Book Review: Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

cookTitle: Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

Series: Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 327

Author: John Granger Cook

Bibliographic info: xv + 465 pp. + 55 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

The author of this book, John Granger Cook, has authored several articles on the topic of crucifixion, including such issues as the lex Puteolana (the law of Puteoli), the Palatine graffito, and so forth. Upon the request from Martin Hengel to revise his classic book on crucifixion, Cook found it expedient to write his new monograph on the subject.

Apart from Hengel’s book, two other important works on crucifixion are Crucifixion in Antiquity by Gunnar Samuelsson and David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions on Crucifixion. Whereas Samuelsson’s work provides a focus on semantic research into crucifixion and Chapman’s provides a survey of Jewish and Christian attitudes towards it, Cook’s approach sees as of chief importance the need to read Greek texts that discuss crucifixion against the backdrop of Latin texts and actual Roman historical practice. Thus, Cook investigates the evidence of crucifixion by examining Latin texts and inscriptions together with the archaeological evidence (e.g. graffiti, the Arieti fresco, the calcaneum bone discovered with a crucifixion nail in Jerusalem, and so forth), and then once he has shed light on the meaning of Latin crucifixion terms (e.g. patibulum and crux), Cook turns towards the Greek texts and their crucifixion terminology.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-50), Cook begins by discussing definitions and methodology. He defines crucifixion as “‘execution by suspension’ is acceptable as long as one excludes impalement or hanging” (2), though notes that “it is impossible, of course, to completely exclude impalement in all cases that use crux, σταυρός (stauros) and the associated verbs, but explicit impalement is (textually) rare as a Roman punishment” (3). Furthermore, one must keep in mind that

Greek terminology for ‘cross’, ‘stake’, and ‘crucify,’ ‘impale,’ or ‘suspend’ is ambiguous at times. One must pay special attention to the context. The context is a reliable guide for determining if an act of suspension is a penal execution. During the Roman era there does not exist much doubt that suspension (i.e., crucifixion) was a frequent form of execution. (4)

Cook then looks at the Greek and Latin terminology for crucifixion. Some Greek terms he examines are σταυρός (pole, cross), σταυρόω (crucify), ανασταυρόω (crucify, suspend, impale), σκολόπς (stake, cross), ανασκολοπίζω (impale, crucify), κρεμάω and κρεμάνυμμι (suspend, crucify), and αποτυμπανισμός and αποτυμπανίζω (expose on a board/beam). And some Latin terms are Patibulum, crux, crucifigo, furca, and arbor infelix

Cook then concludes the introduction with the following summary:

The survey above does not encourage the researcher to demand a fundamental revision of the lexicons. There are no texts that describe explicit impalements (i.e., with details or additional semantic clues) or hangings (by a noose) of living bodies using σταυρός (stauros) and the associated verbs. Consequently, “to crucify” is still the preferred translation of the verbs when a text describes a person being execute, and “cross” or “pole” is the preferred translation of the noun. (50)

Chapter One (pp. 51-158) then takes up the task of examining the instances of crucifixion in Latin texts, which begins appearing in them during the second Punic war (218-201 BCE). Fifty-nine authors are looked at, from those of Quintus Ennius and Vitruvius Pollio, to those of Marcus Iunianus Iustinus and Hermetis Trismegisti. In summary of the Latin evidence, Cook says:

Latin texts provide good evidence for the practice of Roman crucifixion, not only because of the use of technical language such as crux and patibulum, but because of the details that often emerge that illuminate the practice of crucifixion. Only Seneca explicitly refers to impalement (twice), and his word of choice for that extreme penalty is stipes. (158)

Chapter Two (pp. 159-217) then discuss instances of Roman crucifixions, from the ear of the second Punic war to the time of Constantine. I was surprised to learn that there is a notable paucity of evidence for the Roman crucifixion of Christians, and even for Roman crucifixions in general there are many gaps of knowledge. For example, Tacitus mentions crucifixions several times, yet he never mentions any occurring in Palestine. If it wasn’t for Josephus telling us about crucifixions in Palestine, we would have a notable gap in the record. The following quote is pulled from the chapter’s summary:

The longest surviving narrative of anyone crucified by the Romans in antiquity is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Historical crucifixions per se seem to have been of little interest to Roman writers in the literature that has survived, with the exception of the crucifixion of Gavius, which Cicero mentioned frequently in his (never delivered) speech in prosecution of Verres. … Most of the juridical reasons for the crucifixions are commonplace: brigandage or political disturbance such as rebellion, slave revolts, disobedience of slaves, various crimes of soldiers including acts of disobedience, and piracy. (216)

Chapter Three (pp. 218-310) then examines the instances of crucifixion in Greek texts. While crucifixion was relatively rare in pre-Roman Greece (hanging and impalement were apparently not penalties used in Attic Greece), “crucifixion and related forms of execution have a rich and somewhat ambiguous history in Greek texts. Many are clear enough to indicate Roman crucifixions” (309).

Chapter Four (pp. 311-57) then tackles crucifixion in Hebrew and Aramaic texts, including sections looking at penal suspension in the culture of the Middle East and in the Muslim world.

Chapter Five (pp. 358-416) looks at crucifixion from the perspective of law and historical development. Emperor Constantine was responsible for the end of crucifixion in the Roman Empire, and the last known crucifixion was that of Calocerus in 335 are was probably at the direction of Constantine’s nephew Dalmatius. Of course, Constantine’s discontinuation of crucifixion was simply replaced by execution by other means (the furca and burning at the stake were favorites).

Chapter Six (pp. 417-49) then looks at the the New Testament and early Christianity. It goes without saying that the crucified Christ was a of central importance to the earliest Christians, from which arose much theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death, e.g., the (possibly pre-Pauline phrase) θανατου δε σταυρου of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2). Included in this chapter was an interesting section of the medical causes of death from crucifixion. To quote a part of it:

There are numerous medical hypotheses concerning the reason for an individual’s death on a Roman cross. One recent discussion by Matthew W. Maslen and Piers D. Mitchell lists the following possibilities that have been raised in the literature to explain the death of Jesus or “crucifixion in general”: “cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolaemic shock, syncope, acidosis, asphyxia, arrhythmia plus asphyxia, pulmonary embolism, voluntary surrender of life, did not actually die.”  (430)

One can merely conclude that individuals died from “different physiological causes” and that the orientation of the crucified individuals was also important. (435)

Another good section in this chapter was on the theology of the cross in the Gospel of Mark. Here are a couple of snippets:

Jesus’ cry of dereliction and the Greco-Roman material on the misery of crucifixion illuminate one another to a certain extent … Attempting to insert the entire psalm into Mark 15:34 fundamentally ignores the brutality of Roman crucifixion. (448)

Clearly results from Roman procedure are relevant for the interpretation of the NT. Although one cannot claim that there was one form of crucifixion used by Rome during the Republic and imperium, it is not difficult to find many threads that appear in many of the accounts, such as flogging. Hypotheses about the medical causes of death from crucifixion are too tenuous to formulate reliable conclusions.(448)

This volume ends with a brief Conclusion (pp. 450-52), eleven pages of images, and indices of ancient individuals, modern authors, and subjects. The following are a few interesting conclusions of the author’s:

There are no uses of σταυρόω or ανασταυρόω that refer to explicit impalements of living (or dead) bodies. By “explicit” I mean texts that have additional semantic clues that indicate impalement. (450)

Based on the methodology and linguistic results developed in the introduction and the rest of the work, it seems apparent that writing a history of crucifixion may not be possible. Near Eastern texts and images indicate that impalement was practice by cultures such as that of the Persians. Herodotus presumable was aware of this and probably used ανασκολοπίζω (and not ανασταυρόω) to refer sometimes to that penalty. He apparently was aware of another form of penalty used by the Persians, however, one that is closer to Roman crucifixion (the case of Sandoces in which he used ανασταυρόω ). (451-52)

Archaeological remains and some texts show that the ancient Greeks practice some form of execution in which individuals were nailed to boards or similar structures. It is also clear that the Greeks exposed individuals on a beam in various poses (standing or seated), and there are numerous depictions of the penalty on Attic vases. … Greek rulers such as Antiochus IV used crucifixion according to Josephus. Jewish authorities practice crucifixion in at least one instance [Alexander Jannaeus]. Beginning with the Second Punic War, it becomes clear that the Romans developed a form of crucifixion that remained in place until the reign of Constantine when it was replaced by the furca (fork), a form of execution that result in a quick death. (452)

Crucifixion was the fundamental servile supplicium (slave punishment) and this volume provides a great survey on its practice in Greco-Roman society. Research on crucifixion in the Mediterranean world can provide an important perspective for the study of the New Testament, particularly as it relates to a theologia crucis (theology of the cross) and to a deeper understanding of the “scandal” of the cross (Gal. 5:11).

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival - August 2014 - Biblical StudiesBiblical Studies

  2. One must realise, of course, that both the Pozzuoli Graffito and the Vivat Crux each include within the depiction of it’s “cross” an illustration of a sedile, which includes a spike either midway out or at the very end that, when the person slumped, it punctured the perineum or penetrated a nether orifice. There is NO depiction of a “cross” with a sedile, that does NOT include this spike.

  3. The person in the Pozzuoli graffito is sitting on the peg and is not “penetrated” by it. One can see that clearly in the photo or in the drawing by Professor Lombatti.

    • Actually, he isn’t sitting… it appears more likely that he is squatting. So what would prevent him from being penetrated when his leg muscles finally give out?

  4. Pingback: Book Notice: The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus | Variegated Vita

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