Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day Christians observe as the anniversary of Jesus’s crucifixion. It is a solemn time, befitting its other moniker, “Black Friday.”
Some Christians have a hard time reckoning with the reality of the crucifixion, and it is often glossed over in favor of the more dramatic (and positive) Resurrection on Sunday. As solemn as Easter Sunday often is (at least in my family), it is usually easier for Americans and other Westerners to celebrate life than death.
But the crucifixion is just as important as the resurrection. They are two sides of the same Easter coin, and without a proper understanding of the crucifixion, we cannot hope to fully understand the resurrection.
Crucifixion, from the Latin “crux” meaning “cross,” was a very particular form of capital punishment, used since ancient times. The Romans were by no means the first to use it, but they were the first to adopt it as a program of what could be termed “State terrorism.”
Crucifixion was reserved for two distinct classes of criminals: runaway slaves, and political insurgents (brigands, rebels, and would-be revolutionaries). It was used on these people for a very good (from the Romans’ point of view) reason, and that reason has to do with the special brutality and cruelty of crucifixion.
What do slaves have in common with brigands and revolutionaries? Their misdeeds can easily inspire others to join their cause. Furthermore, slaves can quickly turn into rebels (see: Spartacus). With an estimated 30-40% of the population of Italy being slaves, as well as a constantly-expanding empire of subjugated people, the climate was ripe for revolution and resistance around the time of Jesus. Thus, what was needed (and what crucifixion served as) was a deterrent as much as a punishment.
Crucifixion’s effectiveness as a deterrent went beyond the horrible, grueling pain it inflicted (although that was certainly a part of it). Of all the people said to have been crucified by the Romans (including thousands of Spartacus’s rebels as well as Jewish rebels in the year 70), only a single skeleton has been found that can be definitively said to have been crucified (see above link).
This confirms that the vast majority of those crucified were not given the privilege of a proper burial, which was a terrifying prospect to ancient peoples who regarded a proper burial as crucial to a good afterlife.
This was especially troubling to Jews, like Jesus, who were commanded by Deuteronomic law that “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death…his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day…” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).Despite this (or better, because of it), Romans usually forbade Jews from burying the crucified in order to drive the point home. It was quite possibly the ultimate punishment one could receive: “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” says Deuteronomy, and so being crucified over the course of days, left to wild dogs and carrion birds, and then (if you were lucky) thrown into a shallow grave full of other cursed bodies was an especially effective deterrent to ancient peoples, and especially pious Jews.
This is the fate that most likely befell Jesus. Whether or not he was historically buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, whether or not he was afforded the extremely rare privilege of a proper burial (and my own opinion of the historical evidence is that he was not), the physical pain was not the worst aspect of Jesus’s crucifixion.
Most harrowing was the humiliation, the impiety, the marking of what Jesus was: a revolutionary, a rebel, perhaps a messianic claimant. Jesus’s crucifixion was a warning to all those who might follow in his footsteps: “Fall in line, or this is what happens to you.”
It also tells us, as much as any of Jesus’s sayings, what he was. He was no banal, celestial body who came only to save our eternal souls. Crucifixion was not necessary for substitutionary atonement; substitutionary atonement was created (long after the death of Jesus) to make sense of the brutal torture Jesus had gone through.
But one of its many unfortunate consequences was that it stripped the political context and content of Jesus’s movement. Jesus set out to challenge the unjust nature of power, of inequality, of wealth and greed, and of the State. There would have been no need to crucify him if he did not do these things.
State power, as it always has done and continues to do, fought back by making a violent example of Jesus. Christians must always keep at the front of their mind that the crucifixion is a message to anyone who might be inspired by Jesus: “Do not confront power, and do not try to change things, or this is what you’ll get.”
It is only by understanding and internalizing this message that we can truly understand the Resurrection.
If the Crucifixion is the worldly powers of injustice saying, “Obey, fall in line, accept the world as we have made it,” then the Resurrection is the Godly powers of justice replying, “No.”
If you have any questions for me, about my personal life, communism/socialism, Christianity, or anything else, leave them in the comments and when I collect enough I’ll do a Q&A post!