Did Jews of Jesus’s Era Practice Crucifixion?

Geza Vermes, a Jewish scholar who has written extensively on the “historical” Jesus (as opposed to what he insists is the “Jesus of Christian faith”), has an article in the British publication Standpoint. The thesis is quite provocative: it is possible that Jews of the first and second centuries BC practiced some form of crucifixion as a penalty for certain extreme crimes. The reason it has been difficult to uncover, or recover, this practice is obvious:

From the beginning of the Common Era, crucifixion as a form of death penalty was lurking in the extant Jewish literature, but for a combination of reasons was swept under the carpet. It evoked bitter memories among Jews during the late Second Temple era, when many patriotic inhabitants of the Holy Land ended their lives on Roman crosses. We learn from Josephus that the violent repression of the rebellion which followed the death of Herod the Great (4 BCE) involved mass crucifixions, 2,000 in one case, ordered by the general of the Roman forces, Varus, the governor of Syria.

During the final stages of the siege of Jerusalem in 69-70 CE, when crowds of rebels sought to escape from the city, no fewer than 500 captured Jews were crucified every day so that, to quote Josephus, “there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies”. Whether the remains of a crucified man whose bones were discovered in Jerusalem in 1968 in an ossuary inscribed with the name of Yohanan son of Ezekiel were one of these we cannot say, but the nail piercing his anklebone, to which bits of olive wood are still attached, and his broken shinbones clearly indicate how Yohanan died.

Not surprisingly, the words “cross” and “to crucify” turned into a kind of taboo until, it would seem, quite recent times. For instance, the commonly used Hebrew/Aramaic dictionary to rabbinic literature compiled by Marcus Jastrow (1903) translates the relevant terms (tslbtslybh) as “to hang, impale” and “hanging, impaling”, whereas Michael Sokoloff’s parallel work, published in 1990, almost always gives “crucifixion” as the appropriate meaning. If the connection between the cross and Jesus, and its anti-Semitic reverberation inspired by the popular cry, “Crucify him, crucify him”, are also taken into account, it is easy to grasp why the subject was kept under cover in Jewish circles.

OK, but where is the evidence that Jewish authorities ever carried out this gruesome penalty themselves?

The Qumran Commentary on Nahum, officially published in 1968 in Discoveries in the Judaean Desert V by John Allegro, but released in a preliminary study already in 1956, contains according to Allegro’s interpretation a reference to the death on the cross of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea community, who in Allegro’s understanding prefigured the crucified Jesus. Unanimously rejecting Allegro’s interpretation, scholarly consensus maintains that the Commentary speaks in the usual figurative language of the Qumran exegesis of prophecy, of the Jewish group of the Pharisees, called “the seekers of smooth things” (teachers pretending to present the harsh truths of the Law as easy and appealing). This party is said to have invited the Seleucid (Syrian Greek) king Demetrius (named in the fragment and identified by historians as Demetrius III) to attack Jerusalem and defeat their enemy, the Jewish ruler alluded to with the sobriquet, “the furious young lion”, that is, Alexander Jannaeus. The plan of the Pharisee “seekers” misfired and Jannaeus took his revenge on them and “hanged men alive on the tree”.

This metaphorical imagery neatly reflects the gruesome account of the historian Josephus, who reports that after the withdrawal of Demetrius, Jannaeus crucified 800 of his Pharisee adversaries for the crime of encouraging the Syrian king to attack Jerusalem, and made them watch from the cross the massacre of their wives and children. In legal terms, this macabre story presents crucifixion as the penalty for betraying king and country.

The publication of the Nahum Commentary was followed in 1977 by that of the Qumran Temple Scroll, purporting to be direct revelation by God to Moses, and representing a rearranged and enlarged version of the Law from the first half of the second century BCE. Among the many previously unregistered rules included in it, one concerns the Jew who “delivers his people to a foreign nation”, and another someone who “curses his people” among foreigners. Both are to be sentenced to the same capital punishment: “You shall hang him on a tree and he shall die.” In the light of this legislation, Jannaeus simply applied to the 800 Pharisees the existing Jewish law for treason: crucifixion.

But does “to hang” (the Hebrew talah of the Dead Sea texts) mean “to crucify” rather than to hang someone by the neck? To the best of my knowledge, hanging by the neck never appears as a Jewish method of execution either in Scripture or in the Mishnah and is not a synonym for rabbinic strangling. All the three extant examples describe suicides, intended or actual: the New Testament reference, from Matthew, concerns Judas.

To find the clue, one has to start with Deuteronomy 21:22, ordering the display of the dead body of a stoned person tied to a tree or some kind of pole. By contrast, execution by “hanging” entails the affixing of someone alive to the wooden gibbet until death ensues. Whether the criminal was attached to the tree by means of a rope or with nails is not specified. Judging from Josephus’s numerous mentions of Roman executions, the Pharisees executed by Jannaeus were crucified. By his time and in his writings, late first century CE, the Greek anastaurôsai = crucify from stauros = cross, left no possible room for doubt.

He goes on to speculate—emphasis on speculate—as to whether

the chief priests of Jerusalem, if they had the power in c. 30 CE to apply the Jewish law incorporated in the Qumran Temple Scroll, might have condemned Jesus to crucifixion. Could Jesus have been charged with betrayal, endangering the wellbeing, or even survival, of the Judaean people? In their view, pretending to be the promised Messiah, Jesus could easily have inspired a rebellion against the Emperor, provoking a massive and violent Roman repression. He would thus have betrayed the interests and endangered the survival of his people. His political crime should have been punished by crucifixion in the light of the legislation enacted in the Temple Scroll.

Oy.

The article has already resulted in one British journalist calling out Standpoint for publishing what he has determined is merely fodder for anti-Semites:

This is an astonishing piece of unfounded and inflammatory speculation, which gives itself away as such by the dense occurrence of words such as “if”, “might have”, “could have” and “should have”. There is absolutely no basis for this theory; it is nothing more than a fevered flight of fancy. In view of the troubled history of the Jews, it is no exaggeration to suggest that this represents an outrage both in terms of the scars of Jewish persecution and the anti-Semitism which remains in many parts of the world today.

The writer doesn’t refute Vermes’s arguments, mind. He’s just angry that this article was allowed to be published at all because there is, let’s face it, a long history of Jews being persecuted as Christ killers.

I’m certainly in no position to judge the merits of Vermes’s historical analysis. I’m sure his attempt to make Jesus an appealing figure to Jewish audiences by playing up ethnic, religious, and cultural affinities, in books like Jesus the Jew, has met with, um, mixed results, to be sure.

And Christians, of course, reject this popular bifurcation of the Jesus of history and the Jesus Christians believe is the incarnate Son of God and son of man. There is no other “record” of Jesus to be found but the one in the pages of the New Testament. Start with the very historical apostle Paul and his undoubtedly penned epistle First Corinthians: Paul insists that Jesus spoke the words of institution we associate with the Last Supper, which plainly puts Jesus in the position of seeing himself as the Passover lamb, whose shed blood saved the lives of God’s chosen (1 Corinthians 23-26), and that he subsequently rose from the dead for the forgiveness of sins (1 Corinthians 15:14), vindicated by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This bespeaks a tradition that was already old by the time Paul penned Corinthians, roughly in the mid-50s AD. Thus you have only one Jesus and little time for mythologizing (see, for that, the Gnostic gospels). And we haven’t even gotten to the canonical Gospels yet. Believe it. Reject it. But the historical Jesus “project” is a bust. Accept it.

As for who killed Christ? Well, that’s why God gave us mirrors.

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