Summary: How did the Cross get to be the central theme of Christianity?
The Death of Christ
The cross: it is the central theme to Christianity. We identify ourselves, our Lord, our God by particularly cruel form of execution. Yet we display the cross with pride. We wear it on t-shirts, on jewelry, some of us even tattoo it on our bodies. Why is it that we associate ourselves with such an offensive thing as a cross?
When we look at it today the cross is just a commonly used symbol. But it was not always such. The cross was extremely offensive. It was a form of execution that was done by the Romans on foreigners, on people they did not believe were really human. Did you know that it was illegal for a Roman citizen to be crucified except in cases where they revolted against the Roman government? Cyprian a Roman historian writes: “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is- What? There is no fitting word that can possible describe so horrible a deed.” Even the Romans found the cross to be offensive. It was the way in which they punished traitors and rebels. It was reserved for the worst of all criminals.
Do you know what happens to a body on the cross? What this form of death that we so proudly display today really was? Our word for excruciating is derived from crucifixion. The word that we use even today to describe an intense, unbearable pain comes from the cross. In fact the Latin word excruciates means ‘out of the cross’. If you have seen the Passion of the Christ with how graphic and intense that movie was, that is a watered down version of what a crucifixion really looked like. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me take a step back.
Jesus has been betrayed. One of his closest friends one of his own disciples has sold him out to his enemies. Jesus is taken by the religious leaders with help temple guards to be tried and executed. Now according to Roman law the Jewish leaders could not just go off and execute someone without permission. The Jewish leaders would have violated almost a dozen of their own laws during Jesus trial, but they cared not for rules they wanted him dead. He was not given a fair hearing. He was guilty and not given a change to prove his innocence. But the Jewish leaders still needed Roman support to execute Jesus. So they take him to procurator of Palestine Pilate.
Being procurator Pilate would have absolute power. There is no appeal higher than his word, except for that of Caesar. However only a Roman citizen could appeal to Caesar so this court was a high as it would go for Jesus. Pilate by all accounts given of his was a self seeking politician. He had been at odds with the Jews since he moved into Palestine. There had been a near massacre, a riot, and a number of red flags in his time. Due to Pilate’s shady past he was being watched very closely by Rome. So when the Jews bring a man to him and demand his death, they don’t even have to bring a charge up against him. They simply call him a criminal and demand death. Jesus trial does not even deserve to be called a trial.
Despite Pilates lack of scruples something about condemning a man who has done nothing contrary to Roman law does not sit well with him. Even if he is self seeking, he still has some value of the law. Pilate feels somewhat uneasy about killing an innocent man. He does not however have any problem scourging one. A scourging was a Roman form of punishment somewhat like a flogging…only worse. It was a preliminary to Roman execution but Pilate sends Jesus to be scourged before ever convicting him of a crime or even hearing a single charge against him.
So Pilate has Jesus scourged. His plan is to plea to the sympathy of the Jews. So he has Jesus scourged and then brought back out before the crowd. Pilate hoped that after seeing the battered and broken Jesus, the crowd’s anger would be subsided and they would no longer demand death. His plan did not work out as he has hoped.
A normal scourging was no small thing to watch. Usually two soldiers with flagellum’s would take turns lashing the victim. The victim would be tied to an upright post so his back was taught or dangled from two rings, or knelt over a stump. The style really didn’t matter for no matter how they strung the victim up his back would be taut for maximum effect. The victim would be stripped down and the flogging would begin. If you picture a whip like Indiana Jones uses you are picturing the wrong thing. Roman flogging was much more severe than that. Scourging was done with a flagellum or in some places also called a cat of nine tails. This flagellum consists of a wooden handle that the soldier holds and has nine leather thongs or ribbons that were tied to a handle kind of like the ribbons that dangle from the handle bars of a girls training bike. Except these ribbons were not decorative, they were designed to torture. At the end of each of the nine straps or ribbons would be embedded with sharp pieces of bone, metal, rock, or glass. There favorite thing to use was sheep bone because it cut the best. As the soldiers began the flogging each tail of the flagellum would wrap around the victim and the sharp chunks would actually grab hold of his flesh tearing into the sides and back of the victim. The bone, glass, and metal would rip and tear through the already tender skin and remove actual chunks of skin. Instead of cracking the whip over the back they would lash the whip across and pull down ripping of ribbons of flesh. This would quickly expose the subcutaneous tissue and eventually burst it. The scourging process was designed to be extremely painful and ultimately lethal. In many cases the time a victim would remain alive on the cross was dependent on how bad they were scourged. 6 out of 10 died from scourging alone because when they stood back up there was not enough flesh left to hold in their organs. Scourging would start at the shoulders and they would work their way down the back and all the way to the ankles of their victim. The scourging was so intense that by the time it was done the vertebrae of the back would be exposed to the open air. Many were blinded from scourging when the led balls from the whip would gouge out their eyes in the flogging process. They did this to Jesus. What I have just described to you is a typical flogging, Jesus’ flogging however, was particularly severe.