Chuck Hamilton: The Crucifixion Of Jesus

Thursday, April 17, 2014
No, I had not read Reza Aslan's excellent Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth before I wrote this, but I highly recommend it.  I checked it our myself from the Public Library this Maundy Thursday.

No Bible story is more fetishized by the Church, and by most Christians within it, than the crucifixion of Jesus bar Joses (as he would have been called in the anglicized form of the Hellenized version of the Aramaic names converted into the Greek in which all the gospels were written) and the events leading up to it.
 

For the medieval Church in the West (still followed in some corners) and for American fundamentalist Christians today, its importance surpasses even that which is supposed to be the main event, his subsequent resurrection.  In both these cases, authorities and believers alike ignore what the man actually had to say.  But if the death of Jesus were the main point of the story, all the gospels would begin with the triumphal entrance.  Like the song by the punk group The The says, “They’ve forgotten the message and worship the creeds.”

The fetishists act and talk almost as if Jesus were the only person crucified ever, except for the two poor saps there next to him as window-dressing, a first century version of “red shirts” in Star Trek: The Original Series.  Crucifixion, if fact, was millennia old by the first century, practiced in the Levant not only by the Romans but by the Persians and Seleucids who preceded them as the imperial power in the region.

The unlamented Hasmonean dynasty, more corrupt and tyrannical than the Herodians were at their worst and as detrimental to their own people as the Stewarts were to Scotland, avidly practiced crucifixion from the time they came to power, at first as high priests, then as kings who were also high priests.  The most atrocious event took place in 87 BCE at the end of the Second Judean Civil War, when Alexander Jannaeus, king and high priest, crucified some 800 rebel prisoners and slit the throats of their wives and children in front of them.

Several hundred miles west, in 71 BCE, the Roman general Crassus crucified the 6000 captured rebel slaves of the Third Servile War, led by Spartacus, along the Appian Way.

After the death of Herod the Great, Judea rose in a revolt against Archelaus and his Roman allies which quickly fell apart.  The Romans crucified over 2000 rebels in the aftermath.

The height of the Great Jewish War of 66-73 CE was the Siege of Jerusalem, lasting from February through August.  Throughout the siege, rebels and other persons caught trying to escape the city were crucified within view of the walls.  The Jewish historian Josephus, who was contemporary to the events and present at many of them, reports that at the peak there were 500 victims a day on average.

No, crucifixion was most definitely not unique, not even in Palestine.  In nearly all cases, however, its use was confined to political rebels.  The two “bandits” reportedly crucified on either side of Jesus were called in the Greek “lestai”, a word which can be translated as “bandit” but almost always meant the equivalent of today’s “terrorist”.

Christians almost universally equate the Christ (from the Greek word “Christos”) or Messiah (from the Hebrew word “Moshiach”) with the kingly Messiah ben David.  According to the books of Samuel and Kings, Moshiach was a title held by every King of the Jews from the time of Saul; it means simply “Anointed”.  Priests and prophets were also messiahs.

Old Persian had a word similar to “Christos”, by the way, that is transliterated “Chrestus”, which meant “the Good”.

However, Christians use the term specifically for the eschatological figure.  Which would be fine, except there were (and are) two figures out of four in 1st century Jewish eschatology referred to as Messiah: the Messiah ben David and the Messiah ben Joseph.  They were also respectively called Messiah ben Judah and Messiah ben Ephraim.  The other two were the Righteous Priest and Elijah.  The Righteous Priest also had/has an aka, Messiah ben Levi, though he was/is rarely referred to as such.  Elijah was and still is just Elijah.

The Messiah ben Joseph is supposed to precede the Messiah ben David, bringing truth, teaching righteousness, healing, calling people to redemption, and sacrificing himself in death.  He is referred to as Lamb of God and identified with the Suffering Servant.  The Messiah ben David follows in his wake, defeating the last ruler of the fourth empire in battle and bringing him to Mount Zion for judgment.  After enumerating the ruler’s sins and those of his empire, the Messiah ben David then slays this last ruler with his own hand.

In other words, if Jesus were brought before the procurator of Judea (which included Samaria and Idumea), Pontius Pilatus in this case, under the charge of claiming he was the Messiah ben David, he was not being charged with simply being a prophet bringing a message of repentance and salvation but of planning a revolution to overthrow the Roman Empire and kill its ruler, Tiberius Julius Caesar.  Upon conviction, the penalty for that, indeed a penalty almost exclusively reserved for rebels, was crucifixion.

If Jesus were claiming to be the Messiah ben David, then he was guilty and was given the penalty afforded under Roman law.  The sign above him on the cross (King of the Jews) indicates that this is indeed what he was convicted of claiming.  Repeated denials recorded in the gospels lead me to think he probably was not, but if claiming anything, then it was to be the Messiah ben Joseph.  The Romans or their priestly allies may not have thought one much different from the other.

As for his first confrontation, that with the Jewish leadership, many commentators opine that this took place before the Great Sanhedrin of 71 elders.  If this were the case, the presider would not have been the current High Priest, Joseph Caiaphas, but Gamaliel I, who was the current Nasi, the official at the head of the Great Sanhedrin, at the time.  

There were two major power centers among the Jews in Judea in the first century, the Temple and the Great Sanhedrin.  Of the two, the former eclipsed the latter, at least with Rome.  The independence of the Great Sanhedrin was handicapped by the fact that it met on the Temple Mount.  As one might expect, the Temple was the major base of the Sadducees and the Great Sanhedrin the major base of the Pharisees, though there were some of both in each, as well as in the Lesser Sanhedrins of 23 in major cities throughout Judea and Galilee, and in synagogues throughout Palestine and in the Diaspora.

The Samaritans, both in Palestine and in their own Diaspora, had synagogues as well.  The third major Jewish sect in Palestine, the Essenes, were based at Qumran and had communities in every major city in Palestine and many throughout Egypt and West Asia.

Once upon a time, the offices of high priest and nasi were one, with the high priest presiding over both the Temple and the Great Sanhedrin, but the two offices were divorced around 191 BCE, during the Oniad dynasty.  Were it a formal court, Ananus ben Seth would not have been allowed anywhere near it; the first high priest under direct Roman rule from 6 CE, Ananus imposed the death penalty so often that even the Romans were appalled and deposed him, forbidding him to have any further hand in Jewish jurisprudence.

Several features of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus portrayed in the gospels as unique and given a special meaning were actually common to all capital cases.

When Pilatus washed his hands after passing sentence, this was not a declaration that the Jews had overcome his wishes and was about to crucify Jesus against his will.  Instead, he was merely repeating what all Roman officials did after condemning someone to death.  The hand-washing signified his personal absolution of the impending death because he was only following the law.

The flogging was standard before a crucifixion, both to further humiliate and to hasten death, in the latter case a form of mercy.  As for the wild fantasies of some Christian mythologists, there was no need to entwine metal balls and fragments of bone in the leather for the whip to rip skin.  In fact, if the condemned had been flogged with such a device, he would have been dead long before he was crucified.

Anyone who doubts that has never seen a leather bullwhip strip a coffee table of its surface in the living room of a frat house in the midst of a drunken stupor.  Or viewed photographs of the backs of former slaves in the antebellum American South.

Carrying the cross to the site of one’s crucifixion was also standard.  Only instead of the whole cross, crossbeam and upright, usually just the crossbeam was involved, particularly if the site was one especially marked out for that purpose, as the names Gulgalta (Golgotha) and Calvariae Locus (Calvary) would indicate.

Rather than being tall, often depicted as at least twice the height of the average human, the uprights were not much higher than the average person, leaving the condemned person at roughly eye-level.

Condemned prisoners were stripped completely naked, no loin cloths for the sake of modesty as is usually portrayed in art.

Death occurred for a variety of reasons, including cardiac rupture or failure, hypovolemic shock, acidosis, arrhythmia, pulmonary embolism, sepsis, dehydration, and animals, the last two depending on how long the torment lasted.  Several of these could cause death within a few hours, contrary to some opinions stating that our subject died too quickly.  

Asphyxiation, claimed by some to be a result of crucifixion, was in fact not.  The reason for leg-breaking, in addition to the extra pain, was that it caused fat embolisms and killed quicker.

The rush to get Jesus and the two red shirts down from their crosses before sundown had nothing to do with an approaching Pesach (Passover).  According to Josephus, such was the standard practice for executions in Palestine, even by the Romans, due to the strict religious prohibition in the Torah against leaving the body of a condemned person up after sundown.

Speaking of Passover, the placement of the events of the Passion at this time of year clearly came about because the writers wanted to identify the Lamb of God with the Passover Lamb, not necessarily because it happened then.  The crowds carrying palm branches and crying “Hosanna” argue against it having been Pesach, since those are signal features of the feast of Sukkoth (Booths or Tabernacles; aka Feast of Ingathering) that takes place in the fall.

Crucifixion as a regular form of execution probably originated in Iran.  The Islamic Republic there revived it as a possible form of execution shortly after coming to power, but, unlike its use of stoning, there is no record of crucifixion ever having been used, not even rumors.  The statute stipulates that if the condemned survives three days, they go free and clear.

In the second half of the 20th century, the residents of barangay San Pedro Cutud in the city of San Fernando in Pampanga, Philippines have carried out a number of crucifixions every Good Friday for several decades.  They do actually hammer nails through the volunteers hands and feet, but they carefully sterilize the implements and have medical personnel standing by.  The crucified remain up for about 15 minutes.

The year I went, Good Friday 1991, I got to help lift one of the crosses and place it into the ground, with the guy nailed to it.  I had been standing at the foot of the cross taking pictures of him being nailed so I thought it only polite.

Some of the crucified have performed this act several years.  In all other cases I know about this being done elsewhere, all participants are Kapampangans originally from San Pedro Cutud.

To see a real crucifixion to the death, travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the penalty is not only in the statutes but actually used, even as late as the 2000’s.  Since 2013, however, the crucifixion had taken place only after beheading, so you may be too late.  You may have to travel to Sudan instead.



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