Literary sources record the prevalence of crucifixion as an ancient form of execution. Herodotus records the frequency with which the Persians employed this punitive measure (History 1.128.2, 3.125.3, 3.132.2, 3.159.1). Josephus, the first century historian, provides details regarding crucifixion that have often been overlooked, specifically with reference to Judea.
Josephus reports the successive use of crucifixion during the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and the Early Roman periods. Antiochus IV’s inflammatory decrees against Jewish people in the land resulted in the crucifixion of those who disregarded them (Ant 12:256). As king during the Hasmonean Dynasty, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) crucified eight hundred Pharisees while their wives and children who watched were slaughtered (13:379-380). Josephus notes that Jannaeus’ actions were one of the “most barbarous actions in the world” (380), while Pesher Nahum (4QpNah 1:7-8) refers to the king with the enigmatic moniker, ‘Lion of Wrath’. Most recently, Gregory L. Doudna’s critical commentary on Pesher Nahum ([JSPS 35; CIS 8; London: Sheffield Academic, 2001] 389-398) has challenged this scholarly consensus. Scholarship, however, still interprets the ‘Lion of Wrath’ mentioned in the sectarian document to be an allusion to Jannaeus. In the Early Roman period, Josephus recounts the crucifixion of Jews under the procuratorate of Gessius Florus (64-66 CE; War 2:308) and at the hands of Titus during the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE; War 5:451).
Although this does not account for all of the occasions where Josephus mentions crucifixion, an examination of the language in the accounts mentioned above intimates the changing methods with which victims were affixed or ‘hung’ to crosses. The language ‘to crucify’ is at best ambiguous. The Hebrew verb commonly used to describe crucifixion can simply mean ‘to hang’ (תלה) without implying method. The same ambiguities appear when one considers the Greek verbs for crucifixion (σταυροω, ανασταυροω), which can mean ‘to fasten to a cross’—ανασταυροω in Josephus’ case, according to Hengel, became synonymous with staurow in the 1st century BCE. Therefore any attempt to decipher the method with which Antiochus IV, Alexander Jannaeus, Florus, or Titus crucified their victims must employ an examination of Josephus’ linguistic technique.
With Antiochus and Alexander Janneaus, Josephus makes us aware that the victims were crucified “alive” (Ant 12:256, 13:380). Perhaps, this is indicates that Josephus is initially aware of crucifixion as distinct from the common forms of capital punishment used by Jews, viz., stoning, burning, decapitation and strangulation; which, in some cases, was followed by hanging the executed on a tree (mSan 7:1). Josephus would have likely been aware of the halahkic ruling that a victim who was stoned (i.e. already dead) and displayed upon a tree was to be buried the same day (Deut 21:23; mSan 6:4). This, however, was not crucifixion. That is to say, that crucifixion involved the hanging of someone on a cross while alive, where the Jewish ruling was regarding someone who was already dead. Therefore, it is not Josephus’ use of the term ‘to crucify’ that is important, as much as it is the adjectives he uses in conjunction with it, primarily, ‘alive’ and ‘breathing’.
For the sake of argument, let us say that Josephus’ description that Antiochus’ victims were alive was a necessary add on. In other words, the fact that there were hung alive was not the norm in the Jewish world. Once we move on to the incident with Alexander Jannaeus, crucifixion (i.e. the hanging of a man alive on a stake) has been introduced to his readers and explanatory comments on this form of execution are unwarranted. It is appropriate then to ask, “Does Josephus employ descriptive terms in other texts to detail the method by which Jews were crucified?”
Concerning Gessius Florus, who was procurator shortly before the First Revolt (66-73 CE), he states that Florus ‘nailed’ (προσηλωσαι) men of the equestrian order to their crosses. In the account of the First Jewish Revolt, he utilizes again the Greek verb ‘to nail’: “So the soldiers out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed (προσηλουν) those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest.” It has remained unnoticed that the only time that Josephus employs the verb ‘to nail’ (προσηλοω) is during the events leading up to the revolt and those during the destruction of Jerusalem. Josephus’ additional description may be due to the fact that nails were not commonly used during crucifixion, otherwise his use of the term would be redundant. Perhaps, in Judea the Romans did not crucify with nails, binding their victims to the cross with ropes. It was not until the Jewish Revolt that the Romans, infuriated by any attempt to question their supreme authority, decided to augment the stifling humiliation of crucifixion by violently nailing Jews to the cross, or as Josephus notes, “by way of jest”.
In traditional Christian terms, our view of the crucifixion has been obscured by almost 2,000 years of iconography. The Synoptic gospels, in contradistinction, lack any details of nails (ηλοι, pronounced heloi) during Jesus’ crucifixion or that of the thiefs that were executed alonside him. The one time that nails are mentioned is during the Doubting Thomas pericope (Jn 20:24-28), where Thomas must see Jesus’ wounds in order to believe. Outside of this isolated event, the entirety of the gospels lack the verb ‘to nail’ or the noun ‘nail(s)’ in any sense. A lengthier discussion concerning this phenomenon in the gospels will be left for another time, as will a discussion of the Essene approval of crucifixion as a form of execution and the archaeological evidence for crucifixion.
Some of this will appear in an article entitled, “See My Hands and Feet: Fresh Light on a Johannine Midrash“, being published this year in John, Jesus, History vol. 2 (SBL Symposium Series).