Crucifixion was used from the 6th century BCE on, by Persians, Seleucids, Jews, Carthaginians and Romans as a punishment for pirates, slaves and political or religious dissenters. In 337 CE, Constantine I, the first Christian emperor, put an end to the practice of crucifixion within the Roman Empire, out of deference for Jesus Christ.
The crucifixion of Jesus took place the day before the Jewish Sabbath at the time of the Passover, at a place called Golgotha just outside Jerusalem. Jesus had refused to acquiesce to the demands of the High Priest, so was considered guilty of an offence punishable by death. Therefore He was delivered into the hands of the Roman authorities as a threat to the state. At the age of about 32 He was crucified by order of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
As recounted in the Gospels of the New Testament, the story of Christ’s crucifixion is as follows: first He was scourged, stripped by Roman soldiers and given a scarlet robe to wear. Then a crown of thorns was placed on His head and He was mocked as the King of the Jews. As He was led away to be crucified, a man called Simon from Cyrene was compelled to help Jesus carry His under whose weight He was about to collapse. He was stripped of His robe and given back His own garments, and, at the third hour, He was nailed to the cross by His hands and feet. Above His head was the inscription, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. The soldiers at the foot of the cross divided His clothes among them and again derided Him saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save yourself”. There were two thieves on either side of Jesus, also being crucified. One of them addressed Jesus saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Christ answered, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. At the ninth hour, Jesus gave up the ghost. A centurion who stood watching said, “Truly, this man is the Son of God”. When one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, blood and water poured out from the wound. When Jesus was taken down from the cross His body was given to Joseph of Arimathea who buried it in a tomb recently hewn from the rock and a great stone was rolled across the entrance.
Christians believe that Christ’s is a reconciling or atoning death that it is a means of atonement, or “at-onement” with God. The early Christians did not depict the crucifixion realistically until the 5th century, but usually described the event using symbols. The picture of a lamb and a cross adorned with precious stones were the symbols of the crucifixion. The first paintings showed the crucified Christ alive, open-eyed, and triumphant over death, His face showing no sign of suffering. In the 9th century, Byzantine art for the first time depicts Christ dead, with eyes closed.
Two symbolic details systematically mentioned in the Bible are featured in the early illustrations of the crucifixion. One is Adam’s skull at the foot of the cross, the other the wound in Christ’s side, from which blood and water flow. These two items are, iconographically, the pictorial representations of Man’s Original Sin, and Christ’s sacrifice which paid its ransom. By sacrificing His life to atone for the sin of Adam, (Adam’s skull) Jesus becomes the new Adam. The crucifixion of Christ represents the founding of the new Church, the blood and water are used symbolically in the sacraments of Communion and Baptism. In the illustrations produced for the early Church, the two thieves and the two Roman soldiers represent the Church and the Synagogue. According to the teaching of the Christian Church at this time, the repentant thief and the centurion who recognised Christ’s divinity symbolise the Church, while the thief who denied Christ and the soldier who rejected His divinity symbolise the Synagogue. After the 13th century, figures, such as the Virgin Mary (the new Eve) featured on the right hand side of Jesus are identified as the new, while those on His left are the old.
Christianity is revealed in Jesus Christ. There is no agreement as to the exact date of Jesus’ birth. Roman Catholics place it on the night of the 24th of December; the Greek Orthodox Church believes the date was the 6th of January, and the Armenians place it on the 18th of January. Neither the year nor the date is in fact clear though it is now thought to be between 06 BCE – 30 CE. In the sixth century the year zero is regarded as the start of the Christian era.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod the Great of Judea, to the Virgin Mary, wife of Joseph, a carpenter. After Herod’s death in 04 BC, the family came to Nazareth, and at the age of 30 Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, after which He began His ministry of preaching, miracles and healing. He was crucified in Jerusalem on a false charge. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, found no fault in Jesus and wished to release Him. King Herod, present at the trial, also found Him innocent, but the chief priests, the Sanhedrin and the multitude all called for His death. In the end, Pilate gave in and consented to His death by crucifixion.
In the Bible angels carry messages between heaven and earth and are thought to have been present at Christ’s birth. The annunciation to Mary that she was to bear a son, conceived through the Holy Ghost, was made by Archangel Gabriel. It is believed that Mary was a virgin when Christ was born and became the mother of the Saviour, and this ties up with the account in the Jewish Bible that the Messiah born of a virgin. Jesus was born that salvation be granted to all, regardless of race. While Judaism is the religion of the tribes of Israel, Christianity will be a universal religion.
The cornerstone of Christian belief is that God came down to earth as Man and His unchanging nature was incorporated in Christ’s humanity, but did not overwhelm it. Jesus Christ was both truly human and truly divine. It was God His father, whose powers enabled Him to perform miracles, heal the sick and forgive sins. The revelation through Jesus of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost makes up the Trinity. According to Christian belief, God made Himself known as
Father and King in Creation, as His Son, Jesus, in saving those who are in need, and as the Holy Spirit, in divine inspiration, who is God within us. The nature of the divinity and humanity of Jesus was first debated in the 5th century. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the twin nature of Jesus was formally accepted, one part divine, the other human, unconflicting, unchanging and inseparable. However, Monophysites held that Christ had only one nature, principally divine, but with human form and human attributes. Today, those classed as Monophysites are acknowledged as acceptable to traditional Christian doctrine. A slight difference occurs between the Western concept of the Trinity, which stresses the supremacy of the unity of God, and the Eastern Church, which holds God to be three persons in the Blessed Trinity. Islamic sources quote Jesus as the “Word of God” or a “Spirit from God”, and maintain that Jesus is sustained by the Holy Ghost, and confirms Mary’s virginity, Jesus’ miracles and the fact that He will return to earth before the Day of Judgment. However, the Koran rejects the idea of Jesus as the Son of God, rather accepting Him as a prophet and servant of God.
Jesus is usually called Jesus Christ. The name Messiah in Hebrew means ‘one anointed with holy oil and dedicated to God’, in Greek Hristos and in Latin Christus, who descended from King David’s line, and derives from the identification of Jews as a Saviour King who is expected to establish God’s authority on earth. Christian sources indicate that Bethlehem is also King David’s city, and attempts to identify it with the Messiah.