John's description of the actual crucifixion is amazingly brief. People in the ancient world would not need a description, since such executions were not rare (Hengel 1977:38). Although crucifixion could take a variety of forms (cf. Hengel 1977:25-32; Brown 1994:2:945-52), it was common to have the victim carry the crossbeam to the place of crucifixion where the upright was already in place. Occasionally the victim was tied to the crossbeam with leather thongs, but most often nails were used, as in the case of Jesus. The nails were five to seven inches long and were driven through the feet and wrists, not the hands (Edwards, Gabel and Hosmer 1986:1459). Crosses in the shape of an X or a T were used, but since the title was attached over Jesus' head (Mt 27:37) we know the style used for Jesus' cross was the shape we usually imagine, a t, which was also a common form. The person was laid on the ground and nailed to the crosspiece, which was then hoisted into place. Often the person was only a short distance off the ground, though the fact that a stick was needed in order to offer Jesus a drink (v. 29) suggests his head was higher than arm's length above the people on the ground. The nail wounds would cause a great deal of bleeding, but death often took place through suffocation. A little seat rest was attached to allow the person to maintain a position in which it was possible to breathe, thus prolonging the agony.
It is not known why the place was called Skull (v. 17; calvaria in Latin, hence the name Calvary), but the fact that Joseph had a tomb close by suggests this was not a place of public execution (Brown 1970:900). The notion that the landscape had the appearance of a skull is possible, as evidenced by the hill near Gordon's Calvary today, though the shape of this particular hill is more recent than the first century. The traditional site at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not the Garden Tomb at Gordon's Calvary, is most likely authentic (R. H. Smith 1976; Brown 1994:2:937-40, 1279-83).
John mentions the other two victims crucified with Jesus (v. 18), but he does not describe them as fully as the Synoptic writers do. John also leaves out mention of Simon of Cyrene helping carry Jesus' cross. This comparison with the other Gospels helps us appreciate how John's account is very focused, very spare. In what follows he will not dwell on Jesus' own agony, except for his thirst just before his death (v. 28). Instead, John describes the activity swirling around Jesus, showing how it all relates to the glory. While John directs our attention to various people around the cross, we must not lose sight of the one on the cross. That which is not described is actually what dominates the scene.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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