Torture Stake 


Torture Stake Nailed to the Tree
Mandatory Sentencing Carrying the Cross
Release of the Body

Torture Stake

Did Jesus die upon a cross, with intersecting horizontal and vertical timbers, or upon a vertical stake? Writing early in the second century, this author likens the cross to the letter 'T,' tau:

  • “And because the cross, which is shaped like the T, was destined to convey grace, it mentions also the 'three hundred.'”
  • (Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 9.8, The Apostolic Fathers, Lightfoot, Harmer, and Holmes, p. 174).”

The letters of the Greek alphabet did double duty as numbers. If the penal cross then in use had a vertical member only, it is unclear why the letter 'T' would be the ideal symbol, instead of the letter 'I,' iota (which this author has already claimed for the first letter of the name 'Jesus'). A later pagan writer also makes the T = cross connection:

"Men weep, and bewail their lot, and curse Cadmus with many curses for introducing Tau into the family of letters; they say it was his body that tyrants took for a model, his shape that they imitated, when they set up the erections on which men are crucified. Stauros the vile engine is called, and it derives its vile name from him. Now, with all these crimes upon him, does he not deserve death, nay, many deaths? For my part I know none bad enough but that supplied by his own shape — that shape which he gave to the gibbet named Stauros after him by men." (Lucian, Trial in the Court of Vowels).

Though the Greek word 'stauros,' cross, does incorporate 'tau,' Lucian's derivation is whimsical rather than plausible. It does however leave the reader with a visual image. Tertullian likewise saw the Latin letter 'T' as a prophecy of the cross:

  • “Now the Greek letter Tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross. . .”
  • (Tertullian, 'Five Books Against Marcion,' Book III, Chapter 22).

A 'torture stake,' as the Jehovah's Witnesses conceive it, does not look like a 'T.' He is discussing Ezekiel 9:4, and seems to have found his 'T' in a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew 'tav,' meaning 'mark.' (Some of these interpretations do not survive transfer from the Septuagint; the point is not that they are worthwhile Bible interpretations, but that they imply the interpreter thought a cross looked somewhat like the letter 'T,' with an upright member and a cross-bar) While Roman crucifixion was not invariably carried on in the same format, there is no compelling reason to abandon traditional depictions of Jesus' death on the tree merely because someone thinks the cross is a pagan symbol. So is the circle, so is a straight line.

Noticing that the rude wooden puppets which are the earliest heathen idols are in the form of the cross, Tertullian, answering the 'cross-worshipper' cat-call, enlarges upon this shape:

  • “Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an erect position is a part of a cross, and indeed the greater portion of its mass. But an entire cross is attributed to us, with its transverse beam, of course, and its projecting seat. . .Well, then, this modeller, before he did anything else, hit upon the form of a wooden cross, because even our own body assumes as its natural position the latent and concealed outline of a cross. Since the head rises upwards, and the back takes a straight direction, and the shoulders project laterally, if you simply place a man with his arms and hands outstretched, you will make the general outline of a cross.”
  • (Tertullian, To the Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 12, p. 223 ECF).

Again, seeking to match up a prophecy which mentions a 'unicorn,' a rhinoceros, Tertullian suggests the conventional form of the cross:

  • “For of the antenna, which is a part of a cross, the ends are called horns; while the midway stake of the whole frame is the unicorn.”
  • (Tertullian, 'Five Books Against Marcion,' Book III, Chapter 18).

If the Jehovah's Witnesses were correct about the form of the cross, then there would be nothing other than "the midway stake," no 'horns.' Justin Martyr interprets the same passage the same way:

  • “Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of an unicorn represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross. For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the center, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 91).

While this may not be a plausible interpretation of the original passage, which reads, "his horns are the horns of a unicorn," it is clear these writers are not describing a 'torture stake.' Tertullian distinguishes the 'horns' from the 'central pole:'

  • “But Christ was therein signified: 'bull,' by reason of each of His two characters, — to some fierce, as Judge; to others gentle, as Savior; whose “horns” were to be the extremities of the cross. For even in a ship’s yard — which is part of a cross — this is the name by which the extremities are called; while the central pole of the mast is a 'unicorn.'”
  • (Tertullian, 'An Answer to the Jews,' Chapter 10, p. 297 ECF).

A man tied to a 'torture stake' does not stretch out his hands, yet these writers link Jesus' death on a cross with Old Testament references to stretched-out hands:

  • “When the people,” replied I, “waged war with Amalek, and the son of Nave (Nun) by name Jesus (Joshua), led the fight, Moses himself prayed to God, stretching out both hands, and Hur with Aaron supported them during the whole day, so that they might not hang down when he got wearied. For if he gave up any part of this sign, which was an imitation of the cross, the people were beaten, as is recorded in the writings of Moses. . .he himself made the sign of the cross.”
  • (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 90).

'Barnabas' makes the same connection: "And again he speaks to Moses, when war was being waged against Israel by foreigners, and in order that he might remind those being attacked that they had been handed over to death because of their sins, the Spirit says to the heart of Moses that he should make a symbol of the cross and of him who was destined to suffer because, he is saying, unless they place their hope in him, war shall be waged against them forever. Therefore Moses piled one shield upon another in the midst of the battle, and standing high above them all he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was again victorious." (Epistle of Barnabas, 12:2).

Lactantius continues the image, likening His figure to outspread wings: "For in that He extended His hands on the cross, He plainly stretched out His wings towards the east and the west, under which all nations from either side of the world might assemble and repose." (Lactantius, Epitome of the Divine Institutes, Chapter 51).

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Another well-known verse which refers to the stretching out of hands is Isaiah 65:2, "I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts. . ." (Isaiah 65:2). The early writers saw in this a prophecy of the crucifixion: "And, again, concerning His cross Isaiah says thus: I have stretched out my hands all the day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people. For this is an indication of the cross. . ." (Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Section 79). If hands are not spread out on the cross, then interpreting this verse of Christ on the cross is in vain; which, however, the Jehovah's Witnesses will perceive as no loss, inasmuch as the speaker is Jehovah God. Writers who lived when crucifixion was still employed as a method of execution are not likely to be mistaken about this, and the Jehovah's Witnesses who insist upon a single stake in order to assign a pagan origin to the image of the cross, are not likely to be correct.

Cyprian likewise offers Moses' outspread hands as a fore-taste of the crucifixion:

"This example of perseverance and persisting is delineated in Exodus, where Moses, that he might overcome Amalek, who bare the type of the Devil, raised his outspread hands, in the sign and sacrament of the Cross. Nor could he conquer the adversary, until that he persevered steadfastly, in lifting his hands without break in that sign. And it came to pass, he says, when Moses held up his hands, Israel prevailed; but when he had let down his hands, Amalek grew strong. And they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, one of the one side, and on the other side; and Moses' hands were made steady, until the going down of the sun." (Caecilius Cyprian, The Treatises, Charles Thornton, Treatise XIII, Exhortation Unto Martyrdom Addressed to Fortunatus, Chapter 8).

Since crucifixion was still being practiced by the pagan government as a means of capital punishment, these authors would have seen it done. Pagan sources also mention the victim's outspread hands: “Artemidorus, in the second century AD, notes that crucifixions took place with the arms outstretched: 'being a criminal he shall be crucified, raised high and with outstretched arms.' [Artemidorus, Oneirokritikon I: 76:35.]” (quoted in Foster, Charles. The Jesus Inquest: The Case For and Against the Resurrection of the Christ (p. 69). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition). There is no special reason to suppose that in Jesus' case it was done in any other than the usual fashion, though the contrary cannot be disproved altogether, because the sources make it clear there was some variation in practice.

There is a whole world of apocryphal literature out there, whose authors have little to offer concerning the things of God, but who lived within the confines of the Roman empire and who had thus witnessed crucifixions: "For it is right to mount upon the cross of Christ, who is the word stretched out, the one and only, of whom the spirit saith: For what else is Christ, but the word, the sound of God? So that the word is the upright beam whereon I am crucified. And the sound is that which crosseth it, the nature of man. And the nail which holdeth the cross-tree unto the upright in the midst thereof is the conversion and repentance of man." (Acts of Peter, Chapter XXXVIII). Some critics of Christianity, like Bart Ehrman, want to use the proliferation of fraudulent literature in the early Christian centuries to discredit the genuine; if some is fake, then all is fake, they reason. This would imply that, if some sects were obliged to make stuff up in order to secure assent from the founding generation, then all sects, including the orthodox, were so obliged. This leaves one wondering, what is it that the founding generation believed, that none who came after also believed it? This is reminiscent of the old Mike Nichols/Elaine May routine over the dime-swallowing pay phone:

"Customer: Well, what I'm trying to tell you, Supervisor, is that Bell Telephone has stolen my dime, I mean that's what it comes down to.
"Information Supervisor: Now just a minute. Bell Telephone didn't steal your dime. No, no. Bell Telephone doesn't need your dime. Bell Telephone gets millions of dimes every day, they wouldn't steal your dime." (2:10-2:22).

Surely there was some faction which didn't need to forge documents! Jesus and the twelve disciples were professional religionists. Is it possible they held no views on these topics? And is it possible their views, alone of all the competing viewpoints, found none willing to follow along? Surely some faction does not need to forge documents, any more than Bell Telephone, in their quasi-monopolistic hey-day, needed to steal dimes!

While one must concede to the Jehovah's Witnesses that the cross has been employed as a symbol by a variety of pagan peoples, there is nevertheless nothing ahistorical in the conventional representations of this undoubtedly historical event, of the crucifixion. The normal pattern of crucifixion employed an upright and a crossbar, with the victim's hands stretched out. Of course it is conceivable Jesus was crucified in some unusual or improvised fashion, but it is not a good idea to bet the mortgage money on unlikely occurrences.


Nailed to the Tree

Contemporary writers mention also the nails affixing the sufferer to the cross:

"But Chryseros, that most villainous of all bipeds, having been on the watch all the time, and aware of all that was going on, crept softly to the door, preserving a profound silence, and with a sudden violent effort, fastened the hand of our leader, with a great nail, to a panel of the gate. Then, leaving him transfixed, like a wretch on the cross, he ascended to the roof of his hovel, and shouted with all his might to his neighbors. . ." (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, p. 72, Book IV, Fourth Episode, The Robber's Tale).

Comedian Plautus suggests that both arms and feet were fastened to the cross. A desperate slave, when the jig is up, hopes he will be able to hire a substitute to take the torture: "Is there any person who'd like to make gain of a little money, who could this day endure to take my place in being tortured? Where are those fellows hardened to a flogging, the wearers-out of iron chains, or those, who, for the consideration of three didrachms, would get beneath besieging towers, where some are in the way of having their bodies pierced with fifteen spears? I'll give a talent to that man who shall be the first to run to the cross for me; but on condition that twice his feet, twice his arms are fastened there." (Plautus, Mostellaria, or The Haunted House, Act 2, Scene 1, (1912). The Comedies of Plautus (H. T. Riley, Trans.). Medford, MA: G. Bell and Sons.) This double nailing is intended to make sure he stays there and does not take the money and run: "When that shall have been done, then ask the money down of me." (Plautus, Mostellaria, or The Haunted House, T. Maccius Plautus. (1912). The Comedies of Plautus (H. T. Riley, Trans.). Medford, MA: G. Bell and Sons). Since crucifixion is lethal, the corps of volunteers willing to suffer this penalty in exchange for cash cannot be large.

Philo mentions that crucified persons are affixed to the cross:

'Ahiman' means 'my brother;' 'Sheshai' 'outside me;' 'Talmai' 'one hanging:' for it is a necessity to souls that love the body that the body should be looked upon as  brother,  and that external good things should be valued pre-eminently: and all souls in this condition depend on and hang from lifeless things, for, like men crucified and nailed to a tree, they are affixed to perishable materials till they die." (Philo Judaeus, The Posterity and Exile of Cain, Chapter XVII, Loeb edition p. 261).
"And thanks be to God who giveth the victory and who renders the labors of the man who is a slave to his passions, though ever so carefully carried out, still unproductive and useless, sending down winged natures in an invisible manner for their destruction and overthrow. Therefore, the mind, being deprived of those things which it had made for itself, having, as it were, its neck cut through, will be found headless and lifeless, and like those who are fixed to a cross, nailed as it were to the tree of hopeless and helpless ignorance." (Philo Judaeus, A Treatise on Dreams, Book II, Chapter XXXI).

As a ghoulish aside, the nails which transfixed a crucified man were apparently valued by sorcerers for use in their infernal potions. Apuleius includes them in the inventory of the witch's workshop:

"There she began by arranging in her deadly workshop all the customary implements of her art, such as aromatics of all kinds, plates of metal engraved with talismanic characters, nails from shipwrecked vessels, as also, multitudes of limbs and fragments stolen from graves. Here, were noses and fingers, there, the nails by which culprits had been fixed to the cross, and to which portions of flesh adhered; and, in another place, the blood of murdered persons, bottled up, and mangled skulls of men who had been devoured by wild beasts. (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, pp. 58-59, Book III).

Lucan mentions a grave-robbing witch: ". . .she gnaws the noose By which some wretch has died, and from the tree Drags down a pendent corpse, its members torn Asunder to the winds: forth from the palms Wrenches the iron. . ." (Lucan, Pharsalia, 608-09; 624; 633-49, quoted in 'The Jesus Inquest,' Charles Foster, p. 161).

The reader would deplore the paganism that saw magical virtue in the nails of a hanged man, but for the fact that the Talmud allows the same remedy: "It is permitted to go out with eggs of grasshoppers or with the tooth of a fox or a nail from the gallows where a man was hanged, as medical remedies. Such is the decision of R. Meir, but the sages prohibit the using of these things even on week days, for fear of imitating the Amorites." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume I, Tract Sabbath, Chapter VI, Mishna IX, Kindle location 3419). Reportedly the nail is a specific remedy against swelling, by some magical train of reasoning.

Using the cross as metaphor for enchaining desire, Seneca also mentions the nails: "Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses,— those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand,— yet they, when brought to punishment, hang each upon a single gibbets; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Essays, Book 2, On the Happy Life, xix. 3).


Mandatory Sentencing

Contemporary authors who have adopted Reimarus's idea that Jesus was a run-of-the-mill political revolutionary, offer the insight that crucifixion was a punishment reserved in the Roman empire for insurrectionists. According to Rabbi Boteach, death on the cross was "reserved for political rebels:"

  • “If he were put to death for blasphemy, he would not have been crucified. Jesus was killed by the distinctly Roman form of capital punishment reserved for political rebels against the rule of Rome: crucifixion on a cross.”
  • (Boteach, Shmuley (2011-12-07). Kosher Jesus (p. 89). Gefen Publishing House. Kindle Edition.).

The issue with crucifixion is not so much what crime was committed as who committed the crime. Lactantius tells us that it was the "humble and low" who were at risk of dying in this way:

"For some one may perchance say: Why, if He was God, and chose to die, did He not at least suffer by some honorable kind of death? why was it by the cross especially? why by an infamous kind of punishment, which may appear unworthy even of a man if he is free, although guilty? First of all, because He, who had come in humility that He might bring assistance to the humble and men of low degree, and might hold out to all the hope of safety, was to suffer by that kind of punishment by which the humble and low usually suffer, that there might be no one at all who might not be able to imitate Him." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 26).

Notice that, for Lactantius, the issue isn't what crime was committed,— there were more than a few death penalty crimes — but who committed it. What were the social circumstances of the accused? Was he a "free" man, a citizen,— or a slave, or a foreign subject? When participants in the 'Jesus' publishing industry, like Reza Aslan, insist that crucifixion was a punishment reserved for insurrection, they are inventing a 'fact' that isn't factual. Certainly insurrectionists were executed by crucifixion, often en masse. But so were many others, who committed crimes such as murder, extortion and bribery. The Roman empire was an organized plundering operation which funnelled wealth from the whole wide world into the city. But from time to time Roman governors would be shocked, just shocked, to discover there was financial malfeasance going on, and they would punish those responsible:

"The most resolute in this respect was Quintus Mucius Scaevola, like his father Publius pontifex maximus and in 659 [A.U.C.] consul, the foremost jurist and one of the most excellent men of his time. As praetorian governor (about 656) of Asia, the richest and worst-abused of all the provinces, he. . .set a severe and deterring example. Without making any distinction between Italians and provincials, noble and ignoble, he took up every complaint, and not only compelled the Roman merchants and state-lessees to give full pecuniary compensation for proven injuries, but, when some of their most important and most unscrupulous agents were found guilty of crimes deserving death, deaf to all offers of bribery he ordered them to be duly crucified. The senate approved his conduct, and even made it an instruction afterwards to the governors of Asia that they should take as their model the principles of Scaevola's administration. . ." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book 4, Chapter VI, Kindle location 20779).

Presumably these "agents" were local people or at any rate not Roman citizens, who were in theory at least exempt from crucifixion, though not necessarily from capital punishment. Foreigners and slaves were crucified for capital crimes, citizens were beheaded in the main. Some crimes, like parricide and dereliction by a Vestal Virgin, had their own unique punishments affixed by statute,— Rome lacked any constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishments,— but how far these quaint and antiquated punishments were observed is another story. Roman citizens could at some times avoid prosecution by going into voluntary exile. Modern observers are surprised by their willingness to anticipate execution by committing suicide, but a suicide retained the right to dispose of his property by will, whereas the property of a person executed by the state was confiscated. It was the non-citizen who was at risk of crucifixion.

This slave lost his life in a crackdown against crooked toll gatherers:

"One of the chief of these publicans, who had contracted with his master for his freedom for a great sum of money, before he was manumitted, he condemned to die, and crucified him."

(Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History. Fragments of Book XXXVI. Chapter 6. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 28250-28251).)

An oppressive tax-collector is not an insurrectionist, but an agent of the state. Capital crimes included, but were by no means limited to, insurrection. Bribery and extortion is not insurrection. Crucifixion has even been used to impose military discipline, though it is not the normal punishment for desertion:

"The elder Africanus was the mildest of man. Yet for the confirmation of military discipline he thought proper to borrow some harshness from a cruelty quite alien to himself. When he had conquered Carthage and brought into his power all those who had deserted from our armies to the Carthaginians, he punished the Roman deserters more severely than the Latins, crucifying the former as runaways from their country [patriae fugitivos crucibus adfixit] and beheading the latter as faithless allies. I shall not pursue this action farther, bot because it is Scipio's and because there is no need to insult Roman blood that suffered the punishment of slaves, however well deserved, especially as I am free to pass to doings which can be narrated without injury to national sentiment." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book II.7, Loeb edition p. 191).

Roman law did not allow a man to desert his post regardless of the circumstances, but most of these cruelly executed men were likely no more deserters than they were insurrectionists. These were men who had surrendered without orders. It was not the normal thing, and even the fawning Valerius Maximus is ashamed to admit these free men received a penalty considered as due to slaves. Carthage, at one time Rome's rival for mastery of the western Mediterranean, liberally practiced crucifixion. The Romans were diligent imitators, seeking to learn all they could from their conquered enemies, but sometimes they learned the wrong things, as they learned paederasty from the Greeks. Did they learn crucifixion from Carthage? Possibly, though historian Cassius Dio traces it to the time of the Roman kings, where the cross simply served to hold the victim immobile while he was beaten to death: "Among other decidedly tyrannical deeds of himself [Tarquin] and his children might be mentioned the fact that he once had some citizens bound naked to some crosses in the Forum and before the eyes of the citizens, and had them shamefully beaten to death with rods. This punishment, invented by him at that time, has often been inflicted." (Cassius Dio, Fragment X, Chapter 2, Kindle location 24070 Delphi).

Roman citizenship is a moving target; from the city itself, it spread, patchily, to Italian communities and individuals who were given the freedom of the city, ultimately under Caracalla to the whole imperial world, although of course not including slaves. Roman citizens were by no means exempt from the death penalty, if they were poisoners or murderers or had committed some other capital crime, but it would have been administered in the main by beheading, not by crucifixion. Under their system of justice, more offenses were capital crimes than under ours.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus mentions a slave whose Via Dolorosa led him through the Forum:

"A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honor of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a  piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book VII, Chapter LXIX, p. 355 Loeb).

This event got into the history books only because of its coincidence with a religious procession, ill-omened in the eyes of the superstitious Romans. To say that crucifixion is "reserved for" political rebels implies that an observer, seeing a victim crucified, would be justified in the inference that the party thus executed was a political rebel. And this is Rabbi Boteach's point: "If Jesus were a religious opponent of the rabbis as the Gospels allege, he would never have been crucified." (Boteach, Shmuley (2011-12-07). Kosher Jesus (p. 90). Gefen Publishing House. Kindle Edition.). This is counter-factual. Crucifixion was the punishment "reserved for" all manner of crimes, if those committing them were not Roman citizens. In reality, an observer seeing a victim crucified would be justified in inferring that the condemned party was a foreigner or a slave. A slave who pilfered funds from his master, or mishandled his interests in any way, might well fear the cross:

    "What do you deserve?

    "The cross. But allow me a little time to recover myself; I'll soon hit upon something.”
  • (Terence. (1874). Andria, Act 3 Scene 5. The Comedies of Terence (H. T. Riley, Trans.). Medford, MA: Harper and Brothers.)”

Is this wayward slave a political rebel? Contrariwise, Roman citizens could openly commit acts of sedition and political rebellion on the floor of the Senate with no fear of crucifixion. That was not the way the death penalty was carried out when the condemned was a Roman citizen. Often, in fact, they were permitted to go into voluntary exile. The legal status of the convicted criminal determined the mode of execution, not the crime alone.

The wicked step-mother's nefarious poison plot in Apuleius' Golden Ass was dire indeed, but what in the world has it to do with sedition? Yet the slave implicated was crucified:

"And now he naked truth was obvious to every one, the wickedness of the nefarious slave, and of the still more abandoned woman, being clearly exposed. Accordingly, the step-mother was condemned to perpetual banishment, the slave was crucified; and by the consent of all, the golden solidi were presented to the worthy physician, as a reward for the trance he had produced with such happy results." (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Book X, The Cruel Step-Mother Banished, p. 203, Thirteenth Episode).

In the same volume we learn, from this second-century Latin novelist, that a man who could not avoid suspicion of murder, though guiltless of that perennial capital crime much less of sedition, might well fear the cross:

"But I, left in such a plight, prostrate on the ground, scared, naked, cold, and drenched in chamber-lye, just like some babe that has recently emerged from the womb of its mother, indeed, I may say, half dead, but still surviving myself, and pursuing, as it were, a posthumous train of reflection, or, to say the least, like a candidate for the cross, to which I was surely destined: 'What,' said I, 'will become of me, when this man is found in the morning with his throat cut? Though I tell the truth, who will think my story probable?. . .Then truly I came to the conclusion that the worthy Meroe had not spared my throat through any compassion, but that she had cruelly reserved me for the cross." (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Book I, Tale of Aristomenes, First Episode, pp. 13-14).

Again, simple non-political murder (though it never happened) might be punished with crucifixion:

"After this appeal, the senior magistrate arose, and thus addressed the people: 'That this crime must be visited with a severe punishment, not even he himself, who committed it, is able to deny.' . . .But the old hag, who had aggravated everything by her weeping, exclaimed, 'Most worthy citizens, before you fasten to the cross this cutthroat thief, the destroyer of my wretched sons, allow the corpses of the dead to be uncovered, in order that being still more and more incited to a just indignation, by a contemplation of the beauty as well as the youth of the slain, you may vent your rage upon their murderer, with a severity proportioned to the magnitude of his crime.'" (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Book II, p. 53).

It simply is not true that this horrific punishment was "reserved" for the crime of sedition. Apuleius to be sure was not writing a law-book, but the issue with crucifixion was who committed the crime: a slave? a foreigner? or a citizen,— not only what crime was committed. No doubt the gospels do teach that Jesus was executed by the Romans for the crime of sedition. To judge by the title Pilate placed atop the cross, as reported in the gospels, the crime for which Jesus was executed, by the legal authority competent to administer such a sentence, was political rebellion, but to claim, as does Rabbi Boteach, that the punishment of crucifixion was specific to that crime, is in error. The burden of proof is upon those who deny that this is exactly the outcome to be expected if the gospel account was true to the letter. If Jesus was, not a violent pretender to the throne, but someone very likely to be acclaimed as king by the people while in the course of His non-violent teaching, would not Rome still have perceived Him as a threat to the existing order?

Two streams converged to sweep Jesus of Nazareth to execution: the secular Roman trial concerned with issues of political loyalty, and the Sanhedrin trial, concerned, according to the Talmud, with issues of enticement. To the Romans, pagan polytheists, issues of enticement to the worship of foreign gods were null, and to the Jews, not the most loyal of the empire's subjects, issues of political disloyalty were uninteresting, but both parties agreed in wanting Jesus out of the way. Rabbi Boteach's ahistorical claim intends to negate one part of this equation.

The gospels explain that the Jewish authorities handed over Jesus to Pilate because they lacked the legal authority to impose a death sentence: "The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die." (John 18:31). This point is corroborated in the Talmud, which reports that in 30 A.D. the Sanhedrin deserted its seat in the temple and took up residence in a shop. Why? Because they had lost capital jurisdiction:

"Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin went into exile and took its seat in the trade Halls. (in respect to what law [is this stated]? — Said R. Isaac b. Abdimi, To teach that they did not adjudicate in laws of fines. 'The laws of fines' can you think so! But say: They did not adjudicate in capital cases." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath, 15a).
"Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin were exiled and took up residence in Hanuth. Whereon R. Isaac b. Abudimi said: This is to teach that they did not try cases of Kenas. 'Cases of Kenas!' Can you really think so! Say rather, They did not try capital charges." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 41a).

The law of Moses as written specifies capital punishment for several crimes, and so the Sanhedrin, the highest appellate court in the land, could not faithfully apply the law after surrendering this power to the Romans; thus they felt they were better off in a shop rather than desecrating the temple by failing to enforce God's law. It was necessary for the Romans to crucify Him because no other authority in the land was legally capable of carrying out a capital sentence. The gospels do not in any sense exonerate the Roman overlords from an act which, we learn in the gospels, only they could perform. But neither, of course, do they exonerate the Sanhedrin, a historic fact which is unacceptable to Rabbi Boteach. But the way to do history is not to start by first determining who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and then go back to adjust events as necessary.

Capital Jurisdiction
Night Court
Ways and Means
Gospel of Peter
Book of Acts
Moses Maimonides
The Black Death

The latest author to make the 'discovery' that crucifixion was a punishment the Romans reserved for sedition is Muslim Reza Aslan:

"Simply put, crucifixion was more than a capital punishment for Rome; it was a public reminder of what happens when one challenges the empire. That is why it was reserved solely for the most extreme political crimes: treason, rebellion, sedition, banditry. If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth save that he was crucified by Rome, one would know practically all that was needed to uncover who he was, what he was, and why he ended up nailed to a cross." (Reza Aslan, Zealot, p. 173)

Simply put, this is baloney. As it happens, Jesus was executed by the Romans for sedition,— so we know from the gospel accounts, we would not know it from the manner of execution. Seneca makes note of slaves who accomplish revenge against their master's wrongs, men of private station,— this is not sedition,— "The cruelty even of men in private station has been avenged by the hands of slaves despite their certain risk of crucifixion; nations and peoples have set to work to extirpate the cruelty of tyrants, when some were suffering from it and others felt its menace." (Seneca, On Mercy, Book I). Murder or mayhem committed against a private person is not sedition, unless one redefines every possible crime as sedition. It is who committed the crime that makes crucifixion a certainty, not what they did. But the citizen's immunity from crucifixion, like many other legal protections, was solid in theory, permeable in practice. The rapacious Roman governor of Sicily, Verres, crucified a citizen, earning this diatribe from Cicero:

"It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it. Yet with all this that man was not content. "Let him behold his country," said he; "let him die within sight of laws and liberty." It was not Gavius, it was not one individual, I know not whom,—it was not one Roman citizen.—it was the common cause of freedom and citizenship that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross. But now consider the audacity of the man. Do you not think that he was indignant that he could not erect that cross for Roman citizens in the forum, in the comitium, in the very rostra?" (M. T. Cicero, Against Verres, Second Pleading, Book 5, Chapter 66).

The reader may well object to establishing a legal principle: that the citizen is exempt from crucifixion, by pointing out the indignant response when a citizen was crucified, as indeed happened more than a few times, but there really is no other way! The issue is not that Jesus is a "peasant," as they so absurdly say; there is no such category in Roman law. He was, however, not a Roman citizen. Plenty of citizens gloried in sedition, undermined the republic, fomented civil war and raised insurrection, but they were not crucified, or at least if they were they shouldn't have been. Those who were, were crucified for a variety of offenses, not just sedition. Of course, to say that a thing is illegal, does not equate to saying 'It never happened;' illegal things happen all the time, there is an entire criminal justice system which busies itself with tidying up these events after the fact. The strange delusion Mr. Aslan shares with others that, if a night trial were illegal, no such event could have occurred, would by itself erase entire large chunks of the world's history. Lots of illegal stuff happens, you wonder why they never noticed.

Here a slave was crucified for the 'crime' of disrespecting his owner, himself a freed slave, Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio: "'On the same day, the slave Mithridates was crucified for speaking disrespectfully of the guardian spirit of our Gaius.'" (Petronius Arbiter, Satyrica, Chapter 53, p. 47). In the same book, the narrator is threatened with crucifixion for killing a goose sacred to Priapus: "You've murdered Priapus' pet, the goose cherished by all married women! Don't kid yourself: if the authorities hear of this, you'll be crucified!" (Petronius Arbiter, Satyrica, Chapter 137, p. 145). Is this insurrection?

Roman soldiers were subject to a variety of cruel and unusual punishments in the event of mutiny or insubordination, including decimation: every tenth man would be taken out of line and killed. Faced with desertion after failing to pay his troops, Scipio did not go that far; instead he arrested the ring-leaders and strung them up, after deceitfully promising a pardon: "With these words he [Scipio] set the prisoners in their midst, fixed them upon crosses, and after copious abuse killed them. . .After this he gave the rest their pay and conducted a campaign against Indibilis and Mandonius." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 16, Kindle location 3016, Delphi). These mutinous legionnaires were not looking for a change in the government; they had not been paid.

Jesus promised His followers a cross, and for some of His disciples, this is exactly what they got.

"For as long as this life lasts, there is effort and toil; nor unto them that undergo them, can any consolations give more aid, than those of patience; and these while suited and necessary in this life for all men, so still more are they for us, who are more shaken by the assault of the Devil, who daily standing in array, become weary in our struggles with an inveterate and experienced enemy; and who besides the various and unceasing battles of temptation, have also in our contest of persecutions, patrimonies to surrender, prisons to undergo, chains to carry, life to yield, the sword, wild beasts, fires, crosses, in fine all sorts of torments and pains, to endure in the faith and vigor of patience; the Lord Himself instructing us and saying, These things I have spoken unto you, that in Me ye might have peace; but in the world ye shall have tribulation; yet be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." (The Treatises of Caecilius Cyprian, Treatise XI, On the Benefit of Patience, Chapter 7).

Not only were the Christians not insurrectionists, the state did not believe they were; yet some of them ended life on a cross. Crucifixion was the fate that awaited several of the disciples: "And lest their testimony should fail in cogency, or the confession of Christ become an indulgence, they were tried by torments, by crucifixions, and many kinds of sufferings." (The Treatises of Caecilius Cyprian, Charles Thornton, Treatise II, On the Vanity of Idols, Chapter 7). For instance, as one apocryphal source has it,

"The blessed Andrew answered:. . .Hanging upon the cross, He stretched out His blameless hands for the hands which had been incontinently stretched out. . .
"Aegeates said: With these words thou shalt be able to lead away those who shall believe in thee; but unless thou hast come to grant me this, that thou offer sacrifices to the almighty gods, I shall order thee, after having been scourged, to be fastened to that very cross which thou commendest." (Acts and Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Andrews, p. 1071, ECF_0_08)

What insurrectionist has ever been offered freedom on the mere willingness to sacrifice to the pagan gods? Plainly Andrew is not understood as facing an accusation of armed rebellion. Yet crucifixion is the indicated punishment.

Sacrilege, temple-robbing, is not insurrection, yet sacrilege could be punished by crucifixion:

"And not without reason did Dionysius, the despot of Sicily, when after a victory he had become master of Greece, despise, and plunder and jeer at such gods, for he followed up his sacrilegious acts by jesting words. For when he had taken off a golden robe from the statue of the Olympian Jupiter, he ordered that a woolen garment should be placed upon him, saying that a golden robe was heavy in summer and cold in winter, but that a woolen one was adapted to each season. . . .In his case, therefore, because men could not punish his sacrilegious deeds, it was befitting that the gods should be their own avengers. But if any humble person shall have committed any such crime, there are at hand for his punishment the scourge, fire, the rack, the cross, and whatever torture men can invent in their anger and rage." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 4).

Josephus relates that Tiberius crucified the priests of Isis, not for any matter of state but owing to the fraudulent seduction of one of her devotees:

"So he discovered the fact to the emperor; whereupon Tiberius inquired into the matter thoroughly by examining the priests about it, and ordered them to be crucified, as well as Ide, who was the occasion of their perdition, and who had contrived the whole matter, which was so injurious to the woman. He also demolished the temple of Isis, and gave order that her statue should be thrown into the river Tiber; while he only banished Mundus, but did no more to him, because he supposed that what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3, Section 4, p. 1129).

While these activities are distasteful, how they could be construed as 'sedition' I do not know, unless every offense is so reclassified. Another religious crime whose perpetrators were crucified was human sacrifice, still practiced in Northern Africa in Tertullian's day:

"Children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius, who exposed to public gaze the priests suspended on the sacred trees overshadowing their temple — so many crosses on which the punishment which justice craved overtook their crimes, as the soldiers of our country still can testify who did that very work for that proconsul. And even now that sacred crime still continues to be done in secret."
(Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 9).

Child sacrifice is a horrible, lurid crime, but sedition it is not. Nor was theft; Marc Antony's son's tutor, patriotically turned in his young charge but 'liberated' a valuable gem, and was thereupon crucified:

"As for the children of Antony, Antyllus, his son by Fulvia, was betrayed by Theodorus his tutor and put to death; and after the soldiers had cut off his head, his tutor took away the exceeding precious stone which the boy wore about his neck and sewed it into his own girdle; and though he denied the deed, he was convicted of it and crucified." (Plutarch, Life of Antony, Chapter 81, Section 1).

Galba, who would later make a bid to be Caesar, crucified a murderer and thief, and a purported Roman citizen at that, in Spain:

"He governed the province during eight years, his administration being of an uncertain and capricious character. At first he was active, vigorous, and indeed excessively severe, in the punishment of offenders. For, a money-dealer having committed some fraud in the way of his business, he cut off his hands, and nailed them to his counter. Another, who had poisoned an orphan, to whom he was guardian, and next heir to the estate, he crucified. On this delinquent imploring the protection of the law, and crying out that he was a Roman citizen, he affected to afford him some alleviation, and to mitigate his punishment, by a mark of honor, ordered a cross, higher than usual, and painted white, to be erected for him." (Suetonius, Galba, Chapter IX).

This individual committed the private wrong of poisoning and plundering an orphan for whom he had the care. Next is a case where a slave was crucified, not for sedition but for its opposite, neglect of his private duties. A town was surrendered, the inhabitants commanded to deliver their silver and gold:

"He [Brutus] came in, but he neither killed nor banished anybody; but he ordered them to deliver to him whatever gold and silver the city possessed, and each citizen to bring in his private holdings under the same penalties and rewards to informers as those proclaimed by Cassius at Rhodes. They obeyed his order. One slave testified that his master had concealed his gold, and showed it to a centurion who was sent to find it. All the parties were brought before the tribunal. The master remained silent, but his mother, who had followed in order to save her son, cried out that she had concealed the gold. The slave, although not interrogated, disputed her, saying that she lied and that his master had concealed it. Brutus approved of the young man's silence and sympathized with his mother's grief. He allowed them both to depart unharmed and to take their gold with them, and he crucified the slave for superservicable zeal in accusing his superiors." (Appian, The Civil Wars, Book IV, Chapter X, Section 81).

It was the slave who was a Roman patriot if anyone was. But Brutus was offended at his eagerness to sell out the exemplary self-sacrificing mother, motivated probably by hope of reward. Whatever it was, sedition it wasn't.

'Robbers,' these people always make into politically-motivated Robin Hoods, but sometimes a robber is just a robber: "At this moment the governor of the province gave orders that some robbers should be crucified near the small building where the lady was bewailing her recent loss." (Titus Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, Chapter 111). Given that we have plenty of robbers in the present day motivated by desire for private gain, it would be surprising if, indeed, no such persons existed in antiquity. Certainly sedition was, and often still is, also a capital offense, but the claim that it was the only offense for which crucifixion was assigned as punishment is just more made-up 'history' from the Jesus publishing industry, a bottomless well.


Reserved for Sedition Conspiracy Theory
Reimarus Name That Zealot
The Messiah Mythology
Ancient Literacy Prophecy Impossible
Apollonius of Tyana Sic et Non
Judge Judy The Census
The Vineyard The Third Day
Contradictions: Bible vs. Koran

Carrying the Cross

Another detail of the gospel account that 'checks out' is that the condemned criminal was normally expected to carry his own cross to the place of execution, as Jesus did until His collapse caused the task to be impressed upon a passerby, Simon of Cyrene. Thus is the punishment threatened to a dissolute slave:

"O riddle for the executioner , as I guess it will turn out; they'll be so pinking you with goads, as you carry your gibbet along the streets one day, as soon as ever the old gentleman returns here." (Mostellaria, or the Haunted House, Act 1, Scene 1, Grumio, Plautus, T. M. (1912). The Comedies of Plautus (H. T. Riley, Trans.). Medford, MA: G. Bell and Sons.)

Release of the Body

Another point in the gospel accounts which the skeptics attack is Pilate's willing release of the body for burial. This would never have happened, they say, thus proving the gospels to be fabrications. Partly they arrive at this conclusion through a 'Monsters-Under-the-Bed' approach to history, wherein, because contemporary observers describe Pilate as a brutal man, he must therefore in every instance have done the brutal thing, and partly because it is a known fact that one of the horrors of crucifixion was that men impaled on the cross were unable to defend themselves from birds of prey, insects and other predators, even prior to their merciful demise, and the resulting gruesome display of partially eaten corpses on the cross was notorious. However, it was not unknown for the Roman authorities to surrender the body to whoever claimed it:

"The passage from the Digesta, the summary of Roman law, is well known.
'The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At the present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted on high treason.
'The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.'"
(Killing Jesus, Stephen Mansfield, p. 184).

So the actual legal status is that sometimes this happens, sometimes it doesn't. Those claiming the body of an executed man would understandably be nervous lest they be implicated in his crimes, so in some cases likely the body was never claimed, and in others permission was not granted; however cases where it was claimed and permission was received are certainly not unknown. Moses' law requires the corpse of a hanged man, whether the hanging is the cause of his death or it is done post-mortem, to be taken down before night-fall:

“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 22:22-23).

Jesus never accused his opponents amongst the clerical establishment of lack of concern and even zeal for the punctilious observance of the law as they understood it, although their understanding may have been mechanical and lacking in insight, and this provision is not ambiguous. It is repeated in the Mishnah, a century and a half later:


The assumption made by people like John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman is that the Roman government routinely, flagrantly, and deliberately violated the Jewish law, during peace-time, though they gained no advantage by so doing: "Moreover, the Romans who did crucify him had no concern to obey Jewish law and virtually no interest in Jewish sensitivities. Quite the contrary. When it came to crucified criminals — in this case, someone charged with crimes against the state — there was regularly no mercy and no concern for anyone's sensitivities." (Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 157). The idea behind the requirement of burial is, not mercy to the condemned man, but so that the land should not be defiled. It was a given in Jewish thought of the day that dead bodies are to be buried: "That no one shall keep any one from performing funeral honours to the dead, but shall even throw upon them so much earth as if sufficient to protect them from impiety:. . ." (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria. Hypothetica. Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 29103-29104).) Josephus reports that burial of crucified offenders was, not a pious aspiration, but the common-place occurrence, at least during peace-time:

"Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter V, Section 2).

As to the 'Monster-Under-the-Bed' theory, history does know of monsters who have ruled, like Vlad the Impaler. However the Romans did not understand their own system of governance to be altogether inhuman and unenlightened; a provincial governor who was uniformly hated by his subjects was a man who had a lot of explaining to do, back home. The release of the body is not historically impossible nor even improbable. Philo knew of instances:

"I have known instances before now of men who had been crucified when this festival and holiday was at hand, being taken down and given up to their relations, in order to receive the honors of sepulture, and to enjoy such observances as are due to the dead; for it used to be considered, that even the dead ought to derive some enjoyment from the natal festival of a good emperor, and also that the sacred character of the festival ought to be regarded. But this man did not order men who had already perished on crosses to be taken down, but he commanded living men to be crucified, men to whom the very time itself gave, if not entire forgiveness, still, at all events, a brief and temporary respite from punishment; and he did this after they had been beaten by scourgings in the middle of the theater; and after he had tortured them with fire and sword;. . ." (Philo Judaeus, Against Flaccus, Chapter X).