Excerpt #2 from

Palestine in the Time of Jesus
Social Structures and Social Conflicts

K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman

Fortress Press

ISBN: 0-8006-2808-X


Anthropologists who study peasants note that peasants do not often revolt or even voice their feelings of hostility and oppression against elites. They usually find covert ways of protesting: keeping secrets or lying to elites, hiding taxable goods, sabotage (Scott 1985). But if peasants occasionally responded by forming bandit groups when the situation became intolerable, then crucifixion was the ruling elites' way of responding to banditry and other forms of rebellion (along with other means of execution). Crucifixion was an institution of humiliation, torture, and execution designed to deal with the people considered most threatening to the establishment and its interests (Neyrey 1996). It was public, demeaning, and painful; and it was designed to strike fear into the hearts of any who would dare pose a threat to the status quo. "Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect" (Pseudo-Quintilian, Declamations 274; also Jos. War 5.450-51). Both Cicero (Ag. Verr. 2.5.168) and Josephus (War 7.203) refer to it as the worst form of death.
The condemned were often tortured by whipping, burning, or stabbing. They were marched to their deaths carrying the crossbeam, parading them in humiliation through the streets. They were then nailed to the cross, although sometimes the arms were tied rather than nailed. And sometimes signs designating their crimes were placed on or near the cross (John 19:19). Death could be slow or swift, depending upon a variety of factors: the victim's physical constitution, prior sleep deprivation, degree of torture, and whether or not the arms were nailed rather than tied. The exact cause or causes of death in the crucifixion process have been disputed over the past century. And one should keep in mind that the exact form of crucifixion could vary (Jos. War 5.460). Le Bec and Barbet both concluded that the immediate cause would have been asphyxiation/suffocation when the diaphragm and intercostal muscles weakened. Zugibe argued that hypovolemic shock was more likely (for a discussion of these theories, see Zias & Charlesworth 1992:281-82).
The origins of crucifixion cannot be pinpointed; but Greco-Roman sources mention different forms of nailing to a cross, a tree, or a board as widespread in the ancient world: among the Persians, Scythians, Taurians, Celts, Britons, Germans, Carthaginians, Greeks, Judeans, and Romans. Alexander the Great crucified two thousand Tyrians who had refused to surrender (Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander 4.4.17, quoted in Hengel 1977:73). The Syrian king, Antiochus IV, crucified Judeans unwilling to give up traditional practices in 167 BCE (Jos. Ant. 12.256). Alexander Jannaeus, the Judean high priest, crucified eight hundred Judeans who had rebelled against him in 88 BCE (Jos. War 1.97-98/Ant. 13.380-83; see also the Qumran commentary [4QpNah] on Nahum 2:13). The revolt in the wake of Herod the Great's death in 4 BCE prompted Varus, the Roman legate in Syria, to execute two thousand of the rebels (Jos. War 2.75). Philo recounts a story of how the governor Flaccus crucified ethnic Israelites in the theater in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early first century (Ag. Flacc. 82-85). Prisoners of war were crucified by Titus' troops throughout the Roman siege of Jerusalem at the end of the First Judean Revolt (66-70 CE; Jos. War 5.449-51; Life 420; see Hengel 1977). And the Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls lists "hanging from a tree" (perhaps indicating crucifixion) as the punishment for an offender who betrays the group to a foreign power (11QTemple Scroll 64.6-10).
For all the literary reports of crucifixion under the Romans, the body of only one victim of crucifixion has ever been recovered. It is the body of a young adult male named Yehochanan, whose remains were found in an *ossuary (bone box) with his name on it, buried in the Giv'at ha-Mivtar area of Jerusalem. He was apparently 24-28 years old, 5 ft. 5 in. tall, and was executed early in the first century. The reason it is certain that he was crucified is that his executioners were not able to extract the nail from his heel bones (see Strange 1976; Zias & Charlesworth 1992; and Rousseau & Arav 1995:74-78).
Normally, the Romans and Judeans reserved crucifixion for the most heinous crimes: rebellion (including social banditry), treason, military desertion, and murder. And since it was associated with slaves, the Romans would, under most circumstances, not crucify a Roman citizen, considering it too shameful. This explains where Barabbas fits into the social landscape of first-century Palestine. The gospels indicate that he was being held for crucifixion by the Romans because he was a bandit chieftain, a social bandit. When Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, offered the crowd a choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas (Mark 15:6-15), the gospels say the crowd chose Barabbas. (On Roman governors releasing prisoners [including bandits] in Jerusalem, see Jos. Ant. 20.215.) This may sound like a perfectly idiotic decision to a modern reader; after all, what sensible people would call for the release of a convicted bandit and murderer rather than a peaceful prophet and healer?
But this reaction fails to take into account both the popularity of social bandits like Barabbas and the potential danger posed by Jesus. If Barabbas was a threat to the social order because he led a violent band of bandits, at least these bandits usually concentrated on attacking country estates, Roman garrisons, and Roman supply-lines. Jesus posed a different sort of threat to the urban elites. He gathered large crowds wherever he went, and he was recruiting members for a new group. Rumors had begun to spread about his healings and exorcisms, his radical statements about Roman taxation, the Jerusalem temple, and Herod Antipas. He was known to flaunt the scribes' conservative interpretations of the Sabbath and purity laws. And pivotal to the gospel passion narratives, Jesus was accused of in fact being a pretender to the royal throne of Judea (a "messiah"), meaning he was a threat to both the Roman rule of Palestine and the leadership role of the high priestly families.
Notice that when Jesus was interrogated by the Jerusalem high priest (Joseph Caiaphas), he was asked: "Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?" (Mark 14:61). This is parallel to Pilate's question: "Are you the king of the Judeans?" (15:2a). Pilate uses the common term "king," and Caiaphas uses traditional Judean designations. "Christ" (Greek christos) is the equivalent of "messiah" (Hebrew mashiach): both meaning "anointed one," referring to the traditional anointing as part of the Judean royal ritual (1 Kgs 1:33-35). And "son of the Blessed" is a phrase acknowledging the Judean king's "adoption" as son of Yahweh (2 Sam 7:7; Pss 2:7; 89:26-27). What both Caiaphas and Pilate want to know is: Was Jesus intentionally a threat to the political status quo by re-inaugurating popular Judean kingship? The gospels, in fact, differ in their accounts of how Jesus answered these questions. In Mark, Jesus seems to answer Caiaphas affirmatively (14:62), and Pilate vaguely (15:2b). In Matthew, Jesus is evasive to Pilate and silent before the Jerusalem leaders (27:11-14). In Luke's account, Jesus gives the evasive "You say that I am" to the Jerusalem leaders (22:70) and "You have said so" to Pilate (23:3). And in John, Jesus answers the Jerusalem leaders evasively (18:19-23) while telling Pilate: "My royal power does not come from this world [Palestinian politics or the Roman empire]; otherwise, my adherents would have fought to keep me from being handed over to the Judeans" (18:36). The difference between these accusations is not between religious and political deviance, but political deviance in Judean and Roman terms (Belo 1981:223-24).
What Jesus actually said or did not say to the accusations made against him cannot be assuredly recovered by comparing these accounts. It does appear that Jesus' ambiguous answer, which plays a role in all of the accounts, fits both his way of dealing with direct challenges (as seen in many of the gospel dialogs) and his skepticism that any sort of straight answer would satisfy these authorities. But all the passion narratives agree: Jesus was not crucified for being a teacher, or healer, or making personal claims. He was crucified as a perceived enemy of the Romans and the Jerusalem priestly elite. Jesus was not a messiah in a traditional sense: a reigning king; but he led a faction under the banner of "The Reign of God." How do authorities usually deal with someone who refuses to conform, and who fails to fit the well-known categories? Execution usually works well when the political establishment wants to insure that a leader not upset the status quo and that a group gets derailed. Public crucifixion was usually a great "damper" on popular movements. Little did they know that this execution would not be the last word. [pp. 90-95]

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