Editor’s Note: I am currently blogging through my book Easter: Fact or Fiction, 20 Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead. That book is available on Amazon by clicking the picture or link below. Please check it out! (Scroll down for links to the other parts to this post) (CLICK HERE FOR THE AMAZON LINK)
“The shameful embarrassment of Jesus’ crucifixion and the horror of his death are now surmounted as light banishes darkness at the dawn of this new day, the first day of the new era of salvation” – Augustine
Can you name ONE person, other than Jesus, that was crucified? I suppose some might think of Peter, the apostle and disciple of Jesus. Per numerous early historical reports, including the apocryphal Acts of Peter (180 A.D.?), Peter was indeed crucified. He was possibly crucified upside down, but likely NOT because he didn’t consider himself worthy of being crucified like Jesus. According to church history, Other than him, I suspect that the vast majority of people don’t know anybody that was crucified other than Jesus. Because of that, many readers might be quite surprised to find out that Jesus was not the only person crucified in antiquity; the practice was surprisingly common. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records multiple incidences in which hundreds, even thousands of people were crucified on the same day, and not just by the Romans! At least six civilizations in antiquity were known to execute criminals by crucifixion, including the Jewish people themselves. In fact, Hasmonean Jewish king and high priest Alexander Jannaeus, the son of high priest/king John Hyrcanus, had hundreds of his own people butchered for opposing him during the Judean Civil War of the 90s B.C. Josephus describes the aftermath of that war here
“The Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had, (380) and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes”
Years later, almost 40 years after the death of Jesus, The Roman general Titus launched a severe siege against Jerusalem. During that campaign, all who attempted to leave Jerusalem were caught and crucified by the Roman army – sometimes as many as 500 PER DAY, according to Josephus, who was present at the destruction of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was common during ancient times, it was dreaded, and it was anything but a glorious way to do. The worst criminals and the most hated enemies were crucified
In the United States, we have a constitutional provision that bars utilizing “cruel and unusual” punishment on people. Being crucified on a cross is without question a form of cruel and unusual punishment. It is not the nails that kill, but ultimately, a form of suffocation. Crucifixion is designed to last a very long time – sometimes days – and involves the one being crucified slowly losing his ability to breathe as his arms and legs become too exhausted to push up and draw in air. You and I don’t think about breathing very much – it is a function of our autonomic nervous system, and thus happens without conscious thought. On the cross, however, one is aware of every breath, and each one is agony filled. One must push up on both arms and legs, extending out just enough to get in a breath, and then relax. It is agonizing to do so when tied to a cross; it is painful beyond enduring to do so when nailed to a cross.
The horrors of the cross have been largely sanitized in the church today. Even though most have seen a dozen or more dramatizations of Jesus dying, most have been toned down, and don’t really show all that Jesus likely suffered. Seneca the younger, a Roman statesman who lived during the time of Jesus, described crucifixion this way in his work Of Consolation: To Marcia.
“I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet. I see cords, scourges, and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint: but I see Death also.”
There would likely be a large and very upsetting amount of blood spilling from Jesus. The crown of thorns, with one inch or more protrusions, would make deep holes in an area that is absolutely filled with blood vessels. His back would be bleeding profusely from the lashing with the cat of nine tails. The nail wounds on Jesus’ wrists and feet would also be bleeding, as first century nails would not be quite as sharp and clean-edged as the nails we have now. And, as noted by Seneca above, it is conceivable that Jesus was stuck through with sticks. All of this blood would be highly upsetting to behold and also incredibly obvious and visible, because the majority of the time the Romans crucified their victims without any clothing whatsoever. Think of the embarrassment and agony of that situation: bleeding profusely, wracked with muscle cramps and pain beyond the ability of the toughest person to endure, having to push up on strained and shredded muscles to just simply get a single breath…and doing it all NAKED. How utterly astounding that the king of the universe would stoop so low.
And now consider, given the gut-shredding horrors of the crucifixion, how it came about that followers of Jesus glorified and worshipped Him as the son of God afterwards. If you deny the resurrection, what could you possibly propose in its place that would be strong enough to erase the memory of the crucifixion to the point that the early church worshipped Jesus?
Consider also Willie Francis. Whom, you might ask? One of the first things you will note about Willie Francis is that millions of people don’t worship him, and yet he shares a few things in common with Jesus. Willie was convicted of murder in Louisiana in 1945 for an act that he allegedly committed when he was 15. Despite the fact that he was underage; despite the fact that he was not tried by a jury of his peers (his jury was all white); despite the fact that most of the physical evidence against Willie disappeared; and despite the fact that the gun used to kill the victim actually belonged to a deputy sheriff that had threatened to kill the victim in the past – despite all of those things, Willie Francis was convicted and electrocuted in May of 1946. Only, he didn’t die. Francis was one of the few people that have ever survived a round with the electric chair, and he did so due to a drunk guard setting things up improperly. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it wasn’t cruel and unusual to re-execute a teenager, and Francis was re-executed in May of 1947.
Aside from the multiple and disgusting racial injustices of that situation, I need to point out to you that nobody worshipped Francis during that year after his first execution attempt failed. Nobody tried to start a religion around him, or anything like that. Similarly, no religion has started around John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, nor Joseph Samuel, despite the fact that both men survived multiple hanging attempts. Why not? Why not venerate, honor and worship people like Lee, Francis and Samuel? Because…that would be incredibly odd to worship a convicted criminal who somehow managed to escape death. Take away the resurrection, and it is unexplainably strange, to worship Jesus of Nazareth. Sure – he was a great teacher. Socrates was a great teach also, and he was also unjustly killed, but nobody is going to roll up to First Socrates Baptist church this Sunday and celebrate Easter, are they? I submit that it is very difficult to explain why so many Christians followed Jesus after His terribly bloody, painful, and embarrassing crucifixion if there was not a literal and actual resurrection that took place three days later.
If you’d like a demonstration of how odd it is that somebody would worship a man crucified on a cross, then try wearing a flashy gold electric chair necklace sometime, and when people ask you about it, tell them that you worship an executed criminal. The look on their face will tell you all you need to know about how first century Jews would have responded to claims about Jesus if He didn’t literally and truly rise from the dead.
From the Acts of Peter, Chapter 38, it is apparent that Peter asked to be crucified upside down because He wanted to demonstrate that fallen humanity had been restored to order by Jesus’ death on the cross. Here is Peter’s speech from that book (which is not Scripture): “And when they had hanged him up after the manner he desired, he began again to say: Ye men unto whom it belongeth to hear, hearken to that which I shall declare unto you at this especial time as I hang here. Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was. For the first man, whose race I bear in mine appearance (or, of the race of whom I bear the likeness), fell (was borne) head downwards, and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore: for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down -who also cast his first state down upon the earth- established this whole disposition of all things, being hanged up an image of the creation (Gk. vocation) wherein he made the things of the right hand into left hand and the left hand into right hand, and changed about all the marks of their nature, so that he thought those things that were not fair to be fair, and those that were in truth evil, to be good. Concerning which the Lord saith in a mystery: Unless ye make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above as those below, and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom.”
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Links to the other 20 posts in this series (20 Reasons To Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead)