He Was Crucified

(C) 2003, Don Mize

In San Pedro Cutud in the Philippines, volunteers are nailed to crosses on Good Friday while others march in processions in which bamboo whips cut their backs open.  In fact, self-flagellation and crucifixions are familiar scenes on Good Friday in the Philippines according to the 29 March 2002 article by Associated Press writer Tini Tran carried by AP Worldstream.  The article, “Faith, crucifixions mark Good Friday celebrations in the Philippines,” points out that while the Roman Catholic Church officially frowns on these rituals, nothing is done to stop them.

One may wonder about such practices, yet the underlying fact remains that Jesus was crucified (Matthew 26-28), and Christian theology has been dealing with that fact ever since.  In addition, the ancient story about a man dying on a cross makes us wonder: others died on Roman crosses.  In fact, tens of thousands died on Roman crosses.  In a 4 April 2001 article entitled “Crucifixion: ‘the most wretched of deaths’” by Reuters writer Megan Goldin, the details of this usually prolonged, agonizing death are described.  The article goes on to cite that during the Jewish revolt of 70 AD, the Romans crucified 500 people a day on the Mount of Olives, running out of wood and space.  Josephus, the Jewish historian of the period, wrote that the Romans crucified half the population of Jerusalem.

In an article entitled “Christ and The Art of Agony” we find an interesting insight.  Nigel Spivey wrote in the 1 August 1999 edition of History Today that early examples of Christian art show the death of martyrs (individuals dying for their faith), but none show Jesus Christ crucified.  He believes the absence of a crucified Jesus is probably because crucifixion disgraced the person: only the dregs of humanity merited crucifixion in the Roman Empire.  Usually unburied, wild dogs disposed of the bodies.  Given the stigma of crucifixion, the fact that the earliest documents in the New Testament (the letters of the apostle Paul) insist on preaching Christ crucified is astounding.

In fact, Spivey goes on to point out that it was not until the fifth or sixth centuries that Christian art pictured a crucified Jesus.  Earlier Christian art favored the victorious Roman Christ, depicting Jesus as either the Good Shepherd or as a youthful and amiable Bringer of Joy rather than a Man of Sorrows.  Christian art showing Jesus crucified only appeared after Constantine, the first “Christianized” emperor, came to power.  Constantine not only made Christian worship legal but he also discontinued crucifixion in 312 AD.  As hundreds of years passed, the collective memory of the low status of crucifixion faded.  Nevertheless, only in 692 AD in Constantinople did a Synod give official sanction for the Cross to be deployed as a Christian symbol and officially encouraged Christian artist to portray Christ crucified.

The crucifixion of Jesus is different not because he was crucified but because the early church encountered a living Christ.  Crucifixion had meaning because of who Jesus was, not because he was crucified.  Leslie Scrivener writes about areas where crucifixion is still practiced.  In a 2 April 1999 article in the Toronto Star entitled “Scholars agree Christ suffered ‘the most wretched of deaths,’” she tells of two Roman Catholic priests in the Sudan who have been threatened with crucifixion along with 18 others under medieval Islamic law.  She also cites Amnesty International reports that reveal that crucifixion as a means of execution is still practiced in several African countries as well as Yemen.  The crucifixion of Jesus would be a sad but not unusual event if that were the end of the story.

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