A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.
If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.
The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?
And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.
Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.
“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”
Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?
But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.
He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.
There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.
Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.
Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.
Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.
He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…
Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.
He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.