Third class passengers on the Titanic were among the most poorly dressed. In footage of the sinking, you can see third class passengers with thin trousers and jackets, while other passengers had leather coats, hats and fur stoles. Third class passengers who made it off the Titanic were swimming around in their poorly-dressed clothes – making them look even more desperate.
What did 3rd Class Passengers Wear on the Titanic
Third-class passengers on the Titanic wore heavy woolen clothes, of which many were to be provided by the shipping company. The reason for this was because of the frigid temperatures in the North Atlantic during those months. There were not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers, so it was necessary for them to wear heavy clothing so that they would not suffer from hypothermia if stranded in the cold water.
First class men wore tuxedo style suits with white bows, and with top hats and polished shoes. First class
women wore tight laced corsets and expensive tailored gowns with gloves. Ladies would use the formal dinners to show off their best dresses. During the dinners, they would wear gowns, satin shoes or leather shoes. They would also have long white gloves, a scarf, and a opera fan. During the formal dinners, men would wear a white tie, tailcoats, and a white pique waistcoat.
Men and women wore posh clothes but not as posh as the first class passengers. During formal
dinners, the people would have a few different outfits to choose from. Ladies and girls also wore braclets and necklaces.
Men wore britches and shirts, women wore long skirts, boots, and high collared blouses.
For all the attention first class Titanic fashion attracts, the reality is most passengers on board were not wealthy. The fashions for second and third class passengers were simple, modest, and affordable, yet not without influence from upper-class fashions of 1912. The Edwardian poor came in droves to sail across the ocean and start a new life in America. They carried only 1 or 2 outfits with them, all their possessions fitting in bags they could carry on board. Their clothing reflected their wealth or lack thereof, country of origin, age, and personal style.
During the Edwardian period, changes in popular culture and the ways clothes were sold meant fashion was no longer reserved for the upper classes. Trends were beginning to be set by stage actresses, rather than just the wealthy, and media began taking an interest in fashion as well.
Women’s magazines increased coverage on fashion in general, cheap postcards with images of popular actresses such as Camille Clifford and Maxine Elliot were easily accessible, and daily newspapers even began to invest in featuring articles on fashion. Department stores began to populate major cities, becoming an integral source of fashionable clothing, and retailers increasingly marketed themselves towards the middle class. Some went as far to have bargain basements for the lower classes to shop in.
These changes meant the lower classes could now emulate the upper class in dress — a trend that was met by some derision and criticism. Though second-class Titanic passengers were not necessarily at the forefront of fashion, they still remained fashionable. Even third-class passengers were relatively well-dressed, as a third-class Titanic ticket excluded the very poor. Only 285 people had middle class tickets.
710 people boarded the Titanic as third class passengers, the largest of the classes on the ship. Third class passengers were skilled tradesmen who had enough means to provide for a family and dress them appropriately. Most were immigrating to America to join other established family members. With them came many who wore traditional or ethnic clothing — usually brighter colors and bolder patterns.
Very little is known about third class passenger attire. Those whose bodies were recovered from the sea were documented with the clothing found on them. Remember though, the sinking was at 2 am, and most passengers of all classes were only in their night clothes and a warm coat. The only other records are of pictures taken before the sinking, often dressed in their Sunday best. We can only take an educated guess at what third class passengers really wore on that tragic crossing.
WHERE DID THEY SHOP?
Main differences in clothing existed in the quality, quantity, and decoration of clothing. Many women still wore earlier styles that featured long, flaring A-line skirts and a tight bodice, as opposed to the new longer, straighter silhouette. Wider and shorter skirts were more practical for working classes anyways. Underclothes remained the same in all classes, however, with corsets always being worn (though sometimes shed by the young and daring) with chemises, drawers, and petticoats made in simple wool without decoration.
The other difference between first and second or third class passengers was where they purchased clothing. The upper classes could afford to have custom made clothing from the top fashion houses in Paris. If shoppers were local or taking long vacations, women and men could be present for several fittings. The middle class could also have clothing made by a local seamstress or a talented neighbor who took on side work.
Since all girls were taught how to sew in school, many could make their own clothing, taking inspiration from women’s magazines to create a pattern or buy a cheap paper pattern now being sold in most general stores, mail order catalogs, newspapers, and magazines.
Increasingly, the newer market for ready to wear clothing targeting middle classes meant women did not need to spend time sewing one’s own clothing. It also meant, in big cities, they could shop like the upper classes at huge department stores and walk away with a new dress, coat, or shoes that very day!
The quality of ready to wear garments sold in shops or through mail order catalogs was not custom. These garments were designed to fit loosely so as to accommodate a wide range of body shapes. The materials were cheaper blends of wool, cotton, and satin, with less fancy trim than the upper classes had.
Women often had to alter clothing purchased ready made or add nicer trim onto plain clothing. These were reasonable concessions for a much cheaper garment than handmade items. The best sellers were separates, underwear, and outerwear since they required the least amount of tailoring to look good.
The styles of clothing, too, were not in line with the high fashions from Paris. Typically, it took 6 months for the latest Paris designs to make their way into the hands of middle class seamstresses, fashion magazines, pattern makers, and ready to wear. Then it was another 6 months before the first copies of these designs appeared for sale in the appropriate season.
Middle class fashions were always 1 to 3 years behind the latest styles. They were also slower to die off. Many styles of clothing stayed in fashion for 10 years among the lower classes especially those that proved to be comfortable, easy to move in, warm, and cheap to make. High fashion was rarely practical enough for the Edwardian working class.
For the 3rd class passenger, they could choose to chase high fashion and dress past their class level. One notorious 3rd class passenger wore a fine silk dress and fur coat and was assumed to be part of the first class once on board the rescue ship Carpethia!
Most 3rd classes did not buy new clothing. Instead, there was a large market for used clothing (the first thrift stores?) as various classes tossed out their old clothes and they became stock for second hand shops, flea market vendors, charity bins, and traveling salesmen. This is how the majority of women purchased new-to-them clothing. Needless to say, these styles were 3 to 10 years behind the current fashion trends.
DAY TO DAY CLOTHING
Trends in outerwear among the wealthy made their way down the social ladder, which made tailor-made suits a popular choice among the second and third class passengers. An entire suit, comprised of a wool skirt and jacket worn in combination with a blouse, was not affordable to some members of the middle and lower-class. This meant that some wore a wool skirt in combination with a cotton or wool flannel shirt and a knit jacket to complete the outfit. The mix and match styles offered greater outfit pairings from 2 or 3 basic sets.
For cost purposes, the tailor-made suits of the lower classes would be made of cheaper materials as well, popular fabrics being tweed, wool serge, or shoddy – a recycled fabric made of rags. Common colors were black, brown, and navy. The upper middle class may have had an all-white suit.
By 1912, new colors emerged for all classes. Burgundy, deep purple, medium blue, and olive green brought an optimistic spirit to a generation of people who were tiring of the old ways built on a strict class system. Patterns were popular, too, for day looks. Narrow stripes, plaid, small, and large prints were seen on house dresses and some suits.
The tight fitting hobble skirt was impractical for second and third class, but that did not mean they only wore older style A-line skirts. Suits had skirts with high waists with a slim fit, long suit jackets tailored over the slender skirt, and plenty of pleats and tucks to make walking easier.
Women in the middle and lower-classes also wore simple, minimally decorated full-length wool or cotton dresses. These came in darker colors during the winter, keeping in fashion, and lighter colors for warmer days. Women of the second-class were obviously more able to keep up with the latest trends, and often wore garments that featured some fashionable elements, including high waists, asymmetrical detailing, slender skirts, and long, narrow jackets in the latest colors and trim. .
Children after age 12 dressed like their mothers. Before that, they wore knee to mid-shin length dresses and long coats. Navy dresses with white trim were very popular girls’ play clothes, while white tea dresses were for dressy events if they could afford it.
Coats were an important article of clothing to have for such a cold journey, and most women wore full-length, loose-fitting wool overcoats. These coats were in darker colors like their more expensive counterparts, though they didn’t have the fur. Third class women who were unable to afford a coat would wear large shawls instead, made of wool and brightly colored. These were no longer considered fashionable, but they were widely available and affordable.
Hats were a way to make a woman’s outfit more up-to-date, and large, wide-brimmed styles made their way to the top of most women’s heads, regardless of the woman’s social standing. Those who were wealthier could afford more flamboyant hats, but a plain straw or felt hat could be later accessorized with ribbons, artificial flowers, veiling, feathers, or other trimmings.
Smaller hats were more practical for the lower classes. Etiquette required women and men to wear hats while outdoors. Hats of 1912 had medium round crowns (they had to fit over BIG hairstyles), turned up brims, and as heavy decoration as your class could afford.
Trim was quite expensive, so as fashions changed trim was removed from one hat or garment and placed onto another. Even the upper classes removed trim from clothing before donating them to a servant or charity.
BOOTS & SHOES
Leather boots were the most popularly worn shoe — narrow in the foot, ankle-length, high arches, and with laces up the front or buttons on the side, these were both stylish and practical. More fashionable shoes could be bought at department stores that were relatively affordable, but traditional cobblers offered a more practical shoe that women of the lower class opted for.
Mail order catalogs also offered a wide range of boots, walking Oxfords, and some heeled pumps targeting the middle and lower working classes. Yet again most shoes were purchased second hand by the lower classes.
What Did Jesus Wear On The Cross
The clothing of Jesus is important to the story of his death and resurrection. Christians around the world commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion annually on Good Friday, when he died on a cross between two thieves. Church tradition holds that Jesus was likely wearing a seamless garment made of linen which would have been available in only one color of course.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Cross of Christ.
…cross(i.e.,…Paul delivered the message of the cross to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-2), and he explained that it was of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). His language does not refer to the order of speech (i.e., “this is the first thing I need to say…”). Instead, “first importance” refers to the primacy or importance of the cross (i.e., “this is at the top of the list…”). Earlier, Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). While Paul believed that the message of the cross was the “power” and “wisdom” of God, he also claimed that it was “foolishness” to Gentiles.
The Greek satirist Lucian called the early Christians “misguided creatures.” Pliny the Younger called Christianity a “depraved and excessive superstition.” Tacitus called it a “most mischievous superstition.”]
In fact, there is a graffito from the second century AD with a picture of a crucified donkey. Beneath the crude drawing read the words: “Alexamenos worships god.” This picture shows the derision with which the early Christians were treated for worshipping a crucified Messiah.
But what really happened at the Cross? The NT authors only offer the terse statement: “They crucified him” (Mk. 15:24; c.f. Mt. 27:26; Lk. 23:33; Jn. 19:16). But what did Jesus’ sacrifice truly entail?
1. Physical Torment
The Romans perfected the art of torture and execution, and their masterpiece was death by crucifixion. This form of torture was so extreme that it usually wasn’t even allowed for Roman citizens. Craig Blomberg writes, “Roman citizens were mostly exempt from this kind of torture; it was generally reserved for the worst of slaves and criminals.” The Roman statesman Cicero referred to crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment… 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 possibly describe such a horrible deed.” After witnessing crucifixion firsthand, Josephus referred to it as “the most wretched of deaths.” Even our modern term “excruciate” comes from the Latin excruciates, which literally means “out of the cross.” After studying what occurred during crucifixion, it is easy to see why.
Before he was crucified, Pilate had Jesus “scourged” (Mt. 27:27; Mk. 15:15; Lk. 23:16; Jn. 19:1). In their 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer explain Roman scourging in this way,
Flogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in cases of desertion) were exempt. The usual instrument was a short whip (flagellum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals.
As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock.
Thus before Jesus was even crucified, they conclude that “Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical. While the Jews only allowed 39 lashes during scourging, physician Truman Davis writes, “It is doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of scourging.”We can assume that Jesus’ scourging was gratuitous and gruesome.
Carrying the Cross
While popular films typically picture Jesus carrying his entire cross to Golgotha, it is more likely that he just carried the top, horizontal bar. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lb (136 kg), only the crossbar was carried.” The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lb (34 to 57 kg), was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms were then tied to the crossbar.” Historians estimate the crossbar at roughly 80 lbs., which seems more feasible for a bleeding and lacerated man. Even though the crossbar was only 80 pounds, Jesus was unable to make the trek because of his injuries, which were only 600 yards away (Mt. 27:32; Mk. 15:21; Lk. 23:27).
The first recorded act of crucifixion was in 519 B.C. by Darius of Persia..However, while the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they certainly perfected this form of torture. The Romans drove the nails through the base of the hand (or wrist) in order to maximize the level of pain. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,
The driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.
Because of this strategic insertion of the nail, the individual would live for a very long time. In fact, the Romans nailed the victim in these specific locations, because it avoided rupturing any major arteries, allowing maximal pain. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,
Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.”
Length of crucifixion
Jesus survived somewhere between three to six hours on the Cross (c.f. Jn. 19:14). However, most victims lasted much longer. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging. It could actually be seen as a sadistic blessing that Jesus was scourged so badly, because it meant a shorter time on the Cross.
Death by crucifixion
Crucifixion would eventually kill the individual in one of two ways: asphyxia or by heart failure. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,
The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result.
Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiretory [sic] effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.
This is why the first-century philosopher Seneca spoke of crucifixion victims “drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony.” In order to hasten the death of the person, the Romans would perform crurifragium: breaking the legs of the individual in order to expedite asphyxia. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to an asphyxic death within minutes.”
As we noted above, crucifixion could also end in heart failure. This was how Jesus died. John writes, “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (Jn. 19:34). Regarding the mention of “blood and water,” Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,
The water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. If the person had low blood volume and was about to have acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions could have happened and added to the amount of water that looked like it was there. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle, or perhaps from a hemopericardium.
2. Psychological Torment
In addition to the physical torment, Jesus experienced tremendous psychological torment as well.
Jesus was stripped completely naked
While modern crucifixes usually depict Jesus wearing a loin cloth, this is much more for our benefit as modern people. Historically, crucifixion victims were given no way of preserving their nudity; Jesus was crucified buck naked. Of course, we need to remember that Hebrew culture was much more modest than today. In our culture, it is regular to see sex and nudity. In theirs, it wasn’t. Therefore, if you can imagine it, this would have been even more humiliating than it is today.
Jesus was crucified in a public place
According to Blomberg, Golgotha was “probably a busy intersection chosen to heighten the effect of the execution as a public deterrent to similar ‘crimes.’” To put this in modern terms, it would be equivalent to being publicly tortured at a shopping mall or busy intersection downtown. The Romans strategically crucified criminals in public places as an incentive to others not to challenge the law of Rome.
Jesus was ridiculed and mocked
The criminals being crucified next to Jesus insulted him (Mt. 27:44). Luke writes, “Even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One’” (Lk. 23:35). Ironically, if Jesus saved himself, he wouldn’t have been able to save the people around him.
Jesus was abandoned by his closest friends
Matthew records that “all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:56). Judas denied Christ for 30 pieces of silver (Mt. 26:15), and Peter denied Christ three times in a row (Lk. 22:54-60). In fact, Jesus even heard his last denial in person (v.61). Many of us have experienced rejection or betrayal from our friends and family. We hardly need anyone to convince us of how painful this is. Jesus experienced this abandonment at the moment when he needed companionship the most.
Jesus was tortured in front of his mother and closest friend
Perhaps the only thing worse than torture is to be tortured in front of your loved ones! John records that Jesus was crucified—fully naked—in full view of his mother and closest friend, John (Jn. 19:25-27). Being stripped naked in front of your mother would be bad, but beaten, whipped, and tortured to death? This must have been horrific.
Jesus anticipated his death for his entire life
Jesus wasn’t surprised by the Cross. He knew beforehand that he was going to die in this way. For instance, Jesus stated, “The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Earlier in John, he said, “I lay down My life so that I may take it again. 18 No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:17-18). Many other passages demonstrate that Jesus was well aware of how he would die—far in advance (Mt. 17:12; Mk. 9:30-32; Lk. 9:44-45). Soldiers in war will often state that the worst part of battle is the waiting. Jesus had to contemplate and think about this awful event far in advance.
Jesus could have ended his torment at any moment
We have all been stuck in suffering before. But Jesus’ suffering was different: he could have ended it at any moment. Jesus said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:53).
This psychological torment kept Jesus awake all night; he couldn’t sleep. He said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mt. 26:38). His torment was so intense that Luke records, “His sweat became like drops of blood” (Lk. 22:44). While this could be a figure of speech (“His sweat became like drops of blood”), this could also be a sign of hematidrosis. Physician Truman Davis writes, “Though very rare, the phenomenon of hematidrosis or bloody sweat is well documented.” Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and a possible shock.
3. Spiritual Torment
The physical and psychological torment was no doubt inconceivable. And yet, by far the worst torment that Jesus faced was spiritual in nature. At the Cross, Jesus was separated and judged by God for the sins of the human race. Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46). At the Cross, Jesus was forsaken by God for the first time in eternity, and he was judged for the sins of the human race. The author of Hebrews writes, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and Jesus experienced this terror for us.
Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Peter explains, “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Isaiah write, “Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all” (Isa. 53:6).
Of course, up until this point, Jesus had never known sin (Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:22; Jn. 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21). However, at the Cross, Jesus became sin for the first and last time in history, when God judged him. Here God gave a visual demonstration of this spiritual judgment on Christ by making darkness fall over the Earth from noon until three p.m. (Mt. 27:45). Of course, in the OT, darkness was a symbol for God’s judgment over the people (Amos 8:9-10; Ex. 10:21-22). During those three hours, Jesus took on the wrath of God.
Why Did Jesus Die?
Why did Jesus go through such excruciating torment?
Paul tells us: “He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14). The “written code” (NIV) or “certificate of debt” (NASB) was a legal document that was nailed to the top of the cross of a guilty person. This document had the person’s name and their crime. For example, if the person was a murderer, it would say, “John Doe: Murderer.” Once the person died, their debt was paid to the state. For instance, Jesus had a certificate of debt nailed to the top of his Cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). In other words, Jesus was being crucified for claiming to be the king of the Jews.
This becomes interesting when we read that Jesus screamed, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30) from the Cross. This expression (“It is finished”) is the Greek term tetelestai, which literally meant “paid in full.” NT scholar Edwin Blum writes,
Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning ‘paid in full.’ This word on Jesus’ lips was significant. When He said, ‘It is finished’ (not ‘I am finished’), He meant His redemptive work was completed. He had been made sin for people (2 Cor. 5:21) and had suffered the penalty of God’s justice which sin deserved.
In other words, we all have our certificates of debt nailed to Jesus’ Cross (Col. 2:14), and Jesus claimed that he had paid for this in full “once for all” (Heb. 9:26)
Not too long ago a book was published with the title: What was God doing on the Cross? It appears that there are two questions being asked, not one. First, “What was God doing on the cross?” Why was the God-man impaled on a Roman gibbet? It seems shocking that God should be crucified? Second, “What was God doing on the cross?” Once we’ve agreed that the God-man was on the cross, we wonder, “what was he doing there?” What was he accomplishing through the crucifixion of Jesus? To what end and for what purpose was Jesus, the God-man, suffering?
The problem is that there are growing numbers of Christians who are having an increasingly difficult time answering that question. The reason for this is three-fold: (1) a diminishing sense of God’s holiness; (2) a diminishing sense of mankind’s sinfulness; and (3) an inordinately increasing sense of self-worth. Whereas I affirm the need for a proper self-image, I fear that many are fast becoming so impressed with themselves that they can’t help but wonder why Jesus had to die for them at all! But when we look at the Scripture, we realize that the God-man, Jesus, was on the cross, suffering the eternal penalty we deserved because of the infinity of God’s holiness and the depths of our depravity.
The Pain and Shame of Crucifixion
Any attempt to understand the sufferings of Christ must reckon with the fact that “two thousand years of pious Christian tradition have largely domesticated the cross, making it hard for us to realize how it was viewed in Jesus’ time” (Carson, 573). Both the painful and shameful aspects of crucifixion have become blurred, and no matter what we may think we know about this manner of execution, it simply does not mean the same thing for us as it did to those living in the first century.
The NT itself does not provide much information concerning the details of the crucifixion. There is a remarkable brevity and restraint on the part of all four gospel authors when it comes to the actual crucifixion of Jesus. All that is said in Matt. 27:35a; Mark 15:24a; Luke 23:33; and John 19:18 is that “they crucified him.” Why is there so little recorded for us? There are at least two reasons. In the first place, crucifixion was so frequent and its details were so common knowledge that they must certainly have believed it unnecessary to be more precise. People in the first century were all too painfully familiar with crucifixion. More important is the fact that the crucifixion was so utterly repugnant and so indescribably shameful that they deemed it improper to go beyond the barest minimum in describing our Lord’s experience of it. More on this later.
We must remember that the theological significance of the cross cannot be separated from the historical and physical event itself. The kinds of crosses used would vary according to their shape: X, T, and t were the most common forms. The height of the cross was also important. Usually the victim’s feet would be no more than one to two feet above the ground. This was so that wild beasts and scavenger dogs common in the city might feed on the corpse. Martin Hengel (Crucifixion, 9) quotes Pseudo-Manetho as saying, “Punished with limbs outstretched, they see the stake as their fate; they are fastened and nailed to it in the most bitter torment, evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs.” Jesus may well have been made an exception to this rule (cf. Matt. 27:42,48). If so, it wasn’t out of mercy, but in order to increase his humiliation by exposing his shame more readily to passersby.
The nails were spikes used to impale the victim to the tree. In 1968 in a cemetery at Gi’vat Ha-Mivtar (near Jerusalem), a bulldozer unearthed the skeletal remains of a man named “John” who had been crucified:
The legs were next to each other, the feet joined nearly parallel, both fixed by the same nail at the heels, the knees doubled, the right one overlapping the left, the trunk contorted, and the upper limbs stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm (cited in Lane, 565).
Prolonging the Victim’s Agony
The crucified man’s right tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg, had been brutally fractured into large, sharp slivers, perhaps to hasten his suffocation by making it virtually impossible to push himself up the vertical beam, an action required to sustain breathing (although this theory has been challenged by Frederick T. Zugibe in his article “Two Questions About Crucifixion,” in Bible Review, April 1989, 35-43). Although this man was crucified through the forearm, it is possible to do so through the palm, contrary to what some have said. If the nail enters the palm through the thenar furrow (an area between three bones) it breaks no bones and is capable of supporting several hundred pounds.
Often times a small peg or block of wood, called a sedecula, was fixed midway up the vertical beam, providing a seat of sorts. Its purpose was to prevent premature collapse and thus prolong the victim’s agony.
Cause of Death on the Cross
The precise cause of death has been debated for years. D. A. Carson summarizes:
“Whether tied or nailed to the cross, the victim endured countless paroxysms as he pulled with his arms and pushed with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing and then collapsed in exhaustion until the demand for oxygen demanded renewed paroxysms.” The scourging, blood loss, and shock from the pain all caused agony that could last for days, eventually leading to suffocation, cardiac arrest, or blood loss. When there was reason to hasten death, the execution squad would smash the victim’s legs. “Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing” (574).
Crucifixion as Capital Punishment
It is hard to imagine a more hideous form of capital punishment. Crucifixion was believed to be an effective deterrent in the ancient world and was thus frequently employed.
Appian reported that following the defeat of Spartacus, the victorious Crassus had 6,000 prisoners crucified on the Via Appia between Capua and Rome (Bella Civilia, I.120). Before their last battle, Spartacus himself had a Roman prisoner put to death on a cross to show his men what would happen if they lost. It is strangely ironic that Julius Caesar was hailed as being merciful to his enemies when he ordered their throats cut prior to their being crucified in order to spare them the indescribable suffering of prolonged agony on the cross
Siege of Jerusalem
Josephus described the fate of the Jews taken captive in 70 a.d., when Jerusalem was destroyed. The soldiers, “out of the rage and hatred they bore the prisoners, nailed those they caught, in different postures, to the crosses, by way of jest, and their number was so great that there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies” (cited in Hengel, 25–26). Josephus indicates that the Roman general Titus hoped that this would hasten the surrender of those still in the besieged city.
Obscenity and Humiliation
Worse than the pain of the cross was the shame of the cross. See 1 Cor. 1:18-25. Why does Paul refer to the cross as foolishness and a stumbling-block? It isn’t because the concept or practice of crucifixion was intellectually incoherent (like 2 + 2 = 5) or illogical. Rather, the message of salvation through faith in a crucified Savior was deemed “foolishness” and a “stumbling-block” because the cross was itself the embodiment and emblem of the most hideous of human obscenities. The cross was a symbol of reproach, degradation, humiliation, and disgust. It was aesthetically repugnant. In a word, the cross was obscene.
The cross was far more than an instrument of capital punishment. It was a public symbol of indecency and social indignity. Crucifixion was designed to do more than merely kill a man. Its purpose was to humiliate him as well. The cross was intended not only to break a man’s body, but also to crush and defame his spirit. There were certainly more efficient means of execution: stoning (cf. Stephen in Acts 7), decapitation (cf. James in Acts 12), etc. Crucifixion was used to humiliate as well as to harm.
For example, crucifixion was always public. In fact, the most visibly prominent place was selected, usually at a crossroads, in the theatre, or elsewhere on high ground. The reason was to intensify the sense of social and personal humiliation. Victims were usually crucified naked. Jewish sensitivities, however, demanded that the victim wear a loincloth. In the Bible physical nakedness was often a symbol of spiritual shame and ignominy. John Calvin wrote:
“The Evangelists portray the Son of God as stripped of His clothes that we may know the wealth gained for us by this nakedness, for it shall dress us in God’s sight. God willed His Son to be stripped that we should appear freely, with the angels, in the garments of his righteousness and fulness of all good things, whereas formerly, foul disgrace, in torn clothes, kept us away from the approach to the heavens” (194).
The first Adam, originally created in the righteousness of God, by his sin stripped us naked. The last Adam, suffering the shame of nakedness, by his obedience clothes us in the righteousness of God.
The “Foolishness” of a Crucified Savior
The ancient assessment of crucifixion is seen in the way it was dealt with in their literature. Historians once mistakenly assumed that the scarcity of references to crucifixion in cultured literary sources was proof that it was rarely employed. More recently it has been determined that the more refined literary artists omitted reference to crucifixion, not because it was unknown, but because they did not want to disgrace or defile their work by mentioning such a vile and obscene practice. In Greek romances and the theatre, crucifixion of the hero/heroine was routine, but in every instance he/she was delivered from the cross and set free. In other words, heroes could not on any account be allowed to suffer such a shameful death. This was one reason why the notion of a crucified savior was “foolishness” to the Greeks.
Cruellissimum taeterrimumque supplicum, which means “that most cruel and disgusting punishment,” was used to describe the crucifixion. Pliny the Younger (112) called Christianity a “perverse and extravagant superstition” because it preached Christ crucified (Epistulae, 10.96.4–8). Tacitus called it a “pernicious superstition.”
The Cross Forbidden for Romans
The shame associated with crucifixion was so intense that it was expressly forbidden that a Roman citizen be executed in that manner. Cicero wrote:
“Even if we are threatened with death, we may die free men.” But the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears. “For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or their endurance, but their liability, their expectation, nay, their mere mention, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man” (Defence of Rabirius, 5:16).
A Symbol of Indignity
The symbolic emphasis of the cross in the ancient world is also seen in the practice of hanging on a cross the corpse of a man who had been executed by some other means. What possible reason would there be for doing this, except to subject his name/reputation to the worst possible social indignity
The Contradiction of a “Crucified Messiah”
The obscenity of the cross explains Paul’s early opposition to the church and its gospel. Paul was “ravaging” the church (Acts 8:3; a word that literally refers to a wild beast tearing at its prey, ripping flesh from bone); he was “breathing murderous threats” at the church (Acts 9:1); he “persecuted” the church “to the death” (Acts 22:4); he was “furiously enraged” at the church (Acts 26:11); and “tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13). Why?
It wasn’t primarily because the church claimed that Jesus was God incarnate, nor because of any perceived threat to the Mosaic law or the Temple (although that accusation was raised; cf. Acts 6:13). The principal stumbling-block for Paul was that Jesus had been crucified. A crucified messiah was a contradiction in terms. One may have a Messiah, or one may have a crucifixion. But one cannot have a Messiah who is himself crucified! The concept of the Messiah evoked images of power, splendor, and triumph, whereas that of crucifixion spoke of weakness, degradation, and defeat.
Crucifixion as Curse
In Jewish law (see Deut. 21:23) “the corpse of a judicially executed criminal was hung up for public exposure that branded him as cursed by God. The words were also applied in Jesus’ day to anyone crucified; and therefore the Jews’ demand that Jesus be crucified rather than banished was aimed at arousing maximum public revulsion toward him” (Carson, 574). (See Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Pt. 2:24; and esp. Gal. 3:13 where reference to death on a “tree” is prominent.)
Thus, what Paul (or Saul, actually) was hearing proclaimed by Christians was that he who was to enjoy God’s richest blessing instead endured God’s most reprehensible curse. How could these Jews honor as God and Savior one whom God himself had openly and obviously cursed? Worse than a contradiction in terms, a crucified Messiah was an outrageous blasphemy! Yet, note how the early church highlighted this very fact! See Acts 2:23; 4:9–12; 5:29–31.
The Offense of the Cross
Thus the offense of the cross does not come from the fact that it is theologically incoherent or intellectually illogical or legally impermissible. The offense of the cross came from the fact that the cross, itself a visible symbol and physical embodiment of moral shame and aesthetic repugnance, was the instrument of death for him who claimed to be Messiah and Savior. This explains why Paul was himself so horribly mistreated and scorned when he preached the gospel.