Posted by: chuckbumgardner | April 24, 2015

Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

Front CoverMany have appreciated Martin Hengel’s classic study on crucifixion, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), a learned and thorough work. As helpful a book as it is (and still well worth obtaining), it has been considerably superceded by John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (WUNT 327; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). At over 500 pages, Cook’s work is as thorough a treatment as one could wish for.

I had a chance to flip through the volume when I saw it on the new book shelf at the library a few months back, and its value was apparent at a glance. I see that Chuck Quarles has just published a very positive review in RBL. The review very helpfully summarizes each chapter of the monograph, and NT students would be well served at least to read the review, if not to find the book and peruse it as well. Here is the abstract of his work, which is posted on

To understand the phenomenon of Roman crucifixion, the author argues that one should begin with an investigation of the evidence from Latin texts and inscriptions (such as the lex Puteolana [the law of Puteoli]) supplemented by what may be learned from the surviving archaeological material (e.g., the Arieti fresco of a man on a patibulum [horizontal beam], the Puteoli and Palatine graffiti of crucifixion, the crucifixion nail in the calcaneum bone from Jerusalem, and the Pereire gem of the crucified Jesus [III CE]). This evidence clarifies the precise meaning of terms such as patibulum and crux (vertical beam or cross), which in turn illuminate the Greek terms [e.g., σταυρός, σταυρόω and ἀνασταυρόω] and texts that describe crucifixion or penal suspension. It is of fundamental importance that Greek texts be read against the background of Latin texts and Roman historical practice. The author traces the use of the penalty by the Romans until its probable abolition by Constantine and its eventual transformation into the Byzantine punishment by the furca (the fork), a form of penal suspension that resulted in immediate death (a penalty illustrated by the sixth century Vienna Greek codex of Genesis). Cook does not neglect the legal sources — including the question of the permissibility of the crucifixion of Roman citizens and the crimes for which one could be crucified. In addition to the Latin and Greek authors, texts in Hebrew and Aramaic that refer to penal suspension and crucifixion are examined. Brief attention is given to crucifixion in the Islamic world and to some modern forms of penal suspension including haritsuke (with two photographs), a penalty closely resembling crucifixion that was used in Tokugawan Japan. The material contributes to the understanding of the crucifixion of Jesus and has implications for the theologies of the cross in the New Testament. The relevant ancient images are included.

Also helpful is Cook’s nine-page overview of crucifixion in the Mediterranean world, complete with pictures and bibliography. Tolle lege!



  1. And, I should also mention a recent article on Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus:

    John Granger Cook, “Crucifixion and Burial,” New Testament Studies 57 (2011): 193-213.

    Cook contends that “the narrative of Joseph of Arimathaea’s burial of Jesus would be perfectly comprehensible to a Greco-Roman reader of the gospels and historically credible.” The full abstract:

    “This essay examines the contention that Joseph of Arimathaea buried Jesus—in light of what one can know from Greco-Roman culture about the disposal of the bodies of crucified individuals. A survey of the statutes governing the burial of criminals and governing the prosecution of those accused of seditious activity indicates that provincial officials had a choice when confronted with the need to dispose of the bodies of the condemned. Greco-Roman texts show that in certain cases the bodies of the crucified were left to decompose in place. In other cases, the crucified bodies were buried.”

  2. I appreciate the heads up! Sounds like a fantastic resource. Now if only the price were comparable to Hengel’s work! I can require my students to buy Hengel’s Crucifixion, but Cook’s work is going to be a bit beyond the reach of most of us. Maybe a “Poor Man’s”/condensed version is in order?

  3. I’ll tuck in here a reference to a very helpful new work that I hadn’t seen when I posted on Cook’s monograph: David W. Chapman and Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (WUNT 344; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).

    “The purpose of this comprehensive sourcebook…is to publish the extra-biblical primary texts that have been cited as relevant for understanding Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. The texts in the first part deal with Jesus’ trial and interrogation before the Sanhedrin, and the texts in the second part concern Jesus’ trial before Pilate. The texts in part three represent crucifixion as a method of execution in antiquity. For each document the authors provide the original text (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc.), a translation, and commentary. The commentary describes the literary context and the purpose of each document in context before details are clarified, along with observations on the contribution of these texts to understanding Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.”

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