There are pages and pages of paintings and other images of the crucifixion in Google’s image files. Almost all of them have the cross too high. There was no need for Roman soldiers to go to the trouble of lifting the body very far, The vertical stake did not need to be very much higher than the height of a man. Also artists usually, even while showing the brutality of the cross, try to preserve a little modesty for Jesus.
I am sure the art has been influenced by the scripture where Jesus says that when he is lifted up he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32). So the custom of artists has been to make the cross high off the ground and lift Jesus up.
In The King of God’s Kingdom David Seccombe tells us that in 1968 archeologists found the bones of a crucified man near Jerusalem. Embedded in the right heel bone was a single nail. This particular man seems to have been crucified in a contorted possition and his arms were likely tied to the cross beam with ropes rather than nailed. This is the only sample we have. We should expect that the practice of crucifixion varied some from case to case.
The most interesting thing about this find from the gospel student’s point of view is that the man’s ankles seem to have been crushed from a heavy blow. Death came quickly when the legs could provide no support. So, as the gospel’s say, to hurry things along the executioners sometimes broke the leg bones.
Seccombe does not dwell on the brutal way Jesus was treated. But he describes the goal of crucifixion as not only to kill, but the completely and publicly humiliate.
“Naked, incontinent, bloody, unable to ward off the swarms of flies–the sufferer became an object of horror and revulsion (p. 555).
We do not know whether Jesus bore the pain stoically or whether he screamed or sobbed. The gospels generally seem to show Jesus preserving as much dignity as he could. When offered drugged wine he refused it.
Our version of Luke has him ask from the cross for forgiveness for those who put him there. However, this verse does not appear in our earliest copies of the gospel. Seccombe holds to the possibility that, since the execution was public, there was a memory of this saying. It was a part of church tradition. So when it did not appear in the gospels, scribes who copied the text felt justified in adding it in the margins. Eventually someone just copied it into the text. Seccombe’s opinion is that the saying is just as historical as if it had been in the original text of Luke.
This is possible, but unknowable. Jesus certainly talked much about radical forgiveness during his ministry. So someone may have later wanted to clarify that he kept that perspective even when so badly mistreated himself.
Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has famously speculated that they threw Jesus’ body in a trash heap and dogs ate it. There is shock value in that thought, possibly more shock than value. The bodies of the rebels who died with Jesus may have met a fate like that or been buried in a common grave. But the testimony of the only people who might have known for sure is that Jesus was honored with a burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb.
A man like Joseph knew well that Jesus did not deserve to die like a traitor or slave. So he did what he could to rectify this and maybe register a small protest.
And so before darkness fell on Friday, Passover Eve, the body was hurriedly taken to that tomb, were it would remain through Saturday.