“Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God” – so reads the Good News Bible’s version of 1 Peter 3.18; and so too the New International Version. But is this a correct translation? According to the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible, Peter actually wrote: “Christ suffered for sins”. The fact is that the Greek manuscripts on which our English translations are based, themselves vary at this point: some read “he died” (apethanen) and others “he suffered” (epathen). At the end of the day, the difference in translation scarcely matters. One thing for certain, when Christ died, he suffered.
Interestingly, nowhere do the New Testament writers provide a detailed description of the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. And yet amazingly, the Gospels provide the most detailed description of death by crucifixion of any account in the ancient world. The fact is that no ancient writer wanted to dwell too long on this cruel procedure. In the words of Martin Hengel, an eminent German scholar, “crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full reign”.
As a result there was not just one form of crucifixion. Seneca, the Roman historian, once wrote:
I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, records the fate of Jews who sought to escape the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70:
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.
Sometimes crucifixion was turned into a form of sadistic entertainment. Martial, for instance, records how a criminal was hung on a cross and allowed to be torn to pieces by a Scottish bear:
Laurelus, hanging on no unreal cross, gave up his vitals defenceless to a Caledonian bear. His mangled limbs lived, though the parts dripped blood and in all his body was nowhere a body’s shape.
Compared with crucifixion, hanging was regarded as a humane form of punishment: “For the gallows kills the victim immediately, whereas the cross tortures for a long time those who are fixed to it” (Isidore of Seville). No wonder Cicero, the Roman orator, described death by crucifixion as the “most cruel and terrible form of punishment”. It was the kind of death that no civilised person would want to think about, let alone see and hear it happen
The most detailed description of the gradual expiry of the victim is supplied by Seneca:
Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.
On Passion Sunday we remember that “Christ suffered” for our sins. Yes, there more to the cross than physical suffering. But let us not underestimate the physical pain. Jesus, the Son of God, who shared in our flesh and blood, suffered for us. Even at the last minute Jesus could have turned his back on the Cross – and yet, for our sake he was “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2.8 NRSV). Here surely, is cause for wonder – and adoration.