The Wood of the Cross

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God. (Dt 21:22-23)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" (Gal 3:13)

All Christians venerate the cross on which our Savior was crucified. We have an image of what it must have looked like when Jesus was crucified: The huge "t" shaped cross of wood which Jesus carried from the Praetorium to Golgotha, Jesus fixed to it by three nails - one in each hand and one through both feet together. Yet there were more than one method of Roman crucifixion. Let's consider them.

First, the Romans used three kinds of crosses, all made of wood. The first type, called an immissa or capitata, was shaped like a lower case “t,” composed of a vertical beam and a horizontal beam intersectionally crossed near the upper end of the vertical; this is the traditional cross we see in artistic depictions of the crucifixion. The second type, called a commissa, was shaped like an upper case “T,” the horizontal beam fixed to the top of the vertical. The third, called a decussata, was shaped like the letter “X” and we moderns call this a St. Andrew’s cross, as the Apostle was crucified on such a type. As the immissa was the more common type, we believe Jesus was crucified on such a cross. Of theological interest is that a cross is a cross between a vertical beam and a horizontal beam. Consider that a vertical shape “points” to heaven and so represents heaven, while horizontal shapes “point” across the earth and so represent humanity; a cross represents a cross between God and man: Jesus.

Second, let’s consider the Way of the Cross: Did Jesus carry His entire immissa type cross from the Praetorium to Golgotha, as traditionally represented? Or did He only carry the horizontal beam, as some modern historians propose? Based on the archeological evidence, prisoners normally carried only the horizontal beam, sometimes held fast to their arms by rope. We might assume such was true of Christ. A Roman centurion accompanied by four soldiers would have accompanied Him. The evidence suggests the vertical beams were normally a permanent fixture at the place of execution; the prisoner’s hands would be nailed to the horizontal beam and both would be lifted by ropes by a soldier so that the beam could be fixed to the permanent vertical post.

Next we look at a controverted point: How, exactly, did the victim die? There are two theories. The first is the more popular and is the traditional representation in art: A block of wood, called a sedile was fixed to the vertical beam; the victim’s feet were fixed to this block by driving a single nail through both of them into the block. The victim, then, hung from the cross, fixed by three nails – one in each hand and one through the feet. As the palm of the hand could not support the body by a nail, but would tear the flesh, it is believed the Romans pounded the nails through the bony wrists. The victim could not breathe while hanging by his hands; he needed to pull himself up for each breath. Already weakened by prior tortures, he eventually succumbed to his weakness and stopped pulling himself up: he could no longer breathe. Death was by asphyxiation. This method explains why the legs were broken, according to St. John’s Gospel; this took away any support from the legs during this cycle of lifting the body and the victim died more quickly.

Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. (Jn 19:31-33)

Considering that Jesus would have died by asphyxiation, we note a key verse regarding Jesus’ death, as related to His breath:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. (Lk 23:46)

The breath of God is quite meaningful; in Genesis 2, God breathed into the dirt He formed and it became a living man – a new creation. Here on the cross, Jesus again breathes and another new creation occurs: the age of Redemption.

A second theory notes, however, that the sedile was not for the feet, but was a kind of seat; the victim straddled it like a modern bicycle. The feet were nailed each separately to the vertical beam. As such, the victim was not hanging, but was seated; breathing was not the real problem. Death was by blood loss through the nail wounds, plus wounds caused by prior tortures. A Roman historian of the first century referred to crucifixions as blood baths. If this were the method by which Jesus died, it would be theologically satisfying. The memorial of His death is the Eucharist, where the separate consecration of the Body and the Blood signifies the separation of those two elements – representing death. (Separate the blood from the body and a thing certainly dies.) Additionally, the Bible makes clear an ancient idea that the life of a thing is in its blood.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life. (Lv 17:11)

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Heb 13:11-12)

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20)

Scripture speaks frequently of the Blood of Christ and its salvific power. That Jesus died by a “separation” of His blood from His body is theologically satisfying and lends well to our Eucharistic beliefs.

So, which method was historically correct? We don’t know; choose your favorite.

Two more comments on the cross made of wood: First, as the cross was used as a means of salvation, we can compare it with that famous OT means of salvation: the ark which saved Noah and his family. That both were made of wood was noticed by the Church Fathers.

Second, recall the first Passover and its requirement to paint the lamb’s blood on the door posts with a hyssop branch.

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel, and said to them, "Select lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the LORD will pass through to slay the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you. (Ex 12:21-23)

We note the lamb’s blood was put on the lintel and the two doorposts – these were typically wooden beams, vertical and horizontal, and so a type of the cross. The blood was to be applied by a bunch of hyssop, which are the branches of type of bush common to that region of the world. As noted in another post, the Last Supper was a celebration of the Passover and followed a familiar Seder meal format, with four cups of wine drunk, the last of which was called The Cup of Consummation. The Gospel accounts imply this last cup was skipped in the meal. St. John, however, notes that Jesus drank from this cup on the cross immediately before He died.

After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), "I thirst." A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished"; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Jn 19:28-30)

The vinegar here is sour wine; the Cup of Consummation. His final words, “It is finished” then refers to the end of the cosmic Passover begun at the Last Supper. St. John notes that this final cup of wine from the Passover meal – which Jesus referred to as His own blood, the blood of the cosmic Lamb – is here lifted to Jesus on the cross using a hyssop branch, exactly as Moses instructed the Israelites to do.