DATE March 21, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
Interview: John Dominic Crossan discusses crucifixion and
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and
Broadcasting & Cable magazine sitting in for Terry Gross.
Easter is coming up, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his
crucifixion. We're going to take a historical look at crucifixion, which was
a widespread form of punishment in antiquity. Our guest, John Dominic
Crossan, is professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and
author of the books "The Birth of Christianity," "Jesus: A Revolutionary
Biography" and "Who Killed Jesus."
Crossan describes his work as combining faith and history. He's a former
Roman Catholic monk and the former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, which
investigates ancient historical evidence to help understand the life and times
of Jesus. The seminar is controversial, in part because it does not take the
Gospels literally and uses history to reconcile the different versions of
Jesus' story as told in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Terry Gross
spoke with John Dominic Crossan in 2004. He said crucifixion was practiced as
a form of state terrorism for centuries before it became infamous under the
TERRY GROSS, host:
0000 NOW, WHO WERE SOME OF THE PEOPLE THAT WERE TYPICALLY PUNISHED WITH
Professor JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: In general, especially in the Roman
situation, you can say almost definitely it was almost synonymous with the
slaves' execution. It was a warning to other slaves not to flee; not to
commit a crime; not, of course, to kill their master or mistress. And it was
extremely public. Its point was not so much the amount of suffering--though,
of course, it was a horrible suffering--but it was a public warning. You were
literally hung up like a poster: `Don't do what this person did or you'll end
up as this person did.' So very much for the lower classes and especially for
41 GROSS: NOW, YOU SAY THAT DURING ROMAN TIMES, CRUCIFIXION WAS ONE OF THREE PRIMARY WAYS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. THERE WAS CRUCIFIXION, BEING BURNED ALIVE AND GETTING FED TO THE LIONS.
Prof. CROSSAN: The Romans talked about suprema supplicia, supreme penalties,
and they really didn't calculate them in terms of the amount of suffering.
They really calculated them in terms of annihilation. So being crucified,
being fed to the beasts, as it were, or being burned alive, the function was
there would be nothing left to bury. So even when they were finished with
your corpse, the relatives, the loved ones would have nothing to bury.
There'd be no tomb where they could mourn, where they could come to grieve,
where they could even, say, eat with the beloved dead. They wished to
annihilate you and to do it publicly.
131 GROSS: EVEN WITH CRUCIFIXION?
Prof. CROSSAN: The theory behind crucifixion actually was that you would be
left on the cross until you were consumed by wild beasts or wild animals.
Now, we know, for example, that there was one case in the first century
because we have found the heel bone of a crucified person with the nail still
in place and this person was honorably buried. So it is possible, of course.
It depends upon whether maybe you could bribe the guards or have enough
influence to get the body given to you. Then you could get the body back.
But in theory, the purpose of crucifixion was to leave the body there until
there was nothing left.
211 GROSS: WAS SCOURGING OR WHIPPING USUALLY THE FIRST STEP BEFORE CRUCIFIXION?
Prof. CROSSAN: In general, scourging preceded crucifixion, and the function
of scourging was to reduce resistance. They did not want the person, for
example, staggering through the streets with a crossbar cursing Rome or
fighting them all the way. What you wanted--this was public spectacle--what
you wanted was somebody reduced to the state that the most they could do was
stagger, as it were, to crucifixion unresisting. So, yes, usually scourging
would have preceded crucifixion.
248 GROSS: HOW DOES JESUS' CRUCIFIXION AS DESCRIBED IN THE GOSPELS COMPARE WITH WHAT IS KNOWN HISTORICALLY ABOUT THE PROCEDURES OF CRUCIFIXION?
Prof. CROSSAN: In general, the crucifixion itself, and in a way, the Gospel
has only one word, `they crucified him.' They don't describe the details that
would show up, for example, in a play or a film. You don't have to decide if
you're reading the Gospel, `Does Jesus carry only the crossbar, or does he
pull a huge cross, an upright, already in position?' It simply says `it
crucified him.' Another thing it does tell you is that the crime as it were,
the alleged claim of being king of the Jews was the sign given that you'd
always have in a crucifixion, saying, `This is what this person did.' So the
crime is, as it were, hung around his neck or attached to the cross in some
way. But everything that's said about the crucifixion of Jesus would fit
quite well into what you'd expect in the first century crucifixion.
354 GROSS: AND IT SAID HE WAS SCOURGED AND IT SAID HE WAS MOCKED.
Prof. CROSSAN: The mocking is probably a separate issue, and in one sense,
the mocking is terribly ironic because he's being mocked as a pseudo-king.
And, of course, any reader of the Christian New Testament, the Christian
Gospel, believes profoundly that he was a king, far more than Caesar was or
Pilate as a local governor, that their mocking was profoundest truth. So in a
way, the Gospel spends far more time--if you count the verses, I think there's
about four verses on the mocking and there's only one single word in Greek for
the scourging. They wanted to describe the mocking because of the tremendous
irony that the soldiers mocked him as a king. I have no idea whether that is
historical or not. They certainly could have, but the point of insisting on
it is the irony that he was being mocked as a king and, of course, we
Christians who are reading this Gospel believe him most profoundly to be king,
not just of the Jews but of the world.
500 GROSS: WHEN DID THE CROSS BECOME A SYMBOL OF CHRISTIANITY?
Prof. CROSSAN: Very, very, very, very slowly and cautiously. In the time
before Constantine, that is, before the beginning of the fourth century when
Christianity became more or less the official religion of the Roman empire,
you have very, very many mentions, of course, from Paul's letters on of the
cross of the crucifixion, but you don't see pictures of it. The very earliest
one we have actually of the crucifixion is--again, we're back to the
mocking--a page in the Palatine Palace in Rome was mocking a fellow page who
apparently was a Christian. His name was Alexandrus. So the page scratches
on the wall of their dormitory, as it were, a model of the crucifixion in
which Jesus is portrayed with the head of a donkey and written underneath it
is: Alexander Worships His God. And probably that's the only way it would
have been shown, as a mocking of the crucifixion, until after the victory of
610 GROSS: HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT, IF SO MANY PEOPLE WERE CRUCIFIED, IF IT WAS SUCH A COMMON FORM OF EXECUTION, WHY DID THAT BECOME THE SYMBOL FOR JESUS CHRIST?
Prof. CROSSAN: The crucifix or the cross only became the symbol for Jesus
always, always as accompanied by the resurrection. I mean, this is two
things: execution and resurrection--death, resurrection.
Prof. CROSSAN: Always the two things. Because, of course, the point is that
Jesus was officially, legally, publicly executed by Rome. It wasn't that
Pilate made a mistake or that Pilate simply was rounding up people and he
grabbed Jesus by mistake. Jesus was executed by the normal seat of the
civilization of his day. Then, of course, when you say that God raised Jesus
from the dead, you've got two things on a collision course: Rome crucified
Jesus; God raised Jesus. Then the inference is very clear. This God we're
talking about is on a collision course with Rome because God, as it were,
countermanded the official decree of Rome. And so if you take away the
resurrection, then the crucifixion becomes almost meaningless, or you have to
get into another theology in which the crucifixion is the center of
Christianity all by itself.
738 GROSS: WHEN YOU, AS SOMEONE WHO STUDIES THE HISTORICAL JESUS, THINK ABOUT THE RESURRECTION, DO YOU THINK ABOUT IT AS METAPHOR OR AS ACTUALITY?
Prof. CROSSAN: I think of it--I would not make the distinction of metaphor
or actuality. I would make the distinction of metaphor or literal because
metaphors can be very actual. For example, the metaphor for me is that to
claim resurrection for Jesus--and I can leave it completely whether you take
it metaphorically or literally--either way, what you are claiming is that
something has happened here which is going to change the way the world sees
everything. And I think that is right because the claim you're making is that
God has reversed the normalcy of civilization. And that's why it's very
important for me to insist that Pilate, from his point of view, got it right.
He looked at Jesus. He said, `This person resists our law and order, as it
were. Not a violent resistor or I'd have rounded up all his followers like I
rounded up Barabbas', but, yes, he resists us and, therefore, he must be
Now, to say that God has reversed that decision puts God on a collision course
with the normalcy of civilization. That I believe is actual because I believe
in--what happened at the death of Jesus is that we were confronted with a
warning that violence is going to destroy us. We got a warning that if you do
not resist evil nonviolently, violence will destroy us. I think something did
happen because that was a warning and we have not been heeding it for 2,000
924 GROSS: WITH THE RESURRECTION, DO YOU THINK THAT THERE WAS SOME KIND OF PHYSICAL TRANSFORMATION THAT HAPPENED TO THE ACTUAL BODY OF JESUS?
Prof. CROSSAN: No, I don't. I am completely convinced that Jesus had told
people before his death that the kingdom of God has already arrived and that
we have begun to participate with God in what I'm going to call the great
clean-up. The fancy word for that is eschatological consummation, the great
clean-up of the world, the attempt to make it a just place. I am absolutely
certain also--historically, I'm speaking--that people had visions of Jesus
after his execution. They had visions--and they are not hallucinations, they
are visions. They are apparitions of Jesus. When they put those two things
together, they said then, `Jesus has risen as the beginning of the general
resurrection.' That's the only thing the word could have meant to them. It's
not a personal private privilege for Jesus. He has risen as the head of those
who have died before him and as the promise of those who will die after him.
I take that metaphorically. I do not take it actually. I do not think all
around Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning there were hundreds of empty tombs,
and I don't think the people who believed in the harrowing of hell ever
suggested, `Let's go out and check the tombs of the prophets to see if they're
gone.' I think they knew quite well what they were saying. They were saying
something which they took metaphorically and which we take literally, and I
think we've kind of lost the actuality.
1108 GROSS: I KNOW THAT YOU'VE SEEN MEL GIBSON'S MOVIE "THE PASSION OF THE
CHRIST," AND I'M WONDERING IF YOU COULD GIVE US YOUR SHORT REVIEW OF HOW THE JESUS STORY IS TOLD IN THE MOVIE.
Prof. CROSSAN: Basically, there's a couple of things that any Passion story
or any Passion drama does. You take the four Gospels--and there are four of
them, by the way--and you reduce them to one. And then you reduce that one
Gospel to simply execution and then you reduce that execution to passio, the
Latin word for passion, meaning suffering. So everything coalesces on the
suffering of Jesus.
Therefore, for example, there is nothing in Mel Gibson's movie--except brief
flashbacks, more to increase the poignancy--about the life of Jesus. So by
the time you come to the execution--and the resurrection, of course, is even
more fleeting in this movie--you have no idea why anyone, anyone at all, would
want this person dead, let alone executed publicly. You don't even understand
it. Nor do you understand why, for example, it begins with a nighttime arrest
of Jesus, accompanied by Judas, who betrays him. Why was that necessary?
Couldn't the authorities have grabbed him any time they wanted?
Well, if you've been reading the story from Palm Sunday on--Sunday, Monday,
Tuesday, Wednesday, as we would say, of that week--the crowd is all on the
side of Jesus. It's said again and again and again in the Gospel, the high
priestly authorities are afraid to move because the crowd are on the side of
Jesus. And in Mark 14:1 to 2 they give up. They finally say, `Well, we can't
do it during the festival. There'll be a riot.' Then comes Judas. And Judas
says, `I can arrange it. I can arrange that you'll get him apart from the
crowd at night.'
So what is not in this movie at all is that the whole Jewish crowd in
Jerusalem is so much on the side of Jesus that it requires this nighttime
arrest and an apostolic traitor to get him.
1310 GROSS: WHEN DID PASSION PLAYS BECOME POPULAR? WHEN DID IT BECOME POPULAR TO FOCUS STORIES ON THE SUFFERING, THE CRUCIFIXION AND SUFFERING, OF CHRIST?
Prof. CROSSAN: The emphasis on the suffering of Christ, almost to the
exclusion of everything else, is really very much a medieval idea and may well
reflect the experiences of people. If people are suffering--and I mean
seriously suffering, say with plague or something like that, or invasion--then
to think of the sufferings of Jesus is extremely consoling. And the script
that Mel Gibson used from "The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ"
according to the meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich is a good example.
She had a life of suffering. She had a life of hardship, an Augustinian nun
who spent the last 10 years of her life bedridden, in great pain. And no
wonder, of course, that she had an almost mystical union with the sufferings
of Jesus. Of course, she herself was in intense suffering. So the emphasis
on suffering is--how shall I say it?--appropriate, maybe? Maybe even
necessary for people in intolerable pain. Outside that, it becomes
dangerously close to pathological.
1429 GROSS: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY PATHOLOGICAL?
Prof. CROSSAN: I mean, when you start to focus on suffering and the whole
meaning of, say, Jesus' life being reduced--and that verb is carefully
chosen--reduced to suffering, it is not the way anyone thought about it in the
first century. The Romans did not compute suffering. They didn't say `we
have to make this person suffer as much as possible' or they would have kept
him in the barracks and tortured him for weeks on end. Their purpose was not
suffering, but public warning. So when you bring it all down to suffering,
it's very hard to show it without sadism.
1505 GROSS: NOW, SOMETHING THAT I FIND A LITTLE CONFUSING. WHEN WE WERE TALKING A LITTLE EARLIER ABOUT CRUCIFIXION, YOU WERE EXPLAINING THAT, FOR MOST ROMAN CRUCIFIXIONS THE DEAD BODY WAS LEFT ON THE CROSS TO BE EATEN BY THE BIRDS OF PREY AND BY THE WILD DOGS, AND PART OF THAT WAS PUNISHMENT FOR THE FAMILY. THE FAMILY WOULD NOT BE GIVEN THE REMAINS TO BE BURIED. THERE'D BE NO TOMB, THERE'D BE NO REMAINS. BUT THE REMAINS OF JESUS IS SUCH A FUNDAMENTAL PART OF THE CHRIST STORY. DO YOU THINK AN EXCEPTION WAS MADE FOR HIM, THAT THERE WERE REMAINS, THAT THERE WAS A BODY?
Prof. CROSSAN: It's utterly possible because of the--Philo, for example,
does mention the possibility of a body being given back to the family. And in
a way, it's not so much a punishment for the family as a punishment for the
person because they're being annihilated. And we have the crucified heel bone
of somebody who was honorably buried. So it is utterly possible that in
exceptional cases, either because you bribed the guards or because you were
able to get some influence, it was utterly possible to get the body and give
the body normal burial.
Now, the problem is that the Jewish law of Deuteronomy says by nightfall the
body must be off the cross. I have no evidence, and I would expect that the
Romans did not follow Jewish law because the purpose of crucifixion was to let
you die in agony on the cross, and if the person--let's imagine a case in
which the person was only crucified by late in the afternoon, they would not
be taken down from the cross. So the question is--and this is the
question--is the story of Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew, Mark and Luke, or of
Joseph of Arimathea in Nicodemus, in John, is that an historical record of
what happened, or is that Christians' best hope of what they hope might have
happened without knowing what happened to the body of Jesus?
1708 GROSS: SO YOU THINK THAT THE GOSPELS MIGHT BE MORE ABOUT THAT HOPE THAN THE REALITY, MORE ABOUT HOPE THAN JOURNALISM?
Prof. CROSSAN: Here is the problem. When you look at Mark, Matthew, Luke
and John, the story of the burial of Jesus, knowing that Mark is the basis for
Matthew and Luke and that possibly--this is debated in scholarship--they may
be the source for John. You watch the body, body's burial gets steadily
better. It's a hasty, hurried burial in Mark. By the time Matthew and Luke
read Mark and develop the story, it's burial in a tomb in which nobody else
has been laid, and they're explaining to you why Joseph of Arimathea was able
to be a counselor for Jesus but not against him on Thursday night as it were.
The story is developing. By the time you get to John's account, the burial of
Jesus is--I wouldn't even say royal, it's transcendental. There are so much
spices used that they would fill almost the entire tomb. It's a magnificent
burial. It's the burial of the son of God when you get to John.
You know, what happens is as a historian, when I retroject that trajectory of
a burial getting better and better and better and I ask what was there in the
beginning, it doesn't look very good. It looks to me like all they might have
had at the very beginning is a hope that maybe some pious non-Christian Jew
out of respect for the law of Deuteronomy would have buried Jesus' body. But
that immediately then raises the issue that we see, `Well, wouldn't he have
also buried the two robbers who were crucified with Jesus? Now, wouldn't
there be at least three in the tomb and would it be a public tomb for
criminals and then how would we know which was Jesus' body?'
And so you can see them, I think, grappling with the difficulties of a story
which I don't think is historical. I think it is their fervent hope, their
best hope that somebody took care of the body of Jesus. But none of that, by
the way, in any way is for or against resurrection because resurrection is a
new creation by God.
1922 GROSS: JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TALKING WITH US.
Prof. CROSSAN: It's been a pleasure, as always, Terry,