Crucifixion as a method of execution originates from the Far East. The method is also known from Assyria, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Carthage and Macedonia. From Carthage the method was introduced quite early to the Roman Empire, and there used primarily to execute slaves, pirates, rebels and criminals.
Jesus was no slave, but a free Jewish citizen of Palestine. Since he was sentenced by a Jewish council (but with authority from a reluctant Pilate) stoning would be a more likely method of execution.
The method had no symbolic significance; its purpose was just to provide a slow painful and public death. The victim had nails driven through his wrist, not the palms since nails through the palms cannot support the weight of the body. The legs of the crucified were often broken, to make the victim die sooner. Usually the majority of the crucified ones died of dehydration and fatigue, not of the blood loss or the injuries. Crucifixion was a gruesome, painful and slow death, and the victim might live for days before he finally died. This form of execution was abolished by law in 315 AD by the emperor Constantine and replaced by hanging.
The story of the crucifixion of Jesus raises a lot of questions. There are no Roman sources on the trial of the “rebel” Jesus, where the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate acted as judge. There are Jewish and Roman sources on executions on other wannabe-Messiahs at this time, but no one seems to know of Jesu case. There is actually little archaeological evidence for crucifixion from this period **, but the Jewish and Roman written sources indicate that it was a fairly common practice of execution.
According to the evangelists Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus passed away in the ninth hour, and strange darkness happened between the sixth and the ninth hour. St. Mark can tell us that Jesus was crucified in the third hour, which means that Jesus died after only six hours. Usually it took much more than six hours to die on the cross, victims suffering for days were not uncommon. According to St.John Jesus never had his bones broken to hasten his death, and none of the other evangelists say anything of any breaking of his bones. Jesus had, according to the gospel stories, apparently no large open wounds or other injuries that could explain such an unusual fast death.
The writer of the gospel of St.John tells us that after Jesus had died a Roman soldier poked a spear in his side to check if he really was dead. Immediately water(!) and blood poured out of the wound. This is quite strange, when dead people do not tend to bleed after the heart has stopped. And since crucified people usually had problems with dehydration, and human bodies usually do not contain much water in liquid form outside the stomach, this is very strange information indeed. But, none of the gospel writers are eyewitnesses of the drama, anyway.
In the St.Mark version of the story, even Pilate himself is very surprised that Jesus already should have died and need to get the information verified by one of his officers. For the most part the gospels have quite similar accounts of the crucifixion, except for St. John. This is probably due to the fact that both St. Matthew and St. Luke used versions of St. Mark as their source for the story. The source of the younger St.John gospel is more dubious, - probably “artistic license” for a huge part.
As the only one St. Matthew also knows that the graves of many holy men broke, when Jesus expired, and the holy dead ones shuffled out of their graves and “appeared to many people” (Mt 27,52-53). It couldn’t be particularly many people, since no other evangelist or historian knows of this spectacle.
An original story?
The crucifixion of Jesus is neither especially original. Of suffering executed and resurrected god men in Antiquity we can list for example Herakles, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Baal (Bel-Marduk), Mithra, Zarathustra, Odin (Wodan), Dionysos and Buddha.
The word in the original Greek gospel texts usually translated as “cross” can also mean “pole” or “stake”. In the Acts (of the Apostles), Peter tells us that Jesus was hung on a tree (Acts. 10,39), and the same St.Paul says in his letter to the Galateans (Gal. 3,13). The Jews actually had a tradition for hanging the bodies of stoned offenders on poles for deterring others (Freke and Gandy 1999).
The godman Dionysos was, according to some versions of his passion, was executed on a cross or a pole. The god man Attis was often depicted tied to a tree, and Marsyas met his end tied to a tree and skinned alive. Depictions of a crucified Dionysos/Orpheus are also known.
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus is a story not consistent or coherent at all.