Session #18  (Most quotes are NIV)


Did you ever have a day when you said “I should have stayed in bed?”  Pilate is having one of those days!  Things seemed to be going really badly:  the mob is getting unruly, that ungodly terrorist Barabbas was now free to wander the city, his wife is saying “This guy is innocent—get away from him,” etc.  And then the bottom dropped out:  John 19:12  “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friendof Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’” 

“So what?” you say.  Here’s the story that will explain “So what?”


This story is not in the Bible, but it is part of the Roman history books, and here is the story of Pilate and Sejanus.

Tiberias Julius Caesar is the man on the throne;  he had been one of Rome’s greatest Generals, and now is the Emperor of the Roman Empire (from 14 to 37 A.D.).  Pliny the Elder called him (basically) “a gloomy Gus!”  He was a melancholy man who got worse when his son died in in 23 A.D.  One thing cheered him up:  The Isle of Capri.  He had an expansive villa there, and decided to take up permanent residence.  Capri (properly pronounced CAH-pree) is stunningly beautiful and lies about 20 miles off the coast of Naples and/or 5 miles from Sorrento.   If you visit, you won’t want to leave either!  (His villa is still there.)

While living in Capri, Tiberias decided to bestow on the Prefect of his Praetorian Guards, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the responsibility of running the Empire from Rome.  Tiberias was so taken with Sejanus that he actually had statues to Sejanus erected in Rome.  Bad idea!  Sejanus started believing his own press clippings and began to run the Empire ruthlessly.  Sejanus had trials held against some of the wealthiest citizens, a few of the Roman Senators, and basically anyone who was in a position to challenge his authority.  He was trying to become Emperor and to depose Tiberias.  Rumors floated around the Empire—all kinds of rumors—about what Sejanus was doing.  Sejanus was getting deeper into trouble by the month.

OK, Sejanus is in trouble, but still you ask “So what?”  Sejanus had a good friend, Pontius Pilate.  Pilate had received his appointment to Prefect of Judea FROM Sejanus!  The Chief Priests yelling “You are no friend of Caesar” were making a not-so-veiled threat:  “If you don’t crucify Jesus, we will remind Caesar that Sejanus is your buddy.  Sejanus is not long for this world, and you won’t be either unless you do what we demand!” 

By the way, what happened to Sejanus?  Tiberias, with a reputation for being slow to act, finally had enough, and in 31 A.D., the year following Jesus’ crucifixion, returned to Rome, had the Senate revoke Sejanus’ Roman Citizenship (you can’t kill a Roman Citizen—by law), and had Sejanus executed for treason.  Pilate, the slick politician, managed to survive until 36 A.D.


After Pilate decides to give in, he ceremonially washes his hands of the matter—“I don’t have blood on my hands!”  Matt. 27:24  When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”  As Jeffrey Gibbs says, Matthew, Vol. 3, p. 1531, this hand-washing doesn’t make Pilate innocent; he has just become part of God’s plan, whether he knows it or not.

The hypocrisy going on here is palpable in every direction.  Look at John 19:15 “’We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered.”  Is this the same bunch who said, John 8:33, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”  Sounds like:  we will say anything to get our way!

The Roman trial procedure would be for Pilate to be seated on the bema, and to pronounce the death sentence in LatinErit montem crucis—“You shall mount the cross!”  Then the Bible references the standard pre-crucifixion whipping, seen both in Matt. 27:26 and Mark 15:15.  The Greek uses the word φραγελλώσας, defined by Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich as “a punishment inflicted on slaves and provincials after a sentence of death has been pronounced on them.”  This is the verbera, a whipping so severe that half of those who received it did not live through it.  It may seem excessively cruel, but the verbera was actually a kindness.  It substantially shortened the time that the prisoner would have to spend on the cross because a huge portion of their strength had evaporated in the beating process.


True, you really don’t want to know, but you should know!  Many years ago, some misguided soul in the Philippines had himself “crucified every year” as a token of his love for Christ.  His friends drove nails through his palms and the top of his feet, tied him to the cross and parading him through his village.

Guarantee:  if they had crucified him correctly, he would NOT HAVE DONE IT TWICE!

We have learned through archeological evidence how the Romans crucified.  Forget the paintings from the Middle Ages—those artists had never seen a crucifixion.  Roman soliders did this so often that they could do it in their sleep.  They were professionals at crucifying.

Firstly, the nails don’t go into the palms, and they aren’t “nails.”  They are more like “spikes” and they are driven into the wrists in the space between the ulna and the radius arm bones.  Nailing the palms is pointless—the nails would simply tear out.  When nailed to the cross properly, rope isn’t needed.  The Greek word in the Gospels doesn’t mean “hand” but it indicates the “hand and wrist.”  There is very little blood loss; no arteries are hit with the spike!

Secondly, the feet aren’t nailed through the top of the foot.  This will not hold up and could easily be dislodged.  The spike is driven through the ankles sideways into “side boards.”  One archeological find shows this clearly, since the spike hit a knot in the wood and they couldn’t remove it, so the crucified man was buried with the board still attached to ankle bone and spike.

By nailing someone to the cross in this manner, two things become evident to the crucified:  1)  you aren’t going to fall off the cross!  2) you aren’t going to be able to breathe (hanging there, your lungs are collapsed) unless you stand up, which you are NOT going to want to do because you have a spike through your ankles.  Sometimes there is a little seat pictured on the cross.  This would not be a kindness, since sitting down means you can’t breathe!

Next, get the picture out of your mind that the crucified man is 20 feet in the air.  WHY?  How are the soldiers going to get up there—with a step ladder?  Two or three feet in the air is plenty.  Altitude doesn’t increase the punishment.  With a short cross, the soldiers can nail the man’s wrists to the cross piece, easily lift it up and set it into the vertical board, and then fasten the feet!  Yes, the vertical board probably remained in the ground (much easier that way) and the cross-piece is carried out to the cross and then inserted into a mortise and tenon arrangement—the two pieces slip together from the top.

Normally, the crucified man is naked.  That would not be done in Jerusalem, unless Pilate wants another riot on his hands.  A loin cloth of some kind would remain on the Jewish victim.

The Roman Emperor Nero (ruled 54 -68 A.D.) was so crazy that he reputedly dressed in wild animal skins and went to the gates of the city at night to terrify the crucified victims.  This would be exceptionally stupid if the victims were 20 feet in the air, wouldn’t it?

Typically, the crucified lasted several days on the cross.  The will to live is so strong that the pain is endured until suffocation results from the legs finally giving out.