Crucifixion in Antiquity

By Gaye Strathearn

In antiquity crucifixion was a choice of punishment since the time of the Persians, but it was undoubtedly the Romans who perfected it as a form of torture. The Jewish historian Josephus described crucifixion as “a most pitiable death” (Jewish War 7.203).

We have numerous ancient accounts that mention crucifixion, but few of them describe the process in any detail. Nevertheless, these accounts generally corroborate the descriptions recorded in the four New Testament Gospels.

In antiquity crucifixion was performed in a number of different ways. Some victims were impaled;[1] others were tied to a cross or a tree[2]—sometimes they were nailed.[3]

An ancient heel bone with a nail piercing it. From the Israel Museum.

An ancient heel bone with a nail piercing it. From the Israel Museum.

Archaeologically, only one set of remains has been found of a person who was crucified in Palestine prior to 70 AD. We know that the person was crucified because the nail was still in the right calcaneum (or heel bone). [See the picture taken at the Israel Museum]. Sometimes the victims were crucified while alive, but sometimes it was after they were dead.[4] Sometimes the legs were broken in conjunction with the crucifixion.[5] By Roman times, crucifixion was preceded by flogging[6] and the victims were sometimes required to carry the beam of the cross.[7] Usually the bodies were left to be devoured by birds and wild animals,[8] but in Roman times, it was possible for the family to petition to take the body and bury it once death had been verified.[9]

Crucifixion was chosen as a form of execution, especially for murderers, thieves and traitors, and slaves because it was public and humiliating, and because the torture could be extended for long periods of time.[10] Continue reading

Why should the cross be meaningful to Latter-day Saints?

By Gaye Strathearn

As I have thought about Christ’s crucifixion and the central place that Good Friday has historically and theologically held in Christianity, I would like to suggest four reasons why I believe that the cross should hold an important place in Latter-day Saint private and public discourse.

  1. The events on the cross are an integral part of the atonement

The most important reason that we should consider the cross is that both doctrinally and functionally, it is part of Christ’s atonement. I think that it is fair to say that traditionally Latter-day Saints have emphasized the atonement as taking part in Gethsemane. Yet the scriptures, both the Bible and Restoration scripture, repeatedly teach that the events on the cross also have an important part to play in our redemption. Paul taught the Romans that “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. . . . by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:10–11). The Book of Mormon frequently teaches that redemption is made possible through the “sufferings and death of Christ” (Mosiah 18:2; Alma 21:9; 22:14; 3 Nephi 6:20). The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that Christ “was crucified for the sins of the world” (D&C 53:2; 54:1), and that “redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross” (D&C 138:35).

All of these passages from our restoration scripture support the biblical message of Paul that the crucifixion of our Lord was an essential part of the atonement and thus was an essential part of our personal and collective redemption. Elder Holland described Easter Friday as “atoning Friday, with its cross.”[1]

  1. The scriptural metaphor that we can be “lifted up” because Christ was lifted up on the cross is a symbol of God’s great love for his children.Good Friday processional_Antonnia Fortress

On day two of the Savior’s visit to the Americas the Savior himself describes his gospel and the atonement in terms of the cross: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted upon the cross . . . so that I might draw all men unto me.”[2] The context here is one of judgment, but it is also the hope that through repentance, baptism, and enduring to the end we will be sanctified by the Holy Ghost so that we “may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Nephi 27:16–20). In other scriptural texts we learn that the opportunity to be lifted up is evidence of God’s love for his people. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, he made reference to Moses’ lifting up a brass serpent to heal the Israelites, who had been infiltrated by a plague of serpents. Jesus specifically identified the act of raising up a pole with a serpent as a type of his crucifixion. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14–15). Then note the famous verses that immediately follow: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him should be saved” (John 3:16–17). The context of this passage indicates that the evidence of God’s great love for the world is that his Son was lifted up on the cross so that they could have eternal life. Continue reading

The Last Supper and the Timing of Passover

by Eric D. Huntsman

All four Gospels agree that on the last night of his mortal life, Jesus shared a special meal with his closest disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem.  Described as a large, well-furnished room, it was probably in one of the larger houses in the upper city, a wealthy area now known as Mount Zion.

The Cenacle (from the Latin cenaculum, for “dinner), the traditional Catholic site of the  Last Supper

The Cenacle (from the Latin cenaculum, for “dinner), the traditional Catholic site of the Last Supper

Continue reading

Farewell Discourses and the High Priestly Prayer

By Eric D. Huntsman

One of the beautiful contributions of John to our understanding of the events and teachings of Jesus’ last night are passages that include Jesus’ last discourses and his beautiful Intercessory Prayer (John 13:31–17:26).  Delivered in the Upper Room where the Last Supper was held and then along the way to the Mount of Olives, chapters 14 and 16 focus on the imminent departure of the Savior.  However, they also frame—and hence emphasize—chapter 15 with its beautiful image of the disciples abiding in Jesus as branches in a vine.

I Am the True Vine, said Jesus.

I Am the True Vine, said Jesus.

In other words, while he may be going away physically, he will nonetheless be present among believers in a real way.  Just as branches derive their life and strength from the main vine, so we draw our spiritual life from Christ, without whom we would die spiritually.  Abiding in him we live and receive strength—or grace—to bring forth “much fruit” and enjoy his love (John 15:1–10).

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The Trial and Death of Jesus

By John W. Welch

Of the numerous things that could be said about the so-called trial and the death of Jesus, I want to emphasize ten personal reflections. These ten points center around two perplexing questions: Why was Jesus killed? and Who was responsible? As the world marks this year’s Easter season, it would seem especially appropriate to think about his death, since “for this cause came [he] into the world” (John 18:37).

Reflection 1. Latter-day Saints, and all people, should approach this subject with humility and cautiousness. It will long remain impossible to give a definitive description of the so-called “trial of Jesus.” Too little is known today about the laws and legal procedures that would have been followed in Jerusalem during the second quarter of the first century A.D., and too little is known about all that was done so long ago for any modern person to speak with any degree of certainty about the legal technicalities of this case. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written, “There is no divine ipse dixit, no voice from an archangel, and as yet no revealed latter-day account of all that transpired when God’s own Son suffered himself to be judged by men so that he could voluntarily give up his life upon the cross” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981], 4:142). We are usually more glib about this subject than we intellectually or spiritually ought to be. Continue reading

Maundy Thursday: The Last Supper

by Eric Huntsman
This post is excerpted from God So Loved the World and Dr. Huntsman’s blog. 

The synoptic Gospels seem to suggest that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, whereas John is clear that the Passover began at sundown of the day when Christ was crucified. John’s account seems to bear the most historical verisimilitude: a criminal would certainly not be crucified during the Passover feast itself. Additionally, the Johannine imagery is strong: the day before Passover was a Preparation Day, and between 3:00–5:00 the Paschal lambs were slaughtered in the Temple.  Accordingly, Jesus died on the cross at 3:00 at the very moment the first Passover lamb was sacrificed. Although scholars have proposed a number of ways to resolve the apparent discrepancy, the most likely answer is that Jesus, knowing that he would be dead before Passover began, celebrated the feast early with his friends. Continue reading

Jesus’ Suffering Visible in the Verb Tense

by S. Kent Brown
In the New Testament Gospels, the most striking pointer to Jesus’ unspeakable suffering in Gethsemane, of course, is the notation that Jesus’ “sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44; see also Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). Plainly, Jesus bleeds into his clothing and onto the ground. Importantly, other indicators exist in the Gospels that help us to grasp the enormity of his suffering. These appear chiefly in the tense of the verbs that describe these hours; but other hints appear in the Gospels. Continue reading

John’s Account of the Last Supper

The Lamb of God: Unique Aspects of the Passion Narrative in John

By Eric D. Huntsman

Excerpted from Eric D. Huntsman, “The Lamb of God: Unique Aspects of the Passion Narrative in John” in “Behold the Lamb of God”: An Easter Celebration, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Frank F. Judd Jr., and Thomas A Wayment (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008) 49–70.

John’s account of the Last Supper contains unique elements recorded nowhere else. John’s account, without noting any other details of the meal itself, states: “Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (John 13:1). This verse establishes the emphasis of chapters 13–17, in which is found the loving service of Jesus, given with His coming sacrifice at Golgotha firmly in mind. The washing of the disciples’ feet, while no doubt connected with other higher ordinances, is used here as a paramount example of service. When Jesus teaches, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14), the image of the greatest serving the least here is significant given the clearly stated divinity of the Johannine Jesus. 
The discourses of chapters 13–17 that Jesus delivers to His disciples, both at the Last Supper and along the way to the garden that would be the scene of His arrest, are unique to the Gospel of John. Here Jesus taught His followers, both then and now, fundamental principles of love and service, all firmly focused on His own role as Savior and friend. Chapters 14 and 16 form a recognized doublet, in which Jesus teaches the necessity of His departing (see John 14:1–14; 16:4–7, 16–24), beginning with the well-known pronouncement, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2–3). In both chapters, Jesus balances the disciples’ sorrow at His departure with promises of the coming of a “helper” or “advocate” (paraklētos, King James Version “Comforter”; see John 14:15–26; 16:8–15) as well as with an assurance of the continuing peace and love of the Father that will remain with them (see John 14:27–31). Chiastically placed between the chapters is Jesus’s allegory of the vine: even when He is no longer physically present with them, they can nonetheless still abide in Him, drawing sustenance and life from Him as branches do from the main stem of a vine (see John 15:1–17).
All of these teachings focus squarely on Jesus. Even the five so-called Paraclete Sayings, which focus on the Holy Ghost as Comforter, or helper, identify His role not just as advocate but also as teacher, witness, prosecutor, and revealer (see John 14:15–18, 25–26; 15:26–27; 16:7–15). Jesus suggests that the Comforter is being sent to do these things for believers because Jesus Himself will soon be absent (see John 16:7). Indeed, the first of these sayings is actually about Jesus Himself and about the Holy Ghost only by comparison, since another Comforter by definition suggests a first Comforter: Continue reading

The Widow’s Two Mites

by S. Kent Brown
The verses in Luke 21:1-4 frame a bridge that links the Savior’s condemnation of the scribes (Luke 20:45–47) and his warning about the temple’s destruction (Luke 21:5–6). His critique of the scribes is direct and open. At the center of his harsh words stands his rebuke of how some of them treat women, specifically widows, the most vulnerable people in his society. All are under scriptural mandate, especially the scribes, the experts in interpreting scripture, to look out for the best interests of women and widows. But they do not (see Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jer. 7:6; Micah 2:9; Zech. 7:10; etc.; the Note on 20:47).

Widow's Two Mites photo by Kaye HansonOn a similar track, Jesus chastises temple authorities, but his reprimand is indirect. He speaks of the temple and gifts that come to it (see 21:3–4) and its eventual fate, not mentioning priests and Levites directly; yet he implicates them by condemning the temple culture that pays attention to gifts of the wealthy and barely acknowledges the gifts of the poor, in this case gifts from widows, the persons least able to afford to give.[1] But these women give from the inner depths of their souls. And no one notices. Except Jesus.

Because Jesus notices, he is able to draw his disciples into a lesson of ultimate sacrifice, ultimate devotion, ultimate worship, ultimate discipleship. The poor widow’s gift reaches into the fabric of her livelihood, into her empty cupboards, her spent storage jars, her bare clothes closet, her bed made lonely by the death of her husband. Her gift diminishes her ability to provide for herself in even the most basic ways: “she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had” (21:4). She is the true disciple, giving all. Continue reading

Anointing in Bethany in Mark 14:3-9

By Julie M. Smith

Structure of Mark 14 This lengthy chapter contains some of the most significant events of Jesus’ story: his anointing, his observance of Passover, his prayer in Gethsemane, his abandonment and betrayal by his disciples, his arrest, his examination by the Jewish leaders, and Peter’s denial of him. While other options are possible, this is one option for understanding the structure of this chapter:

  1. Death Plot (14:1-2)
  2. Anointing of Jesus (14:3-9)
  3. Death Plot (14:10-11)
  4. Preparation of the Passover (14:12-16)
  5. Prediction of Judas’ Betrayal (14:17-21)
  6. Last Supper (14:22-25)
  7. Prediction of Peter’s Betrayal (14:26-31)
  8. Preparation for the Passion (=Gethsemane Prayer) (14:32-42)
  9. Jesus Is Arrested (14:43-52)
  10. Peter Positioned to Deny Jesus (14:53-54)
  11. Jesus Is Examined by the Sanhedrin (14:55-65)
  12. Peter Denies Jesus (14:66-72)

The chapter has three main scenes (14:3-9, 14:22-25, and 14:55-65); each one focuses on the topic of Jesus’ identity (see the commentary below). Each is bracketed by reference to the betrayal of Jesus (14:1-12, 10-11, 17-21, 26-21, 53-54, 66-72). In between the three main scenes are scenes focused on the idea of preparation: first, the preparation for the Passover (14:12-16) and then preparation for the Passion (including Jesus’ arrest; 14:32-52). The framing of the Gethsemane scene in Mark’s story of Jesus as noteworthy: it prepares Jesus to face his suffering and death and it should have prepared the disciples as well (see the commentary below). Continue reading