The Criminal Penalty of Crucifixion

CrucifixionEvery year in the time leading up to Easter reenactments of the suffering and execution of Jesus Christ take place around the world. While the story of Christ’s crucifixion is nearly universally known, knowledge about crucifixion as criminal punishment, its widespread use and the horrible nature of death is not.  The brutal[1] method of execution dates at least to the 7th Century BC and remains the law in some countries today.

As a method of execution, in which the condemned prisoner is tied or nailed to a large tree or wooden cross and left to hang there until dead, crucifixion is perhaps the death penalty at its worst.

Retribution, Incapacitation and Deterrence

Criminal punishment has several ends; among them are retribution, deterrence and incapacitation.[2] Crucifixion certainly addresses these goals, in the cruelest fashion.

Retribution imposes suffering for the alleged crime and incapacitation imposes an inability to repeat the crime.  Crucifixion’s pain and death serves those ends. The most repressive regimes impose the most abhorrent penalties, perhaps as much for deterrence as for retribution and incapacitation.

That Jesus was taken down from the Cross soon after he died was unusual.[3]  Typically, following a crucifixion, the condemned were left hanging as a public display.  This was a warning to others: Do not do what this man did as you will suffer the same fate.  It was publicly conducted to serve as a warning and deterrent for those who might consider disobeying the law.   An excerpt from Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ  represents vividly the cruel nature of crucifixion.

From the Persians to the Romans

Roman Soldier at CrucifixionCrucifixions are recorded among ancient civilizations, originating with the Persians. The original crucifixions were not on a cross traditionally associated with Jesus. The victim was tied or impaled upon a single upright stake. The victim’s hands and feet were bound and nailed to the stake using just one nail through both wrists and one nail through both ankles, with a wooden plank fastened to the stake as a footrest.

From the Persians, crucifixions spread to the Assyrians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans, Celts and Britons. Execution by crucifixion became common under the rule of Greek King Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). Eventually, crucifixion became the principal Roman form of capital punishment. During the Roman Empire, violent offenders, those guilty of high treason, despised enemies, deserters, slaves and foreigners were crucified.

Roman citizens, especially the upper class, were generally exempt from such a shameful death regardless of their crime (St. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded). The explanation for this was that crucifixion was not just an execution, but a show of shame and disgrace.

The Legal Basis for Jesus’ Crucifixion

Pontius Pilate at the Trial of JesusThere is controversy over the criminal charges that were used to justify Jesus’ crucifixion. Ultimately, at His trial Jesus was asked by Pontius Pilate if He was a king. Though He denied ruling an earthly kingdom, the Roman legal system branded Him a traitor, guilty of treason. His was a capital offense with a penalty of crucifixion.

Cause of Death by Crucifixion

Anatomy of Nails in CrucifixionDeath could come in hours or days, depending on the methods used, the health of those crucified and environmental circumstances.

One theory holds that death was caused by asphyxiation. With the whole body weight borne by the stretched arms, the victim’s ability to exhale was severely compromised. In order to breathe the victim would have to draw himself up by his arms, or have his feet supported by tying or by a wood block.

Roman executioners would break a victim’s legs in order to hasten death. The two thieves on either side of Christ had their legs broken. With broken legs a man could not support himself for breath and died within a few minutes.

It was typical to prepare a condemned for crucifixion by inflicting other wounds. Each wound was intended to produce intense agony.  This is consistent with accounts of Christ’s scourging.[4]

While asphyxiation has been proposed as the principal cause of death from crucifixion, the fact remains that sometimes individuals survived on a cross for days.  Modern science has proposed that death resulted from a number of other causes, including physical shock, dehydration, and exhaustion.  Historical records indicate that besides the breaking of legs, death could be hastened by building a fire below the cross with the smoke choking the victim, or inflicting additional wounds.[5]

A 2006 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine looked at medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion.   The conclusion of the study, given that the researchers could not humanely reenact an actual crucifixion was that “there is insufficient evidence to safely state exactly how people did die from crucifixion in Roman times”.

Crucifixion in the Modern World

Though of ancient origin and brutal in its application, crucifixion has survived to modern times in parts of the world. German soldiers are said to have crucified a Canadian during World War I. In Japan it was used for prisoners[6] during World War II. Crucifixion as a criminal punishment remains as part of Iran’s Islamic Criminal Law.  Crucifixion survives as part of the penal code in Sudan. In March, 2013, a man convicted of armed robbery in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to be crucified for three days.

The Easter season involves remembrances of Christ’s suffering and death.  For Christians it has special theological meaning involving God’s love and His sacrifice.  Attention to the nature of Christ’s death and its use through history should remind all of us of the need to battle the darkest sides of humanity.


[1] The painful nature of crucifixion has become part of the English language with the word excruciating, literally translated as “out of the cross”.

[2] There is generally a fourth goal of criminal punishment:  rehabilitation.  As crucifixion is a death sentence, rehabilitation is obviously not a goal of a government inflicting that punishment.

[3] Pontius Pilate took into consideration Jewish Passover beliefs and traditions, and in response to a special request allowed Jesus’ body to be removed and buried:  “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).

[4] The crown of thorns served two purposes, one of additional pain and the second of humiliation for the “King of the Jews”.

[5] While the spear in Christ’s side comes to mind, biblical accounts indicate that this was to be certain He had died and that in fact He was dead when his side was pierced.

[6] An Australian soldier, Ringer Edwards, survived a 63 hour ordeal of crucifixion at the hands of the Japanese during World War II.

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