Why did the centurions break the thieves legs?

Usually to die by crucifixion took days, as I understand it and the whole point was a horrible long drawn out death. Why would centurions want to hurry it along. I know the Sabbath was approaching and the high priests may have asked for this, but why would Pilate consent to let them die early and give back the bodies?

Because it was the Jewish Day of Preparation for Shabbat (Mark 15:42), which begins at sunset, and the bodies could not be left on the cross.

Footnote** r.** for John 19:31 cross-references the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy and explains why.

r. 19:31]

Ex 12:16 On the first day you will hold a sacred assembly, and likewise on the seventh. *On these days no sort of work shall be done, except to prepare the food that everyone needs. *

Dt 21:23 * his corpse shall not remain on the tree overnight.l You must bury it the same day;* anyone who is hanged is a curse of God.* You shall not defile the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage.

They would asphyxiate faster.


I think he’s asking why the Roman oppressors would cater to Jewish customs. It’s a good question. This is just conjecture, but perhaps they thought they could control them better if they gave them a degree of freedom of religion.

Because sometimes, it’s better to keep the peace with the Jews rather than trigger religious unrest and then have to report to Tiberius why he can’t maintain the Pax Romana in that troublesome, backwater province.

Love your answer :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :cool:


Imagine doing crowd control with a certain number of security forces at a Pop Warner football game. Now imagine doing crowd control with that same number of security personnel at the Super Bowl.

Inflaming the crowds of zealous Jews as they gather en masse for a religious festival would’ve been very, very bad for business for the Romans there. :wink:

Because it was getting late and the centurions wanted to go home. It was long enough the example had been made.

I imagine in all the social and political uproar being caused by the Crucifixion of one Jesus of Nazareth and his fear for social stability, Pilate would not want the bodies to be left on the crosses for preparation day.


As I understand it it was a fairly common practice, but it actually entailed smashing them with mallets which accelerated shock and death. It was anything but merciful…

(1) As the other posters mentioned, it was the Passover. As John says it was a “high day.” In respect for the sanctity of the festival, Pilate granted concessions.

(2) In Deuteronomy 21:23 it is stipulated that anyone who is hung on a tree must be buried on the same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed, and therefore, their bodies will defile the Promised Land. While in the original context it referred to people whose corpses were hung to display after they were stoned to death, during the time of Jesus Jews also applied this law in the context of crucifixion.

That’s why among the Jews in Palestine, there was no concept of leaving crucified victims hanging on their crosses to rot as was apparently done in other places in the Roman Empire; anyone who died by crucifixion will be taken down and buried within the same day, in observance of Torah. No unburied corpse was allowed in Israel. (St. Jerome once had this theory that Golgotha may have gotten its name because the area was littered with skulls of the victims who were executed there. In reality, Jews would have found such an idea very offensive.) Josephus in fact says this: “the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.” (War 4.317)

Actually, the Jews were granted a good deal of concessions by the Romans. Sure, the Romans kept the right of death penalty to themselves (although that did not necessarily prevent ‘extra-judicial’ executions or lynchings - the deaths of Sts. Stephen and James the Just are two likely examples of that), but otherwise Jews had a lot of leeway in practicing their culture/religion. Heck, they even allowed the one exception to their appropriation of the death penalty: the right to kill any foreigner who went into the inner court of the Temple (which are reserved only for Jews). Augustus even granted the Jews exemption from military service, probably as a reward for past assistance. That’s why there were almost no Jewish Roman soldiers.

Many of us have this idea that the Romans were a cruel bunch, bullying the natives, setting fire to villages, crucifying people left and right, perpetually patrolling the streets for any sign of unrest. :stuck_out_tongue: But in reality, Romans in Palestine in the 30s were almost invisible. First off, there were almost no Romans in the Galilee where Jesus lived, because the semi-independent Antipas was the one running the government there; he paid Rome tribute so that Rome will leave him alone to do what he wanted. In other words, in the Galilee, the officials, the soldiers, the tax collectors were all working for Antipas, who ruled his Jewish subjects under Jewish law and his gentile subjects under non-Jewish law.

Even in Judaea, the prefect and most of the soldiers only showed themselves to the public during festival seasons (that’s why Pilate was in Jerusalem for Passover); otherwise, they left the Jews to manage their own affairs. On a daily basis, the ones who actually ran government in Judaea were Jewish leaders: the high priest, the aristocrats, the local village elders. Hey, it’s how it was always been for centuries - the Romans respected that. It made many people happy, or at least less discontented than they would have been. The prefect - who officially was the one running the government - delegated the dirty work to them while he stayed in Caesarea with other gentiles for most of the year.

“Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans ever done for us?” :smiley:

In other words, the Romans - at least, Romans during Jesus’ lifetime - are not as ‘bad’ as the movies and recent popular retellings make them out to be. Jews in the 30s AD ain’t living under martial law.

You know, Darryl’s actually saying the truth. If you’re supposed to guard people who were crucified (and who knows if this is your umpteenth crucifixion), you’d get very darn bored. :stuck_out_tongue: Crucifixions ain’t very interesting; if you’re already desensitized to violence (as soldiers were), you might actually find it boring. Seriously, you’re literally just waiting for the darned guy to finally snuff it while making sure nothing funny (say, rescue attempts) happens while he’s hanging there.

Actually, when it comes to crucifixions there’s actually little that we know for sure. Most of what you hear or read being described as ‘common procedure’? They’re actually just later people’s guesses. If there’s anything that we might say was the ‘common procedure’ in Roman crucifixions (because many of the sources that talk about crucifixion mention or imply it), it’s that the victim was scourged or beaten first before he was hung on the cross. That’s it. That’s likely the only consistent thing across all crucifixions. Most everything else was a variable.

As for the leg-breaking (crurifragium), we do know that Romans sometimes used to crush legs of a condemned person as a means to cause or hasten death, but it’s not necessarily a practice connected to crucifixion. In fact, we don’t know if leg breaking in connection to crucifixion is actually ‘standard practice’ as most conventional textbooks claim it is, because our only source that explicitly speaks of it is John’s gospel. (There are a couple of passages in Cicero’s works that some people read as referring to crurifragium in connection to crucifixion, but to be honest, these are rather vague. Now there was another ancient reference to a Carthaginian who suffered leg-breaking and crucifixion, but this is different: this man was killed by leg-breaking and then his corpse was hung on a cross.)

Thanks Patrick. :thumbsup:

…there are several issues here:

  • Sabbath (the period for the Day of Rest) begins Friday at sundown–having a body hanging on a cross would be akin to what we call today “sacrilegious” since the dead were considered impure.
  • Though the Roman Empire was oppressive, vain, and even cruel, it was also astute–seeking middle grounds for everything that would make their governance of foreigners less taxing on the Roman Rule; so they would allow for certain “self-rule” and “religious freedom” (the Jews’ monotheistic Faith and “king head” were tolerated within certain limits: no actual army and grave matters had to be brought to the Roman’s delegate–notice the issue with the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion).
  • Scriptures attest to the adopted practice (Roman flexibility) as to the treatment of those who were crucified (mixtures of wine offered) and the allotment for the Sabbath as the centurions quickly dispatched those who were crucified (those found alive got their legs broken; Jesus though found dead had his side pierced).

I believe that most occupying states, to certain degree, accommodate some of their subjects issues so as to gain the more for the less (…a kindler, gentler, oppression that would yield the best in financial gain and less loss of life and lower cost of military campaigns/excursions).

Maran atha!


To expand on my last posts:

The Romans were likely not as cruel or as harsh on the Jews as we often imagine them to be. We just have the impression that they are because we usually tend to focus on the fighting and on the anti-Roman riots / rebellions that periodically arose at the time. The Roman Empire was no saint and Roman rule was not ideal, but it was no worse than the other empires that had ruled the Jews in the past. In fact, Rome was in a number of respects better than the last ones.

Unlike the Seleucids, which actively forced the Jews to adopt Greek culture, making the Jewish people adopt Roman culture and religion was not really part of Rome’s agenda. When Rome wanted an area Romanized, they did so and thoroughly (cf. Gaul (France), Iberia (Spain)). That didn’t happen with Judea.

Seriously, Pompey conquered the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea in the mid-1st century BC not because there was something economically or politically valuable in it, but simply because the Romans wanted a bridge that would connect the much more important provinces of Syria and Egypt. In fact, as soon as the area was claimed in the name of Rome, government was handed back to Jewish leaders to govern in Rome’s place and the Romans left. The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea was no longer an independent entity, but it’s not like there was an overnight total change in society or an active push from Rome to ‘Romanize’ its new territory. They hardly ‘annexed’ Palestine.

Herod the Great (anointed ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman senate) did conquer the Hasmonean Kingdom using help from the Roman army, but as soon as he was done, he paid the Roman soldiers large bribes to ensure that they left. They never returned.

King Herod was semi-independent. Officially he was subject to Rome and thus had to contribute to the Empire in some way, but as long as he ruled correctly and fulfilled the necessary conditions, he was free to do whatever the heck he wanted. He was completely independent in domestic policy. He had his own currency. He had his own army. He ruled the Jews under traditional Jewish law, as a (part-)Jew himself (technically, he was Idumaean - Edomite - by ethnicity, but at this point, the Hasmoneans had conquered and assimilated the Idumaean people into the Jewish state and imposed Judaism/Jewish culture upon them, so in that sense he is a Jew). He was not a very popular king, and he was not the most righteous king, but he at least respected Jewish sensibilities. He did not try to force Greek or Roman culture on his Jewish subjects, and conversely never forced Jewish law on his gentile subjects.

When Herod died, the kingdom was divided between his three sons, all of whom never inherited his title of ‘king’. Archelaus the ethnarch got Judea and Samaria while Antipas and Philip (both tetrarchs) got the Galilee and Batanea, respectively. Antipas the tetrarch ruled the Galilee under the same terms and conditions as his father did his kingdom. Like Herod, he was also independent in domestic policy as long as he fulfilled his end of the bargain (which he did, for the most part). He had his own currency and his own soldiers and officials. He ruled Jewish subjects as Jews and generally observed Jewish law (at least in public).

In fact, the only reason why Archelaus’ ethnarchy became a Roman province (the province of Judaea) governed by a prefect was because Archelaus did not do his job properly by Roman standards. The Romans followed a non-interventionist policy and would have preferred a native strongman to rule the area in their stead, but Herod apparently did not have any other capable sons they could rely on to rule Judea proper and Samaria (which admittedly were more volatile regions compared to the other parts of Palestine), so Rome moved to plan B. This was actually the first time Romans settled in to rule part of Palestine - as mentioned, the Romans did not settle there even when Pompey conquered it seventy years earlier. They just chose which Jews would rule the country and then trotted off.

Even though Judea and Samaria were now under direct Roman administration, the Roman governor apparently simply continued the non-interventionist policies that were in place since Herod. The prefects never Romanized the Jews and delegated day-to-day government into their hands, while they hid themselves from their sight for most of the year. They only turned up during public festivals just so the people would know that they’re there, but otherwise, Jews ran their own affairs. For the province of Judaea, in the absence of a capable native political leader, Rome fell back on the Jews’ own tradition: oligarchic rule by the aristocracy, especially the priestly aristocracy.

(The Jews at this point had known only two forms of government: monarchy and oligarchy. Now, as the Bible and history sort of show, human monarchy was a kind of failed experiment - many kings tended to be dictators and meddlers, just as the prophet Samuel warned :stuck_out_tongue: - so many people at this period apparently just preferred that a bunch of priests and aristocrats rule over them instead. At least the high priest was someone clearly chosen by God.)

That’s why among the Jews in Palestine, there was no concept of leaving crucified victims hanging on their crosses to rot as was apparently done in other places in the Roman Empire; anyone who died by crucifixion will be taken down and buried within the same day, in observance of Torah. No unburied corpse was allowed in Israel. (St. Jerome once had this theory that Golgotha may have gotten its name because the area was littered with skulls of the victims who were executed there. In reality, Jews would have found such an idea very offensive.) Josephus, in fact, says this: “the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.”

The Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem actually served as a dump for rubbish and the bodies of criminals.

Source that this was happening in the early 1st century AD? The Jews would have found the prospect of dumping corpses offensive - everyone deserved a kind of burial. I doubt the Romans would bother to offend the people at this point, since the purity of the Holy Land was at stake. Sure, criminals would not have normally received a dignified, honorable kind of burial but still, their bodies were interred somewhere.

Fascinating, patrick457, thank you. Tell us more!

Pretty much the only common elements across ancient descriptions of crucifixion are:

(1) The condemned person was beaten or flogged before he/she was crucified. This beating served a ritual, symbolic purpose; it wasn’t just done to hurt and weaken the poor guy. (We tend to focus on the physical aspects of crucifixion nowadays, although actually it was also pretty much a ritual of shaming.) It was also done to publicly shame - remember, this was an honor-shame culture - the condemned person by showing spectators that the condemned could not fight back those who hit him, when in that culture, it was expected for a man to save his honor by retaliating against any attack. (That’s just how radical Jesus’ teaching of turning the other cheek was.) In other words, a man who was to be crucified is being emasculated in public.

(2) The suspension device we call crosses were generally T or †-shaped. (Yeah, there’s the X-shaped cross associated with St. Andrew, but this is pretty much a medieval invention designed to distinguish Andrew from Jesus and other saints who were also crucified in iconography. Ancient descriptions or depictions of Andrew’s supposed crucifixion that predate the Middle Ages show him on a ‘regular’ † cross.) There is, however no fixed rule as to how you’ll hang the person on it.

Everything else, as mentioned, was a variation. Sometimes you could make the victim carry a part of the cross (as in Jesus’ case), other times you could set up the device beforehand and just make the victim go to it. Sometimes nails were used, other times ropes were used; there might have even been cases where both were used. The variation is the rule. No individual execution might have exactly been the same, since the executioners have a lot of leeway. They just have to hang this guy on this gibbet and wait for him to die.

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