The Final Days of Jesus and the Realities of Roman Capital Punishment: What Happened to All Those Bodies?

What is the probability that the body of someone who had suffered capital punishment for offenses against the Roman state would be buried? The results of this inquiry indicate that the Gospel accounts of the execution and burial of Jesus comport well with Roman law and Roman practice in a time of relative peace.

See Also: The Final Days of Jesus: The Thrill of Defeat, The Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution (Lutterworth Press, 2018).

By Mark D. Smith
Professor of History
The College of Idaho
Board of Directors: Bethsaida Excavations Project
February 2018

In 1968, archaeologists discovered “The Crucified Man of Giv’at ha-Mivtar,” whose skeleton was unearthed in a rock-cut cave tomb on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem.[1] This tomb was typical of many inhabited by the elite of the region in the first century CE, with chambers and niches (Kokhim in Hebrew), cut into the walls, like drawers in a morgue. Bodies placed in the Kokhim were often left to desiccate for a year or so, and then, at least for those who could afford it, the bones were commonly transferred to ossuaries.[2] This particular tomb housed an ossuary which contained a 24-28 year old male. His Hebrew name was scratched into the side: Yehohanan ben Hagkol.

We know he was crucified because Jehohanan’s right heel bone (calcaneum) was preserved with an iron nail piercing through it, bent at the tip, possibly as a result of hitting a knot in a wooden cross. Despite some controversy, scholars are agreed on two things: that this discovery provides the first archaeological evidence for a victim of crucifixion, and that Yehohanan was buried in customary Jewish fashion in a family tomb.

This study seeks to engage one interpretive challenge raised by Yehohanan and his heel. On the one hand, one might infer from the twin facts that Yehohanan was crucified and buried, that the Romans followed normal procedure when handing the body of the executed man over to the family for burial. On the other hand, Yehohanan’s heel represents the only such archaeological evidence. Why only one? This question has led some scholars to assert that perhaps his case represents a divergence from the norm, on the assumption that the normal procedure of the Romans was not to permit the burial of crucified criminals, but rather to leave their bodies exposed, foul carrion for birds and dogs, as a lasting deterrent to anyone who would dare challenge Roman authority. This question has important implications for the study of the Historical Jesus as well as for the larger understanding of the life of Jews under Roman rule.[3]

Does Yehohanan represent the exception or the rule? This may seem a simple binary question, but the path to the most probable answer is long and winding, requiring a thorough analysis of the literary and archaeological evidence for Roman capital punishment, Roman treatment of bodies, and the Roman values that underlie these practices. At the end of our journey, the most probable explanation that accounts for all of the evidence is that the Romans practiced a sort of situational thanatology. Under certain circumstances the Romans handed the bodies of victims of execution over to those who requested them, or cremated or buried them in the most efficient manner available. Then, there were other circumstances that caused Romans to expose bodies for short or long periods of time. Analysis of these circumstances reveals that Yehohanan may have been an exceptional archaeological discovery, but his burial was anything but exceptional.

Two centuries’ worth of evidence of Roman capital punishment should suffice to place Yehohanan in its historical context: the first century BCE and the first CE. The Romans executed a good number of people over the course of 200 years. What did they do with all those bodies?

The primary Roman methods of capital punishment were decapitation, burning alive, condemnation to the arena or wild beasts, casting from the Tarpeian Rock, “the sack,” enforced suicide, and crucifixion, with the last considered the extreme penalty. For Romans, social status was always important; punishments should not only fit the crime, but the criminal. A thorough examination of Roman capital punishment requires detailed analysis of hundreds of pieces of textual, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence. This study will provide a summary rooted in the detailed analysis I have provided elsewhere.[4]

Decapitation was the most merciful way the Romans executed people. Both beheadings and the fate of the beheaded appear seldom in the sources, but we do have evidence concerning beheaded corpses in a few cases: two beheaded Jewish bodies were buried in Jerusalem. Similarly, some beheaded bodies were recently unearthed in graves in Roman Britannia. Finally, Sulla’s violent proscription in Rome resulted in the beheading of some rivals whose bodies were cast into the Tiber river.[5]

Burning alive is not very common and seems largely to have been used in persecutions of early Christians, such as those Nero burned on stakes to illuminate his garden parties. The only evidence we possess indicates that mortal remains, if there were any, were buried.[6]

Criminals condemned to the arena could, depending on size and skill, end up as gladiators, as soldiers in mock naval battles staged in flooded amphitheaters, as participants in fatal charades, or more commonly, as noxii, the subjects of the mid-day butcheries, herded into the arena like so many cattle, stripped, burned, attacked, mauled or gored by various animals. In some cases, thousands of the condemned, both human and animal, could be killed in a single day.

At the end of the day, all the detritus of the dead, whether bestial byproduct or gladiatorial gore, needed to be cleaned up by someone. There is little evidence of who or how, beyond the mention of an official, the curator spoliarii, in charge of clearing the arena and ensuring the victims were in fact dead. The only evidence of the final fate of these bodies consists of a few epitaphs in cemeteries in honor of the well-respected gladiators buried there, as well as some gladiatorial graves from Roman Britannia. We have no information about the rest.

The Tarpeian Rock was an infamous place of shame, at the edge of the Capitoline hill, from which notorious criminals were thrown down into the Forum Romanum. We only know of a few such executions, and we are never told of the fate of bodies after they encountered the rocky ground.

“The sack,” was a ritual and rare form of execution usually reserved for parricides, in which the condemned was tied into a leather sack and thrown into the Tiber river. Animals, such as an ape and an adder, were sometimes added to the sack. Given the fact that victims, sack and all, were tossed into the Tiber, their bodies were, in fact, denied burial.

Enforced suicide seems a favorite form of capital punishment, especially for elite political enemies of such embattled emperors as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Otho. In most cases, we learn nothing of the fate of the bodies, but in a couple of cases, they received honorable burial or cremation.[7]

Crucifixion was the most brutal form of Roman capital punishment. A detailed, if not exhaustive examination of the evidence for Roman crucifixions reveals both chronological development and circumstantial application. In terms of chronology, in the Republican period, the Romans utilized this punishment almost exclusively for slaves who were engaged in some sort of revolt. In the Imperial period, the punishment was expanded to apply to freedmen, non-citizens and even, on rare occasions, to citizens. What about the fate of the crucified bodies? The evidence indicates that under some circumstances they were buried or cremated, while under other circumstances, they were probably left exposed for some period of time. The most important example of the latter was the case of the 6,000 Spartacan rebels who were crucified up and down the Via Appia after the revolt. It is a reasonable inference that these bodies were left exposed on their crosses for at least a few days for this, of all cases of crucifixion, was meant for display, a warning to any slaves who might dare consider following in Spartacus’s footsteps. In a similar manner but for different reasons, the Roman general Titus crucified hundreds if not thousands of Jews before the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, in hopes of breaking the spirit of the besieged. These also were probably left exposed for some time, given Josephus’s note that they ran out of wood for the crosses. It is important to note that both of these examples occurred in a context of war.[8]

We do have some evidence of occasional Roman corpse abuse and exposure of bodies, such as the former tribune whose body was affixed to a cross to be publicly displayed during the proscriptions of Sulla, or Octavian’s exposure of some of the enemy dead after the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, or the abuse of the bodies of Sejanus, former Praetorian Prefect, or the former emperor Vitellius, both of whom were subsequently thrown into the Tiber at the hands of tyrannical emperors. It is important to note, however, that evidence for such practices is rare, and in all of these cases, the victims were elites. A strong negative tone concerning exposure and corpse abuse is pervasive in the sources, suggesting an attitude that the authors think their Roman audience is likely to share.[9]

Not only is this negative perspective pervasive among Roman sources, but it also shared by Jewish sources, such as Philo and Josephus. Philo devotes one entire work to a description of and commentary on the virulent persecution of Alexandrian Jews in 38 CE under Aulus Avilius Flaccus, the Roman prefect, during which mobs of Alexandrians attacked Jewish businesses, forced Jews into a ghetto, confiscated and destroyed their property, installed idols in their Synagogues, and assaulted and murdered them in the streets, leaving their bodies strewn about in public. Philo’s primary complaint is that it had long been Alexandrian custom for Roman governors to prevent such things, treating the Jews with respect and deference, even giving them a degree of autonomy under a council of Jewish elders whose local authority was recognized by Rome. From Philo’s perspective, not only did Flaccus fail to fulfill his traditional role as keeper of the pax augusta and purveyor of Roman justice, but he exchanged protection for pogrom, exacerbating the persecution by arresting 38 elders, stripping and beating them in the theatre, and crucifying those who survived the scourge, all during the holiday celebrating the birthday of Augustus. In an exceedingly opaque passage, Philo acknowledged that, while Romans sometimes could expose executed bodies, they had a long custom, especially during holidays, of allowing the families of the executed to claim their bodies for proper burial in accordance with their own customs (in context, probably referring to burial before sunset). Philo expects his audience to be repulsed by Flaccus’s violence and violations of Roman mores. Indeed, even so unstable an emperor as Caligula, in the aftermath of this violence, had Flaccus arrested, exiled, and ultimately executed for his misrule. Note that Philo does not say how Flaccus in fact treated the bodies of those Jews crucified in the theatre (On Flaccus 83ff.). Did he leave them up on the crosses for an extended period of time to be eaten by Egyptian vultures? Or did he have them cremated or buried along with other criminals and indigents in unmarked graves, their remains to be mixed with those of goyim and unclean animals? Or something else? The text does not inform us, but any of these alternatives would be abhorrent. All of these cases of corpse abuse take place in a context of violence, rebellion, or war.[10]

Although we do have some evidence of Roman corpse abuse, we also have considerable evidence to the contrary beyond the several examples already cited. For example, both Horace and Varro make reference to mass burial sites for the indigent outside the Esquiline gate in Rome. Other sources mention the same site as a place of execution and cremation. The connection between execution, cremation and burial is at least suggestive and consistent with the numerous examples already cited in which the executed received burial. Recent discoveries of Roman burial sites of gladiators and some victims of beheading in England, while preliminary, are consistent with this pattern.

Jewish sources further support this pattern, while adding a twist, for they seem to have a consistent concern with not only the burial, but the timing of the burial of victims of execution. This concern grows directly out of Deuteronomy 21.22-23:

When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession” (NRSV).

Temple Scroll, which applies the Deuteronomic command to even the worst of traitors to the Jewish people:

If a man informs against his people, and delivers his people up to a foreign nation, and does harm to his people, you shall hang him on the tree, and he shall die. On the evidence of two witnesses and on the evidence of three witnesses he shall be put to death, and they shall hang him on the tree. And if a man has committed a crim[e] punishable by death, and had defected into the midst of the nations, and has cursed his people [and] the children of Israel, you shall hang him on the tree, and he shall die. And their body shall not remain upon the tree all night, but you shall bury them the same day, for those hanged on the tree are accursed by God and men; you shall not defile the land which I give you for an inheritance.[11]


This Roman deference to local Jewish custom seems to be confirmed by the account of those who were crucified with Jesus in the Gospel of John (John 19.31-2). In this case “the Jews” (probably in context referring to the chief priests) asked the Roman prefect, Pilate, to break the legs of the crucified, precisely to hurry their death so that their bodies could be removed and interred before sunset and the beginning of Shabbat. That Pilate granted this request is instructive. Why would the Romans be willing to hurry the death of the crucified if their objective, as some have suggested, was to prolong the agony, not only of the death, but also of the exposure of the corpse after death? That “the Jews” made this request, and Pilate granted it, fits consistently with the evidence thus far encountered.[12]

All the more so when we turn to Josephus who provides more evidence of Roman executions of Jews than any other author. In his Jewish War, in the early stages of the revolt, Josephus discusses the turmoil in Jerusalem where Idumaeans, allied with Jewish Zealots, engaged in widespread slaughter of those who opposed them, including the chief priests, whose bodies they “threw out” without burial. Josephus, disgusted by this behavior, comments: “…Jews have so much regard for funeral rites that even malefactors who are justly crucified are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War 4.317). Since only Romans had the authority to crucify, Josephus is referring to his knowledge of normal Roman practice, in deference to Jewish culture. This evidence is particularly illuminating when taken together with Deuteronomy, the Temple Scroll, the Gospel of John, and Philo. All concur that the executed, even the crucified, must be properly buried by sunset. Josephus and Philo further concur that Romans regularly honored this Jewish expectation. As we have seen, Josephus did not hesitate to describe the many victims of crucifixion before the walls of Jerusalem whose bodies were probably exposed on crosses. Here he seems to be drawing an important distinction between ordinary executions, and the extraordinary ones that took place in a context of war.

Thus far, our quest has revealed a number of cases in which the bodies of those who suffered capital punishment were buried, and other cases in which the bodies were probably exposed for at least a while. For the most part, however, silence about the bodies prevails among the sources. The most reasonable inference from the silence is likely that the Romans did not deal with these unmentioned bodies in a remarkable way, but rather followed their standard procedures in accordance with their cultural values. If this inference has any value, then the next step in our quest should be an examination of those Roman values, practices, and attitudes toward the dead and the disposal of bodies.

Roman Burial Practices

From a Roman perspective, burial may do away with the corpse, but not the dead. Disembodied souls were believed to experience shame, restlessness, dishonor – or peace, depending on how their bodies were treated. Romans practiced a cult of the dead, including grave gifts, feasts in family tombs, and festivals in honor of the ancestors. Death brought pollution, which demanded proper purification and burial rites, all manifestations of that most central of Roman virtues, pietas: piety or duty toward the gods, the family, and Rome itself. Sacred custom told Romans not to molest corpses, to permit proper burial by relatives or others claiming the body, and failing that, to provide minimal burial. Only three handfuls of dirt were required. Both cremation and inhumation were practiced in our period, with the former more common.

While some philosophers might suggest that we are all equal in death, the archaeology of mortality in the Roman Empire is anything but an egalitarian enterprise. Who was buried and how depended on social status. Elites staged elaborate funerals and erected monumental mausoleums. The humble were laid to rest in urns or simple columbaria or graves. The destitute were buried in pits or mass graves with minimal dirt or burnt on mass pyres of up to 11 bodies at a time. Plutarch counseled that it is wise to burn one female body for every 10 male bodies to add some heat to the flames! Some of these mass graves have been unearthed outside the Esquiline gate in Rome. The Romans even had a shadowy infrastructure of professional undertakers (libitinarii) to handle this task, to remove putrefying corpses from the streets and to ensure proper burial of the indigent and the removal of pollution and stench from the city.[13]

According to Roman law criminals condemned to death must be buried. Only in the case of the highest form of treason (maxime maiestatis causa) was denial of burial permitted (but not required).[14] Roman cultural values combined with Roman law to demand that even the destitute and abandoned, even executed criminals, most of whom, then as now, were probably from the lower classes, would not rot in the streets or at the places reserved for executions, but would receive at least the minimal proper burial or cremation.

To these cultural values, we need to add another: sanitation. Anyone who has traveled to the lands once ruled by Rome has come to appreciate their spectacular baths, whose water needs were supplied by the extraordinary system of Roman aqueducts. Another reason for the need for so much water was their invention of some of the finest continuous flush toilets in the ancient world. It is clear that the Romans were willing to invest much money and effort to live in a relatively clean environment. In addition, evidence of professional undertakers and dung-collectors bear fragrant witness to Roman aversion to unsightly messes and strong odors in public places.

Surprisingly, contemporary Jewish burial practices and values were in some ways similar to those of the Romans. Most Jews agreed with their Roman contemporaries that human life outlasted death, that the dignified handling of the dead with proper rites and burial was a sacred duty, and that the living were obligated to treat the dead in accordance with traditional and sacred law. On the other hand, their views of ritual purity diverged significantly, and official Judaism opposed any cult of the dead. For Jews, the victims of capital punishment were to be treated with appropriate dignity. As we have seen, Deuteronomy required the burial of the executed before sundown. Both written and archaeological evidence suggests that Jews seldom if ever practiced cremation, corpse abuse, exposure of bodies, or dumping of bodies into rivers. Burial methods were determined by wealth, with Judaea and its environs hosting many necropolises, monumental tombs, cave tombs and ossuaries.

Those lower in the social hierarchy were often buried in trench graves, with no coffin or in simple wooden coffins, accompanied by few grave goods, as we see at such burial sites as Qumran, the Judean desert, around Jerusalem, and at Bethsaida.[15] Among Jews, we do not find, in the Roman period, mass graves like those outside of the Esquiline Gate. It is quite probable, as Jodi Magness put it, that “the majority of the ancient Jewish population must have been disposed of in a manner that left few traces in the archaeological landscape.”[16] Given the simplicity and obscurity of the graves of commoners, combined with the consistent value of burial, even for the executed, it is probable that some of the Jewish burials thus far unearthed contained the bodies of executed criminals, including victims of crucifixion. The state of preservation of simply buried bones makes it difficult to identify with any confidence whether execution was the cause of death, with the occasional exception of decapitation.

All these factors, combined with the traditional Roman respect for the autonomy of the cultural practices of provincials suggest that standard Roman procedure would be to allow Jews to handle their dead as they wished, including those who were executed. While Romans often found Jewish cultural practices curious if not incomprehensible, in this particular area, Romans would have had little trouble appreciating the care with which Jews handled their deceased loved ones. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Philo expressed such outrage when Flaccus threatened exposure of the bodies crucified Jews, or that Josephus condemned the cavalier treatment of Jewish bodies by the Idumaeans, or that the legs of those crucified with Jesus were broken by Roman soldiers. From a Roman perspective, Philo and Josephus had just complaints, and the Jews who asked for the legs of the crucified to be broken to ensure death and burial before sunset had a just request.


We began this journey by asking whether the fact that Yehohanan was crucified and buried represents normal Roman procedure, or an exceptional case. We are now in a position to provide the outlines of an answer.

First, the extant evidence for the disposal of the executed bodies demonstrates that, in some situations, the Romans engaged in corpse abuse, exposure of bodies, and dumping of bodies into the Tiber. In other situations, they handed the bodies over to family and friends for proper disposal, whether by cremation or burial, or carted them off to places reserved for mass burial or cremation. The vast majority of the recorded cases, however, tell us nothing about the handling of corpses after execution.

Perhaps most important is the discovery that every historical narrative of execution followed by non-burial took place in a violent context. Conversely, over the course of two centuries, we do not have evidence of a single case of corpse abuse or exposure of executed bodies under peaceful circumstances, save for the few victims of the sack wending their way down the Tiber. Therefore, we can draw an important conclusion: Non-burial of the victims of capital punishment may happen in a context of violence, but burial is far more probable in a context of peace. When we consider this conclusion together with our discussion of the Roman values of piety and sanitation, and a broad commitment to practical efficiency, in times of peace, the Romans were most likely to follow their own law, and handle executed corpses in the most efficient manner that guaranteed both minimal dignity and that the stench of rotting corpses would not waft its way into the city. Whether that meant handing them over to relatives, or assigning them to undertakers, or cremating them, or disposing of them in mass or individual graves, would have made little difference from a Roman perspective. It took unusual circumstances, in particular war and violence, for the Romans to engage in corpse abuse or exposure, but this should occasion no surprise, for such inconsistencies are commonplace throughout history.

We can take this conclusion a step further by combining the evidence from Philo, Josephus, the victims of execution in Jewish tombs, with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, as depicted in various texts in the New Testament. From the perspective of over two centuries of evidence in the Roman Empire, there is nothing surprising about how Pilate handled Jesus’s execution or his burial, for unlike the slave rebellion of Spartacus or the rage of Roman legionaries surrounding Jerusalem, this execution took place in a context of peace.

Pilate was doing what he was appointed to do as Prefect of Judaea: upholding the pax augusta, applying rough Roman justice by executing the non-citizen leader of a potential sedition before it developed into a genuine threat, acting with appropriate respect toward regional and religious sensibilities, and demonstrating proper respect for the bodies of the crucified and their families. It is certainly true that that single act of crucifying Jesus of Nazareth dramatically changed the religious landscape of western civilization, but from the perspective of Roman procedure, it was business as usual.

At the culmination of our winding path, we are finally in a position to return to Yehohanan and his heel. Was his burial the result of normal procedure? Or, was it exceptional? Based on our analysis, the most probable answer that accounts for all of the evidence is: “it depends.” Was Yehohanan crucified in a time of relative peace or in a context of violence, war, rebellion, or tyrannical cruelty? Since most scholars date his execution around the 20s to 30s CE, and that period was not characterized by any significant violence in the region, the most probable end to our quest is that Yehohanan was one of many victims of Roman capital punishment whose body the Romans handed over to his family.[17] If, however, he had been crucified in a time of war, we might have encountered a different ending.

The bones of Yehohanan have been speaking to us for more than forty years. In this case, they have guided us to the discovery of the dynamic of Roman capital punishment and burial, while ensuring that some fanciful historical reconstructions are appropriately (dare I say it?) laid to rest. Voltaire famously quipped that history “is a pack of tricks we play on the dead.” If nothing else, we can learn from Yehohanan that the dead are capable of playing a few tricks on historians.


[1] This article is a condensation of a portion of my recent book. For the larger context of Jesus’s arrest, trial, and execution, see: Mark D. Smith, The Final Days of Jesus: The Thrill of Defeat, The Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2018). For detailed archaeological and textual evidence, see my larger study on the topic: M.D. Smith, “Capital Punishment and Burial in the Roman Empire,” in Bethsaida in Archaeology, History, and Ancient Culture: A Festschrift in Honor of John T. Greene, ed. J. Harold Ellens (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2014), pp. 395-436. On the tomb, see V. Tsaferis, “Crucifixion – The Archaeological Evidence,” BAR, Jan/Feb, 1985, 44-53.

[2] H. Shanks, “Scholars Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” BAR, Nov/Dec 1985; cf. selected BAR articles on Ossuaries?

[3] See the arguments in J.D. Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 160ff; c.f. M. Hengel, Crucifixion (London: SCM, 1977), 87, who is more cautious and more thorough, but still suggests that “quite often,” victims of crucifixion were not buried. See C.A. Evans and N. T. Wright, Jesus, The Final Days, (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2009) for a thoughtful analysis and reappraisal.

[4] “Capital Punishment and Burial in the Roman Empire.”

[5] Beheading: Dio Cassius 49.22.6; 30-35 fr. 109.4ff; Seneca, On Anger 2.5.5; Josephus, Jewish War 2.242; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25.5-8; Mark 6.14-29; Josephus, Antiquities 18.119.

[6] Tacitus, Annals 15.44.4; cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp.

[7] Capital Punishment in Roman Law: Digest 48.19.28; 48.24.1; Julius Paulus, Sententiae 5.17.12; Burning: Hispanic War 20.5-6; Tacitus, Annals 15.44.4; Martyrdom of Polycarp 15-18; Condemnation to the Arena or Beasts: Apuleius, Metamorphoses 10.28, 34; Seneca, On Anger, 2.2.4; Epistle 7.3-5; Josephus, Jewish War 6.418; 7.23-4, 37-8, 40, 96; Pliny, Epistle 10.31.2; Digest 48.19.29, 31; Seneca, Epistle 93.12; Augustan HistoryCommodus 18.3, 5, 19.1, 3; Suetonius, Claudius 34.1; Corpus Inscriptiones Latinae (CIL) 14.3041 = ILS 6252; CIL 6.10171; Dio 78 (77).6.2; CIL 5.563;; Tarpeian Rock: Tacitus, Annals 6.19; Josephus, Jewish War 7.154-55; Seneca the Elder, Controversies 1.3; Festus 458L; Aurelius Victor, On Illustrious Men 24.6; 66.8; Appian, Civil War 3.3; Dio 42.29-33; The Sack: Juvenal, Satire 8.213-4. Valerius Maximus 1.1.13; Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities 4.62.4; Orosius 5.16.23; Suetonius, Claudius 34.1; Seneca, On Clemency 1.23.1; Theodosian Code 9.15.1; Enforced Suicide: Tacitus, Annals 15.60ff; 16.10-14, 17ff; Tacitus, Histories 1.72; Suetonius, Nero 37; Suetonius, Tiberius 56; Caligula 23.

[8] Crucifixion, Republican Period c. 100-27 BCE: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 5.51.3; Livy 22.33.2; 33.36.3; Orosius 5.9.4; Florus, Epitome 2.7 = 3.19.8; Diodorus Siculus 37.5.3; Valerius Maximus 8.4.2; Appian, Mithridatic War 29; Cicero, Against Verres 2.5.9-13; Hispanic War 20.5; Appian, Civil War 1.119-20; Livy 33.36.3; Valerius Maximus 6.3.5; Quintillian 4.2.17; Cicero, Against Verres 2.5.165-9; Crucifixion, Imperial Period 27 BCE-c. 100 CE: Dio 49.12.4; Josephus, Antiquities 18.79ff.; Seneca the Elder, Controversies 3.9; 7.6; Philo, On Flaccus 72ff., 83; Suetonius, Caligula 12.2; Dio 60.24.4; Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1; Josephus, Jewish War 2.253; 2.293-308; 3.321; 5.289; 5.446-51; Life 420ff.; John 19.31-2.

[9] Valerius Maximus 9.2.3; Suetonius, Augustus 13; Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus 19.6, 20.2; Gaius Gracchus 3.3; Appian, Civil War 1.16; Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus 17.5; Velleius Paterculus 2.6; Dio 58.11.1ff.; Suetonius, Vitellius 17.1ff.

[10] One piece of evidence does not fit well with this larger historical pattern: The Satyricon by Petronius. This fictional satire, characterized by humor and exaggeration to the point of absurdity, includes a ribald tale that mentions a soldier and a grieving widow enjoying an entombed tryst next to the corpse of the widow’s husband, while corpses hung on crosses outside of the tomb. Whether there is any historical value concerning capital punishment in this comedic piece is doubtful (Satyricon 111-112).

[11] 11QT 64:7-13a = 4Q524 frag. 14, lines 2-4. Translation from Charlesworth: J. Zias & J.H. Charlesworth, “Crucifixion: Archaeology, Jesus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed., J.H. Charlesworth (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992), p. 278. While this text does not specifically use the common vocabulary for crucifixion, most scholars believe that this particular usage of the verb, tlh, “to hang,” refers in context to the specific hanging done on a cross.

[12] There is no probability that early Christians would have invented such an incidental reference. The legs of Yehohanan were also broken. The original forensic report suggested that these breaks were pre-mortem, though there has been controversy since then concerning whether those breaks might not have been post-mortem. See Haas, 1970, 58; J. Zias and E. Sekeles, “The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar – A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal, 35 (1), 1985, pp. 22-27 consider the evidence inconclusive.

[13] R. Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries (London: MacMillan, 1888); Plutarch Moralia 651B; J. Bodel, “Graveyards and Groves: A Study of the Lex Lucerina,” American Journal of Ancient History, 11, 1994, pp. 1-117.

[14] Digest 48.24.1

[15] Qumran: R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: British Academy, 1973), pp. 46-7; R. Freund, Digging Through the Bible (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), pp. 247-93; R. Freund, 2002 “New Insights on the Cemetery at Qumran,”, Originally presented at the International Brown University Qumran Conference, November, 19, 2002; J. Zangenberg, “Bones of Contention: ‘New’ Bones from Qumran Help Settle Old Questions (and Raise New Ones) – Remarks on Two Recent Conferences,” Qumran Chronicle, 9 (1), 2000, pp. 67-70; En Gedi: N. Avigad, “Expedition A – The Burial Caves in Nahal David,” Israel Exploration Journal, 12, 1962, pp. 181-2; Dura Europos: N.P. Toll, The Necropolis in the Excavation of Dura Europos, Ninth Season 1935-36 pt. III (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946), pp. 20, 99; Jericho: R. Hachili & A. Killebrew, “Jewish Funerary Customs during the Second Temple Period, in the Light of the Excavations at the Jericho Necropolis,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 115, 1983, pp. 109-139; ‘En el-Ghuweir and Hiam el-Sagha: H. Eshel & Z. Greenhut, “Hiam El-Sagha, A Cemetery of the Qumran Type, Judean Desert,” Revue Biblique, 100–102, 1992, pp. 252–259; Jerusalem: A. Kloner & B. Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), pp. 95-99; Bethsaida: Verbal Report by Rami Arav.

[16] J. Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?,” BAR, Jan/Feb 2006.

[17] Tacitus, History 5.9.

Comments (4)

Very interesting discussion, Prof. Smith. One question/comment: It is my understanding that under Roman Law, at least during much of the period you reference, crucifixion was reserved [almost] only for convicted criminals AND those accused of treason (as Jesus was), plotting against the Roman State. Being a slave was not THE critical factor. While slaves likely would be singled out for this form of death, the roman system didn't specifically mandate it. Have I got this right in your view?

#1 - Joel Butler MW - 03/22/2018 - 21:38


You are correct that slavery was not THE critical factor when Roman magistrates determined to crucify someone -- being a non-citizen was the primary factor (though there are a couple of exceptions even to this). Most of the data you need to analyze this issue are in note 8 above. In the republican period, the vast majority of crucifixions were of slaves; not so predominately in the imperial period. On the other hand, I have heard the same claims you have -- that crucifixion was primarily reserved for those deemed guilty of treason (maiestas). I'd be interested in any evidence you have to that effect. I know of no such cases. Maiestas is almost exclusively a charge levied against elite Roman citizens in Rome who pose clear and present threats to the emperor (think Sejanus who was brutally executed [by strangling, not crucifixion] for maiestas under Tiberius). As Roman citizens, such elites were virtually never subjected to crucifixion. For a detailed analysis of the evidence, you'll want to look at my larger study of the topic: "Capital Punishment and Burial in the Roman Empire" (see note 1 above for the full reference). For such reasons, I know of no evidence that the charge against Jesus was maiestas; rather, the primary charge was that he claimed to be "King of the Jews." While there is a superficial connection in the term "king", I do not think the two have much if anything to do with each other. Jesus may have been a perceived threat to the house of Annas, but he posed little danger to the prefect and none to the emperor in Rome. Injecting the concept of maiestas into this provincial trial would make little sense from a Roman legal perspective. For detailed analysis of the trial of Jesus (including the charges), see my book, The Final Days of Jesus, cited in note 1.

#2 - Mark D Smith - 03/26/2018 - 01:28

Great post! Can't wait to get your book. One thing that struck me is when Josephus went to Titus Ceaser (outranked Pilate) and asked for his friends to be brought down from crucifixion, and it worked. Apparently Jesus wasn't the only exception lol. Asking a Roman leader for a body off the cross worked in the two times in recorded history that we know of. I find it very ironic that Ehrman says Joseph of Aramithea is a myth when no manuscript evidence excludes him. That is the logic Bart debated Robert Price with when Bart said none of our earliest manuscripts exclude Galatians. I think Ehrman is arguing from convience here which he accuses evangelical scholars and apologists of doing. I understand it was a different situation when Josephus asked Titus Ceaser, but wouldn't that have to make Josephus a myth or that story a myth since the Romans didn't care about Jewish law or feelings? Ehrman also got on to apologists for saying everyone agrees with these facts, which is ironic considering he does the same thing in his books when he says the majority of scholars agree with him and the seminaries are teaching what he says (neither are true lol). I hope to see more works on this subject.

#3 - Andrew - 08/24/2018 - 11:34


> I find it very ironic that Ehrman says Joseph of Aramithea is a myth when no manuscript evidence excludes him. That is the logic Bart debated Robert Price with when Bart said none of our earliest manuscripts exclude Galatians.
Except that isn't what Ehrman argued. He was talking about Price's arguments for interpolations and pointed out that their was no manuscript evidence. That is, there's no evidence of instability in the manuscripts of Galatians.
IF I understand Price correctly, He argues that there was a letter of some kind that was later expanded by proto-catholic forgery.
So, Paul's first trip to Jerusalem (3 years later), was added later and Paul did not make that trip. Thus in Price's eyes, Paul, iirc, made only one trip, the second one. This would be plausible if there was manuscript evidence where the first trip either didn't exist or moved around in the text

#4 - spike - 09/11/2019 - 16:56

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