The Roman Method of Crucifixion. Part Two

Taken and adapted from, “Crucifixion”
Written by, John Osborne
Originally published, 1897


Let us now call attention to the absurdities in the representations of crucifixion…

…offered to us by the religious artists of Christendom in the hundreds of paintings and sculptures in the galleries of the Old World. The cross is nearly always made of such height that the victim on it is elevated with his feet almost or quite above the head of one standing on the ground nearby. For the earlier events, the cross is shown laid on the ground already completed, with the victim extended upon it and the soldiers are driving nails through hands and feet; next after this is the scene where they are raising up the cross with the condemned man thus attached only by the nails, to set it in the hole prepared for it. Now all this, while highly pathetic and poetic, is wholly and absurdly improbable and it might be said impossible. We cannot follow our imaginative painters in these scenes nor accept their presentation of them as sufficiently authoritative in the case; for they had no more reliable accounts of the processes in crucifixion than we of this day have.

The stolid brutes who composed the mass of a mercenary Roman army did not, we may be quite sure, perform any of their tasks with an eye to the picturesque, the pathetic or the poetic. The lazy and degraded creatures went through their work only to do what was actually necessary for the end in view. They would not make the upright post any longer than would suffice to raise the victim’s feet a little from the ground; and for this purpose a height of six or twelve inches would be as good as six feet. They would not first attach the cross-bar before setting the upright post because, as they had other condemned men in their charge to crucify, they would make use of them in setting the upright post while others of their own party were looking up the cross-bar. The rough hewing of a notch or ”revet” at the top of a post could be done before it was set in the hole, and the bar when brought could be quickly nailed in the notch. Nor would they give themselves the needless trouble and delay of completing the cross and attaching the victim while it lay prone on the ground and then raising it all to be set and steadied in the hole till secured by the filled-in earth.

A soldier of any age or country is notorious for exercising his wits to make himself comfortable in the performance of his duty, and we may be confident that every crucifixion was performed with strict regard to economy of labor, and not with the least reference to artistic effect. A climax of absurdity is reached when a modern commentator declares that the soldiers raised up the cross with the victim on it and then allowed it to drop into the hole with a heavy thud (!) that it might produce greater pain where the nails passed through the sensitive limbs! Where did our wise expositor learn that?

There is also another far greater absurdity in representing the sufferer as attached to the cross only by the nails through hands and feet. The crucifix in art with but very few exceptions has this utterly inept presentation; for a moment’s consideration must suffice to show how ill-fitting it must have been to the actual facts of the case. It would be impracticable for any man to maintain the posture represented by this figure on the crucifix of art, stretched symmetrically upright, the body in its whole length kept parallel with the upright post, the shoulders at nearly a level with the cross-bar, the arms stretched out along the bar at nearly right angles to the body, and thus the whole weight made to rest on the one or two nails through the feet. It would be impossible for any human being by the utmost exercise of muscle and will to maintain such a position for even six minutes, not to say for six hours or days. To declare that he could do this is to go directly against all that we know concerning the limits of human endurance or persistence.

The legs could not be thus extended and kept on the tense stretch; they would be very soon bent outward at the knees so as to let the body downward and forward, and it would then be held and practically supported by the nails through the hands; by this a great weight would be brought upon the two small carpal bones of the hand where the nails passed between them, and upon the fine and lax ligaments uniting them at the first knuckle, and it would be entirely too great for them to sustain; the delicate bones would be broken and the ligaments ruptured; by this means the wound would be so opened and enlarged as to allow the passage of the nail-head through it, the arm would then be released and the victim would fall from the cross.

More than this, accounts all agree that after the doomed man had been on the cross for twenty-four or thirty-six hours, exposed to a burning sun by day and to the chilling damps of night, to rain or cold, there came a raging fever and a violent delirium…

…in the unconsciousness attending these attacks the body must have been subject to pitiable writhings and contortions, and unless held by some securer means than nails through the delicate structures of hands and feet, it would surely be loosened and fall. In some cases there was a wooden pin driven into the post about midway to serve as a kind of seat to bear up nearly all the weight of the body; but this does not relieve the difficulty, for the upper part of the body would still be free to writhe and sway about to a degree sufficient to effect its release from the nails in the hands; the wooden pin at the middle would also serve as a fulcrum, by means of which the arms and legs, as powerful levers, would, in the convulsive throes of a delirious state, certainly and quickly tear the hands and feet from their fastenings. From all these considerations we are well warranted in concluding that other means than the three or four nails were of necessity used in keeping the body attached to the cross.

And here it is pertinent for everyone to inquire, where, then, did the unpractical artists obtain the notion of nails as the only means? The answer is not far to seek; it was through a misconception of the exact meaning of the passage in John 20:25. Our artists were devout men, and were, as they thought, guided strictly by the words of the Divine Book, and since, in the only place where mention is made of any of the instruments of crucifixion, the nails alone are alluded to, the painters forthwith concluded that these were exclusively the means used for attachment to the cross. But Thomas’ declaration was made not for the purpose of setting forth an exhaustive description of the method of crucifixion, but for another and entirely different purpose; he was seeking for evidence of the identity of the body of this man, alleged to be that of Jesus, with the body of his Master whom he knew they had applied to the cross, and he sought for that evidence in the marks that could be left by only one class of the instruments of crucifixion namely, the nails. Thomas did not add, “Except I shall also see on His body the red marks left by the ropes that supported Him, I will not believe; “Thomas knew better than to say that, for it was now the eleventh day since Jesus had been suspended by the ropes, and during eight days of those eleven the blood had been coursing through His revived body, all the functions of life were again in full and vigorous exercise, and the red marks made by the ropes had therefore disappeared. It was a strange error for artists to adopt summarily the conclusion that the sole mention by Thomas of the nails implied the sole use of them as the affixive appliances for the crucifixion of our Lord.

Thus with close adherence to all elements of the practical, and also of the probable, where ever statements of fact have failed in this study of our subject, we find that the conclusions of the commentators need to be modified by the substitution of one little word for another little one; they all agree that the victim was affixed by ropes or nails, it needs that “and” be put in place of “or,” and then the statement, by ropes and nails will be in accord with what was the fact in every instance. The weight of the sufferer being thus wholly borne by the ropes or withes which held him suspended, we may consider in what manner and by what portions of the body he could be hung so as best to fulfil the object for which he was crucified; for it may be again repeated that the purpose was to prolong life to the utmost, that he might undergo the fullest measure of torment from starvation and thirst.