A Few Ways to Die in Ancient Palestine
There are a lot of ways to get yourself killed these days. Not much has changed in that regard as compared with ancient times. I’ve put together five methods that were used in ancient Palestine to maintain public order. Around 2,000 years ago these trusty little methods left little room for doubt; when they were used one could have the assurance the victim was dead with a capital D.
This was probably the most common form of capital punishment in Palestine during Jesus’ time. The Jewish people at least back to the time of the Mosaic Law practiced it. With this type of punishment, there had to be at least two witnesses who threw the first stones followed by the spectators if necessary—ouch. Stoning usually took place outside the city walls; nobody wants to clean up a mess.
Though there was legal precedent in place for execution via stoning, this wasn’t always practiced. In the case of Stephen, the text seems to lend credence that it may have been a mob lynching rather than a formal sentencing to death as it’s different than the description of legal stoning covered in the Mishnah. For instance, in Luke’s account, Stephen is not stripped of his clothes as the Mishnah prescribes. Additionally, it isn’t recorded that Stephen was pushed off of a precious twice his height by the first witness. The text appears to be at a minimum, a deviation of punishment and quite possibly an impassioned crowd throbbing to kill an innocent man. Even if the sentencing merely appears different than prescribed due to Luke not mentioning the details, the trial itself was still a sham because there were false witnesses.
Beheading wasn’t a common form of capital punishment in Palestine, even though there were instances of it throughout Israel’s history. In the New Testament John the Baptist was beheaded for saying King Herod’s wife wasn’t lawfully his, for the reason that she was a previous wife of his brother Philip. Herod likely took John’s message of moral purity as a political slight and it was for that reason John was imprisoned. Jewish law required that a trial would be held before an execution but John’s fate was sealed by the will of Herod’s “wife” Herodias. King Herod feared two things: (1) a possible uprising for killing John (a perceived prophet) and (2) the perception Herod’s guests had of him. If Herod didn’t have dinner guests, it’s possible he might have dismissed the promise, but it’s uncertain. Either way, Herod worried about what kind of leader others perceived he was and at least partly for that reason John lost his life. John the Baptist was executed without the decency of a trial for speaking the truth about the immoral activity of a puppet “king” that was being manipulated by his wife.
The authorities of Palestine used two methods that implemented usage of a sword for executions, in the Jewish method, the sword is swung through the body of a victim edgewise whereas the typical Roman method was beheading as mentioned above. As it turns out the Jewish method was crueler than its Roman counterpart; beheading was a quick death but having a sword ran through the midsection wasn’t as efficient and the victim suffered much before finally passing. The Jewish people considered beheading a desecration of the body and under normal circumstances wouldn’t participate in such an act. To be sure, nothing in the text elaborates on which method was used to kill James. The author wasn’t interested in the details; what was important to the author was that James was a servant of God and was targeted for that reason. Agrippa piously sought the approval of the Jewish people and was more than willing to kill for it.
Of all the methods of execution used in the ancient world, the crucifixion was the most savage of them all. According to Martin Hengel, it was so awful that it was considered by ancient cultures to be a method employed by barbaric peoples. The Jews themselves thought this particular Roman method was taboo.
Crucifixion varied widely in its usage and it was difficult to distinguish between the crucifixion of a living victim and the later display of a corpse. The most detailed accounts we have of crucifixion are actually found within the pages of the gospels. The Roman method was one “in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein.”
Josephus records the cruelty of Roman soldiers while crucifying their Jewish victims:
“. . . after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city.”
The executioners determined the extent of the torture and its doubtful many of them felt any sense of compassion for their victims. As evidenced above, Roman soldiers enjoyed mocking and tormenting their victims; it was a game to them. This sadistic imagery also accompanied the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. He was stripped and had a scarlet robe and crown of thorns placed on him, the soldiers were mocking his claim to be king. They wanted his torture to be psychological as well as physical.
During his time on the cross the Chief Priests mock him:
He saved others; he cannot save himself. he is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God rescue him now, if he delights in him; for he said, ‘I am the son of God.’
At some point, the criminals being crucified nearby mock Christ as well. They along with the Roman executioners, Sanhedrin, Chief priests, Pontus Pilate, and others rejected truth, though it had stared them right in the face. This man—Jesus—knew the truth and was willing to die for it. This fact is independently attested to in a variety of sources.
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus. . .
Augustine preserved an oracle of Apollo which was recorded by Porphyry and discusses what to tell a man so that he may persuade his wife to abandon Christianity:
Let her continue as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by judges whose verdict was just, and executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron.
Writing to his son, Mara Bar-Serapion alludes to the fate of Jesus:
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samon gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.
It is interesting Tacitus, Porphyry, and Mara Bar-Serapion are some of the earliest outside sources of the gospels regarding the fate of Jesus. These men weren’t Christians; in fact, Tacitus and Porphyry were some of its harshest critics, yet they admitted to the central fact that Christ was executed.
This death, unlike the aforementioned ones, was self-inflicted. Judas followed the itinerant rabbi Jesus through much of his ministry and witnessed miracles of all sorts. Though Judas had seen all of this he was still willing to sell out his heavenly reward for a block of real estate. He betrayed Christ and the benefit of such an endeavor was very short lived. Judas felt so much remorse that he even attempted to reverse the damage done by returning the money given to him by the chief priests and elders but they wouldn’t hear his case. Soon after, Judas went to the field and hung himself on a tree; his intestines gushed out of his body; it was a very a gory scene. Judas, unlike the above victims, was guilty and he knew it. Just as the priests and elders were unwilling to reverse his betrayal to Jesus, Judas couldn’t manage to reverse his own feeling of guilt and found the solution himself; his relief from the feeling of guilt came when he committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree. He knew the truth, betrayed it, and couldn’t go on living, knowing he had turned his back on it.
So there we have it. Two paths before us; on the one side we can reject truth outright. The other path is more difficult; we can seek out the truth, find what corresponds with reality, and courageously embrace it. Judas was a person that turned his back on the truth—even though he knew it—and committed suicide; I think anyone that uncovers the truth and rejects it is similar to Judas, they aren’t going as far as committing physical suicide, but they are committing intellectual suicide. I think we should be like Jesus and his followers; we should be ready to live intellectually honest lives and be prepared to die physically for defending the truth. This entails embracing Christianity and defending it with honesty to our last breath.