By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Crucifixion: Standard Method of Execution for Roman Slaves

We Catholics see crucifixes so often that we can easily stop being shocked by this gruesome and humiliating method of execution. Here is an excerpt from a book that I am reading which reminds us that crucifixion was the preferred way for Romans to execute slaves, the lowest of the low in Roman society:

The cross--the slave's penalty, they called it in Rome--is often on the master's lips. Sometimes, but only once or twice, there is a hint as to the slave's side. In Plautus' Braggart Captain a master is denouncing his slave, who in this case is innocent. As the list of tortures in wait for him is unrolled he turns on the speaker:
Don't go on threatening. Well I know the cross will be my end, /My place of burial. There is where my ancestors all rest, /My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, too./ My great-great grandfather. D'you think just words mean much to us?

Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way, Ch. II, p. 42 (Norton, 1993).

A Crucifix, considered in Christian tradition ...                                 Image via Wikipedia

This passage is good background for reading what Paul wrote:

5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,a 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,b being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.


Philippians 2:5-8 (ESV) (emphasis added).


The Greek word for "servant" in verse 7 can also be translated "bondservant" or "slave."


There are three points I wish to raise:


1. We Catholics need to appreciate the significance of the crucifix and try to put our minds and hearts back in the era when this was the preferred and common method of executing slaves.


2. I think our Protestant brothers and sisters should learn to appreciate more the value of a crucifix as a complement to the plain cross in order to remind all of the profound significance of the humiliating and gruesome type of death suffered by Jesus.


3. I also think that our Protestant friends should note the powerful and eye-opening witness of the crucifix to those of other religious traditions. For example, Islam rejects the reality of the crucifixion as unworthy of a prophet of God and finds the idea that the deity would submit to such treatment unthinkable and absurd.


In my view, these are three important reasons to see the crucifix proliferate. The crucifix is an icon of the Gospel message.