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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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an ancient instrument of capital punishment. The cross was the punishment inflicted by the Romans, on servants who had perpetrated crimes, on robbers, assassins, and rebels; among which last Jesus was reckoned, on the ground of his making himself King or Messiah, Luke 23:1-5 ; Luke 23:13-15 . The words in which the sentence was given were, "Thou shalt go to the cross." The person who was subjected to this punishment was then deprived of all his clothes excepting something around the loins. In this state of nudity he was beaten, sometimes with rods, but more generally with whips. Such was the severity of this flagellation, that numbers died under it. Jesus was crowned with thorns, and made the subject of mockery; but insults of this kind were not among the ordinary attendants of crucifixion. They were owing, in this case, merely to the petulant spirit of the Roman soldiers, Matthew 27:29 ; Mark 15:17 ; John 19:2 ; John 19:5 . The criminal, having been beaten, was subjected to the farther suffering of being obliged to carry the cross himself to the place of punishment, which was commonly a hill, near the public way, and out of the city. The place of crucifixion at Jerusalem was a hill to the north-west of the city. The cross, σταυρος , a post, otherwise called the unpropitious or infamous tree, consisted of a piece of wood erected perpendicularly, and intersected by another at right angles near the top, so as to resemble the letter T. The crime for which the person suffered was inscribed on the transverse piece near the top of the perpendicular one.

There is no mention made in ancient writers of any thing on which the feet of the person crucified rested. Near the middle, however, of the perpendicular beam, there projected a piece of wood, on which he sat, and which answered as a support to the body, since the weight of the body might otherwise have torn away the hands from the nails driven through them. The cross, which was erected at the place of punishment, being there firmly fixed in the ground, rarely exceeded ten feet in height. The victim, perfectly naked, was elevated to the small projection in the middle: the hands were then bound by a rope round the transverse beam, and nailed through the palm.

The assertion that the persons who suffered crucifixion were not in some instances fastened to the cross by nails through the hands and feet, but were merely bound to it by ropes, cannot be proved by the testimony of any ancient writer whatever. That the feet, as well as the hands, were fastened to the cross by means of nails, is expressly asserted in the play of Plautus, entitled "Mostellaria," compared with Tertullian against the Jews, and against Marcion. In regard to the nailing of the feet, it may be farthermore observed, that Gregory Nazianzen has asserted, that one nail only was driven through both of them; but Cyprian, ( de passione, ) who had been a personal witness to crucifixions, and is, consequently, in this case, the better authority, states, on the contrary, that two nails or spikes were driven, one through each foot. The crucified person remained suspended in this way till he died, and the corpse had become putrid. While he exhibited any signs of life, he was watched by a guard; but they left him when it appeared that he was dead. The corpse was not buried, except by express permission, which was sometimes granted by the emperor on his birth day, but only to a very few. An exception, however, to this general practice was made by the Romans in favour of the Jews, on account of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ; and in Judea, accordingly, crucified persons were buried on the same day. When, therefore, there was not a prospect that they would die on the day of the crucifixion, the executioners hastened the extinction of life, by kindling a fire under the cross, so as to suffocate them with the smoke, or by letting loose wild beasts upon them, or by breaking their bones upon the cross with a mallet, as upon an anvil. The Jews, in the times of which we are speaking, namely, while they were under the jurisdiction of the Romans, were in the habit of giving the criminal, before the commencement of his sufferings, a medicated drink of wine and myrrh, Proverbs 31:6 . The object of this was to produce intoxication, and thereby render the pains of the crucifixion less sensible to the sufferer. This beverage was refused by the Saviour for the obvious reason, that he chose to die with the faculties of his mind undisturbed and unclouded, Matthew 27:34 ; Mark 15:23 . It should be remarked, that this sort of drink, which was probably offered out of kindness, was different from the vinegar which was subsequently offered to the Saviour by the Roman soldiers. The latter was a mixture of vinegar and water, denominated posca, and was a common drink for the soldiers in the Roman army, Luke 23:36 ; John 19:29 .

2. Crucifixion was not only the most ignominious, it was likewise the most cruel, mode of punishment: so very much so, that Cicero is justified in saying, in respect to crucifixion, "Ab oculis, auribusque et omni cogitatione hominum removendum esse." [That it ought neither to be seen, heard of, nor even thought of by men.] The sufferings endured by a person on whom this punishment is inflicted are narrated by George Gottlieb Richter, a German physician, in a "Dissertation on the Saviour's Crucifixion." The position of the body is unnatural, the arms being extended back, and almost immovable. In case of the least motion, an extremely painful sensation is experienced in the hands and feet, which are pierced with nails, and in the back, which is lacerated with stripes. The nails, being driven through the parts of the hands and feet which abound in nerves and tendons, create the most exquisite anguish. The exposure of so many wounds to the open air brings on an inflammation, which every moment increases the poignancy of the suffering. In those parts of the body which are distended or pressed, more blood flows through the arteries than can be carried back in the veins. The consequence is, that a greater quantity of blood finds its way from the aorta into the head and stomach, than would be carried there by a natural and undisturbed circulation. The blood vessels of the head become pressed and swollen, which of course causes pain, and a redness of the face. The circumstance of the blood being impelled in more than ordinary quantities into the stomach is an unfavourable one also, because it is that part of the system which not only admits of the blood being stationary, but is peculiarly exposed to mortification. The aorta, not being at liberty to empty, in the free and undisturbed way as formerly, the blood which it receives from the left ventricle of the heart, is unable to receive its usual quantity. The blood of the lungs, therefore, is unable to find a free circulation. This general obstruction extends its effects likewise to the right ventricle, and the consequence is, an internal excitement, and exertion, and anxiety, which are more intolerable than the anguish of death itself. All the large vessels about the heart, and all the veins and arteries in that part of the system, on account of the accumulation and pressure of blood, are the source of inexpressible misery. The degree of anguish is gradual in its increase; and the person crucified is able to live under it commonly till the third, and sometimes till the seventh, day. Pilate, therefore, being surprised at the speedy termination of the Saviour's life, inquired in respect to the truth of it of the centurion himself, who commanded the soldiers, Mark 15:44 .

In order to bring their life to a more speedy termination, so that they might be buried on the same day, the bones of the two thieves were broken with mallets, John 19:31-37 ; and in order to ascertain this point in respect to Jesus, namely, whether he was really dead, or whether he had merely fallen into a swoon, a soldier thrust his lance into his side; but no signs of life appeared, John 19:31-37 .

3. Our Saviour says, that whosoever will be his disciple must take up his cross and follow him, Matthew 16:24 : by which is meant, that his disciples must be willing to suffer for him, in any way in which God, in the course of his providence, may call them to suffer; even to endure martyrdom, if called to it. The cross is also often put for the whole of Christ's sufferings, Ephesians 2:16 ; Hebrews 12:2 ; and the doctrine of his perfect atonement, Galatians 6:14 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Cross'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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