CRUCIFIXION, mode of execution by fastening the condemned to two crossed beams. Being the form of death to which *Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate between 27 and 36 C.E., crucifixion subsequently acquired momentous historical, theological, and legal significance, providing subject matter for research and discussion until the present day. Its origins cannot be traced with precision; it is thought to have preceded hanging, of which there is early evidence (see *Capital Punishment). Hanging may have been introduced as a more humane and lenient mode of execution than crucifixion; at any rate hanging superseded crucifixion in most countries of Europe, after crucifixion had been abolished by the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century because of its Christian symbolism. In non-Christian, especially Far Eastern countries, it was practiced until early in the 19th century. Beheading was also practiced by the Romans (e.g., the beheading of John the Baptist), and it was apparently a more dignified procedure of execution because of the swiftness of the death experience as opposed to the prolonged suffering that crucified individuals endured. Stoning was the preferred method of execution practiced by Jews in the first century and earlier (Lev. 20:2, 27; 24:16; Num. 15:35; Deut. 21:21).
There are reports of crucifixions from Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Punic, and Roman sources. It has been said to have first been imported into ancient Israel by the Persians (cf. Ezra 6:11), but there is no report of a single instance of a crucifixion under the powers conferred on Ezra. If the hangings reported in the book of Esther (7:10, etc.) were crucifixions, they were carried out in Persia, where crucifixions seem to have been customary. Crucifixion was the standard Roman mode of execution for non-Roman criminals and enemies of the state, and hence was practiced on a large scale in Judea under the Roman occupation. The extent of such crucifixions is demonstrated by the legal rules which had to be elaborated to meet contingencies. As the exact time of death was not ascertainable, the fact that a man was seen hanging on a cross was not sufficient evidence of his death (Yev. 16:3). It might be otherwise when wild beasts or birds had already attacked him at vital parts of the body (Yev. 120b). The reason given for the rule that the crucified cannot be considered dead is that a rich matron may still come along and redeem him (TJ, Yev. 16:3,15c), an indication of the length of time often passing before death ensued, and of the amenability of Roman officers to bribes to save the lives of executed convicts. A man hanging on the cross may order a bill of divorce to be written for his wife. Even if his body has become weak, his mind is presumed to have remained sound (Tosef., Git. 7:1; Git. 70b). On such a bill of divorce being handed to the wife, she may remarry without evidence of death being required. As the blood from a dead body is impure, the question arose as to when the blood of the crucified becomes impure (Oho. 3:5). There is one benefit apparently derived from crucifixions; the nail of a cross is considered by some to have healing effects in cases of swellings or stings, and may therefore be carried around even on a Sabbath (Shab. 6:10; Shab. 67a; TJ, Shab. 6:9, 8c). Similarly, Romans used nails from crosses on which people had been crucified for healing epileptics (Pliny, Natural History, 28:36).
Josephus reports many incidents of crucifixion: Antiochus IV crucified Jews in Jerusalem who would not relinquish their faith (Ant., 12:256). Two thousand rebels were crucified by Quintilius Varus (Ant., 17:295). Tiberius Julius Alexander ordered two rebels, sons of *Judah the Galilean, to be crucified (Ant., 20:102). Seven years later (about 52 C.E.) there was another wholesale crucifixion of zealots at the hand of Quadratus (Wars, 2:241); Felix crucified not only zealots and rebels, but also citizens suspected of collaborating with them (Wars, 2:253). Florus had Jewish judges tortured and crucified before his eyes (Wars, 2:306–8). When Jerusalem was besieged, Titus ordered all Jewish prisoners of war to be crucified on the walls of the city and there were as many as 500 crucifixions a day (Wars, 5:449–51). Bassus erected a huge cross on the city wall for the execution of Eleazar, a young Jewish commander, whereupon the Jews surrendered to the Romans to spare Eleazar's life (Wars, 7:201–2). Josephus also reports crucifixions at the hands of the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus, adding that this act of cruelty was an imitation of gentile usage. While he and his concubines were carousing, he ordered 800 Pharisees to be crucified and their wives and children killed before their eyes (Ant., 13:380–1), an atrocity said to be alluded to in the Qumran commentary on the Book of Nahum (4QpNah
Archaeological evidence of crucifixion in Jerusalem emerged in 1968 during the excavation of a burial cave from the first century C.E. at Givat ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem. In one of the stone burial boxes (ossuaries) were the skeletal remains of a male named Jehohanan, whose right heel bone (calcaneum) had been pierced by an iron nail (length 11.5 cm). The anthropological study of these remains suggests that the arms of this individual were tied to the horizontal bars of the cross and that only his feet were nailed.
H. Fulda, Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung (1878); H. Hentig, Die Strafe, 1 (1954), 253ff.; E.G. Hirsch, Crucifixion from the Jewish Point of View (19213); M.B. Saint Edme (E.T. Bourg), Dictionnaire de la Pénalité, 1 (Paris, 1824), 310ff.; E. Stauffer, Jerusalem und Rom im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (1957), 123ff.; S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (19644); T. Mommsen, Roemisches Strafrecht (1899, repr. 1955), 918ff.; H. Cohn, Mishpato u-Moto shel Yeshu ha-Noẓeri (1968), 132–58; idem, Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus (1967), 39–49. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Hewitt, "The Use of Nails in the Crucifixion," in: HTR, 25 (1932), 2–45; V. Tzaferis, "Jewish Tombs at and near Giv'at ha-Mivtar," in: IEJ, 20 (1970), 18–32; M. Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (1977); J. Zias and E. Sekeles, "The Crucified Man from Giv'at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal," in: IEJ, 35 (1985), 22–27; W. Edwards et al., "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ." in: Journal of the American Medical Association, 255 (1986), 1455–64; F. Zugibe, "Two Questions About Crucifixion," in: Bible Review, 5 (1989), 35–43; J. Zias and J.H. Charlesworth, "Crucifixion: Archaeology, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls," in: J.H. Charlesworth (ed.), Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), 273–89.
[Haim Hermann Cohn /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.