A vision of the crucifixion for Mel Gibson's film
- On this Page:
- The City Gate
- The Road
- The Nails
- The Sponge
- (Click the images for a lightbox slideshow)
Created: August 2003 Modified: April 8th 2023 Rev. 9
In 2003, a pastor told me Mel Gibson was having trouble figuring out how to film the crucifixion for his film The Passion of the Christ, and had asked for help. The pastor knew I had long contemplated scientific explanations for supernatural events since reading, at age 12, a historical novel called The Robe (Lloyd Douglas, 1942). For example, the novel explains that wine jugs were made of porous clay, so shaking water in empty jugs would make the water taste like a light wine. The pastor knew that I had extended Doublas' line of reasoning, and that I had a comprehensive knowledge of ancient history from school and Oxford. The pastor explained Mel Gibson was of Jewish descent, so he would find helpful any details and rational explanations that I could provide. We met the following Saturday afternoon. I paused carefully between each sentence. It took over three hours. By the end we were in tears, and we didn't want to discuss it again.
Mel Gibson decided to end his portrayal of the crucifixion before getting to the most significant details below, with himself just screaming at the camera instead. Many have criticized that since. After the above encounter, I personally don't blame him. Now you can decide for yourself if he should have done otherwise.
I hesitated to write this down for a very long time, because I know it will really annoy some Christians, fundamentalists in particular. After a few decades, I noticed the bible saying Jesus actually ordered St. Thomas to feel the crucifixion wounds in order to find faith. If St. Thomas was allowed to need empirical evidence, then we cannot be judged for needing it too. We are permitted to suspend judgment on whether an afterlife exists, or that supernatural events occur, until after we die and ourselves have empirical evidence.
A Eastern Orthodox monk told that my induction was the origin of 'purgatory' in the West. Since purgatopry fell out of fashion, no Western chuch will discuss it. And he was right about that. Whenever I try to share these thoughts with Western Christians, I am interrupted and told what I am required to believe for them to accept me as a Christian.
All of the Western churches tell me, in order for them to accept I am a Christian, I have to believe something different. I learned many theologies in the last 50 years. None of them made entire sense to me. They all say all the others are wrong. They all claim exlusive truth proven by their own divine experience, as well as some paradoxical problems that all churches state other theologies have but not themselves.
So this is what makes rational sense to me. I don't have any remaining reason to care about what others believe differently, or how they choose to judge me.
Some who find it impossible to believe in supernatural events could therefore find new hope. It is for the ever-increasing number of skeptics of the supernatural that I have shared this meditation. After all, we cannot all be that impressed by the power of a Creator who needs to break the physical laws of his own conception. Or perhaps it should be 'her own conception.' There's been some confusion on that, which I address as much needed at the end of The Fifth Gospel, another article on this blog that starts as a continuation of this historical imagination, and concludes with the text "The Gospel of Thomas," discovered last century.
The City Gate
Many people's blood was in Roman roads. Fast military travel was crucial to the empire, so on important routes, they used blood to cement the paving stones over gravel and sand. If they didn't have anyone to kill for blood, they slaughtered the Oxen for blood, eating the oxen afterward, now celebrated in Italy as the popular repast of 'veal.' But that was expensive meat, so they preferred just to slaughter criminals for it, skewering their severed heads on stakes above the city gates (the dried and rotten heads were never removed, they just stayed there). When they ran out of room there, the severed heads went on the spikes on top of the city walls. The rest of their bodies were drained of blood to use in the mortar, and the bodies just thrown into the drainage ditches on each side of the road. Technically, it was a very good solution, as clotted human blood makes an incredibly strong cement. One can still see its dark remains on many Roman roads all over the Western world.
But when Jesus was condemned to death, the roads were done. During rebellious times, the crucifixions were right next to the gates. As there was no violent rebellion at the time, the Romans didn’t want people to realize exactly how many of the civilians were being killed off. So they instead strung up people to die far from the city, in some remote valley. That way, the stench would just sit there in the valley and not blow into the city, and almost no one went there to see exactly how many were dead. If they did, even so, it would have been difficult to count, because so many people were left there to die in the hot sun and winter rains, the ground was covered in skulls and bones, some still with putrefying flesh, and some already bleached dry by the sun.
And so it was the small band left the city and branched off to Golgotha on a smaller dirt road. There was Jesus, and some soldiers, and a few others due for death. Following them, some distance behind, were the wailing women, grieving as loud they could, as was the custom. Among them were Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ prostitute friends. There were no men allowed in the grieving party, because the Romans had another problem. The Jewish priests had insisted Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews, and in the Roman provinces, kings were not usually permitted, lest they challenge the empire’s authority. So they had to make an example of him. For instance, they made him carry the wood for his cross through the city. And the squad of Roman soldiers was told not to leave until he was dead, in case someone tried to rescue him.
But by the time they got to the city gates, the Roman soldiers were starting to get fed up with how long this was taking. They had just thought they’d be marching some convicts to Golgotha, and there was Jesus, already almost too exhausted to walk at all, let alone carry the cross, covered in cuts and bruises too. Apparently, they did not have the foresight to bring any slaves with them, or there weren’t any convicts available as slaves for this type of duty. So the bible says the Romans pulled in a passing negro to carry the post instead. It’s said the negro was a tradesman from the region of Hannibal’s empire around Carthage, now called Libya. If so, he knew well enough to obey anything a Roman soldier told him to do.
Eventually the small party reached Golgotha, which means ‘Valley of the Skull.’ Along the way, other people along the roadside had yelled insults and thrown more stones at Jesus, mocking and jeering him, just as they had on the long road from the city jail to the city gates.
So the Roman soldiers were probably in quite a good mood by the time they got there. They would have been worried of some ambush, to save the Jewish King. But instead, people were enjoying the omniversal sport of ridiculing and stoning the condemned. So it turned out they had no reason to worry after all. But still, they had to wait for him to die. One can easily imagine the conversation:
“This place is disgusting! How long are we going to have to wait here?”
“We're out of rope,” said a legionary. "Just make him find some rope on a corpse we can reuse and get on with it."
Their centurion glanced at their sweaty prisoner, exhausted from carrying the cross, and already covered from head to toe in cuts, bruises, and muck from the rocks and rotten kitchen waste thrown at him. "He's useless already," the centurion replied. "You'll have to find some."
“What if we nail him to the cross? Then we don’t have to watch so closely. We could go sit on that ridge there instead. And maybe he’ll die faster.”
“That’s a good idea! But we didn’t bring any nails. We just got this strip of cloth we used to tie him up with and drag him up here, and its shredded already.”
"Why should we waste good nails even if we had them for something like this, you damn idiot?"
“There’s lots of nails on those old crosses over there. They’re rusted but they’ll still work.”
“Hey you’re right! ”
So they nailed him to the cross, using a boot to hammer them in. To hold his weight, they had to put the nails through his arms, between the two bones above the wrist, rather than through his hands. The first time, the wood split, so they banged some more nails through him.
Impatiently. One has to imagine what it was like being a Roman soldier in those days. Most of them were in it for citizenship. If you were a soldier long enough, or saved up enough money for it, you could earn or buy your Roman citizenship. After that, a few stayed, but most left to start farms somewhere nice, like Spain. A squad would have one Roman citizen, and the rest were sort of trapped in it. Oh sure, they volunteered to join the legions, but after they volunteered, they couldn’t leave, or they’d be executed as deserters. Most of them could not read or write. But the centurion knew some words, so he carved the initials for ‘here is the king of the Jews’ on a plaque to put over Jesus’ head, while the others were doing the sweaty work of digging holes for the posts, and of course, nailing Jesus to one. Another of the soldiers cleverly got out of the heavy work to collect some brambles and made a circlet of them to jam on his head, as a parody of a crown for the so-called King, making sure the thorns cut through his skin so it wouldn't fall off.
Finally they got him up there. It must have been quite an effort for them. After all that, they were really ready to take off for the pub.
But Jesus actually had one last hope.
He knew from his studies at the Library of Alexandria during his so-called 'lost years,' not only how to perform artificial respiration, but also how to induce a coma (see Jesus' Lost Years on this site). The nails must have been a real horror to him, if he was going to revive from a coma. How was he even going to walk? But if he learned what I think he did, he knew what he had to do. He had to reduce himself to a point of total and absolute exhaustion, almost near death, and then make an enormous effort, all at once, which would so deprive his body of blood sugar that he would pass out. And he knew, even then, he hadn’t reached that point.
So he said, “I’m thirsty. Please give me something to drink.”
Roman soldiers had a very sweaty life. The typical weight of armor of weaponry, just for a standard soldier, was 70 pounds. They were required to carry it with them all the time when they were on duty. When they didn't need to wear it and had to move around, they put their belt over one shoulder, then put their sword scabbard through loops in the belt, so it hung down the middle of their back, as a support for a rucksack construction. For this reason, the standard Roman sword, the ‘gladius,’ was quite short. The swords had to be shorter than their torsos, so they could still run with all their armor on their backs (and they were often required to run. Julius Caesar had his soldiers run 50 miles a day, at 7mph, carrying all their gear; and the ones in the vanguard and rear had to be fully dressed for fighting too).
Then they put their spear through loops in the scabbard, so it crossed their back at an angle to the sword, with most of the spear above their head. Then on that crosstree of spear and sword, they hung their breast plates, shoulder plates, helmet, and heavy boots, using their girdle of studded straps for hanging it all. On their bodies, they could then just wear a light tunic. They often carried an extra one, because a tunic would get really sweaty under the armor when wearing it. They’d roll anything else they needed to carry in the spare tunic.
When fully dressed in armor, they’d sling the rolled tunic, with whatever else they needed, on their back. Whether armed for duty or rigged for marching in ranks, they had to carry all 70 lbs.
After carrying all that, they really didn’t want to carry anything else that they didn’t have to. So they didn’t carry water. They drank all they needed before they left. That’s been standard knowledge ever since. If you’re traveling and want to reduce the weight you’re carrying, drink all the water you need first.
But one thing they carried was a sponge and vinegar to clean it.
There was no toilet paper in those days.
The lucky few could get their own sponge. When you first joined the Roman Army, you had to ask for the squad sponge. The squad sponge was shared. Only one was issued for shared usage. Sponges were expensive. They had to be gathered from the sea bottom by divers. When they were cured, they were just as good, if not better, than the sponges we buy in the supermarket today. But they weren’t so easy to get.
One reason some people joined the Roman army was because you could get to use the squad sponge to wipe your butt. As a special treat, when you had been in the army long enough to become a Roman citizen, you got your own sponge. But that was a real luxury. Most soldiers used the squad sponge, rinsing it with vinegar afterward. Vinegar wasn’t a very effective cleaner, but it was the best they had.
Strangely, people usually don't ask where the sponge came from, when they read the soldiers soaked a sponge in vinegar and held it up to Jesus on a spear. No one thinks that it was an odd thing for soldiers to be carrying. Well, it wasn’t. They didn't have toilet paper.
So they gave Jesus vinegar on a shit sponge, and held it up on a spear to drink.
Now Jesus knew he had to empty his stomach too. Later, he planned to yell with all his strength “Oh God, oh God, why have you forsaken me?” He must have chosen it a long time in advance, because it sounds like a final cry of despair. But it’s actually the first verse of a victory hymn in the bible. The effort of that yell could make him pass out. Then the soldiers would look over from their dice games on the ridge and ask, “is he dead yet?” And one would walk slowly down, swearing softly, and do the usual check of cutting his chest, to see if the blood over his heart was coagulated enough yet.
That soldier would look at him, bruised and cut head to toe, nails through his limbs, blood dribbling out his chest, and vomit dribbling out his beard.
And the soldier might say, “Dead enough! Let’s go to the pub.”
It was his last hope. He needed to make himself puke and pass out as soon as possible, ending the wrenching pain in his wrists, searing through his feet too, on top of all his other bruises and lacerations. He didn't have anything left to lose. If he didn't succeed in passing out, at least he could make himself die more quickly. He knew his secret studies in the library of Alexandria would never be revealed by his family or followers, because Egypt was such a long and bitterly hated enemy of Judaea. So the people would think of it as another miracle, reinforcing his message of love with even more power, and in fact, the influence of returning to life from the cross would be far greater than reviving Lazarus with artificial respiration. The Library of Alexandria had already been torched, and the salvaged texts he had studied were already thought lost. He had one last hope in the knowledge that no one would know he had secretly obtained.
If not a quicker death, a coma.
Then later, much later, there would be the coolness of the tomb, and the sweet smell of myrrh to revive him from his coma. He'd be able to limp out his tomb, leaning on sticks to take the weight off his broken feet, and his last hope, his very best hope, was that he could show himself to his followers, without a word of complaint, demonstrating his total and absolute belief in the power of love. The news of his remarkable effort would spread. And one day, however long it might take, no one would think a pregnant mother should give birth in a fucking filthy stable!holy crap!
He thought of Mary. Still there. Still loving him. The son she had to conceive in shit. The inns were so busy making money, they couldn't even let her give birth on a table inside somewhere, let alone borrow a room while in labor. Never again should any mother be disgraced like that. NEVER AGAIN!No man should ever permit such a disgusting disgrace. No Roman. No Jew. No son of any man.
He had to show how much he wanted that sponge, else the soldier would yank it away before he swallowed enough to retch. He focused his bruised eyes as well he could on the wet shit pressed against his cut and blistered lips.
And with a grateful smile, glancing at the soldier appreciatively, Jesus munched and sucked the vinegar, shit, and bits of rotting sponge into his mouth. He swallowed.
"Hey!" yelled the soldier over his shoulder, "Look! He's cleaning the crap out of our sponge!"
"Let him have some more then," the bored centurion shouted back, thinking about the girls in the pub. "Twist it around too. None of you clean it properly. The bastard's not so useless after all, huh."
Jesus rammed some more of the putrid filth down his throat, trying to ignore the foul taste and intensifying acrid vapors. Again he wrapped his lips around it, to catch all the dribbles and chunks without thinking about the taste. And again. And again.
As much he could.
Some want to claim Jesus never actually rose from the tomb at all, or even existed. I could say quite a bit on the evidence he did live, especially how in respect of how little evidence we have of other events from the era that no one ever doubts.
Others claim he didn't really rise from the dead. Well, by indication of the huge changes in history he caused, he really did rise from a tomb, whether or not he was 'only' in a coma when he was taken off the cross.
For myself, I believe he did rise from the tomb, but I don't know if he really died on the cross. I'll know when I die, and I pray to St. Thomas that God may forgive my doubts. For whether he died or not, after thinking about that sponge for many years, I know one thing, at least for myself, and maybe for others, if it helps them with their own doubts:
‘Dead enough’ is already dead enough.
For the conclusion, see The Fifth Gospel.