(Part 6d of the series: Crucifixion the Bodily Support)
C. Other Ancient Non-Christians’ Statements.
The last two we will look at are the Milesian Apollo and porphyry (234 – 305 CE) who wrote his Against the Christians in several books about 280 CE. One refers to the crucifixion of Jesus and the other the crucifixion of Peter using cognates of the word σκόλοψ. This word, meaning “anything pointed”
C.1.The Milesian Apollo.
In the ancient world before Christianity came of age and displaced everything, there were oracles all over the place. There were the Sibylline Oracles, the Oracles of Delphi, Diana of the Ephesians and the Oracles of Apollo, for starters. Well one Apollo was quoted by Lactantius (240-320 CE):
On which account the Milesian Apollo, being asked whether He was God or man, replied in this manner: “He was mortal as to His body, being wise with wondrous works; but being taken with arms under Chaldean judges, with nails and the cross He endured a bitter end.” In the first verse he spoke the truth, but he skilfully deceived him who asked the question, who was entirely ignorant of the mystery of the truth. For he appears to have denied that He was God.
Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.13 (New Advent)
The original reads thusly:
Memimit et Apollo in Oraculo quopiam de Christo:
Θνητός ἰήν κατά σάρκα, σοφός, τερατώδεσιν ἔργοις,
Ἀλλ᾽ ὑπό χαλδαίων κριτῶν ὅπλοις συναλωβεις (?)
Γόμφοις καί σκολόπεσσι πικρήν ἀνέτλησε τελουτην
Lactantius Divinibus Institutionibus 4.13 (Documenta Catholica Omnia)
If we go to the notes of the linked PDF, we find the Latin of this oracle reads:
Mortalis erat corpore, sapiens portentificus (a) operibus
Sed sub Chandaeis judicibus armis comprehensus
Clavisque et cruce amarum toleravit finem.
Lactantius Divinibus Institutionibus 4.13, v.n. Milesins Apollo. (Documenta Catholica Omnia)
And it translates as follows:
Memimit and Apollo said something about Christ in an oracle:
He was mortal in body, wise, with pretentious works,
But under Chaldean judges with arms he was apprehended.
With nails and with the crux he endured a bitter end.
Justus Lipsius has the last line translation as follows: Claves et palis mortem exantlauit (exanclavit): “With nails and with pales he endured a bitter end.” (Justus Lipsius, De Cruce,) Keep in mind that σκολόπεσσι translates as “with stakes, thorns, pointed objects” yet the nails are excluded because they are indicated by the Greek word γόμφοις. Yet both places the Latin does not read, spinis (with thorns). One reads cruce (with the crux) and the other, palis (with pales). So it seems to me that there is something going on here that has been overlooked here. It might not be the crown of thorns – the Greek for “crown of thorns” is ἀκάνθινον στέφανον: a crown or wreath made of thorny twigs of the acantha bush, Acanthus spinosus. So it is very much possible the oracle is also or instead referring to the acuta crux of the Roman suspension device, the sharp points of the nails and the point of the thrusted lance (although the last is dubious, because he was supposed to have been stabbed with it after he endured that bitter death.
Porphyry was an opponent of Christianity and a stout defender of the Panhellenic Paganism. He had crafted volumes of works, and a lot have been lost from his anti-Christian polemics. But quite a bit has been preserved in various Church Fathers, mostly post-Nicene, as quotes to be refuted or strongly criticized.
C.2.1. The Iron-Bound Death.
Porphyry, ἐκ λογίων φιλοσοφίας (Philosophy from Oracles), quoted in St Augustine, Civitas Dei 19.23 (New Advent) (The Latin Library), he collects and comments upon the responses which he pretends were uttered by the gods concerning divine things, he says— I give his own words as they have been translated from the Greek: “To one who inquired what god he should propitiate in order to recall his wife from Christianity, Apollo replied in the following verses.”
“You will probably find it easier to write lasting characters on the water, or lightly fly like a bird through the air, than to restore right feeling in your impious wife once she has polluted herself. Let her remain as she pleases in her foolish deception, and sing false laments to her dead God, who was condemned by right-minded judges, and perished ignominiously by a violent [an iron bound] death.”
Pergat quo modo uult inanibus fallacis persuerans et lamentari fallaciis mortuum Deum cantans, quem iudicibus recta sentientibus perditum pessima in speciosis ferro vincta mors interfecit.
(Let her go on in what manner she pleases convinced in [her] vain deceptions, and singing lamentations to a God who died in delusions, who was done away with by a panel of judges that had judged wisely, executed [him] in his prime [with] the very worst death, restrained with iron.)
Then… he goes on to say: “In these verses Apollo exposed the incurable corruption of the Christians, saying that the Jews, rather than the Christians, recognized God.”
So here Porphyry repeats the oracle's claim that the sort of crucifixion allegedly suffered by Jesus was then considered the worst death, bound with iron. Certainly for the Roman Empire of his day, where it was designed to be painful to the extreme for days on end, and utterly shameful.
C.2.2. Nailed to a Cross and Impaled on it.
Porphyry, Against the Christians frg. 36.5-6, quoted in Macarius, Apocriticus IV:4
 Let us look at what was said to Paul, “The Lord spoke to Paul in a night by a vision, ‘Be not afraid, but speak, for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee.’” (Acts xviii:9-10). And yet no sooner was he seized in Rome than this fine fellow, who said that we should judge angels, had his head cut off.  And Peter again, who received authority to feed the lambs, was nailed to a cross and impaled on it. And countless others, who held opinions like theirs, were either burnt, or put to death by receiving some kind of punishment or maltreatment. This is not worthy of the will of God, or even of a godly man, that a multitude of men should be cruelly punished through their relation to his own grace and faith, while the expected resurrection and coming remains unknown.
The Greek for this is Καὶ Πέτρος ... σταυρῷ προσηλωθεὶς ἀνασκολοπίζεται: (And Peter… having been nailed to a stauros, is impaled [on it].)
C.2.2.1 Some background for Peter’s “crucifixion”.
Tradition has it that Peter the Apostle was crucified at Rome on Vatican Hill, upside-down. This tradition apparently began when the Acts of Peter first appeared, in Greek, not later than 200 CE. When Peter is arrested, he is commandeered by four soldiers and led before Agrippa, who commands that he be crucified (staurow’ed). (ch. 36) Then as they are preparing the stauros, Peter asks the executioners to “crucify me thus, with the head downward and not otherwise: and the reason wherefore, I will tell unto them that hear” (ch. 37). And they proceed to suspend him in the manner requested. And then Peter describes the suspendion device to which he is affixed in an unusual manner:
So that the word is the upright beam whereon I am crucified. And the sound is that which crosseth it, the nature of man. And the nail which holdeth the cross-tree unto the upright in the midst thereof is the conversion and repentance of man.
Acts of Peter ch. 38
So it looks like Peter is nailed to a post through the ankles, or bound to it with his feet. The transverse, if a timber or log, could be held in place by the outrigged acuta-crux which would be a “tree-nail” as we have seen before with Lucian, or if a mere plank, held in place with a regular nail.
The Acts of Peter and Paul has Peter requesting the same thing:
And Peter, having come to the cross, said: “Since my Lord Jesus Christ, who came down from the heaven upon the earth, was raised upon the cross upright, and He has deigned to call to heaven me, who am of the earth, my cross ought to be fixed head down most, so as to direct my feet towards heaven; for I am not worthy to be crucified like my Lord.” Then, having reversed the cross, they nailed his feet up.”
But it appears Tertullian knows nothing about this tradition! Instead, he curtly wrote, Petrus passion Dominicae adequatur: “Peter was made equal to the suffering of the Lord.” (On a Prescription against Heretics 36.3) (New Advent) (The Latin Library) In other words, Peter was suspended on a crux in the usual way.
Origen seems to have relied upon a thoroughly different tradition and explains it this way: ἀνεσκολοπίσθη κατά κεφαλῆς οὕτως αὐτός ἀξιώσας παθεῖν: “He [Peter] was impaled through the head, having deemed himself worthy to suffer in this manner.” (Origen, quoted by Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 3.1)
Of course, you won’t find this in the English translations, they will just say “he was crucified head-downwards.” (New Advent) (Documenta Catholica Omnia)
Eusebius also describes upside-down crucifixions later on in his Historia Ecclesiastica: οἱ δέ ἀνάπαλιν κατωκάρα προσηλωθέντες: “but they were nailed up inversely -- head downwards.” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 8.8) (New Advent) (Documenta Catholica Omnia)
In Demonstratio Evangelica which Eusebius wrote prior to Historia Ecclesiastica, he repeats Origen’s language: Πέτρος κατά κεφαλῆς σταυροῦται: “Peter was crucified (or impaled) upon the head”. (Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica 3.116.c) (Tertullian.org)
Now in the second we may have information indicating knowledge that Peter was crucified upside down. But that would mean he was literally crucified on his head, whatever that means. It could mean he was nailed up upside down with his cranium literally resting on a projection of his cross – a horizontal plank or the very acuta crux itself. If the latter, if it was made out of iron, it could, after a while of Peter struggling to keep off the point and finally resting upon it, could fulfill both the traditional account and Origen’s source of information! Unfortunately, we do not know that for sure.
The English translation (at Early Christian Writings website) cross-references Historia Ecclesiastica 2.25: It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero (Church History 2.25.5, New Advent website). The Greek is: Παῦλος δὴ οὖν ἐπ᾿ αὐτῆς Ῥώμης τὴν κεφαλὴν ἀποτμηθῆναι καὶ Πέτρος ὡσαύτως ἀνασκολοπισθῆναι κατ᾿ αὐτὸν ἱστοροῦνται: “Thus Paul at the very Rome itself to have his head cut off and Peter likewise to be fixed on a pole (impaled) according to that [which] they relate” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 2.25.5).
It clearly shows that Eusebius was not privy to the tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down and instead had to rely upon the information he got from Origen. It is only with Jerome that we have the traditional account recorded in an official history:
Affixus cruci martyrio coronatus est capite ad terram verso et in sublime pedibus elevates, asserens se indignum qui sic crucifigeretur ut Dominus suus: “Having been affixed to a crux he is crowned by martyrdom with the head turned toward the Earth and the feet raised on high, asserting himself unworthy of the manner he might be crucified as his lord.”
Jerome, Catal. Script. Eccles. 1
But Sulpicius Severus does not know anything of Peter being crucified upside-down or impaled upon the head, we just get enough information to conclude that Peter was suspended on a crux in some manner: Petrus in crucem sublatus est: “Peter was hoisted into a cross (or onto a stake).” That is all.
C.2.2.2 Conclusion regarding Porphyry’s Knowledge about Peter’s Death.
One cannot assume, therefore, that Porphyry knew anything about the Apostle Peter being crucified upside down, or being impaled on the head. If he heard about the two differing accounts with their flabbergasting differences, he may have concluded it was all stuff and nonsense. The only sense we can make out of Porphyry’s minimal statement then was that Peter was meted out a full-blown crucifixion the usual way: with an acuta crux for his sedile --- particularly when Tertullian knows nothing about any upside-down crucifixion or an impalement upon the head.
C.2.3. Conclusion about Porphyry’s Knowledge about Crucifixion.
We do know that Porphyry knows something about Roman crucifixion. First, the person was perditum: done away with, destroyed, ruined, thrown away, wasted, lost (utterly and irrevocably). It was the very worst death in his estimation (pessima mors), incidentally bound with iron (ferro vincta). Finally he understood crucifixion as a form of nailing (προσηλόω) and impaling (ἀνασκολοπίζω) on to some kind of utility pole / upright pale (σταυρός). It would be utility pole with an outrigged upright pale to serve as the crucified’s seat, no? Certainly it would have its crossarm!
Porphyry, Against the Christians frg. 15, quoted in Macarius, Apocriticus II:12:
But he with bitterness, and with very grim look, bent forward and declared to us yet more savagely that the Evangelists were inventors and not historians of the events concerning Jesus. For each of them wrote an account of the Passion which was not harmonious but as contradictory as could be. For one records that, when he was crucified, a certain man filled a sponge with vinegar and brought it to him (Mark xv. 36). But another says in a different way, "When they had come to the place Golgotha, they gave him to drink wine mingled with gall, and when he had tasted it, he would not drink" (Matt. xxvii. 33). And a little further, "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice saying, Eloim, Eloim, lama sabachthani? That is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" This is Matthew (v. 46). And another says, "Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar. Having therefore bound a vessel full of the vinegar with a reed, they offered it to his mouth. When therefore he had taken the vinegar, Jesus said, It is finished, and having bowed his head, he gave up the ghost" (John xix. 29). But another says, "And he cried out with a loud voice and said, Father, into thy hands I will commend my spirit." This happens to be Luke (Luke xxiii. 46). From this out-of-date and contradictory record, one can receive it as the statement of the suffering, not of one man, but of many. For if one says "Into thy hands I will commend my spirit," and another " It is finished," and another "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and another " My God, my God, why didst thou reproach me?" it is plain that this is a discordant invention, and either points to many who were crucified, or one who died hard and did not give a clear view of his passion to those who were present. But if these men were not able to tell the manner of his death in a truthful way, and simply repeated it by rote, neither did they leave any clear record concerning the rest of the narrative.
This is why each gospel should be its own separate story, and not harmonized as if they were eyewitness accounts of an actual event. For according to the first gospel, there was no one there (“They all forsook him, and fled”) except for many women, only three of them noteworthy enough for Mark to mention their names, who were watching the event from a great distance (gMark 14:50, 15:40). Women, who would have as much chance in a Jewish court back then as they would in an Islamic court today (tip o’ the hat to the late Christopher Hitchens), watching things from afar, which means their view would have been blocked from time to time and they didn’t see everything. Nor did they hear everything (if anything!), for what the various parties said had to travel over the cacophony of the crowds.
Porphyry, Against the Christians frg. 15, quoted in Macarius, Apocriticus II:12:
It will be proved from another passage that the accounts of his death were all a matter of guess-work. For John writes : "But when they came to Jesus, when they saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs; but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water." For only John has said this, and none of the others. Wherefore he is desirous of bearing witness to himself when he says: "And he that saw it hath borne witness, and his witness is true" (v. 35). This is haply, as it seems to me, the statement of a simpleton. For how is the witness true when its object has no existence? For a man witnesses to something real; but how can witness be spoken of concerning a thing which is not real?
Indeed. For blood and water does not come out of the side of a dead man under pressure! Yet that is how it is presented in all Catholic (and most Protestant) tradition, right up to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ!
Next and last installment of Parts 6: Wrap-up.
γόμφοις = noun, plural, masculine, (instrumental) dative: bolt, dowel, bond, fasteners; determined; instrument for cauterizing; sea fish; wooden nails, pegs.
σκολόπεσσι = noun plural masculine (instrumental) dative: stake, thorn, anything pointed, palisades; impaling stake; urethrea surgery tool; point of a fishhook, 'tree'.
Ἀνεσκολοπίσθη is third person, singular, aorist indicative passive of the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω, fix on a pole, impale.”
Κατά constructed with a genitive means down, down from, down over, down through, in through, from top to bottom, utterly (Autenrieth); below, by, over (which an oath is taken) (Slater); down from above, down from, (denoting) downward (motion), down upon or over, along, upon, down into, under, towards, by over (which an oath is taken),on, toward, down upon, against, upon, in respect of, concerning, on, of (LSJ and Middle Liddell)
Κεφαλῆς is the singular genitive of the grammatically feminine noun κεφαλή, “head”.
Σταυροῦται is the third person present indicative medium-passive of the verb σταυρόω: “fence with pales, pile-drive, impale, crucify.”