Posts filed under 'Crucifixion'

1575: The intrepid Torii Suneemon

3 comments June 24th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1575* a Japanese soldier was crucified under the walls of his castle … and entered his country’s folklore.

Torii Suneemon was a footman of the Okudaira family late in Japan’s fratricidal Warring States Period.

The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.


Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyo Shingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.

After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.

Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.


Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.

He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.

Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.

This Suneemon agreed to do.

The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.


Torii Suneemon goes off-script. Another Yoshitoshi creation, from here or from this detailed French post.

The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.

While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.

Heck, there’s apparently even a Japanese monument in San Antonio, Texas that compares Suneemon to the Alamo defenders.

Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).

* Some sites give this as “May 16”, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).

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Feast Day of St. Anastasia

Add comment December 25th, 2011 Headsman

Christmas Day is all about that Jesus fellow, but for a break from the usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, spare a thought for St. Anastasia of Sirmium — whose feast date and purported execution date December 25 also is. She’s the only Christian martyr with a Christmas celebration,* and an apt choice for the depth of winter since her name means “dawn” or “rebirth”.

Byzantine icon of St. Anastasia from the Hermitage, holding a vial that alludes to her antitoxin powers.

Centuries of namesakes have shared that moniker, like the youngest daughter of the executed Romanov family, on the basis of the Great Martyr’s having died during the persecution of Diocletian; though this circumstance scarcely makes her unique, no less a source than the Catholic Encyclopedia avers that the ancient martyrology linking her to St. Chrysogonus “is purely legendary, and rests on no historical foundations.” (It’s possible that multiple historical Anastasias were conflated into a single legendary person.)

Despite later generations’ ignorance of what this early keeper of the faith was really about, she became associated — again, possibly thanks to nothing more sharing the same name as the facility’s local Roman matron — with an early church in Rome, the “titulus sanctae Anastasiae.” Today ruined, this was an important church in the capital of the faith during late antiquity, and helped vault St. Anastasia into the first rank of holy intercessors. She’s even mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.

Her celestial department protecting against potions and poisons has, today, a distinctly retro vibe about it; “the last remnant of the former prominence enjoyed by this saint and her church” is the Christmas Dawn Mass, likely the day’s most lightly-attended service at your local Catholic or Anglican parish, wherein Anastasia is invoked by name.


Cathedral of St. Anastasia in Zadar, Croatia, where the saint’s relics repose. (cc) image from Paradasos.

* In western Christendom only.

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277: Mani, dualist

2 comments February 26th, 2011 Headsman

It was perhaps on this date, that the prophet Mani — he of Manichaeism — underwent his Passion at the hands of the Sassanid Empire in a Gundeshapur prison.

The actual date of this event is an Aramaic (lunar) date whose year is unrecorded, so it attaches only uncertainly to the Julian calendar. (2 March 274 is another possibility, as are other dates in the mid-270s.)

Perhaps more to the point for this blog is that Mani’s “crucifixion” as celebrated by his followers was a literary exultation: the 60-year-old died in prison after 26 days in chains, maybe even sooner than his captors had intended. After Mani “rose [from his body] to the residences of his greatness [in] the heights, and he met his shape,” the Sassanids decapitated the corpse to make the whole scene more properly resemble the awful majesty of an offended sovereign.

But even as merely a metaphorical “execution,” Mani’s martyrdom merits mention.

Born into a Judaic-Christian sect, Mani (also known as Manes) experienced a conversion, went east for enlightenment, and returned with a syncretic theology of a good spirit world and an evil material one — and east-meets-west twist, in other words, on gnosticism, rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism. (And Zoroastrianism, dominant in Persia at this time — to Mani’s ultimate grief.)

This seems like the sort of thing that someone ought to have revived in California in the 1970’s.


Shrine of Mani as Buddha in Quanzhou, China.

Alas, though it once spanned the Eurasian landmass all the way to China, Manichaeism today is extinct except for its linguistic remnant … the word “manichean”.

Most of us won’t do so well as to thrust our fame into the dictionary, but Mani’s shape-in-the-heights can’t be altogether satisfied with this word’s connotation of jejune, black-and-white dualism — as in a “Manichean struggle with a single overarching enemy called terrorism”.

The man wrote his own holy book, after all, and it’s a bit more elegant than the likes of neoconservative foreign policy.

the first precept for hearers is this: …they shall not kill …, [and] they shall forgive those creatures who provide them with meat for food so that they do not kill them as if they were evil people. But dead flesh of any animals, wherever they obtain it, be it dead or slaughtered, they may eat …

And the second precept for hearers is that they shall not be false and they shall not be unjust to one another … he shall walk in truth. And a hearer shall love [another] hearer in the same way one loves one’s own brother and relatives, for they are children of the living family and the world of light.

And the third precept is that they shall not slander anybody and not be false witnesses against anybody of what they have not seen and not make an oath in falsehood in any matter …

From the Shabuhragan (pdf)

Now is that so bad?

Manichaeism found favor (though not a conversion) with the broad-minded and long-reigning king Shapur I. (Shapur is most famous in the West as the Persian ruler who captured the Roman emperor Valerian.)

But one of Shapur’s less impressive heirs was persuaded by the sectarian Zoroastrian priesthood — for whom the Manicheans were an upstart rival — to bust Mani.

It seems they were able to make use of the prophet’s distaste for war to question his patriotism. Some things never change.

The founder’s laying down his life hardly slowed the faith’s growth; instead, it prospered as one of the more successful entrants in the confusing late-antiquity hustle and bustle of competing cults. Dualism was a hot mystical trend literally from ocean to ocean, and nobody proselytized it like Mani’s followers.

“In its Manichaean form,” observes Johannes van Oort, “Gnosticism once was a real world religion.”

Had it stayed that way, there’d be endowed chairs of Manichean gnosticism at every university and politicians conspicuously rubbing shoulders with Manichean clergy and Major League sluggers with WWMD bracelets. Instead, it’s a metonym for naivete. Them’s the breaks.

In the West, at least, the lost sect’s unflattering reputation comes by way of no less a personage than St. Augustine of Hippo.

You know what they say about the zeal of converts? Well, Augustine used to know Manichaeism from the inside.


St. Augustine Sacrificing to a Manichaean Idol, 15th century painting by an unknown Flemish master.

After spending his twenties as an enthusiastic Manichean, the future Church Father (re)converted to orthodox* Christianity and turned on his former philosophy with vehemence.

His Confessions denounces a Manichean bishop with whom he once had an unsatisfying audience — “Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil.” That association might very well be the etymological root of that great literary devil-bargainer Dr. Faust.

One could, at the minimum, follow a thread from Augustine’s establishment anti-dualism to the Middle Ages practice of calling any dualistic heresy — Bogomilism, Catharism, whatever — “Manichean”, and the intertwining of those forbidden gnostic traditions with Christendom’s devil mythology.


Medieval image of St. Augustine confounding devilish heresies.

At the same time, Augustine’s philosophy draws much of its enduring appeal from that very dualism, absorbed at such a formative age that the writer late into life was still repelling Christian colleagues’ accusations of immutable Manichaeism — “like an Ethiopian can not change his skin, nor the leopard his spots.” Augustine’s City of God proceeds from opposing that virtuous spiritual metropolis to the corruption of the City of Man.**

Moreover, Johannes van Oort concludes,

Nowhere in the early church before 400 does there appear to be such a tender and appealing piety, along with such a prominent place given to the Christ, except for Augustine and the Manichaean writings … In some essential features of Augustine’s spirituality we may perceive one of the most important channels through which the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism has exercised a lasting influence on western culture.

* Manichaeism, at least in the North African context where Augustine engaged it, is probably best thought of as one of the competing strands within the Christian community rather than a rival religious edifice. (Gnosticism’s capacity to syncretize with varying spiritual traditions has always been essential to its appeal.) Manicheans themselves insisted that they were secta, within Christianity, not schisma, like the pagans.

** Augustine had particular cause to be down on the prospects of the City of Man: at the time of writing, Rome had just been sacked by the Visigoths.

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1714: Various rebel slaves in the Cape Colony

1 comment February 7th, 2011 Headsman

This site has previously noticed a milestone 1714 execution in the Dutch Cape Colony of South Africa.

That execution of a black slave and his white lover was exceptional — and, of course, the chronicles of the Cape are replete with less exceptional fare, the humdrum penal brutality of an 18th century colony disposed of in a sentence of two between reports of smallpox outbreaks, price fluctuations, the transit of slave ships, and all the other business of frontier life.

A slave condemned to be burnt alive for arson; another to be hanged for theft … Two white men hanged for desertion, sheep-stealing, and attempt to murder … A Javanese “Guru” sentenced to death for instigating slaves to run away, harbouring and arming them … Matthys of Ternate punished for running away and cattle theft, &c. Sentenced to be hanged … A slave hanged for breaking into the house of Lieutenant Captain Slotsboo … Five slaves sentenced to be broken, and a female slave to be scourged … Two soldiers sentenced to run the gantlope …

And so on.

This date marks a number of such executions for a minor slave revolt (incidents of slave insubordination also pepper the Colony records). At three full entries in the chronicle, 16 implicated slaves, and some spectacularly savage punishments, it must have been one of the more noteworthy of its day; what the colonial register leaves us is just enough to suggest the forgotten suffering and resistance of the half-nameless chattel of yesteryear.

1714.

January 7 — Some 16 fugitive slaves who had conspired, armed themselves, and did much mischief. They resisted the officers of justice, shot a soldier, and murdered a Hottentot woman. They were now brought up for examination.

February 7 — The sentences passed on the fugitive slaves, and the whole history of the case. “Tromp” to be empaled alive, and to remain in that position till he dies. “Cupido” to be put on a cross, his right hand to be cut off, and with “Neptunus” to be broken on the wheel, and then to be left on a hurdle until dead. “Titus” to be broken with the coup de grace. Jeroon and Thomas to be hanged; three others to be scourged and have their right heels cut off. The eleventh prisoner is merely to look on, and afterwards to be sent home; paying the costs however.

February 8 — The empaled convict found strangled in the morning. He had received some linen from a kind friend during the night for the purpose. He would otherwise have been still alive.

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71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

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1644: Looters in conquered Beijing

1 comment April 25th, 2010 dogboy

The Shun Dynasty only lasted two months in China, but it still managed to find its way to these pages by deposing the ruling Ming Dynasty and setting the scene for the Q’ing Dynasty.

In the early 1500s, the Ming Dynasty significantly increased contact with Europe, and it immediately saw the value in exploited mineral wealth from the West. At the time, the government was having difficulty maintaining a currency with perceived value: paper money was a massive flop and standard copper coins could not be trusted. Something new was needed, and European silver was a quick and easy answer.

But the decision to move to silver coins backfired a century later, when a variety of converging factors cut the silver supply to China and caused a spike in the price of the metal. As a result, the economy sagged. In the mid-1640s, a drought also gripped the country, and the Ming government was in the unenviable position of watching over a collapsing nation. It didn’t help that the government was highly centralized, with almost all activity occurring in Beijing; a working regional governing mechanism may have allowed it to dig out of the hole, but with the rise of an elite class — and prospective officials seeking every opportunity to serve as close to the power center as possible — there was no hope of a savior once the emperor’s power waned.

Enter the Manchu.

(This is long.)

Originating in Northeast China and Southeast Siberia,* the Manchu occupied their own territory under a local khan. The Manchu army was building strength at the same time that the economic woes under Ming rule increased. While the Manchu originally considered themselves distinct from and superior to the Han Chinese, they made several legal concessions to match the social mores of those they ruled over which enhanced their credibility.

With the Ming Dynasty weakening, the Manchu saw their opportunity to move south.

But even as the Ming fought to repel those Manchu invaders, an internal insurrection was brewing under a man named Li Zu’cheng, an apprentice ironworker from Yan’an. The Chuang Wang (“Roaming King”, Li’s regnal name) was considered a savior of the common folk, even earning a widespread local song looking forward to the day he would arrive:

You’ll feed your mates,
You’ll dress your mates,
You’ll open wide your city gates.
When Prince Chuang arrives, there’ll be no more rates.

(Source)

Li had a strong foothold in the heart of the country, and he was persistent. More importantly, the Ming government was hemorrhaging cash to its frontiers. Eventually, the money began to dry up, and even the ministers within the Chongzhen Emperor’s circle saw the writing on the wall. By mid-March, the Manchus were known to be marching through nearly undefended lines; by mid-April, the treasury stopped paying its military entirely.

On April 24, with Li Zu’cheng at the city gates, Emperor Ch’ung Chen tried in vain to escape his own compound. In his wake, he left the corpse of the empress (suicide), the corpse of his daughter (killed by the drunken emperor in a rage), and a seriously injured crown princess (maimed by the drunken emperor). Having mowed through his family, the emperor joined his chief eunuch Wang Cheng’en, climbed atop a local hill, and, shortly after midnight on April 25, hanged himself.

Li Zu’cheng entered the city unopposed, the gates (as the ditty had promised) flung open for his invading army.

Government officials hid in an attempt to escape retribution, but Li’s forces were reportedly quite orderly and did not seek revenge. Instead, they marched slowly through the city, where many of the locals marked themselves as Shun-min, or subjects of Li’s Shun dynasty.

Looters and bandits, however, were not tolerated, and the well-disciplined force dispatched them quickly and without trial. Their bodies were put on display by nailing them to local streetposts, and by noon, the city was calm.

The Roaming King only managed to hold power for a few weeks before his army was swept away by the Manchus. Li Zu’cheng lived almost two more years on the run, still claiming his title of Emperor of Shaanxi as he fled the newly installed government. It would be several more years before the Manchu would retake Southern China,** but the Q’ing Dynasty would dominate China until the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.

* The Manchurians were technically Tungusic, a significant Chinese minority both then and now. The Manchu largely resisted integration into Han society until the latter half of the 19th century.

** Southern China remained, technically, a distinct entity called the Southern Ming Dynasty, south of the Huai River, until 1662.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

[flv:http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/video/flv/1610/jc7.flv 440 330]

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly and tirelessly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates

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922: Mansur al-Hallaj, Sufi mystic

Add comment March 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 922, Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj was put to a torturous end in Baghdad — either crucifixion, dismembering, or both — for “theological error threatening the security of the state.”

Born in Persia, al-Hallaj traveled widely from India to Mecca, eventually settling in Baghdad, the capital of the Abassid Empire.

Ana al-Haqq

Al-Hallaj espoused the mystical Islamic school of Sufism and produced gorgeous poetry.

But he ran afoul of the authorities for his unusual willingness to speak publicly about Sufi concepts which were held to require mystic initiation in order to grasp.

Most particularly, saying “ana al-Haqq” — “I am God” — and poems directly identifying himself with divinity were thought by the state theologians to have mystical wisdom for initiates, but to be exceedingly dangerous sentiments to set loose among the hoi polloi, especially given popular devotion to the Abassid government that was less than ironclad.

In truth, al-Hallaj’s condemnation seems to have been rooted in contemporary imperial politics, his demise representing the (momentary) upper hand of the more autocratic elements against potentially more sympathetic parties.

He spent eleven years in a Baghdad jail, reportedly enduring torture with placidity. Accounts of his execution speak of him greeting a horrific death with joy.

Mansur al-Hallaj remains revered today among mystically inclined followers of many faiths and admired by many westerners, factors which do not quite resolve the dispute over his place within Islam. Ultimately, the rightness of his choices remains very much in the eye of the beholder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Iran,Iraq,Martyrs,Persia,Power,Religious Figures,Torture

1597: The 26 Martyrs of Japan, for God and trade routes

3 comments February 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1597, 26 Christians were crucified at Nagasaki’s Tateyama (“Hill of Wheat”) as Japan began to close itself against western interference.

The 26 martyrs — five Europeans of Spanish extraction, one from Portuguese India, and 20 local converts — had been marched hundreds of kilometers over a period of weeks as a warning to the populace, before they were raised up on crosses and lanced to death. They could have had their liberty at the price of renouncing Catholicism; a 12-year-old altar boy among them reputedly answered such an offer on this day with the words, “Sir, it would be better if you yourself became a Christian and could go to heaven where I am going. Sir, which is my cross?”

Martyrs always cut heroic figures. The backdrop of these deaths, however, was a struggle over power and resources in Europe’s colonial age that was far from black-and-white.

European missionaries began their contact with Japan in the waning stages of Japan’s protracted civil wars. They did not scruple to interfere, winning converts with plum trade concessions like saltpeter.

At the same time, Spanish and Portuguese interests were contending with one another for overseas trade, as the European naval powers carved the world into colonies. To greatly simplify a conflict that would continue to unfold well into the 17th century, this day’s martyrdom was suffered by Spanish-backed Franciscans pressing into Portuguese territory in a proxy contest for access conducted by their respective secular authorities.

Portugal, in essence, got there first — and Japan was (disputably) within that seafaring realm’s official sphere of influence. Since legal recognition followed facts on the ground rather than the other way around, Spain sponsored mendicant orders like the Franciscans to make its own inroads.

The late-arriving group was less attuned to the local political climate. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had unified Japan and quelled civil strife, had pronounced an edict of expulsion against Christians ten years prior. It had not been enforced — but the ruler was sensitive to a slide back into civil war and watched the progress of cleric-aided colonization elsewhere in Asia warily. The Portuguese Jesuits took care:

The Jesuits knew that, even though Hideyoshi’s tolerance of Christian propaganda was “in direct proportion to the profits he hoped to gain from the Iberian traders,” their continuous mission would be granted as long as they acted submissively toward him and did not “touch the nerve” of the dictator. … Yet, this deliberate attitude was not shared by the Franciscans, who had just arrived in the country and took Hideyoshi’s acceptance “at its face value and promptly exploited it to the utmost, celebrating Mass openly and behaving generally as if they were in Rome.” The martyrdom at Nagasaki in 1597 was a fatal consequence of this …

When a merchant rashly boasted of Spain’s dominions and claimed that priests and trading ships preceded conquest, the crackdown caught up the martyrs (three of them were Japanese Jesuits seized mistakenly).

This incident did not close Japan against the outside world — that still lay 40 years to the future — but it was a sure step along the path. Intermittent, but more frequent, persecutions of Christians followed in the coming years, driving Japanese Catholics underground, a minuscule and secretive syncretic remnant now in ironic danger of disappearing without the cohesive pressure of persecution.

The 26 martyrs were beatified in 1627 but not elevated to sainthood until 1862 — when western powers once again pried open Japan.

They have a museum in Nagasaki, a city which today remains a (relative) stronghold of the tiny Japanese Christian population.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Crucifixion,God,Gruesome Methods,Japan,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Spain

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