The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XXV

Death of Jesus
ALTHOUGH the real motive for the death of Jesus was entirely religious, his enemies had succeeded, in the judgment-hall, in representing him as guilty of treason against the State; they could not have obtained from the skeptical Pilate a condemnation simply on the ground of heterodoxy. Consistently with this idea, the priests demanded, through the people, the crucifixion of Jesus. This punishment was not Jewish in its origin; if the condemnation of Jesus had been purely Mosaic, he would have been Stoned. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, reserved for slaves, and for cases in which it was wished to add to death the aggravation of ignominy. In applying it to Jesus they treated him as they treated highway robbers, brigands, bandits, or those enemies of inferior rank to whom the Romans did not grant the honor of death by the sword. It was the chimerical "King of the Jews," not the heterodox dogmatist, who was punished. Following out the same idea, the execution was left to the Romans. We know that among the Romans their soldiers, their profession being to kill, performed the office of executioners. Jesus was therefore delivered to a cohort of auxiliary troop's, and all the most hateful features of executions introduced by the cruel habits of the new conquerors were exhibited towards him. It was about noon. They re-clothed him with the garments which they had removed for the farce enacted at the tribunal, and, as the cohort had already in reserve two thieves who were to be executed, the three prisoners were taken together, and the procession set out for the place of execution.

The scene of the execution was at a place called Golgotha, situated outside Jerusalem, but near the walls of the city. The name Golgotha signifies a skull; it corresponds with the French word Chaumont, and probably designated a bare hill or rising ground, having the form of a bald skull. The situation of this hill is not precisely known. It was certainly on the north or north-west of the city, in the high irregular plain which extends between the walls and the two valleys of Kedron and Hinnom, a rather uninteresting region, and made still worse by the objectionable circumstances arising from the neighborhood of a great city. It is difficult to identify Golgotha as the precise place which, since Constantine, has been venerated by entire Christendom. This place, is too much in the interior of the city, and we are led to believe that in the time of Jesus it was comprised within the circuit of the walls.

He who was condemned to the cross had himself to carry the instrument of his execution. But Jesus, physically weaker than his two companions, could not carry his. The troop met a certain Simon of Cyrene, who was returning from the country, and the soldiers, with the off-hand procedure of foreign garrisons, forced him to carry the fatal tree. Perhaps they made use of a recognized right of forcing labor, the Romans not being allowed to carry the infamous wood. It seems that Simon was afterwards of the Christian community. His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, were well known in it. He related perhaps more than one circumstance of which he had been witness. No disciple was at this moment near to Jesus.

The place of execution was at last reached. According to Jewish custom, the sufferers were offered a strong aromatic wine, an intoxicating drink, which, through a sentiment of pity, was given to the condemned in order to stupefy him. It appears that the ladies of Jerusalem often brought this kind of wine to the unfortunates who were led to execution; when none was presented by them, it was purchased from the public treasury. Jesus, after having touched the edge of the cup with his lips, refused to drink. This mournful consolation of ordinary sufferers did not accord with his exalted nature. He preferred to quit life with perfect clearness of mind, and to await in full consciousness the death he had willed and brought upon himself. He was then divested of his garments, and fastened to the cross. The cross was composed of two beams, tied in the form of the letter T. It was not much elevated, so that the feet of the condemned almost touched the earth. They commenced by fixing it, then they fastened the sufferer to it by driving nails into his hands; the feet were often nailed, though sometimes only bound with cords. A piece of wood was fastened to the upright portion of the cross, towards the middle, and passed between the legs of the condemned, who rested upon it. Without that the hands would have been torn and the body would have sunk down. At other times a small horizontal rest was fixed beneath the feet and sustained them.

Jesus tasted these horrors in all their atrocity. A burning thirst, one of the tortures of crucifixion, devoured him, and he asked to drink. There stood near a cup of the ordinary drink of the Roman soldiers, a mixture of vinegar and water, called Posca, The soldiers had to carry with them their posca on all their expeditions, of which an execution was considered one. A soldier dipped a sponge in this drink, put it at the end of a reed, and raised it to the lips of Jesus, who sucked it. The two robbers were crucified, one on each Side. The executioners, to whom were usually left the small effects (pannicularia) of those executed, drew lots for his garments, and, seated at the foot of the cross, kept guard over him. According to one tradition, Jesus pronounced this sentence, which was in his heart if not upon his lips: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

According to the Roman custom, a writing was attached to the top of the cross, bearing in three languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the words: "THE KING OF THE JEWS." There was something painful and insulting to the nation in this inscription. The numerous passers-by who read it were offended. The priests complained to Pilate that he ought to have adopted an inscription which would have implied simply that Jesus had called himself King of the Jews. But Pilate, already tired of the whole affair, refused to make any change in what had been written.

His disciples had fled. John, nevertheless, declares himself to have been present, and to have remained standing at the foot of the cross during the whole time. It may be affirmed, with more certainty, that the devoted women of Galilee, who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and continued to tend him, did not abandon him. Mary Cleophas, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, wife of Khouza, Salome, and others, stayed at a certain distance, and did not lose sight of him. If we must believe John, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also at the foot of the cross, and Jesus, seeing his mother and his beloved disciple together, said to the one, "Behold thy mother!" and to the other, "Behold thy son!" But we do not understand how the Synoptics, who name the other women, should have omitted her whose presence was so striking a feature. Perhaps even the extreme elevation of the character of Jesus does not render such personal emotion probable at the moment when solely preoccupied by his work, he no longer existed except for humanity.

Apart from this small group of women, whose presence consoled him, Jesus had before him only the spectacle of the baseness or stupidity of humanity. The passers-by insulted him. He heard around him foolish scoffs, and his greatest cries of pain turned into hateful jests: "He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. He saved others," they said again; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him! Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself." Some, vaguely acquainted with his apocalyptic ideas, thought they heard him call Elias, and said: Let us see whether Elias will come to save him." It appears that the two crucified thieves at his side also insulted him. The sky was dark; and the earth, as in all the environs of Jerusalem, dry and gloomy. For a moment, according to certain narratives, his heart failed him; a cloud hid from him the face of his Father; he endured an agony of despair a thousand times more acute than all his torture. He saw only the ingratitude of men; he perhaps repented suffering for a vile race, and exclaimed: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But his Divine instinct still prevailed. In the degree that the life of the body became extinguished, his soul became clear, and returned by degrees to its celestial origin. He regained the idea of his mission; he saw in his death the salvation of the world; he lost sight of the hideous spectacle spread at his feet, and, profoundly united to his Father, he began upon the gibbet the Divine life which he was to live in the heart of humanity throughout infinite ages.

The peculiar atrocity of crucifixion was that one might live three or four days in this horrible state upon the instrument of torture. The hemorrhage from the hands quickly stopped, and was not mortal. The true cause of death was the unnatural position of the body, which brought on a frightful disturbance of the circulation, terrible pains of the head and heart, and, at length, rigidity of the limbs. Those who had a strong constitution only died of hunger. The idea which suggested this cruel punishment was not directly to kill the condemned by positive injuries, but to expose the slave, nailed by the hand of which he had not known how to make good use, and to let him rot on the wood. The delicate organization of Jesus preserved him from this slow agony. Everything leads to the belief that the instantaneous rupture of a vessel in the heart brought him, at the end of three hours, to a sudden death. Some moments before yielding up his soul his voice was still strong. All at once he uttered a terrible cry, which some heard as: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!" but which others, more preoccupied with the accomplishment of prophecies, rendered by the words, "It is finished!" His head fell upon his breast, and he expired.

Rest now in thy glory, noble initiator. Thy work is completed; thy divinity is established. Fear no more to see the edifice of thy efforts crumble through a flaw. Henceforth, beyond the reach of frailty, thou shalt be present, from the height of the divine peace, in the infinite consequences of thy acts. At the price of a few hours of suffering, which have not even touched thy great soul, thou hast purchased the most complete immortality. For thousands of years the world will extol thee. Banner of our contradictions, thou wilt be the sign around which will be fought the fiercest battles. A thousand times more living, a thousand times more loved since thy death than during the days of thy pilgrimage here below, thou wilt become to such a degree the corner-stone of humanity that to tear thy name from this world would be to shake it to its foundations. Between thee and God men will no longer distinguish. Complete conqueror of death, take possession of thy kingdom, whither, by the royal road thou hast traced, ages of adorers will follow thee.

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