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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