Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed John Dominic Crossan a few years back to explore the historicity of the crucifixion. Originally airing in 2004, the conversation winds around the notion of, as guest host David Bianculli explains in the intro, crucifixion as state-sanctioned terrorism that “existed for centuries, before it became infamous under the Romans.”
Crossan likens crucifixion in the Roman period to slave executions, “as a warning not to flee, not to commit a crime.” These very public executions were not so much about punishment or suffering of any one individual so much as making an example of those who violated the norms of the day–“hung up like a poster, saying don’t do what this person did or you’ll end up as this person did.” Capital punishment forms such as crucifixion, being burned alive or being “fed to the lions” were meant to be a form of annihilation, so that there was no body left behind for mourners to bury and grieve over. He notes that the crucifixion itself only is special to Christianity put in the context of the resurrection.
Gross inquires after some of the practices that are described in the Gospels, such as mocking and scourging, about how the cross came to become a symbol of Christianity, and about the validity of a metaphorical understanding of Scripture.
The Passion of the Christ was a hot topic at the time of the interview; Crossan offers the critique that the film doesn’t provide any context for why he was arrested/, that it tries to distill the perspectives of four gospels into one narrative, that it focuses excessively on the suffering and not enough on the resurrection, and that it ignores the popularity of Jesus that is apparent from a reading of all the gospels. He draws a parallel to the Passion plays of medieval times, noting that the suffering of Jesus was something that people would really connect to. But, he continues, this was not what emerged from 1st century.
There’s lots more in this 20 minute interview. You can listen to it here.