Thursday, February 22, 2007

Crucifixion of a 14-year Old Assyrian boy in Basra

A 14-year old Assyrian Christian boy was allegedly crucified and killed in Basra, Iraq in early-October 2006. The story was carried by the Assyrian International News Agency (AIN) and another agency covering religious affairs, Asia News, although neither had confirmed details.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate

The most famous crucifixion, that of Jesus of Nazareth, took place in Jerusalem on April 7, 30 CE or April 3, 33 CE. It is recorded in all four gospels of the New Testament: Mark 15:22-32; Matthew 27:33-44; Luke 23:33-43; and John 19:17-30. The execution was ordered by the Roman government of Judea, Pontius Pilate, on the charge of sedition (treason) against the Roman Empire, ruled by the second Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar Augustus.

Two other men were crucified alongside Jesus, also for treason against the state. These men were not common criminals, but rather revolutionaries or traitors of some sort. Death by crucifixion was the Roman punishment for political crimes against Rome.

It is unclear how long Jesus was on the cross. The problem is that the gospels give different times for the crucifixion. Mark says it was early in the morning (Mk 15:1). Mark says that Jesus was crucified at the third hour (Mk 15:25), while John has the crucifixion taking place after the sixth hour (Jn 19:14).

According to Hebrew time, the third hour would have been 9 am. The day started at sunrise, at 6 am. The sixth hour would have been 12 noon. Note, though, that John may well have been going by Roman time, which is modern time. So after the sixth hour would have meant sometime after 6 am.

Mark says that at the sixth hour (Mk 15:33) darkness fell over the land until the ninth hour (Mk 15:33-34). That would have been at around 12 noon through 3 pm. Jesus died at about the ninth hour (3 pm), according to Mark (Mk 15:34).

Mark's account suggests that Jesus hung on the cross no more than six hours before he died. If John were going by Hebrew time, his account suggests no more than three hours. Assuming he was using Roman time, John would suggest no more than nine hours.

As horrendous as was Jesus' crucifixion, it was by no means unique. It was one of tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of crucifixions in history. Some of those crucified hung on the cross for days and even weeks before they died.

Crucifixion as a form of state terror was widespread throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It originated several centuries BCE and was only officially discontinued around 337 CE under Emperor Constantine when he legalized Christianity.

(painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Crucifxion)

Crucifixion of Leonidas by Xerxes

On September 18, 480 BCE, after two days of fighting, the remains of a small army of 300 Spartans and 6,700 allies, including 700 Thespians and 400 Thebians, lost the battle of Thermopylae against an invading Persian army consisting of some 150,000 soldiers led by King Xerxes, son of Darius. King Leonidas I of Sparta was killed in battle. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes ordered that the head of Leonidas be cut off and his body crucified.

(statue of Leonidas I of Sparta)

Friday, February 2, 2007

Alexamenos Graffito

The earliest known depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Alexamenos Graffito, is believed to date back to the third century CE. The caricature carving mocks Christianity and the crucifixion by giving Jesus an ass's head. The inscription reads: "Alexamenos - worship your God !".

The carving was found on a stone in a guard room on Palatine Hill in Rome near the Circus Maximus in 1857, and is now in the Palatine Antiquarium. Some date it to the first century CE. Others traditionally date the graffito to the third century, when Tertullian wrote of accusations that Christians worshipped an ass's head: "Somniatis caput asininum esse Deum nostrum" (Apol., xvi; Ad Nat., I, ii)... meaning, "You talk nonsense by suggesting that our god is the head of an ass".

(carving, Alexamenos Graffito, c. 3rd century)

Crucifixion of Yohanan Ben Ha'galgol

Despite the many thousands of people crucified by the Romans, there is only one archaeological discovery of a crucified body dating back to the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus. The remains were excavated just north of Jerusalem. The remains, accidentally found in an ossuary in 1968, were preserved because family members gave this particular person a customary burial. Usually, a crucified body was left to decay on the cross and would not be preserved.

The ossuary had an Aramaic inscription on it with the crucified man's name, Yehohanan or Yohanan Ben Ha'galgol (the son of Ha'galgol). Contained within was a heel with a nail driven through its side, indicating that the heels may have been driven through the sides of the tree (one on the left side, one on the right side, and not with both feet together in front). The nail had olive wood on it indicating that he was crucified on a cross made of olive wood or on an olive tree. Since olive trees are not very tall, this would suggest that victims were crucified at eye level.

Additionally, the piece of olive wood was located between the heel and the head of the nail, presumably to keep the victim from freeing his foot by sliding it over the nail. His legs were found broken. It is thought that since in Roman times iron was expensive, the nails were removed from the dead body to cut the costs, which would help to explain why only one has been found, as the back of the nail was bent in such a way that it couldn't be removed.

Yohanan was 24 to 28 years old when he died.

(photo of heel bones of Yohanan)

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Cupbearer and the Baker

Genesis 40

1 Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. 2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them. After they had been in custody for some time, 5 each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.

6 When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. 7 So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in custody with him in his master's house, "Why are your faces so sad today?"

8 "We both had dreams," they answered, "but there is no one to interpret them." Then Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams."

9 So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, "In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, 10 and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup and put the cup in his hand."

12 "This is what it means," Joseph said to him. "The three branches are three days. 13 Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh's cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. 14 But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. 15 For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon."

16 When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, "I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. 17 In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head."

18 "This is what it means," Joseph said. "The three baskets are three days. 19 Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh."

20 Now the third day was Pharaoh's birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh's hand, 22 but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.

23 The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.

(painting by Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, Joseph Interprets Dreams in Prison, c. 1816-1817)

Crucifixion of Peter by Nero

The Apostle and first "Bishop of Rome", Peter, was imprisoned, tortured, and crucified in Rome in 64 CE under the Roman emperor, Nero. Some scholars set the date at October 13, 64 CE. The earliest documented mention of Peter's death is in a letter from Clement, bishop of Rome (AD 88-97), to the Corinthians. It is in "The Acts of Peter" (2nd century CE), that we find the story of Peter being crucified upside-down, supposedly at Peter's request, because was "unworthy to die in the same manner as my Lord."

Eusebius of Caesarea (275–339 CE) also records this story, but says his source is from a church theologian named Origen (who wrote about 230 CE): "Peter appears to have preached through Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia, to the Jews that were scattered abroad; who also, finally coming to Rome, was crucified with his head downward, having requested of himself to suffer in this way" (Ecclesiastical History 3:1).

The crucifixion took place during a spectacle that included battles between slaves, gladiators, and wild beasts. The Christians immediately took Peter's body and buried it in the cemetery near the Circus Maximus.

Peter was also known as Simon ben Johan/BarJonah, Simon Peter, Cephas, and Kepha. He was a Galilean fisherman. He was married (Matthew 8:14-5 and Mark 1:30-31). He may have also had a son (1 Peter 5:13).

(painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, c. 1601)