Ancient Crucifixion Images

Roman Crucifixion Methods and Jesus’ Crucifixion

This second-century graffito of a Roman crucifixion from Puteoli, Italy, is one of a few ancient crucifixion images that offer a first-hand glimpse of Roman crucifixion methods and what Jesus’ crucifixion may have looked like to a bystander.

Crucifixion images abound today—from sculptures and icons in churches to the masterful paintings hanging in museums. But how many of these actually give us a realistic idea of what Jesus’ crucifixion looked like? Do these artistic crucifixion images accurately reflect ancient Roman crucifixion methods?

In the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Ben Witherington addresses these questions by looking at some of the earliest archaeological evidence of crucifixion and imagery roughly contemporary with Jesus’ crucifixion. Witherington discusses three crucifixion images—two wall graffiti and a magical amulet—from the first centuries of the Christian era.

The two graffiti were both discovered in Italy—one, the so called Alexamenos graffito, on the Palatine Hill in Rome and the other (pictured right) in Puteoli during an excavation. Both show a crucified figure on a cross and date to sometime between the late first and mid-third centuries A.D. Likewise, a striking red gemstone bears a crucified figure surrounded by a magical inscription.
 


 
The Bible History Daily feature Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion includes a full “Scholars’ Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” by Hershel Shanks.

Scholars have long assumed that early Christians did not depict Jesus’ crucifixion; however, a christogram symbol depicting Jesus’ crucifixion sets the date back by 150-200 years. Read The Staurogram: The earliest images of Jesus on the cross in Bible History Daily.


 
All three of these ancient crucifixion images shed light on the reality of Roman crucifixion in practice and share a few features in common: The crosses are in the shape of a capital tau, or Greek letter T; the Puteoli graffito and the gemstone seem to depict figures who have been whipped or flayed; all three figures appear to be nude, perhaps explaining why at least two of them are shown from behind; and in each case, the feet seem to be apart and possibly nailed separately (unlike the overlapping feet of Jesus in popular portrayals). That last feature is supported by the well-known ankle bone of a crucified man discovered in Jerusalem, which still had an iron nail embedded in its side.

Assuming that Roman crucifixion methods were similar throughout the empire, these crucifixion images give us a more authentic depiction of how Jesus’ crucifixion was carried out.
 


 
To read more about ancient crucifixion images and what they can tell us about Roman crucifixion methods and Jesus’ crucifixion, see Ben Witherington III, Biblical Views: “Images of Crucifixion: Fresh Evidence” in the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 


 

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Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion

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  1. Christopher says

    This is fascinating.

    Thank you for sharing this relevant information about evidence which might help us better understand Jesus’ crucifixion. Evidence like this at least shows people were killed the same Jesus was helps from an apologetics point of view. And, for people who study the Bible for leadership insights and guidance, this adds to the authority we have when studying the Bible for lessons.

  2. JAllan says

    These images are more consistent with the results of anatomical experiments with donated cadavers in recent decades: the body would certainly fall down, ripping the hand apart, if nailed through the palm; an unusually heavy body might even fall in this way if nailed above the wrist between radius and ulna (for a gruesome comparison, in modern “instant death” hanging intended to break the neck, if the rope is too slack for the weight, the body might be decapitated); and the nails used in the feet would not be long enough to go through both feet and the plaque (which acted like a washer) and deep enough into the cross to hold. The mechanical solution is, of course, to tie the arms with rope to the crossbar, and if a quicker death is desired by the ruler imposing sentence, nail the palms in addition, causing faster bleeding.

    It is a blessing that information IS so scarce today, since crucifixion was banned by the Roman Empire when it adopted the Christian religion as a state religion, and no other evil rulers have picked it up since then (not even the Nazis). But other gruesome means of execution have remained (non-noble offenders in England were hanged slowly until ALMOST dead, then tied to four horses and ripped by the horses into quarters while still conscious, after seeing their intestines removed; nobility were beheaded with an axe wielded by a skilled headsman, and customarily gave him a “tip” as an incentive to do a quicker job), so humanity apparently has not been Christianized in the heart for the most part.

    However it was done, we must remember, while contemplating the agony endured by Jesus, that millions of other victims suffered the same or worse, without the comfort of knowing their divine nature and expecting resurrection as a consolation. We think of His death TODAY as an unusually brutal one because it is no longer so common. I am sure that Jesus also had compassion on the other victims of crucifixion before His own.

  3. Vasilis says

    Crucifixion methods varied depending on the purpose: sudden death, death or just torture. The angle of the hands by the head or over the head, in combination with the position of the body, had exactly to do with the purpose of the punishment. It is a gross mistake to make uncritical generalizations.

  4. Maciej says

    See: Gunnar Samuelsson “Crucifixion in Antiquity”.

  5. Jay says

    The image shown in this article indicates that the stake was inserted into the body through the middle part of the lowest part of the abdomen (the rectum?). I have offered similar gruesome information to an organization almost 20 years ago, possibly it was BAR. The diagram indicates a stake in the lower half of the anatomy and a backbone in the upper half of the diagram. I welcome anyone to correct my bizarre interpretation.

    (I recall reading that Josephus refused to detail Roman crusifixion because it was so gruesome. Also I recall that I did not come up with the above interpretation myself. I have never seen the diagram displayed and what I have written is not entirely my own interpretation but comes from a scource I have forgotten.)

  6. Kurt says

    The book The Non-Christian Cross, by John Denham Parsons, states: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . . it is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.”—London, 1896, pp. 23, 24.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200004456
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/tl/r1/lp-e?q=cross
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1001060094
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1001061175#h=321:0-321:957

  7. jose says

    aqui parece-me existir realmente lógica neste raciocínio conforme dito por Kurt.
    Stauros realmente nao tem siginificado de cruz.

  8. Nadine says

    Very interesting. We have a book titled “A (or The) Doctor at Calvary” that goes thru & explains the details of crucifixion possibilities & results. It can be mind-boggling how the Roman rulers did things back then, but they were “experts on torture”. However, combining that with the traditions & events at the time is even more compelling that God works his plan accordingly – even if we don’t understand why. Throughout the ages, what always gets me is when the world (evil) seems to get the upper hand God uses things to turn it for good purposes. We may not see it (right away, if at all) & things in some aspects may seem worse, but those should serve as reminders that God is in complete control & knows what he’s doing. Another book that comes to mind is “Foxes Book of Martyrs” – some may be glad/thankful they don’t live in that era, but I’m not so sure… satan knows what’s coming & he’s going to be fighting even harder in the days to come.

  9. Scott says

    Hey, Kurt the JW! You should know that Spartacus and his army were all crucified in like 85 BC or around there, to the number of 5000 crucified. Crucifixion is well documented and testified to in history and its literature. The “cross” could have had variations in its implementation, but “cross” has been the chosen word for a good long time. It was also an effective execution device, if not slow and painful. What it was not was a single upright stake as you JWs suggest. Maybe your old dead Gov body members should have done their homework better way back when so as to avoid the embarrassment the caused you now ;-) Truth hurts, no?


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