Thursday, March 14, 2013

Crucifixion the Bodily Support - The Acuta Crux in Patristic Writings (18)

Bloodstone magical gem / intaglio,
Eastern Mediterranean, ca. 2nd - 3rd C. CE.
Source: British Museum.

(Part 7r of the series: Crucifixion the Bodily Support)

Part 1        Part 2      Part 3       Part 4
Part 5a     Part 5b    Part 5c     Part 5d
Part 5e     Part 5f     Part 5g     Part 6a
Part 6b     Part 6c    Part 6d     Part 6e
Part 7a     Part 7b    Part 7c     Part 7d
Part 7e     Part 7f     Part 7g      Part 7h
Part 7i      Part 7j     
Part 7k      Part 7l

Part 7m    Part 7n   Part 7o      Part 7p


This is a summation of what several Antenicene Fathers of the Church understood about Roman Crucifixion.

The first was (Pseudo-) Barnabas, (fl. between 70 and 131 CE) who understood the purpose of the penalty was for the destruction and ruin of the body to the point of death. The gear of execution was shaped like a 'T' and it was likened to a tree that was bent over and then made to stand upright, and which dripped with blood. The punishment was meted out so that the person so executed was suspended with his arms stretched out to the sides, similar to a tropaeum.

The next was Justin Martyr (103 - 165 CE), who in I Apology 55 compared the pole to various everyday objects like the mast of a ship with its crossarm, a plough, certain tools, a man standing upright with arms outstretched, and the Roman military's standards, vexillae (banners) and their tropaeums of victory. He even noted that the images of the Caesars were consecrated on (or with) this form at their funerals, and the Caesars themselves declared to be gods by inscriptions; compare to the Gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and you'll see there is great similarity to the two.

Elsewhere in I Apology (ch. 35), Justin Martyr describes the crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews as fulfillment of prophecies midrashed out of the Septuagint (Isaiah 9:6: "The Government shall be upon his shoulders;" a mishmash of Isaiah 58.2 and 65:2: "I have spread out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, to those who walk in a way that is not good, they now ask me of judgement, and dare to draw near to God;" Psalm 22: 17, 19: "They pierced my hands and feet, and for my vesture they cast lots."), narrating a sequence of events that conforms to the account in the Gospel of Peter.

In his Dialogue with Trypho 40, Justin Martyr discerns the crucifixion of Jesus in the Samaritans' (and perhaps the Jews') set-up for roasting their Passover lambs: a spit is inserted through the nether parts and fed through up to the mouth, transfixing the animal, while the front paws are spread out on a horizontal suspension beam. The weird thing is, this set-up is more indicative of one way to impale a person: suspend him by the wrists over an impaling stake; gravity will cause his arms to be stretched out and his torso to be rectally impaled, as in the conjectured example at left and possibly depicted in the gem at the top.

In chapter 72 of the same Dialogue, Justin Martyr makes a complaint that the Jewish religious authorities have conspired to remove various passages out of the Septuagint, for example, a passage that includes the phrase "that we shall humble him on a standard"  (the meaning of the Greek ταπεινοῦν "to humble" includes "sexually violate" as a rare occurrance) out of Esdras and "Let us lay wood on his bread" (lit.: "Let us throw wood into his bread") out of Jeremiah 11:19 (the second passage is still extant in Jer. 11:19 LXX). And these two passages Justin cites as prophecies of the Jews taking counsel together to crucify Jesus and to put him to death.

This is followed up in Dialogue ch. 73 with another complaint: Justin Martyr makes a charge that the Jews removed "from the wood" out of the 96th Psalm (he calls it the 95th); otherwise the first line of Psalm 96:10 "The LORD reigns" would have read "The LORD reigns from the wood." This, of course, Justin uses to invent another prophecy of the Crucifixion: that God in the person of Jesus was to reign from the wood of the pole. Which means Justin viewed the gear of Jesus' execution as a sort of throne. Well rulers sit on their thrones and the Roman poet Maceneas and rhetorician Seneca the Younger both knew, that the seat or sedile of the Roman execution pole consisted of or included an acuta crux (impaling stake or penetrating thorn).  

In chapter 91 of Dialogue, Justin Martyr compares the extremities of the Roman execution pole to the horns of a unicorn: its highest extremity (top end of the main pole, or the titulus signpost) and the ends of the transverse patibulum, applied to the pole as a yard arm to a mast, stuck up or out as "horns." Plus there was one last piece in the middle which actually stood out as a horn and resembled a horn when it was skillfully shaped and assembled with the other "horns," and upon which were suspended, or rather "rode" those who were crucified (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ ἐποχοῦνται οἱ σταυρούμενοι). The Greek verb ἐποχοῦνται is the 3rd person plural present middle/passive indicative of  ἐποχέομαι, itself the 1st person singular middle/passive indicative of  ἐποχεύω "spring upon, cover," as in the action "of the male animal [who is acting as a 'top']." (See this Greek verb chart.) This would indicate that the Roman execution pole itself crucified the criminal not only by suspension racking but also by penetration. Various Latin translations of Dialogue 91 strongly support this.

In Dialogue 105, Justin Martyr finishes up by claiming that even the design of the σταυρός (pole) was prophesied in the 22nd Psalm, v. 22: "Save me from the lion's mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns (μονοκερώντων: plural of μονοκέρως, 'with but one horn, wild oxen,' or monokeros plinii)."

Irenaeus (130 - 200 CE), in Against Heresies 2.24.4, a chapter on numerology (!), notes that the device had five ends and high points. One of those was in the middle where the one who was affixed with nails found rest, found support or arrested his downward slump.

Pozzuoli Graffito. Dated to ca. 100 CE.
Tertullian (160 - 220 CE) himself was aware that the execution pole had a seat which penetrated the sufferer: he compared the palus (pale) in / from the middle of the stipes (main pole) as single-horned; the context indicates the comparison was to the front horn of the rhinoceros. (Against Marcion 3.18.3,4; An Answer to the Jews 10.2.7) He quotes Psalm 22:22 and notes, like Justin Martyr, that the horns were the apices (apexes: end points and high points) of the crux (An Answer to the Jews 10:13). He further stated that Jesus stuck fast (inhaerens) to the horns (cornibus) i.e., endpoints, of the device. We probably can rule out an extension of the central pole of the frame above the transverse beam as the single-horn, since Tertullian understands it to have been shaped like a capital T (Against Marcion 3.22.6). In his Apology 16.7,8 he notes that every beam set in the ground was a portion of a crux, and whereas he charges the Romans of worshiping gods made from parts of crosses, but Tertullian heaps scorn upon them, saying "we, as luck would have it, worship a god whole [or uninjured] and complete (integrum et totum)." In To the Nations 1.12.3,4 Tertullian notes that a complete execution pole (tota crux) included a projection / rising-above / aberration / transgression of a seat (sedilis excessu). This is the earliest written mention of the noun sedile used for the part of the frame that served to support the person who is nailed thereto, with sedilis denoting its purpose (seat) and excessu its nature (projection, rising, aberration, transgression, etc).

When Tertullian mentions the torture-execution of Regulus, he refers to a crux as both a siege-engine of the body and as a pointed item that pierced a person, noting Regulus was subjected to numerous cruces that were driven in a sort of stong-box which Regulus himself was stuffed into (To the Nations 1.18.10, To the Martyrs 4.6). 

Elsewhere (The Apology 9.2 and 12.3) Tertullian is aware of the similarity of the execution pole to the Roman tropaeum, noting the Priests of Baal-Hammon (Saturn of Africa) were hanged on trees as if on votive execution poles and that the body of the Romans' god was first dedicated on a patibulum (gibbet).

Tertullian talks of the Deuteronomic curse (Dt. 21:22-23), "cursed of God is everyone who would have been suspended on a tree (suspensus fuerit in ligno)" which last phrase could also mean "who would have been suspended by [anything made out of] wood." (An Answer to the Jews 10:1-3) He notes the peculiar atrocity of the Roman crucifixion, the nailing of hands and feet, noting line in Psalm 22 "They stabbed my hands and feet" (Answer 10:13) and admits that the hands and feet are not destroyed except for the one who is suspended on a tree / by an item made out of wood (Answer 13.11).

Tertullian further notes that Roman crucifixion (or impalement as in the Caucasus) was considered a harse, fierce death (Against Marcion 1.1.3), where the body is spread out on a gibbet or by it (in patibulo) (On Modesty 22.3). he also notes that the Romans tortured the person to be tortured first, and treated with every form of outrage. (To the Martyrs 6.1)  He also notes it was a shameful sort of death, upbraiding Marcion for attempting to destroy the only hope of the world, the indispensable dishonor of the Crucifixion wherein Jesus was suffigi: "suffixed" (fixed underneath, i.e., impaled) (On the Flesh of Christ 5.1, 3). He also notes that this sort of execution involved causing wood to go into a person's body, i.e., penetration, quoting Jeremiah 11:19 as a prophecy of the death of Jesus (Answer 10.12). Of course, Tertullian also found the union of two males to be utterly shameful (Against the Valentinians 11.1).

Likewise, Arnobius (fl. 284 - 305 CE) in Against the Heathen 1.36 and 1.40 acknowledges that crucifixion was a harsh, severe death that stained the convict with a mark of turpitude (shamefulness, baseness, foulness, indecency, etc.) and was unworthy for a free man even if he was found guilty, and a death where one died nailed to a patibulum (transverse beam, or cross-like execution pole)

Melito of Sardis (120? - 180 CE) in  his On the Passion 96, 97 notes that in the punishment the sufferer was hanged (or suspended), fixed (or fixed [with nails], or impaled) and firmly supported on (or made fast upon or firmly fixed to) some kind of "tree;" the sufferer was insulted by this punishment and  not allowed any covering to hide his nakedness. The firm support on this "tree" implies a three-dimensional shape to the gear, with some kind of strut, beam or hook to support the person who was completely exhausted or had passed on. If it was a near-vertical sharpened horn-like timber that penetrated the person, the rendered translations "made fast upon" and "firmly fixed to" which alternate with "firmly supported on" in the third phrase of line 96 make a lot more sense; so does the translation "impaled" that alternates with "fixed" and "fixed with nails" in the second phrase.

Origen (185 - 254 CE), in his eight-volume work Against Celsus noted or agreed that the Roman penalty was a most shameful death (Against Celsus 2.31, 6.10; Commentary on Matthew 27.22 1), a death in which the body was stretched as if on a rack (Against Celsus 8.41). He also noted that a crucifixion was a slow, lingering death that typically lasted thirty-six hours  unless they were stabbed first. (Commentary on Matthew 5.140). He also agrees with Celsus that the gear was a σταυρός (pole, either plain or crossarmed; also an upright pale) to which one was nailed (Against Celsus 6.34) and like Diodorus Siculus and Philo 2, uses σταυρός to denote the punishment rather than the instrument of the punishment (Against Celsus 2.69). He also, like Celsus, uses the word σκόλοψ (impaling stake or thorn) to described the execution gear that Jesus was attached to (Against Celsus 2.55, 2.58, 2.68, 2.69). Origen also used the verbs σταυρόω (fence with pales, drive piles, impale, crucify) and ἀνασκολοπίζω (fix on a pole, impale) even though he indicates in Against Celsus 2.69 that he understood ἀνασκολοπίζω etymologically as "to suspend upon something pointed (i.e., a thorn or pointed stake)" 3 (Against Celsus 2.36, 2.69, 3.32). Also as quoted by Eusebius (Church History 3.1), Celsus uses the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω to describe the method of Peter's death. 4

Vivat Crux. Dated 79 CE at the latest.
In Divine Institutes, Lactantius (240 - 320 CE) uses several terms to describe the suspension-attachment of a person on a crux. He uses suffigo (fix or fasten beneath) to denote the attachment of Jesus to the crux; the verb is used both to describe an attaching of a sail to a yardarm so it would hang below and an impaling of a head on a pike. Noting the figure in the Pozzuoli Graffito above and Vivat Crux to the right, cruci suffigo definitely meant both impale and attach to hang below. He also used affigo (affix as a brand), describes the suspension-attachment as suspensus atque affixus / suffixus (suspended and affixed / fastened beneath -- it appears the prisoner was suspended first), describes the suspension as in crucem sublatus (hoisted onto a crux and left suspended there), stated that the attached prisoner hangs on it and by means of it (qua pependit). He quotes Seneca in noting that the arms were stretched out along a transverse beam (extendiae per patibulum). He also used patibulum and crux interchangeably, indicating the first was not always merely a transverse attachment, nor the second just a stake or simple pole only. Lactantius also quotes an oracle by the Milesian Apollo who said that "γόμφοις καὶ σκολόπεσσι (with nails and pales / the crux)" Jesus endured a bitter death. He also understood Jeremiah 11:19 in the Septuagint "ἐμβάλωμεν ξύλον εἰς τὸν ἄρτον αὐτοῦ (let us throw wood onto / into his bread)" as a prophecy of the Crucifixion although it really describes a conspiracy of Jeremiah and modern scholars as far as I know see no connection with Jesus' crucifixion at all. Lactantius, like the rest of the ancient writers, saw the penalty as a manifestly infamous, notorious, polluted and shameful type of death; to inflict this on one who is not guilty of any crime or was of a station that would make him immune to the punishment was seen as a crime, an outrage, an insulting act and an enormity.

Athanasius, (296 or 298 to 373 CE) who probably knew nothing of the σταυρός / crux that was the gear of Jesus' execution except as a cross, also used Jeremiah 11:19 "δεῦτε, καὶ ἐμβάλωμεν ξύλον εἰς τὸν ἄρτον αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐκτρίψωμεν αὐτὸν ἀπὸ γῆς ζώντων. (Come, let us cast wood into His bread, and wipe [lit.: rub] Him out from the land of the living)." The Greek ἐκτρίψωμεν (ἐκτρίβω) could mean, "wear out by constant rubbing." This line in Jeremiah Athanasius takes as indicative only of a death that takes place on wood (ἐν ξύλῳ γινόμενος with  ἐν ξύλῳ having a possible double meaning "by means of wood").

A Roman tropaeum, representing Victory.
Even the godess Victoria (Nike) is present.
Minucius Felix (fl. between 160 - 270 CE) in Octavius, through his protagonist of the same name, when confronted with the charge from from his antagonist Caecilius, that Christians worshiped a criminal and his crux, simply dismissed it as one of several scurrilous charges, lodged in between and serving to link those which Caecilius thought or actually said were gross indecencies and cruel atrocities: "he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood 5 of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve." Octavius does not explain why Christians worship a perceived criminal and his crux, now cross, he denies the whole thing completely, essentially including them in those things it was not permissible for Christians to even hear, and that it was shameful (or defiling) to the person who has to defend against such charges with his own words, and that it was scarcely imaginable to be believed to be done by chaste and moral persons, unless, of course, it was done by Caecilius and his fellow Non-Christian Romans themselves. And with such crux-worship, as with the charge of cock-worship immediately previous, this Octavius proceeds to do, finishing up with the observation that the Roman tropaeums of Victory not only resembled what he called a simple crux (either crux simplex, crux commissa and/or crux immissa by Justus Lipsius' terminology), but also a man affixed to it! And as seen in the relief depicting a tropaeum above, the method of "affixion" appears to be impalement, for the armor surrounds the tree.


Although only Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Origen give us enough information that explicitly describes the architecture or function of the typical Roman execution pole, and Lactantius appears to do so, Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius and the others mentioned here who do not give sufficient information, with the exception of Athanasius, are in agreement that Roman crucifixion was the most humiliating death imaginable, carried out upon the suffer, stripped to utter nudity. We also know that these same authors used Jeremiah 11:19 "let us throw / cast / send wood into his bread" as a prophecy of the Crucifixion, wherein the wood was in reference to the Roman execution pole, and the bread the body of Jesus: which would mean that into the body of a person so suspended, an item of wood was caused to go. And since that item of wood, called acuta crux by Maceneas and Seneca the Younger, seems to have been described as a thorn or as the front horn of a rhinoceros or a monokeros plinii, the introduction of it would introduce three kinds of horrible pain (piercing, harsh rubbing and finally stretching), yet perhaps at the same time cause the sufferer's genitals to become prominent, thus increasing his shame. This is because the typical Roman method was a homoeroticized form of (mini-) impalement, wherein the impaled person was literally fucked on display and nailed to his gallows. And the compulsory dance of the execution only made it more shameful and more excruciatingly painful because every time he moves, the anal thorn would rub against and savage his tender membranes.


1. "mors turpissima crucis (the most vile death of the crux)"
2. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 20.54.4, "ὥστε σταυρῷ παραπλησίανεἶναι τὴν ὕβριν ἅμα καὶ τὴν τιμωρίαν (the violence and the punishment was almost tantamount to a σταυρός-punishment);" Philo, In Flaccum 72, "ἡ τελευταία καὶ ἔφεδρος τιμωρία σταυρὸς ἦν (where the last and seated / reserved penalty was a σταυρὸς-punishment)." Nota bene:  a σταυρὸς-punishment was a Roman crucifixion.
3. "ἐπί σκόλοπος κρεμασθῆναι (to have been hanged upon a thorn [i.e., a short impaling stake])"
4. "ανασκολοπισθε κατά κεφαλης (he was impaled down upon the head)”
5. "crucis ligna feralia (dangerous timbers of the crux [or lethal woods of the crux])."

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