Friday, March 11, 2005

A Way of Death

Administrators of legal justice have devised lots of ways to execute capital criminals. Common in modern times are lethal injection, electrocution, gas -- and still, in some countries, hanging. In the military, firing squads and gallows have been favored during recent centuries.

In ancient times, the grim reapers of justice used more brutal and gory methods: stoning, burning at the stake, beheading and impaling. Sometimes the condemned was drowned . . . or hung on a cross to sag torturously and, ultimately, suffocate. Which brings us to the Easter season.

Jesus’ crucifixion is history’s most famous execution. His sentence was carried out under Roman law by Roman soldiers. Other civilizations in antiquity who used crucifixion included the Carthaginians, Persians and Egyptians. In the Roman Empire, the condemned always was scourged beforehand, then was required to carry all or part of the cross to the designated scene of execution. Roman citizens were not crucified -- only slaves and conquered subjects. That’s because crucifixion was deemed not only a particularly excruciating way to die, but a shameful way. Roman citizens -- even wrongdoers -- deserved more dignified treatment.

Some crucifixion platforms were shaped like the capital letter T, with no headpiece. In Jesus’ execution, it’s universally assumed the commonly recognized cross (lower-case “t”-shaped) was used. Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the beams. In some instances, the limbs were simply tied. Ultimately, it mattered little. Death usually occurred after the victim’s strength ebbed and the body collapsed, so that the upper skeletal frame cut off respiratory circulation.

Constantine the Great, who became a Christian, abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire in 337 A.D. Today, Christians know that crucifixion was not only a medium of death . . . but of life.


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