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)

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