The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
Details and History of Crucifixion

"The Ancient Method of Execution"

Crucifixion is an ancient method of execution, in which the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden cross (Latin: crux) and left to hang there until dead. 

Details of Crucifixion

Crucifixion was never performed for ritual or symbolic reasons; usually, its purpose was only to provide a particularly painful, gruesome, and public death, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal. In fact, crucifixion is only an arbitrary subset of a much wider continuous spectrum of slow and painful execution methods, which include varied forms of impalement, hanging from hooks, burning at the stake, exposure to wild beasts, etc. 

Therefore, the details of crucifixion must have varied considerably with location and epoch, and even from case to case; and very little can be said about the practice in general. 

Cross Shape

The horizontal beam of the cross, or transom, could be fixed at the very top of the vertical piece, the upright, to form a T called a tau cross or Saint Anthony's cross. The horizontal beam could also be affixed at some distance below the top, often in a mortise, to form a t-shape called a Latin cross, most often depicted in Christian imagery. Alternatively, the cross could consist of two diagonal beams to form an X also known as the Saint Andrew's cross. A single, vertical wooden stake with no transom at all has also been cited; this is how Jehovah's Witnesses typically describe the device on which Jesus was crucified. 

Location of the Nails

For the sake of expediency, the victim was probably affixed to the cross by ropes, nails, or some combination of the two. In popular depictions of crucifixion, possibly derived from a literal reading of the description in the Gospel of John, of Jesus' wounds being "in the hands", the victim is shown supported only by nails driven straight through the feet and the palms of the hands. However, the flesh of the hands cannot support a person's body weight, so some other means must have been used to support most of the weight, such as tying the wrists to the cross beam. 

Another possibility, that does not require tying, is that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm (the radius and the ulna). The nails could also be driven through the wrist, in a space between four carpal bones which is the location shown in the Shroud of Turin. As some historians have suggested, the Gospel words that are translated as "hands" may have in fact included everything below the mid-forearm. Another possibility, suggested by Frederick Zugibe, is that the nails may have been driven in on an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel. 

Cause of Death

Death could come in hours or days, depending on exact methods, the health of those crucified, and environmental circumstances. 

A theory attributed to Pierre Barbet holds that the typical cause of death was asphyxiation. He conjectured that when the whole body weight was supported by the stretched arms, the victim would have severe difficulty exhaling, due to hyper-expansion of the lungs. The victim would therefore have to draw himself up by his arms, or have his feet supported by tying or by a wood block. Indeed, Roman executioners were said to break the victim's legs, after he had hung for some time, in order to hasten his death. Once deprived of support and unable to lift himself, the victim would die within a few minutes. 

However, experiments by Frederick Zugibe indicated that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly increasing discomfort and pain. 

In any case, if death did not come from asphyxiation, it could result from a number of other causes, including physical shock, dehydration, and exhaustion. 

History of Crucifixion

Persia and Alexander 
Crucifixion probably originated with ancient Persians. There is evidence, that captured pirates were crucified in the port of Athens in the 7th century BC. Alexander the Great introduced the practice throughout his empire. He once crucified a general who disagreed with his campaign plans. 

Roman Empire 
Romans adopted the custom from Carthage and used it for slaves, rebels, and especially despised enemies and criminals. Condemned Roman citizens were usually exempt from crucifixion except for high crimes against the state, such as treason. The Romans used it during the Spartacus rebellion, during the Roman Civil War, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Crucifixion was considered an ignominious way to die. 

A common prelude was scourging, which would cause the victim to lose a large amount of blood, and approach a state of shock. The prisoner then usually had to carry the horizontal beam (patibulum in Latin) to the place of execution, not necessarily the whole cross. Crucifixion was typically carried out by specialized teams, consisting of a commanding centurion and four soldiers. When it was done in an established place of execution, the vertical beam (stipes) was sometimes permanently embedded in the ground. The victim was usually stripped naked. The "nails" were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across. 

The Romans often broke the prisoner's legs to hasten death. Burial afterwards was not usually permitted. In some cases, the nails were gathered afterwards and used as healing amulets. 

Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire, when Christianity became the state religion. 

Islamic world 
Some medieval Muslim rulers used crucifixion sporadically. 

Medieval Japan 
Crucifixion was used in Japan before and during the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was called Haritsuke in Japanese. The victim—usually a sentenced criminal—was hoisted upon a T-shaped cross. Then, executioners killed him with spears. The body was left to hang for a time before burial. 

There are some reports that, after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, some natives performed human sacrifice by crucifixion due to their superficial understanding of Christianity. 

Modern crucifixions 
Crucifixion, while rare in recent times, was used at Dachau during the Holocaust and in a number of wars, such as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and during the Sino-Japanese war, where it was used among the many methods of torture and execution used by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians--largely in emulation of medieval Japanese military practices. 

During World War I, there were persistent rumors that German soldiers had crucified an Allied (Canadian) soldier on a tree or barn door with bayonets or combat knives. The event was initially reported in 1915 by private George Barrie of the Canadian First Division, as follows: 

"On 24 April at St Julien I saw a small party of Germans about 50 yards away. I lay still and in about half an hour they left. I saw what appeared to be a man in British uniform. I was horrified to see that the man was literally crucified, being fastened to the post by eight bayonets. He was suspended about 18" from the ground, the bayonets being driven through his legs, shoulders, throat and testicles. At his feet lay an English rifle, broken and covered with blood." 
The event supposedly happened to, according to a Red Cross Nurse and multiple testimonies from men of the same unit, a Harry Banks of Canadian 48th Highland Regiment. This story was widely used in the black propaganda of the time, together with a similar rumor that Germans had bayoneted Belgian babies. Such rumours made for highly graphic and disturbing pictures and were ideal for helping to demonize the enemy.

After the war, investigators tried to determine the veracity of the story of the crucified soldier, but it was inconclusive. 

There are persistent stories that crucifixions continue to occur in certain parts of Africa, particularly in Sudan. 

Crucifixion as a Devotional Practice

 Some very devout Catholics are voluntarily, non-lethally crucified for a limited time on Good Friday, to imitate the suffering of Jesus Christ. A notable example is the ceremonial re-enactment that has been performed yearly in the town of Iztapalapa, on the outskirts of Mexico City, since 1833.

Devotional crucifixions are also common in the Philippines. In San Pedro Cutad, devotee Ruben Enaje has been crucified 18 times, as of 2004, during Passion Week celebrations.

Famous Crucifixions

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Details and History of Crucifixion