Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links


1. Its nature . Crucifixion denotes a form of execution in which the condemned person was affixed in one way or another to a cross (Lat. crux ) and there left to die. The Gr. term rendered ‘cross’ in the Eng. NT is stauros ( stauroô = ‘crucify’), which has a wider application than we ordinarily give to ‘cross,’ being used of a single stake or beam as well as of a cross composed of two beams. The crucifixion of living persons does not meet us on OT ground (unless it be in Ezra 6:11; see RV [Note: Revised Version.] ), though death by hanging does ( Esther 7:10 . The stauroô of LXX [Note: Septuagint.] here renders the Heb. talah = ‘to hang’); but the hanging up of a dead body, especially on a tree, is familiar ( Jos 10:26; cf. 1 Samuel 31:10 , 2 Samuel 4:12; 2 Samuel 21:12 ), and is sanctioned by the Law ( Deuteronomy 21:22 ), with the proviso that a body thus hung, as something accursed, must be removed and buried before nightfall ( Deuteronomy 21:23 ). This enactment explains John 19:31 , Galatians 3:13 , as well as the reff. in the NT to the cross as a tree ( Acts 5:30; Acts 10:39; Acts 13:29 , 1 Peter 2:24 ).

2. Its origin and use . The origin of crucifixion is traced to the Phœnicians, from whom it passed to many other nations, including both Greeks and Romans. Among the latter it was exceedingly common, but was confined almost exclusively to the punishment of slaves, foreigners, or criminals of the lowest class, being regarded as incompatible with the dignity of any Roman citizen (cf. Cic. in Verr . i. 5, v. 61, 66). This explains why, as tradition affirms, St. Paul was beheaded, while St. Peter and other Apostles, like the Master Himself, were put to death on the cross.

3. Forms of the cross . The primitive form was the crux simplex a single post set upright in the earth, to which the victim was fastened; or a sharp stake on which he was impaled. The Roman cross was more elaborate, consisting of two beams, which, however, might be put together in different ways. Three shapes are distinguished: (1) The crux commissa (T), shaped like a capital T, and commonly known as St. Anthony’s cross; (2) the crux immissa (+), the form with which we are most familiar; (3) the crux decussata (X), shaped like the letter X, and known as St. Andrew’s cross. Early Christian tradition affirms that it was on (2) that Jesus died ( e.g. Iren. Hær . ii. 24, § 4; Justin, Trypho , 91); and this is confirmed by the statements of the Gospels as to the ‘title’ that was set above His head ( Matthew 27:37 , Mark 15:26 , Luke 23:38 , John 19:19 f.).

4. Method and accompaniments of crucifixion . These are very fully illustrated in the Gospel narratives of the death of Jesus, to which we shall now especially refer. Immediately after being condemned to the cross, a prisoner was brutally scourged. [In the case of Jesus the scourging appears to have taken place before His condemnation ( John 19:1 ), and to have been intended by Pilate as a compromise with the Jews between the death sentence and a verdict of acquittal ( Luke 23:22 ).] The cross-beam ( patibulum ), not the whole cross, was then laid on his shoulders, and borne by him to the place of execution, while his titulus ( John 19:19 f., Gr. titlos , Eng. ‘title’) or tablet of accusation hung around his neck, or was carried before him by a herald. If it was only the patibulum that Jesus carried, the probable failure of His strength by the way, leading to the incident of Simon the Cyrenian ( Matthew 27:32 ||), must be attributed not to the weight of His burden, but to sheer physical exhaustion aggravated by loss of blood through scourging, as well as to the anguish that pressed upon His soul.

Arrived at the place of execution, which both with the Romans and the Jews was outside of the city (see art. Golgotha), the condemned was stripped of his clothing by the soldiers detailed to carry out the sentence, who immediately appropriated it as their lawful booty (Matthew 27:35 ||). He was then laid on the ground, the crossbeam was thrust beneath his shoulders, and his hands were fastened to the extremities, sometimes with cords, but more usually, as in the case of Jesus ( John 20:25 , Luke 24:39 f.; cf. Colossians 2:14 ), with nails. The beam was next raised into position and securely fixed to the upright already planted in the ground. On the upright was a projecting peg ( sedile ) astride of which the victim was made to sit, thereby relieving the strain on the pierced hands, which might otherwise have been torn away from the nails. Finally the feet were fastened to the lower part of the upright, either with nails ( Luke 24:39 f.) or with cords.

The cross was not a lofty erection much lower than it is usually represented in Christian art (cf. Matthew 27:48 ||). Hanging thus quite near the ground, Jesus, in the midst of His last agonies, was all the more exposed to the jeers and insults of the bystanders and passers-by. It was a custom in Jerusalem to provide some alleviation for the physical tortures and mental sufferings of the crucified by giving him a stupefying draught. This was offered to Jesus before He was nailed to the cross; but He refused to take it ( Matthew 27:34 ). He would drink every drop of the cup that His Father had given Him, and go on to death with an unclouded consciousness. But for this we could hardly have had those ‘Seven Words from the Cross’ which come to us like the glorious rays that shoot from a sun sinking in awful splendour.

In crucifixion the pains of death were protracted long sometimes for days. Even when the victims were nailed and not merely tied to the cross, it was hunger and exhaustion, not loss of blood, that was the direct cause of death. Sometimes an end was put to their sufferings by the crurifragium the breaking of their legs by hammer-strokes. It is not likely that in ordinary circumstances the Jews would induce a Roman governor to pay any attention to the law of Deuteronomy 21:22 f. But, as the day following our Lord’s crucifixion was not only a Sabbath, but the Sabbath of Passover week, Pilate was persuaded to give orders that Jesus and the two robbers crucified along with Him should be despatched by the crurifragium and their bodies removed ( John 19:31 ). The soldiers broke the legs of the robbers first, but when they came to Jesus they found that He was already dead. One of them, either in sheer brutality or to make sure of His death, ran a spear into His side. The blood and water that gushed out ( John 19:34 , cf. 1 John 5:6; 1 John 5:8 ) have been held by some medical authorities to justify the opinion that the Saviour died of a broken heart. His death being certified, Joseph of Arimathæa, who had begged the body from Pilate, removed it from the cross and laid it in his own sepulchre ( Matthew 27:57 ff. ||).

J. C. Lambert.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Crucifixion'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/crucifixion.html. 1909.