Sunday, December 07, 2008

Inscription on the Cross

Inscription on the CrossThe question below comes from Bible artist Greg Owen from the U.S.

What did the sign look like that was on the cross?  Was it a clay tablet?  Was it wood?  Were the letters painted, or written in chalk?  Did it hang from a rope, or was it nailed up? (weren't nails expensive, making rope or wooden peg more likely?)
Perhaps we cannot know for sure.  But what is your best guess, considering Roman history and the most common ways of making signs at this time in history?

Thanks for this question Greg. When I recently illustrated the Crucifixion story, I must admit, my research was more centered on the inscription rather than on the tablet itself. In 'Bible Manners and Customs' it says:
"It was a Roman custom in cases of capital execution to put on a tablet the crime for which the condemned suffered, this tablet being placed in full view of all who witness the execution.... The tablet was sometimes carried by the condemned man himself, hung around his neck, on the way to execution.
In the official Language of the Romans it was called 'Titulus'. It was a metal plate, having black letters on a white ground."

It would make sense that this tablet was made of metal as it would have been reused from one execution to the next. In the last post we looked at how the black ink used at this time was also water soluble so each inscription could have been easily washed off with a sponge and water. How was the metal background whitened? It's possible that the same chalk mixture that was used to whiten tombs, (see 'Raising Lazarus' post), was used. This was also water soluble.
No doubt the heinous crimes recorded on these tablets were intended to incite and enrage the onlookers!
Jesus' crime "THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS" must have received a mixed reaction.
It would also make sense that the rope which supported the tablet around the neck of the victim, also held the tablet to the cross, hung from a wooden peg nailed into the vertical beam. Most scholars believe that only the horizontal beam of the cross was carried by the victim to the crucifixion site.

There are others who believe that these tablets were made from hardwood.
Whether you believe in relics or not, there is one relic that some experts believe to be the actual sign from above the cross. The 'TITULUS CRUCIS' was made of walnut wood! So maybe my wooden representation of the titulus, shown above, was not too far out!

Related posts:
Crucifixion (part 1)
Crucifixion (part 2)


Paul Green said...

"Jewish historian Josephus noted, wood was so scarce in Jerusalem during the first century A.D. that the Romans were forced to travel ten miles from Jerusalem to secure timber for their siege machinery." [Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec. 1985, p.21.]

Jesus most likely carried the crossbeam as you mention Graham and not the stake which was re-cycled. The crossbeam was probably also re-used.
My thoughts are that the "Titulus" was made of wood even though wood was scarce. Metal seems extravagent for an average criminal. And examples of a metal Titulus, although rusted, would surely have stood a greater chance of being excavated in modern times. Have any ever been found in the Jerusalem area?

I watched a documentary of the surviving wooden Titulus. The evidence for it being from that time period was very good. But not conclusive. I have serious doubts about any surviving artefacts from the time of Jesus as forgeries were common from as early as Constantine. And modern forgery of Biblical artefacts has been rampant for some time. They'v even fooled the scholars at times.

Horseman said...

Great job Graham. I wonder if the metal ‘titulus’ (sign for criminals) was used mostly in Rome, or throughout the Empire? Paul G. mentions the scarcity of wood around Jerusalem. Yet, it seems that I remember it being said that Nazareth was known as a town of carpenters, and that it means “branch town” (of course that is away from Jerusalem). Maybe Josephus was making reference to a lack of LARGE timbers that would be sufficient for making their “siege machinery”. Perhaps the wood that was available was smaller. Even so, there was enough wood for crosses.

Given the uncertainty on this, it seems that artists can depict the sign that hung above the cross of Christ in any reasonable manner without concern for historical inaccuracy.

Paul G, where did you see this documentary that you mention? Do you remember the name of it… or any others that you liked?

Oh yeah, and thanks Graham. I appreciate the time and attention that you dedicated to my questions. It’s kind of you to lend your expertise to help folks like me.

deboraw said...

Wasn't Nazareth approximately 60-70 miles North of Jerusalem? Not a long way perhaps but long enough, considering their mode of transportation. Deboraw

Horseman said...

Well I guess that pretty much eliminates Nazareth as a source of wood, doesn’t it? Before Graham’s post, I would have guessed that the sign was sort of like a clay tablet. Pottery was so basic to life then – cheap, plentiful, and functional.

Paul Green said...

I saw the documentary on either the History or National Geographic channel a few years ago horseman . Both show archaeology based documentaries. I wish I could recall the title. Most of these documentaries are co-produced with the BBC and are usually very interesting.

A Wikipedia site actually has an example of a metal Titulus from the Roman period. It was thin sheet metal. I took it for granted they were all made of wood until I read Graham's blog. There is also an article and photograph of the wooden Titulus that many believe is from the cross of Jesus. I'll post a link later...

Paul Green said...

Wikipedia link -

Paul Green said...

Wikipedia Roman metal Titulus link. (I assume this is metal as it doesn't specifically mention this in the article). This example is engraved and isn't designed for a crucifixion -

Bible artist said...

Thanks for the links Paul!

Going back to an earlier comment of horseman's about Nazareth being a town of carpenters. Trees were scarce in Nazareth also, but carpenters then were not like the carpenters of today, where they only deal with wood. They were more like general builders and were skilled in many aspects of the building trade. There was a lot of work for builders in this area at that time as the capital of Galilee 'Sepphoris' was being rebuilt after it was completely destroyed in 4 BC.

Nazareth was close to Sepphoris, and many scholars believe that this was the reason why Joseph moved back there.

Horseman said...

Graham and Paul G

Why do some pictures of Christ on the cross show him with the crown of thorns and some show him without? I have even seen some that show bleeding from the holes left by the removed crown of thorns. Maybe you already talked about that. But I looked around and did not see anything on this.

Paul Green said...

Matthew describes the robe and crown of thorns being placed on Jesus in mockery as the soldiers declared, "Hail, King of the Jews."
Matthew then states the robe was removed and replaced with Jesus' clothes. It doesn't mention if the crown of thorns was also removed.
I tend to think the crown of thorns remained intact to continue to inflict pain.
The fact that Jesus was mocked on the cross suggests the crown of thorns played a part in that mockery. The Romans and non-believing Jews wanted to publically humiliate Jesus. The crown of thorns was the perfect mocking symbol of what they perecived as Jesus' claim to Kingship. A titulus by itself wouldn't have been as effective.

The gospel writers don't mention removing any crown of thorns when Jesus is taken down from the cross. I suggest they didn't mention it because it served no purpose in furthering their narrative. I would imagine it could have been a difficult process as the thorns would have been surrounded by dried, clotted blood. The person removing the crown would have to take precaution not to injure themself.

It's all very sad and brings home the gruesome manner of execution adopted by the Romans.

Bible artist said...

Another good question horseman!
When I illustrated this It didn't occur to me at the time that the crown of thorns may have been removed with the purple robe. Most artists do still show the crown of thorns being worn on the cross, which must have influenced my own version on a subconscious level!

I agree with Paul, it would make more sense that the crown of thorns remained intact. Good question though!

Horseman said...

Well, the sign above the cross did say "king of the Jews" - and a king needs his crown.

Thanks again Graham. All this really helps me with the art that I am working on now. Obviously, it will be the Messiah on the cross.

Paul Green said...

Happy Christmas to everyone. Hope you all have a great day.
It's sad that so many stores in America omit the word Christmas from their greetings. "Happy Holidays" says nothing about Christmas. Christian countries should have the guts to celebrate their culture and heritage. Not cower behing a politically correct 'please all' greeting that completely dilutes the meaning of Christmas.
Whether you believe or not Christmas is a big part of Western culture. To attempt to change it into a a mere "holiday" is ridiculous.

deboraw said...

Paul G, I second the notion, Paul. Deboraw

Horseman said...

Paul G and all, hope you had a good Christ Mas. May all your holydays be well.

Despite what the corrupt media presents, most everyone is not against Christmas. In fact, I had a Jewish man enthusiastically wish me a Merry Christmas this year. If a person that does not believe in Christ can do that, then everyone should.


Paul Green said...

A Happy and Healthy New Year to everybody.
They spent 5 million dollars on a new glitter ball in New York. So much money spent on such triviality. I'm sure the homeless will find the ball money well spent.

Bible artist said...

Yes, in London they spent 6 million pounds on the 'New Year' firework display! At least New York still has a glitter ball, we've only got smoke!

deboraw said...

Graham, I see I'm late in reading...5 million on a new glitter ball, and 6 million pounds?! Now I know where my second million (and my first million as well) went! I could name a few other places it has went in the last few months, (very angry face here) but...better just leave those items alone. May God bring us ever closer to His way, and may all enjoy His blessings in the New Year. Deboraw