Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.01.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.01.19

John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 327.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2015.  Pp. xxiv, 522.  ISBN 9783161537646.  €69.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James H. Dee, Austin, TX (

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This massive study aims to fill a longstanding gap in an area where both Classics and New Testament Studies operate. Professor Cook was invited by the late Martin Hengel, author of a 1977 monograph on the subject, to revise it for him—but Cook soon concluded that he should write his own book, which far surpasses Hengel's 99-page work.

The seven-page Table of Contents gives ample evidence of the scope of the investigation: a 50-page Introduction on terminology; Chapter One has 100 pages on crucifixion in Latin texts, Chapter Two offers 50 more on the evidence for Roman practices; Chapter Three devotes another 100 pages to Greek texts; Chapter Four occupies nearly 50 on Hebrew and Aramaic texts; Chapter Five is a 40-page discussion on the legal aspect of crucifixion as punishment; finally, Chapter Six takes a mere 30 pages to deal with the most famous (and, for many, the most significant) of all crucifixions, that of Jesus of Nazareth—a brevity which seems almost anticlimactic, especially from an author whose training and career have been exclusively on the religious studies side of the field (Ph.D., Emory; faculty appointment at LaGrange University). That background might make classicists wary and raise concerns about what might be theologically-driven interpretations. If so, their concerns are unwarranted. The monograph finds its place in an esteemed New Testament Monograph Series. Acknowledgements indicate wide consultation with experts in the field, including Harvard’s Kathleen Coleman, who has herself promised a book on Roman public execution.1

After a concentrated three-page Conclusion, nineteen "images" occupy a dozen pages (454-465), the last three showing gruesome Japanese executions; since this will likely be the standard reference for some time, it would have been good to have more classical-period illustrations (for example, gems)—and a line drawing for the Palatine graffito (like that provided for the Puteoli graffito) would clarify the scratchy photograph. The work concludes with a three-part bibliography (ancient sources, electronic materials, modern scholarship), an eight-part listing of sources, and indexes for the images, ancient individuals, modern authors, and subjects (the latter a mere four pages).

The opening section on the vocabulary of crucifixion (1-50) is, like much of the text, almost overpowered by a mass of footnotes, but a central point emerges: Roman crucifixions involved a two-part cross—and thus Jesus (or Simon of Cyrene) would have carried only the patibulum, not, as in virtually all modern re-enactments, both parts. There is quite a bit of repetition here, making one wish there had been a more rigorous editing of the manuscript, which however does manage to bring a significant amount of textual evidence together in one place.

Chapter One gathers in chronological order the Latin texts that mention crucifixion, divided into three parts: Republic to Caesar's assassination (15 fontes), from that event to Constantine (27), and after Constantine (17); but, rather oddly, writers such as Horace, Propertius, Livy, and Seneca the Elder are assigned to the first group, apparently on the basis of birth-year instead of each writer's floruit (Ovid is the first name in the second group). Many of these texts have already been quoted in the Introduction, but readers interested in a particular author or period will find this arrangement helpful (rather than fighting through an index locorum); in particular, Cicero's many uses, literal and rhetorical, of crucifixion imagery receive sixteen pages of discussion, with an impressive amount of research into the historical and legal secondary literature. By contrast, Cook discusses only one passage from Catullus, Poem 99 to Iuventius, omitting altogether the texts with e.g. excrucior, most famously, sentio et excrucior (85.2); it may not be fully relevant to Cook's purpose, but there is something striking—and repellent—about Catullus' casual and callous application of crucifixion vocabulary to himself, when he surely thought it was something that could never be done to him. (The appropriate references do turn up, without further comment, at 128 n. 367.) After some colorful passages from the always entertaining Apuleius, the final section moves from the Second Century CE toward a somewhat tepid conclusion, since the (nominal) abolition of the punishment by Constantine and the decline in literary quality of the sources means a much thinner harvest of texts.

Chapter Two rearranges, reportedly for the first time, the testimonia for Roman historical crucifixions in chronological order; he notes that, out of perhaps 30,000 executions, no more than twenty personal names are attested. At p. 160 n. 8 Cook speculates that the actual total may be ten times that number, suggesting e.g. that all the 30,000 slaves Augustus returned to their owners for punishment [Mon. Ancyr. 25.1, ad supplicium sumendum] would have been crucified. One should not underestimate Roman brutality in such matters, but the logistics of paying—and finding—that many executioners all at once might have been daunting. This chapter seems more depressing than its predecessor, simply because the focus is on the act, not the vocabulary, and the repeated examples of utter indifference to human agony substantiate a memorable bon mot of Jasper Griffin, "The Romans were not a squeamish people" (NYRB, 5/12/1988).

The third chapter carries out a similarly lengthy review of crucifixions reported or inferred in Greek texts; this time, there are ten sections and a conclusion, of which the first two are period-based (Republic, Imperium) while the rest are categories (Romance Novels, Rhetors, Philosophers, Pagan Critics of the New Testament, Astrologers, Dream Interpreters, Physicians, and Later Traditions of Crucifixion and the furca, including eleven pages specifically on Byzantine and non-Byzantine uses of anaskolopizein). The chapter's contents are again depressing to modern sensibilities; we can see from their presence in novels, astrological interpretations, and dreams how deeply the terrorizing aspects of the practice had penetrated into the psyches of almost everyone in the Greco-Roman world. Cook's principal conclusion here is that executions described in Greek were overwhelmingly Roman in manner, i.e. crucifixion, not impalement, regardless of the particular words used.

The next chapter focuses on texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, preceded by a three-page discussion of impalement in Middle Eastern texts and followed by a single page on crucifixion in Muslim sources. As would be true for many classicists, the primary languages here are outside this reviewer's command. The bulk of the chapter concerns two verbs, transliterated as tlh and slb; the former, in Cook's analysis, does not refer to Roman-style crucifixion but to "suspension" in various forms, whereas the latter (treated under twenty-one headings, some related to Biblical texts and rabbinical commentaries, others thematic, e.g. bodies, blood, nails, brigands, last judgment) does appear to mean "crucifixion" and not impalement—always to be inferred when the victim can communicate after the punishment has been applied, when nails are mentioned or when there is "raising" of the body. Cook emphasizes how often the later commentators seem to have retrojected Roman practices into Biblical texts, as when Isaac is said to have carried wood "as a man who carries his cross [sc. patibulum]" (Pesiqta Rabbati 31).

The penultimate chapter explores more widely the gruesome and terrifying variety of tortures and execution methods used by the Romans from the Republic to the end of the Empire. Eight pages address differential punishments, starting from the citizen vs. non-citizen dichotomy and evolving into the familiar honestiores-humiliores distinction that emerged in the Empire—and noting that, although crucifixion of a Roman citizen was very rare, there was apparently no actual law against it. Seventeen more discuss in great detail the provisions of the Lex Puteolana (discovered in 1955-57), a remarkable source from perhaps as early as the Augustan Principate for the institutional structure of torture and killing; the subsection titles are somber reminders of how many different ways the Romans could inflict literally excruciating pain: ropes and scourging; pitch, wax, and candles; nails; the hook. The final twenty pages seek to document, using a wide variety of late antique texts (few of which will be familiar to those classicists who focus on the "central period" of Roman history) the end of crucifixion as an approved practice—although much of the evidence is inferred from silence. Here as elsewhere the quantity of references to the secondary literature is quite overwhelming (many pages are half footnotes) and should earn the gratitude of all who are serious about the subject.

Chapter Six, a comparatively modest thirty-two pages on "Roman Crucifixion and the New Testament," represents the telos of the study, the application of the collected data to the one instance that is of highest importance for Cook's main audience. Cook is concerned to correct the claim of Gunnar Samuelson (already mentioned on page 2 as "a muse for my own semantic research") that most modern descriptions of the procedure are essentially retellings of the gospel narratives and that there is insufficient independent evidence for constructing a sound generic account across space and time. Cook cites a statement from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that the strength of a fiber arises not from a single thread running through the whole, but from a multiplicity of overlapping fibers and a critique by Geza Vermes as a basis for drawing a different conclusion. Four pages of early Jewish and pagan attacks on Christian beliefs demonstrate that such a death was "miserable and shameful"; it was of course the second of those qualities that made Christianity a "hard sell," requiring some nimble sophistry to excuse a fact that normally placed the victim beyond the pale. Another seven pages reprise actual Roman practices, now seen as indicators that the "spare" Gospel accounts nonetheless can be treated as exhibiting historical properties.

The medical cause (or causes) of death by crucifixion occupies five pages, with reference to an article summarizing ten different proposed mechanisms; there are descriptions of Chinese, Japanese, and Nazi executions (all of limited relevance), but there is no attempt to offer a specific explanation for what led to Jesus' death. The final fourteen pages, "The Theology of the Cross in Mark,"use the historical evidence cited earlier in the book for theological reflection on contemporary Christian theology: he begins by contrasting Martin Luther's "theology of glory" and "theology of the cross," the former being false and evil, the latter true and good (a sudden intrusion of black-and-white thinking into an otherwise highly nuanced discussion), and proceeds in a separate section to treat methodological issues such as "narrative theology" and "narrative Christology." The last eleven pages focus on the Markan texts, particularly the acutely embarrassing "cry of abandonment," noting that Augustine's elaborate explanation in Epistle 140, which invokes Psalm 21 Vulg. as a prophecy fulfilled, does not "overcome the tone of dereliction" (443). Cook also criticizes Vernon Robbins' attempt to read the whole of the Psalm into the Markan passage, saying that it "fundamentally ignores the brutality of Roman crucifixion" (448).

The book's final sentence (452), saying that it "provides the reader with essential resources for understanding the scandal of the cross (Gal. 5:11)," reaffirms the author's religious orientation—but even for classicists with no interest in such matters, Cook's study is now the primary reference-point for exploring one of the most appalling of Roman institutions.


1.   I thank UT Professor L. Michael White for helpful advice in understanding Cook's approach.

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