Cross, crucifixion

The cross

The cross is a central symbol for a Christian today, but it was originally a particularly brutal means of execution frequently used by the ancient Romans, the equivalent of the gallows, guillotine or electric chair in later times. The word crucifixion comes from two Latin words: crux (a cross) and figere (to fix).

The cross used as a means of execution is so called because of the method of its construction: a tall upright post with a shorter cross-bar near the top. Those about to be crucified were often made to carry the cross, or at least the cross-bar, on the way to their own execution. They were then fixed to the cross bar, usually by having nails hammered through the hands or wrists, and their feet were nailed to the upright post. The term 'excruciating' derived from the position of victims which prevented them from breathing properly, so that they would eventually suffocate.

The crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus on the crossIt is recorded in the Bible that Jesus was led out of the city of Jerusalem to a place called Calvary, or Golgotha, traditionally a hill, where he was crucified between two thieves. Jesus is portrayed as a willing sacrifice, sinless yet prepared to bear the guilt of the sin of humankind and even praying for forgiveness for those who nailed him to the cross.

The Gospels recount that three days after his death on the cross Jesus came back to life again, or rose from the dead, giving the promise of resurrection to his followers. Christians celebrate this event on Easter Sunday. Many Christians believe that Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice. God's judgement meant that sin should be punished by death. When Jesus died, he took upon himself the sins of the world and his death paid the penalty for all that sin. By dying in this way, some Christians believe that Jesus ‘saved' people from punishment for their sin, by dying in their place. Thus, Jesus, the Son of God, restored the relationship between people and God, making salvation possible for all humankind. For this reason, the day of his death is regarded as a sad but good occasion and is celebrated as Good Friday. The cross, a symbol of shame in the ancient Roman Empire, is viewed by Christians as a symbol of hope. In a Christian church, it is usual to see at least one cross, or a crucifix, that is, a cross bearing the figure of Christ nailed to it. Many Christians wear a small cross or crucifix to indicate their faith. (See Big ideas: Death and resurrection; Redemption, salvation)

Take up your cross

Knowing that he had to die to save humankind, Christ foresaw his death on the cross, and told his followers that they might experience the same death, or must at least be prepared to suffer for their faith. Jesus told his followers, that to be a disciple, they must be prepared to suffer. ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.' (Matthew 16:24). Traditionally, at least two of Christ's disciples were also crucified: Andrew is believed to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross, and Peter on an upside-down cross, since he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ.

Old Testament parallels

Moses and the serpent on a poleNew Testament writers and later Christian commentators drew a number of parallels between the death of Jesus on the Cross and events in the Old Testament. The Gospel of John (John 3:14) shows Jesus foretelling his death on the Cross by referring to the event when the Israelites were saved from dying because of their wrong doing, by looking at the serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9). So Jesus must also be lifted up (on a cross) to save people from their sin. Other events which were seen to foreshadow the sacrificial death of God's Son on the Cross included the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his own much-loved son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) and the Passover, when the blood of sacrificed lambs protected the Israelites from God's judgement (Exodus 12:21-23). (See Big ideas: Moses; Patriarchs; Passover; Atonement and sacrifice)

The crucifixion of Jesus in literature and art

Along with the Nativity, the Crucifixion is one of the most frequently depicted Christian scenes in art. It is also referred to in much literature – for example, in T.S. Eliot's poem The Journey of the Magi, where the scholars travelling to find the Christ-Child see a foreshadowing of his death in the form of ‘three trees on the low sky'. In Golding's Lord of the Flies, Simon runs to tell the boys about ‘a dead man on a hill'.

Related topics

Big ideas: Redemption, salvation; Death and resurrection; Moses; Patriarchs; Passover; Atonement and sacrifice

Other cultural references

Eliot's The Journey of the Magi

Golding's Lord of the Flies

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