In a horrific scenario where a man has been condemned to die or is terribly ill, he still thinks about his wife and does not wish her to be left without a get. He asks those around him to write a get for her. But is he in his right mind when he asked? Can we rely on his judgment? This is one of the questions of our current chapter in Gittin. Among the situations it discusses is one where a crucified man requests that a get be written for his wife:
“If they saw a man whose limbs had been severed or crucified on a cross, and he signaled and thereby stated: Write a bill of divorce for my wife, then those present should write and give” (Gittin 70b)
The Tosefta adds that the man can ask for the get “as long as he has his soul within him.” (Tosefta Gittin 5:1)
A crucified individual is also mentioned in Yevamot, in a discussion about when a witness can testify that someone has died:
“one may not testify that a person died until his soul actually departs. And even if one saw him cut open or crucified” (Yevamot 120a)
In both these rather different situations, the assumption is that a crucified person does not die immediately but rather may remain alive long enough to lucidly instruct others to give his wife a get (the Gittin case) or perhaps to be saved (the Yevamot case).
Crucifixion was a horrific death because it meant that the condemned person had a prolonged and awful suffering. Paradoxically, that also meant that he could put his affairs in order and might even be saved. The Yerushalmi on Yevamot (16:3) tells us that we should not assume that the crucified man is dead since perhaps a wealthy “matronita,” a Roman woman, may come along and save him. Josephus, the 1st century CE Jewish historian tells us in his autobiography that once he had defected to the Roman side in the Great Revolt, he was able to save crucified Jews:
“And when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealins, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.” (Life 75)
This cruel punishment flourished in the West and the Ancient Near East for a millennium. We have evidence that it was used by the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians and particularly the Romans. In the West it was finally outlawed by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE because he (a newly converted Christian) thought it disrespectful to Christianity.
Crucifixion was most often used as a punishment for rebels and traitors. The crosses were hung in a public space, often on a main road. The idea was that the more people saw what happened to rebels, the fewer would follow in their footsteps. A famous mass crucifixion was that of the rebels in the Third Servile War, better known as the rebellion of Spartacus (71 BCE). When the slaves who rebelled had been defeated, the Roman general Crassus ordered six thousand of them to be crucified on the main road to Rome.
Jewish kings were not above using crucifixion to deter their own enemies. The Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai put down a rebellion against him and according to Josephus (Antiquities 13:14:2) had hundreds of the rebels crucified, an unusual and terrible step for a Jewish king to take.
The Romans also punished Jewish rebels with crucifixion as we see in Josephus’ tale about Titus during the siege of Jerusalem. He recounts that Jews would sneak out of the city to forage for food. When they were caught by the Roman soldiers they were cruelly punished:
“So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest“ (The Jewish War 5:11:1)
Jews were crucified not only for military rebellion but also for remaining loyal to their religion. Josephus tells us about Antiochus IV crucifying rebels who refused to follow his idolatrous practices (Antiquities 12:5:4). Later, during the time of the Roman decrees, the Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael rhetorically asks each victim why he is being punished:
“Why are you going out to be executed? Because I circumcised my son, the Jew. Why are you going out to be burned? Because I read in the Torah. Why are you going out to be crucified? Because I ate matzoh. Why are you being given a hundred lashes? Because I took the lulav.” (Mechilta deRabbi Yishmael 20:6:1)
The most famous person to ever be crucified was Jesus. As we have seen here, crucifixion was a common punishment but the early Christians were the only ones to take the cross – an instrument of torment – and turn it into a symbol of their faith.
A graffiti found in Rome, mocking a Christian named Alexamenos who is worshipping a donkey-headed Jesus
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The question of where the crucifixion took place in Jerusalem is a disputed one. All Christian sects except Protestants locate both the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in today’s Christian Quarter. Protestants however place it outside Damascus Gate, on Derech Shechem, at a site near the Garden Tomb, an ancient rock cut burial cave. One of their reasons for this claim is that this is a main road, and a high place, perfect for the public display that the Romans preferred for crucifixion.
The site of the crucifixion (Golgotha) according to Protestants
Footballkickit at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Do we have any physical evidence of the practice of crucifixion? So far only one example has been discovered. In construction done in 1968 in Givat HaMivtar, in the north of Jerusalem, a stone ossuary was discovered. The deceased’s name was carved on it: Yehonatan ben Hagkol – and there were bones inside. The right heel bone had an iron nail through it and the nail also had traces of olive wood on it. Archaeologists think that this shows that Yehonatan was crucified. The bone and nail were placed in the Israel Museum where they are viewed by many today, especially Christian visitors.
Rubén Betanzo S., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The archaeologist Joe Zias asks why, if there were so many crucifixions, do we have so little material evidence of them? One of his answers bears a fascinating relationship to a Jewish text. In one of the many mishnayot in Shabbat that deals with what is permitted to carry on Shabbat, we have the following rule:
“One may go out on Shabbat with a locust egg, and with a fox tooth, and with a nail from the crucified, for the purpose of healing” (Mishnah Shabbat 6:10)
It seems that nails from a cross were considered amulets with healing properties. Non-Jews as well as Jews believed in the efficacy of these nails and so they were in high demand. Perhaps that could explain why we cannot find any today.
As much as Jews rejected Jesus and Christianity, they understood the symbolic power in the story of the crucifixion and the veneration of the cross. One of the many midrashim about the binding of Isaac includes this startling detail:ָּ
”’And Avraham took the wood of the burnt-offering (Gen. 22:6)’ — like one who carries his own cross ((צלבו) on his shoulder.” (Bereshit Rabbah Parsha 56:3)
This disturbing midrash implies that Jews were adopting Christian ideas and symbols. But perhaps the meaning lies rather in the competition between the two religions in Rabbinic times. The rabbis wished to emphasize the willingness of Isaac (and many of his descendants) to be “crucified” in the service of God, even if God ultimately does not want this sacrifice.