Hanging by the neck as a mode of execution can be traced as far back as Homer’s 8th-century-BC epic poem the Odyssey (Book 22), but not commonplace until the Middle Ages. In the biblical record this method of ending one’s life was more likely to be suicide (2 Sam. 17:23; Matt. 27:5), while executions involving bodily suspension were typically impalement or crucifixion.
According to Jewish law, if a man is hanged on a tree (whether affixed by ropes or nails?) after his execution (by whatever means), his body was not to be left hanging overnight (Deut. 21:22-23). This seems to address the humiliation or desecration of a corpse rather than the mode of execution (cf. Josh. 8:29; 10:26; 2 Sam. 4:12).
As for the ancient Egyptians, Genesis 40:19 apparently refers to exposing the dead body on a tree after beheading. The hangings in the book of Esther (2:23; 5:14; 7:9, 10; 9:13-14) probably refer to the Persian practice of impaling or crucifying. The Hebrew עֵץ [ets], rendered “gallows” (CSB, ESV, N/ASV, N/KJV, N/RSV) or “pole” (NIV), simply means “tree” or “wood.”
When Jesus was hanged on a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24), he was in fact crucified (Matt. 20:19; 23:34; 26:2; 27:22-44; 28:5; Mark 15:13-32; 16:6; Luke 23:21, 23, 33; 24:7, 20; John 19:6-41; Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10). Although the particular shape of the apparatus upon which he died is not specified in scripture (the English word “cross” is rendered from the less descriptive Greek term staurós), early ecclesiastical writers unanimously describe it as an upright post with a crossbeam (e.g. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 15; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8).
--Kevin L. Moore
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