The Ancient Practice of Crucifixion
July 1975

“The Ancient Practice of Crucifixion,” Ensign, July 1975, 32–33

The Ancient Practice of Crucifixion

Recently unearthed skeletal remains of Jehohanan, a person crucified in Jesus’ day, raise questions on what is really known about ancient crucifixion. The four gospels relate Jesus’ execution with marked terseness; ancient readers were familiar with the grim procedures of death on the cross. Thus modern readers must revisit ancient literature to picture what was taken for granted and not described by New Testament authors. Reviewing the four gospels in this context allows a more profound understanding of the Savior, particularly with the new physical evidence from archaeology.

The Lord had lived in Roman territory where crucifixion was all too familiar. This extreme punishment was Rome’s method of subjugation, as Josephus’ account of troubled Palestine repeatedly demonstrates. When rebellion arose in Jerusalem after the death of Herod the Great, the governor of Syria marched his legions through Galilee to Jerusalem and ordered 2,000 rebels to the cross. (Antiquities 17:295.)

At the later threat of the Jewish War in A.D. 66, the procurator Gessius Florus retaliated violently with indiscriminate slaughter in Jerusalem’s streets, the arrest of many citizens, and the order that they be “first scourged and then crucified.” (Jewish War 2:306.) The climax of that war was the savage siege of A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was isolated by the Roman general Titus, later the next emperor. Starvation forced hordes of the poorer classes to steal out of their fortifications for food. In typical Roman terror tactic, hundreds of these were made daily examples by being tortured and then crucified in plain view of the city walls. (Jewish War 5:449.)

The severity of this sentence was designed as a harsh lesson to robbers and rebels. Thus the Lord came to earth and endured the worst that men inflicted. Ancients spoke of crucifixion with horror. Cicero’s history reveals a common loathing of death on the cross. It was the “extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves” (servitutis extremum summumque supplicium, Against Verres 2.5.169), the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty.” (crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium, ibid. 2.5.165.) Josephus calls it “the most pitiable of deaths.” (Jewish War 7:203.) And before his death, Jesus compared difficult gospel sacrifices to “bearing a cross.” (See Matt. 16:24.)

Early references to crucifixion show the accuracy of the gospels in their physical details. As Luke’s preface claims, New Testament narratives of Christ’s life and death came either from eyewitnesses or those who investigated what such eyewitnesses said. After being sentenced by a capitulating Roman governor, Jesus was compelled to carry his “cross.” This practice, both verified and better defined in ancient sources, suggests that while the vertical post of the cross was probably at the execution site, the condemned was compelled to carry the horizontal beam. The Greek stauros, translated “cross,” also meant “stake,” and undoubtedly could be used to describe parts of the cross as well as the whole. A title, such as was placed over Jesus, also appears occasionally in ancient descriptions.

The gospels are explicit regarding the Lord’s being “fixed to the cross” (the literal meaning of “crucifixion”). In the resurrection, Jesus showed his hands, feet, and side, obviously singling out those parts of his body that had been wounded in his execution. Thomas, because of his skepticism, was privileged to see and feel “the print of the nails” in Jesus’ hands. (See John 20:25.) Numerous early references involve “nailing” the prisoner to the cross, including an experience of Josephus after his surrender to the Romans. Observing the crosses of captured fellow-countrymen, he was shocked to see three of his own friends hanging in agony. Emotionally overcome, he pleaded for them with the commanding general Titus, who ordered them taken down and given the best care possible. Nevertheless, two of the three died while being cared for by physicians, which vividly illustrates the physical trauma of the preliminary scourging of a victim, culminated by driving nails through his extremities. Merely roping a man to a cross would probably not produce this brutal result.

Were Jesus’ feet pierced? Luke records his invitation to examine “my hands and my feet,” with the evident indication that here were his wounds of identity. (See Luke 24:39.) But some minds find this less than evident: a Harvard Theological Review article argued in 1932 that it is “unlikely that nails were driven into the feet in Roman crucifixions.” But one can be skeptical of skeptics when reading early third-century Tertullian, who had probably witnessed crucifixion. After quoting Psalms 22:16, “they pierced my hands and my feet,” [Ps. 22:16] he simply states that this “is the special cruelty of the cross.” (Against Marcion 3:19.) The resurrected Lord made explicit in the Book of Mormon what is only implicit in the New Testament: “feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel.” (3 Ne. 11:14.) Modern revelation also speaks of “the prints of the nails in my hands and feet.” (D&C 6:37.)

The first archaeological example of crucifixion gives evidence of the practice of piercing the feet. Within several cave-tombs near Jerusalem, numerous ossuaries, stone boxes for redeposit of bones after decomposition of the body in a sepulchre, were found in the summer of 1968 and were reported in 1970 in the Israel Exploration Journal. V. Tzaferis, who analyzed the sepulchral pottery, dated these tombs at a century before or after the Christian era—probably between A.D. 1 and 70. Dr. N. Haas, professor of anatomy, commented in detail on the skeletal remains of Jehohanan, which bare certain marks of crucifixion. The most impressive evidence was a seven-inch spike piercing the remains of Jehohanan’s two heel bones, with a piece of olive wood at its point. To date most scholars have accepted Dr. Haas’ belief that the victim was transfixed to a cross at his heels. This evidence, contemporary with Jesus, suggests that feet were pierced in Palestinian crucifixions.

This recent find has two other major dimensions, the first bearing on the question of where the nails were placed in the hands. The New Testament speaks of marks in Jesus’ hands. Although hand is an inexact term in earlier Greek literature, it generally is as precise as the English hand in the New Testament period. Particularly in the New Testament itself, hand never refers to the lower arm or wrist in specific uses. Could there be additional nails? Dr. Haas observed that Jehohanan’s right radius (the upper arm bone as the arms outstretch) had both a surface cut and a distinct wearing, which he reasoned was the initial slice of the nail and the later wearing action from the victim’s writhing on the cross. This “scratch” on the bone was positioned between the two lower arm bones at a structurally more solid location to fix a nail. This evidence, coupled with a strict reading of the New Testament, indicates that both hand and wrist could have been pierced.

In reading these observations, one must not assume that the full weight of a victim’s body was held by the nails in the lower arms or hands. In the shadow of the New Testament, Justin Martyr speaks of a protrusion on the cross at its center, which carried the weight of the crucified. (Dialogue 91:2.) On this rough “seat,” the contemporary Irenaeus says, “the person rests who is fixed by the nails.” (Against Heresies 2.23.4.) In other words, the nails did not basically support the body: the makeshift saddle at the crotch did. Tertullian called this feature a “projecting seat.” (Ad Nationes 1:12.) Although this is not specific New Testament evidence, these early scholars knew the normal ancient practices, which were designed to prolong death in punitive torture.

A final aspect of the Jehohanan find fits the New Testament exactly. There the drama of three crucifixions ended with the Jewish request to finish that grim work before the sundown inaugurating the Sabbath. The squad of soldiers found Jesus already dead, but induced death in the two thieves by breaking their legs, a Roman punishment commonly associated with crucifixion. Jehohanan had also received such treatment, for his three remaining shin bones were broken diagonally in patterns identified by Dr. Haas as characteristic of living fractures.

Impressively, all the particulars surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament find vindication in known ancient practices. Archaeology now speaks on the subject, adding a clearer confirmation of the New Testament history. In summarizing such evidence, it is wise not to think that crucifixion was rigidly identical in each case, an impression that many articles on the subject erroneously give. Even from a human point of view, Jesus may have been more severely treated than others with him, since he died before these fellow-sufferers. But a review of ancient crucifixion is more than the study of history or archaeology—it is also a study in gratitude for anyone who catches even a physical glimpse of what the Lord has done for men.

  • Dr. Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of history and ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He lives in Pleasant View First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Early Christian crucifixion; adapted from a bas relief by French artist F. Ladatte.