by Heather L Hart | Originally published 4.6.23 via Scot McKnight’s substack
*Trigger warning: this essay contains discussion of crucifixion, abuse, and slavery.
One of the foundational images in Christianity is the cross. Through my faith journey I’ve often wondered about the cross, itself. Why did Jesus die in this awful manner? How does a Roman crucifixion change how I live? Understanding the implications of a Roman crucifixion and my faith was not intuitive for me.
My questions led me into the horrific world of Roman crucifixion in the first century. There have been many days I’ve needed to set my research aside simply because I could not bear to read any more about tortuous executions so readers should proceed with caution.
To understand Roman crucifixion, we need to start with Roman values. Only Roman adult men qualified as citizens and this link carried direct implications for masculinity. Maleness was the ideal for the empire. The most important attribute of Roman masculinity was control and autonomy over self, family, and the larger household, including the enslaved. Maleness was power over self and others. Crucifixion was the ultimate expression of being under someone else’s power. Victims of crucifixion were set up as the antithesis of this masculine ideal.
Early in the Roman Republic, crucifixion was generally limited to a Roman citizen’sright to crucify people they enslaved. At this time, crucifixion did not always require death because of the economic value of the enslaved. Whether the victim died or recovered and returned to work, they were thoroughly humiliated and terrorized.There was no doubt that power lay in the hands of owners.
Towards the formation of the Roman empire, crucifixions’ message of power was appropriated by the state and solidified as an execution leading to death. Rome began to sentence those who were not enslaved to die as those who were enslaved. As owners had power over the enslaved, so Rome had power overall. Typically, the underclass and conquered people were the ones needing to be reminded of this imperial power. Citizens were rarely crucified, but it was possible for the charge of high treason. State magistrates had a variety of execution methods available to them (decapitation, burning alive, arena, drowning, enforced suicide, to name a few) but crucifixion stands out as a ritualistic killing that reinforces imperial dominance and supremacy. This “slaves’ punishment” was translated into a method of execution for those who rebelled against Roman authority. The crucifixion of a non-enslaved person by an imperial magistrate represented a conscious attempt to treat the person as enslaved. This declares that the victim has lost complete legal status and now at the same level as the enslaved. As a ritual, the physical enactment of crucifixion expressed ideas about identity of those involved. A Roman crucifixion identified who were and who were not conforming to the imperial ideal. It identified who upheld order and who upset it. It sought to internalize belief in Roman power, imperial divinity, and the global scope of Roman authority.
The practice of Roman crucifixion was an execution by “suspension.” There were various positions for affixing the condemned to a cross, but in general, all victims were elevated with arms outstretched. All victims experienced significant torture beforehand: enough torture to compromise their ability to survive “suspension” on a cross, but not so much that they would die quickly. Crucifixion was not just another cruel form of execution. It was a labor intensive, public, prolonged process for killing. It was meant to be an extended death. A placard announced the charges of the condemned, some form of upsetting Roman order. Victims were often stripped completely nude as a show of conquest and to procure shame. Some texts indicate intentional sexual victimization. Both men and women could be crucified.
In general, Romans believed pain and death could be heroically endured; crucifixion was designed to prevent that. The sickening, degrading, and overwhelming nature of crucifixion ensured it was unthinkable to remember the victim as heroic or noble. The person, their status, and their reputation were utterly destroyed.
Crucifixion is a maximum sentence of pain, however the primary purpose of this method of execution was to declare a final and irrevocable rejection from the community and a complete denial of any legal rights from the empire. The person dies with the status of the enslaved. The executions took place outside the walls of the city, illustrating that victims were cast out of the community.
Shame, humiliation, and rejection were part of the design of crucifixion. It was a ritual of denigration, designed to show domination and strip people of any dignity and autonomy as they died. The victim was socially degraded to the utmost and those who passed by understood this. They knew Rome could suppress any and all threats to state sovereignty, here was the evidence. It declared for everyone watching the victim that Rome controlled everything, the victim controls nothing.
As a form of imperial execution, crucifixion was an instrument of terror, meant to discourage resistance to Roman rule. Rome did whatever they wanted to whomever they viewed as a threat. Crucifixion was the normal way of executing rebels. For conquered and enslaved peoples, crucifixion was a clear reminder of their subjugated status. Individual victims were a visual and visceral reminder of an entire people group unable to prevent Roman conquest, unable to prevent Roman brutality, unable to prevent Roman rule.
For Roman citizens looking at a crucifixion, they could be repulsed not by the horrific torture, but by the one receiving it. Romans would be disgusted by those who flouted Rome’s fundamental authority. For them, not only is Rome powerful, but Rome is right in its power.
In Jewish thought, crucifixion would imply shame, abandonment, and God’s judgment (Deut 21:22-23), ideas incongruent with God’s anointed one. Around 100 years prior to Jesus, the Jews’ own Hasmonean king crucified Pharisees. It was a tool appropriated by those with power.
The Passover celebrates Israelite liberation from the Egyptian empire. Jesus chooses this politically-charged holy festival to provoke his enemies in Jerusalem. The charges ultimately brought against Jesus by both Jewish and Roman authorities revolve around claims of power and authority that disturb the existing order. It is not surprising that the method of execution clamored for is crucifixion. Jesus offends both power groups and likely understood what awaited him prior to his arrival in the city.
Jesus is crucified with two others, often translated as “robbers.” However, this word was used to designate Jewish insurgents and is used to describe Barabbas (John 18:40) who was imprisoned with insurrectionists (Mark 15:7). The two executed with Jesus could have been revolutionaries and possibly associates of Barabbas.
Disempowered, humiliated, shamed, violated, Jesus endures the crucifixion. He receives the condemnation of a vanquished rebel and the shameful status of the enslaved. He is far from the Roman ideal of masculine autonomy. And yet, his willing obedience to endure the cross is in itself subversive. By refusing to present himself with all power and authority that he has received from his Father, Jesus subverts the cultural ideas of power and authority that Rome flaunts with the cross. God’s power is nothing like Rome’s power. Nothing. Divine power reaches out in love and care, it rejects the violence and self-interest of the empire.
Jesus did die. The empire did complete its ritual display of power. But the display was completely ineffective because Jesus received glory, not shame. Not only is the authority of the empire revealed as impotent, but death itself is impotent. The intended meaning of the Roman crucifixion is upended because Jesus lives again. Jesus’ death brings glorious new life, not imperial power. Jesus’ suffering ends with resurrection and abundant life, death is not victorious. The power of the Roman cross is defeated. Out of his abundant life, a new community identity is born.
Paul stresses that the resurrection was not just after death, it was after crucifixion. What was intended as humiliation and eternal dishonor was divinely reversed and became a restoration of dignity and an affirmation of worth. The world Rome desires and its method for procuring it is shown a fraud. Raising and restoring a victim of crucifixion upends evil on every level. All things are made new.
I can look at the crucifixion and can understand why it was and is considered a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Cor 2:23-24). Who would choose this? At face value, it doesn’t make sense. But it is divine love that willingly walked through this, not because the suffering and death are good – they will always be evil – but because the meaning of crucifixion is fully upended with the Son. He, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
I can now see how this message would appeal to the underclass and the enslaved in the first century. I can see how it should appeal to those on the fringes of my own society. It is not a message meant to make the empire great again. It is the good news that the empire is destroyed.
Picking up my cross and following Jesus is not a call to denigrate my body or soul. It is an acknowledgement that choosing to follow Jesus is a necessary rejection of the vicious, self-focused power grasping that pervades life. It recognizes that true community may start with the marginalized. Shame and exclusion are inverted. Turning toward Jesus is a definitive turn away from the empire. (For more on that, see Revelation). So, we fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith. His yoke is easy and his burden light; the new Kingdom comes.
Aubert, Jean-Jacques, and Adriaan Johan Boudewijn Sirks, eds. Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Bermejo-Rubio, Fernando. “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 12, no. 1–2 (2014): 1–105.
Bond, Helen K. “A Fitting End? Self-Denial and a Slave’s Death in Mark’s Life of Jesus.” New Testament Studies 65, no. 4 (2019): 425–442.
Cook, John Granger. “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania.” Novum Testamentum 54, no. 1 (2012): 68–100.
———. Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
———. “Roman Crucifixions: From the Second Punic War to Constantine” 104, no. 1. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (2013): 1–32.
Smit, Peter-Ben. “Crucifixion? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 46, no. 1 (2016): 12–24.
Smith, Mark D. The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2018.
Tombs, David. The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross. Rape culture, religion and the Bible book 10. New York: Routledge, 2023.
Wright, Arthur M. “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context.” In Johannine Christology, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, 127–151. Johannine studies volume 3. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020.
 David Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, Rape culture, religion and the Bible book 10 (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2023), 15.
 Mark D. Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2018), 202.
 John Granger Cook, “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania,” Novum Testamentum 54, no. 1 (2012): 82.
 Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 45.
 Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 198.
 Ibid., 182–183.
 Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 45.
 Jean-Jacques Aubert and Adriaan Johan Boudewijn Sirks, eds., Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002), 114.
 Peter-Ben Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 46, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 13.
 Ibid., 18.
 John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 161.
 Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 17.
 Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 11.
 Ibid., 34.
 Cook, “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania,” 91.
 Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 1.
 Aubert and Sirks, Speculum Iuris, 116.
 John Granger Cook, “Roman Crucifixions: From the Second Punic War to Constantine” 104, no. 1, Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (2013): 4.
 Arthur M. Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” in Johannine Christology, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Johannine studies volume 3 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020), 130.
 Ibid., 128.
 Aubert and Sirks, Speculum Iuris, 122.
 Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 129.
 Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 18.
 Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 130–131.
 Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 184.
 Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, 184–185.
 Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 12, no. 1–2 (2014): 9.
 Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 193.
 Helen K. Bond, “A Fitting End? Self-Denial and a Slave’s Death in Mark’s Life of Jesus,” New Testament Studies 65, no. 4 (2019): 434.
 Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 140.
 Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 20.
 Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 142.
 Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 75.