Crucifixion by Romans

Crucifixion was designed as the ultimate in slow, painful and humiliating deaths.

Crucified naked

Naked like this, but with a lot of blood

Aspects of the punishment included that prisoners were often required to carry their  crossbeam to the place of execution for it to be attached to its stake or tree; that they were crucified completely naked (more humiliating for a Jew than a Celt, and for a woman than a man – though female crucifixions were rare); that, naked, they would undoubtedly empty their bladder and bowels over themselves in front of the crowd who came to watch.

The prisoner was tied or nailed by the wrists to the crossbeam. The feet were often nailed to the upright, one one each side, at the ankle. Frequently the prisoner had a block of wood attached to the stake or tree for them to sit on, with a spike sticking up from it to magnify their pain.

The execution could last for hours or days, depending on the weather, the prisoner’s condition (such as loss of blood from having the skin scourged off his back) and whether the legionaries guarding the crucifixion were in a hurry to go back to camp. Some ways for the soldiers to hasten death were to break the prisoner’s legs with an iron bar, to run a spear up through the stomach and chest, or even to light a smoky fire below him to asphyxiate him.

Once dead, the body was normally left in place as a warning to others, while it was eaten by crows and buzzards.

The punishment was in use by Greeks, Persians and others before the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans originally used it only for slaves, but then extended it to pirates and enemies of the state. The punishment was forbidden under Jewish religious law, which only allowed execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or decapitating the victim.

So Jesus was not crucified at the wish of Jewish authorities, or of the Jewish people. He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state, which he had declared himself to be by claiming the kingship of Israel while entering Jerusalem. The Romans tacked a sign above his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, to show what they thought of his ambitions.

Jesus was crucified between “two thieves”, but you didn’t get crucified for mere theft. However “thief” and “robber” were synonymous with “Zealot”, “sicariot” (or knifeman) and “insurgent” to the forces of the Roman Occupation. It is reasonable to assume that the “thieves” were leaders in the armed wing of the Zealot resistance – but not as prominent as Jesus, and not part of his cadre of preachers.

Jesus was stripped naked, and the legionaries diced for his clothing. He was scourged: flogged 40 times with a short cat-o’-nine-tails , each tail ending in a lead ball to lacerate and strip the skin off. He was made to carry his crossbeam to the Place of Skulls outside the city, but he collapsed on the way. After perhaps nine hours of crucifixion he called out “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” Then he called out again, and died. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with – or bribed – the Romans to be allowed to take Jesus down for burial, but first the Romans ran a spear up through the corpse to make sure it was dead – this was common practice, and only a dribble of blood and a watery fluid (presumably from the pericardium around the heart) came out.

And that was it. The end of just one of a 200-year series of attempts to oust the Romans from Israel. But preachers and knifemen didn’t have much chance against the Roman Empire.

Why a Menorah?

The cover illustration for “The Gospel According to the Romans” comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome. (Actually, it comes from a Tel Aviv museum’s reconstruction of that part of the Arch.)

The Arch of Titus commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the looting of its treasures in 70 CE, during the Great Revolt that ended with Masada. This was 35-40 years after the death of Jesus, but part of the pattern of a major uprising against the Roman Occupation once a generation or so, and the Legions crushing it.

Treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem being looted by the Legio X Fretensis under Titus

The Roman attitude towards Palestine was that it was a strategically important province: not just at the crossroads of Mesopotamia and Egypt, not just part of the trade routes with India, but essential to prevent piracy and lawlessness in the eastern Mediterranean. So the Romans were there to stay. If the Jews were going to be quiet, the Empire would farm them for taxes while providing commerce and growth and infrastructure. If the Jews were going to be troublesome, the Legions would loot and pillage while suppressing uprisings. Standard Roman practice.

“The Gospel According to the Romans” puts Jesus into this context of Roman occupation and constant Jewish resistance. You’d be surprised how different that makes the Gospels look!

Rome Thrived on Profits from War

It is important when reading about the life of Jesus to remember that he lived under the rule of an occupying force whose motives for the occupation were profit from pillage, and profit from exploitation, and profit from trade. There was no respect for (or understanding of) the Jewish religion.

In Taken at the Flood by Robin Waterfield, Republican Rome (i.e. the culture of the 500 years immediately prior to the time of Jesus) is clearly shown as a warrior society. Warfare was one of the principle sources of income for both the country and the generals and soldiers that fought those wars:

“Republican Rome was a warrior society, then, from the aristocracy downwards (except that the very poorest citizens were not allowed, yet, to serve in the army). Every year between 10 and 15 percent of the adult male population was under arms, and in times of crisis more: an incredible 29 percent at the height of the Hannibalic War in 213. And everyone benefited, not just from the booty and spoils, but from the intangible benefits of security and the city’s increasingly formidable reputation. Over time Rome became adorned with visible reminders of military victories: temples built in fulfillment of a vow taken in wartime; elaborate statues of conquerors, inscribed with blunt reminders of their victories. ‘I killed or captured 80,000 Sardinians,’ boasted one general on a prominently displayed inscription, and this was not untypical. Most monumental inscriptions dating from the middle Republic — and by the end of the second century the city was crowded with them — focused largely or wholly on military achievements. The qualities the Romans most admired in a man were best developed and displayed in warfare.
Altar Domitius Ahenobarbus — detail showing the equipment of a soldier in the manipular Roman legion (left). Note mail armour, oval shield and helmet with plume (probably horsehair). 

“In short, a state of war was not only considered ‘business as usual’ in Rome by the entire population, but was not considered undesirable, especially by Rome’s aristocratic leaders. It is far harder to recover the motives of the ordinary soldier, but several of Plautus’s plays (third/second centuries) suggest that the attraction of warfare for them too was profit. It was bound, then, to be relatively easy for the Romans to go to war; and it was equally easy to present the wars as justified self-defense or protection of weaker neighbors. Slight pretexts could be taken as serious provocation. This is not to say that Rome was the aggressor in every war it fought, but the facts remain: Rome was almost continuously at war in the early and middle Republic (500-150 BCE, in round numbers), every opportunity for war that the Senate offered was accepted by the people of Rome, and the benefits were recognized by all.”

As a religious Jew, Jesus naturally rejected this attitude of the idolatrous pig-eating Westerners who had invaded and occupied Palestine.

Crucifixion by Romans

Crucifixion was designed as the ultimate in slow, painful and humiliating deaths.

Crucified naked

Naked like this, but with a lot of blood

Aspects of the punishment included that prisoners were often required to carry their  crossbeam to the place of execution for it to be attached to its stake or tree; that they were crucified completely naked (more humiliating for a Jew than a Celt, and for a woman than a man – though female crucifixions were rare); that, naked, they would undoubtedly empty their bladder and bowels over themselves in front of the crowd who came to watch.

The prisoner was tied or nailed by the wrists to the crossbeam. The feet were often nailed to the upright, one one each side, at the ankle. Frequently the prisoner had a block of wood attached to the stake or tree for them to sit on, with a spike sticking up from it to magnify their pain.

The execution could last for hours or days, depending on the weather, the prisoner’s condition (such as loss of blood from having the skin scourged off his back) and whether the legionaries guarding the crucifixion were in a hurry to go back to camp. Some ways for the soldiers to hasten death were to break the prisoner’s legs with an iron bar, to run a spear up through the stomach and chest, or even to light a smoky fire below him to asphyxiate him.

Once dead, the body was normally left in place as a warning to others, while it was eaten by crows and buzzards.

The punishment was in use by Greeks, Persians and others before the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans originally used it only for slaves, but then extended it to pirates and enemies of the state. The punishment was forbidden under Jewish religious law, which only allowed execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or decapitating the victim.

So Jesus was not crucified at the wish of Jewish authorities, or of the Jewish people. He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state, which he had declared himself to be by claiming the kingship of Israel while entering Jerusalem. The Romans tacked a sign above his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, to show what they thought of his ambitions.

Jesus was crucified between “two thieves”, but you didn’t get crucified for mere theft. However “thief” and “robber” were synonymous with “Zealot”, “sicariot” (or knifeman) and “insurgent” to the forces of the Roman Occupation. It is reasonable to assume that the “thieves” were leaders in the armed wing of the Zealot resistance – but not as prominent as Jesus, and not part of his cadre of preachers.

Jesus was stripped naked, and the legionaries diced for his clothing. He was scourged: flogged 40 times with a short cat-o’-nine-tails , each tail ending in a lead ball to lacerate and strip the skin off. He was made to carry his crossbeam to the Place of Skulls outside the city, but he collapsed on the way. After perhaps nine hours of crucifixion he called out “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” Then he called out again, and died. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with – or bribed – the Romans to be allowed to take Jesus down for burial, but first the Romans ran a spear up through the corpse to make sure it was dead – this was common practice, and only a dribble of blood and a watery fluid (presumably from the pericardium around the heart) came out.

And that was it. The end of just one of a 200-year series of attempts to oust the Romans from Israel. But preachers and knifemen didn’t have much chance against the Roman Empire.

Executing Jesus was OK; murdering civilians isn’t

When a military occupation by a Western power (the US, or the Romans) of a poorer country (modern Afghanistan, ancient Palestine) takes place, the occupying troops will kill people. Even after the situation settles down, there will be ongoing resistance.

Murdered child - killed in his sleep by Americans on Sunday.

Neither ancient Jews nor modern Afghans like being ordered around by large, well-fed, heavily-armored men who don’t speak their language, don’t adhere to their religion, don’t wear their clothing, and don’t respect their culture. A pig-eating, beard-shaving, uncircumcised military is an insult to them. Ongoing resistance is natural.

So when, every 20 or 30 years, there was a Zealot uprising in Galilee or Judea, or an attempt by Jesus to take control of the Temple in Jerusalem and have himself proclaimed King, they knew they were facing execution by the Romans if God failed to intervene actively on their behalf.

We may not condone Roman imperialism, which was mostly driven by trade – the need to suppress piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean, to connect Egypt to Syria, to build a reliable harbor at Caesarea Maritima, to protect the trade routes to India, to defend against the Persian Empire – but we can respect it. It tried to integrate all local gods into the Empire, it gradually extended Roman citizenship to local populations, and it brought peace and infrastructure development and an improved standard of living.

American imperialism appears to have less justification, and to be more based on pure exploitation. And when an Army sergeant (acting alone or not) goes on a killing rampage in the night and murders women and children in their sleep, he should not be protected by the occupying forces, but should be turned over to the local authorities for appropriate execution.

Unasked questions: What happened to Joseph?

One of the signs of a great story is the listener’s question, “What happened next?” In the National Geographic for March 2012 the cover article is “The Journey of the Apostles”, detailing the lives and teachings of not just the original Twelve, but also others such as Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We have stories about what happened to all of them, and to many others associated with Jesus. Not all the stories are believable, but where there is no fact there is plenty of speculation and legend.

Except in the case of Joseph, the (step)father of Jesus.

This is strange. If his fate was unknown, we would have legends and rumors. Search for “What happened to Joseph of Arimathea?”, for example, and you find him traveling all over the place, carrying the Holy Grail, settling in Britain, you name it. But search for “What happened to Joseph the father of Jesus?”, and you find nothing about him after his last mention in the Gospels, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Jesus when Jesus was 11 or 12.

Mass crucifixions after an uprising

But suppose his fate was a) not something that the early Church wanted to talk about, and b) so well-known that no one could make up an alternative narrative without having the whole thing dragged out into public discussion again. Therefore silence. No narrative, no legends, nothing.

The interesting event that happened around that time (probably later in the same year that Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, but the timing is uncertain) was an uprising led by Judas of Galilee with an attack on Sepphoris. (Sepphoris is the Roman name; the Hebrew name is Zippori.) This was Herod Antipas’ capital city in Galilee, 4 miles north of Nazareth. Probably a lot of men from Nazareth were in the uprising. The uprising was crushed by the Romans, and the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews outside Sepphoris.

And after that, we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Bible, or in legends or stories.

Jesus, however, retains a remarkable father-fixation all his life, and is himself crucified after leading an attack on the Temple in Jerusalem, having tried to claim the messianic kingship of Israel.

So… what happened to Joseph? And why didn’t anyone want to talk about it in the early Church, as they tried to make Christianity acceptable throughout the Roman Empire?

Would even the Romans have had 2000 pigs?

This question was asked by Greta van der Rol, an Australian writer of historical fiction (“To Die a Dry Death”) and science fiction (the “Iron Admiral” books).

When the Romans had permanent bases, they used their soldiers as builders: roads, farms, towns, aqueducts.

“When on station, the soldiers (…) always maintained a herd of cattle, sometimes herding other animals such as sheep and goats, grew grain and other crops, including vegetables, and foraged for variety.” (http://romanmilitary.net/people/food)

A Legion of 8,000 men engaged in hard labor ate a lot.

“It is estimated that just the soldiers in Britain ate over 33.5 tons of grain a day.”

Plus they liked pork and bacon!

“A soldier always marched with at least a good supply of bacon, hard tack biscuits, and sour wine.”

For hundreds of years the Romans had a Legion (or more) stationed in Palestine. They were there permanently, not on some hit-and-run Panda operation (“eats shoots and leaves”). Undoubtedly they had their own farms – and Romans did things on a very large and impressive scale. Shipping that much food around would have been foolishly expensive and inefficient, even if you had as good a port as Sebaste, built by Herod the Great at Caesarea Maritima. 

Sebaste Harbor at Caesarea Maritima

And the food would still have to been farmed somewhere.

That said, the story of the Gadarene Swine in the three Synoptic Gospels was written down a generation after Jesus’ execution, by people who had heard it from other people who in turn remembered it a little differently, with added elements of bravado (from the Zealots) and exaggeration (from the fishermen) and deliberate obfuscation (from the pro-Roman Paul).

Pigs would be a prime target for Zealots, as pigs should not have been farmed and eaten in Israel. And it would have been almost impossible not to give the Romans the nickname “pigs” – big ugly grunting unclean creatures, pig-eating and marching around under their Legion’s boar standard.

And, accurate or not, the number of 2,000 may have been a deliberate echo of the number of Jews crucified four miles from Nazareth during Jesus’ childhood, when “the Roman pigs” suppressed the uprising by Judas of Galilee.

Where were the Gadarene Swine?

The Gadarene Swine slaughter took place in the countryside around Gadara. This was one of the semi-autonomous Ten Cities (the Decapolis), in the Roman-controlled area mostly east of the River Jordan. Gadara was almost certainly at the place now called Umm Qais.

Gadara (Umm Qais), with the Sea of Galilee and, right, the Golan Heights

In the panorama we have Umm Qais in the foreground, the Sea of Galilee in the background, and the Golan Heights on the right. The gospels say that the pigs rushed over the cliff into the sea and were killed. It is not possible today to find a location on the east of the Sea of Galilee where such a fall is possible – there is a margin of flat land between the Sea and the Golan Heights, and the heights of Umm Qais are even further away.

One possibility is that the lake level may have been higher. But more likely the lake that the pigs fell into wasn’t the Sea of Galilee, but some other lake in the area.

The southern end of the Golan Heights is near vertical in places – you can see the road switchbacking down in the photo. Driving down it you will pass wrecked vehicles suspended halfway in the vertical ravines beside you. And at the bottom is a small lake.

So I suggest that the south end of the Golan Heights is the place where a herd of 2,000 pigs were kept for the Legio X Fretensis, and that Jesus and his followers chased them over the cliffs that are just to the left of that zigzag road in the picture. There may be other equally steep cliffs on the ridge of Umm Qais itself – but maybe you don’t want to have that many pigs on your doorstep. They’d be perfectly safe just across the valley, wouldn’t they? Unless some Jew came along with a chip on his shoulder about pigs and Romans…

Unasked questions: Who owned 2,000 pigs?

The oddest story in the Gospels is surely the one about the Gadarene Swine. It is so odd that many Christians don’t know it, and of those who do, many think is a parable. But it isn’t. Slightly different versions of the story (of course) are found in Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8.

Jesus killing 2,000 pigs

Jesus is in the countryside going toward Gadara (east of the River Jordan). A madman comes out of some tombs. He says his name is Legion, because he has many devils in him. Jesus commands the devils to leave him. The devils ask to go into some other being, so as not to go back to the abyss of hell. Jesus kindly sends them into a nearby herd of pigs. The 2,000 pigs rush over a cliff into the sea and are killed while the swineherds run away. The madman is cured. Jesus and whoever was with him carry on to Gadara. People come from Gadara, upset with Jesus, and tell him he isn’t welcome there. Jesus goes somewhere else, telling the healed man to talk about what he has seen.

So who would have owned 2,000 pigs? A Jew? No.

A non-Jewish farmer, maybe a Greek immigrant with a cow and an acre of land? Of course not.

Or is the answer in the madman’s name, Legion? It’s a part of the Roman Legion’s food supply, then.

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” this event is a strike by Jesus against the Romans occupying the Holy Land. A Zealot action against our friends the Legio X Fretensis. I can’t think of a more plausible interpretation.

And we have a deliberately garbled version of the story in the gospels, because the story was too well-known to be ignored. Paul’s pro-Roman revisionism did its best to disguise it.

So forget “Jesus meek and mild”. You may have seen pictures of Jesus tenderly holding a little lamb, but have you ever seen him cuddling a piglet?

What’s this blog all about, anyway?

This blog is a marmalade – sweet and sour boiled together, both rind and juicy bits.

Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • It’s a blog for the ideas of my novel. The novel looks at Jesus in the context of the constant uprisings against the Roman Occupation that began 100 years before his preaching, and went on for 100 years afterwards… until the Romans finally leveled Jerusalem, and killed or enslaved and deported all the Jews, and banned them from the replacement city of Aelia Capitolina.
  • It lets you read Jesus’ words and actions with the awareness that his “greatest commandment” is to recite the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel,”) – and practicing Jews do it multiple times a day. It’s Judaism 101. Jesus wanted Israel to turn back to the Covenant with God, and get rid of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Westerners who were marching around the country without bothering to learn the language.
  • Yes, it makes comparisons with modern Western invasions and occupations.
  • So it carries all my grudges against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Blair destruction of Iraq in the hope of oil money and imperial glory. 100 million of us around the world had protested and pointed out that it was going to lead to nothing but death, destruction and economic catastrophe at home and abroad. And here we are.
  • It also carries the ironies of the current Westernized Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the cynical and heavy-handed Israeli destruction of the people who have been indigenous there for the past 2,000 years… a repetition of how the Jews slaughtered all the Canaanites and others who had been living in the area before Moses came along.
  • So I think Moses was a genocidal barbarian (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
  • And Jesus was a Jew, and more in tune with Osama bin Laden than anyone else.
  • And St. Paul was an epileptic visionary who created Christianity out of a mishmash of Judaism, Mithraism, and bits of Egyptian and Roman mythologies and practices.
  • And I have no respect for any monotheist who believes the earth was created in the past 10,000 years, or thinks the tribal legends of illiterate herdsmen have relevance for government policy today.
  • Does anyone really believe the first chapter of Genesis, when it says that God created day and night on the first day… and then made the sun and moon on the fourth day? What I believe is that we live in a universe of a billion galaxies, each with a billion suns – and someone who can’t even figure out the relationship between daylight and sunshine is to be treated seriously?
  • As for what the creative force behind a billion galaxies looks like, who knows. Call it God if you want… but where did it come from? Why is there anything at all?
  • And I love polytheist mythologies, and they speak to the soul’s images and poetry and inner health – but they’re not literally true.
  • And I loathe people who use religion as nothing but a way to make money, or to grab power. And I loathe people who use politics in that way, too. So I doubly loathe hypocritical politicians who mouth religious crap.
  • But oh how I love it all, at the same time! What a planet! Unbelievable natural beauty and works of art, and the most appalling destruction and massacres, planet-wide pollution, and greed and ignorance. But what can you expect of a planet of 7 billion heavily-armed apes? Humans are simply mind-boggling, stumbling through the dark like reckless two-year-olds.

By the way, it’s also a blog for the novel itself. With links to the trade paperback and to the Kindle edition. But don’t expect to find all the blog’s ideas in the novel – it’s just a contrarian (realistic, commonsense) retelling of an old story from the point of view of, yes, the Western occupation. And yes, Jesus was crucified. No, he didn’t come back from the dead. So, do you want to see how he did all those miracles?