There is no description of the actual crucifixion in John’s gospel. John simply states that “they crucified Jesus” along with two others. In fact, there is no description of crucifixion in any of the four gospels! This stands in contrast to most modern presentations of crucifixion, which seem intent on the gory details. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a prime example of using shock and gore in depicting Jesus’ execution. I find it rather disturbing when well-meaning Christians attempt to following their Lord by hammering nails into their flesh. This totally misses the point of the crucifixion and alienates people who do not understand the point of such self-mutilations. The gospel writers were more interested in why Jesus died, rather than how the Romans tortured him.
Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it as a method of execution for rebels against the empire. They called it the “extreme penalty” or “the humiliation.” It was typically reserved for the lower classes, especially conquered peoples. The Romans considered crucifixion too degrading for a Roman citizen, so it was only used to punish citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. This sadistic death was the death that Jesus endured. He voluntarily submitted to a death on a cross, and all of the beatings and insults that were a part of the process. He went willingly because he knew that by his death he might bring life into the world.
The Jews knew well the punishment of crucifixion. Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2). In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). A bit later in the first century the procurator Tiberius Alexander (A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).
That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. If the leader of one’s religion executed in this way, it would seem to be proof that your religion was flawed! The Romans considered talk of a cross to be impolite. One did not describe the process or talk about the details. Since death by crucifixion was intentionally sadistic and cruel, it was simply not a appropriate topic for conversation. It was an extreme punishment meant to keep conquered people in their place.
To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal. Christianity was blasphemy to the Jew.
To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. It was strange to think that the true God of the universe might take human form, but it was folly to think that when he did take human form, he was killed. And worse, he allowed himself to be killed! Christianity is a strange religion in that it worships a God who willingly sacrificed himself.
I think that the Cross must be central to Christian preaching, but we must follow the Gospels and emphasize why Jesus died, not how. The scandal of the cross is not the violence of the act, but the subversiveness of God making the ultimate sacrifice to atone for sin.