For centuries pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrow” in Jerusalem, following the path Jesus took on Good Friday. Starting at the judgment seat of Pilate at the Antonia Fortress in the eastern part of the city immediately north of the Temple, the path follows 14 “Stations of the Cross” to the ultimate location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial. Several years ago, I walked this road, and though historically anachronistic — some of these roads did not exist during the time of Christ — nevertheless, it leaves one with a profound sense of historical gravitas.
Following Pilate‘s sentence, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution developed by the Persians between 300–400 B.C. and practiced by many ancient societies, including Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and Germanic tribes. The Phoenicians were probably the first to use a transverse cross beam rather than just an upright stake in the ground. From the Phoenicians, the Romans adopted this practice as the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens.
Incidentally, this is why Jesus could be executed by crucifixion, but the Apostle Paul, who was a Roman citizen, could not, and was instead beheaded. During the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66, for example, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews, many of them from the aristocracy.
The victim was first scourged with a flagellum to weaken him before he was hung on the cross. Near the top of the cross was affixed the titulus or inscription identifying the criminal and the cause of his execution. Above Jesus’ cross in Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin were printed the words
“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
The Latin acronym INRI comes from this; “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.”
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus’ middle name was not “H”, as in “Jesus H. Christ”. Rather, this belief comes from a misunderstanding of the letters “IHS“. This is an abbreviation of the word Jesus in Greek, Ἰησοῦς. It is capitalized IHSOUS, and should properly be written with a line above the ‘h’ signifying an abbreviation.
Death by crucifixion was painful and protracted. It seldom occurred before thirty-six hours, sometimes taking as long as nine days, and resulted from hunger and traumatic exposure. If it was decided to hasten the death of the victim, his legs were smashed with a heavy club or hammer. However, Jesus died within just a few hours. The New Testament, rather than dwelling on this painful death, simply recounts that “they crucified him.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time