The act of nailing or binding a person to a cross or tree, whether for executing or for exposing the corpse. It was considered the cruelest and most shameful method of capital punishment.

According to ancient historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, various kinds of crucifixion (e.g., impalement) were used by the Assyrians, Scythians, Phoenicians, and Persians (see also Ezra 6.11). The practice of crucifixion was taken over by Alexander the Great and his successors, and especially by the Romans, who reserved it for slaves in cases of robbery and rebellion. Roman citizens could be punished in this way only for the crime of high treason. In the Roman provinces crucifixion served as a means of punishing unruly people who were sentenced as “robbers.” Josephus tells of mass crucifixions in Judea under several Roman prefects, in particular Titus during the siege of Jerusalem; the same also occurred in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria, according to Philo. Before the execution, the victim was scourged (Mark 15.15; War 5.11.449–51). He then had to carry the transverse beam (patibulum) to the place of execution (John 19.17), and was nailed through hands and feet to the cross (see Luke 24.39; John 20.25), from which a wooden peg protruded to support the body; some of these literary details are confirmed by archaeological finds of the bones of crucifixion victims.

Crucifixion, though not mentioned in the list of death penalties in Jewish law (m. Sanh. 7.1), might be suggested in Deuteronomy 21.22–23, which requires that a person put to death must be hung on a tree and buried on the same day. While this is interpreted by the Mishnah (m. Sanh. 6.4) as the exposure of the corpse of a man who was stoned because of blasphemy or idolatry, the order of the verbs is reversed in the Temple Scroll of Qumran: the delinquent must be hung up so that he dies (11QTemple 64.8), which amounts to crucifixion. The same source also specifies that it must be applied in a case of high treason, for example, if an Israelite curses his people or delivers it to a foreign nation. Though such a crime is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it must be derived from the ambiguous term “God's curse” (Deut. 21.23). Delivering up or cursing Israel is also regarded as blasphemy, because the nation belongs to God.

The same interpretation of Deuteronomy 21.22–23 underlies 4QpNah, which mentions “hanging men up alive [on the tree],” presumably a reference to the atrocious deed of Alexander Janneus when he crucified eight hundred of his Pharisean enemies who, in his view, had committed high treason (Josephus, War 1.4.92–97; Ant. 13.14.378–81). Other references to crucifixion include the hanging of eighty “witches” (probably Sadducees) by Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah (m. Sanh. 6.5; see War 1.3.79–80), the crucifixion of Rabbi Jose ben Joezer (Gen. Rab. 65 [141a]), and Matthew 23.34.

In rabbinic writings crucifixion is the death penalty for “robbers” (bandits [t. Sanh. 9.7, Qoh. Rab. 7:26 (109b)) and for martyrs (Gen. Rab. 65 [141a]; Mek. 68b). Isaac, carrying the wood for his sacrifice, was compared to a man bearing the cross on his shoulders (Gen Rab. 56 [118b]). Similarly, a disciple of Jesus must take up his cross and follow him (Mark 8.34 par.; Matt. 10.38).

According to Matthew 20.19 and 26.2, Jesus said that once delivered to the gentiles he would suffer crucifixion. The predictions of suffering by Jesus are not necessarily prophecies after the fact. The inscription on the cross told that Jesus was crucified as “king of the Jews” (Mark 15.26). In his trial before the high priest (Mark 14.62) and before Pilate (15.2), Jesus had admitted to being the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. The members of the Sanhedrin declared that Jesus deserved death because he had uttered blasphemy (Mark 14.63–64); they must have understood Deuteronomy 21.22–23 in a way similar to the Temple Scroll (cf. John 19.7, 15). A false messiah could deliver the people of Israel and the Temple to the gentiles (see John 11.48–50). According to the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanh. 43a), Jesus was executed because he had led Israel astray, a judgment based on Deuteronomy 13.1–11.

By delivering Jesus to Pilate (Mark 15.1), the members of the Sanhedrin could expect the sentence “death by crucifixion,” for the claim to be the Messiah could be understood as a rebellion against Rome. It is for this reason that Jesus was compared with the revolutionary Barabbas (Mark 15.7). After the people had asked for Barabbas (v. 11), Pilate had no other choice than to crucify Jesus, who was scourged (v. 15), mocked by the legionaries (vv. 16–19), and crucified together with two “robbers” (vv. 25–27).

Before the crucifixion Jesus had refused wine mingled with myrrh, which was intended to ease the pain (Mark 15.23). The mockery (vv. 29–32), in which the guilt of Jesus is reiterated, may have been intended in the first place to make him understand his error and to lead him to a confession of sins (see m. Sanh. 6.2). While the crucifixion was carried out by Roman soldiers, the burial in the evening of this day was done by a Jew in accordance with Deuteronomy 21.23 (Mark 15.42–46; see John 19.31).

Deuteronomy 21.22–23 is also related to crucifixion by Paul in Galatians 3.13 (see Acts 5.30; 10.39). Because a person hanging on a tree is cursed by God (Deut. 21.23), the cross of Jesus became a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor. 1.23).

See also Anti‐Semitism


Otto Betz