A knights’ most important piece of armor was his chest plate. The style and weight of these varied widely through different periods of history. At their heaviest, they weighed well over 15 pounds, but typically weighed between 8 and 10 pounds. A knight was always prepared for battle, and his armor was more than just a means of protection. It identified him as part of a noble family and provided a showcase for the heraldry that was displayed on its surface. Typically, a knight wore protective chain mail over his chest and back, protecting against cuts from swords and lances; lighter-weight lamellar banded armor protected his shoulders, arms and thighs; gauntlets offered some protection to the forearms; and heavy boots were covered with spurs.
What did a Knight Wear on his Chest during Battle
English medieval knights wore metal armour of iron or steel to protect themselves from archers and the long swords of opponents. From the 9th century CE, chain mail suits gave protection and freedom of movement until solid plate armour became more common in the 14th century CE. A crested helmet, shield with a striking coat of arms, and a liveried horse completed a costly outfit which was designed to both protect and intimidate. Such was the mesmerising effect of a fully suited-up knight that armour continued to be worn despite the arrival of gunpowder weapons and remained a favourite costume of the nobility when posing for their oil painting portraits well into the modern era.
Armour pieces have survived from the medieval period, and besides these, historians rely on descriptions in contemporary texts, illustrations, and the stone tombs of knights which were frequently topped by a life-size carving of the deceased (effigy) in full battledress. Knights had to provide their own armour, but sometimes a sovereign or baron under which they served did give them either a whole or a piece of armour. There are records, too, of sovereigns replacing armour damaged in battle. The cash-strapped knight could also hire a suit of armour or, at a push, win a suit by defeating an opponent either at a medieval tournament or in battle itself. Armour had to be regularly cared for, and it was usually the duty of a knight’s squire to clean and polish it. Chain mail was cleaned by swirling the armour around a barrel full of sand and vinegar; squires must have been as relieved to see the advent of smooth plate armour as the blacksmiths who had spent untold hours of tedium forging tiny metal rings into a coat of chain mail. Armour lasted well into the age of firearms from the 15th century CE and was even tested against bullets fired at close range but the age of the knight was by then nearly over, soon to be replaced by the cheaper-to-equip soldier who needed far less skill in firing guns and canons.
Chain mail armour was commonly used by knights from the 9th up to the late 13th century CE, although it did continue to be worn into the 15th century CE, often under plate armour. It was made from hundreds of small interlinking iron rings additionally held together by rivets so that the armour followed the contours of the body. A hooded coat, trousers, gloves, and shoes could all be made from mail and so cover the entire body of the knight except the face. The coat, which often hung down to the knees, was known as a hauberk. The arms included mittens (mufflers) which could be passed over the exterior of the hands; alternatively, mail or metal plate and leather gauntlets were worn (from the 14th century CE). The hauberk had leather laces at key points such as the neck to make it a snug fit and ensure no flesh was left exposed. The hood part, padded or lined on the inside or worn with a cap for comfort, was pulled over the head with sometimes a ventail which could be fastened across the mouth. Under the mail coat, extra protection and comfort were provided by a padded tunic (aketon, wambais or pourpoint) made from a double layer of cotton stuffed with wool or more cotton.
MAIL ARMOUR MIGHT HAVE STOPPED SWORD SLASHES, BUT IT DID NOTHING TO STOP ARROWS OR PREVENT HEAVY BRUISING & BROKEN BONES.
The mail trousers, worn over leggings for comfort, usually had the shoes incorporated, often with a leather sole for better grip. An alternative to full trousers was to wear stockings or mail which only covered the front parts of the legs and the top of the foot and which were tied behind using leather laces. Another option was mail socks or a padded leather roll over the thigh (gamboised cuisse). The knee might have an extra protective disk (genouillier or poleyn) attached to the mail, and the elbows, too, although more rarely. Shins were particularly vulnerable when a knight was mounted on his horse, and so extra metal plates (schynbalds) might be worn on top of the mail.
Over everything, a cloth surcoat (silk for the wealthy) might be worn, which was typically sleeveless. Going down to the knees or feet, split at the front and rear and tied with a belt, it allowed the knight to display his coat of arms or those of his leader. However, many surcoats were of a plain colour, so their precise function is not clear. They may have helped protect the armour from rain or the heat of the sun.
The mail suit was heavy at around 13.5 kilograms (30 pounds) but not excessively so. The weight was predominantly on the shoulders but could be lessened by wearing a belt. Some were also made lighter by having a shorter cut, especially at the arms and front. Mail armour might have stopped sword slashes, but it did nothing to stop arrows fired at close range or prevent heavy bruising and broken bones. In addition, if the links were smashed into a wound, then blood poisoning was a real danger.
Plate armour evolved from chain mail with various intermediary styles of armour being worn from the mid-13th century CE. A coat of plates, for example, was a simple poncho of large rectangular metal plates tied with a belt. These and simple chest and back plates could be worn in addition to a mail coat. Scale armour made from small overlapping pieces of iron attached to a cloth or leather backing like fish scales were worn but were rare amongst European knights. A variation was ‘penny plate’ armour which was made up of small disks held together by rivets through the centre of each piece.
A CIRCULAR DISK (BESAGEW) IN FRONT OF THE ARMPIT PROTECTED THE EXPOSED AREA BETWEEN THE ARM & CHEST PLATES.
By the second quarter of the 14th century CE, many knights were now wearing steel plate armour on top of chain mail. The breastplate became more common from the mid-14th century CE. Curved and sometimes with an arrangement of flexible strips or hoops of metal at the waist (fauld), they were attached using straps, buckles or semicircular rivets. A simpler backplate might also be worn, which was attached to the front plate via hinges. Greaves covering the whole of the leg became common as well as a plate (sabaton) or metal scales covering the top of the foot. Knees were often now completely enclosed in metal with a circular or oval wing at the side to deflect blows. The cuisse to protect the upper legs was now also made of plate metal, usually with a ridge or stop-rib which prevented the point of a sword sliding up the leg. Arms were protected like the legs, with a circular addition for the elbow and sometimes a wing at the shoulder (spaudler), again to deflect blows. Tubular arm plating was known as a vambrace. A circular disk (besagew) in front of the armpit protected the exposed area between the arm and chest plates. An alternative was the pauldron, a plate which wrapped around the entire shoulder.
From the second quarter of the 15th century CE, the typical knight was covered from head to foot in steel or iron plate armour which followed the contours of the body more closely. Replacing the undercoat of chain mail, was a more comfortable padded clothing with some short pieces of mail at such exposed parts as the under and inner arms. (an arming doublet). It was now rare for a knight to wear a surcoat or jupon over the gleaming armour.
The various plates of armour were held together using laces (points), straps, and hinges. The neck was now enclosed in an all-metal circular plate (gorget), and gauntlets returned to the mittens of earlier centuries and had wide conical cuffs in steel. The armour was so efficiently made that it took only about 10 minutes for two squires to dress a knight for combat. Contrary to knights depicted in some films, it was not necessary to use a crane to get a knight on his horse, and he was not a defenceless and upturned insect if he fell off it. A full suit of armour weighed from 20 to 25 kilograms (45-55 lbs) – less than a modern infantryman would carry in equipment – and it was distributed evenly over the body so that a knight could move with some freedom. The greatest threat remained heat exhaustion from fighting in hot weather as ventilation was poor. In addition, armour was still not capable of stopping such arrows as the bodkin with a long head and no barbs.
The helmet, or helm as it is often called, was necessary to protect the face and head in general. Conical helmets were made from a single sheet of steel or iron, sometimes with interior bands for extra strength. From around 1200 CE helmets became more sophisticated and were made from cylinders of metal with a protective strip for the nose or full face mask. Some versions had neck guards. By the mid-13th century CE, the full helmet which enclosed the whole head was more common, which had a single horizontal slit for vision. Such helmets were reinforced by adding extra vertical strips of metal and the flat-top design was popular, even if it offered less protection from a blow than a conical top. A simple iron skull cap was an alternative and known as a bastinet or cervellière at this time. By the start of the 14th century CE, helmets had reacquired their conical tops, they extended lower down the neck, and visors were added which could be removed if preferred. This type is also called a bastinet.
For greater comfort, helmets were lined and padded with leather and horsehair, grass, or similar material. Straps inside the helmet and a scalloped lining at the top pulled together by a drawstring allowed it to be adjusted so that the slit in the visor was at the correct height for the wearer. Another strap for the chin kept the helmet in place. Ventilation holes were added to the lower front part to facilitate breathing. From around 1330 CE, visors protruded from the helmet like a snout to further increase the ventilation. Some helmets had a plate (bevor) hanging down to protect the throat. Another type, not common to knights but still a choice for some, was the kettle hat – a conical helmet with a wide brim.
The helmet could be decorated by making patterns and designs of the ventilation holes or such additions as feathers (peacock and pheasant were most impressive) and even painted. By the end of the 13th century CE, crests were common. Made from metal, wood, leather or bone, they could be a simple fan shape or represent three-dimensional figures. Those helmets used in medieval tournaments were generally the most extravagant and probably not used on the battlefield. By the 15th century CE, helmets were much less showy, although a single plume might be worn by the more fashionably daring knight.
The first shields for knights were of the long kite shape made famous by the Normans; these then reduced in size over time to become the classic straight top edge and tapering lower edges towards a point type of shield familiar in heraldry. Shields were made from wooden planks covered with leather or thick parchment on both sides. They were the perfect place to display the coat of arms of one’s family and so were frequently painted. Shields were probably about 1.5 cm (0.6 in) thick, but the lack of surviving battle specimens makes materials and dimensions difficult to ascertain. Shields were carried using three straps (brases or enarmes) riveted to the inside, and a pad cushioned any blows against the carrying arm. A fourth strap, a guige, was used so that the shield could be hung down one’s back from around the neck when not required. A concave rectangular shield appeared from the mid-14th century CE, which had edges curving outwards. By the end of the same century, though, shields were primarily used in tournaments as the presence of plate armour made them unnecessary and cumbersome in battle. A less common alternative to the large shield was a small circular shield of wood, a buckler, which had a central metal boss and a single hand grip.
Additional Armour & Embellishments
Some effigies show a knight wearing what appears to be a stiffened leather neck protection. Just such a figure can be seen in a knight’s tomb in Wells Cathedral, England, c. 1230 CE. An alternative form of neck protection was to wear an aventail or mail curtain which hung from the back of the helmet. Gauntlets were to protect the hands, of course, but some were fitted with knuckleduster metal spikes (gadlings) to make them into bruising weapons in themselves.
Armour was decorated, by those who could afford the process, with embossed designs, sometimes of the wearer’s coat of arms, for example. Crusader knights sometimes wore a three-dimensional cross on each shoulder while another avenue for symbolic and heraldic display, besides the shield, was the small shoulder boards known as aillettes. As these latter additions were likely made of parchment, wood, or leather, according to some descriptions, they probably served no purpose as actual armour and were not common after c. 1350 CE.
Not to be forgotten is the knight’s horse. Again, a good place for armorial display, they sometimes wore a cloth caparison which might also enclose the animal’s head and ears. Other options, which better protected the horse, were a two-piece coat of chain mail (one for the front and the other hung behind the saddle), a padded helmet (testier), a plate head covering (shaffron), or an armour plate of metal or boiled leather to protect the chest (peytral).
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.