And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back
where all those people and their homes had been.
But she did look back,
and I love her for that, because it was so human.
So she was turned into a pillar of salt.
So it goes. — Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five
Matthew speaks of "robbers who were crucified with him," and who "reviled him" (27.44). Mark writes of "Those who were crucified with him" in noting the reviling (15.32). John in his Gospel looks to the moment when sunset approached, and "Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies" of those executed that day "from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day)" — in itself and for falling on the Passover — "the Jews asked Pilate that [… the victims'] legs might be broken," speeding their deaths, "and that they might be taken away" (more on leg-breaking below). "So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him," but not of Jesus, since he'd already died (19.31-34), an important theological point: the Lamb of the Sacrifice has to be whole, unbroken.
Luke develops the crucifixion scene more fully: "Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left." In Luke's version, only one of the "criminals who were hanged" reviles Jesus, "But the other rebuked him," the first criminal, "saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we received the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong" — and this "Good Thief" asks, "Jesus, remember me when come in your kingly power," to which Jesus responds, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (23.39-43 [all Biblical quotations: RSV]).
The executions involving Jesus wasn't the mass crucifixion of, say, the savage suppression of the Spartacus rebellion — some 6000 prisoners of war crucified — or the end of Monty Python's Life Of Brian; but the Gospels have Jesus crucified along with two others, definitely criminals under Roman law, possibly guilty of robbery.
It's these other two I'd like to look back on.
In discussing the past as "A Foreign Country," the title of chapter 1 of his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker quotes from "a forensic investigation of the death of Jesus Christ, based on archeological and historical sources," one published in 1986 in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The JAMA article describes a full-out crucifixion, with scourging and nails, and I suspect nothing quite so elaborate was done for the usual executions of slaves or for mass executions such as that ending the slave uprising under Spartacus. As the Wikipedia "Crucifixion" article notes, crucifixion served "to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful […], gruesome, humiliating, and public, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal. Crucifixion methods varied considerably with location and time period." Still, the Jesus of the Gospels was crucified at Jerusalem, a provincial capital, in a major case considered by the Sanhedrin, King Herod, and Pontius Pilate, the resident Roman Prefect; we're told explicitly that he was whipped and mocked (e.g., Matthew 27.24-31) — so it's likely Jesus and the other two condemned suffered the horrors of the entire crucifixion process.
The prisoners were stripped naked and scourged with "a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones. […] The prisoner's arms would then be tied around a hundred-pound cross bar, and he would be forced to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the crossbar. The victim was hoisted onto the post[,] and his feet were nailed to it, usually without a supporting block." Especially without support, "The man's rib cage was distended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners could prolong the torture by resting the man's weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his legs with a club" (12; ch. 1, section on "The Roman Empire and Early Christendom").
Pinker is appalled by crucifixion, which he wouldn't inflict even on Hitler.
And yet this is the method not only of The Sacrifice of the Christ — a unique event in history — but, in the Gospels, for punishing two men who were guilty indeed (so the "Good Thief" says on the cross) but may have been guilty of no more than robbery. And, of course, crucifixion was standard for slaves.
Consider, though, a worst-case possibility.
Luke talks only of "criminals," and in it's possible that the crime was rebellion: crucifixion was also standard for rebels, and one or both of the criminals might have been insurrectionists, early Zealots. In that case, they'd be religious-nationalist extremists, dedicating to murdering Roman occupiers and Jews who cooperated with the Roman oppressors. That is, from the point of view of the authorities — both Roman and Jewish — and, undoubtedly, of many ordinary Jews, they'd be terrorists.
But, again, they might have been just thieves: the English regularly hanged thieves well into the 18th century, and hanging into the Victorian period (until 1866) was "short drop": i.e., letting the condemned person strangle for ten to twenty minutes.
So Jesus "was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again[…], and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father" and "shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead," as the Creed saith.
If you believe, and if you accept Luke's version, the "Good Thief" is in Paradise with the Christ and can look forward to resurrection and "the life of the world to come."
But if Luke's right, the Good Thief gets his salvation as part of a formula not only accepting Jesus as Messiah but also accepting that he is being tortured to death "indeed justly," he and the other criminal having "received the due reward of our deeds."
The bad thief is a real putz for reviling Jesus on the cross; both criminals are bad in this way in the Gospels by Matthew, Mark, and John. If anyone can and should say "I feel your pain," it would be someone also undergoing that pain. So there's a serious failure in empathy and sympathy if these guys mock Jesus. And it's a really, really, really imprudent failure if Jesus is the Christ and, in orthodox doctrine, therefore not just a suffering man but also God.
Still, I think I'd be in a bad mood spending time on the cross waiting to die, and if the guy next to me may be God, I think I'd want help, and I don't think — whatever I'd done wrong — that I deserved to be stripped and humiliated and publically tortured and hanged naked with nails through my wrists and pissing and shitting for any passer-by to see, and then, as an act of relative mercy, getting my legs broken so I wouldn't violate Shabbat and spoil Passover by continuing to live after sundown.
In Slaughterhouse-Five (1969; ch. 5), Kurt Vonnegut has his fictional author, Kilgore Trout tell his story "about a visitor from outer space [who] made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low." However, in the story of Christ's passion, "the Gospels actually taught this: 'Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected.'" Jesus may not have looked like much but he was "actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought...: / Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time! / And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected."
In Trout's retelling, the Jesus figure actually is a nobody, just a bum who says wise things; but at his death, "The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: / From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!"
That's a good re-telling of the story, and with it and Steven Pinker in mind, I'm going to return to the Gospels and ask you to believe the worst about the two criminals: that they were followers not of Jesus of Nazareth but of the other Jesus of the story, that "notorious prisoner, called Barabbas" (Matthew 27.15-26). Let's say the two criminals were insurrectionists and religious fanatics: zealous murderers, assassins, thugs … terrorists.
"Jesus who is called Christ" most directly died for Barabbas; and Steven Pinker says he would not crucify even Hitler.
Zealots, thugs, and assassins must be removed from society, maybe even killed. But in 2013 and following we should look back on the two criminals on the cross and resolve never again to torment a bum or torture even terrorists.