Martin Hengel was right. Crucifixion was a ghastly punishment in which the sadism of the executioner was given full rein. Indeed, it is the most wretched and dishonourable death imaginable. Yet, to grapple with the weight of this horror, it may be helpful to follow the lines of it development and practice. From historical records, crucifixion originally began with the Persians as a form of penalty for captured enemies and heinous criminals. In those days, the condemned were either impaled or attached to a stake. This gruesome practice became widespread in Asia and North Africa particularly Carthage and Egypt when Alexander the great conquered the Persian Empire and began the spread of the Greek civilization. However, when this infamous stake was adopted as a capital punishment in the Roman Empire, viciousness lost its remoteness.
With malicious ingenuity, the Romans brought in all the art and craft and perfected the act of crucifixion. From the Gospels’ accounts, we get a graphic hint to the bloody rite of the roman crucifixion. Normally, it was preceded by a ruthless flogging which was the legal preliminary. Actually, the condemned was stripped and tied to an upright pole where the flogging would be carried out by two soldiers. Now, the instrument for the torture was a short strips of leather whip (called flagrum) enmeshed with long thick thongs. A short space from these thongs, there were balls of metal and small bones of sheep attached. On impact, the thick thongs would tear the flesh of the victim while the balls of metal and small bones would dig wounds into the torn flesh. After this bloody torture accompanied by mockery and taunts, the condemned was forced to carry a crossbeam to the site of execution. Now, the beam weighed 57kg while the entire cross (i.e the beam and the upright pole) weighed over 157kg. At the site of execution, the victim was stripped and thrown to the ground on his back with arms outstretched along the crossbeam.
Then, 7 inches nails were driven through the wrists. After nailing to the beam, the soldiers dragged the crossbeam with the whole dangling body and hoisted it to top of the upright pole. Then they pushed the torso of the condemned upward and supported it with a simple board nailed to the cross. At this point, the legs were nailed to the feet of the cross. In this extreme position, the condemned could only breathe in but could not breathe out. To exhale, the condemned would have to push himself up using his already nailed legs. After long, the victim died of suffocation and acute exhaustion. Nevertheless, to ensure the victim was factually dead, the soldiers would break the legs and pierced the side of the condemned. These wrenching details testify to the gruesome execution of Jesus of Nazareth. And from his unjust arrest, the condemnation by the kangaroo Court headed by the Sanhedrin, to his cruel execution by Pilate, we see the face of inhumanity and injustice in the world.
In fact, the crucifixion of Christ mirrors the depravity of man. However, what seems pressing at this moment is a disturbing question: why was the innocent Jesus killed? The answer to this question remains an open ended affair. Some claimed he was killed because he was a leader of a band of dissidents. If this were true, his disciples would also have been arrested and killed. Others argued that Jesus was crucified because he proclaimed himself a Messiah. Even so, this was nowhere considered a blasphemy in the Jewish tradition because they had always longed for a Messiah. And moreover, Jesus was actually reticent about proclaiming himself a Messiah. Despite the uncertainty, it is doubtless that the Romans, prompted by the Jewish leaders, killed Jesus.
And the reason(s) for this may be connected to what he stood for. He proclaimed a new kingdom on earth, selected twelve disciples (symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel) and he proclaimed himself the Lord of the Sabbath. To crown it all, he upturned the activities at temple during the Passover. Thus, in fear and fury, the Jewish and the Roman authorities who wanted to maintain the control of the temple and order in the region saw the need to eliminate this charismatic preacher from the backwaters of Galilee. Yet, the story did not end there; the brutal death did not have the last word. What still keeps the world wondering is this : what really happened to those frail and timid disciples who ran away on the night of his arrest but later came back bold and ready to die for his name ? They witnessed something no eye has seen: the resurrection.