sanitized and mundane, it is no more affronting than a McDonalds sign or the Apple logo. Yet crucifixion was indeed a “scandal,” a word that conjured up terror, and deliberately so.
Crucifixion was the Roman way of saying, “If you mess with us, there is no limit on the violence we will inflict upon you.” If you had ever seen a crucifixion, and they were common in places like Judea, the experience would have been truly terrifying. It would leave you with irrepressible memories of naked half-dead men dying a protracted death for days on end, covered in blood and flies, their flesh gnawed at by rats, theirs members ripped at by wild dogs, their faces pecked at by crows, the victims continually mocked and jeered by the torturers who enjoyed their craft, perhaps even with relatives nearby weeping uncontrollably yet entirely helpless to do anything for them.
This is why Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and terrifying penalty” (Cicero, Verr. 2.5.165). The Jewish historian Josephus, who had the horrible misfortune of seeing several of his friends crucified, labeled crucifixion “the most pitiable of deaths” (Jewish War 7.202–3). Maurice Goguel said that crucifixion:
represented the acme of the torturer’s art: atrocious physical sufferings, length of torment, ignominy, the effect of the crowd gathering to witness the long agony of the crucified. Nothing could be more horrible than the sight of this living body, breathing, seeing, hearing, still able to feel, and yet reduced to the state of a corpse by forced immobility and absolute helplessness. We cannot ever say the crucified person writhed in agony, for it was impossible for him to move. Stripped of his clothing, unable even to brush way the flies that fell upon his wounded flesh already lacerated by the preliminary scouring, exposed to the insults and curses of the people who can always find some sickening pleasure in the sight of the tortures of others, a feeling which is increased and not diminished by the sight of pain—the cross represented miserable humanity reduced to the last degree of impotence, suffering, and degradation. The penalty of crucifixion combined all that the most ardent tormentor could desire: torture, the pillory, degradation, and certain death, distilled slowly drop by drop.
To put it bluntly, crucifixion was the attempt to manufacture a temporary hell for its intended victim. Death by crucifixion denied the humanity of its victim and even destroyed something of the humanity of those who had become capable of inflicting it on another human being.
Facing up to the sadistic horror of crucifixion might actually be an important task because, as Martin Hengel noted, “Reflection on the harsh reality of crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is to be found so often in present theology and preaching.” Balthasar was right: “If theology is to be Christian, then it can only be a theology which understands in dynamic fashion the unsurpassable scandal of the Cross.”
There's a great video over at the Smithsonian channel on Crucifixion Became a Very Popular Roman Spectator Sport.
The newly-discovered Lex Puteolana tablet helps us understand the ritual and economics of crucifixion in the Roman world. But it also reveals how it evolved into a spectator sport. In 2006, a construction team in Italy stumbled upon an isolated skeleton from a Roman-era burial. Experts believed it was the remains of a man who was crucified. If so, the skeleton would only be the second example found of crucifixion in Roman times. Could this be the key that unlocks one of the Bible's secrets regarding the death of Jesus? Join us as we use modern technology to examine this rare archaeological find, learn more about this barbaric form of execution, and gain new insights into the most famous crucifixion of them all.
I also recommend a recent Emperors of Rome podcast episode where Dr Gillian Shepherd talks about crucifixion in ancient perspective and you have to listen to John Dickson talk about crucifixion on the Undeceptions podcast.
Otherwise, on recommended reading:
Chapman, David. Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion.
Cook, John Granger. Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World.
Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross.
Samuelsson, Gunnar. Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion.
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 See N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (London: SPCK, 2016), chap. 2.
 Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus, 535–36, as cited by Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 232.
 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (London: SCM, 1977), 90.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, trans. A. Nichols (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 56.