Reading the crucifixion as a scene of public shaming

“Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith … endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb 12:2).

As we draw near to the annual recollection of the death of Jesus on the cross, in our worship on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, and in our devotional attention to that story at this time, we would do well to pay attention to what the anonymous author of this lengthy “word of exhortation” says, about the cross. It was a moment of shame.

The notion of shame is integral to the honour–shame culture which runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15).

Just as God can honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19), so, conversely, God can shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth, writing that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27).

However, honour was spread across other cultures. It was praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3). Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264).

Honour was acquired and increased through the public actions undertaken in interactions between two parties—two male individuals, or two all-male groups. Actions that occurred would signal that honour was upheld by one party; the other party lost honour, and was thus shamed. Words especially were the mechanism by which honour was redistributed. The victor in a verbal interchange had his honour restored, or increased. The loser experienced public shaming.

The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. We see many of these elements reflected in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus in the four canonical Gospels.

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First of all, we should note that in the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, Jewish War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, Jewish War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.295). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.

In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).

A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).

In their Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe the passion narratives as reporting a “status degradation ritual”. By the sequence of events that are reported, “Jesus’ lofty status in the eyes of the people begins to crumble … these events [are] a public ritual of humiliation aimed at destroying the status that until now had given Jesus credibility in the eyes of the public” (p.160).

Christi crucificado (Diego Velazquez, 1632)

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As well as the actual crucifixion itself, many of the key practices typically involved in crucifixions inflicted shame on the criminals: flogging, torture, the blinding of eyes, the scourging of the body, and the shedding of blood. We can find these practices reported by numerous writers, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, the politician and philosopher Seneca, the Roman historian Livy, the Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, and even the venerable Greek philosopher Plato.

(These references, and many of the other references to ancient authors below, have been drawn from the detailed work of Jeyrome Neyrey, in “‘Despising the Shame of the Cross’: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative”, https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html, accessed on 15 March 2021.)

One section of the Jewish writings, the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12) reports how a public scourging should take place: “How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them.”

The Mishnah continues, “The attendant of the congregation stands on it [a raised stone] with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.” There is further discussion of the dimensions of the instrument used in this scourging and the scripture verses to be recited as the scourging takes place.

One rabbi explicitly relates this activity to the honour-shame code: “If the one being flogged involuntarily sullies himself, due to fear or pain, whether with excrement or with urine, he is exempt from further lashes. Rabbi Yehuda says that the threshold of shame for men and women is different: The man is exempted if he sullies himself with excrement, and the woman is exempted even with urine.”

The scourging of Jesus is noted in three of the four Gospel accounts (Mark 15:15; Matt 27:26; John 19:1).

The Flagellation of Christ (Caravaggio, 1607)

Historian Didorus Siculus reported that the clothing and property of victims was confiscated in crucifixion (Universal History 33.15.1), an action that we see inflicted on Jesus as reported by the fourth evangelist (John 19:23). Without clothing, the victim is nude—another shaming element in the process.

The second century biographer Plutarch notes that the victim was required to carry the cross beam (Delay 554B). We see this shaming action varied in the account of the crucifixion of Jesus; as Jesus is unable to carry his cross beam, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service (Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32; Luke 23:26). Luke adds a note about the mourners following the crucifixion procession at this point, adding to the sense of shame and impending doom (Luke 23:27-31).

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Crucifixions served as a form of entertainment for the masses, with the public spectacle heightened by some victims being fixed to the cross in odd ways, including impalement. The process of dying as a crucified person was a slow process; it could take days before a victim was deceased. In the process, the bodies of victims could distort and control z as over bodily functions could be lost. These elements also added to the shame of the event.

Death itself was caused by suffocation, as the person nailed to the cross was not able to raise himself to inhale air. The loss of agency, by having hands and feet nailed to the cross, symbolised the loss of power and thus of honour, as Philo notes, describing “those who are fixed to a cross [as] nailed as it were to the tree of hopeless and helpless ignorance” (On Dreams 2.213; and see also On the Posterity of Cain 61).

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Crucifixion was a graphic public demonstration of the loss of honour, an intensified shaming of the person being crucified. Many of the typical actions in crucifixion carried, as we have seen, a sense of public shaming. This shaming could also be expressed through verbal means, such as mocking and taunting. The passion narrative includes this element at many places.

Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers (Edouard Manet, 1865)

The Roman soldiers taunt and mock Jesus (Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31; Luke 23:36-37), as do Herod with his soldiers (Luke 23:11). The chief priests and scribes also mock Jesus (Mark 15:31-32; Matt 27:41-43; Luke 23:35), as does a police officer, earlier, at the trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22). Those crucified with him also taunt him (Mark 15:32; Matt 27:44).

Herod and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt (Luke 23:11), although a more accurate translation of this phrase would be, “treated as though he were nothing”.

As the Roman soldiers mock Jesus, they strike his face (Mark 14:65, 15:9; John 19:2-3) or his body (Luke 22:63-65). People passing by shake their heads at him as they deride him, intensifying the element of shaming (Mark 15:29-30; Matt 27:29-30). The verbal and physical indications of shaming are many.

In the third of the three passion predictions reported in the middle section of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 8-10), Jesus says that the Gentiles “will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:34). That is duly reported in Mark’s later narrative, at the end of the scene where Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin. “Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’” (Mark 14:65).

In the ancient Near East, spitting was one of the most humiliating of disgraces, long considered a suitable response to reprehensible behavior. We see this in the scene when Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses, and Miriam is made leprous (Num 12:1-16). In the course of this scene, God declares to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? (Num 12:14).

The action of spitting on Jesus is thus yet another act of public shaming. (See also Deut 25:5-10; Job 17:6, 30:10). The link between insulting and spitting, and being put to shame, is made clear in the third Servant Song (Isa 50:6-8a).

Finally, the bodies of crucified victims were most often not accorded an honourable burial. Corpses were regularly left hanging, whilst carrion birds and scavenger animals devoured the body, as Pliny describes in his Natural History (36.107-108).

The remains of these bodies were then thrown unceremoniously—shamefully—into a common grave, although in the case of Jesus, we are told by all four evangelists that his body was retrieved and placed in the grave of a wealthy supporter (Mark 15:42-46; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).

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Thus, we can conclude that, in the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate).

Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, striped naked, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously; then as he hung dying, he was wracked with pain before he eventually succumbed to death. This was a shameful spectacle by any reckoning.

Jerome Neyrey, however, offers the suggestion that, “despite all the shameful treatment of Jesus, he is portrayed, not only as maintaining his honor, but even gaining glory and prestige. Far from being a status degradation ritual, his passion is seen as a status elevation ritual.” (https://www3.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/shame.html)

This is certainly consistent with the way that Jesus spoke earlier in his ministry of the inversion of shame and honour through the cross. When he makes his own identification with the cross (Mark 8:34), he does not consider this to be a cause of shame, but rather a sign of honour.

It would be seen by other humans as being shameful. However, that is not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

The movement that is articulated by Paul, in his citation of am early hymn in his letter to Philippi, marks out the progression from shaming by human beings (“emptied himself … humbled himself … to death on a cross”, Phil 2:7–8) to being honoured by God (“highly exalted him … bestowed on him the name above all names … so that every knee should bow”, Phil 2:9-11). The progression takes Jesus, once equal with God (Phil 2:6), to the shame of the cross, and then to the glory of universal recognition “to the glory of God” (Phil 2:11).

So the declaration of shame that Jesus makes in his teaching to his disciples (Mark 8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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