Why we cling to the Cross

What would have happened to Christian symbolism if Jesus had been beheaded, asks Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
AS SO often it was the non-church goers who kicked up the biggest fuss when the Church of England's admen decided to drop the Cross from the poster campaign to advertise Easter. Easter is about resurrection, the advertisers argued. The furore that ensued revealed how deep-rooted the Cross still is in the Western secular psyche.

Yet crucifixion is a topic on which historical detail is scanty. The principle is clear enough: the offender was fastened by nails or ropes by the wrists and feet to a wooden cross and left to die from previously inflicted wounds (victims were usually scourged first) or exhaustion. But crucifixion was at the bottom of the Roman pecking order of capital punishments. Top people were beheaded by axe; then, in descending order, came death by sword, by fire and by wild beasts.

Crucifixion was a deliberately barbarous death, reserved for the lowest classes, especially slaves and political agitators. It was not, therefore, something to talk about in polite society. "The very word `cross' should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thought, his eyes and his ears," said Cicero, fastidiously.

"It's remarkable how rarely actual crucifixions are described in ancient literature," says Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies at the University of St Andrews. "The fullest and longest accounts we have of a crucifixion in the ancient world are those in the gospels."

The punishment was unpleasant, but the origins even more so. "The Greek word for cross is stauros. It was originally a pointed stake, for fortification, on which people were impaled," explains Peter Jones, a lecturer in classics at Newcastle University. In Livy those impaled are already dead. By Seneca the stakes were being driven through the chests of the living and then, as the art became more gruesomely refined, through the fundament and out through the mouth.

CRUCIFIXION seems to have originated in Persia in the 6th century BC. It was used in Egypt during the 5th century BC and in Carthage during the Punic Wars. It seems to have been the Etruscan King Tarquin the Proud who introduced the idea to the Roman world but it was left to a succession of Romans proper to bring it to its greatest excess: Quintilius Varus, legate of Syria, crucified 2,000 in one go and, during the first Jewish war, according to the historian Josephus, a character called Titus (who at his death was, without apparent irony, called "the darling of the human race") crucified so many on one occasion that they ran out of wood.

It is only 25 years ago that the first bones were discovered of a crucifixion victim, in Israel. They indicated a death position quite unlike that taken for granted by artists and historians: the victim's feet were twisted parallel to the cross and transfixed by a single iron spike through the heels, with his knees doubled up and his legs swung out to the side. According to Philip Davies, professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, "we now know that the nails did not go through the hands but through the wrists between the two bones of the forearm" - proof, if it were needed, that those who claim stigmata are more likely the victims of psychosomatic inducement than divine selection.

Victims could take as long as five days to die and were left hanging, usually by city gates or on main roads, exposed to sun, insects and birds of prey. But there is still no consensus about what they eventually died from. "The best medical opinion is that they would normally die when their legs gave way," says Rev Stuart Hall, emeritus professor of ecclesiastical history at King's College, London. This meant that the lungs were stretched in such a way they could not expand and contract, causing death by suffocation. It generally took about two days.

Given all that, there are a couple of puzzles about the Passion of Christ. "Why was the Crucifixion carried out so very hurriedly with the bodies quickly taken down before the Passover feast when the whole point about crucifixion was that it was supposed to be a long drawn-out spectacle?" asks Professor Davies. "And why did Jesus die so rapidly - in just six hours, according to the Gospel accounts? There are several such elements in the story - like the piercing of Christ's side, and blood and water coming out - which make you wonder how much is theological symbolism rather than historical fact."

There are always those ready with answers. Two Italian doctors have suggested that Jesus died of a slow heart attack, brought on by the shock of betrayal in Gethsemane. There have been wilder notions: Enoch Powell last year surmised that Jesus had been stoned to death by the Jews and the gospels written to disguise the fact.

The real difficulty for the secular modern mind is the resurrection. (Professor Davies teases his students by saying that statistically more people have claimed to have seen Elvis Presley alive than Jesus: "You've got to be careful about how you evaluate evidence," he tells them.) This was not so for the ancient world. The god who died and rose again was a common feature in many religions to celebrate fertility or the cycle of the seasons.

Where Christianity broke with normal conventions was in the idea that a god could die the most ignominious of deaths. This was a shocking idea - and still is in many cultures. In first century Palestine the Jews were convinced that the law of Moses implied that crucifixion was a death for those cursed by God; anyone who was crucified, therefore, could not possibly be the Messiah. A religion that had as its central event the suffering and degradation of its god "would be utterly scandalous to the Jews and utterly mystifying to the rest of the ancient world," says Professor Hall. You could hardly build a bigger credibility problem into a new religion if you tried.

The genius of St Paul was that he developed a theology which inverted all this, turning the Cross into a symbol of victory, redemption and salvation. The suffering was important because it shows that God suffers with us. The more awful the humiliation, he argued, the more radical a challenge to contemporary values it constituted.

Yet for more than 300 years Christians avoided using the Cross as a symbol. Instead they used a fish, a goat or an anchor and where, later, they did use the Cross it was disguised as a more ancient symbol such as an ankh, a cross with a loop on top which is the Egyptian hieroglyph for "life". Indeed the Cross was for many years a symbol of mockery. Its first recorded use in a Christian context is a satirical graffito cut into the plaster of a cell beneath the palace of the Caesars in Rome: the figure on the cross has an ass's head yet is being venerated by a man; it bears the legend "Alexamenos worships his god".

IT WAS only in the 4th century, some time after the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, abolished crucifixion and it ceased to be a daily reality, that the cross became a religious symbol. "Until then it would have been like venerating the electric chair," says Dr Mary Charles Murray, a patristic iconography expert from Nottingham University. The changes it underwent as an icon reflect the shifting religious consciousness of the times. In the 4th century it was depicted as a cross of flowers, then of gems. Only in the 6th century did the first crucifix - a cross with a figure on it - appear. The earliest crucifixes showed Christ on the Cross, alive and not suffering, eyes open and arms extended to encompass the world, victorious over death. The emphasis on suffering came later. Now, the vogue idea is of Christ reigning in triumph from the Cross, crowned and vested as a king and priest. Such is the view that the Cross- less poster campaign represents.

So what would it have done to 2,000 years of Christian symbolism if the Romans had employed some other means of capital despatch? Dr David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham, thinks very little. "Whatever the iconography it would have had the same effect: the main point is not that it was crucifixion but that it was Jesus who was crucified," he insists. "But you must be very careful not to `divinise' Good Friday as if it's just going through the motions of dying - because everybody knows he's God, and he knows he's God, it'll all come right in the end - whereas actually the stories are all about somebody dying in doubt and despair. I'm of the view that the Resurrection was a surprise, as you might put it."

Either way what is clear is that theologically, without the Resurrection, Christianity offers nothing: if Christ be not risen then all our faith is in vain, as St Paul had it. Yet anthropologically, it appears, the Cross gives the Resurrection its meaning. Such is the nature of the Easter paradox. No wonder it is not amenable to the distillations of the advertising industry.