For centuries, pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrow” in Jerusalem, following the path Jesus took from the judgment seat of Pilate at the Antonia in the eastern part of the city immediately north of the Temple through several “stations of the Cross” to the ultimate location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial. Several years ago, I myself explored this road, though while historically anachronistic — some of these roads did not exist during the time of Christ — nevertheless left one with a profound sense of historical gravitas.
Following Pilate’s sentence, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution practiced by many of the ancient societies, including Persia, Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and Germanic tribes. The Phoenicians were probably the first to use a transverse cross beam rather than just an upright stake in the ground. From the Phoenicians the Romans adopted this practice as the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens. (Incidentally, this is why Jesus could be executed by crucifixion, but the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen, could not, and was beheaded.) During the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66 for example, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews, many of them of the aristocracy.
The victim was first scourged with a flagellum to weaken him before he was hung on the cross. Near the top of the cross was affixed the titulus or inscription identifying the criminal and the cause of his execution. Above Jesus’ cross in Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin were printed the words “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”. The Latin acronym INRI comes from this; “Iesus Nazarethis Rex Iudaeorum”.
By the way, Jesus’ middle name was not “H”, as in “Jesus H. Christ”. Rather it comes from a misunderstanding of the letters “IHS”. This is an abbreviation of Jesus in Greek, “IHSOUS” (iesous), and should properly be written with a line above the ‘h’ signifying an abbreviation.
Death by crucifixion was painful and protracted. It seldom occurred before thirty-six hours, sometimes took as long as nine days, and resulted from hunger and traumatic exposure. If it was decided to hasten the death of the victim, his legs were smashed with a heavy club or hammer. However, Jesus died within just a few hours. The New Testament, rather than dwelling on this painful death, simply recounts that “they crucified him”.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
In part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time