What Did Ladies Wear On The Titanic

The general framework for a nightdress would be an underdress and tunic impact (matching bodice and overskirt). Short sleeves were highlighted on the bodices, and the most common but deep V necklines were used. Round and square neck areas were also worn with a level inset.

What Did Ladies Wear On The Titanic

Women’s fashions changed drastically during the early 1900s as society’s views on women changed. The Titanic was a great example of how much styles have changed since then and what was popular at the time. The fashionable look for women was long dresses, blouses, and jackets.

For passengers on the Titanic, especially first- and second-class ticket-bearers, the trip wasn’t just a method of travel from one place to another, but a lavish five-day party. Women would be changing clothes at least four times a day according to social conventions, and the multiple layers of underwear included meant that many first class ladies took a lady’s maid with them on the voyage. An example of an average day would be going to breakfast in a simple dress or tailored suit, wearing a “tea gown” for tea (the less-affluent wore a summer frock), and wearing a different dinner dress for each night.

Fun fact: The largest claim filed against White Star Line was made by Charlotte Drake Cardoza, which ran up to eighteen pages and included fourteen trunks, four bags, a jewelry case, and a packing case, racking up to a grand total of $3,538,694.27 today.

The Roaring’ Twenties fashions marked a gradual transition from the ultra-feminine, S-shaped silhouettes of the Edwardian Era (and its subset La Belle Époque) to the straighter, more boyish silhouettes of the Edwardian Era. Lady Duff Gordon (later known by her couture name Lucile) and Paul Porret were among the well-known and forward-thinking designers of the era, and are credited with contributing to and creating a lot of the trends of the day.

1911 chiffon afternoon dresses

Clothing was quite detailed, as Edwardian blouses would also have many tucks and ruffles, and dresses would have exquisite hand beading. Along with the popularity of fur, elaborate hats, and expensive jewelry, you can clearly see that 1912 fashion was about extravagance and showing off wealth.

1911, kimono-style gown. Source Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art

However, in contrast with the very English Edwardian style of clothing, oriental influences began to rise in popularity during the time as well.  Men liked to collect Japanese artifacts, but women were more interested in lightweight silk kimono-style dresses (most of Rose’s day dresses in the Titanic movie were kimono-style). T-shaped and floor length, the kimono also influenced men’s smoking jackets as well, as they took on the crossed over, one-button fastening of Japanese robes. For women’s dresses, the colors were typically lighter pastels, but for the more radical, stronger reds or turquoise blues were also in vogue.

Mature women’s fashion. Daniels, Mrs. Josephus. Mrs. Woodrow Wilson’s First Breakfast It was created in 1913 by Harris & Ewing.

Still, many trends, such as Eastern-inspired dresses and straighter silhouettes, were mostly worn by younger, wealthy women. The wealthy mature women continued to wear popular Edwardian-era fashions, such as large blouses with puffy shoulders and long, narrow sleeves, paired with full-length ruffled skirts and numerous petticoats. Those that kept up with current trends followed similar silhouettes but in darker colors, less restrictive skirts, smaller hats, simple ornamentation, and usually longer sleeves. Accessories were a mature woman’s splurge. Expensive furs, large, heavy jewelry, and richer fabrics were always worn.

Titanic costume variations are made by gathering the overdress in a variety of ways.


1911, Simple dresses for morning and early afternoon

Although some First Class passengers had breakfast in their lavish Staterooms, tailor-made suits were the most sensible outfit choice for the morning — practical and designed for comfortable travel, especially as the ship was heading into the colder climate up in the Northern Atlantic.

1912 Tailored Suits, Titanic era fashion - at vintagedancer.com

1912 Tailored Suits

Tailor-made suits first emerged during the 1880s and were typically made of tweed, face-cloth, or worsted wool. They were designed to fit the wearer like a glove. The standard tailor-made suit consisted of a straight line hobble skirt, a jacket, and a crisp white blouse. Hobble skirts were hard to move in because they tapered down to a very small opening just above the ankles. To make it easier to walk, most women added flat pleats or slits near the hemline. The hemline also rose to ankle height.

Edwardian Walking Suit, circa 1912 (Sold by Antique gown).

1911 suits and dresses for travel or walking, plus sizes

As for the torso, jackets were usually long and loose at the waist, going past the hips, and cut in an asymmetrical way (though there wasn’t much decoration). Common colors were muted browns, greys, and navy. The white blouses worn underneath, as mentioned before, had many tucks and ruffles, and also featured Edwardian high collars with wires inside to keep them upright. Later, lower collars like the Quaker girl collar and the Peter Pan neck became more popular, thanks in part to Lady Duff Gordon’s efforts.

DIY velvet coat made from a bathrobe, over a Nataya dress, paired with a hat and feather plumes.

Shoes with laces or leather boots (sometimes with two contrasting colors) were typically worn with the tailor-made suit, and heels were usually low to match the practicality of the suit itself. The fashion-conscious may have chosen narrow high-heeled shoes, and some others may have chosen black patent leather shoes with a square buckle at the front. Learn more about Edwardian era women’s shoes and shop boots and shoes. Ladies button up boots from 1912. 1912 oxfords and slippers 1912 Slippers for day and evening


Traditional etiquette rules dictated that women had to wear gloves in public, unless at meal times. This was because physical contact (except in private situations) was inappropriate, and therefore gloves made certain types of contact, such as handshaking, acceptable.

Elbow-length, made of thin kid leather or suede, fastened with a row of buttons, and cut extremely tight, gloves came mostly in browns or greys for outdoor day wear or white for indoors and in summer. Over the elbow gloves were worn with short sleeved dresses, including most evening gowns. Wrist length gloves were acceptable with long sleeved dresses. Fur-lined gloves were also used for warmth during the winter, and lace gloves were worn for their breathability in the summer. Although the task of putting on gloves was time-consuming, as they could take up to twenty minutes to put on due to the tight fit and rows of buttons, they still needed to be changed multiple times during the day since they quickly got dirty.


Hats were also a part of social etiquette, and generally all women wore them. Although the size and lavishness of hats had reached their peak in 1910, they were still quite decorated and relatively big in 1912. Despite the fact that the hats worn with practical tailor-made suits were smaller and made of felt, women frequently wore more elaborate hats with all outfits. Ostrich feathers were a popular trimming, but aigrettes (egrets) or birds-of-paradise plumage were also in use. Along with feathers, silk and velvet ribbons, usually in darker colors, were also used to decorate hats.


Fair skin in the Edwardian era indicated wealth and status, as it showed that the person wasn’t a commoner who had to work in the sun. Because of this, ladies always took a parasol with them when they went outside so they could keep their desired porcelain skin. Although they were functional, they also had to reflect the wealth of the carrier and often came in fussy lace styles, although solid fabric ones were also available.


1912 Fur lined Asian inspired, cocoon shaped coat.

Once again, fur was quite fashionable during this time, and as the weather became colder as the Titanic headed north, passengers needed the warmth. A winter coat was full-length and made of thick wool, could be double-breasted or single-breasted, and it came in a variety of colors, from camel to black (Rose’s pink coat is in this style). In order to show off wealth, some coats were three-quarters or fully made of fur, but many also only had fur trim. The fur on the coats ranged from seal to lamb to chinchilla.

“Coats and sets” were also sold, the set being fur accessories worn with the coat. Sets usually consisted of a stole and a hand muff, and these were made of the entire pelt of the animal (meaning the heads and tails as well). These generous fur pieces left an even greater impression of wealth.

In warmer weather, lighter coats were worn both inside and outside. They were usually made of silk or velvet and had a single large clasp at the low hip. Tassels often tip the front ends. The kimono coat with its large, loose sleeves and Asian prints was very popular at this time as well. They were frequently worn over dinner gowns as passengers made their way to and from dinner.

Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon), c. 1910, dress with Asian print kimono coat

Before the weather became terribly cold, a silk embroidered shawl could be worn as the temperature gradually got cooler—both during the day and evening. Silk shawls or wraps could be solid or patterned, and they were finished off at the bottom with tassels or a beaded fringe. These shawls also varied in size, coming in both standard sizes (like today’s wraps) and larger cocoon-shaped varieties.

Rose, Titanic movie, caring a silk and embroidered fringe shawl.


Day dress, 1911, Plum silk with chemise detailing. Source Stickley Museum

Lunch on the Titanic was more formal than lunches today. There were at least three courses, and the meal could last up to two hours. For lunch, women would change out of their practical tailor-made suits and into more formal dress. Along with having straighter silhouettes, these dresses had fairly high waistlines, V-shaped necklines that were sometimes crossed over, and elbow length sleeves. Due to these more open necklines, the dresses were also worn with a separate upper chest covering, called chemisettes, or semi-transparent in-fills. Modesty was important for all daytime gatherings.

1911 late afternoon and early evening dresses

Although skirts followed the trend of being narrower (with pleats and slits to make them more comfortable, of course), they were decorated with tunic layers or asymmetrical draping, often including a small train. These dresses were not in soft pastel colors, but rather in blues, dark reds, greens, and purples, with velvet being a popular fabric.

A certain type of tea dress was worn during tea. It was looser in fit, almost robe like, and worn without a corset (gasp!). In summer or for outdoor teas, a white tea dress made of lace or light cotton was expected. These dresses had a long and naughty history before the Edwardians made it an official public style, worn between lunch and dinner (around 5 o’clock) to allow the body to breathe and relax before dressing up for dinner. Learn more about the history of tea gowns.

A tea dress for mother and child

Simple brooches at the neck or on the bodice, or a long string of beads as a necklace, were worn with these dresses. Lighter-weight shoes were to be worn with these outfits, typically being fabric-covered, with lower Louis heels and high tongues. Hats were obviously worn as well, and they were similarly smaller, made of felt, and featured upturned brims with aigrette (egret) or osprey feathers. If lighter colored gloves weren’t worn with the elbow-length sleeves of the dresses, gauze or chiffon undersleeves were worn.

Nataya brand inspired Titanic Dresses

For young girls, dressing like their mothers was expected from age 12 onward. Little girls wore lace tea dresses as well as sailor themed play clothes with white stockings and button up boots. Look here for 1910s era children’s clothing.


December 1911 Formal Dinner Dress – Life Magazine

Dinners on the Titanic were the peak of opulence on the journey, and the highly formal event meant that many first-class women wore a different dress each night. From the undergarments to the overskirts, every piece of the outfit was switched for more luxurious fabrics and styles—silk chemises instead of cotton, more elegant corsets, and silk stockings rather than wool. Similarly, due to the trending streamlined silhouette, petticoats made of crêpe de chine or Japanese silk were worn.

1910 wrap over dress, still popular in 1912.

Like the dresses worn to lunch, the bodices of the gowns worn for dinner had a crossed-over style, and the lower necklines and shorter sleeves meant that semi-transparent tulle or silk chiffon were worn under for modesty. Waistlines still remained in the high Empire style, and although skirts were still fairly straight, overskirts, draping, and tunics often were layered on top. The styles were inspired by Greek art and Asian costume. Other decorations consisted of lace, embroidery, fabric flowers, and bows. Colors were much bolder than previous years, and although dresses in softer colors were still common, rich reds, blues, turquoise, gold, and greens were gaining in popularity. The most opulent fabrics were silk satin, chiffon, gauze, velvet, and brocade. 1912 beaded evening dress 1912 chiffon evening dresses 1912 dinner and opera dresses 1912 dancing dresses

In 1912, beading was added extensively all over some gowns or as a sheer layer over the main dress. The beading matched the color and tone of the dress. Sleeves were often short, exposing a bit of shoulder for young, single women. Necklines were also lower in a V, scoop, or square neckline.

1912 evening dress and accessories guide

For the mature woman, she could wear these new, revealing styles of dress but often preferred gowns in the style of a few years earlier. It was a classic hourglass silhouette with a high bust line, narrow waist, and full hips extending down in an A-line skirt. For women who had grown up in earlier Victorian times, this style was closer to home. The new styles were thin, clingy, and form fitting—perfect for the young but a bit too daring for Victorians. To accommodate a mature figure with newer details, talented fashion designers frequently blended the two styles.

1910 Stylish ladies in 1st class wearing newer style gowns

Learn more about Edwardian evening dresses. 1910 Dinner dress by Beer1912 Dinner gown by Bernard1912 Titanic Evening Dress

Shoes worn to dinner didn’t deviate far from shoes worn to lunch, as they featured the low Louis-style heel, almond shaped toes, and high tongues, but they also sometimes had jeweled buckles. Silk or satin slippers were dyed to match dresses. The mule slipper became popular for semi-formal occasions (not dancing).

Jewelry was much more extravagant for the evening, however, and along with diamonds, pearls, and jet beads (sometimes paired with a choker), women were adorned with hair ornaments, long drop earrings, bracelets, and rings. Diamonds were the richest jewel. The more the better, just as large colored gem rings sparkled on multiple fingers. Shop Edwardian era inspired costume jewelry.

Hairstyles were decorated with fall feathers, ribbon circled or woven into a full head of curls, and stands of pearls artfully placed around the crown.

1911 Hairstyles as big as hats! Large feather plumes, strings of pearls or gems, and silk ribbon accented evening hairstyles, which were all curls or waves. Feather and headbands Headbands 1911

headband, pearls, and ribbon a headband and a turban hat and that concludes this overview of first-class passenger attire.  

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.[24] 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.’”[25] 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.

Historical Crucifixion

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

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.

Publicly Naked

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.

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