Crucifixion was not only one of the most painful and disgraceful forms of death, it was perhaps the most dreaded methods of execution in the ancient world. In the four gospels, the crucifixion of Jesus is described in a very subdued way. Consider the Gospel of John:
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
On the surface, it seems odd that something so dramatic would be described so simply. However, in modern America, we’re so removed from the brutality and reality of ancient execution methods that we need it explained—in the New Testament environment, there was no need to describe the event further. Even when we do execute the most brutal of criminals, our methods are sterile, impersonal, and humane. The ancients were not nearly so civilized, nor so squeamish. For the vast majority, life was brutal, painful and short. Executions were carried out in public, with the crimes of the convicted well publicized, and the executions purposefully painful and bloody. The beatings, scourging, and torture that Jesus endured were common practice. There are some who have tried to claim that Jesus really didn’t die on the Cross, and therefore His resurrection wasn’t real. Serious historians know better: The Romans knew exactly how to kill someone, and you can be certain, He was dead. When someone was crucified, nails were driven through the wrist so that the person would hang by outstretched arms. Some scholars believe that the condemned would eventually die of exposure, or dehydration. Others believe that death came from asphyxiation as the pressure from hanging by the arms in this way made it impossible to breath properly. Nails were driven through the feet, so that the victim could push themselves up to take a breath, which was of course extremely painful, and only delayed the inevitable and made the punishment of death even more excruciating. In fact, the word excruciating comes from the Latin out of a cross. This is why the legs would be broken: to prevent the condemned from pushing up to take a breath, and hasten death. The Romans had raised punishment and execution to an art form, using the spectacle of death as both a way to entertain the masses, and keep them in check. By terrorizing conquered peoples, they hoped to prevent any challenge to the Empire. When Cassius put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, he had 6000 of the former slaves crucified as a warning against any others who would dare to challenge Rome’s authority. This makes what the Jewish Leadership did to Jesus even more horrid. Jesus really was no threat to them at all. He was totally righteous, and they knew it. They could bring no charge against him, and yet they demanded Pilate not just execute Jesus, but to crucify him. Their willingness to have Jesus treated in this way reveals a bloodlust that is difficult to understand, but betrays their moral bankruptcy.
The great triumph of Christianity is that this Jesus, who was crucified and buried, is now alive. His resurrection from the dead is a precursor of our own. We can be sure that some day WE will be resurrected, because we can be sure that HE was!