How high was Jesus off the ground? A look at Roman Crucifixion from Ancient Artifacts

The death of Christ involved him being offered a drink. The KJV translation implies that the drink was put upon hyssop; but that is just one possible interpretation, for which the KJV translators added a few words (which may rightly render the Greek), which I put in brackets:

John 19:29 Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar [and] put [it upon] hyssop, and put it to his mouth.

Hyssop (as a modern word) is a short bush, and not a very rigid object for holding a sponge full of liquid (though it can have woody stems). What John meant by hyssop may be a kind of a reed, or it may refer to mixing parts of the hyssop bush into the sour wine.

hyssop

In Mark, a different word than hyssop is used. Mark uses a word that is sometimes translated as “reed”, which implies the sense of rigid (though see Matt 11:7), from which the translators then say that the sponge was put on it. But, again, the translators made some choices in translating; I put square brackets around the words they added:

Mark 15:36 And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put [it on a] reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down.

In Matthew, the same choices were made for the translation:

Matthew 27:48 And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put [it on a] reed, and gave him to drink. (see Psalm 69:21 — the gesture here is not one of helping, but of mocking, cmp. Luke 23:36)

The translators could have made different choices. If the description in John gives more details, then it may explain Matthew and Mark. That is, based on John, maybe “hyssop” clarifies the plant that was used. John’s use of “hyssop” may indicate that an herbal plant (one that is not primarily rigid) was added to the drink. If so, this is a good case where scripture interprets scripture.

There is a common notion of Jesus being so high up that his face was too far away to reach without a rigid plant. And that may be. But I am suggesting that it may be that the plant was not used as a pole, but was added to the drink. If this is the case, then the point is not the physical height of the cross, which then, over the history of the church, became iconic (with a very tall cross in the middle, and two shorter ones on either side).

By saying all of this, I am not trying to make some earth-shattering observation; I’m making a passing observation of a possibility. Maybe the head of Jesus was not out of reach? Maybe he was lifted high not because the cross was really tall, but because he was magnified in lowly obscurity in his love of the Father.

Archaeological Artifacts
When the passersby were near Christ as he was dying, how near could they get to his face? When they looked upon him, how high up was he? The following bits of archaeological evidence may be the earliest data, and together they help to paint a picture of how high up Jesus was (click on any of the images to be taken to lengthier articles):

2nd century graffito of a Roman crucifixion from Puteoli, Italy,

2nd century graffito of a Roman crucifixion from Puteoli, Italy,

The Alexamenos graffito. An inscription carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum.

The Alexamenos graffito. An inscription carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum.

For more details on this inscription, see this research from Dr. Ron Huggins.

May be from late 1st to late 3rd century.

The way this picture is copied from the original offers something of a challenge to my suggestion that Jesus was low to the ground. But crucifixions may also have varied as to their nature, or this may be a badly executed carving, or this may show the already developing idea that Jesus was up very high off the ground. Either way, the date of the original wall carving is unknown, but it may date anywhere from late 1st to late 3rd century.

The heel bone with peg still attached of the crucified man, Yehohanan ben Hagkol, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem. Found in an ancient  bone box dated to 27 AD.

The heel bone of Yehohanan ben Hagkol with a still attached crucifixion nail. This man was a Jewish resident of Jerusalem. The bone and nail are fused together, and were found in an ancient bone box dated to 27 AD (on display in Jerusalem).

This seal in the British Museum (inv MME 1986.05-01.1) and was found in Gaza, and possibly dates from the second or third century

This seal is in the British Museum and was found in Gaza (dates from the second or third century)

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Ancient Texts
In addition to the above early drawings (which, admittedly, we have few) there is textual evidence. I will not summarize the relevant data from all the textual sources. Rather, I merely direct you to three of them.

Two of the best written sources from the 1st century that explain the nature of how Rome did crucifixion are the New Testament and the works of Josephus. For more on the particulars of what Josephus wrote, see Dr. Tabor’s collection of quotes here.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the best known crucifixion in history. Perhaps second to it is the crucifixion of the gladiators who rose up to form an army. In his book, The Civil Wars, Book 1, Appian speaks of the demise of 6000 men in the first century BC:

On account of this vote Crassus tried in every way to come to an engagement with Spartacus so that Pompey might not reap the glory of the war. Spartacus himself, thinking to anticipate Pompey, invited Crassus to come to terms with him. When his proposals were rejected with scorn he resolved to risk a battle, and as his cavalry had arrived he made a dash with his whole army through the lines of the besieging force and pushed on to Brundusium with Crassus in pursuit. When Spartacus learned that Lucullus had just arrived in Brundusium from his victory over Mithridates he despaired of everything and brought his forces, which were even then very numerous, to close quarters with Crassus. The battle was long and bloody, as might have been expected with so many thousands of desperate men. Spartacus was wounded in the thigh with a spear and sank upon his knee, holding his shield in front of him and contending in this way against his assailants until he and the great mass of those with him were surrounded and slain. The Roman loss was about 1000. The body of Spartacus was not found. A large number of his men fled from the battle-field to the mountains and Crassus followed them thither. They divided themselves in four parts, and continued to fight until they all perished except 6000, who were captured and crucified along the whole road from Capua to Rome.

These gladiators were part of the Gladiator Revolt led by Spartacus.

Summary
The crucifixion of Jesus happened within a historical context that has plenty of archaeological and textual evidence for us to ponder afresh the traditional iconic versions that have been popularized by books and television shows. There is real history that sheds light on the details of crucifixion, and so Scripture interprets Scripture, and history itself is the handmaid to interpretation. Even within the text of scripture itself, there is yet more to be discovered. Prior translations and traditions are not definitive, but we can go to the Greek and the Hebrew, and check the traditions and the translations.

This article was published under Archaeology, Death, Suffering.

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