The most famous person ever crucified was a 1st century Jewish man from Nazareth named Jesus. According to the Christian Scriptures and the writings of the first-century Jewish historian, Titus Flavius Josephus, Jesus was crucified by the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime between 26-36 CE. Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion for the crime of sedition — treason — against the Roman Empire ruled by Emperor Tiberius Caesar, son of God.
When I was a child, I associated crucifixion only with Jesus. This made sense since many of the people I knew wore crucifixes around their neck and since the walls of the churches and parochial schools I attended were decorated with crucifixes. Not once did it occur to me that someone other than Jesus had been killed by crucifixion. I knew about the two thieves who had been hung on crosses alongside Jesus, but I did not equate this with crucifixion. The idea of being bound with ropes somehow did not match the bloody gore of having one’s feet and hands nailed to a cross.
I wore a crucifix most of my adult life. I had several of them, and I displayed them prominently over my chest dangling from a thin gold chain. This was extremely fashionable back in the disco era of the 1970s when men neglected to button the top three or four buttons on their shirts. I was not trying to make a statement about my Catholicism… merely accessorizing like everyone else. I suppose I may have looked at my crucifixes as good luck charms.
I remember when I was in high school, I was playing an away tennis match in Staunton, Virginia. Instead of the usual best-out-of-three-set format, we were playing a 10-game pro set — first one to win 10 games by two won the match. I was down seven games to three and the situation looked absolutely hopeless. If I lost my individual match, not only would my team lose the overall match, we would end up with a losing season. If I won, the results would be the opposite. I was nervous and I was desperate. A lot was riding on my match. At that moment, I instinctively began making the sign of the cross and kissing my crucifix every time before my opponent served and before each of my serves. I did not lose another game. I won 10-7. Afterward, coach McConnell put his arm over my shoulders as we walked to the team bus. I remember looking down at the sidewalk and saying to him in an undertone of disbelief, “I will never doubt that there is a God in heaven again.” Was it a miracle, pure dumb luck, or merely a dose of extra self-confidence fueled by silly superstitious thinking?
I was in Rome with my future wife in 1994. I was determined to buy a crucifix in Vatican City so I could say, “Yeah, I got this at the Vatican.” We searched several shops near St. Peter’s Basilica until I found the perfect little gold-plated crucifix. I wore it every day for the next 10 years until I lost it one rainy evening riding down a rough mountain road in northwestern Honduras on the back of small utility vehicle. I was standing on the flatbed struggling to maintain my balance when my chain got tangled on the bar I was holding and snapped. The next morning, I thoroughly searched the flatbed and the seat in the front. Nothing. I figured that my crucifix must have fallen through a crack and was lying half buried somewhere on the mountainside. I like to imagine a Chiorti Indian will one be walking down from his village to find work in town and stumble across the crucifix in the dirt. He will interpret it as a sign from above and proceed to attach some meaning to it. Miraculous, sacred stories will evolve over the years and be credited to my crucifix. A church or statue will be built on the site of the discovery, and people will travel from far away to worship and be healed by my long lost icon. That’s the way these things seem to work.
I never again acquired another crucifix. Right about that time, my family and I had begun attending an Episcopal church and I had enrolled in a theology course. My wife had grown up Lutheran, and we decided to find a denomination of Christianity that fell somewhere between Catholicism and Lutheranism. I decided to interpret the loss of my crucifix as a sign that I should consider moving on and finding something different to hang around my neck. New church, new religion, new jewelry.
That Jesus was the only person of whom I knew whose death was widely commemorated by the wearing of a crucifix had long reinforced my sense that his was the only case of crucifixion in history. This was before I became interested in theology and started to read about the history of Christianity and what scholars have been able to piece together about the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I was slightly stunned when I eventually found out that Jesus was only one of tens of thousands of people the Romans crucified.
Crucifixion as a form of capital punishment was used regularly against enemies of the state. The procedure was first to torture and publicly humiliate those who would dare to challenge Rome’s authority before disposing of them. Rome continued to crucify those whom it perceived as its enemies until Emperor Constantine outlawed the practice in 337 CE — three full centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus.
The idea that Jesus was not the only one or the last one to be crucified was a revelation to me. I found it hard to envision tens of thousands of people experiencing the same kind of pain that Jesus went through for the same amount of time or more. When I was a child, I thought that the only reason Jesus lasted as long as he did on the cross before he died was because he had superhuman powers that no one else possessed. Then it occurred to me, “So just how many people were crucified before Jesus?”
It took me only a brief scan of the historical literature to find out that several other civilizations besides the Romans used crucifixion as a form execution, including the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Scythians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Seleucids, and Judeans. There were also the Indians, Britons, Taurians, Thracians, Celts, Germans, Japanese, Wallachians, Ottoman Turks, Spaniards, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, Soviets, Tibetans, Chinese, and North Koreans. So, as it turns out, Jesus was not even the first to be crucified… not by a long shot. There were many before him, as well as many after.
At least six major civilizations before the Romans came along had no qualms about crucifying their enemies en masse. There are numerous historical accounts of major battles or uprisings after which the losers were ordered to be crucified by the winning emperor, king, or general. I slowly began to realize that crucifixion was not nearly as unique in the ancient world as we in the modern world have grown up believing. With this new perspective, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth suddenly took on a different texture for me. It did not diminish the suffering of Jesus. But it did raise the question of why the instrument of this man’s death became such a sacred symbol to billions of Christians for two millennia.
So much of the culture of Christianity is based on glorifying the physical suffering of Jesus. It is central to conveying the message of God’s love to humanity. Each time Christians look at a crucifix or a cross, they are reminded that God became incarnate in the person of a Galilean peasant and willingly endured the unimaginable pain of crucifixion to demonstrate the extent of his love. It was meant as the ultimate sacrifice to cleanse the world of the sin of Adam — a price paid by the Creator of the Universe to gain access for people on planet Earth to eternal life in a celestial place called Heaven.
I have always had a difficult time making sense of the Jesus-died-for-your-sins explanation. I remember often engaging in mental gymnastics, only to find myself staring into the distance, shaking my head… “What?”. Mostly, I came away with a clue as to why guilt is so ingrained within Christianity, especially Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism. It is as if by constantly amplifying the message that Jesus suffered and died for me, I might be deterred from sinning and thus betraying the ultimate grand gesture. What has long nagged at me most about the Jesus-died-for-your-sins explanation is its underlying emphasis on the uniqueness of the pain that Jesus experienced, as if that somehow builds a more convincing case for God’s love.
The fact is that there was nothing unique about either the manner in which Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by the Romans or the reason for his death sentence. While the agony must have been excruciating and unbearable for Jesus, the same was true for tens and probably hundreds of thousands of other people who have been crucified going back to at least 20 centuries. Some of these people could arguably have been more “innocent” than Jesus, for while Jesus purposely and boldly challenged Roman authority, others who were crucified may have merely had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as in the case of a 14-year old Assyrian Christian boy who was reported to have been crucified in Basra, Iraq in October 2006. Exactly who were these people?