There have been a handful of excellent studies on crucifixion circa Jesus’ context in the past ten years. Here are two monographs to consider: Samuelsson and Chapman. Unfortunately too many folks still fumble a bit with vague explanations of crucifixion. I've done a bit of fumbling myself at times. The popular notions of crucifixion as "the slave's death" and as "reserved for insurrectionists" are perhaps close to the mark, but not quite as helpful as they could be. As these two vague descriptions stand, it is hard to see how both could be true without qualification. I've previously attempted to explain that we see a particular status demotion to enemies of the state in crucifixion. In other words, the victims might have aspired to grandeur, but died as slaves. But I don't think that this quite hits the mark either.
Last week I was reading an essay by Joel Marcus published in 2006. Marcus writes:
"…this strange exalting mode of execution [crucifixion] was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretensions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-evaluation. For it is revealing that the criminals so punished were often precisely people who had, in the view of their judges, gotten "above" themselves. Rebellious slaves, for example, or slaves who had insulted their masters, or people of any class who had not shown proper deference to the emperor, not to mention those who had revolted against him or who had, through brigandage or piracy, demonstrated disdain for imperial rule. Crucifixion was intended to unmask, in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretension and arrogance of those who had exalted themselves beyond their station; the authorities were bent on demonstrating through the graphic tableau of the cross what such self-promotion meant and whither it led. Crucifixion, then, is a prime illustration of Michael Foucault’s thesis that the process of execution is a “penal liturgy” designed to reveal the essence of the crime. …. The greater the insolence, the higher the cross; the proper response to excessive haughtiness was, in the words of the Clint Eastwood film, to "Hang ‘Em High!" (“Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” JBL 125 : 73-87, here pp. 78-79.)
I think that Marcus nails it (my apologies) in this brief explanation. He also points to examples of crucifixion functioning with ironic parody in other ancient literature (some specifically tied to concepts of kingship). Marcus ultimately suggests that Mark's Gospel turns the mockery of the cross on its head, and as such, mocks the mockery by taking Jesus' kingship seriously. Given the way that Mark plays with irony, I find this explanation compelling. "You are the king of the Jews," says Pilate. "You say so," retorts Jesus. Or consider the engraving above the cross meant to mock Jesus: "THE KING OF THE JEWS."
Allow me for a moment to parlay Mark's agenda toward a historical claim. For Mark, Jesus' elevation and demotion happen simultaneously. To make sense of the need for this interpretation in Christian thought (sometimes called Mark's "apology of the Cross"), it seems plausible that some early interpreters of Jesus perceived him to have "gotten above himself." To risk overstatement, I tend to take this for granted. I don't go in for explanations of Jesus death that strip it of any political aspiration on the part of Jesus. Even if misunderstood, Jesus was known for preaching of a coming kingdom and Israel's ultimate autonomy.
At an even more basic level, I would argue that Jesus did, in fact, "get above himself." This does not necessarily suggest a high Christology or even a self-designation of messianic status. Marcus suggests that crucifixion was a gesture of supreme intolerance toward people "who had not shown proper deference to the emperor." Could it be that the simple act of remaining silent in the face of the Caesar's representative was an act of defiance? While the trial of Jesus is always going to require a healthy dose of historiographical caution, Mark does reveal something of Jesus' character. If we know nothing else about Jesus from the Gospels (and with apologies to Philippians 2), it is that he repeatedly "campaigns upward" — Jesus seems to pick a fight with whomever occupies a higher social standing.