In CNN’s television documentary first shown last night and entitled “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact or Forgery,” they had Jesus dragging his entire cross to Golgotha, and they said it would have weighed about 300 pounds. Plus, in their further protrayal, as Jesus arrived at Golgotha the entire cross is laid on the ground and Jesus is attached to it as in Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” All of this is indeed how Christians have traditionally conceived of the Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross) and Jesus’ crucifixion. But it does not correlate with the historical evidence concerning how the Romans performed crucifixions. They were experts at it, crucifying many thousands of people per year in the first century, most of them being slaves. Contemporary historians often say that during that first century, the Romans crucified as many as tens of thousands of people per year.
Historians and anthropologists also inform us that during the time of Jesus, Jewish men averaged about five feet, seven inches in height. Now, Jesus had been very badly beaten. He was scourged with a whip that no doubt had pieces of sharp bone and perhaps metal attached to it (Matt 27.26; Mark 15.15). He may have suffered up to 39 lashes with it. Then a crown of thorns was placed on his head. Since all of this happened before he began to carry his cross, he would have suffered a certain amount of blood loss and therefore have been very weakened. In fact, when Pilate was later informed that Jesus had already died before dusk, he was so surprised he had died that soon that he sent a centurion to confirm it (cf. Mark 15.43-45; John 19.32-33). That is why “The Passion” movie made Jesus’ ill-treatment with the whip lashes so gruesome.
In crucifying victims, the Romans used various types of crosses: (1) a traditionally shaped cross, (2) a T-shaped cross, (3) a single pole with arms crucified overhead, (4) a X-shaped cross, and (5) a scaffold that accommodated multiple crucifixions. We know that Jesus was crucified on a traditionally shaped cross since it accommodated a headboard above his head that had the charge against him written on it—“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
When the accused was condemned to death at the official place of judgment, the crossbeam was then laid on the victim’s shoulders and upper back, with their arms stretched out and around it, and they would carry it to their place of execution. So, Jesus would have carried only the crossbeam. Upon his arrival at Golgotha, the soldiers would have laid his crossbeam on the ground and fastened Jesus to it. Next, the soldiers would have raised the crossbeam, with Jesus on it, with the use of ropes, perhaps pulleys, and a wooden, forked pole until they affixed the crossbeam to a niche in the stationary upright. Church father Ignatius (d. 110-117 CE), in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus (Ephesians 9.2), alludes to this common method of fixing the crossbeam to the upright. He states in figurative language, “For ye are stones of a temple, prepared for the building of God, hoisted up by the Cross of Christ, the Spirit being the rope and your faith the engine.”
In conclusion, this common method of crucifixion–with the upright of a traditional cross remaining in place and the victim carrying the crossbeam there–would have made it more plausible that the Romans crucified perhaps up to tens of thousand of victims per year. Otherwise, it would have been most cumbersome to place the upright in its hole each time and have it remain stable with a man’s body atached to it. And crucifixion victims badly weakened from scourging would not likely have been able to drag an entire 300-pound cross more than a few yards. Even though Jesus’ only would have carried the crossbeam, he still had to have help from Simon of Cyrene. He and his sons seem to have become believers due to this privileged incident about Simon helping Jesus carry his crossbeam (Mark 15.21).