The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith

By Gerard S. Sloyan | Go to book overview

Introduction

Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee died on a cross at the hands of Roman justice, probably in the year 30 of the Common Era. Hundreds of thousands were subjected to this cruel punishment before and after him. Yet one is hardpressed to provide the name of another victim of crucifixion—apart from his companions in life Peter and Andrew—to whom Christian legend has attributed the same fate. Jesus emerges from those myriads of nameless slaves, brigands, and insurgents as “the Crucified.”

Others are remembered for the way they died. That is not unusual: Socrates, Jewish and Christian and Muslim martyrs both by name and nameless, the dead of the Nazi Holocaust and other genocides whose sole crime was their peoplehood. Many of these deaths were preceded by the most shameful indignities and tortures. The death of Jesus was hardly unique in its ignominy. He did not, according to the Gospels, survive long on the cross. No carrion birds soared low over his carcass, his lifeblood seeping out to signal imminent death, as commonly happened to those left to die by this form of execution. Millions of innocent victims of political warfare have been subjected to greater tortures than he, as Amnesty International and similar agencies document from month to month. Why, then, is he remembered as if he, uniquely, had died as an innocent victim and in this fashion?

For two reasons, chiefly. The violent deaths of history’s great ones— among whom he must be reckoned—are usually a matter of swift dispatch. Few meet their end in as sordid and demeaning a fashion as this, marked by details their devotees then celebrate. Far more important are the cosmic effects attributed to the death of Jesus, to which its actual circumstances are subordinate.

The circumstances are not subordinate for everyone. They have been made the subject of what can only be called a Christian piety of pain. In this development—it is not primitive in the church, not even early—the lacerations of his flesh by flogging, the nails in his hands and feet and the spear that pierced his side, the helmet of spines that indented his skull, and the mocking and spitting became paramount. From the early Middle Ages on-

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