Saturday, October 23, 2004

crucifixion, dishonour, and theodicy

The crucified remains of the heal bone of "Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol" (right), with reconstructed model (left)

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus, as well as other sources, refers to the crucifixion of thousands of people, but there is only one archeological discovery of a crucified body. This is not surprising, because a crucified body was usually left to decay on the cross and therefore would not be preserved. The only reason these archeological remains were preserved was because family members gave the crucified criminal a burial.

A burial tomb had a central room where bodies were left to decay, then the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary. The ossuary was then placed within tubes, tunnels, surrounding the central room in the tomb.

The remains were found accidentally in an ossuary with the crucified man’s name on it, “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol.” The ossuary contained a heel with a nail driven through its side, indicating that the heals may have been driven through the sides of the tree (one on the left, one on the right, not both in front). The nail had olive wood on it indicating that he was crucified not on a beam but on an olive tree. Olive trees are not high. So this indicates crucified victims were crucified at eye level. His legs were broken.

Crucifixion: The victim takes days to die, slowly from suffocation. The dead body is not removed from the cross but is left on the cross for vultures and other birds to consume. The goal of crucifixion is not just to kill the criminal, but is also a way to wreck the body, and to dishonour the body. In ancient tradition, an honourable death requires burial, so to wreck the body and not permit them to be buried and to leave them hanging on a cross is a grave dishonour on the person.

Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was not only a means of execution but also a means of exhibiting the criminal’s low social status. It is the most dishonourable death imaginable. The elites of society were never subject to corporal punishments, instead, they were fined or exiled. Ninety-five percent of the population of the Roman world was of low status. As part of their execution, slaves and traders would suffer exposure to wild animals, burning alive, and “crux” = “fork” = “crucifixion.” Then there were the “humane” methods of executing someone: decapitation, sent to mines (an eventual death sentence) or public work (which was probably an eventual death sentence). Josephus mentions Jews of high rank that were crucified, but this was to point out their status was taken away from them.

Control of one’s own body was vital in the ancient world. Capital punishment takes away control over one’s own body, thereby a loss of status and honour. That is why suicide is more honourable in many cultures, because it is an opportunity to die under your own control and not under the control of someone else. (Is this partly why Judas killed himself? To avoid execution?)

Josephus has a story of Romans crucifying people along the walls of Jerusalem. Josephus says that the Roman soldiers would amuse themselves by crucifying criminals in different positions. (Like they did with Peter).

The gospels describe soldiers gambling for the robes of Jesus, indicating criminals were crucified naked. They may have been naked even before they were executed, during their scourging or other torture.

There was confusion in the early church regarding the fact that the leader and founder of their movement was crucified and dishonoured so severely. How could the Messiah, Son of God, have suffered the greatest dishonour available?

How is the divinity of Christ compatible with being crucified?

The Apostle Paul understood people’s confusion, and insisted that crucifixion was a “we preach Christ crucified” … “foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block for the Jews.”

For Paul, it was not just a sacrifice for sins, but an event that people can mystically participate in through faith: Romans 6:8, “if we die with Him, we will also live with Him.” Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ…nevertheless…I live by faith.”

He argued that Jesus’ death was an expiatory death: Romans 4:25, ”Jesus was handed over for us…” In this way, the death of Christ was a necessary part of God’s plan for the justification of Gentiles.

In Philippians, Paul describes how his sufferings and the sufferings of the Philippian church are connected with the sufferings of Christ, and have salvific meaning in themselves.

Death and rejuvenation myths are found in ancient Hellenistic mystery religions that were very popular in the world of the New testament. They centered around the resurrection of a hero/deity. The believer can go through a ritualized story to achieve the benefits. The deity is realized in their resurrection.

Some traditions believe that the divinity of Christ left Jesus and entered Simon of Cyrene, who helped carry the cross of Jesus. Therefore it was only the human Jesus that was crucified, not God. Biblical foundation for this view is found in the scene of Jesus crying out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This view was developed as early as 95 CE.

The Gnostic tradition rejected the bodily crucifixion of Jesus because they rejected the very physicality of Jesus. The famous Gnostic Gospel of Thomas does not mention the crucifixion at all: the writer is concerned with the words of Christ, but not his death, and the salvific “secret” words that, when interpreted, lead to “salvation.” The words require interpretation, and when interpreted right, one finds life. The living Jesus gives words that are “hidden.” The death of Jesus has no role to play.

Q says nothing about the death of Jesus, but it says a number of things about the death of other people. Q has “prophetic” passages vaguely alluding to crucifixion, “to taking up the cross,” and how “Jerusalem persecuted its prophets.” Nothing sacrificial or salvific about the death of Jesus, it is simply what is common for a prophet. Q does not say “take up MY cross” it says “whoever takes up THEIR cross,” in the sense that one must be ready to be persecuted.

Luke, in his gospel, turns it into a hero’s death, with details of the suffering. This is following in the Hellenistic literary tradition of heroic deaths: a prolonged and gruesome death is heroic on the part of the victim. How does one account for this increased attention to painful death in Hellenistic literature? There are a few important factors:

(i) The political scene was changing from city states to larger governments. (ii) Ubiquity of slavery (2/3 of Rome population were slaves or of slave origin). (iii) A lot more travel. (iv) A large sector of the population forcibly moved away from homes and families and villages, therefore families being forcibly separated by slavery. Therefore more personal suffering.

Most persons in the ancient world would have accounted for their personal suffering by fate. Stoics rationalized fate into a law of nature, but for most people, suffering is caused by power over which they had no control or understanding. Magic was employed to appease deities. This is an age where family structures were being broken down, there was enhanced attention to suffering, the heroic, and a literature of consolation. There was also the rise of the Roman games: public executions for entertainment. Early literature of consolation is about how to deal with loss and suffering. Luke may fit into this ancient genre.

Important references for the ancient practice of crucifixion and an examination of archeological evidence:

Tzaferis, Vassilios. 1985. “Crucifixion -- The Archaeological Evidence.” Biblical Archaeology Review 11 (February): 44–53.

Zias, Joseph. 1985. “The Crucified Man from Giv’at Ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal.” Israel Exploration Journal 35(1): 22–27.