Questions for Bible study groups
- What happened at a crucifixion?
- Where was Calvary (Golgotha)?
- What crimes was Jesus accused of?
Crucifixion: the punishment
Crucifixion was a shameful punishment inflicted on slaves, criminals and rebels. No Roman citizen could be crucified without the personal authorization of the emperor himself. The suffering in this form of execution is still reflected in the English word ‘excruciating’.
For a Jew, crucifixion had an extra, terrifying dimension: according to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 a man who was crucified was cursed by God: ‘And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death and you hang him on a tree his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God…’
The crucified man was tortured and demeaned in every possible way. Throughout the Roman world, men were crucified naked – though this may not have been the case when Jesus died. Jewish laws stipulated that if a man was stoned to death he must be allowed to wear a loincloth. Did the Romans respect Jewish law when Jesus was crucified, and allow him to wear a loincloth? There is no way of knowing.
Calvary (Latin) Golgotha (Greek)
The exact location of Calvary is unknown, but Jewish and Roman practice was to perform executions outside but near the walls of a city or town. The site of Jesus’ death must have overlooked a main road outside Jerusalem, since the gruesome spectacle was meant to act as a deterrent to as many people as possible.
The site of execution was called the ‘place of the skull’, but not because there were skulls or bones lying on the ground there, as is sometimes shown in paintings. The Jewish people were scrupulous in their treatment of human remains, and would not have allowed such a thing.
The Aramaic name suggests a rounded bare hill, like the rounded top of a skull. The hill could not have been a high one, since passers-by who mocked Jesus must have been close enough to read the inscription placed above his head.
What the cross looked like
There was some variety in the shape of crosses, but the one used for Jesus was probably similar to the traditional cross shown in Christian paintings.
The main upright beam was permanently fixed in the ground; it had a detachable cross-beam which the condemned man was forced to carry to the place of execution.
The cross-beam was fixed so that the victim’s feet were off the ground. There might be a small wooden projection which he could straddle, though in Jesus’ case this does not seem to have been the case: the projection was meant to prolong a man’s life and suffering, but Jesus died quickly.
Both the cross-bar and the upright were re-used many times, and they and the whole area would have been covered with blood and body-fluids, a magnet for flies and vermin.
Jesus, as he died, was tormented not only by his wounds but by swarms of biting flies.