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Why Romans Crucified People (The Story Beyond the Cross & Nails)

This is part 5 in a thread of my responses to Craig Evans, who has argued against the positions I take in How Jesus Became GodHere’s the beginning of the thread.

Most people acquire their knowledge about ancient Roman crucifixion from the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Gospels.

They learn the stories about the cross, the nails, the “King of the Jews” sign nailed above Jesus’ head, and the agony he endured.

But there’s another side to the story.

By studying the facts of Roman crucifixion, including their methods and process, you’ll find that crucifixion was about a lot more than pain and punishment.  Their goal was absolute humiliation.

Why is this important?

Because you must understand the REASON the Romans crucified people in order to understand an important position I take in my book, How Jesus Became God, which Craig Evans has attacked.  In the book, I argue that it is likely that Jesus was not given a decent burial, as described in the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea and his request for the body on the afternoon of the crucifixion.

(See my previous two responses in this thread here and here).

Rather, it is more likely that – as was the case with virtually every other crucified person in all of Roman antiquity – Jesus’ body was left on the cross for several days before being tossed into some kind of pit.  It sounds bizarre, but I think that’s what the evidence suggests.  And Craig thinks otherwise.  This will be an interesting point/counter-point/counter-counter-point, I hope – as it is obviously a very important issue for a very great number of people.

Why Crucifixion? When Romans Needed “Special” Punishment

Before taking on Craig’s arguments, I want to make one overarching point of my own that cannot be stressed enough, since it is the single most important key to the entire question.  It has to do with why Romans crucified people – and in particular (even *more* important)  why they crucified people for insurrection against the state or for intended (in the Roman eyes) insurrection.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they used it a lot.  It was thought of as the most horrible, painful, tortuous, and humiliating form of execution possible.   If Romans wanted simply to kill someone without a fuss, there were plenty of other means available – for example, beheading.

Crucifixion was reserved for special cases.

But there were lots of special cases.  Two of the most common were low-life criminals and enemies of the state.   These are two very different matters – they are not the same thing.  Low life criminals would include, for example, slaves who had escaped from their masters and committed a crime.   If caught, a slave could be crucified.   There were two reasons they were subjected to such a tortuous, slow, and humiliating death.    They were receiving the “ultimate” punishment for their crime and, possibly more important, they were being used as a spectacle to warn any other slave who was thinking about escaping or committing crimes what could happen to *them*.

Note: This is a special “Free Access” Ehrman Blog post.  Most posts here require a membership to read them in their entirety.  If you are enjoying this post, please consider joining.  100% of proceeds go to charity.  Click here to join.

Roman Crucifixion Process and Methods

The Romans had a very different view of capital punishment from ours.  In the U.S., if someone is to be executed, there are enormous concerns about due process.   Appeals can take almost literally forever in some places.  The executions themselves are done in private, and the goal (well, the stated goal, anyway) is to make the death as swift and painless as possible, away from the public view.

That’s not how the Romans did it.

The Romans did not have a procedure for due process, trial by jury, right of appeal; they did not delay punishment; and they wanted some executions (for example, of low lifes and enemies of the state) to be as public, torturous, long and drawn out, degrading, and humiliating as possible.    If someone in New Jersey is convicted of carjacking, they may need to spend some time behind bars away from public view.  If something like that happened in the Roman empire (chariot-jacking?) (well, OK, horse theft) they would nail the lout to a cross, in a public place, so everyone passing by could hear him scream and watch him writhe for a couple of days.   And then they’d leave the body on the cross so that the birds and dogs could get at it.    Do that a few times for horse-theft, and see how many horse thieves you’ll find.  It was an exceedingly more effective disincentive for crime.  Or so the Romans reasoned, in any event.

Worse than escaping as a slave or stealing a horse –very much worse – was opposing the Roman state itself.  This is something the Romans WOULD NOT tolerate.   Enemies of the state had to be shown what the power of the state was.  And crucifixion was how it was done.   If you were a resistor to Roman military action – crucified.  If you were caught attacking Roman troops – crucified.  If you plotted to overthrow the local Roman government – crucified.

Crucifixion was a particularly poignant statement when it came to enemies of the state.  Those who were opposed to Rome – I don’t mean those who didn’t much like the Romans running the show, or those who wished things were different, or those who hoped something better would come along, but instead, those who actively sought to oppose the state, or at least were *thought* by the Roman authorities to seek to oppose the state – were unceremoniously condemned to be crucified precisely in order to show how absolutely HELPLESS anyone is who thinks they can oppose the power of Rome.

Ancient Roman Crucifixion was a Symbol

Roman power was very real, very tangible, very palpable.  And it was played out on the bodies of those who tried to oppose it.  Crucifixion was the perfect mode of execution for anyone engaging in, supporting, or endorsing violent opposition to the Roman state.  You think you can oppose US?  Well then, this is what we’ll do to YOU to show you how powerful you really are.   We will take you, strip you naked, drag you to a public place, nail your hands (wrists) to a cross beam, nail your feet to an upright, set you up as a public spectacle for people to see and mock.    By doing so we will not only torture you to death  (often it took a couple of days for a person to die of asphyxiation).  We will reveal to all who can see how helpless you are.

Your hands and feet will be nailed securely to wood and you will be left to hang in a position where you cannot fend for yourself.   You will not be able move your body.  You will not be able to wave off the scavenging birds.  You will not be able to kick away the roaming dogs.  You will not be able to lift a finger to help yourself.  We can do this to you.  And if you oppose our power, this *is* what we will do to you.

Crucifixion was not merely a death by torture.  It was a symbolic statement that WE are Roman power and YOU are nothing.  And if you oppose us, we will prove it, by rendering you absolutely, completely powerless, while we wrack your body with pain and make you scream.

And the proof did not end with your last breath.   Romans left bodies on the cross for clear and distinct reasons.

Everyone wanted a decent burial in the ancient world.  It was far more important to people then than it is to people today.  A decent burial, for many, was required for a decent afterlife.  It honored the body of the one departed.  Not to receive a decent burial was disgusting, scandalous, gut-wrenching, debasing, humiliating.   And so Romans did not allow crucified victims – especially enemies of the state – to be buried.  They left them on the crosses as their bodies rot and the scavengers went on the attack.  To allow a decent burial was to cave into the desires precisely of the people who were being mocked and taught a lesson.  No decency allowed.  The body has to rot, and then we’ll toss it into a grave.

This was especially the case – I reiterate – for enemies of the state.  Rare exceptions might be made for low-life criminals – escaped slaves, horse thieves, general riff-raff who did not matter to anyone in power.  But enemies of the state did matter to those in power.  Because these enemies had the temerity, stupidity, and willfulness to want to oppose that power.  If that’s what they choose to do, this is the price they will pay – and everyone will see it, for days.  This is the true history of Roman crucifixion.

Roman Crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes.   Although we have no Roman crucifixion records, Jesus’ death by crucifixion for calling himself King of the Jews is as close to a historical certainty as we have.  Craig Evans agrees with that.  Virtually everyone agrees with that.   Jesus was killed on a political charge.  By calling himself king – in Roman eyes (whether this is what he personally meant or not) – he was making a political claim, that he was going to replace the Roman governance of Judea with a kingdom in which he himself would be king.   This could happen (in Roman eyes) only if there was a rebellion.  Rebellions have to be suppressed – and if you’re Roman, they have to be suppressed violently, forcefully, mercilessly.   If you think you are going to replace the Roman ruler,  if you think you can start an insurrection against the state, if you think you can take our power away and exert your own power, well, we’ll SHOW you how much power you have.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a forceful and unmistakable demonstration of Roman power.

They humiliated him, tortured him, nailed him to a cross so that he couldn’t raise a hand in his own defense, let alone overthrow the ruling Roman authority.  It is what Romans did to insurrectionists and prospective insurrectionists, to anyone who opposed their power by proposing to set up their own kingdom.   The humiliation and show of force was not limited to a six-hour (in Jesus’ case, somewhat unusually, if the Gospels can be trusted on this point) torture.  To show what Roman power is, the body would be left on the cross, so everyone in that public place could see what happens to anyone who thinks they can cross the power of Rome.   There was no quarter, no mercy, no sympathy.   Instead, there was public humiliation and torture and the public display, for days, of the bodies of those who think that they will start their own kingdom.

This ideology of crucifixion needs to be firmly born in mind when thinking about whether Romans made an exception to their policies of crucifixion in the case of Jesus’ burial.

Note: This was a special “free” Ehrman Blog post.  Most posts here require a membership to read them in their entirety.  If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining.  100% of proceeds go to charity.  Click here to join.

Did Romans Allow Decent Burials?
Jesus Burial: My Personal Stake in the Question



  1. Avatar
    Matilda  July 7, 2014

    It gives one an entirely new perspective on Jesus. Bart, do you think Jesus was deluded or was he set up by the Temple priests who felt he was a nuisance, or will we ever know? I’ve read a number of your books and must re-read some but so far the end result is that I have taken my crucifix collection off the wall (not that I was ever a big person of faith but still…). It just makes me kind of sad to be so disillusioned about Jesus. Religion has done us a great dis-service I think. I appreciate you clearing the Biblical air, so to speak.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      I don’t think he was deluded or set up. He had definite views, apocalyptically oriented, and these got him into trouble. I explain it at greatest length in my book Jesus:Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 23, 2015

        Haven’t read “Jesus:Apocalpytic Prophet of the New Millennium.” Sounds like you cover it there. But wasn’t thinking that God would intervene and that the Kingdom of God was imminent delusional?

        Also, Bart, I don’t recall Jesus saying explicitly that he was (or would be) the King of the Jews.” Where does he….?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 23, 2015

          I wouldn’t call it delusional. Jesus was very much a man of his time.

          During his public ministry Jesus does not call himself King of the Jews. But that was the charge for which he was crucified (it’s the same as the charge of calling himself messiah); and either he was innocent and was killed for something he didn’t call himself/think about himself as, or he did imagine that’s who he was.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 23, 2015

            And we men and women who live in the U.S. are people of our own time but wouldn’t you agree that Christians who think the second coming is imminent are delusional or that holding the view that America is the great country in the world–no if’s, and’s or but’s about it–is delusional or perhaps that if we give enough tax cuts to the rich, everyone will be better off is delusional?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 24, 2015

            I think the term “delusional” refers to a psychologically imbalanced state, not simply to a belief that is probably wrong.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 23, 2015

            I did not think “messiah” implied “king.” But certainly, in the view of Pilate, it meant “trouble.”

          • Bart
            Bart  March 24, 2015

            Yes, the term messiah means “anointed one,” and is the term Israelites used of a present or future king, God’s anointed one.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  April 12, 2017

            There’s certainly nothing in the gospels that say that the ROMAN charges against Jesus had anything at all to do with him being “King of the Jews”. To the contrary, according to those texts, Pilate wasn’t interested in crucifying Jesus at all.

            The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what – if any – the actual Roman charges against him were. For all we know, Jesus could have been crucified as a “low-life criminal” (as far as actual Roman charges went). But, every indication we have is that Jesus was crucified at the suggestion of the “principle men” of the Jews. Certainly, the gospels and Josephus are in agreement on that point. So, did Pilate have to officially pronounce Jesus as an “enemy of the state”, charging him with High Treason. No, of course not. He might not have even bothered with formal charges at all. The Jewish leadership had found Jesus guilty of “something”, and wanted him dead, so Pilate went along with it. Jesus probably didn’t register as a “blip” on Pilates radar, much less, as a blip worthy of official charges of High Treason Against the State of Rome.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2017

            I think I disagree. The charge at the trial is that he called himself King of the Jews, and that is the charge placed over his head on the cross. But I completely agree that Pilate didn’t make a big deal of it and probably just thought he was a nut.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  April 13, 2017

            Yes, you are right – the Jewish leaders did (according to the gospels) accuse him of claiming to be the King of the Jews. But, this does not at all infer that Pilate saw Jesus as guilty of High Treason, or Insurrection, or any “crime against the state” at all.

            You said in your opening statement (way up there, above), that “Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes. He was executed for calling himself King of the Jews. Craig Evans agrees with that. Virtually everyone agrees with that. Jesus was killed on a political charge.”

            I don’t agree with that, though. Never have. In fact, I think that anyone that agrees that Jesus was executed on a political charge is just trying to find ways to avoid appearing like they’re “blaming the Jews”, and thus are “anti-Semetic”. (but, that’s just a thought…)

            Thing is, though, as I’ve read the gospels, it never once occurred to me that Jesus was charged – by *Pilate* – with anything at all. I don’t think he cared one bit about this “Jesus problem”, and finally just gave in to the insistence of the Jewish authorities on the matter.

            In short, I think Jesus was indeed crucified as mere “riff-raff”.

            And, that sign Pilate put up on the cross? The one of which he says “I’ve written what I’ve written”? That was just an “up yours” to the Jewish leadership who bugged him with the whole issue in the first place.

            Jesus didn’t rank an execution for High Treason, or any such thing. I don’t think Pilate even really gave a rip about the whole thing. Like you say, Pilate probably just thought he was nuts.

            And, it’s for that reason that I think Jesus was “just crucified”. That’s all. Pilate couldn’t have cared less about making some kind of “political statement” by crucifying a nutbag as a Traitor, and thus, insisting that Jesus’ body remain on the cross until it fell apart. There was, after all, no real “political statement” to be made. If *Pilate* himself had become aware that there was an insurrection mounting, and some guy proclaiming to be the “king”, then he himself would have had Jesus arrested. But, I don’t think he had any idea who Jesus was.

            Bottom line: Despite what “everybody thinks”, I certainly have never thought that Jesus was crucified for being anything other than riff-raff, because I just don’t find any support for any other notion in the gospel accounts. I see the Jewish leaders *claimed* that Jesus said he was a king – but – I also see that Pilate *asked* him if he was a king. So, again, Pilate didn’t know squat about Jesus. And, according to the gospel accounts, he was against crucifying Jesus, and apparently acquiesced to the Jewish leadership. But, that doesn’t, by any stretch, mean he must have considered Jesus guilty of High Treason, sedition, insurrection, or any other such crime against the state. If anything, it means he got tired of being bugged by the Jewish leadership, and just had the “riff-raff” crucified.

  2. Avatar
    jsoundz  July 7, 2014

    Two things Bart-

    Regarding this post I must say thanks for giving at least some credence to JD Crossan’s(in your book) view that Jesus probably suffered a terrible but typical Roman crucifixion much less “glamorous” than depicted in the gospels accounts.
    Two, regarding Craig Evans debate you had a few months? ago. It appeared he never answered your pointed questions regarding the inerrancy of scripture. Sort of a danced around the issues to satisfy the local audience. I’ve seen this done by another apologist, Paul Meijer.. Sadly, they like to downplay the value of the errors as if its not that important.

  3. Avatar
    TomTerrific  July 7, 2014

    The bodies of the crucified must have been much closer to the ground if dogs could reach them. They are usually depicted as towering over everyone.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014


    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  July 8, 2014

      I can’t remember if I read it on another blog some point or in an article in Novum Testamentum a while back, but there is speculation among some academics that the wood used for the crosses was not that tall and that the condemned was not that far off the ground so if dogs did indeed tear at the flesh of the crucified it would not have been difficult. This is in opposition to the popular images of the three crosses being quite a ways off the ground. I’ve never been to Israel so I can’t comment on what the trees look like, but you never see very many on the evening news and none that appear tall!

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2014

        It doesn’t make much sense, from a practical perspective, that they were very high off the ground. Too many logistics!

        • Avatar
          EricBrown  July 15, 2014

          And that much harder to hoist into an upright position whilst laden with a God-man!

  4. Avatar
    SJB  July 7, 2014

    Judging by the frequency of crucifixion as a punishment it doesn’t seem to have been any more effective as a deterrent than it is now.

    All the Jesus movies depict the persons being crucified as being suspended high off the ground, presumably so everyone could get a good look. Do we know this to be true? Seems it would be difficult for the dogs to get at the bodies in such a case unless the bodies were taken down and thrown to them.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      Yes, people will commit crime if driven to it, regardless of the consequences….

      Crosses were probably not tall affairs — too many practical problems, and no real reason to make them that way.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 9, 2014

        I know it’s been claimed that in some times and places, the crossbeams were attached to living trees. It would make sense, in those cases, for the attachment to be low – below where branches spread out.

        But…would living trees have been used mostly in places where few crucifixions were peformed? Where it wasn’t worth going to the trouble of maintaining permanent uprights…or even having a standard *site* that was always used for crucifixions?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2014

          I’ve never heard that about living trees! I think it’s usually assumed (given the references in the sources — e.g., Titus lining the road with crucifixes) that they were stakes of wood with a crossbeam.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  July 11, 2014

            I can’t remember where I read about the use of living trees – in one or more publications of some kind, several years ago. I thought that was what most authorities now believed, except for special situations like slave revolts.

            But…the place I read it *may* have been Fate Magazine, whose contents have to be taken with a very big grain of salt. (They recently published a letter from a man who claimed he’d made contact in a dream with his beloved deceased…dog. He’d mentally asked the dog to give him some kind of sign. And when he woke, he found fresh doggie poop on his bedroom floor.)

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 8, 2014

    Good summary. Thanks

  6. Avatar
    prairieian  July 8, 2014

    The brutality of humankind against humankind is a limitless field of inquiry. However, the worst horrorshow I know of in antiquity regarding the widespread use of crucifiction is the some 6000+ slaves crucified along the Appian Way in the aftermath of the Sparticus revolt. Indeed, a reminder of SPQR’s power and the need to think prior to embarking on a revolt against Rome. Or, making sure you win if you should embark on such an enterprise. My understanding is that the corpses were left to fall off the crosses. No burial whatsoever.

    Rome’s cruelty was by no means unique. We need to remember that. Our modern world is often little better as today’s headlines on the trauma in Iraq and Syria remind us.

  7. Avatar
    Zurcherk  July 8, 2014

    Several times in these posts, you’ve referred to roaming dogs as scavengers of the crucified persons, but in most paintings and films the crucified bodies seem to be high above the crowd, presumably so that they can be seen from a distance, which fits with your description of public humiliation (e.g., the ending scene of “LIfe Of Brian”). Are these depictions unrealistic? I’m having a hard time imagining roaming dogs leaping 3 or 4 feet into the air to nibble at the toes of a man being crucified.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      Yeah the paintings and films are almost certainly wrong. There was no reason to use high crosses (and practical reasons not to do so): the feet simply couldn’t touch the ground.

  8. Avatar
    jmorgan  July 8, 2014

    “If something like that happened in the Roman empire (chariot-jacking?) (well, OK, horse theft) they would nail the lout to a cross, in a public place, so everyone passing by could hear him scream and watch him writhe for a couple of days”

    I’m probably interpreting this wrong — would they really crucify an ordinary Roman citizen for stealing a horse? That just seems extremely draconian. And do we have any kind of idea what would happen to a person who did steal a horse? I’m curious how Romans would punish “normal” criminals as opposed to “special” criminals.

  9. Avatar
    paulkavanagh  July 8, 2014

    Dear Dr Ehrman,

    Love the blog and am a long-time lurker. A thought occurred to me as I was reading your post, and I thought I’d throw it out there. It’s about a related passage, specifically Mark 15:44-46. Has there been any critical discussion on these verses, where Pilate is reportedly ‘amazed’ that Jesus had died after such a short time?

    My real question is this: what is Mark’s intent in including Pilate’s ‘amazement’? Assuming most 1st century hearers / readers would know that it typically took days to die through crucifixion, is it conceivable that Mark attributes a (relatively) quick death to Jesus to, in some sense, ‘cheat’ the Romans of the long, drawn-out process they favoured? Wouldn’t those hearing the crucifixion narrative for the first time have probably thought that just (!) six hours on the cross was pretty good going? In that case, Pilate could be not just ‘amazed’ but also perhaps – for want of a better word – disappointed! Wouldn’t this be something which a Christian reader would probably think was, in some small way, a good thing: that ‘our’ messiah wasn’t made to linger and be humiliated for days, as the Romans do to all the others…

    The obvious alternative of course is that Jesus died quickly because he’d been given such a hard time of it in the lead-up to the cross. This would fit in with the established ‘suffering servant’ narrative often identified with Mark. However, Mark’s treatment of things like the scourging is pretty minimal – certainly not a Passion of the Christ-type blow-for-blow account, so for someone hearing the story for the first time in 1st C., would it be *that* obvious that Jesus would survive for only a few hours?

    Which leads me back to my original question: why did Mark make Pilate so ‘amazed’? Could it be that Mark is trying to make of Jesus’s quick death another kind of ‘sign’ that he was special?

    This is slightly off the topic of what this thread is about, but just thought I’d throw it out there. Thanks for reading.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      Excellent question! Pilate’s amazement does seem to suggest that six hours was an unbelievably short time, even for a flogged man. Maybe Mark is just trying to cover his bases, by showing that it’s true — even though it’s amazing: it took only six hours (it needs to for Mark, so he can get a burial in that day).

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 9, 2014

        I’m totally confused. Catholics believe Jesus was on the cross for only *three* hours…noon to three.

        I’m not looking at my Bible now, but whatever “Mark” says has always been incomprehensible to me. I once asked you what it meant, and I could swear what you told me was the equivalent of noon to three! I must have misunderstood (maybe I was still so befuddled by the terminology in the Bible that I forgot how to subtract). Could you please explain it again?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2014

          Are you sure that’s the traditional Catholic belief? Mark is explicit that it was 6 hours.

          • mini1071
            mini1071  July 11, 2014

            Wasn’t there an issue of sunset, the start of Shabbat, work and handling a body that “Mark” had to work around?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

            Working on Shabbat would be a problem for Jews — that’s why Joseph has to make a hasty burial. In my historical scenario that’s not a problem, since Jews probably didn’t bury Jesus.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  July 11, 2014

            I just checked my Bible, and saw why I’d been confused *recently*.

            On one page, it says,” Now it was the third hour and they crucified him.” Several pargraphs later, on the next page, it says, “And when the sixth hour came, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour… [Jesus] expired.”

            I couldn’t understand the descriptions of those hours, until you told me they started counting from dawn. (Seems illogical, with their “day” beginning at sundown!) But then I saw that the “sixth” and “ninth” hours could easily be our noon and 3:00 p.m. I’d forgotten the reference to the “third hour” on the other page.

            But…I really think most lay Catholics take it to have been only noon to 3:00. I remember people being urged to do things like observing silence in their workplace (if it was feasible in their type of workplace) during those three hours.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

            Yes, the silence in the workplace was in honor of the three hours of darkness.

  10. Avatar
    mary  July 8, 2014

    Torture and violence works. Jesus’s followers were disbanded? The effect was as expected except the story of visions kept him alive in the minds of the people that believed them? There lives were brutal and they wanted to see a way out?

    So, the belief in one God and an afterlife was encouraged and accepted because an individual or individuals used government powers to influence and control it.

    Would the people have been able to overtake the Romans if that had not happened? I wonder what that would have looked like? If the people had a powerful leader, would the fight for control be an all out war or slaughter? Would they become like the Romans? Would it continue to be violence that had the final say? I do not think the Romans could have been reasoned with. Some mind sets do not listen to reason and compassion.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      Lots of questions! But my sense is that there was nothing cynical about the rise of Christianity. Jesus’ followers really believed he was alive again — and this belief eventually took hold.

    • mini1071
      mini1071  July 12, 2014

      Wouldn’t it have probably looked like what it…did under Bar Hochba?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

        Not sure what you mean!

        • mini1071
          mini1071  July 13, 2014

          Mary’s rhetorical question seemed to be “Would the people have been able to overtake the Romans if” the Jesus movement had not arisen and become Christianity? I suggested at least in terms of Palestine uprisings against Rome did occur and did not go well.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 8, 2014

    Wow. This is a powerful statement! Here, I’ll just mention a few “buts,” things I’ve been thinking about…

    You’ve said recently that the Romans (and certainly Pilate) cared nothing about the sensibilities of the Palestinian Jews. But it seems to me that in the past, when traditions were being formed, they had shown some concern for those sensibilities. They didn’t try to force the Jews to give lip service to the Roman gods, along with worshipping their own; and they didn’t conscript them into the military. So isn’t it possible that they may have made some other concessions, such as not leaving bodies on crosses on the Sabbath? That policy could have been so long-established that Pilate wouldn’t risk changing it.

    About those cases in the Roman world where crucified men’s bodies were sometimes given to their families on the Emperor’s birthday…for what it’s worth, I don’t see how you can conclude it would have been only elite families. It seems to me that the mention of “families” might have meant simply that they’d give bodies to anyone who *wanted* them – with the presumption being that it would usually be a family member. More to the point: Even if the sources do clearly refer to Emperors’ birthdays, I can understand some people’s thinking that precedent *might* have led to the same thing’s being done, in the provinces, on occasions of *local* importance.

    And re what you say in this post…you did mention, in your posts about the Life of Brian convention, that a scholar you respect had made the point that there was much less active “rebellion” going on in Jesus’s day than a few decades later. Given that, might the Romans in Palestine then have been a little less bloodthirsty than you portray them here? Torture, yes. Crucifixion, yes. But did they really *care* much about it? They certainly had no need to feel “threatened.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      Yes, Pilate observed empire-wide policies not to force Jews to worship the gods or to serve in the army — but he had no reason to do otherwise. But there’s no evidence that any Roman administrator anywhere bent the policies of crucifixion, since doing so would violate the very reason for crucifying someone in the first place.

      Yes, maybe it was not elite families in Alexandria — though presumably they would need to be someone with temerity to ask for the body.

      On your last point, the *reason* there was so little rebellion was precisely because the Romans so effectively and brutally nipped it in the bud.

      • Avatar
        EricBrown  July 15, 2014

        The “Fox Butterfield, is that you?” proviso!

        (fox butterfield, a reporter, is famous for headlining a piece something like “Crime rates fall despite swelling incarceration rates.”

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 8, 2014

    Another thought…you’ve said the early Christians would have had good reasons for making up the “empty tomb” story: it supposedly provided more evidence that a resurrection had taken place, and indicated that at least one person with wealth and influence had properly appreciated Jesus.

    Fair enough. But you also say the Gospel writers *don’t* cite it as strong evidence for the resurrection; if anything, people seem to be confused by it. *That* would seem more indicative of something the writers don’t think “fits,” but have to include because it’s part of the tradition that’s come down to them.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      I guess I’m thinking that there’s a difference between the tomb inspiring faith (didn’t happen) and confirming faith (did happen). Maybe I didn’t express it very well.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 11, 2014

        I agree that an empty tomb wouldn’t have made anyone jump to the conclusion Jesus had been resurrected *unless* they’d already been hoping it would happen. But I think it’s plausible that some of his followers might have hoped for it. Especially since they’d been encouraged to believe the “general” resurrection would be coming soon.

  13. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  July 11, 2014

    Interesting medical article about crucifixion:


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Very interesting! Everyone should read it!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 12, 2014

        Oh yes, it is extremely interesting!

        I recall the article on Wikipedia’s mentioning that victims were sometimes nailed to crosses through their “private parts.” And they also mentioned stakes sometimes being driven up their anuses.

        Re the article linked to here: I was surprised that they mentioned some past researchers’ having relied heavily on the Shroud of Turin. I didn’t think scholars would ever have had enough trust in that to cite it as a “source” for anything.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 12, 2014

        Something I forgot to mention: This article says crucified bodies were sometimes “left on a rubbish dump to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas.” If that’s true, a body’s being “eaten by dogs” wouldn’t require the dogs’ having been able to reach it while it was still on the cross.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

          Those dogs were not fussy as to venue.

          • Avatar
            Jeff  March 24, 2015

            Good point here regarding dogs and venue.. Keep telling my wife when push comes to shove her dog loves food over her.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 12, 2014

    “Yes, the silence in the workplace was in honor of the three hours of darkness.” (Mysteriously, not seeing a “reply” link…)

    I’d always misunderstood that! And while I knew people sometimes survived for days on those crosses, I wouldn’t have thought *six* hours was considered a surprisingly short survival time. Three hours, yes. But I would have guessed six hours was about average.

  15. Avatar
    Slydog1227  July 13, 2014

    Off topic, but a request, after seeing the link above. Would it be possible to make links external to your blog site, by default, open in a new browser or tab? I can center click links to do that myself. But I prefer to not have to back up to the original page where I started to continue reading it. Most sites also prefer to keep their traffic on their site instead of sending them offsite totally. Sorry to be off topic with this! Thanks!

  16. Avatar
    Scott_K  July 14, 2014

    This is a topic I have some interest in for a long time. I am no scholar of ancient history and I would certainly both defer to and be interested to hear the thoughts of professional scholars such as Dr. Ehrman on the topic. I think for a long time the most authoritative summary of what is known about crucifixion in antiquity is Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion (http://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Facets-Martin-Hengel/dp/080061268X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405311252&sr=1-1&keywords=crucifixion). It is a short read, but loaded with references from classical sources. I have always taken Hengel’s summary as the most authoritative summary of what is known about crucifixion in antiquity. Recently, however, Gunnar Samuelson published an exhaustive reconsideration of the references to crucifixion from the ancient sources (“Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion: http://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Antiquity-Significance-Wissenschaftliche-Untersuchungen/dp/3161506944. There is actually a pdf of this book that can be easily found on-line, but I won’t reference it in case there are copyright issues). Samuelson argues (very convincingly I thought, but again with the caveat that I am not a scholar in the area) that there is very little that we can actually know about the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world based on the available references we have, that there is little evidence that crucifixion was the highly systematized punishment in the ancient world as is conventionally assumed today, that the terms used for it in the ancient literature are very ambiguous and that the only thing that can be concluded with any certainty is that they refer to some sort of “suspension punishment” (either ante- or post-mortem) that was highly variable in practice, and almost no detail of the actual practice is available in the ancient literature. Samuelson suggests that much of the conventional understanding of the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world is the result of development from Christian tradition rather than anything supported by the oldest source material we have. There is apparently another quite recent study of the topic that has just appeared (Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World by John Granger Cook : http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_fb_0_23?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=crucifixion%20in%20the%20mediterranean%20world&sprefix=crucifixion+in+the+medi%2Cstripbooks%2C240&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Acrucifixion%20in%20the%20mediterranean%20world&ajr=2), but I have not had a chance to read that yet. I will be very interested to see how scholars respond to these recent analyses.

  17. Avatar
    ftbond  April 12, 2017

    Re: “Jesus was not executed as a member of the riff-raff, as a slave who committed a crime against his owner, as a lowly criminal from the lower classes. He was executed for calling himself King of the Jews. Craig Evans agrees with that. Virtually everyone agrees with that. Jesus was killed on a political charge. By calling himself king – in Roman eyes (whether this is what he personally meant or not) – he was making a political claim, that he was going to replace the Roman governance of Judea with a kingdom in which he himself would be king. ”

    Funny. I’m a Christian, and I don’t agree with this at all. I guess I’m not one of the “virtually everyone”.

    I don’t think Pilate cared one bit that the Jews had a problem with Jesus claiming to be a “king”, and I think it virtually impossible to believe that Jesus was considered “an enemy of the state”.

    I think Pilate had Jesus crucified because the Jewish leaders *wanted* him crucified, and claimed grounds for doing so. Josephus seems to support that view in saying “…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross…”

    This “insistence” – whether by skeptics or by “conventional Christians” that Jesus was charged with High Treason or as an “enemy of the state” – is nothing more than pure speculation. If fits the “narrative” of the skeptic, because it offers grounds to claim that Jesus wasn’t taken from the cross and buried in a tomb. For the “conventional Christian”? To tell the truth, I got no idea why they’d hang on to the idea. Here’s the breakdown:

    Gospel of Mark: Pilate says “Do You not answer? See how many charges *they* bring against You!” (indicating *they*, the Jews, were bringing charges, not him)
    Gospel of Luke: “Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.” (again, it’s Jewish charges, not Roman charges. Pilate didn’t find him guilty of anything)
    Gospel of Matthew: “And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He did not answer. Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” (once again, it’s Jewish charges, not Roman)
    Gospel of John: Pilate “…went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him” (and lastly – no guilt in Pilate’s eyes…)

    So, I’ve got NO IDEA why any Christian would claim that Jesus was charged with High Treason or even charged as an “enemy of the state” by Pilate. There is nothing in the gospels that supports that notion. It is exactly as Josephus states: Jesus was crucified “at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us”.

    So, my guess is that Jesus was crucified as “common riff-raff”, as far as the Romans were concerned.

  18. Avatar
    Bromponie  April 5, 2020

    Is there *any* positive historical evidence for the claim that Romans didn’t allow burial of their victims, or that they left the bodies to rot on the cross?

    By this I mean ancient attestations, inscriptions, etc. not just the lack of corpses/ossuaries found.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2020

      Yes, I cite it in my book How Jesus Became God (and in other posts around the one you’re referring to). It was a common trope in litereary texts to describe the corpses left on the crosses (e.g., left for the scavengers)

  19. Avatar
    Ferrante83  April 23, 2020

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,
    if the crosses were not high and not far off the ground,
    where do later painters get the idea of high crosses?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 24, 2020

      Human imagination. (Probably based on lines such as those from the Gospel of John, such as “I must be lifted up.”)

  20. Avatar
    Ferrante83  April 24, 2020

    Does the fact that the roman soldier uses a long spear to pierce the side of Jesus have anything to do with it?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 26, 2020

      Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re referring to. To ask a question in a comment you need to explain what it’s about.

      • Avatar
        Ferrante83  April 26, 2020

        Sorry I didn’t specify what I was referring to …

        Question: if the crosses were not high and not far off the ground, where do later painters get the idea of high crosses?

        Your answer: Human imagination. (Probably based on lines such as those from the Gospel of John, such as “I must be lifted up.”)

        My second question: Does the fact that the roman soldier uses a long spear to pierce the side of Jesus have anything to do with it?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 27, 2020

          I don’t believe it says anything about the spear being long does it?

          • Avatar
            Ferrante83  April 28, 2020

            In fact John 19:34 doesn’t say anything about the spear being long but generally spears are longer than swords and daggers. So the soldier used a spear because otherwise he couldn’t reach Jesus’ side. Does this influence the vision of the cross being high?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 28, 2020

            It actually doesn’t say why he used a spear, and they could come in different sizes.. So far as I know, no one from the ancient world says anything about it indicating how high up Jesus was.

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