The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
- Edward Shillito
After his trials, beatings, flogging, and mock worship, Jesus receives back his own clothes and is led out to the crucifixion site. It was customary for criminals to be paraded through the streets, sometimes naked, so the return of Jesus’ clothes may reflect a Roman concession to the Jews for the shame they felt in being exposed in public.
The execution site is called Golgotha, which is Aramaic for “Place of the Skull.” Our more familiar term “Calvary” (which derives from the Latin word calvaria) also means “skull” and was used in the Vulgate (Latin) version of the Gospels. The route of the procession has become known as the Via Dolorosa (“the Way of Suffering”), and we should note—given our hymnody—that there is no specific biblical reference to Golgotha being located on a hill, although it is certainly possible that it was.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that while Jesus is on his way to the execution site, the soldiers seize from the crowd a man known as Simon of Cyrene, a passerby who was on his way in from the country. They put the cross on Simon, having commandeered him to carry it, presumably because Jesus had become too feeble to carrying it himself, weakened as he was by the beatings, flogging, and other abuses already suffered.
Multitudes gather to watch the procession, some of them lamenting Jesus’ fate, but others viciously mocking him. Luke highlights a band of sympathetic women to whom Jesus speaks as they wail and mourn him. Two other men, both criminals, are also led out with Jesus to be crucified at Golgotha (Matt 27:31-33 || Mark 15:20-22 || Luke 23:26-32 || John 19:16-17).
Simon of Cyrene as portrayed in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004):
What Did Jesus (and the Cyrene) Carry to Golgotha?
John 19:17 states that when the soldiers took charge of Jesus, he went out “carrying his own cross” (literally, “carrying the cross for himself”). Bible commentators almost universally assert that the word “cross” here (Greek, stauros) is a reference to the horizontal beam (Latin, patibulum), not the whole cross. (R. C. H. Lenski is a notable exception.) These scholars contend that condemned criminals typically bore the crossbeam on their shoulders to the place of execution, where the upright beam (Latin, stipes) was already fastened in the ground.
Such a reconstruction would run counter to most traditional portrayals of Jesus’ journey to Golgotha, which depict him bearing both beams of the cross already fastened together. Which version of the story is correct? As it turns out, the question is not all that easy to answer, and a definitive conclusion may not be possible given the data we have.
In an article for the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Egon Brandenburger notes that the wordstauros primarily means “an upright, sometimes pointed stake.” Secondarily it may refer to a completed cross or perhaps the patibulum only. He is quick to point out, however, “The exact technical form and significance of execution are not conveyed by the single word stauros . . . without further definition.” It would appear that the word stauros over time became associated with various means of suspending bodies (pre- or post-mortem), including those utilizing a cross for crucifixion.
The historical reality is that crucifixions were conducted in a variety of ways. One size did not fit all. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, wrote, “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in different ways; some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet.” Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote: “So the soldiers out of wrath and hatred they bore for the Jews, nailed those they caught to the crosses, one after one way, another after another way by way of jest.”
The variety of cross types used may suggest a variety of methods employed to transport them. Which beam, for example, would a criminal carry if he were being crucified on a crux decussata (an X-shaped cross, the type on which St. Andrew reportedly was executed)? The likely answer is “both beams fastened together” or “neither beam at all,” the whole apparatus having been pre-erected and awaiting its victim.
What, then, was John trying to convey in his brief reference to Jesus carrying his own stauros? Unfortunately, it is hard to tell because the primary source material outside the New Testament is mixed on this point. Plautus (254-184 B.C.) was a Roman author and playwright. Writing in Latin, he makes several references to cross-bearing in crucifixion processionals:
Miles Gloriosus 358-60
“You’ll soon have to trudge out beyond the gate in that attitude, I take it—arms outspread, with your gibbet (patibulum) on your shoulders.”
“I bet the hangman will have you looking like a human sieve, the way they’ll prod you full of holes as they run you down the streets with your arms on a crossbar (patibulum), once the old man gets back!”
“By Hercules, I think when he arrives, he’ll change my name, and at once make out of me a cross-bearer (Crucisalus) instead of a gold-bearer (Chrysalus).”
Carbonaria Fr. 2
“Let him carry his cross (patibulum) through the city, and then be fastened to it.”
Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) was a Greek historian, biographer, philosopher, priest, and essayist who became a Roman citizen. Writing in Greek, he makes an important reference to cross-bearing in crucifixion processionals:
Moralia 554 A/B
“Every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross (stauros) on his back.”
Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric who lived at the time of Jesus. Writing in Greek, he provides a vivid account of how one slave who was condemned to be crucified was led to his place of execution:
Roman Antiquities VII, 69:1-2
“A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession, which the Romans were at that time conducting in honor of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood (xylon) which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips.” [Notice that the victim in this particular case is naked during the processional to the execution site.]
The primary source material is thus mixed (or at least ambiguous), as one might expect in light of the comments by Seneca and Josephus above.
Bible scholar Sverre Bøe conducted a major study on cross-bearing in the ancient world, and he concluded, “The distinction between crux and patibulum, which is possible in Latin, does not exist in Greek. . . . Occasionally patibulum refers . . . to the whole cross.” He further states, “A stauros in Israel in the days of Jesus often consisted of a vertical pole or a tree, and often, though by no means always, a horizontal piece of wood (sometimes called patibulum) attached to it.”
While acknowledging that a criminal “could be forced to carry the patibulum of the stauros . . . to the place where the vertical pole, or tree, was placed,” Bøe laments, “There are plenty of examples from commentaries and other theological books of how the writers seem to know more than the sources actually validate.” It is wise, then, to hold our conclusions lightly on the particular question of what Jesus actually carried to the crucifixion site.
Arguments for Jesus carrying only the patibulum include:
• The practice is attested by some of the primary sources.
• The whole cross would have been too heavy for a man to carry, especially after a brutal flogging.
• A removable, reusable patibulum would have been more convenient for the executioners.
Arguments for Jesus carrying the patibulum + the stipes include:
• The practice is suggested by some of the primary sources.
• Jesus had help carrying his cross, so weight would not have been as much of a factor.
• Convenience may have been sacrificed in the case of special, high-priority victims.
Jesus bearing the patibulum only in ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (1976):
Jesus bearing the patibulum + the stipes in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004):
If Jesus stumbled and fell while having his arms stretched out and tied to a patibulum, he may not have been able to use his hands to break the fall. He literally would have fallen on his face, further traumatizing the nerves that were already distressed and in extreme pain.
“The heavy patibulum of the cross is tied across his shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers, headed by a centurion, begin its slow journey along the Via Dolorosa. In spite of his efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much. He stumbles and falls. The rough wood of the beam gouges into the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders. He tries to rise, but human muscles have been pushed beyond endurance.
“The centurion . . . selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus follows, still bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock. The 650 yard journey from the Fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed” (Davis, 1965).
Cross-bearing illustration from the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’:
Archaeological & Geographical Record
The Via Dolorosa is a popular tourist attraction in Jerusalem today, and many Christian pilgrims retrace the likely steps of Jesus to Golgotha, stopping at the 14 Stations of the Cross along the way. Some of the pavement stones in the Via Dolorosa date to the first century, but it should be noted that the commonly accepted route that Jesus took has changed several times over the centuries.
Sign marking the Via Dolorosa in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:
Map of the 14 Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa:
The Ecce Homo Arch on the Via Dolorosa:
Pavement stones along the Via Dolorosa dating to the 1st century:
Main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, over the likely location of Golgotha:
The Altar of the Crucifixion, over the purported site of Jesus’ cross:
The Rock of Calvary, seen under glass next to the Altar of Crucifixion:
Hole beneath the Altar of Crucifixion where Jesus’ cross was reportedly raised:
Golgotha may have received its name because the site in some way resembled a skull, though that is not specified in the biblical text or in any other primary source. Equally possible is that the site was so named because it was commonly used as place of execution, or because the area contained a number of tombs.
While most scholars regard the site beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the original Golgotha, an alternate location has been suggested. In 1883 General Charles Gordon noticed a rocky crag in Jerusalem near the Damascus Gate that looked to him like a skull. Around the corner he identified an ancient tomb, and, putting the two together, he proposed a new location for the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The slope has eroded somewhat over the last century, but it is not difficult to see that the formation resembles a skull.
The skull-like formation at Gordon’s Calvary (Garden Tomb):
Location of the two suggested sites in relation to each other:
Holy Week Reflection
In watching Jesus carry the wood of the cross to the place of execution, Christians naturally think of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God said to the patriarch, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham obeyed God, and Isaac quietly carried the wood up the mountain, preparing to be slaughtered by his own father.
In many ways, the story is disturbing, repugnant, and infuriating. We want to know what it was that drove Abraham up the mountain to take the life of his beloved son. We want to know why Isaac was so passive and compliant in the whole affair. And we want to know why God intervened at the last possible moment, possibly traumatizing Isaac even further.
Yet it was precisely because Isaac’s life was on the line that something even more horrendous than child sacrifice was at issue—namely, the possibility that God could be a liar. After all, Isaac was the child of promise, so if he died, God’s trustworthiness would die with him. Isaac has to live—or be resurrected—if all nations of the earth are to be blessed through his line. Abraham knew this, as the New Testament tells us in Hebrews 11:17.
Abraham was convinced that God cannot lie, so he raised the knife. Just then an angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket was a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in the place of his son.
Genesis 22 is a story about the costly sacrifice of a father, the willing submission of a son, and the gracious provision of the Lord. “He will provide,” said Abraham. “The Lord will see to it.” No wonder Jesus said to his contemporaries, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was now part of a similar story himself, and Abraham had gotten a preview of it.
But what did Abraham see when he was standing on Mount Moriah? What did he hear? What did God show him? Did Abraham see the obedient Son of God bearing the wood of the cross to Golgotha—the Son for whom there would be no substitute this time?
Perhaps if Abraham had been standing at the the cross and had seen Jesus die right in front of him, he would have looked up to heaven and spoken God’s words back to him: “Lord! Lord! Now I know that you revere me, for you have not withheld from me your Son, your only Son, Jesus, whom you love.”
The hardest thing God could ever ask of us is the very thing he did for us—he gave us his only Son. That Son was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and all families of the earth are blessed through him. God kept his word. Again.
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).
Even more amazing.
Image Credits: The Passion of the Christ, Icon Productions; Jesus of Nazareth, ITC; BiblePlaces.com; galenfrysinger.com; israelimages.com; personal collection.