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] One first century Roman author named Quintillian writes, “When we crucify criminals the most frequented roads are chosen, where the greatest number of people can look and be seized by this fear. For every punishment has less to do with the offence than with the example.”[11]

The accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion in the four Gospels are the most detailed accounts that we have of an ancient crucifixion. Many, but not all, of the points noted in the gospel are known details from ancient sources that we have discussed above. Prior to crucifixion, Jesus was scourged (Mark 15:15), forced to carry his cross, although Simon of Cyrene did it for him (Matt. 27:32); the soldiers gave Jesus a drink of gall and vinegar to drink (Matt. 27:34). In the Gospel accounts, there is no specific mention of Jesus being nailed to the cross, although Thomas declared, “Except I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails. . . I will not believe” (John 20:25). A sign was placed on the cross, “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26; see also Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19); passers-by mocked him (Matt. 27:39–43). The soldiers would have broken his legs to hasten his death before the beginning of the Sabbath, but he was already dead (John 19:32–33),[12] and Joseph of Arimathea petitioned Pilate to be able to bury Jesus’s body (Luke 23:50–53).

Christians were mocked because they worshipped a God who was crucified (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23).[13] In the second century Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, writes, “It is for this that they charge us with madness saying that we give the second place after the unchanging and ever-existing God and begetter of all things to a crucified man” (Apology 1.13.4).[14]

Ancient graffito near the Palentine Hill in Rome.

Ancient graffito near the Palentine Hill in Rome.

A graphic representation of the disdain that pagans had for the Christian worship of a crucified god may be a graffito carved in plaster on a wall near the Palentine Hill in Rome that is probably dated from the second or third century.[15] It depicts a boy at the foot of a crucified man that has the head of a donkey. The crude inscription reads “Alexamenos, worship [your] God.”

It is this type of criticism of Christianity, “the scandal (Greek: skandalov) of the cross” (Gal. 5:11), that Paul is probably responding to as he emphasizes the importance of the cross. He acknowledges these type of taunts when he declares, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. . . . For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:17–18, 22–23). Not only is the crucified Christ not foolishness to Paul, it is in fact the power of God.

Therefore Paul asserts the centrality of this message for his missionary activities, “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) and later, in a response to Christians in Corinth who were rejecting the reality and importance of the resurrection, he makes a statement that in our English King James bible loses some of its impact. “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The phrase in Greek that is translated as “first of all” is en prōtois that can be more accurately translated as “most important.”[16] In other words Paul taught that the most important things that he had delivered unto them were (1) that Christ died for our sins (the crucifixion) and, (2) the resurrection. In his mind the crucifixion, rather than being an embarrassment, was in fact central to his missionary message.


[1] Herodotus, History 3.125.3; Polybius, Histories 8.21; Seneca, Dialogue: De Consolatione ad Marciam 20.3.

[2] Galatians 3:13; 11Q19 64.9–11. The apocryphal Acts of Andrew describes Andrew’s crucifixion, “they bound his feet and his arm-pits, without nailing him,” in Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols.; trans. R. McL. Wilson (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 2:148.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 5.451.

[4] Josephus, Jewish War 5.449

[5] Cicero, Philippics 13.27.

[6] See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12.255–56; Jewish War 2.307; Philo, Flaccus, 10.84.

[7] Plutarch, Moralia, “On the Delays of Divine Vengeance” (vol. 7) 554 A/B.

[8] Juvenal, Satire 14.77–78; Acts of Andrew in Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 148.

[9] Corpus Iuris Civilis, Pandectae 48.24.1–3; Philo, Flaccus 10.83. In the Dead Sea Scrolls Temple Scroll it was forbidden that corpses be left on a tree overnight (11Q19 64.11–13).

[10] For LDS discussions on crucifixion, see Kent P. Jackson, “The Crucifixion,” in From the Last Supper through the Resurrection: The Savior’s Last Hours,” ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 318–37; Donald W. Parry and Jay A. Parry, “The Cruel Cross: The Crucifixion,” in Symbols and Shadows: Unlocking a Deeper Understanding of the Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009), 222–53; and Gaye Strathearn, “Christ’s Crucifixion: Reclamation of the Cross,” Religious Educator 14/1 (2013): 45–57.

[11] Quintilian, Declamations, 274.13, English translation in Quintilian: The Lesser Declamations, 2 vols; ed. and trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey; Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1:259.

[12] Erkki Koskenniemi, Kirsi Nisula and Jorma Toppari, “Wine Mixed with Myrrh (Mark 15.23) and Crurifragium (John 19.31–32): Two Details of the Passion Narratives,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27/4 (2005): 279–91.

[13] The Death of Peregrinus, 13,11.

[14] English translation from Cyril C. Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Collier Books, Macmillian, 1970), 249.

[15] George M. A. Hanfmann, “The Crucified Donkey Man: Achaios and Jesus,” in Studies in Classical Art and Archaeology: A Tribute to Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, ed. Günther Kopcke and Mary B. Moore (Locust Valley, NY: J. J. Augustin, 1979), 205–7, pl. 55,2; Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus, trans. Michael Steinhauser; ed. Marshall D. Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, ), 338; G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity: A Review of the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Published in 1979 (North Ryde, NSW: Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Macquarie University, 1987), 137.

[16] “πρῶτος” in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2d ed; (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 726.